Going Down

The flurry of activity at CyberLine filled the afternoon and early evening. While they waited for the system programmers, Medway took over the terminal and quickly entered the rest of the serial numbers of interest. Under cover of that, she inserted an echo which used CyberLine’s own system to send a copy of all the files and activities to the police net. Their sentry systems were less likely to spot that than if she routed all the transmissions through her own processors – in theory. She had found clear signs that all of her transmissions were being monitored and the more data she provided in the form of comms activity, the more chance of police encryption being compromised.

By seven-thirty it was all over. The trails didn’t so much go dead as hit a wall. The false data was still there and the point of interference obvious – and ridiculous.

"Catering?" Tarbuck grumbled yet again.

"Records have been modified by the catering system," one of the programmers explained slowly. Again. "There is no reason why these transactions should go through there. There is no record of how it happened."

"Crazy." Tarbuck had the look again am I gonna die? Is my career in flames? "The new computers have been there over a year. If there was something that badly wrong, surely someone would have noticed by now?"

"There is one other possibility," the engineer conceded. "Another system made the false entries and then mimicked the audit trail to lead to the catering systems."

"And how do we trace that?" Medway was losing patience – soft and quiet was infuriatingly slow after the initial door-kicking success.

"No way to do it. Not without shutting everything down – overloading the system with tracer programs."

Medway shifted in her seat. She had kept her armour on and it wasn’t designed to be worn for such extended periods. That incision scar on her belly was aching all the more. "Any guesses?"

"None," the man said wearily.

"One," suggested a quiet, plump lad - the most junior in the team. "Mil App."

It was as if someone had pumped the room full of cotton wool. Every last sound was leached from the air. Medway tried to just listen, because even her best soft and quiet would be too loud in that moment.

"Mil App," the senior system engineer agreed wearily. "Covert logins, false trails, silent edits. All the sort of thing that Mil App ought to be good at."

"The most carefully watched, security conscious group we have?" Tarbuck wouldn't believe it.... "No way." She paused, eyes wide. "Oh."

Medway sat up. "Oh?"

"Head of security has been monitoring us. He has cleared me to take you into the Military Applications Centre to pursue your enquiries."

"So co-operative," Medway muttered darkly – so their security manager had been monitoring, but only intervened once it became clear there was something seriously wrong. It had the smell of secrecy hiding behind a façade of openness – cover-up and damage-limitation running the show. A sniper hiding in a doorway.

No worries there... Medway opened a channel.

<Medway: $$ encrypt/3 $$ This stinks. Recommend we abort enquiries.>

<Porson: Wait while we assess.>

"Worrying," she said aloud. "Does your security guy think we will be safe going in there? If someone has been playing with your computers…"

"Risk is low," Tarbuck assured her.

<Porson: Proceed with caution. They know that we know you’re there.>

"OK. Lead the way, Ms Tarbuck."

"Really? You don’t want to go first?” After hours of smooth corporate cooperation, Tarbuck let loose a tirade of bitter sarcasm. "Cybercop hiding in an armoured shell, carrying a whole stack of weapons.”

Medway reached for her gun, the tiniest movement on reflex. Single threat, no visible weapon... think before you shoot... Kyla was there, behind her shoulder, giving advice. Look before you think...

Tarbuck, just a corporate executive in the monied safety of an office, not a yob from the worst of the subsistence enclaves, holding a brick. But she saw that reach for the gun, recognised it, reacted to it on a matching reflex...

”Are you sure you don’t need to wait for backup?" Tarbuck threw sarcasm not bricks, but the taunt and challenge was the same. The yobs either lobbed the brick, or dropped it and ran, giving the cop the matching choice, shoot or chase. A bleeding-heart rookie might chase; an experienced hand would shoot – no telling when a yob with a brick was just bait in a trap.

"Come on, Officer Medway... Follow me. There is nothing to worry about…"

Medway stayed silent. That look, that stance – it wasn’t just flashback and imagination. The reaction, the freeze in response to a cybercop reaching for a gun... classic yob stand-off, don’t provoke the cybercop any further until you’re ready. Wherever Tarbuck came from, she knew yobs with bricks, and mobs with fire-bombs hiding round the corner, and this was just a piece of theatre because the corporate executive wasn’t expecting any hostile reception...

Tarbuck was too far removed from her roots, playing with memories that no longer mattered. In Medway’s life, mobs and fire-bombs were still waiting to ambush the bleeding-heart rookie.

<Medway: $$ encrypt/3 $$ Porson? I have a bad feeling about this... Me, military compound, stray civilian...> Training covered hostile receptions, but always shoulder-to-shoulder with another cybercop...

<Porson: Just be ready for a fire-fight and try not to get the civilian killed.>

<Medway: $$ encrypt/3 $$ This is NOT going to be a fire-fight.> There was no reply from Porson – so much for light duties.

Lameduck lived up to its name with a full performance of the creaking door routine. Medway ignored it as casually as possible and strapped herself into the safety restraints.

"Not expecting an accident?" Tarbuck laughed, eyeing up the heavy duty harness on the passenger seat.

"Regulations." Medway wasn’t expecting anything as benign as an accident. "The car will not move until all passengers are safely strapped in. I can override it, but then it will scream panic signals all over the police nets." That wasn’t entirely true, but if things did get rough it would be stupid to have a passenger rattling around in the car.

Tarbuck snapped the catches into place and Medway backed the car out of its parking space. <Medway: Set for hostile environment. Direct and immediate threat to life.>

"Here’s a tough question for you, Ms Tarbuck...” How would you feel if your belly ached where the surgeons rinsed out corrosive crap and put new batteries in? “Do you trust your employers?"

"Of course." She sounded irritated. "You think that this has been sanctioned by the Board? I admit that it is disturbing to learn that there has clearly been a breach of the regulations. And it might be an employee... but CyberLine would never knowingly do such a thing."

"I hope you’re right. If I’m right, there could be a very hostile reception waiting for us." But Porson did give the OK...

"How hostile?"

"Shoot to kill sort of hostile. Directed at me.” With a civilian in the firing line... not a good moment to start doubting Porson... “For your sake I hope they can shoot straight."

They drew up to the gates of the Military Applications compound, an array of small workshops and manufacturing facilities clustered around a conventional steel, concrete and glass block. To one side was the grey bulk of a fully enclosed, secure freight depot. Another guard waited patiently while the window wound down and Tarbuck’s identity was confirmed through his despatch centre. The whole scene played out in brilliant floodlighting, washing out the dying moments of the sunset.

"This is dead wrong, Miss," the man grumbled. "Computer says OK, though." The armoured gate rolled open and the guard stepped aside. Medway closed Lameduck’s windows and drove in – she was damned sure there was something wrong and wanted bullet-resistant glass between her and trouble.

Alarms started to shrill inside the car. A stream of status warnings flooded from Lameduck and Medway returned the car to automatic.

"Might be innocent..." Medway skimmed through the list. "There are some heavy duty sentry systems scanning the car – including invasive system queries." A new and serious warning appeared on one of her internal status reports. "Very heavy.” What had Morrison said – CyberLine could put together an accurate profile of every functioning cybercop? “Enough to compromise a factory-fresh Peacekeeper..."

<Medway: Lameduck, confirm all system passwords were modified before you entered service.>

<Lameduck: All factory security defaults updated in accordance with Departmental Policy alpha-alpha-one...>

“The bastards can’t hack their way in.” Now the Enhanced Division needed a policy to lock CyberLine out of personnel access. “If they want in, they’ll have to get physical.”

Tarbuck had gone very pale. "Does this mean you were right?"

Targeting radar locked onto the car. "Pity you’re not wearing armour. Whatever happens next, do whatever I tell you." <Medway: $$ encrypt/panic $$ Gone to shit, Porson.>

<Porson: Relax, Officer Medway. This will be far less painful if you surrender now.>

The MilApps floodlights went out and the compound softened into the last of the sunset. Whatever came next would be fought by the light of infra-red and radar.

Active countermeasure alarms fed through from Lameduck. All external communications were dead and it was likely that the interference would block the distress alarms. Systems switched automatically and every spare scrap of bandwidth was absorbed in exchanging evidence logs between Medway and the car. If only one of them survived with electronics intact there would be a full record available.

Armour-penetrating rounds clipped the tailgate, triggering alerts from the shielding around the fuel tank. Lameduck accelerated abruptly, braked and turned sharply between two buildings; more armour-penetrating rounds tore up the road surface behind them. Medway silenced all of the alarms and checked that none of the stress warnings exceeded tolerances.

"They’re trying to kill you," Tarbuck said faintly.

"Trying to kill us," Medway corrected. "No witnesses. There will be a follow-up investigation…" Her voice settled into a calm recitation. “During the ongoing investigation, a shoot-out between Officer Medway and rogue elements at CyberLine caused extensive damage to computer systems and most of the vital records were lost. Officer Medway was regrettably killed in the fight… you can figure out the rest."

"We’re going to die."

"Depends," Medway answered as Lameduck headed for the fence. "How good is the decryption facility here?"

"No idea. They…" Tarbuck screamed – an armoured vehicle appeared to block their path.

"Shit. Blue Bulldog – mark three, I think."

High velocity penetrating rounds scattered off the front of the car. Lameduck was built to withstand this level of assault for short periods. Very short. And it was only equipped for light duties – no tyre-poppers, mortars or barricade-busters, just a magazine of concussion grenades for basic crowd control. Medway interfaced her targeting processors to the launchers and fired three rounds to explode beneath her armoured opponent in quick succession.

The Bulldog retreated abruptly. The concussion charges couldn’t penetrate, but the crew didn’t know that. The noise for those trapped inside would have been terrifying, with no easy way to distinguish harmless crowd control from lethal penetrating ordnance.

"Are we going to die?" Tarbuck whispered.

Another Bulldog appeared, running almost parallel and then side-swiping Lameduck, the impact sending the car into a low wall dividing the road from a building. The warnings ranged from minor to severe as the grazing impact began to erode the fibre-toughened armour. Tarbuck screamed again; concrete shards exploded from the wall and showered over her side of the wind-shield.

The Bulldog came in for another pass, swerving sharply to grind them into the wall and open up the side of the car. Lameduck pushed its gas turbine to the limit, red-line warnings screaming audibly as well as directly into Medway’s processors. The acceleration pushed both passengers into their seats; the Bulldog ploughed into the wall. The armoured monster rode out the impact and chased them with another hail of piercing rounds.

"We’re not going to make it." Medway was calm in the face of impending failure. This was combat, a part of the job. "Just as well. They would suspend me for putting a civilian at risk."

Tarbuck sat rigidly in her seat, white with terror, wet trails of tears running down her face. <Tarbuck: $$ Military Applications Compound / layout schematic / download $$>

Medway turned every spare bit of capacity to analysing the data. It was sparse, a basic plan the CyberLine security chief had sent to Tarbuck with the permission to enter the MilApps compound. "Perfect. Hold tight."

Lameduck turned, briefly losing the pursuing Bulldog. The best interpretation of the available radar returns suggested another two hostile vehicles closing in. Medway directed her car towards the two-storey shipping depot, aiming for a wide set of emergency exit doors, tinted red in the sunset. According to the schematics they were reinforced but not designed to withstand what she had in mind.

"Sorry, Lameduck," she said softly and released the safety interlocks on the engine. The car gave a last scream as the turbines span past their safe limits. "Hold tight, Tarbuck. Bale out when I tell you."

The last of the electronic chatter between cybercop and Peacekeeper shut down. Seat restraints shifted to impact preparation, airbag systems ran their own self-checks and armed for deliberate crash release. Lameduck hit the building doors with three Bulldogs in pursuit: one followed through, the other two pulled up short.

The impact was less than Medway expected. The doors crumpled and splintered, tearing the composite-armoured front of the car. The wind-shield cracked from an unidentified impact, glinting under the brilliant illumination inside the depot, a sharp change from the gathering dusk outside. Directly ahead were a pair of Valiant-class secure transit trucks, armoured, fireproof and very solid.

Tarbuck started screaming again; Medway relaxed and left Lameduck to handle the driving. The car veered to the right, reducing the head-on impact to a glancing blow against a Valiant truck which finished the job of stripping the outer bodywork from Tarbuck’s door. The shock threw them against the safety restraints, falling short of requiring the multiple airbag systems to fire.

The Bulldog was not so lucky. Heavy military vehicle met even heavier civilian transport and neither survived the event. Automatic fire suppression dumped white powder mist on the wreckage, a fairy tale cloud briefly lit with internal fire and then fading, the dust settling as a gentle frost.

Lameduck came to a halt beside another of the Valiant leviathans. Explosive bolts fired, the penultimate emergency measure, and all of the doors tumbled outwards as seat restraints released.

"Bale out." Medway drew her side-arm as she moved. "This way."

There was no cover, no way out; a confined space where their hunters could corner and kill them. It was the most stupid place to have run to – and a gloriously long gamble.

Medway ran a fast targeting sequence – the company security forces had yet to risk following them in. They were equipped with some of the best military hardware but there was something lacking in their training. To Medway, it was the difference between taking combat courses and actually staying alive against street-psychos.

"Under here." She rolled under the nearest Valiant. The bulk would hide them – both visible spectrum and infra-red. Against non-enhanced opponents she might have used some of her precious ammunition to take out the lights but there was no point – the company troops would have full infra-red tracking capabilities and her suit gave a significant heat output. They might have a gap between training and experience but they were there to protect dangerously powerful hardware from being stolen. Hiding was the only safe option.

"Now what?" Tarbuck was shaking – voice and body together.

"Patience," Medway sent an instruction to the vehicle above them.

The Valiant responded with a standard identification, and then a security warning statement – no unauthorised access permitted. Medway invoked her data search warrant and waited.

"I am trying to commandeer the vehicle," she told Tarbuck softly. "CyberLine verified my warrant. Any system connected to your main computers should recognise and accept it."

"MilApps have a separate system."

"I assumed as much. What about the despatch and accounting systems for this depot?"

Tarbuck clutched her knees to her chest. "Maybe."

The truck responded. <Roadkill: Access acknowledged, Officer Medway.>

"Charming name," Medway muttered to herself and then raised her voice to reassure Tarbuck. "I’m in. It might take a while to access the control protocols. Can you tap into your company network and find out what is going on? They’ll probably try to lock you out, but any hints might be helpful."

Medway began interrogating Roadkill, obtaining information on the current cargo, destination and planned departure time. The vehicle was theoretically capable of taking itself to its destination but was still legally required to have a human driver. The cab was large enough for a half-dozen occupants and most of those on board would be armed and armoured security troops. Roadkill was carrying enough smart-guide automatic weapons to fight a small war and propelled by straight fuel-burning turbines to maximise performance in an emergency.

<Roadkill: Modification of route definition not permitted.>

Medway muttered to herself. It was a major part of the vehicle security – there were no known cases where one of these heavy-duty transports had been successfully hijacked. Even if taken by thieves or terrorists, the Valiant would carry on to its pre-set destination.

<Medway: Vehicle designated Roadkill is hereby cited as evidence in the investigation of activities in contravention of section two of the Cyber-enchancements act.>

<Roadkill: Status acknowledged. This vehicle is now in police custody.>

<Medway: Vehicle Roadkill will disengage automatic systems and release all controls to Officer Medway.>

The first rounds started chewing up the concrete floor. <Roadkill: Acknowledged.>

<Medway: Release doors. Start engine.> The safe-zone under the Valiant wouldn’t last long.

Tarbuck screamed yet again as the gas turbines began their preheat cycle overhead; Medway armed one of Jeri’s scramblers and added the truck to its be nice list. The electronic fiend sent back its acknowledgement and initiated a brief countdown. She rolled out into the hail of bullets, launched the scrambler, and crouched low until the digital banshees let rip.

Tiny rocket motors ignited and pushed the scrambler into the air. Three meters up, a spew of electronic mush expanded to fill the cargo bay and the incoming bullets stopped abruptly. Unencrypted panic alerts tied up the comms nets and another targeting sweep tagged her disoriented opponents. Medway stood and picked them off one by one.

Blind and disoriented, the security troops still fired back. Warnings flared as her armour absorbed impacts exceeding the normal safe limits – just like Lameduck it wasn’t designed for prolonged exposure to this level of assault. Medway dropped the last of her available targets, launched a second scrambler and turned back to Tarbuck.

"Move. Now." There were digital shouts of fucked-up senses... my helmet’s on fire... I’m hit, I’m hit, there’s scorpions inside my armour... get the jelly spiders off me... “Move now!”

Tarbuck was paralysed, staring at Medway from under the Valiant, and blinking like a frightened rabbit, further disoriented as the impact of the scrambler shut down her commercial implants.

Two rounds slapped into the back of Medway’s armour. She turned and killed even as one of her external battery packs registered failure; the acrid, faintly fruity smell of cell electrolyte caught her nose. Her armour’s active systems now had power for no more than twenty minutes. Above her, the scrambler indicated two seconds until expiry.

"Now," Medway snapped and hauled Tarbuck out, half carrying her, further depleting the battery reserves for her suit. "Get in the fucking cab."

Medway followed her in and settled into the driver’s seat shutting her armour down as soon as the door was latched. The space echoed with the flat popping of bullets slapping against the armour shell, and then the heavier sounds of penetrating munitions.

Medway disabled all of the overrides and engaged the gas turbines. The roar was muted in the cab; outside it would be deafening. She pushed the turbines to the limit, checking the rear-view video systems for the four meters of flame from the exhausts. Roadkill was surrounded by an explosion of white mist as the fire suppression systems tried to cope.

"Strap yourself in," Medway said sharply. "It will be a rough ride."

Tarbuck was still frantically trying to engage seat restraints when the jet of flame at the back of Roadkill faded and the power was directed to the drive. The heavy Valiant truck lurched forwards and shunted other vehicles aside, ploughing into the clear space around the main doors. Roadkill was not designed for acceleration, but it picked up enough speed to punch through. At the last moment, shutters slammed down over the windscreen and Medway drove with only the external cameras for guidance.

The Bulldogs were waiting. A rain of armour-piercing fire rained against the front, a crude approach to stopping them. Roadkill was built for this, carving a path through them like a plough through the finest soil. Two more Bulldogs were reduced to crumpled ruins and the Valiant steadily built speed.

"Are we safe now?" Tarbuck asked distantly. "I can’t get anything out of the company nets."

The rearwards cameras showed more Bulldogs in pursuit. Roadkill lurched as an explosive round crumpled the rear doors.

"Long way to go yet," Medway answered tightly. "We’ll never make it to the gates. Have to crash the fence."

"And then?" They might be on the edge of Oxford, but there were miles of field and woodland between them and any hope of rescue.

"We keep going," Medway said bluntly. "Reading might be the best place. I can’t trust the cybercops here, but Reading should be far enough away."

"Can’t trust?"

"You thought you could trust CyberLine."

"Are we going to make it?"

"Do you really want to know?"

Tarbuck didn’t answer, so she let it slide.

Am I gonna die?

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