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Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc.
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CHRONON--Time Travel

by
Harris Tobias
The Stang

by
Harris Tobias
Lockdown

by
Timothy O. Goyette

Gunsight

by

John Henson Webb



a Singularity consideration

 

‘SysOp to Gunsight, respond!’

Thunderous concussions of a heavy-calibre firearm…

‘SysOp to Gunsight, you are ordered to stand down. Respond!’

Screams. Sounds of destruction…

‘For God’s sake stand down! Stand down!’

Heavy breathing.

A brittle silence…

 

 

Load…

 

            Tapping allegretto with well-manicured fingernails, Montagu glanced across the broad expanse of mahogany desk at Spike Trent.

            ‘How many biotech’ Regulations are there?’

            Trent responded immediately. ‘Hundreds. Most contradicting each other.’

            Eyles grimaced. ‘In actuality, there are two: don't do it, and if you must, don't get caught.’

            Montagu took up the thread as Eyles fell silent, seemingly studying hand-written notations on a white, multi-purpose wall-board.

            ‘My esteemed colleague is correct. The numerous Regulations are a sop to those worried about genetics and the environment: Frankenstein this, Frankenstein that! However, subtext is all that industry has any interest in.’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘And government prefers industry to self-regulate without the need for draconian measures...’

            Eyles interrupted. ‘Draconian equates to costly.’

            Montagu paused for a beat. ‘Precisely. In government circles 'costly' isn't anyone's favourite flavour. Even the opposition doesn't like 'costly', it tends to scare away potential support, be that the public...’

            ‘Or more importantly, industry.’ Eyles interjected; he turned to face Trent, a smile creasing his face, raising the ends of his moustache.

            Montagu echoed the smile. ‘Or industry. Precisely.’

            Feeling at a loss, Trent looked between the two men. The unease he’d felt when the unmarked car picked him up from the training ground hadn’t abated. ‘You two aren't police; I could recognise Metro by smell!’ Trent faltered as Eyles smiled broadly at Montagu. ‘So, which of the many layers of authority do you represent?’

            Montagu's fingers danced allegrissimo. Picking up a lightpen, Eyles began writing on the whiteboard in a flowing, cursive script. Trent read the emerging name with a growing disbelief.

Rising nimbly to his feet despite his ample frame, Montagu went to stand beside Eyles. ‘In this particular instance we have a wide, and evolving, brief. Therefore, we report here.’ Eyles tapped the written name for emphasis.

            Montagu continued. ‘Environmental issues are currently ‘above the fold’, as they used to say in the newspaper industry, so efforts have to be made... Or at least appear to have been made; climate change, sustainable development, genetic modification. All issues you'll be familiar with. If Government intervenes directly industry may get ansty; there are already zaibatsus threatening to move their interests abroad if certain policy options are enforced.’ Montagu sniffed derisively. ‘So, Government wants one high-profile, high-impact case exposed. Industry holds up its collective hands in horror! Embarrassment all-round - government can drop the issue; sleight-of-hand and something else can be trumpeted as 'the next big issue' Preferably the public being naughty.’

            ‘And Midnight Imperial is a prime candidate for your particular species of intervention.’ Eyles's moustache curled upward once more.

 

            ‘Power in this country…’ Montagu made an airy gesture with his left hand.

            ‘…ebbs and flows.’ suggested Eyles, ‘sometimes politicians wield the whip, oft-times other interests.’

            ‘Currently political power is riding an ebb tide. Sterling is down against both the yuan and the yen and the expedient course…’

            ‘If not the sensible one!’ Eyles erased the name on the whiteboard.

            ‘…is to go with the flow rather than against it!’

            ‘So, you see, a scapegoat is required. A sacrificial lamb, if you will.’

            ‘”It is a far, far better thing I do”, et cetera…’ Montagu smiled, dabbed at his lips with a pristine linen handkerchief.

            Trent stood to put himself on the same level as the two men. ‘But what’s my motivation? SysOp isn’t supposed to get involved in domestics.’

            Two smiles met his enquiry.

            ‘To do the right thing.’ Eyles clasped his hands as if in prayer.

            ‘To prevent certain documents relating to project Pretorian reaching the wrong hands.’ Montagu’s smile turned reptilian. ‘To keep those involved from a judicial enquiry.’

            ‘We know Pretorian made use of certain prescribed technologies and techniques,’ Eyles returned to his seat. ‘And though we applaud the uses to which they’ve been put…’

            ‘There are those who don’t enjoy the broader view of history with which we are blessed.’ Montagu perched himself on the edge of the desk.

            ‘Some are positively short-sighted.’ Eyles adjusted a cuff.

            ‘It isn’t always their fault, but so many choose not to accept other viewpoints, that we sometimes feel it necessary..’

            ‘Our duty!’

            ‘..to intervene. Precisely.’

           

            ‘So, Mister Trent, do we have an accord?’

            ‘That’ll depend on the quality of the intel’.’

            ‘Agreed.’

            ‘And we feel sure you’ll find the intel’ of immense use.’ A plain white smart drive appeared in Eyles’ hand. ‘All non-attributable, but it gives one direction and impetus…’

            ‘A fuse to light the torch of every right-minded, pitchfork-wielding activist.’ Montagu’s jowly face brightened into one wide expression of joy. ‘Or, as in this instance, to give direction to a ‘secret’ Government asset.’ He touched a chubby finger to his round nose.

            As Trent opened the panelled door Eyles proffered one final piece of advice. ‘Remember Mr Trent, it is far better not to get caught!’

 

            With Trent no longer in the building the two men rang for tea and returned to their previous positions, either side of the wide desk.

            Fingernails once again picking out a complex tune, Montagu smiled at his partner. ‘Inspired idea of employing ‘the Name’.’

            Eyles spread his hands. ‘It needed to be believable. Too lofty and you lose credibility; too lowly and you won’t be taken seriously.’

            ‘As I say, inspired!’

            ‘D’you think Stiles will opt to play ball?’

            Pausing to collect his thoughts, Montagu nodded. ‘He’s head of the largest corporation in the UK. Though he rubs most up the wrong way, he’s a shrewd businessman and a potentially useful ally.’

            ‘Precisely the reasons Imperial were passed-over by the Praetorian project board. Stiles has too many friends in awkward places!’

            ‘Not least our mutual acquaintance seated in the Cabinet.’

            ‘Politics! Such an enjoyable sport. Fox-hunting without all the brouhaha and bloodshed!’

            Silence held sway until a pot of Darjeeling had been delivered and the two men were once again alone.

            Jowls wobbling Montagu took a sip. ‘Often wondered who we do actually work for. I don’t mean who pays the wage, but do whom our efforts benefit? As I told Mr Trent, too many ‘world leaders’ suffer from myopia.’

            Eyles nodded agreement. ‘Politicians are too ephemeral, despite their reputations and bronze busts. I’d like to think that we work for the people. Perhaps, one day, they may even come to appreciate our efforts.’

            Both men shared a short, mirthless laugh.

 

 

Present…

 

            Surgery… rehabilitation… training… surgery… The process had been arduous, painful, repetitive. Selected from a very short list of potential victims, the transformation of five ex-soldiers and three ex-TACOPS officers into state-of-the-art tactical assets had been fraught with technical issues and physiological problems. Insertion of all the necessary bleeding-edge hardware had thrown up numerous rejection problems; hardware-wetware interfacing had proven almost insurmountable, despite decades of intensive research. Getting six men and two women to psychologically cope with what had been done to them added a dozen volumes to works on the intricacies of the mind and brain. Training them to use the ‘upgrades’ added several more, and, it was realised, the process would never be complete. There would always be the next version of software, yet another improvement in hardware. Yet another mental issue to analyse and overcome.

 

            The process ground on. Eight were reduced to three, almost finished product channelled from between the runner and the bedstone. These were to be the true test subjects.

 

            Adoption of callsigns had been a measured discussion during SysOp planning meetings. Numerous suggestions were considered, but the final selection owed more to Colonel Manders’ military background than good sense: David Ferguson became ‘Panzer’, Justina Stroud became ‘Spitfire’, Spike Trent assumed the name ‘Gunsight’. Live-fire training and team CQB went well. The omens were good.

            Manders sat back and waited for a SysOp-relevant situation to arise – they required a real threat to achieve the impetus for political sign-off. Despite new and improved levels of secrecy, other Government eyes looked upon Project Pretorian and wondered at its potential.

 

            Intended as a response to the US’ PROJECT SHIELD and the Japanese Protector, just to prove to doubters that the truncated and isolated UK could still compete against both East and West, Praetorian spent sequestered public money, expenditure that would never face auditor scrutiny. The smaller reach of the strategy was well under way when SHIELD was scrapped, numerous mental issues among the volunteers giving the current US Administration pause. The UK Government had no such reservations; volunteers’ signatures on the dotted line provided the leeway; the fact that knowledge of Praetorian didn’t quite reach to the top also helped. Protector failed in spectacular, but unreported fashion – one ‘volunteer’ turned on the others and mayhem ensued. There were no survivors. Had this mishap reached the desks of those overseeing Praetorian, there may well have been a re-evaluation of the benchmark concepts. However, never in the public eye, those involved in Protector died in secrecy and the Japanese government closed the file.

            Praetorian continued through to SysOp readiness. The clock ticked, the world turned. Eyles and Montagu had their chat with Mr Trent.

 

 

            Dressed in casual, dark clothing, Spike Trent ambled toward the Midnight Imperial facility on the bank of the Thames at Tilbury; crouched like a diseased spider between an MI-owned nuclear power station and the remnants of the old docks. Both the north and south bank on this stretch of the river had once been crowded by dockyards and various heavy industries with a high dependence on water. As the nature of manufacturing changed, as environmental rules drew tighter, industries died; old buildings took on new purpose.

            When MI bought the West Tilbury site to house their reactor – part of the deal a requirement to sell reduced-price energy to the government – new technologies were housed inside the rebuilt industrial buildings that lay scattered across the site.

            It seemed pointless trying to be covert about his surveillance, it was likely he’d been under observation since he parked his motorcycle at the mortal remains of The World’s End public house. The pub name seemed fitting, given his surroundings, a blighted marshland in the Thames estuary; poisoned by industry, neglected by the few people still living in the villages hereabouts.

            Trent walked along an untended public footpath that ran around the outer moat of the West Tilbury Blockhouse, an artillery fort dating from the reign of Henry VIII and rearmed during the Napoleonic War. Since the end of World War Two it had been little more than a tourist destination. Now it was a fenced-off ruin. Around his neck hung military specification binoculars, a little more advanced than those normally carried by the bird-watchers, the few hardy souls willing to risk the nettles and brambles trying to obliterate the path. He reached a fork in the track, took the southern route, across a rickety wooden walkway, out on to the gently-sloping grassed expanse of an isolated, triangular bastion. Though overgrown it was obvious the bastion saw some foot traffic and, as he approached the eastern side, he could see the heads of two ‘twitchers’ watching a pair of herons fish a clear area of the otherwise weed-stricken inner moat. One of the oddities of human behaviour – as the numbers of wild birds began to rapidly decline, the obsession of birdwatchers grew, as if to be present and bear witness to the passing of the final house sparrow or the last skylark.

            Settling himself on a flattened patch of grass, Trent took out a notebook, began slowly scanning the moat. After half-an-hour, credentials established as another of the fraternity, he turned his attention to the MI compound. Information on the smart drive was exhaustive; location of the facility, floor plans, number of human employees, extent of robotic processes, delivery schedules, and a full list of the materiel being manufactured and shipped out.

            In a separate file were listed the other processes underway, those not specified on the original planning application, those requiring a wholly different recipe of organic and non-organic ingredients. Biotech. Biological Technology.

            Back in the first decades of the century it meant a moveable feast of engineered foods, medicines, with a burgeoning side-order of gene therapies. The need for food and medicine would never decrease, but private money funded ever-more ambitious genetic manipulation, in vitro, in vivo and the final steps in utero. With the right amount of money people could buy an answer to an ever-increasing catalogue of genetic disorders. Nothing morally wrong with that, but it seemed MI wanted to take things a step further.

            UN resolutions on bioprospecting, biopiracy and biosecurity generated petabytes of discussion, few agreements and numerous technicalities and evasions, mainly in the contentious issue of significant human modification. MI designated a team, and a facility, to exploit a loophole.

 

            In two hours peering through binoculars Trent had pages of situation notes to augment the static information on the drive. He sauntered back the way he’d come, waving farewell to the two birdwatchers, who failed to notice, their concentration focused on a lone marsh warbler as it flitted among the reeds and bulrush.

 

 

Aim…

 

            Pain, excruciating despite the neural damping; Justina Stroud sat heavily, breathing ragged. For a few words the voice in her ears made no sense, fading in-and-out as implanted comms tried to cope with the sudden shock.

            ‘…damn feet! Get up! Spitfire, you are compromised. Switch tracks and get moving!’

            Ears ringing, vision blurred, Stroud rolled and rose, firearm ready; relying on radar to ‘see’ and her interface to unpick the fragmented sensory overload. She thudded into a dumpster, seeking cover until the outside world returned. Being a vicious bastard, Ferguson shot her again.

            ‘Hold! Hold! Hold!’ the voice sounded through their comms, rang from the walls of the CQB facility. The three Praetorian safed their weapons. Anger kept Stroud on her feet; professionalism stopped her from smacking Ferguson with the butt of her pistol.

            Crouched on a first-floor ledge, Trent watched the other two with detached interest. As this particular CQB scenario was a free-for-all, he’d limited his involvement to stalking and laser-painting the other two. He’d been tempted to shoot Panzer several times - Ferguson had proven himself to be ruthless in all the combat simulations and, though the taser rounds were essentially harmless, they were painful.

            Gunsight’s preference for non-engagement in the scenario would be logged and referred to the programme psychologists for later one-on-one discussion. Panzer’s unnecessary second attack would draw an immediate reprimand.

 

            Though in SysOp Colonel Manders had project oversight, Gavin St John was the authority in the planning team. When Praetorian received final clearance to begin full operation, St John would sit in the high chair, taking intel’ from domestic and foreign intelligence services, distilling this through the planning group to determine priorities and opportunities.

            Trent took his suggestion directly to St John.

 

            ‘If I’m understanding this correctly, you want to run a solo infiltration mission on a real target? Not programme a simulation?’

            Sitting opposite St John, in the latter’s comfortable office, Trent hunched forward, hands punctuating his speech. ‘We can run sim’s from now until the universe freezes-over. You must have enough baseline data by now! We know the equipment works and you know we know how to use it!’

            Raising a hand, St John interjected. ‘Yes, we’ve addressed all the software, wetware and hardware issues, but the programme still requires Home Office sign-off before we’re allowed to legally operate on UK soil.’

            ‘I’m not talking about ‘operating’. I’m just suggesting we run some ‘real-world’ field tests.’

            Trent’s air-quotes just annoyed St John. ‘It’s an interesting idea, but I can’t authorise it.’

            ‘All I’m suggesting is a field test of the interface systems. A major part of Praetorian are the SysOp data-wranglers. You can throw whatever glitches you like during CQB training and it won’t give an accurate reflection of the first full operation.’ Trent sat back. ‘I’m just suggesting we need to run a small number of field trials, just to see what the real world thinks up.’

            Secure behind his desk, St John lapsed into silence. In a way, Trent was only covering ground innumerable planning meetings had ploughed previously. He was right, simulation could only provide so much data; both planners and handlers had already raised the need for testing outside of a controlled environment. Though the performance metrics of all the systems were well know and had been rigorously reviewed, it was true that the world beyond the ranges and combat grounds would undoubtedly start hurling spanners the moment they went live.

            ‘Don’t take this as agreement, but what are you suggesting?’

            ‘Solo infiltration of an industrial site. See if the telemetry holds up; check two-way comms; maybe plant some disposable sensors if the opportunity presents itself.’ Trent was business-like. ‘All of our equipment is bespoke, nothing carries a marque or a part number. Totally deniable if it ever gets found. One of the reasons I’m suggesting an industrial target – if I get spotted or our stuff gets found, they’ll assume it’s a competitor, not the government.’

            ‘You have a target in mind?’

 

            Convincing the planning team had been a breeze once St John’s final arguments were countered. Trent had been relying on SysOp’s willingness, their need, to push the systems they jockeyed. An unarmed, single operative penetration of a site of varying complexity ticked so many checkboxes Trent had to reign them back and corral their enthusiasm. Even as the team discussed Trent’s ‘assault’ on the Midnight Imperial facility in Tilbury, they were already bouncing ideas for solo op’s for both Panzer and Spitfire.

            St John had nearly baulked when Trent raised MI as the target, but there was no MI money or proprietary technology tied-up in Praetorian. Trent had just shrugged and stated that Tilbury was outside the heavily monitored London traffic zone and, if the need arose, he could always jump in the Thames and swim to safety – the self-contained air-supply and ambient temperature combat suit would provide the necessary tools.

            Preparations were made.

 

 

Fire…

 

            To prove the point, Gunsight commenced his infiltration by swimming down the Thames, using the late-evening, outgoing tide as an assist. A camouflaged 4X4 hybrid van – the signage related to a well-known courier firm – deposited Trent at the crumbling Victorian edifice that had once been the embarkation terminal for cruise ships; passengers delivered to the docks by steam trains clacking and hissing out of London. Ferries had plied the waters between Tilbury and Gravesend, on the Kent-side of the Thames. Now, on both banks of the river, the old buildings had seen many changes, finally succumbing to ennui, decaying less-than-gracefully when the trains stopped running and the last of the cruise lines favoured other ports. Small-scale freight shipping kept some of the buildings in use, but even that had yielded to newer transportation links; the combined air/road/rail freight depots scattered across the country at the few remaining centres of industry.

            Having checked all the seals on both suit and equipment packs, Gunsight waded into the water. The three-person SysOp team inside the vehicle began monitoring the feeds from various sensors, quickly noting the temperature and range of chemicals present in the heavily-polluted river, picked up by the molecular sniffers attached to Gunsight’s hermetically-sealed helmet. All this was relayed to SysOp Control, Manders hovering behind the technicians, fists clenched behind straight back, jaw tight.

 

 

            At their usual table in The Dorchester Hotel’s The Grill, two men were just finishing their main course; Eyles the free-range, farm-aged Black Angus tournedos, Montagu the Meunière-style Dover sole. As he took a sip of deeply-red Rayos Uva, Eyles spoke his thoughts aloud.

            ‘I do so hope Mr Trent makes it through intact. He and his compatriots were very expensive!’

            ‘I’m not certain this sole is from Dover!’ mused Montagu in return. ‘There’s a distinct aftertaste of tank.’ He lifted his own glass, a ’14 Petit Charrons. ‘Second thoughts?’

            ‘No. Certainly not. But it’s taken nearly a decade of whispers and encouragement to get the programme over all the hurdles. Democracy is such a…’ he made an airy gesture.

            ‘Bore?’ suggested Montagu.

            ‘In its way. All those changes in direction. Covering the same ground with yet another set of forgettable faces.’ Eyles brushed a finger against his moustache.

            Montagu nodded, chins bouncing. ‘If we had a dictator, this would all be so much easier.’

 

 

            Staying close to shore, Gunsight swam with powerful strokes, his respiration, heart-rate, lactate build-up, all displaying across his handlers’ multi-screen workstations. Through the helmet’s heads-up display, Trent could view his surroundings in selected wavelengths, see numerous data captures - temperature, altitude, position on a GPS-mediated tactical map of the vicinity (down to a metre). The only HUD function not currently operational was weapons-feedback. Given the extent of the combat training, Trent felt a little exposed without the multi-role firearm he’d gotten used to wearing; the integral holster empty, his right hip one-and-a-half kilos light. Magazine pouches on his left hip and thigh, though devoid of the ammunition they should contain, held a selection of throwaway sensors. Trent’s only offensive capability, besides fists, were four stun grenades and a taser pistol with six spare cartridges.

 

            Past the silhouette of the Blockhouse, Gunsight activated the breathing apparatus in his helmet and dived below the surface. Designed to keep its occupant free from gas or chemical attack, the breathing system worked equally well for short-duration SCUBA diving. His chosen ingress was a freighter dock that served the MI complex; a flock of cranes like artificial stork holding station over the dark, oily water.

            Hands on an emergency ladder, Trent hauled himself from the river.

 

            True infiltration began when Morgan, the team hacker, ran interference on the security systems; the cameras, gate locks and floor sensors. The floodlights would have been an easy hack, but sudden darkness, while no issue for Gunsight’s low-light visor, would raise an alarm.

            From intelligence he’d already received, Trent was aware of the site’s main weakness. Given the industrial facility had a specific, low-security function, MI were relying on people not questioning the obvious, would accept what they were shown to be the truth. Conspicuous, heavy security might attract unwanted scrutiny. Exploiting that inherent weakness, Trent followed the path he’d already scouted, both visually and from the architectural floorplans he’d been supplied. He tried to make his choices of direction seem random, based on available cover, while slowly progressing toward the nondescript building that had been his goal from the outset.

            It was when he reached a predetermined vantage point, that Trent heard consternation back at SysOp. Standing before an otherwise unremarkable side door into a windowless, single-storey building, two security guards stood smoking. Slung from their shoulders were bullpup-configured assault rifles. For a facility that produced vat-grown proteins for use in the food industry, heavily armed guards seemed somewhat out-of-place.

            On the order to hold, Trent improved his position and sat back to wait.

 

            Under the Companies Act 2022, Schedule 30 Provision of physical security: consequential amendments, organisations were given leave to utilise their own ‘security’, consequent to business needs and the inherent value of the facility being protected. Numerous terrorist attacks, some mounted by the more belligerent environmental groups, had exposed the Home Office’s inability to always provide effective police protection. After numerous crises, out-sourcing of security eventually led to calls from businesses to be able to protect their own assets. Years of legal wrangling had arrived at Schedule 30 – a company could mount security proportional to the threat faced. That did mean there needed to be an immediate, credible threat, not vague alarm at a possible, unspecified problem. Allowable response escalated from razor wire through to debilitating gas or sonic deterrents, finally to lethal or less-lethal firearms. Though the UK law on gun ownership hadn’t been amended to allow private individuals to carry and employ any form of firearm, under Schedule 30, corporations could protect their investment with personnel trained in their use.

            On viewing the armed men, SysOp queried the vast government database and quickly surmised that Midnight Imperial had deployed armed guards without Home Office approval.

            Manders hesitated. He could simply pass on the information and pull Gunsight back… or he could continue the field test, see what MI were hiding.

            Trent wasn’t surprised when Manders ordered him to continue the penetration.

 

 

            Though the intelligence provided by the smart drive didn’t state exactly what was behind all the closed doors, discovery of heavily-armed personnel on-site indicated something of much higher value than simple food additives.

            Unable to penetrate deeper than the first heavy firewall, Morgan couldn’t access any data to confirm what might be happening beyond the outer doors; though piggy-backing a less-secure surveillance camera feed did provide Gunsight a view down the first corridor.

            Having finished their illicit break, the two guards re-entered the building. On Morgan’s feed – an overlay on Gunsight’s HUD – he could see the two men take up position halfway along a section of plain grey corridor. Architect’s drawings submitted to the Planning Office gave the buildings function as a non-hazardous chemical store. Though windowless, it featured several roof vents and a number of medium-bore pipes that ran into the main manufacturing facility.

            Staying at a distance, taking cover whenever Morgan indicated a traversing camera would shortly be pointing in his direction, Trent made progress to the rear of the squat building; areas of deeper darkness hiding his stealthy movement. Though he wouldn’t be able to gain physical access through either pipework or vent, Trent intended to try inserting either a fly-eye or a spider via whatever means presented itself. The microscale drones were linked to his HUD, could be directed by himself or one of the three handlers, designed to gain ‘situational awareness’ by direct observation of a locale. During training, Trent had let most of the acronyms and tech-speak pass him by; words were meaningless without context and he understood context would be highly subjective on any given operation. Praetorian would evolve to fit the situation, the uses it would eventually be put to dependent on Government need.

            With no maintenance panel visible on the pipework to allow ingress for the drones, Trent opted to climb the wall to the flat roof. The gloves of his combat suit were designed to enhance sensitivity input from the fingertips and assist with grip; microscopic hooks emerged when the fingers were pressed against a hard surface, with similar hooks on both toe and heel of the suit's integral footwear. Exploiting the texture of the concrete, his handlers whispering in his ears, Trent ascended swiftly.

 

            With a slight camber to clear rainwater, the roof was otherwise flat; just a small cluster of white-painted boxes marking the ventilation system. Unfortunately, the stanchion lights scattered across the site bathed the roof in a subdued, but revealing illumination. Crouching low, conscious of how exposed he was, Trent dashed to the vents, knelt beside one hooded air-intake. Slipping a titanium tube from a belt pouch, Trent introduced two fly-eyes and two spiders into the maw of a flue.

            Less than a metre down, all the drones were stopped by a nano-mesh designed to keep particulates from the air intake. Two further spiders placed in an out-take vent were able to pass within the humming viscera of the machine, to take station just inside the extractor fan housing. 

            The view down from the ceiling was instructive. It took Trent and SysOp control a few moments to comprehend what they were seeing.

            Secured to frames that took the place of beds, six, shaven-headed figures lay face-up. Around each man or woman numerous machines pulsed, beeped and hummed; lights and displays indicating the medical condition of each of the figures. Several other persons, sealed inside full biohazard suits, moved between the six, checking both machines and readouts.

            While Gunsight remained still on the roof, SysOp handlers manoeuvred the spiders into better positions, scanning both the slack faces of the ‘patients’ and the range of machines being employed.

            Brant, tasked with data capture and intelligence, took only a few seconds to announce. ‘They’ve got the six in coma. The box on the top of each stack of equipment is the same model of coma-inducer used in prison.’

            At SysOp control, Manders leaned forward, staring intently at the array of devices. He could easily identify the coma unit, but the majority were unknown to him.

            Once again Brant spoke across the closed comm loop. ‘Facial recognition is giving IDs on the coma patients.’ He paused for a second. ‘They’re all on whole-life sentences. Nasty bunch; mass murderers, serial killers and a multiple rapist. I’m getting the prison details through now.’

            ‘Irrelevant!’ Manders interjected. ‘Check and see if any dispensation was given to volunteer for medical experimentation.’

            ‘Nothing on their records. According to information, they were transferred from other Category A’s to Woodhill. This also indicates they’re all still resident in Woodhill.’

 

 

            Ostensibly perusing the dessert menu, Eyles looked across at Montagu. ‘What d’you think The Right Honourable Charles Lodge will say when the Home Office arrive on his doorstep.’

            ‘It’ll be something inventive. Weasel always had his story straight whenever the faeces hit the air-conditioning!’

            ‘Hmm. But this time his name’s on the dotted line… Well his computer identification will match to all those incriminatin' emails he thought he’d deleted.’

            Trying to decide between the bread and butter pudding or the verbena and wild strawberry vacherin, Montagu was slow to respond. ‘Technically he did delete them. And all those ‘phone messages. Amazin’ what those techie types can achieve when motivated!’

            ‘Well, what’s the use of have ‘technical support’ if you don’t use it!’

 

 

            It was immediately apparent that the six were alive. Among the numerous machines surrounding each, were dialyzers, ventilators and catheterisation equipment. Brant and Palmer, the third of Gunsight’s support team, quickly named the easily identifiable machines, but were stumped by the largest unit, which sat in the centre of the room, connected to the six by feedtubes attached at the throat. Palmer suggested they were tapped into the carotid artery, as higher-resolution imaging showed a dark fluid flowing toward the neck.

            ‘Can we get a better view of that central appliance?’ Manders voice once again cut across the comm network. ‘That cylinder looks as if it’s got writing on it.’

             The image blurred momentarily, then resolved to a closer view, Brant pushing the spiders’ optics to their limits.

            A small sign adhering to the metal cylinder displayed a biohazard warning label, several barcodes, a complicated pattern of numbers and the cryptic lettering #test/delta/mOSaIC/#test-7.

            ‘Get me data on that wording.’ His assumption, that all information could be uncovered immediately using enough computer resource, marked Manders as a man out of his depth. He’d retired from the army just as information warfare reached its peak, never quite understanding the levels of complexity involved in cyber-war, either as domestic defence or foreign offence.

            Brant and Palmer exchanged a glance.

 

            Shuffling sideways, Trent shifted position to the second set of vents, extracting another tube of spiders and emptying them into the system. While the miniaturised surveillance drones scuttled away, he turned and headed back to the edge of the roof.

            As one gloved hand gripped the low parapet, a shot whined from the concrete, throwing dust and shards against his helmet.

            ‘Hostile! Hostile! Taking fire!’

            Across the facility radio-net, mundane chatter gave way to strident calls of ‘Intruder spotted! Engaging!’

            A second shot impacted close to the first. Trent snatched a stun grenade from his belt. ‘Give me a location!’

            There was an edge of excitement in Palmer’s voice that had never shown during training. ‘One male, rifle, thirty-seven metres, directly ahead.’

            Grenade primed, Gunsight accelerated.

 

            Artificially-mediated adrenaline and corticosteroid release; neuroprosthetic interface bolstering neurotransmitter transmission; breathing deepens, heart-rate increases. Stimulated muscles contract, natural and artificial, they work in unison, Trent moves rapidly. The stun grenade is on a flat trajectory toward its target as Gunsight leaps from the roof, landing assisted by strengthened tendons and bone, and energy-absorbing boots. Trent’s covered half the distance before the grenade detonates against the sternum of his attacker, lifting the man from his feet, throwing him several metres. Gunsight has reached the assault rifle – a heavily modified bullpup design – an MI marque of someone else’s weapons technology. Another guard has appeared, running from her assigned post. The assault rifle rises, finger strokes trigger, flame erupts.

            Voices, distant, unimportant, message lost, crashing surf against the jagged rocks of Gunsight’s biofeedback; mind-machine interface cycling response programmes, adapting behaviour to threat, assessing all input: sights, sounds…

 

            ‘SysOp to Gunsight, respond!’

            Paul ‘Spike’ Trent, aka, Gunsight.

            Thunderous concussions of a heavy-calibre firearm… Recoil damped within the weapon’s polymer frame, further reduced by the augmented musculature of a Praetorian operative. Not like his pistol; torso position different, stance adjusted to compensate.

            She falls backward as a three-shot burst impacts her ballistic armour – direct hits on centre-of-mass. They won’t penetrate her body armour; kinetic energy to potential energy; energy transfer turning a human into a crash-test dummy; ribs broken. CQB practice becomes reality.

            ‘SysOp to Gunsight, you are ordered to stand down. Respond!’

            She screams briefly as she falls; sounds forced from her by the violence of the impacts. Gunsight puts a second burst through the door the guard had exited. Reinforced wood splinters, fails, glass panel shatters. Sounds of destruction carry across the comms. Through the camera overlay from Morgan’s station, Gunsight can see the two guards head toward the doorway, only to drop prone as bullets tear through the door.

            ‘For God’s sake stand down! Stand down!’ Through the breached surveillance system, his handlers can see more armed guards approaching. Not having achieved full penetration of the facility’s security, Morgan can do nothing to prevent the alarm from spreading across the site and transmitting to Midnight Imperial’s head office in central London.

            Staring into the feed relayed from Gunsight’s helmet camera, at the images being returned by the spiders, Manders knows that nothing they’ve found will be admissible in court, the entire operation has no legal footing, just an embarrassment to all concerned – MI, the Home Office, him. Manders is already thinking strategically.

            Echoes of gunfire die away.

            Heavy breathing. Gunsight’s medical telemetry describes his fall from active to passive; bio-neurofeedback from implanted prosthetics tracks a descending curve. Synthetic glands constantly temper tissue build-up of lactic acid by releasing monocarboxylate molecules. CO2 levels decrease.

            A brittle silence…

 

            Data still flows, from the cluster of spiders infiltrating the second ventilation system. More coma victims are found, their names, crimes, sentence and location emerge. All from Woodhill. All transferred under the ultimate authority of one central figure, The Right Honourable Charles Lodge MP.

 

            Rifle discarded, Trent has fled toward the dock. His dive into the dark and turbid Thames is graceful. A few scattered shots from ashore disturb the water as he submerges and turns west. Job done? Doubts crowd him. MI are exposed for illegal human biotesting; vicious criminals maybe, but human rights still apply. Is justice served? Or is he unaware of a deeper agenda?

 

            Armed police units are being despatched from the main Essex response base. SysOp were vague with the details, posing as locals hearing sounds of conflict from the MI complex – explosions and gunfire. Even implying the word ‘terrorist’ elicits heavy repercussion.

 

 

            Spoon poised partway to his mouth, Montagu posed another question. ‘What do you think will happen to Mr Trent?’

            Eyles finished his mouthful of vacherin, dabbed his lips with a napkin. ‘It would be a shame for such a useful tool to be tossed into the bin. We appeal to Mr Stile’s better nature. MI join the programme and their current problems go away.’

            Montagu eyed the portion of meringue dessert sitting on his spoon. ‘D’you think the strawberries are really wild. I’m getting an aftertaste!’

            With a heavy sigh, Eyles lifted his own spoon. ‘Sometimes I believe you’re losing the passion for our responsibilities.’

            A chin-wobbling chuckle. ‘I’ve no doubt Mr Stiles will see sense, especially if we offer him a part in Praetorian’s future development. It would mesh nicely with their Dagger programme. mOSaIC covers a lot of the same ground as Praetorian; their haemo-technology and axon-splicing are definitely superior.’

            Reassured by his partner’s words, Eyles returned to his pudding.

 

 

Sticks and stones and broken bones…

 

            As anticipated, Clive Stiles, Chief Executive of Midnight Imperial, chose to co-operate rather than complain. Court would be costly for both sides and reputational damage would seriously depress share values.

            Now part of the programme, and with access to Praetorian data, MI perfected first-generation mOSaIC wetware much earlier than in their anticipated timetable; the Dagger project leapt forward. Under the limelight, Praetorian continued, but with legal and policy safeguards in place. There were to be no further off-the-table escapades.

 

            Manders stood in the wood-panelled room and tried to stare the two men down. China pot held delicately in both hands, Montagu ignored the man entirely.

            Eyles raised a third cup, ‘Tea?’

            ‘You pair of bastards have compromised a senior politician and exposed a costly project to unwanted scrutiny.’

            Montagu tutted at the profanity.

            ‘Well!’ Manders all but spat the word.

            Eyles raised an eyebrow. ‘Well?’

            ‘Was this just to drag Praetorian under Executive IV control? Was it worth the chaos?’

            Rising to his feet, Eyles smiled benignly. ‘My dear Colonel Manders, Executive IV has no direct interest in Praetorian, never has.’

            Manders was disconcerted to see Montagu suddenly appear at his partners’ shoulder. ‘Our only goal is protection of the public. Whether that’s from outside influences, overzealous politicians…’

            ‘…top secret projects with too little oversight…’

            ‘…or career military with too faint a grasp of how the modern world really works.’

            Making a circling gesture with one finger, Eyles elaborated ‘Cogs and wheels. The smooth operation of state control over a fractious and ever-increasing population.’

            ‘Most without a purpose, a minority with mischief in mind.’ Montagu’s smile poured ice down Manders’ spine.

            ‘Some need protecting from each other…’

            ‘And some need protecting from themselves.’

           

            Like the Cheshire Cat’s wide grin, all Manders’ could later recall of the encounter, were the wide smiles on the faces of the two men.

 

 

Ends

 

© John Henson Webb 2017


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