On the Brink
Return to Newcastle (Descartes Systems)
Return to Newcastle
15 September 2110
The Aegis team sat outside the Benton Building, which Descartes Systems called home. They were using a rented enclosed cargo hauler, an ugly, underpowered TaMo beast that couldn’t even keep the cramped interior warm.
Konrad, Mariel, and Penny watched the ADMP data feed while Kasima checked the video of Otto entering the building and being met by . . . Otto.
Kasima confirmed the video was legitimate. Otto had an identical twin.
Konrad, Mariel, and Penny agreed the best way to deal with the operation was to rent an office in the building. Descartes had rented out the entire fifth floor. There were new businesses opening on the fourth, but they weren’t moved in yet.
Konrad decided to call in a favor with Captain O’Meara and get a new company fast-tracked for entry to the fourth floor.
O’Meara took the call. He wasn’t terribly friendly at the first hint Konrad wanted a favor. Letting Jack out was a favor. A big one. They were even now, as far as O’Meara was concerned. Konrad talked O’Meara down. He explained the favor was regarding the ongoing RPC case. O’Meara settled down. The favor wasn’t that big. He made a few calls.
While they waited, Kasima dug up what he could on Otto. He wasn’t surprised to discover next to nothing. Otto seemed to have appeared from thin air on Newcastle, full-grown, about 26 days ago.
Twenty minutes after O’Meara rang off, Aegis had an approved lease to a fourth floor office.
Konrad double-checked the front company’s paperwork himself. Bryant Supertech. Generic. Safe. Bryant was a police contractor. It worked.
The team discussed the plan. No one was really in the building but the security guards and the Descartes team—Otto 1 and Otto 2 at the least. Konrad expected at least five. Fallows and the ADMP team were waiting in reserve across the street from the Benton Building. Aegis would go in together, moving in systems and supplies. They would try to identify the Descartes resources. If nothing obvious presented itself as an alternative, they would override Descartes’ assumed security and storm the fifth floor.
Konrad warned everyone that he suspected their target was a superb computer expert, better than him and better than Kasima. Konrad suggested Mariel run the operation from the hauler and deal with whatever logistical needs overflowed from the in-building team. Penny would assist Kasima and Konrad with the hacking. Jack and James would provide physical security.
The team moved. Security seemed slightly surprised by the expedited lease, but they didn’t challenge the team. Getting to the fourth floor was a breeze. There were three partitioned offices on the floor, shaped in a U along the east, south, and west walls. The north wall was left clear for the elevators and stairwell, and the center of the room was open.
Kasima and Konrad deposited their boxes in the west office and began breaking out their surveillance gear. Penny stood just inside the office’s north most doorway and watched the elevators. James was a meter further up the wall, at the corner, watching the stairwell door, a blur in his stealth suit. James prowled the open center, his mind drifting from the moment to his situation with Anna.
Kasima and Konrad began running through their preliminary checks. Once they were ready, Penny opened a channel with her earpiece, and the three of them began a series of concerted probes against the Descartes defenses, all routed through external Grid segments so that it would appear the attackers were elsewhere in Puerta de Oeste.
The Benton Building Grid segment came alive. Like antibodies attack bacteria, Descartes’ defenses counterattacked the invaders. The external attacks were shut down.
Konrad was impressed. It was as if the Descartes’ system wasn’t the least bit fooled by the attack. Of course, that was impossible. He looked at Kasima, who seemed to anticipate Konrad’s thought. Kasima shook his head. Penny lacked their confidence, but she kept her mouth shut. They were the experts, she was the apprentice.
Penny saw something crawling out of an open multi-port in the wall. Konrad turned in time to see a bug crawl out and take to the air. Bug my ass.
At the exact same moment the bug took to the air, the stairwell door opened. James already had his pistols out, ready to fire if anyone came in through the stairwell or elevators with guns. The people entering through the stairwell door weren’t armed, although they were packing. There were three of them, and they all looked exactly like the guy Descartes used as muscle—Otto.
James hesitated. If the guys were going to rely on intimidation, James happened to have Jack a couple meters behind him. He called for Jack, just to be sure the big guy was ready for trouble. The Ottos were every bit as big as Jack, after all. Jack growled and took a step forward.
Konrad grabbed a carrying case from the box he’d brought up and slapped it over the bug before it could escape into the room. He asked Kasima for some help, and immediately regretted it.
Kasima pulled out one of his favorite toys—an EMP generator—and released a pulse.
Power fluttered out. Konrad’s and Penny’s earpieces winked out. James’s stealth suit powered down. Again. Jack’s cybernetics powered down.
The Ottos closed on James.
At least the bug quit trying to escape the case.
Konrad shouted a curse. James shouted a curse. Jack shouted a curse. Penny shouted a curse. Kasima apologized.
The first Otto grabbed James and squeezed him. James felt his lungs compress as if he were hundreds of meters underwater, but he somehow kept his footing. He tried to escape the bear hug but couldn’t. Suddenly, he understood the terror that must wash over someone in Jack’s vice-like grip. At least when I kill someone, it’s quick and painless.
Jack’s systems cycled. His cybernetics were coming back online quickly. He heard the wet, weak noises coming from James, noises Jack’s opponents usually made before . . . Jack couldn’t really recall what happened to most of his opponents. Something bad.
Penny popped out of the office doorway and opened fire on the Otto crushing James. Her machine pistols were lightning in the darkness. The muzzle flash strobe was enough to give the sense of gore erupting from the Otto’s head. The Otto grunted and released James, then crumpled.
A second Otto was on James before he hit the ground, but James was jelly now and the Otto couldn’t get a good grip.
Konrad pulled the case back and gave the bug a quick look. Manufactured. Or at least artificial. Not the best he’d ever seen, but definitely sophisticated.
Kasima stepped out into the open area. He knew Otto well enough. He knew he could control him. He’d done it before. He looked at the one grabbing at James and told him to stop. The third Otto moved forward, fast for his size. Kasima had a sense of the threat, a realization that these weren’t simple humans. I can control humans. Easily. The Otto was close, his powerful hands reaching for Kasima’s throat.
Kasima panicked, and was gone.
Jack blinked. In the room’s uncertain light, Kasima had been there, then had simply disappeared, as if the big guy charging him had . . . disintegrated Kasima? Jack roared a challenge. His cybernetics were back online. The big guy charged him.
James wheezed weakly, sucking in a little air. He tried to bring his pistol to bear on the bruiser trying to get a handhold. The guy swatted the pistol aside and finally managed to get the grip. James felt the air rush out of his savaged lungs. He couldn’t even whimper. He couldn’t call for help.
Penny fired at the second Otto. He staggered, but continued squeezing James. The wounds looked lethal. Her mind flashed back to the alien ant tunnels on Bermuda Colony, the big guy who’d tried to gas them. They’d shot him and shot him and shot him, and he’d just kept going.
Konrad dropped the bug into the carrying case and raced out into the open area where battle was raging. He had his gun out, but he wasn’t sure what to do. There was a dead Otto on the floor next to James, another wounded Otto squeezing James, and a third Otto making for Jack. Kasima was nowhere to be seen.
Jack met the Otto’s charge. He was stunned by the power—the guy was just as strong as him, maybe stronger. But he wasn’t an expert with leverage. Not like Jack. He didn’t know locks and holds. Jack tried to gain leverage. The Otto was too strong.
Kasima blinked. He was in a dark room, lit only by system lights—amber, red, green, a few blue, one or two white. He could make out shapes, outlines really. Crates. Systems: old storage, and computer equipment. This is the Descartes office. Fifth floor. Something moved in the near distance. He heard whirring noises, the whisper of . . . wheels?
The second Otto flung James against the opposite wall and James felt ribs break. His head smacked hard against the partition wall, and he blacked out, mercifully. Penny took another shot, and the Otto finally fell. Penny reloaded. The room lights were slowly flickering back to full strength.
Konrad saw that Jack was having trouble with the Otto fighting him. Konrad decided Jack’s pride wasn’t as important as having Jack alive. Konrad fired. His shot took the Otto between the eyes. The struggle ended.
Session Thirty-Four End
Kasima tried to track the sounds. Something wheeled was moving toward him. Whatever it was rolled past a light. Kasima had a sense of its shape—a wheeled robot. Konrad said his cleaning robot had attacked him. Kasima shifted, tried to get some distance. The robot closed. It held up a telescoping clamp. Electricity crawled along the length of the clamp.
“Where’s Kasima?” Konrad watched Penny tend to James. He’s no use to use now. We need to move quickly.
Jack explained what he’d seen: the charge, Kasima disappearing. Konrad doubted the Ottos—whatever they were . . . What are they? Konrad checked the Otto he’d shot in the head.
Blood. Brains. Bone. Konrad gathered some of the gore into an evidence bag. Genies?
Penny had James stable. She reloaded. She looked to Konrad to make the call. They needed to move, one way or another. Security would’ve heard the gunfire. The building would be in lockdown soon, if it wasn’t already. The police would’ve been alerted. And Descartes obviously knew they were here.
Jack finally asked what they were all three thinking: “What next?”
Konrad reloaded and began pulling James out of the stealth suit. When the suit was off, Konrad reset the systems and pulled it on. He pointed at the stairwell. They had a job to do.
Jack took point. That meant charging up the stairs. He slammed into the door to the fifth floor with his cybernetic shoulder, taking the door off its hinges.
Penny trailed Jack by a few meters, waiting on the landing below for any sort of retaliation. She heard a door deep down in the stairwell open. Security.
Konrad fought the urge to facepalm. Jack’s idea of scouting wasn’t anything like . . . Who am I kidding? It’s Jack. Konrad slipped up next to Penny and whispered a warning to be ready for anything.
Kasima stumbled backward from the maintenance robot. He saw a flash of movement in the lights. Another robot, this one with flames licking along the end of a barrel: a flamethrower? Kasima wanted to be somewhere away from the robots and their deadly weapons. A sound echoed behind him. Almost an explosion, and glass shattering. It was enough. Kasima felt a sensation, then he was gone again. He saw James—bandaged, lying on the ground, scraped and bruised. There was no sign of Konrad or Penny or Jack. He wondered if they were on the floor above. With the robots.
Jack found himself wrapped up by another Otto the moment the door burst into the darkened room. The door had shattered a partition wall, and it must have come close to the Otto. Jack decided to use his momentum to take Otto off his feet. Jack drove the big man back until they were lying in a heap on top of the door. All around them, lights flashed and . . . things whirred and buzzed.
Konrad dashed through the doorway, juked left to avoid the huge forms wrestling in the stairwell light. He took up position at a partition wall corner and listened. Somehow, there were noises louder than the blundering behemoths smashing everything around them. And then he saw the lights—system lights—and the outlines. And the robots. Fuck!
Penny moved into the room. She was pretty sure Konrad had already gone in, but with the stealth suit, even with its electronics diminished, she couldn’t see him in the dark. And the room was dark once she got beyond the light from the stairwell. Dark except for the dim lights of . . . systems? Those lights revealed a robot. Carrying a couple canisters. Binary explosives? Binary gas?
She fired, bursting open one of the canisters. Fluids burst out, then slowly oozed onto the floor. Binary requires two, robot.
Jack grabbed a bent partition panel and began cracking Otto upside the head with it. It wasn’t a crowbar, but it would have to do. Otto growled and tried to punch Jack. Newcastle shook. At least in Jack’s mind it did.
Kasima decided the best way to resolve the whole Descartes situation was to shut the system down. AI, or Harry Cho like Konrad suspected, it didn’t really matter. What mattered was taking the threat away. Kasima pulled out his computer deck and began hacking at Descartes’ defenses. The system was committed to killing the Aegis team. It couldn’t possibly be on full alert and be busy killing the others.
Konrad sent a round into the nearest robot, then moved for what looked like crates stacked against the far wall. Another robot was closing, but Konrad focused on the crates. They were easily three meters long and nearly two meters wide. There was a tube in each crate. A stasis tube. The robot lit up Konrad’s leg. Konrad howled.
Penny shot the robot burning Konrad. There were more robots moving into action. “We need to finish this!”
Konrad checked his earpiece. The building’s Grid was functional for the moment. He called Fallows and said Aegis had located ADMP’s property. Fallows said he was bringing his team in to support Aegis. Fallows reminded Konrad of the contract. Konrad checked the crates, saw they were routed through RPC. He recognized some of Harry Cho’s MMI work in some of the equipment next to one of the crates. Harry Cho was behind all of this, Konrad was sure. Konrad told Fallows there would be no problem with the agreement.
Konrad contacted Kasima and told him they needed to work together to shut the computer systems down. The threat—Harry Cho, or what was left of him—was in the computer systems. They needed to fool Cho into working with them. Kasima, who was having problems hacking Descartes, agreed.
While Konrad and Kasima worked on their plan, Penny and Jack shot and punched their way through the Cho/Descartes defenses. Finally, Konrad had a plan Kasima couldn’t say no to. But Kasima would need to be ready to isolate the Descartes systems from the Grid when the time came, and he would have to use his cyberpathic abilities to communicate with the Descartes systems.
Kasima hesitated. Finally, he agreed. Konrad had Penny build explosives from what the robots had been carting around. At his signal, she would detonate the bomb on the main computer system hosting Cho.
Konrad sent a message to Harry Cho’s old communication address. Konrad said that there was a host—not just a human body, but a genie body—that Cho could claim for himself. A genie body that had the ability to directly interface with computer systems. Just like Cho was doing. All Cho would need to do—since the genie was a valuable resource—would be to wipe out any record of the genie’s existence and create a new one. Then Konrad would trick the genie into letting Cho take over. Cho would be able to live again, this time as more than human.
A moment passed. Penny finished off the last robot. Jack finished off the last Otto.
Harry Cho contacted Konrad. He said he didn’t even need to be human anymore. He had infinite control and infinite power as he was now. Konrad pointed out Harry could have all of that AND human form, unlike the drones. Harry corrected Konrad—the “drones” were proxies. Cutting edge. Nearly 100% organic, but man-made, and enhanced.
Konrad played the angle of being able to have Paulina again. That set Harry off. He called Paulina a cheating slut who couldn’t be trusted. Konrad filed that away, just in case Harry’s mind hadn’t degenerated after dying/becoming an AI. Konrad pointed out that Paulina was asking about Harry and clearly missed him. Konrad played to Harry’s ego.
It worked. Harry agreed to the idea. He launched a worm to wipe out all records of the genie’s existence. In a few months, there would be no record anywhere of TJ Michaels or his various identities.
Penny warned that security were closing in. Jack took up position at the stairwell door. He could hear Fallows and the ADMP team now. Security backed off.
Konrad contacted Kasima. It was time.
Kasima launched an isolation module to take the Descartes systems off the Grid at the appropriate signal. He then reached out to touch the Descartes systems. Harry attacked almost immediately, greedily trying to claim Kasima’s body as his own. Kasima was ready, though, and he created an illusionary channel that made his deck seem like his mind. Harry’s ego and his lust for a new body were enough to fool him.
With Harry’s consciousness isolated in the deck, Kasima shut off the building’s Grid and shattered the deck’s wireless capabilities. Cho was trapped. Penny detonated the bomb she’d hacked together. The Descartes systems were toast.
Jack held the ADMP team off until Konrad gave him the clear signal.
Fallows looked the Otto units over. He seemed content. He forwarded the funds to Aegis.
The Aegis team left the Benton Building. Konrad expected a double-cross the whole time. It didn’t come.
Konrad left Kasima with Harry Cho’s essence. Kasima wanted to put it together with the Cho instance taken from Jack’s cybernetics core. The AI concept Kasima had been working on for some time now—Fenris—was edging closer to reality, Kasima was sure of it. And even if Cho’s attempt to wipe out all traces of TJ Michaels/Kasima failed, Fenris would succeed.
While Penny saw to it that James received proper medical care, Konrad met with Alexei. He gave Alexei a DNA sample taken from Kasima and explained that ADMP had lost a very valuable genie on Newcastle, but the DNA remained. It would be enough to give EEC an edge in their own genie research.
Alexei was quite happy with the gift.
The Aegis team took a few days to recuperate. They watched the ADMP team leave Newcastle. Then they began searching for more work.
And while the others conducted their business, Jack began liquidating his belongings and transferring his meager wealth to Anna. He held onto just enough to buy passage back to Bermuda Colony. He had several weeks before the next ship headed out, but he was at peace. He had time left on his apartment lease. He had food.
Konrad spotted a priority job offer from a previous customer—Sylvia Manuel. Sylvia was looking for someone to transport materials again. Konrad contacted Sylvia and arranged a meeting.
It played out the same as before, with Sylvia meeting the Aegis folks at her apartment/office. She seemed tired, even more down than before. Konrad asked if the work was getting to her. She explained that she was disappointed with herself. After years of swearing she would never accept metacorporate work again, she’d done just that.
But now she was done with it. The materials mentioned in the job offer were it.
Konrad listened to the terms. There were clearly some risks, but it was a sweet payday, and it was relatively straightforward. Three weeks out to a research satellite, three weeks back. No customs inspections because it was all private property.
It was too good to turn down. Aegis accepted the job.
Konrad contacted Jack and James. Jack accepted, although he warned he was heading back to Bermuda. Kasima was too big an unknown at the moment, so Konrad didn’t contact him. Os didn’t respond to attempts to reach him, and Jason was still recovering from his injuries. It would be a small team heading out on the job.
Konrad figured they had more than enough.
They headed out later that evening, the bio-crate in storage. Three weeks in space passed quickly. The satellite was in a remote system, orbiting a gas giant. Without the coordinates provided by Sylvia, Konrad wouldn’t have known where to look for it.
As they decelerated into the system, Konrad began contacting the satellite. He received an automated docking approval. Just as Sylvia had promised. The security systems would destroy anything other than an approved ship.
Everything was on schedule and going exactly as planned . . .