Security inside the city wasn’t very different from the slum. A slight absence of the stink of piss, a slight increase in peacekeeper density but no apparent rise in attentiveness, and the presence of outdated CCTV cameras at intersections and in front of important or busy buildings. Jase’s instinctive reaction to look away from recording devices still functioned after so much time separated from society, even if most of them lacked the visual acuity to render a face.
The warehouse indicated by the mad doctor was nearby, but Jase ignored the address she wrote down and cased the streets. No sensible pattern to layout made itself apparent. Shops, restaurants, and services haphazardly occupied buildings, with densities largely reliant on whether it was a residential or business sector. The towers were not evenly distributed as Jase was accustom to seeing; rather, they existed in scattered groups of skyscrapers descending in height outward from a central tower with the Armitage logo. The groups were only so far apart that if the central tower fell, it would not knock over another central tower. Jase was currently in lower area between urban zones.
Public transportation wasn’t regulated, but cost money, and quarantine gates and checkpoints didn’t seem to exist. As far as he could tell, any strategy for surviving an outbreak here was reliant on how fast one could get out. Aside from that, everything was mostly the same. Walls kept the world out and the citizens lived complacently.
Finding an ATM, or what amounted to one in this city, that was both secluded and under poor surveillance was a chore. Slightly less annoying was the prompt for a pin number that popped up when he inserted the dead man’s chip. Subtly making sure he wasn’t being watched, Jase rammed a dent into the maintenance panel with his elbow and pried it open. He plugged the PDA’s retractable charger into a port and through it forced the ATM into a hard reset. With a combination of developer shortcuts and console commands, he gave himself temporary admin access which, on this device, only gave him unrestricted access to the dead man’s account.
In his mind, he only had minutes to work. He wasn’t brave enough to attempt such a thing at home, as the system would detect an anomaly in the machine instantly and send peacekeepers to check on it, but with no computer, no money, and no identity, he had little choice. He learned the name of the man he was impersonating, which the doctor did not think necessary to provide, his security credentials, and funneled as much money from the account onto the chip as he could without triggering a flag on the transaction.
Someone surprised him by approaching from behind, but it was only a citizen intending to use the ATM. They became thoroughly confused by the window on screen.
“Ah… it- it’s broken,” Jase sputtered.
“Crap!” they groaned and trudged off in search of another teller machine.
Jase sighed and dared not consider what might have happened if they’d been the least bit technically literate.
With money to his name, he found a love hotel and checked in for an hour. He got weird looks arriving alone, but he desperately needed a shower. Clean, refreshed, and possessing credentials, Jase was now as inconspicuous as any other inhabitant of this city.
Using the bus ride to the nearest urban center to glean as much information as he could from the PDA, Jase deduced he stole it from a floor manager at a shipping hub, or given that he lived in the slum, worked for one and was made to do his tedium. Whoever they were, they scheduled several appointments at the large tower at the center to do things like “renew business operation parameters,” “File for unjust confiscation,” and “register for permission to conceive.” Clearly, the building was administrative in nature.
By far it was the busiest building in the district. The first few floors were equally accessible and functioned as a collective lobby, each large enough to comfortably service a few thousand individuals, though all of them appeared in a constant state of congestion. Comprehensively, security amounted to no fewer than seven visible cameras, forty-five peacekeepers, two different sets of security gates, two canine units, and mandatory registration with a receptionist requiring ID checks, fingerprints, and documentation relevant to the purpose of the visit. And that’s just to reach the elevators.
Jase was considering how many days of preparation he’d need to properly infiltrate the place without arousing suspicion when he noticed a variety of person bypassing registration and one of the second of the two security gates. Judging by their consistent business attire and dead expression, they worked there. A fair assessment, since they were leaving in droves at about lunch time. Since he wouldn’t live long enough to enact his working plan, Jase followed them to their preferred lunch dives until one particularly downtrodden sat down alone at a relatively empty bar.
Jase in no way looked forward to what came next, and search as he might, could not find any reasonable alternative. So, he wiped the grimace off his face and took a seat next to him.
“H- Hey there,” he unsurely greeted.
The man looked at Jase like nuisance, then continued disregarding him.
“Wow,” Jase sighed, as if speaking to himself. “Work… am I right? It’s just… yeah. Exhausting. All the time.”
The man moved over a seat and ordered a meal when the tender came by. Jase did the same but made a point of ordering a drink. “Something hard,” and got a weird look from both the tender and the man from the administration building. Already on thin ice, Jase didn’t say anything until his drink came. He exaggerated a conservative sip and let the alcohol do its work.
“Oh, sorry,” Jase said a little more comfortably. “Did you want some?”
“…I didn’t come to a bar to day drink,” the man grumbled.
“Oh, yeah. Of course. I didn’t. Don’t usually. Then I thought, ‘it would make it easier to deal with my… coworkers?’” The raised eyebrow the man shot let him know he hit the correct nail on the head. “Yeah. Those damn coworkers, always working and stuff.” He pretended to take another sip them pointed at the tender. “You’re lucky the only people you have to deal with give you money.”
For a solid minute, Jase thought he overplayed himself, but after visibly weighing something in his mind, the man relented to ordering stiff drink. Once he was buzzed, it was easy to get him absolutely shitfaced. From there it wasn’t hard to pretend to be the guy’s friend, the true challenge was willingly associating with a drunk.
“Who does he think he is?” the man slurred in no relation to the last thing said. “Walks around likey they owns the place.”
“Yeah, how dare ‘that guy?’”
“Got damn Philips is who! Riding my ass like a… uh… assholes! Shupervisin’ and ass’n and kissin’ assses.”
“I know, supervisors… who needs them?”
“Not a damn thing, that’s who! Can’t check– clock in until they lack– lock– log you in and they take their sweet ass time with the shecretary they porked in the data room, ‘t’s already lunch ‘n they get to ya. ‘Nd d’you get to fuck the secretary? No, secretary fucks you! Fuck.”
“Crime, just a crime,” Jase impatiently replied, his own precursor to a buzz having never progressed past the first sip. “Hey, you know, I always wondered, what’s past the elevator in that place where you work? What kind of security is above the third floor?”
“Hey. Hey– hey– hey. You know– Hey, y’know, you don’t have a badge. Thought you were a fop, but you have no badge. I work with badges, so you’re okay.”
“Yeah, yeah, badges are bad. Do you have a password or…”
Any chance of wringing the man for information was lost when he started crying on the bar, babbling incoherently about a childhood pet euthanized after a rat bit it. Jase paid for the drinks and the food and escorted the man to bathroom, where he took him into a stall and stripped him down to his underwear. The friendly advice to “don’t throw up on your clothes,” no longer seemed so cordial when Jase left dressed in his clothes and ID chip in his pocket.
He wasn’t accustomed to the hustle of the administration building, but the environment was reminiscent of a time when he was still on the grid. The first gate was a standard metal detector. It went off on him, but security passed him due to the metal latches on his stolen briefcase. He crossed the waiting area, mindful of the peacekeepers surveying the crowd. He was the only one in the building looking around, watching things, studying his surroundings, and that made him stand out from the vacant stares surrounding him.
Obviously, that meant he was selected for a random check at the second gate leading to the elevators. Only his intentions were untoward, so Jase was calm throughout. The only cause for alarm was the stack of pornographic magazines the unfortunate laborer from the slum kept in their briefcase. Concerning, but not illegal. He made it through without a hitch.
Among the several dozen office workers disembarking the elevator was one a fair bit more important looking than the others. A neater suit, styled hair, probably wearing makeup, it was no stretch of the imagination to think he was middle or upper management. Likely not an executive, but the most intriguing detail was the yellow pin on his lapel. One might say it was a badge of sorts.
When the badge reached into his coat, Jase intentionally bumped into him so they both dropped their chips. He made a brief show of aggravation to put off the supervisor so when they picked up their chips, he didn’t realize they were switched.
Jase scanned each floor until it reached a cubicle farm both fully operable and mostly devoid of people by downsizing or simply being out to lunch. Either way, dozens of empty cubicles hosted an equal number of unattended computers. Finding the most secluded space in the furthest corner of the floor, Jase was glad he got the supervisor’s chip because each computer had something like a child safety lock preventing the keyboard and mouse from activating without one.
Muscle memory kicked in like a narcotic the instant his hands went over the keyboard. Console commands and forced code executions bypassed user restrictions and granted admin access, then fiddling with the code around the command shell lifted any barriers between that computer and the Armitage network. Compared to accessing the ICC network this was like poking holes in a wet paper bag.
The first thing he did was search the various security layers for any mention of himself, his actions, or the case. Finding none, he hid some lines of code among the sub processes to replace any mention of his name or aliases with randomly generated information. Now if he ever got caught by Armitage or if chatter about him picked up, his tracks would cover themselves. Judging by the age of the hardware and state of the code, his alterations could go unnoticed for decades.
“May I help you?” asked a curious office worker.
Jase nearly fell over as he was crouched suspiciously in front of the monitor. “Uh, I’m with IT?”
“Oh,” she unsurely replied. “Okay.”
He let out a breath once she was gone and took a proper seat in the office chair. She probably wouldn’t be a problem, but the network administrator would detect strange network activity any minute. Browsing through military operations was a waste of time since finding a relevant pattern would be impossible from the hundreds of pages produced every minute. He didn’t have the time to hack anything, even if he doubted their system would be hard to crack or worth the effort, so he scrolled over to the Armitage persons of interest database.
The list was almost as long as the military reports and full of the most dangerous people in the world. Jase could have browsed for days without getting bored, but he didn’t have the time nor the popcorn. He narrowed the search down to independent and unaffiliated, then to those whose location was known, then once more to in Armitage territory. The results came back with fifty entries, two of which were in this very city.
One was a criminal currently incarcerated in a processing station for aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit larceny and wanted in two other cities for two accounts of murder and five accounts of grand larceny. Jase just skipped that one. The other was a freelance operator with known ties to the Phoenix Brigade, Rust Devils, Aegis Front, ICC, and countless independent operators. Notes listed him as “Not a threat, extremely dangerous.”
Jase took the liberty of adding three accounts of extortion to Mr. Reuben McCord’s entry and downloaded his file photo onto the PDA. His location was listed as one of three airports in the city as of half an hour ago. Since the airport flight plan listed the last arrival at thirty-four minutes ago and the next departure at four hours from now, it was a good bet he was still in the city.
The last thing Jase did was engage a database wide search for the keyword “Lupa,” but he didn’t just find nothing, he found less than nothing. Some “glitch” in the system outright kicked him out of a search if the letters “lupa” were present in the keyword. Searching the periphery yielded something more worrisome. A black hole of information identifiable only by absent documents, holes in reports, and corrupt data suspiciously censoring incredibly specific information. As if someone circumnavigated decade upon decade’s worth off the city’s compiled information and scrubbed it clean. Surely digging any further would draw unwanted attention.
After cleaning up any evidence of tampering with the computer and remotely accessing the warehouse inventory before he forgot, he put everything back the way he found it right down to the marks on the carpet. On his way back to the elevator he saw the woman who walked in on him talking to someone in front of the floor’s IT office. Panicking now would draw too much attention, but his pace did become brisker. However many dozens of floors there were in this sky scraper, the elevators took far too long to respond. Jase was sure any second someone would come around the corner, and suffice to say, he was not confident in his ability to talk his way out of what would follow.
Any anxieties diminished once he checked out through the security gate. Since he was on his way out, security largely ignored him, possibly because there was a man on his way in wearing an unusual black suit with pale skin and slick hair. Probably executive.
Reuben McCord bided his time between flights outside an airport café, drinking weak coffee and reading a personal news reader. Clothes and mannerisms peaked in diversity near the airports due to the mingling of people from vastly different cities and powers, but there was no missing Reuben. Tall, but not over-tall, he was middle aged and looked on the upper end thanks to the grayness of his swept back hair and short, gruff beard. The worn leather coat, thick jeans, and leather boots suggested an outdoorsman, but his steely gaze suggested other professions. He had the air of a sleeping bear, harmless as long as you don’t poke it. Yet he couldn’t help drawing attention to himself thanks to the wide brimmed hat sitting on the table in front of him. Jase wondered about it as he watched from a public call station across the street. Everything about the man was strange to him, especially that hat. He’d never heard of a cowboy before.
He checked the picture again to make sure, then hung up the station receiver. He sat down across from Reuben and said nothing.
“May I help you?” Reuben asked with a curious drawl.
“Yes, you may.”
“…And how may I help you?”
“I need to get out of the city.”
“Plane leaves in three hours.”
“That’s not it. I need to get out of the city, I need to do it quietly, and I’ll need help making my move once I’m out.”
“Boy, I don’t know what makes you think I can or will help you. You know what’s good for you, you’ll get your permits and put up with due process.”
“There’s no time. I can pay you.”
“I’m sure you can, I’m not looking for work.”
“I don’t need you to work for me, I just need you to take me with you.”
Reuben laughed. “If you know who I am and what I do, you know that is a terrible idea.”
“I can help.”
“You can get in the way.”
“Trust me, I have my uses, and I have a very good reason for what I need to do.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” He turned his attention back on the data reader and washed his hands of this business. Ten minutes later, Jase was still sitting across from him. “Don’t you have something better to do?”
“I do, actually. I’m currently dying.”
“Go take care of that and find a hobby while you’re at it.”
“It won’t matter if I can’t leave. The longer I stay, the more likely everyone in this city will die. Including me.”
Reuben was about to take a more aggressive stance when a pair of peacekeepers stopped at the entrance behind Jase and scanned the crowd. Begrudgingly, he turned his gaze down and tried to cover his face without drawing too much attention to himself.
“What’s the matter?” Jase asked with a knowing smirk. “Peacekeepers?”
Reuben would have hit him with a sharp retort, but the peacekeepers approached their table. He shifted uneasily in his chair, knowing full well Armitage shouldn’t have any problems with him, but Jase’s relaxed expression didn’t sit right in his gut. His hand floated uneasily around a gun shaped lump in his jacket.
“Are you Reuben McCord?” the peacekeeper asked. “Wanted for three counts of extortion?”
Before he could answer, Jase said, “I don’t believe he is,” without looking away from him.
As per standard procedure, one of the peacekeepers pulled out a scanning device and did a facial recognition scan.
Reuben stared death at Jase while that red beam raked across his features, is hand ready to shoot into his jacket the instant the scanner beeped a match. Some long dormant primal instinct told Jase just how thin a wire his life hung by, that any given moment he was less than a blink away from instant death. The peacekeepers must have also picked up on the killing intent, because between the four of them Reuben was the only one not sweating.
But, the peacekeeper’s antiquated scanner buzzed and went back into his holster. “Thank you for your compliance, we apologize for any inconvenience, Mr. Birch.”
Reuben crossed his arms as the peacekeepers left and Jase wiped his neck and forehead. “You’re from the ICC.”
“‘From,’ not ‘with.’”
“‘Course. One of their spooks would know Armitage calls their law enforcement ‘orderlies.’ Who’s ‘Mr. Birch?’”
“Don’t worry about it. The point is, what I’m capable of if you don’t help me–”
“You have my attention,” Reuben interrupted, humorously. “What’s the matter, someone after you?”
“By proxy. That’s not why I need your help. I’m looking for information.”
“Not information you can provide. Once I’m out of the city I’ll need to figure out where I can find it and how to get it. I’ll decide what to do from there, the problem is I know fuck all about anything outside an ICC city.”
“That you’re professional opinion?” Reuben sardonically asked. “You want a babysitter.”
“I’d like someone who can teach me to survive with a target on my back.”
Reuben expressionlessly sized Jase up. “Alright.”
“You’ll do it?”
“Only because you’re smart enough to know you’re useless.”
“I have luggage.”
“I can’t have anyone trying to open it.”
“‘Long as you carry your gear, we won’t have any problems.”
“Okay. I have some things to do. I’ll be back before the flight.”
On his way back to the slum, Jase went on a shopping spree, had a proper meal and bought some clothes that actually fit, several computers, along with a trunk and duffle bag to carry it all. When he sat down in front of the doctor and informed her of his success, she watched him with harsh skepticism until confirming it on her own computer.
“It appears you have,” the doctor stated with hidden mix of disappointment and frustration. She retrieved a syringe from a refrigerator and ran it under hot water until its contents turned from rust red to lime green. Jase was reluctant to let her stick it in the crook of his elbow; his ultimate consent did not stem from any sort of trust, faith, or suspension of common sense, but consciously doing something he knew was a very bad idea.
“Don’t overexert yourself for the next few days,” the doctor droned. “You may urinate orange and you may experience lethargy and shortness of breath, all of that is normal and will subside within a week.”
Jase suspiciously rubbed a bead of blood off the injection site. “How do I know you didn’t just delay the reaction or poison me again?”
“Amaphorensis paralysis is an allergic reaction experienced by living cells infected with the dormant base virus after prolonged exposure to an active compound of my own design. By administering the neutralizing agent, I’ve not only halted the process, I’ve allowed your immune system time to target it, preventing you from succumbing to amaphorensis in the future. I have nothing to gain by killing you and credibility to lose if I do. Especially since you have proven yourself useful. Do not hesitate to come back if you have another medical emergency.”
Jase had no intention to return to this city, let alone this clinic.
It took him half an hour to find the case after hopping the fence. Part of it was his cautious pace, but once he found the river, locating the tree was trivial since the cat partially unearthed the case to sun itself on its metal. He was unsurprised when it walked up to him, alive and uninfected, and brushed up against his bitten leg.
“Yeah, it’s good to see you too, Smudge.”
He left the cat some food and checked up on the case. Before touching it, he looked over the hiding place. He never found out how long he was unconscious, but he estimated a few days. His memory of hiding it was hazy and wrought with panic and hunger, but he was sure he jammed it between the roots at a different angle. It still looked hastily buried, and the cat had cleared a spot for itself, but that didn’t explain the new set of fingerprints overlapping his much older ones. He checked his surroundings to make sure he was alone, no stalkers, no helicopters, no dead things, when he grabbed the thing and put it in his trunk.
Predictably, the cat followed him back to the slum and became indignant when he started climbing the fence. It was already on the other side when he hit the ground and didn’t seem inclined to stop there.
There was no way a cat would make it through customs, but this particular feline did survive in an ICC city for who knows how long. He figured it would find a way regardless and he did feel a very strange sense of obligation toward this creature who’d frankly done more for him than the whole of society, so he opened his duffle bag and warned it to be very still and completely quiet.
The volume of luggage put Reuben off when he walked up. He noticed the mud around his shoes and pants, but didn’t say anything about it.
When their plane loaded and they approached the bag check, Jase became uneasy. He had two things best left undiscovered, one of which would get temperamental if handled too friskily. When the airport attendant asked for his things, Jase didn’t make a move. He didn’t know what to do except tighten his grip on his luggage and hope she didn’t make a scene.
Reuben sighed and slipped the attendant some paper. She glanced over it, then let them through without a search.
“What did you give her?” Jase asked in a low, inconspicuous tone.
“Not all money fits on an ID chip.”
Jase had seen planes fly overhead, but he’d never seen one so close, much flown. Civilian travel was far less common in the ICC, partly due to population density control and partly due to strict jet fuel rationing. He was nervous until they were airborne, not for fear of flying or anything like that. He was worried the engines would stop and orderlies would storm the place. Even when they were on their way and the city was shrinking into the horizon, the possibility existed they would turn around; but Reuben’s leisurely attitude wore off on him after a bit.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Call me ‘Jase.’”
“That your name?”
“Don’t worry about it.”