On the Brink
Return to Newcastle (ADMP Reaches Out)
Return to Newcastle
14 September 2110
Konrad rubbed his eyes. O’Meara was being a hardass. Jack had assaulted some of the MCU officers O’Meara had sent to arrest him, and O’Meara was pissed.
Konrad’s hand drifted to the earpiece. He toyed with yanking it from his ear and throwing it. He was tired, running on alcohol and stims.
Finally, O’Meara went silent. Konrad almost— almost —made a snide comment. He settled for another quick drink of his best Scotch, then a quiet, calm offer to pay for damages.
O’Meara looked chastened. He agreed to release Jack to Konrad. Whatever debt remained over Luke Foster’s arrest was now repaid.
Mariel walked into Konrad’s office. He could see she was in no mood for playing around. She told him point-blank that she was finally happy, that they had found success with Aegis, and they had made peace with Cytek. She told Konrad he’d been taking chances, even in his attempt to clean the slate with Cytek.
Mariel said she wasn’t sure about trusting this Kasima, but even if they trusted him, she refused to let anything undo the happiness she had with Konrad now.
Mariel told Konrad to get some sleep, she and Penny would take Kasima someplace safe. Konrad couldn’t argue. He headed into the room and fell asleep seconds after his head hit the pillow.
Mariel called James to get the address of his best safehouse, something off the Grid. James told her to take Marco Beltran’s place. Mariel shivered.
Mariel asked Penny to accompany her to the safehouse. Penny agreed, but she was clearly bothered when Mariel told her where it was. Mariel explained to Kasima that they were putting him someplace safe, out of the way, off the Grid. It was a shack on the coast in Port Town, at the northeastern edge of greater Puerta de Oeste.
Kasima didn’t see the wisdom in arguing the idea.
The drive to Port Town was quiet, with only a few words exchanged among them. Kasima could sense the Beltran place carried bad memories for Penny. His first sight of the place—a lone shack atop a small hill nearly a half kilometer from the nearest other shack, peeling paint, chipped and cracked wood, rickety carport, grime-obscured windows, windblown weed tufts—created enough bad memories for him.
Kasima waited for Mariel and Penny, guns drawn as if they might shatter whatever haunted the place, to check the place out. Once they were gone, he checked the place out himself, his small travel bag slung over his shoulder.
The interior made the exterior look grand. Whoever had lived in the house before had never acquainted himself with brush and cleaning fluid. Kasima found an empty room with a sturdy corner that looked onto the single entry. He pulled out his personal computer, ran a wire from his earpiece to the single port, and settled into the corner. He smiled as he returned to coding constructs he theorized might one day grow into a full-blown AI, his ticket to freedom.
Mariel and Penny watched the shack shrink in the distance. Mariel saw the faraway look in Penny’s eyes and decided she needed to do something to tak Penny’s mind off Beltran. She suggested they hit Penthesilea’s, a Mediterranean bistro with quite the reputation. Penny smiled at the idea.
At Penthesilea’s, the ladies talked shop. After a few drinks, shop talk turned personal. Mariel asked Penny what she thought of Jack and the future of Aegis. Penny admitted Jack troubled her, but she liked Aegis and working with Konrad and Mariel. Penny asked about Mariel’s future with Konrad, and Mariel admitted it was more real and serious than ever before.
They killed a bottle of wine, then had a cappuccino, then left.
They found Konrad still asleep, so they decided to nap as well. Penny settled into the small guest bedroom, admiring its décor and sense of . . . permanence. She liked that. She wondered what it would take to find someone she could fall in love with.
Konrad woke to his earpiece beeping impatiently. He set it over his ear. The call was from a hidden ID, but it was marked urgent. Mariel had slipped into bed at some point while he was sleeping.
Another insistent beep and Mariel stirred. Konrad answered.
The person on the other end introduced himself as Benjamin Fallows. He explained he was in need of professional services and Aegis came highly recommended. Konrad ran a search on Benjamin Fallows in the background, then asked Fallows how he’d heard of Aegis. Fallows said RPC had recommended them. Konrad said that they were unfortunately once again working for RPC, so they wouldn’t be available. Before Fallows could say anything more, Konrad hung up.
Konrad rose, showered, shaved and changed. His search on Fallows was waiting for him when he slipped the earpiece on again.
Fallows was attached to ADMP. Konrad assumed Fallows was a true employee based off Fallows’s dress and look. Probably an executive.
Konrad kissed Mariel, smelled the wine on her breath, and stepped out. The entire drive to O’Meara’s office, Konrad worked through the hackers’ data trail. It was convoluted, brilliant. There were dead ends, false paths, and paths that while real were of questionable value.
The hackers had broken into Aegis’ accounts, shifted money around, made legitimate purchases, re-sold those purchases at modest profits, then shifted the money back to Aegis. There were similar transactions that were just money games: Aegis selling services to itself at what appeared to be a profit, Aegis selling unused services—excess hot water, energy, even Grid data limits—to others. Most everything was legal, but a few things were gray or at the very least extremely speculative. But more than ninety percent of the transactions were profitable.
Konrad found a message from Paulina. She was wearing a low-cut top. Persistent. He tested the credentials she gave him and dug through RPC’s accounts. He found the exact same pattern of money manipulation.
The same hacker was attacking both companies. There weren’t many connections between the two entities other than Paulina Cho. And Harry Cho.
Konrad met O’Meara in a hallway a level down from O’Meara’s office, in an anteroom without a camera. O’Meara said he’d received a call. He warned Konrad that he was messing with something big and dangerous. RPC was suspected in a problem that had ADMP and EEC worked up. Alexei Isakov was engaged. The big wig from ADMP was—Konrad suggested Benjamin Fallows?
O’Meara nodded. He suggested Konrad steer clear or at least move cautiously. Konrad agreed. O’Meara gave Konrad the latest on Jack, then left.
Konrad headed down to the holding area. Jack was brought out in restraints and under heavy guard. The guards released him, then left. Konrad signaled for Jack to follow, then headed back to the Aegis crawler without speaking a word. Jack followed, trying to explain himself, then giving up.
En route back to the apartment, Konrad received another anonymous call. He answered with “Mr. Fallows?”
Fallows asked if he might meet with Konrad and his Aegis representatives about a business opportunity. Konrad thought hard about declining. For a second, he almost did. Fallows asked if Konrad was still there. Konrad agreed to the meeting and said he would be available in an hour.
Fallows showing up so soon after Kasima set Konrad on edge. He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
At the Catalonia building, Konrad dropped Jack off. He told Jack to get a hotel room and clean up and to stay ready. He also told Jack to stay away from Anna and Jesse. And Tanya. He reminded Jack there was very incriminating video of him and Tanya. If Anna pursued a divorce, Jack wouldn’t want that video getting out.
Jack slouched off to the nearest hotel.
Konrad woke the sleeping beauties and told them to prepare for guests. He explained ADMP had an offer Aegis couldn’t refuse, and Benjamin Fallows was coming to personally deliver it.
Fallows arrived promptly. He had two men with him, one muscle, the other brains. Fallows explained that he’d come to Newcastle on the trail of some extremely valuable stolen property.
Konrad rolled that term around in his head.
Property. Genies. It sickened him, but there it was.
Fallows wanted to hire Aegis to supplement his forces. He’d lost too many valuable people on the case and things were about to heat up. Of the locals, Aegis seemed the best candidates.
Konrad refused to let Fallows get away with shallow ego manipulation. Konrad asked what ADMP’s interest was. Fallows said they couldn’t discuss the stolen goods. In fact, if Aegis accepted a contract, they would have to sign a non-disclosure and agree that, no matter what happened, ADMP held all rights to the property.
Konrad bristled. Property. He may not have developed much of a relationship with Kasima, but genie or not, he was human. Mariel shot Konrad that suck it up look and Konrad agreed to the terms. There would be no more sticking it to the metacorporations out of a misguided sense of honor.
Fallows sent the team the contract and NDA. Everything looked to be in order, and the pay was premium level, with a bonus tied to the condition of the property.
The three of them signed. Konrad said they had a few consultants on retainer. Fallows said the consultants could be covered through a subcontract arrangement, if Konrad felt they were needed. He quickly put something together for Konrad to consider. The subcontract would cut into Aegis’ profits. Konrad thanked Fallows and set the contracts aside.
Fallows got down to brass tacks. He quickly laid out the basis of his case against RPC.
Despite his best efforts, Konrad blinked.
Fallows was chasing the same money trail Aegis was.
After explaining how RPC had stolen thousands and thousands of dollars from ADMP, Fallows switched things up and said that RPC had hacked ADMP’s most secure systems and redirected experimental property to Newcastle.
Konrad blinked again. Fallows didn’t say it, but it sounded like the redirection would have happened at ADMP’s most secure facilities. On Earth. He thought back to the mission they’d taken on in Mississippi.
Fallows then switched things up again, explaining that ADMP wasn’t after RPC now. Fallows’s computer guy—Jeremy Stephens—explained that deeper data dives pointed to the true source of the hacks: Descartes Systems. Stephens passed his dossier on Descartes on to Konrad.
Konrad reviewed the dossier and ran his own quick investigation. Everything checked out. Descartes was a relatively new company. Based off Stephens’s more thorough data trail, Descartes had been using RPC as a front, hiding within while stealing money from EEC and ADMP.
Everything smelled like a group of elite hackers, or one impossibly good one. Konrad asked if Fallows had any suspects. Fallows provided an image, a snapshot taken from somewhere in Puerta de Oeste. It was a big man. It sounded like the man Kasima had described as the crawler thief.
Descartes Systems operated out of the Benton Building in the southwestern part of Central City. Stephens had managed to get a few hi-res surveillance cameras into position. He opened the camera feeds to Konrad. The feeds would alert if someone matching the suspect’s parameters moved within the cameras’ area.
Fallows thanked the Aegis team for their assistance and excused himself.
Konrad waited until the ADMP team was gone, then ran a security sweep of the apartment. Once he was sure it was safe, he explained to Mariel and Penny that the ADMP case had a few twists he hadn’t expected, the biggest being that Kasima wasn’t who they were after.
Based on Otto’s size, Konrad reluctantly suggested they bring Jack on. Mariel and Penny looked at each other for a moment, then nodded. Based on Otto’s hacking skills, or those of his associates, Konrad suggested they bring Kasima on to the contract. Again, Mariel and Penny agreed. Finally, in case things went sideways with ADMP, Konrad suggested they bring on James. Mariel sighed and agreed. Penny did too.
Konrad asked Mariel and Penny to take James out to bring Kasima in. There was no guarantee Kasima wasn’t involved somehow. There was even less of a guarantee Kasima would cooperate.
Mariel and Penny met James at the base of the hill leading up to Beltran’s shack. James slipped on his stealth suit and jogged off to sneak up on the house. Mariel and Penny waited a few minutes, then began trudging up the path to the shack.
Kasima sensed them coming. He wasn’t sure who they were, not at first. He didn’t care. He powered his computer system down and disconnected his earpiece. When the intruders were close enough to the shack, Kasima pulled out his EMP generator and let off a pulse.
James cursed as the stealth suit’s systems smoked, then shut down. He was now in a glorified black bodysuit. He had no idea who this Kasima was, but James hated him. Passionately.
Mariel and Penny entered the front door, calling out to Kasima that they’d come to retrieve him for a mission. Kasima told them about the EMP pulse and warned them that any systems they had running were now ineffective. Penny checked her scopes and saw they were offline. They were losing their advantage.
Mariel sweet-talked Kasima as she and Penny advanced into the shack. They could hear his voice. Penny longed for a couple of the simple grenades she’d trained with in boot camp. Kasima seemed like more trouble than he was worth to her, but she trusted Konrad.
Finally, James, Mariel, and Penny found Kasima. Kasima found the numbers too lopsided to oppose. He accompanied Mariel and Penny down the hill while James trailed. James didn’t try to hide his loathing from Kasima. Twice, he blurted out curses about the ruined stealth suit.
They arrived back at Konrad and Mariel’s apartment to find a sullen Jack waiting alone in the living area. Konrad called James into the working room and filled him in on Jack’s situation and the ADMP offer.
Kasima had a moment alone with Jack. He asked Jack if he would be open to the idea of a quick analysis of the cybernetic prostheses. Jack agreed.
Kasima pulled out his personal computer and downloaded his AI work onto a storage device. He then zeroed the computer out and double- then triple-checked to make sure there was no way for the system to connect to the Grid. Assured it was safe, he connected to the computer and ran a cable from it to Jack’s cybernetics.
After several minutes of work, Kasima realized Jack’s systems were indeed infected, but not in a typical way. Jack’s systems were upper mid-range. All that separated them from lower upper-range was higher-quality skin covering and more operational software. The memory and CPU for the upgrade were already present in the unit, theoretically offline. Something was moving in the unallocated hardware.
It took a few tries, but Kasima was eventually able to isolate, then gather up the data and program. Jack’s system seemed clear at that point. Kasima took a quick glance at what he’d extracted. Its complexity was fascinating. It certainly wasn’t a simple virus or other malware.
Konrad received an alert. The cameras had spotted Otto. Konrad shared the image with the rest of the team. Mariel drilled down. Otto—in recognizable hoodie and loose clothing—was entering the Benton Building. Just inside the entry, though, stood Otto’s exact twin. Not a reflection. A twin.
Fallows called Konrad. ADMP was ready to move on Descartes.