Nina
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2019 by Agni Sutra

NINA

The air was pregnant with the promise of impending violence. Breathing quickened under one of the oldest rushes, the adrenaline rush of ‘Fight or flight’.

“Well come on you fuckers, who’s it going to be?”

The eleven men tried to avoid eye contact, or do anything that might construed as ‘volunteering’, in any shape or form.

Silence, apart from a nervous cough, there was always a nervous cough.

“Okay, let’s make it easier, how about the first volunteer gets to avoid their next BFT?”

“Really?” Enquired a voice from someone with remarkably less self-preservation than the rest.

“No. Don’t be fucking stupid, there are no free passes to your next Basic Fitness Test. But well volunteered, Out you come, chop chop!”

“Shit!” There were sniggers and Pte Cazal found himself pushed forward by his relieved mates.

“Right then. Attack me, come on. Attack me like you attack the girls when you are drunk on three lager shandies...” There was laughter from his palls and Pte Cazal looked back at them with a scowl.

“Don’t look at them; they’re not going to help you. Come on; show them all what a man you are...”

Resigned now to the inevitable, Pte Cazal screamed and attacked in a mad rush, arms swinging. His ‘victim’ patiently waited, sidestepped at the last moment, ducked under a flailing arm, grabbed the other, twisted it, stepped in close and rammed a knee into the back of Pte Cazals. As his knee buckled, Pte Cazal collapsed to the foam mat on the gym floor, his ‘victim’ keeping hold of his wrist as he collapsed, with enough pressure to cause pain but not injury. The ‘victim’ looked back at the rest of the men, who were all wincing in shared pain.

“Stop squealing like a pig.” A quick, but slight increase in pressure caused the soldier on the mat to cry out again. “I said stop squealing! Right, the rest of you,”, a quick mental head count, “pair up. I will demonstrate, in slo-mo, a few simple arrest and restraint techniques on my willing volunteer here, “another tweak, another squeal “Which you will practice on your partners. Then you will swap positions. Well, with the exception of Miss Piggy here...” Another tweak, another squeal. More laughter. It was always funnier when it wasn’t you.

Corporal Nina Campbell lifted her not so willing partner back onto his feet, and in slow time, showed the rest of the class the first simple restraint hold. She left her partner nursing a sore wrist and bruised pride as she wandered amongst the five pairs, adjusting holds and stances as required.

Afterwards, she thanked her ‘volunteer’, commanded the class to put the floors mats back away and then sent them on to their next class. She checked her watch as another Physical Training Instructor entered to prep the floor for his lesson. Slipping on her shirt and beret, she stepped outside the gym, fishing in her pocket for the keys to the Oshkosh M1070F heavy tractor unit, which was taking up two car parking spaces amongst the green Land-Rovers. The Cat power pack fired with a satisfying rumble, Nina keeping a little pressure on the throttle as she patiently waited for the air to build. Checking her mirrors she slipped the Oshkosh into gear and headed off to the plant compound to pick up her trailer.

A couple of years ago, had anyone told her that she would be commanding such a lofty driving position, she would have laughed in their face. But then, a couple of years ago, she was in University, studying for a degree in Chemical Engineering, completely unaware of the thousands of other students doing the exact same course. The Military had courted her briefly during her studies, as it did all Uni students, promising her an un-realistic future if she were to join one of its various officer training programs. At the time, she had laughed and politely declined, not imagining that a ballet practising teenager of seventeen years had much in common with military life.

University had turned out to be a bit of an eye opener in itself. Her ballet lessons had dropped by the way-side to be replaced with self-defence classes and gradually she found herself becoming disillusioned with being cooped up indoors all day long. Four long years later, degree in hand and accompanied by over thirty thousand pounds in student debt, she made her way out into the bright happy world of adulthood, and found herself applying with a thousand other graduates, for just a handful of positions. Positions that were filled by more senior graduates and other candidates that, although they may have lacked a degree, possessed something that no University taught- experience.

Inevitably she found herself taking shop work for which she was vastly over-qualified, but which paid the rent and food bills. Even her local fast food establishment seemed to be staffed purely by Media Studies graduates.

A life of mediocrity and financial penury beckoned, then her life took a further turn. Her father was diagnosed with bowel cancer and three months later he was dead. Her mother was devastated and never fully recovered from her mourning, a few years later; she would be diagnosed with dementia and confined to a care home. Things appeared beyond bleak for Nina, then one day, she was speaking by chance to the sister of one of the girls with whom she shared the flat. She was in the Army as a driver and seven months later, so was Nina. She had yet to regret her decision, even though she started out as non-commissioned rather than the commission she had been offered due to her Uni degree.

The Army rewarded hard work and she took all the training courses offered, applying for extra when she could, finding a previously hidden enjoyment in operating equipment, the larger and heavier the better. Which was why she was currently driving through the camp in a twenty ton tractor unit, and enjoying every second of it.

Spinning the steering wheel, she lined up the tractor unit and reversed back towards the trailer until the kingpin clunked home into the fifth wheel, pulling forward again to check that it had engaged properly. Happy that it was engaged, Nina filled out the hours and mileage into the works ticket and shut the engine down. Making sure she had all her gear, she locked the door and climbed onto the back to connect the electrics and auxiliaries before jumping back down to wind up the trailer legs.


Throwing the keys and works ticket onto the MTO’s desk, she headed to her desk to catch up on her own paperwork. She had fuel requests to file as well as future PT lessons to organise and Gym time to book. The Military Transport Officer looked up as she walked away, “The boss wants to see you.”

“Okay.” Nina changed direction and headed towards the RMTO’s office. She knocked on the outside of his door and waited.

“Come in.”

“Sir, you wanted to see me.”

“Ahh, Nina, yes, but no. The CO has asked to see you at the earliest opportunity. I’ll phone and let the clerks know that you are on your way, and no, I don’t know why? Is there something you should have told me?”

“Not that I know of sir. I’ll head over there now.”

“Oh, and Nina?”

“Yes sir.”

“Take a pushbike and not a 1070 like last time, if you would be so kind.”

Nina smiled, “Yes sir. Anything else sir?” He shook his head and waved her out of his office.

Guiding the front wheel of her bike into an empty stand, she gracefully slipped from the saddle, checking the position of her beret in a window as she walked along the front of the HQ building. Nina hated HQ with a passion, it being full of people she had to salute, generally be nice to and individuals she didn’t have to be nice to and who she wouldn’t piss on even if they were on fire. It also held the largest collection of sycophants within the smallest area in the entire camp. Plus she was still in the bad books for parking a 1070, complete with tank/heavy plant transporter trailer outside. Apparently it reduced ‘the authority of the building and those in it’; it was an army vehicle, in an army camp, in front of an army building. She couldn’t see what the issue was.

The CO’s personal clerk was in fine acerbic form, giving her an evil look as he looked up from whatever he was typing.

“It’s all right, no need to get your panties in a twist. I came via my bike this time.” Nina paused for dramatic effect, “Though it was in the back of an eight tonner. Does that count?” she added innocently. The clerk stood up to look out the window. He gave her another evil look as he sat back down, picking up the handset of the phone on his desk.

“Corporal Campbell to see you sir.” A pause “No sir, by bike. Yes sir, I will send her in.” The clerk nodded to the door. Nina made a mental note to make his life hell next time he was in one of her PT classes. Nina knocked and walked in, stopping just in front of the CO’s desk with a crisp salute.

“You wanted to see me sir.”

“Ah yes, Cpl Campbell,” He didn’t invite her to sit down, so it was a bollocking then, she wondered which misdemeanour she had been caught doing, “Your esteemed personage has been requested in London.”

“London Sir?”

“Yes, that is what I said, and no, I don’t know why, other than someone higher up the food chain has decided your educational qualifications are possibly suited to a little job they have in the pipeline. Transport has been arranged for you. I’m not having you drive round London in a tank transporter. The congestion charge alone would be financially out of the question. Be at this address,” He slid over a bright yellow Post-it-note, “for nine am sharp. Your transport will wait there for you.”

“Dress sir?”

“Smart civilian attire. That will be all.”

“Sir.”

Nina saluted, turned and left.


A body slipped into the seat opposite her, as she ate her evening meal in the mess. “Nina?”

She looked up as another full screw slipped a form across the table towards her “Yo! What’s up Clive?”

“Can you sign that for me.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a waiver. I have no female drivers available for you tomorrow, what with this being short notice and all that. It’s to say that you are happy with having a male driver, and being alone with him for an extended period of time, yada, yada, yada...”

“Really? You are taking the piss now.”

Clive shrugged, “Someone, somewhere, with far too much time on their hands, thought it would be a good idea, if we have to provide lone females with a male driver.”

Nina snorted, “As if a little bit of paper is going to stop a rape in some shitty layby somewhere.” She took the form and the offered pen and scribbled ‘Mickey Mouse’ across the bottom. Clive didn’t notice or didn’t care. Nina doubted anyone would notice, the Army so loved its bits of paper.


Nina checked her reflection in the mirror, deciding that she was happy with the late change in outfit. She had originally gone for a dress skirt suit, but decided it was too difficult to knee a man in the bollocks effectively in a skirt with a tight hem, so had changed to a trouser suit instead. The change also had the advantage of pockets. She picked up her handbag from her bed, adding to its contents a small bottle of water and a Lee Child paperback. She had the feeling that ‘hurry up and wait’ would be the order of the day.

Her transport arrived as she was exiting the accommodation block. She opened the door and slumped into the passenger seat. “Is this a staff car?” she asked of her Lance-corporal driver. She had expected an army green Land Rover driven by a pissed off Private. It’s what the Army normally gave you when you had to go somewhere in civvies.

“Yip, need it for the destination. The car is already logged into their system, and cleared, as I am. Saves on a ton of paperwork.” The car was already moving before Nina even had her seatbelt fastened. As they came closer to the camp gates, her driver flashed the cars lights. The flustered gate guard flung up a hurried salute. Those picked for guard duty tended never to be the brightest in their squads, nor the most useful.

“Did you just flash the guard?”

Her driver looked over, “Yip. I like to see if they are awake.” Those on gate duty knew the registrations of the Staff cars and they relied on the subtle flash of headlights by the driver, to warn them if someone of importance was inside, and that they should smarten their stances and hold their personal weapons properly. Some camps Nina had served in in the past, didn’t salute staff cars, given the massive security risk, but some camps didn’t seem to mind, the ego’s of those in HQ bigger than the security threat.

“That’s sooo dickish,” Nina said with a smile, “What’s the switch on the dash?”

“Blues and two’s”

“Cool!” Nina leant over to flick it on, but her driver quickly batted her hand away.

“Please don’t, its use is data logged, along with the cars location and speed.”

“Bummer!”

“Aye, too many drivers were using it for pizza runs and abused the fuck out of the privilege over the years. Now, if you use it, you have to fill out a forests worth of paper work which has to be counter signed by the CO.”

Nina settled back in her seat, which was heated she noticed, and dropped off to sleep.

It took the navigation of no less than three police checkpoints to get to their destination. Each stop requiring them both to show their MOD 90’s- their military ID

“What about you?” asked Nina, “Do you have to wait outside?”

“There is a little room next to the visitors’ carpark. Us poor chauffeurs have to stay in there. It’s got a free coffee machine, so it’s not all bad.”

“A free coffee machine?”

“Well, some chipped mugs, a kettle, plastic milk and a jar of Tesco’s’ own brand finest.”

“Lovely.”

“Indeed.”

At the buildings main entrance, her ID was checked again as she was politely asked to stop at the reception desk inside. The middle aged woman wearing several bottles of fake tan, handed her a pass with her picture already printed on it, asking her to keep the pass visibly displayed at all times, pointing her in the direction of a large body scanner and two security guards. At the scanner she was asked to put all her loose items, including any keys, phone and handbag on a plastic tray, which was put through a small scanner. The male guard checked her handbag, flicking through the pages of her book as the female guard did a quick perfunctory clothed body search. She was asked to turn off her phone, and then it was taken from her and slipped into a clear bag along with a ticket from a raffle book. She was handed the other half of the ticket along with the instruction to remember to pick up her phone on the way out as uncollected phones were destroyed. She was handed her handbag back.

The female security guard pointed Nina to a row of plastic chairs that were every bit as uncomfortable as they looked, and was asked to remain there until called for. Nina didn’t mind, she was forearmed with Reacher. She pulled the Lee Child out and opened it to her current page. The other occupants of the chairs- five men, and one woman other than her- looked at her enviously as they tried to avoid fidgeting. She tried to hide her smug face, knowing full well that they wanted to pull out the phones they didn’t have, as much as she did.

“Miss Campbell?” For fucks sake, she had barely read the first line...

“Yes?”

“Can you come with me please?”

“Yeah, sure. Why am I here?”

“I genuinely have no idea, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be at liberty to discuss it with you,”

“Fair enough.” And that, as they say, was that. She slipped Reacher back into her handbag.

It was a long walk along corridors panelled in God knows what wood. Occasionally there were large portraits of undoubtedly famous- and long since dead- men, however her guide/escort/chaperone didn’t allow her to slow down enough to read the small brass plaques at the bottom of them. There were conspicuously no portraits of women.

Finally they stopped at a pair of large wooden doors. Her escort knocked firmly, but politely, opened the door a fraction and popped his head inside. “Miss Campbell, my Lord.” At some signal she couldn’t see, her guide opened the door wider and nodded her in. She walked over to a very ostentatious desk, unsure whether to salute the individual behind it or not. The decision was taken from her. “Miss Campbell. A pleasure to meet you.” An overweight, bordering on obese man in his sixties, stood and shook her hand, before inviting her to sit.

“Likewise sir”. Nina had absolutely no idea who he was. He didn’t even have a little name badge sitting on his desk, like “The right honourable such and such...” The chair she sat in was obviously older than her, her parents, and quite possibly, her great, great, great grandparents, but it was comfortable enough. She had the horrible suspicion that she was in the presence of someone she classed as one of the worst types of people in humanity. A politician, or a senior minister. The doors creaked open and another man quietly entered. Gaunt, possibly mid forties, an aide? She wondered. The gaunt man sat in a chair up against the wall, and Nina had the strangest feeling that she was being deliberately flanked. It was a little bit disconcerting.

Neither man introduced themselves, which she considered a bit rude given the situation, it annoyed her and it didn’t take a great deal to annoy her at the best of times. Mr Fat Man, as she had now mentally named him, given the lack of introduction, was talking in a tone that she tended to associate with the politicians that she had seen on TV. He had opened a manila file on his desk, and was reading snippets from it aloud. It appeared to be her ‘P’ file, as all the details being read aloud were hers. Her family status, age, Ops she had been on, qualifications she had gained pre military service and those during. All very tediously boring, as she knew all that information already, it was her personnel file after all, and she didn’t need it read out to her. Unlike her mother, there was nothing wrong with HER memory. Yet. Mr Fat Mans Adams apple bulged and bobbled in the thick folds of fat constrained by his stressed shirt collar as he droned on. Nina wondered why he didn’t just buy a shirt with a larger collar. He was STILL quoting from her ‘P’ file. He was obviously one of those tedious men who like the sound of his own voice. She imagined punching him in the throat, and then decided she liked that train of thought a bit too much to continue it. Her gaze drifted past his head to the glass fronted bookshelves adorning the wall behind. She was just a bit too far away to make out the titles, which annoyed her. She was curious as to what the old tomes were. Were they old dusty land title registers or risqué books detailing in intricate detail how some entitled Lord had it off with his servants and stable boy... ? She suddenly became aware that Fat Man had stopped getting off to the sound of his own voice. She flicked her gaze back to that of Lord Fat Neck.

“Are we boring you Miss Campbell?”

We? No, just you, she thought. “A little.” She admitted, tact had never been her strong point. There was a snort from the Gaunt Man up against the wall. Belatedly, she realised that she had probably just dropped herself in it, whatever ‘it’ was. She smiled. Smiling normally worked on men, they were stupid that way.

He said nothing, just stared at her, so she widened her smile. Men liked flattery, and woman smiling at them, didn’t they?

“We are done here.” Fat Man stood abruptly, holding his hand out. She shook it briefly before he broke contact. Gaunt Man also stood and she knew she was dismissed. A two hour trip each way for what? Her history read to her by a fat man who had never seen the business end of a treadmill? Gaunt Man opened the door and her escort stood up from the chair he had acquired from somewhere. Gaunt Man waved him away.

“It’s okay George. I will take it from here.”

“Yes sir.” George took his chair and departed, leaving Nina alone with Gaunt Man.

“That, could have gone better,” remarked Gaunt Man drily.

“It would have been nice to know what ‘that’ was beforehand ... Sir”

The corner of Gaunts mouth quirked up, “We have a little job for you.”

“I’m sorry sir, but you have a weird way of going about job interviews.”

“You have no idea...”

“I’m not being funny, sir. But a bit of detail would have been nice. I’m not really one for volunteering for ‘little jobs’ that I know nothing about.”

“I can’t discuss it here.”

“Is the phrase ‘If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you’ involved by any chance?”

Gaunt Man glanced at her as they walked down yet another corridor. They didn’t appear to be heading back to the visitors entrance. At least, not any time soon.

“In a manner of speaking.” He stopped at a door and swiped a keycard against a little box on the doorframe. The lock clicked and Gaunt Man pushed open the door. The room was a haven for bits of paper and Post-it notes. A cluttered desk took up one side, a large very comfortable looking leather swivel seat behind it. He waved at the only other seat in the room. “Take a seat.”

Nina’s gaze casually roamed the room, settling on the paper work on the desk. Equally casually, Gaunt Man slipped some folders on some exposed paperwork, hiding it from her view.

“So, this ‘little job’, why me?”

“Let’s watch a little video clip first, shall we?” He pulled over a laptop, opening its lid, putting a thumb against what Nina had taken as a mouse pad, but now looked to be a finger scanner, the laptop fired up. As the laptop went through its start-up cycle, Gaunt Man went to a fifty inch TV mounted on a wall and started unspooling a cat five cable that had been coiled up neatly behind.

“Does it contain buff nude men in some really dodgy poses? That’s a new telly, you can wireless files to it you know?”

“No. I can, but I won’t. Wireless signals can be intercepted, and quite often are here.”

“Ooooo, cloak and dagger shite is it?”

Gaunt Man gave her a long flat look. “Quite.” He plugged the unspooled end into the laptop, picked up a remote and after turning on the TV, changed the channel. A picture of a laboratory of some type, jumped into focus. The recording camera was placed high up, facing down into a well-equipped room containing a large quantity of obviously specialist equipment. Some of which she knew of from her own lab experience. She also knew the cost of some of that equipment. This was no DIY setup, no back street explosives or drug facility. The footage itself was very clear; she could even make out some of the readings on a few pieces of diagnostic equipment, the fact that even the security camera was of high end quality, hinted at substantial financial backing. Dominating the centre of the room was a scaffold and strut arrangement that held up what looked to be several guide rails and a truly impressive cocoon of cabling. Her inner scientist winced at the thought of having to fault find amongst that lot. The view jumped. It took a moment for Nina to work out that she was seeing the same room from the opposing view. The wall the first camera was mounted upon, held less equipment against/bolted to it and contained a set of double doors, which burst open as she watched. A young man, about her age, in an obviously distressed state entered hastily.

“That, is one Aran Howard aged twenty six.” Supplied Gaunt Man, “He came to the attention of several police forces in the UK during operation ‘Safe harbour’- where DO they come up with these names?-. Operation ‘Safe Harbour’ was a multi-nation operation against online sexual abuse, focusing mainly on the identification of underage victims and the content creators, suppliers and end users of online child paedophilia. He left home early to prep the lab you are watching, for a critical test, and in doing so, completely avoided the not-so-dawn-raid on his flat. Drove right past the forced entry teams, apparently. We are not sure who, or what, alerted him to his impending arrest. The mobile phone records from his provider didn’t log any calls or texts that could have alerted him. He possibly had a second burner phone, we don’t know at this time.”

On screen, the man –Aran- was rushing about, flicking on switches, plugging in cables. He grabbed some black strips and ran to the two doors.

“He’s cable tying the two doors together?” Noted Nina.

Gaunt Man nodded.

Doors secured, Aran went back to turning on various pieces of equipment. Some serious looking warning labels were torn off and discarded to the floor. The device in the centre of the room started to slowly slide into motion. Aran stopped doing whatever he had been doing at a console and slipped between the moving machinery, sitting down in the small space inside. His face was briefly visible in flashes as the machinery circled him, slowly picking up speed. Anguish? Anger? Fear? Nina wasn’t quite sure what she was seeing on his face. It was definitely the expression of someone desperate, who was about to do something desperately terminal. Nina wondered if that’s the expression people had on their faces just before they leapt off a tall bridge/building, or stepped in front of a moving bus. People were on the other side of the double doors, trying to force their way in, and failing.

The machinery was now traveling at a fair speed. Arans head was tilted back, the machinery revolving so fast that the gaps between the equipment appeared almost continual, but for a brief flicker. There was no sound to the footage, but Nina could tell that he was screaming. A pain free way of suicide this wasn’t. She steeled herself for what looked to be a gruesome and exceptionally messy demise. The lights went out and on came a sickly red illumination, the quality of the camera footage started to deteriorate.

Gaunt man spoke up “Apparently, they cut the power to the labs, to shut the machine down, but it had already reached a critical mass.”

“WAIT! Pause it!” Nina commanded.

Gaunt Man obliged and the screen paused. Nina couldn’t help herself; she arose from her seat and moved closer to the screen, peering at it intently. Baffled, she looked back at Gaunt Man.

“Is that ... Is that sky and grass?”

Gaunt Man re-started the footage. It was hard for Nina to make out if what she had glimpsed was what she thought it was, as the previously excellent quality recording was starting to degrade badly. A few seconds later the screen went blank, she turned to Gaunt Man.

“Have you...” She tried to organise her thoughts “built a...”She tried to think of a way to describe what she was considering without appearing to be off her proverbial trolley, “Stargate?” Nina was unable to get the nineteen ninety four Kurt Russel film out of her head. Gaunt Man smiled. “Sorry, that was a truly shit thing to say. Can we forget I even said that? What’s the footage from after the ... err ... whatever that was?”

Gaunt Man motioned for her to resume her seat opposite his desk. Elbows on his paperwork, he steepled his fingers and rested his chin on his thumbs.

“There is no more footage. Whatever Aran started tore the lab apart. I’m smiling because you picked up in five minutes what a lot of supposedly very intelligent people failed to notice for quite a few weeks.

“How badly ‘torn apart’?

“Thirty metre deep crater, torn apart.”

“Ouch.”

“Indeed.”

“So you, well, they, have created a...”She wasn’t going to say ‘Stargate’ again, “portal somewhere? So how do I fit in? Do you not have some ‘Men in black’ types for this sort of thing?”

He snorted. “We like to hedge our bets. We feel, given the circumstances, that it would be ... prudent ... to have someone on the science team when they investigate what’s on the other side.”

“‘When’?” Nina paused. “You’ve built another one? And I can’t help but notice that you’re not really answering my questions.”

Gaunt Man nodded.

“Are you asking me to carry a nuke?” Nina wasn’t joking.

He laughed, “Nothing so dramatic, and yes, I have seen Stargate. No, we just want someone a bit more ... grounded ... realistic, if you will, able to see the wood for the trees, so to speak.”

Nina’s brain crunched the obvious data. “So because I am single, my only family that is left is basically a vegetable, “She ticked the points off on her fingers, “I have a very precise and easily checkable history for almost the last ten years, a dusty degree, experience with handheld things that go ‘bang’, that you want me to ‘Startrek’ myself and boldly go into God knows where?”

“Before we go any further...” Gaunt Man rummaged through the paperwork on his desk, finally handing her a sheet and a pen.

Nina glanced at the top “‘Official Secrets Act’; you know I have already signed this? Everyone does when they join the Army.”

“This one’s a bit more ... serious. As are the consequences if you fail to comply.”

“And if I refuse?”

“You walk out of this room a civvy. You will not even be allowed back into your camp for your possessions. They will be handed to you at the gate. And it won’t stop there, any job of consequence that you ever apply for, you will be rejected for. The only job that you will ever be employed for, will be flipping burgers or turning tricks in a dark alley somewhere. Don’t be an ass and sign the fucking form.”

Nina signed.

“Thank you, ruining someone’s life, and keeping it ruined is a tedious AND expensive business. What you have seen, what has been discussed, does not leave this room, nor will it be discussed with anyone that isn’t already in the circle. It’s not hard; just keep your damn mouth shut. And to answer your earlier question, yes. You are happily expendable, should anything go amiss. No family asking awkward questions.”

“That’s comforting.”

“If you wanted comfort, you wouldn’t have joined the military.”

“Fair point. So, should I decide to pioneer my way to a whole new level of shit, what’s my role?”

“The plan is fairly straightforward. We utilise your previous lab experience and insert you into the lab team as a low level lab tech a few months before they start opening doors. We will modify your work history to make it non-military. As far as everyone is concerned/will know, is that you have never served. ‘Specialist Army Security’, will arrive just before the doors open, to ensure nothing threatens the scientists, or humankind, for that matter. You will liaise between both, if need be, to stop either party from doing anything foolish. The commander of the security detail will know there is a military ‘sleeper’ asset, but not who, just in case. But to be honest, he will probably suss you out within a few days anyway. However, this will all be overkill and nothing untoward will happen.”

“What’s the timescale?”

“Three months prep, three months of excitement, couple of months of evaluation. Basically, you are looking at nine months to a year.”

“And how does this affect my military career if I go on a ‘jolly’ for a year?”

“Honestly? That depends on what happens and your performance. As far as your chain of command will know, is that you will be on secondment for a year. If we are happy with your performance, then promotion is a certainty. You could even jump several ranks, or be commissioned, it truly depends on you.”

“My gear?

“Packed up in MFO boxes and put in storage, just like when you go on deployment.”

“Okay, is there a time limit on my decision?”

“Yes. We understand that this is a lot to take on-board, so we will give you seven days to think about it. If we don’t hear from you within those seven days, we will take it that you are not interested. If you do not take up this exciting possibility, don’t think that makes you exempt from being unable to discuss this with anyone now, or in the future. Just to be clear on this, regardless of what-ever you choose, this is not to be discussed. Ever. Clear?”

“Crystal.”

“Good.” Gaunt Man scribbled on the back of a business card. “If you decide that you are up for a little jolly, ring the printed number on the front, which is reception, and ask to leave a message reference the number I have just written on the back. A simple “I’m not interested” or “I’m in.” will suffice. We will take it from there. Happy.”

Nina nodded and Gaunt Man stood and shook her hand “Excellent, I look forward to working with you. I’ll escort you back to reception. Don’t forget to pick up any items you have left there, they have a tendency to destroy any belongings left here at the end of the day.”

The chatted small talk on the way back to reception, where he politely left her company, whilst one of the receptionists phoned for her driver. Security returned her phone which she immediately switched on to check for messages. There were none.

She was silent, deep in thought as she stepped into her lift, avoiding her drivers questioning gaze, though after a few streets his curiosity got the better of him.

“Squaddie or civvy?”

“Hmm?”

“Most that get called in there go in green, but don’t always come back out still in green.”

“I’m still in green.”

“Sooo... ?”

“Something s are not to be discussed. If you carry on, I’ll put you on remedial PT and make every session living hell.”

Her driver got the hint and left her to her thoughts.

They weren’t back in time for lunch and she was in no hurry to go into work, who had written her off for the day anyway. Nina sat on the edge of her bed and slipped off her shoes with a sigh of relief. How hard was it to make comfortable dress shoes ... She propped the card up on the shelf above the head board and stripped for a shower. Nina let out a long sigh as the hot water powered into the back of her head, cascading off the ends of her unbound hair. Life in barracks was always a bit of an anti-climax. She missed the fast pace of operational tours, where every day held a new challenge and where people worked together for a change, rather than protected their little fiefdoms to the detriment of others.

In the end, it took her two days to make her decision. She rang the number, left her curt decision, and spent the next twenty four hours wondering if she regretted her choice. On the fourth day, she was called back in front of her Commanding Officer. Her CO wasn’t alone in his office; the Gaunt Man was there as well. Nina saluted.

“Sirs.”

“Right, I will leave you pair to it.” Nina was somewhat surprised to see her CO leave the room. Nina raised an eyebrow at Gaunt Man.

“Did you just kick my CO out of his own office?”

Gaunt Man smiled, “Rank doth have its privileges...”

“Obviously.”

“Sit down.” Nina sat as he opened his briefcase and lifted out some manila files. “You are serious about this?”

“Yes sir.”

“Right then, let’s crack on then shall we. I suggest you spend the rest of the week putting your kit into storage and sort out any camp admin. Take the next week off on leave and sort out any civvy admin that you have, dentist check-ups, that your will is in order, that sort of thing as you might not be able to over the next year. We will contact you with your accommodation and details of your assignment in due course. I also suggest, quite strongly, that you shut down any social media accounts you have. We will provide you with some new ones to support your cover backstory and past employment. Do not, and I mean DO NOT add any friends or family to your new accounts. For all intents and purposes, you are a new person. We will issue you with a new phone and number. If it makes it any easier, tell your friends that you are going abroad on deployment for a year and Opsec requires you to be dark until then.” He passed over some of the manila folders. “Have a quick read, memorise what you deem important, they are the ‘P’ files for your security detail.” Nina opened the first folder and started to skim through the contents. Nina noticed that Gaunt Man and who-ever he worked for, didn’t skimp on resources. All four men in her ‘security’ detail were from the Special Projects Team and had worked together on several operations. She understood the reasoning, sending the same men together on the same missions helped ensue a close working rapport. She knew from experience, that a close working rapport could often be the deciding factor in whether a mission was a success or failure. Sometimes you needed to know without a doubt, that your squad mates were where they should be, doing what they were supposed to. Gaunt Man carried on, “Their role is purely that of security, and as such, all matters of security will be dictated by them. They are NOT there as an easy source of labour, that’s YOUR role. The scientist’s science, the killers kill.”

“So who is my immediate chain of command?”

“The scientists, if they say jump you jump. To everyone else, you are intelligent labour and to be treated as such. Cpl Silver will see to the needs of his three troopers. I expect them to be self-sufficient, and be of no burden to the science team, other than from a tactical stance. Obviously, that’s a fluid guideline, should circumstances warrant a change, then it will be up to yourselves to find the best route forward.”

“What constitutes a mission success?”

“Coming back alive with enough data that scientists can wank themselves silly over for years to come. Preferably without the General Public being any the wiser.”

“Failure?”

“The opposite of my last. Happy?”

Nina nodded.

“One final thing, I’m not a baby sitter. If you encounter problems, I expect you/the team to deal with them. Quietly. No lurid headlines in the tabloids please. That’s behaviour I expect of politicians, not professionals in the service of Her Majesty.”

Having finished scanning the ‘P’ files, Nina slid the folders back over to Gaunt Man, who put them back in his briefcase. “We will be in touch in a week. Enjoy your leave and let your hair down. Literally. You are a civvy for the next year, so try and not look/act like a squaddie...”


Nina sat across from the woman who was her mother only in memory. Although her language skills were still very good, everything else was gone, or in rapid decline. Her mother looked so frail and weak. There was no recognition in her mother’s eyes when she looked at her. Her mother had even called her ‘nurse’ several times in the last half hour alone. Her mother asked for a cup of tea, even though one sat slowly cooling in front of her. She talked of her favourite cat. She had been terrified of cats, had hated them all her life and couldn’t stand to be near one.

Nina took all the details in, committing as much of her mother to memory as she could, every wrinkle and blemish in her skin. She doubted that she would be back to the home, the mother she had known was all but dead, just her body left as it too slowly failed. Nina couldn’t bear to see her mother like this, to see her shout at things that weren’t there. To talk about things and people that had never existed in her life. To see her laugh one minute, cry the next. Leaning over, she gave her mother one final, loving and tender kiss. “Goodbye mum, you will be with dad soon.”

She thanked the nurses, who in turn sympathised with her, offering a friendly shoulder to cry on if she felt the need.

The weather outside the home matched her mood. Wet and miserable. They said that you shouldn’t look back. Nina did, one last sorrowful look before she entered the taxi. She gave the driver the address to a nearby pub where she was meeting an old school and Uni friend. Nina had arranged to stay at hers, until her new posting details came through, whenever that would be. That and the fact that she could really do with a stiff drink or two.

Her friend, Tammy, was already there, seated with two drinks in front of her. Nina dumped her overnight bag onto the floor and hugged her friend.

“How was she?”

Nina let out a sigh that almost became a sob. “Frail. No longer coherent. The staff say a year, maybe sooner if it’s a bad winter.”

“God, I’m so sorry Nina.”

“It is what it is. I really hope that’s a vody and not a water.” Nina lifted the glass and downed it in one. It wasn’t water. Her throat burned but she didn’t mind. The pain let her know that she was alive. “You’ve gone for a bit of a style change.” Nina remarked of her friend, “Almost didn’t recognise you when I entered.”

“Yeah, I should have warned you. My bad.”

Nina laughed, “Nah, it’s cool. Suits you, makes you look all dark and mysterious.”

“It’s quite the departure from the previous.” Admitted Tammy, who had been the poster child for the ‘girly girl’ during Uni. Rarely seen not wearing a pastel sundress of some description, bows and ribbons in her hair. Now she was dressed in black, her long blonde hair still long, but now dyed black with a striking red slash through it. Heavily kohled eyes and a small scrap yards worth of facial piercings. “But I like it. We should try the look on you...”

“I’m waaay to sober for this conversation.”

“That’s easily fixed...” Tammy ordered another round.


“Shhh!!” You’ll wake the neighbours!!”

Nina drunkenly looked at her watch, “It’s only, half past seven...” They laughed, holding each other up as they staggered up the path to Tammy’s flat. It took them eight attempts to get the key in the lock, and a further two minutes to work out which way it should be turned to release the lock. They staggered in, and between them managed to negotiate the stair to Tammy’s flat, where the lock challenge was repeated.

“I’m just going to sit on your sofa for a minute, see if the room stops spinning.” Nina collapsed on the couch, her eyes drifted shut and a light snoring started.


Nina’s head was pounding, and she swore that she could smell bacon. Bacon AND coffee. She cracked open an eye, and quickly shut it again as a lance of pain speared into her brain. “Urgh...”

“The sleeper awakens...”

“Urgh, what time is it?”

“Just gone nine.”

“Is that night nine or morning nine?”

“Morning nine, yah idiot.”

Nina swung her feet to the floor and shakily attempted to stand, the blanket that had been placed over her sometime the previous night, falling to the floor. She looked frantically around and Tammy seeing the look, nodded to a shut door. “Toilets in there hun.””

Nina bolted for the door, almost colliding with the door frame as her legs refused to go where she pointed them. Pulling her trousers and pants down just in time, she rested her elbows on her thighs, head in her hands as a warm stream of what had been a large quantity of spirits, gushed out.

“Is this where you say you’re never drinking again? “Tammy called out from the living room.

“Something like that.” Nina finished off and washed her hands and face, not bothering to dry her face fully before she left the bathroom. She took hold of plate containing two bacon butties. “You’re a life saver Tammy.” She stated round a mouthful of bread and pig. Tammy retrieved her own coffee and bacon bun, and sat down next to Nina. “Who’s the Goth bird?” Nina pointed to one of the many hand drawn pictures of what appeared to be the same girl, that adorned the rooms walls.

“Remy, my life partner.”

“Life partner? That’s very politically modernist.”

“Piss off you cunt.” Tammy replied, smiling.

“Remy? What’s that short for? Remmington? Don’t tell me her parents named her after a shaver. The twats.”

“Remuluss.”

“Really? That’s a bit of a mouthful, no wonder she looks pissed off.”

“She doesn’t look pissed off!!!”

“I know, just winding you up. She looks beautiful in an Adams Family sort of way. An older teen what’s her face, Tuesday.”

“Wednesday. I love her to bits.”

“So I gather, this flat’s almost like a shrine, what with all the portraits. Can you not have one large photograph like every other normal person has of their loved one?”

“Nah, that would be boring. Who the fuck wants to be normal.”

“Where is Remy, out at work?”

“She’s away for a few days; she has a few things she needs to take care of.”

“I thought you were a vegan?” Remarked Nina as she watched her friend swallow the last of her bacon roll, washing it down with a slurp of coffee.

“I lapsed.”

“No shit.”

“Let’s go shopping. Get your nose pierced. And your lip, dye your hair. Shit like that.”

“I’m in the army, remember. They don’t go in for shit like tha...” Nina remembered what Gaunt Man had said, ‘try not to look like a squaddie... ‘ “You know what, fuck it! Let’s!”

“Yay! That’s my girl.” They burst out laughing.


It felt weird having someone else run their hands through her hair. Almost as weird as her nose and lip felt with their new piercings. She watched her reflection in the mirror as Tammy guided, or harassed, depending on your point of view, the hairdresser. Silver foil was entwined in her locks, followed by several liberal streaks of dye to her hair. Nina had to admit, as she looked at her reflection in the mirror after the hairdresser finished, that she kind of rocked the Goth look.

“Much, much better.” Agreed Tammy, “Let’s get you some threads. God, I looove spending other people’s money...”

“Twat.” Laughing, they wandered down the street. “Do you keep up with the old gang? I kinda drifted away from them.” Nina admitted.

“Yeah same here. Izzy got a job in civils, building bridges or roads or some shit.”

“Wasn’t she working in a stripper bar or something at one point?”

“Yeah, I think she still is, a pole dancing place. She’s shacked up with the bouncer, last I heard.”

“The bouncer? Female?”

“Nope, male. Apparently the blokes old enough to be her dad.”

“Male? I thought she was with a black...” Nina trailed off

“Lesbian? I guess not, mind you, “She looked pointedly at Nina “We have all changed since those days.”

“True.”


For the next couple of days, Nina just relaxed and chilled out with Tammy’s somewhat bonkers friends. It was with regret that she picked up her phone and read the txt. A train ticket was booked. It was time to go back to work.

Tammy and some of her friends saw her off at the station. Tammy gave her one final hug. “Don’t be a stranger, okay? Stop by again.”

“I will do, give my love to Remy.”

I will, she will be gutted that she missed you. Take care okay?”

“And you.” Nina gave her a parting squeeze and boarded the train.

On the train, and feeling lonely, she systematically went through her social media accounts, posting that she was taking a time-out to her friends, and then deleted her accounts. Out with the old, in with the new. The train was on time when it arrived. Her simple txt instructions were to wait outside the station for her lift.

Feeling a little foolish, she stood outside the station. It was a pleasant evening and the rain that had been threatening was so far holding off.

“Miss Nina Campbell?”

“Yes?” she turned to face an unremarkable man, somewhere in his forties and holding a large brown Jiffy bag.

“Apologies for the slight delay, the change in appearance threw me somewhat. You don’t match the ID picture they provided me in the slightest.”

“I fancied a change.” He just nodded and handed her the Jiffy bag.

“I’m to take you to your flat.”

“Okay, lead on.” In the car, she opened the bag, which contained a set of keys and brief dossiers on the scientists whom she would be working alongside. Her driver was the silent type, for which she was thankful. He pulled over in front of a row of terraced houses, pointed out which was hers and after taking her picture on his mobile phone, departed, leaving her stood alone on the pavement, brown envelope in one hand, rucksack in the other.

Her new keys had a number which matched that of one of the two doors at the top of the stairs. The door opened into a basic one bedroom flat, living room, kitchen and a toilet. Nina dumped her meagre possessions onto the- hers now- kitchen table and went for a nosy. There was some tea and coffee in a cupboard, some fresh milk, a loaf of bread and some bananas in the fridge. She put the kettle on. The kitchen table had a sheet of paper on top of another Jiffy bag. She lifted the paper.

#Be at security for 7am, you will need to be site inducted and your ID pass issued. Take contents of Jiffy, replace with your own. They will be returned to you at the end of the task#

Nina opened the Jiffy. It contained another phone –same make and model as hers, which was nice of someone- also inside was a new bankcard –same bank different account number- Another credit card, -same provider different account as well, she noticed- A new drivers licence in her name but with a different address, and some store cards. It also contained a note reminding her not to forget her MOD 90, her military ID. She swapped over the items as requested, sealing the bag and leaving it on the table. With the kettle now boiled, she made herself a coffee and sat down to thoroughly read the dossier on her new place of work.

Her new phone rang at five thirty am. She turned it off, moving into the kitchen to turn on the kettle and help herself to a banana from the fridge. She would have to go shopping and she wondered how much money was in her accounts. She pondered removing her piercing’s and moderating her appearance, but decided over the time it took her to drink her coffee, to have a little fun and keep her new appearance as it was.

She found her new wheels by walking up and down the street, pressing the remote on the keys to see what beeped. A lime green Renault Clio chirped it’s welcome. “Papa?” She muttered. She arrived at the security gates with five minutes to spare. The security guard looked at the picture on the drivers licence and took another look at her, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, about that, I got dolled up to the nines for a Halloween party, but didn’t remove it before midnight, and now I am stuck. Could be worse though, I could have been stuck with the bloke I took home from the party ... Eurgh!” She gave him a big smile.

He snorted and handed over a pre-printed car permit with her Clio’s details already on it. Someone in her new employer was good at organising, mused Nina. The security guard told her where to park and where the reception was, which turned out to be unnecessary as the way was well signposted. At reception, she was taken into a small room where her photo was taken and a company photo ID was printed out for her there and then. The receptionist complimenting her on her ‘daring’ look, and how she wished to have the guts to try something similar. Armed with her new photo ID, Nina was taken to another room with a television and made to watch a site induction video, a health and safety video and a racial/sexual equalities video. Two tedious hours later, she was taken to meet her new work colleagues.

The day flew by. Her look didn’t seem to have had as much impact as she thought it might, mostly because, as it quickly turned out, that the members of her team were the definition of workaholics. People didn’t interest them, tech on the other hand did.

Nina picked up a pizza on her way home and sat in the kitchen eating it as she thumbed through a stack of books she had ‘borrowed’ from her new place of work, determined to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Most of the equipment in the lab she had used before to varying degrees at Uni. So far she had managed to fake her competency remarkably well, she thought. The envelope she had left on the table with her actual identity was gone. To somewhere safe, she hoped.


“Can you pass me that spanner?”

Nina kicked it over as she wrestled with a particularly stubborn capacitor. Gerry caught the spanner, just, as it almost shot past him. “Cheers. A little bit more to the left, that’s it, now up a fraction. Hold it there! Just get these bolts in ... I hear the Jar-heads arrive tomorrow.”

“Aren’t Jar-heads American?”

“Are they? Oh, well anyhow, our ‘Security’ arrives tomorrow. That means things are about to move to the exciting phase. Exciting, or what?”

“Have you got all those bolts in yet? This capacitor weighs a fucking ton.”

“Hang on a sec. Right you can let go now.”

Nina gratefully let go and slid out from the inside of the compensator. Gerry followed a moment later, dropping the seventeen millimetre spanner into the toolbox. The pair of them paused to draw breath and watch the bustle in the room.

“How do they even know this is going to do anything?” Wondered Gerry

Nina Shrugged. “Bigger brains than ours are at work. They think it will follow theory, “She shrugged again “Or it will leave a thirty metre hole in the ground. Either way, we will find out in the next week or two.”

“I know, how cool is this, a doorway to somewhere else.”

“Gerry, you are far too chirpy. You need to watch more Hollywood disaster movies.”

“Well, if a door to Hell is opened, you’re sorted.”

Nina laughed, “Just ‘cause I like dark clothes and have my clit pierced, doesn’t make me a succubus of Satan...”

“You know what I mean, who’s to say what’s on the other si, hang on! Did you just say your clit is pierced?”

“No, you can’t see it...”

“Aww...” Gerry wiped grease off his hands onto an equally greasy rag, “Does it hurt?”

“Not as much as your balls will after my boot connects with them and rams them up into your lungs. Which will happen if you don’t shut up.”

Gerry raised his hands, palms outwards “Shutting up.”

The technician’s had all gone out for a little party to celebrate a birthday in the team the week previous. They had all ended up in some sleazy late night dance club, having a good time. Some drunken idiot had even stormed the DJ booth and proceeded to sing the periodic table song over the PA to some hard core dance anthem. It hadn’t sounded that bad, but then they were all pretty wasted by then. What should have been a good night almost turned sour when two non-faculty thugs had tried it on with one of the admin girls. They hadn’t taken her polite rebuttal to their sexual advances very well and things were looking ugly when Nina had seen the girl’s plight and raced over to help. One had grabbed Nina’s breast and demanded a kiss. Nina responded by breaking his wrist, then his jaw. His partner didn’t fare much better. What had been up to that moment a good night, became a legendary night. Helped somewhat by the comedy timing of the DJ, who seeing what was going on, deftly mixed in Sophie Ellis Bexters “Murder on the dance floor” into his set. Since the incident had also been caught by the clubs CCTV, along with the physical assault on her, the police deemed her defence of ‘self-defence’ to be acceptable and no further action was taken against her. Especially since DNA swabs of the two men linked them to a series of, at the time, unsolved rapes in the area.

However, due to the amount of alcohol imbibed that night, the two would be rapists had morphed into three, then four. Nina had even overheard one of the cafeteria staff tell another that the club had been invaded by a biker gang, and that was gospel as she had been there ... Nina had just shaken her head and paid for her lentil soup and coffee.


“That’s them; I bet you that’s them!” With a sigh, Nina looked over to where Gerry was excitedly pointing. Four men were being given a tour by the research director. The four were dressed in jeans, trainers, T-shirts and two of them wore base-ball caps. The one talking to the Director and making occasional notes on a pad he was holding, Nina recognised as Cpl Silver.

Nina shook her head, “Nah, that’s not them, they look more like delivery drivers. Aren’t they supposed to be armed and shit?”

Gerry looked crestfallen “Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Pass me over that reel of cat five cable will you?”


As the day of activation grew closer, an atmosphere of excitement ramped up. “How can you NOT be excited!” Claimed Gerry, to the agreement of the rest of the techs around the lunch table.

“I dunno,” Nina replied, thinking back to the footage of the first trial of the tech, and the pictures of the aftermath, “I just build shit; it’s up to others to get excited and break it.”


Security was tight. There were extra guards on duty on the main gate, double checking everyone’s ID’s twice, even hers and she knew half of the guards by name. And then there was the fact that she was pretty stand-outish in her usual gothic garb. And that was before the nightclub incident made her a person of notoriety within the building.

“Oh man, this is so cool! It’s like all my Christmases together.”

“Gerry, you need to get out more, get a dog or something.” Quipped one of the fluid techs, to the accompaniment of much laughter around the table.

“Come on! Do you not lie awake at night wondering what’s on the other side?”

“Can’t say I do Gerry. Most nights I lie awake at night wishing the wife would stop snoring.” The table broke into easy relaxed laughter as those with partners joked about the little quirks and foibles that their partners had. The single guys stayed quiet and hoped nobody noticed.

“CAN I HAVE EVERYONES ATTENTION PLEASE?” The cafeteria fell silent as the Research Director started into a speech on how proud he was of their effort. How it was a momentous day for the facility. He then outlined the sequence of events for the day, reminded everyone to be vigilant and that everyone had the right, and moral duty, to shut the test down if they thought safe parameters were about to be reached or breached. “SAFETY IS EVERYONES RESPONSIBILITY. Let’s all go home to our loved ones tonight.” He named the various heads of department and the tasks that were their remit. “I just want to ensure that everyone’s on the same page. I want no accidents.” He reiterated for the umpteenth time. Finally finished, he left the room to the accompaniment of excited applause.

“Well,” Said Nina to the table at large as she clapped with the rest “There’s a man who didn’t sleep a wink last night.”

Nina tied her hair up, slipping on an extra elastic band just in case. The weight of the flack-jacket she slipped over her head, a welcome weight, though less of a familiar one as the ballistic plates that were usually fitted to the military combat version were missing. Around her, the Insertion Team were doing the same, but with less familiarity and a great deal more moaning about the weight. The security detail were already armed and armoured, helmets hooked on webbing one side, respirators the other, and were busy trying to likewise armour their charges. Nina felt sympathy for the security detail, as she herself wondered how someone with a Phd in astrophysics couldn’t work out how a chinstrap worked. Fighting the urge to lend them a hand, even if were only to slap a few individuals over the back of the head, whilst telling them in no uncertain terms to ‘Man the fuck up’. Happy that helmets were adjusted to fit over their respirators properly, the security team left the scientists to their own devices and carried out their own last checks.

“But it’s so heavy! Do we have to wear it?”

Nina shook her head. The security detail were dressed head to toe in black. The scientists, and her, were in white. Her inner Goth was rather affronted by that. A rather droll voice came over the tannoy, reminding everyone of the time remaining before scheduled initiation. Nina checked her own personal equipment again. Checked that her dosimeter was on, that the background radiation was as it should be. All fine.

The room reverberated in a low bass tone as the machinery powered up. Not long now. The air cackled in front of the portal, the thin link safety chain marking the safe zone was pulled slightly towards the disturbance in the air. Nina also felt the pull on her bound hair. She couldn’t help herself and stepped closer as the air in front of her solidified. Soon the order would be given for them to don their respirators and helmets and then step into the unknown.

The air was now a broiling turmoil, the lights above, mounted on the portal frame, were steadily changing from red to green. The last light turned green. The portal was stable. She squinted into the maelstrom as she lifted her respirator into position, about to slip the rubber straps over her head. Nina thought she could make a room or something on the other side, she stepped closer, tight against the chain link barrier. Two objects appeared and sailed past her to land with clunks on the concrete lab floor. Her gaze narrowed in on the closest one to her, It looked remarkably like a...

“GRENADES!” Screamed Cpl Silver, who, like the rest of his team, were diving for cover. Nina also dived away from the nearest grenade. Time, like it always seemed to do for her in this sort of situation, seemed to slow down as endorphins and adrenaline surged through her body, sharpening her mind and reflexes in a way only terror can.

The science team had not moved a single muscle and were looking stupidly at the two objects that had appeared in their midst. But that wasn’t the worst thing for Nina. As her vision watered, Nina belatedly realised that in her reflex action, she had jumped away from the grenades, and towards the portal. As she soared through the air, in what felt like her to be a lifetime, but was probably only a second, she saw the two grenades expand and then she was in the portal.


Ears ringing, she landed hard on concrete, something wet landed shortly after next to her in front of her face. She went cold as she looked at the lump of torn bloody flesh, wondering which part of her body it was from. Years of training kicked in and she forced herself upright, wiping the back of her hand across her upper lip, smearing the blood from her nose across her face. She checked herself, all present and correct. Of the portal there was no sign. The light in the room moved and she turned away from where the portal had been. Four humanoids were staring at her. A mixture of flesh, tech and metal, it was like looking at a Terminator from the Hollywood films. Four of them

Nina spat on the floor tasting blood. The four ... whatever they were ... moved apart, clearly flanking her. She saw the mouths on two of them move, but her ears were still ringing so bad she failed to hear what came out. One of the four didn’t even appear to have a mouth, just a grill type thing. If this was concussion, it was concussion the like she had never experienced before. She shook her head and coughed up a large wad of phlegm. Nina spat that out as well. She rose to her knees, then very shakily, to her feet. Sound was starting to cut through the ringing. One of the men, she presumed they were men, grabbed his crotch area with a metal hand, thrusting his hips forwards in a move she had witnessed all too often.

One of them stepped closer, a rather fancy and ornate long barrelled weapon hanging by his side. She had never seen a weapon before with so many flashing lights on it. It was about as tactical as a fully lit disco ball. It was also adorned heavily with scroll and glyph work. It was obviously a favourite and personal weapon. The owner saw her staring at it, pointed it at her, his mouth moving as he said something that made the others laugh. Or at least, the ones with functioning mouths did.

Nina squeezed her eyes shut as she felt the start of a humdinger of a headache. Mr Fancy Rifle slung his toy behind his back, taking another step closer, hands dropping to his crotch again as he did something to his trousers. He leered at her as he slipped a hand inside.

Her hearing was getting better; her breathing was calming down, her vision steadying along with her shakes. Her anger was rising though. She was so angry that she wasn’t sure that it hadn’t crossed into rage. She glanced at the other three. The odds weren’t good. Downright awful, she had to admit to herself. Fancy Rifle pulled something out of his trousers that was only partly flesh and of a size that would definitely do internal damage to her. She made the decision there and then, that there was no way that was going inside her whilst she was alive. He lifted his arms in a welcoming embrace as his partly robotic penis gyrated and buzzed. Even his cock had lights running down its prodigious length. Nina stepped forward and into his welcoming arms, kneeing him between the legs as hard and fast as she could possibly manage, and then regretting it immediately. White hot pain lanced into her knee as it buckled, threatening to drop her back onto the floor again. Fancy Rifle hardly moved, just hissed out of his mouth. It felt to Nina as though she had just kneed a brick wall. Belatedly, through the pain, she realised that something which looked to be made of metal, was probably indeed made of metal. Faster than she could dodge without collapsing, he reached out an arm as she staggered back and grabbed her by the throat. She grabbed his single arm with both of hers. She tried digging her finger tips into the pressure points in his wrist, to no avail. He snarled, and arm still straight out, lifted her feet clear of the ground. Even as she struggled to breath, her mind was telling her that what he was doing was impossible. Her weight at arm’s length should have pulled him off his feet, yet there he stood, casually holding her a foot off the ground. Unless of course, if he was substantially heavier than he had any right to be. As her vision darkened, she looked at all the metal parts and understood that she had massively underestimated the threat he posed and her situation. She gurgled as he smiled, his face looming closer as he casually brought his arm in.

Feebly, Nina kicked her feet against him, the steel toe-caps of her lab safety trainers ringing against his metal shins, causing him to laugh all the harder. Half her vision was now dark. She tried punching him, but dangling in the air provided her with no leverage, her blows lacking force. She stopped punching as she felt something give in a knuckle, one more sharp lance of pain to her growing collection. He opened his mouth and extended an abnormally long tongue that was also partly metallic. He left a slimy wet trail behind as he ran his tongue over her face, tasting her.

Nina decided that she would go out fighting. She smiled, wanted to laugh but didn’t have the breath to do so. She lifted a bruised hand in front of his face and slowly, dramatically, let go of the little silver pin she had been holding between thumb and index finger. He quizzically narrowed his eyes, one making a little buzzing noise as it did so, and then realisation dawned as to what the little pin was. He threw her away from him and started searching the equipment on his harness.

Landing with yet another crash, Nina drew desperate ragged breaths into her lungs. The fillings in her teeth sent agony through her mouth and she threw up, rolling to her side, futilely trying to wipe the sick from her front, but only succeeding in smearing it into a larger stain across her armour. There was a series of four loud clanging thumps in the room. Her attackers had fallen over and were laying stationary, but for the odd twitch.

“What the fuck!” Nina crawled over to Fancy Rifle, climbing along his body, an act that brought her face unnervingly close to his groin and still exposed penis. She glanced at the serrated ridges and rearward facing little hooks dotted along its prodigious length. In no shape or form was that a mechanism, for pleasure. Fancy Rifle could literally fuck a woman to death. She continued pulling herself higher till she looked him in the face. One of his eyes moved, following her, but precious little else of him seemed capable of moving. Even the lights on his penis had gone out, as were the lights on his disco rifle. She looked at the three other stationary thugs and attempted a laugh which came out more as a croak. Her voice was also a rasping croak, but it worked enough, and she hoped that there was no lasting damage. “I think I know what I did. I EMP’d your arses, didn’t I? There was me thinking it was an explosive grenade that I pulled the pin from ... All your fancy servo’s and processors fried. Well fuck you and your mates. Are you desperately trying to re-boot in that shitty metal skull of yours? Well, sorry, I can’t allow that.” She searched his prone twitching body and found a pistol that seemed to be less technically reliant than the other weapons that adorned his body. It was a different to what she was used to, but ballistics were ballistics. She pointed at a near wall and tried the various buttons and switches on it till it eventually bucked in her hand and knocked a chunk out of the wall. She rammed the muzzle into Fancy Rifles eye and pulled the trigger. The pistol bucked pleasingly in her hand, though the effect wasn’t so pleasing. Whatever type of round she had fired, ricochet around against the inside of his skull, the shockwaves of the round’s passage pulping all the natural matter still left inside, which exploded outwards from the damaged socket onto Nina.

“Eurgh, fucking gross!” She wiped her sleeve across her face, trying to remove as much brain matter as possible. Nina dragged herself to the other three, and giving herself a bit more room against splashback, shot them in the head, ensuring that the shots went in via the mouth for those that had one or eye for those that didn’t. The pistol slipped form her hand as the adrenaline subsided and pain intensified. Her head pounded and her vision reduced further as she welcomed the darkness.

Something was beeping. It was an annoying beep, keeping in pace with the pounding in her head. Was she in bed? God, she hoped she was, as she had just the most bonkers dream ever last night. Nina risked opening an eye. Nope, it wasn’t a dream. Her mouth was bitter and acidic with the remnants of vomit. She spat, worked her tongue to try and produce more saliva. The room stank, or was it her? She released the buckles on her body armour, letting it slip free. Unzipping the front of her not so white now overalls, she rolled over to a cleanish bit of the floor and wriggled out of it. Her bladder was in agony, she limped and winced her way over to some old crates, propped herself up against them. Lowering her jeans and pants, she let loose a long dark stream of urine that seemed to go on for ever, forcing her to shuffle her feet away from the growing puddle. Finally empty and feeling a lot better for it, she shakily stood, pulling her clothes back into position, her fingers struggling with the button on her jeans. God, she hurt all over. Nina pulled her phone out of her trouser pocket where it disintegrated into three pieces in her hand. She dropped it to the floor. She doubted that it would have worked anyway after the EMP blast. She spat on the floor again, there was less blood in her saliva, which cheered her up a little. She tried to roll Fancy Rifle over. It took several goes before she managed it. He really was exceptionally heavy, no doubt a consequence of all the metal and tech he sported. Unbuckling his harness, she made a few more holes in it, so that it could be worn over her own armour. She had no intention of being so badly caught out next time. She checked the downed men’s weapons. Almost all of them seemed highly electronic in some way and appeared to have fallen prey to the EMP shock-wave. With difficulty, she searched the bodies, finding nothing that looked obviously like currency. Wiping the outside of her body armour with the clean inside of her boiler-suit, she winced at the various aches and pains. Her left hand was going impressive shades of black and blue, the difficulty that she had in opening and shutting her hand hinting that all was not well with her knuckles.

Putting aside anything small, carry-able and looking to be of value, she begrudgingly strapped her body armour back on, adding the modified weapons harness on top. She holstered her new pistol and set about filling the pouches on her harness webbing with her repurposed stash. She considered taking one of the rifles, but they proved to be too heavy for her to carry, obviously they had been made with heavily augmented users in mind. Limping, she staggered to the door. Outside, the corridor appeared quite empty and deserted. Cautiously, she opened a few doors, timidly looking inside, but the rooms just contained old boxes and machinery, she carried on down the corridor. Nina wandered aimlessly for a while; the building appeared to be abandoned. Eventually she found a door that looked promising. She pushed it open to the squeal of fouled hinges. The door opened onto a street the likes she had never seen before. The buildings opposite seemed as dead as the one she had just left. The street itself looked to be about nine meters wide with a ceiling twenty meters higher. Spaced along in regular intervals were gratings in which light poured down, along with steady drips of fluid. Breaks in the light implied something was moving up there. Nina walked along the street. There were old faded signs and writing in a language unfamiliar to her. She spied something she recognised, a metal staircase leading up. She followed the steps up to the light, as the light drew closer, so did the level of noise increase. A metal gate barred her way, on the other side cloaked figures scurried. Vehicles of a form she did not know, whispered past on tech that was not of her world. Hunger and thirst pushed her on, the metal gate pushed back. There seemed some sort of electronic lock on it. Tired, she used the universal key of weaponry. The panel sparked and crackled as it shorted. Nina re-holstered the pistol and gave the barrier a cautious shove, it yielded. Stepping into another street that looked almost as derelict as the one she had just climbed up from, Nina looked up and felt her breath taken away. High above, vehicles casually swept through the air, walkways interspersed the sky, tiny little figures scurried over the along the exposed walkways linking the buildings.

“Holly shit!”

Nina hobbled along the new street as other street users gave her a wide berth. The few glimpses she caught under hoods and cowls revealed heavily modified humans. Blank brick walls gave way to grated windows displaying goods that meant nothing to her. A stranger in a strange world. She moved on. A woman sat huddled in a corner, and empty bowl at her feet, a small child huddled at her side cried out in fear as Nina approached, the woman also shrank away. Nina resisted the urge to recoil in turn from the woman. The woman’s skin was an un-healthy pallor and she looked near death. The skin around where her eyes had been showing signs of decay and rot. The two sockets held what appeared to be a small diode in each, most of her nose was missing and a box sat in her throat where her Adams apple should have been. Nina wanted to be sick, and probably would have been had her stomach not already been empty. The young girl that huddled next to the older woman was missing her ears and a hand. Nina kicked into military mode. She needed food, cover and information. This was a world which she knew nothing about, an obviously dangerous world. She slowly crouched down in front of the older woman, wondering if she could see her. The two diodes flickered disturbingly. Nina mimed putting something in her mouth and chewing. The old woman nodded. “Not you, me.” Nina shook her head and pointed to herself, then realised that was a dickish thing to do and tried again, miming eating then pointing to herself, then the woman and then the girl. The woman stared at her. Nina closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she thought about it. She tried again, but this time placing some of the equipment she had taken from her attackers into the old woman’s dish, and mimed all three of them eating. The woman nodded slipping the plate and its contents into various folds of her cloak/blanket and slowly standing. The young girl followed, revealing that at least one leg was either lame or a prosthetic.

“Fuck, what’s up with this world.” The older woman made surprisingly good speed down the street in front of Nina. The child, one hand in what Nina presumed was her mothers, hardly took her eyes off Nina, trusting her mother to guide her.

The old woman entered a shop, Nina followed, looking on in wonder at the shelves of stuff she had absolutely no ideas as to what use they were for. The older woman placed some of Nina’s items on a counter and an exchange followed where they just seemed to stare at each other. Eventually the modified man behind the counter scooped up the items and slid them into a drawer before going back to silently staring at the crone. They all stood there and ... waited. Nina wondered what for. Something ‘clinked’ behind the man and he turned round as a wall panel slid open. He removed three tubes. The woman took them and barked at the child, who dutifully exposed her neck. The woman placed one tube against the girl’s neck and there was an audible little hiss. The girl winced. A second tube was placed against the girl’s neck, another hiss, another wince. The third tube the woman saved for herself. She handed all three tubes back to the vender. Nina wondered if she had just been conned. The woman turned and left the store, Nina and child in tow.

As they walked, the streets became busier, Nina drawing more looks than the woman and child, which freaked her out slightly. She smelt food long before she saw it. Her stomach rumbled loudly under her armour. The woman stopped at a street vender standing next to a steaming hand cart, and there was more mutual staring. Nina didn’t see anything change hands. The vender was like everyone she had seen so far, heavily modified, body parts missing. Three portions of whatever he dealt in were handed over. The mother and child ate slowly, savouring every bite. Nina took a cautious sniff, then a cautious taste. It seemed to be some sort of lightly spiced noodle. Nina wolfed hers down, the container empty before the other two were even on their third mouthful. She handed her container back to the vender “Another.” She left her hand out, hoping he got the hint. The seller looked to the old woman, who after a minute nodded. Her container was refilled. The young child looked longingly at Nina as she polished off her second helping. Nina felt guilty, but she was still hungry, she motioned for a third helping. Again the seller looked to the old woman, who shook her head. Nina pulled another piece of unknown tech from a pocket and gave it to the woman, pointing at herself and the little girl. The old woman sighed, took the tech and nodded to the vender who refilled Nina’s and the little girl’s containers, much to the little girls visible delight.

Hunger satiated, and no visible threats, Nina relaxed a little. She studied those around and walking past her. Trying to listen in to conversations didn’t help her understanding any. It was all a little overwhelming, the food making her drowsy. The old woman also appeared restless, clearly desiring to be elsewhere. Nina didn’t wish to part from her, the closest thing she had to an ally at this time. She caught the old woman’s eye, placed her palms together, and then placed them alongside her head, the back of her left hand resting against her right cheek. The old woman seemed to understand; even the child’s eyes seemed to be drooping lower. She nodded for Nina to follow them.

The old woman’s pace was slowing, not helped by the young girl clinging to her. Nina moved to offer to carry the child, but after seeing the child shrink away in fear, decided to let things be. A lot of the other pedestrians on the street were giving them a wide berth. Nina was curious as to why. The girl and her mother were no more modified than anyone else and she wasn’t modified at all. Maybe that was it; they didn’t trust those without mods? They entered a building, the foyer heavily graphited with walls in need of repair and a light fixing that had not appeared to be in working condition for quite some time. There was an elevator with its doors open and a ripe smell emanating from it that revealed its use to be now of a more bodily nature. They slowly made their way up several flights of stairs, eventually branching off into a dirty corridor, one light panel in ten working. The doors were all blank, featureless but for the sprawling graffiti that ran the length of the corridor on both sides. The old woman pushed against one door and entered, Nina quickly followed before the woman changed her mind.

The room was a surprise, Spartan but clean. The walls unadorned but looked after. The lights came on and functioned steadily. The main room held the one seat for two, a low table and a counter along one side that held what appeared to be a hotplate, some pans and cups next to a sink and something that looked to Nina like a microwave oven. One room off the side was a toilet and shower, the other room held a bed and a chair. There were no windows. The child went off to the toilet, and when she came back, made straight for the bed, clambering under the thin cover. Nina started unbuckling the harness and divesting herself of her body armour, leaving it all in an untidy pile in the corner. Since the old woman made no move to the toilet, Nina headed there. Entering the room, which was as Spartan as the rest of the flat she, she passed the sink on the way to the toilet and gave herself a fright as she caught her reflection in the mirror. Her face, smeared as it had been in blood which had now dried, was a disturbing sight. She now understood the looks she had been getting. She looked closer at her reflection. Not all the material on her face was blood. Her eyes were red and bloodshot, one side of her mouth was swollen, lip cut. The flesh around her left eye was also swollen, but didn’t appear to be getting worse. The girl hadn’t flushed, nor did there seem to be a handle to flush the toilet either, but Nina was too tired to be picky, and sat down, relieving herself and feeling all the better for it. She stood and dried herself before checking out the shower. There was a dial that appeared to regulate the temperature but no obvious means of turning it on.

She opened the door and pointed to the shower. The old woman nodded and there was a ‘clunk’ in the walls as water spurted out the shower head. Nina nodded gratefully, not sure what the crone had done and how. Only partly shutting the toilet door, Nina quickly stripped and stepped into to the cool liquid, closing the thin shower curtain behind her. The water at her feet turned a repulsive colour as Nina cranked up the heat as far as it would go, which turned out not to be very far at all. But it was enough. Nina scrubbed at her skin with her finger nails, trying to get as much of the gunk off her as possible. When the water finally started to run clear, she tried the contents of a plunge dispenser on the wall. The gel that came out smelt both flowery and slightly antiseptic. She was feeling better already. The water started getting colder quickly, so Nina started to rinse off, finishing just before the water stopped with another ‘clunk’. Stepping out the shower, there was a small towel and a well-worn plain grey shift waiting for her. She dried quickly and slipped the shift over her head. It was a little small for her, clinging tight to her breasts with the hem barely making it to her thighs. After drying the shower with the towel she used to dry herself, Nina picked up her soiled clothes and walked back into the main room. The old woman was sat on the two seater couch, those freakish diode eyes flickering away. Nina dumped her clothes down next to her gear and slumped down next to the old woman on the sofa. “What a fucking day,...” With a groan and release of breath, Nina closed her eyes.


LUCILLE

Lucille sat huddled on the pavement next to her grandmother, begging bowl in front of them. No one had been past them in hours, even longer since a passer-by had donated. But it was her Grandmothers favourite spot. Lucille had no idea why, as her grandmother had never answered her curious enquiry. Above them, air cars and courier drones went on their way oblivious, or uncaring, or most probably both, to the suffering and deprivation below.

She snuggled up closer to her grandmother, who wrapped an arm round her shoulders. The time in the top left corner of her vision continued its steady countdown.

One month, two weeks, four days and six hours. Give or take a few minutes.

That time was how long she had before her body would fail to exist as a machine, suffer catastrophic function failure, heart failure and would inevitably; welcome death with wide open arms. Well, technically one open arm she supposed, looking down at the mechanical replacement. The mere act of looking at it brought up its diagnostics. It was not in a good way, too much free play in the joints, motors running at reduced capacity and capability. However, it would outlive her. Before that, there would be the pain, the loss of functions higher and lower. Realistically, she had less than a month.

She flicked through the games in her memory, picking one of her favourites. This game was a simulation; she controlled an avatar, dressed it up in the finest clothes, ate the finest food, slept in the finest bed in the finest mansion, and lived a life as far from the one reality had given her as she could.

It wasn’t all bad. She had managed to live four years longer than her twin- sister.

Footsteps sounded along the empty street. They both looked up towards the sound. A figure appeared, alternating between limping and staggering. The figure saw them and changed direction, heading their way. It had no tag, no profile. Lucille fired data requests at the approaching figure. They were ignored or rejected. Lucille wasn’t really sure which. She opened up the feed to her grandmother, piggybacking onto the LIDAR feed from her optics. Lucille pulled the data, studied it as the figure approached. It was wearing chest armour, though the rest of the body was unarmed. The LIDAR light reflections highlighting the contours that revealed the approaching figure was female.

Her Grandmother was flicking through the spectrum as Lucille continued her com signal bombardment. The figure had good stealth capability. It was bleeding hardly any electrical radiation, the LIDAR scanning revealing no visible mechanical augmentations.

The figure was of equal proportion, all limbs equal and present. That implied large financial backing by itself, as did the tech required to hide the modifications and mask electrical activity. Her grandmothers LIDAR revealed the presence of a pistol. Lucille pinged it, but there was no response. A basic model then, mechanical function only. Her Grandmother was now also hailing the woman, sending out aid requests, her attempts also failing to elicit any response.

The woman was close enough now to distinguish that what Lucille had originally thought were facial gang tattoos, were in fact, nothing of the sort. She was covered in dirt and dried blood.

Feedback fear from her grandmother leached through their link, adding to her own rising terror. She shrank back as her grandmother cut the link, killing the rising fear resonation cascade before it became unmitigated terror.

As she looked at the pair of them, the strangers face took on a look of disgust that was visible even under all the gore that liberally covered her from head to toe.

So an Upper then. Only Uppers with their tech access and their wealth could repair the damage caused by genetic degradation. An Upper that didn’t mix, or had no need to mix, with Lowers, judging by her reaction. That would explain the electronic stealth tech and working limbs, the existence of which she flaunted by kneeling in front of them. The movement smooth and only marred by stiffness and a wince that implied internal damage somewhere.

Grubby and skinned fingers were lifted to the mouth. The woman chewed on something that Lucille couldn’t see, but the motion did reveal an almost full set of perfect teeth. She checked the data stream from her grandmother. No, not a perfect set. Her grandmothers’ vision had picked up flaws and fillings in the sparse moment that the woman’s mouth had been open.

Lucille messaged her grandmother. #Threat? What’s she doing?# Her grandmothers reply flashed across her vision.

#Don’t know. To both. Stay calm, my love#

The woman spoke. Actually spoke! Lucille had absolutely no idea what she said, and a quick query to her grandmother revealed that she had no inkling either. The voice was raspy but Lucille could tell that was from recent damager rather than its usual state. She uploaded a recording of it to the Local free-data-centre, but it came back as unknown. She sent the reply to her Grandmother. The woman was eating something else and pointing to the both of them. She was obviously starting to become frustrated, her grandmother was picking up a sharp increase in the woman’s, heart rate. She reached into a pouch and Lucille tensed.

# Calm dear# flashed across Lucille’s message feed.

The woman placed some items in the dish.

# She’s bartering. For food#

# For Food? Why doesn’t she just go to a vendor and buy some?# Asked Lucille.

# I don’t know. Come child, she is paying for the both of us#

# Why? We obviously disgust her#

# I have no answers for you#

Lucille looked at the items in the dish, uploading them to the Open-cloud. Unlike the speech, the results came back with a positive match. War tech. she sent the data across. They had value, a lot of value. Her Gran stashed the items and stood. Lucille followed suit, though she almost collapsed back down again as one of the servos in her leg misfired. It just had to last another month and a half.

The woman spoke again. The words still unintelligible but she was obviously angry that Lucille was going to be a hindrance to her.

# It’s okay Lucille; she is angry, out of her depth. She won’t harm you, come# Her grandmother took her hand and led her from their spot.

The data link with her gran allowed real-time use of her visual cortex. Lucille left a small window open in her view that ran the feed from her grandmother whilst she devoted her own gaze to that of the stranger, studying her. Lucille had never ever seen anyone out with data feeds that was so ... complete and unadorned by cheap biomechanical parts. She must have come from a wealthy upper family, or be an indentured worker to one of the larger corporations.

Her gran led them to one of the better black market sellers, the journey taking them into one of the more populous thoroughfares. The beggars that claimed this area watched them intently, ready to protect their domain, by any means if necessary.

Safely inside the shop, gran, wasted no time in putting the strangers items on the counter and initiating local chat. The black marketeer accepted local chat and the two of them moved to private. Locked out of the conversation, Lucille continued her study of the strange woman, who appeared fascinated by the-mostly-Junk that crammed the shelves.

She was weird. As an Upper, didn’t she know that it was junk? The private chat finished, her grans status switching back to local. The three stood patiently whilst the Upper wandered the shelves. There was a ‘clunk ‘behind the black marketeer and he turned to retrieve three hypo-syringes.

Lucille’s heart leapt when she read the data Labels on them. This was a dream. This couldn’t be happening. Those three syringes represented more wealth than she had seen in years. Certainly more than she had seen since her sister had passed on.

“Lucille!” Lucille jumped; it was not often that her grandmother shouted at her in real-speak. Irate messages were flashing across her vision telling her to bare her neck. She had ... drifted off ... for a second. She reached up and pulled her collar down, tilting her head over as she did so. Her gran wasted no time in activating the syringe and its contents, quickly placing the delivery port against her neck. There was a ‘hiss’ as the contents were injected into her bloodstream. It was cold and tickled slightly; she resisted the urge to squirm away. Her on-board systems went red as the nano-bots, triggered her Basic Invasion Protocols. The digital noise was painful, more so than the actual physical pain.

A second hypo-syringe was placed against her neck, a second hiss. More intrusion alerts. The third, her gran placed against her own neck and then handed the now empty syringes back. Lucille’s’ vision flickered and she felt light headed. Most of her non critical systems had crashed and were offline. It was a small price to pay for life. Her gran led them from the shop; Lucille had to watch her step. Her visual link through her gran had shut down. Whether the fault was on her systems or her grans, she could not tell. She had even lost her access to the ever-web.

The next destination was a food seller and it appeared her gran still had ever-web access as she opened a trade window and ordered food. Proper food and not the synth food that they normally ate, even on the rare occasions when they had the money. Lucille gratefully took her portion, slowly savouring every bite. It was oh so good. The stranger had finished hers already, holding the container at the vendor she barked something in that strange tongue of hers. Lucille saved a copy of it for when she regained ever-web access.

The vendor looked towards her gran, who nodded. The second went down as fast as the first had. How big was that Uppers stomach! Lucille finished hers. Normally a meal that rich would feed her for a few days, but the nanobots were digesting the food in her stomach faster than her own digestion.

The Upper motioned for a third.

# She eats a lot gran!# Remarked Lucille

# Too much. No-ones stomach is that big# The vendor looked again at her gran, who shook her head.

# She has eaten enough. She will be sick# She sent to the vendor.

The Upper pulled something from one of her many pockets, giving it to her gran. With no ever- web access Lucille didn’t know what it was. Her gran accepted the proffered unknown tech. The Upper pointed to herself and Lucille.

# Maybe she has nanites Gran. Mine are already using up my first portion... # She tracked her gran accessing what little internal telemetry was still available to Lucille.

# Maybe she has# She grudgingly conceded, and gave consent to the vendor and transferred the requisite payment to the vendor who handed the Upper two bowls. Excitedly, Lucille accepted her second bowl from the Upper and quickly started eating before her gran changed her mind.

The Upper was attracting attention which in the Lowers was not a good idea. Her gran was getting worried. Even Lucille had spotted some local enforcers drifting into the vicinity. The only probable reason that they had not already made a move was the fact that the Upper already looked like she’d had a run in with somebody or something. That, and the fact that she had the capability to, and was, running dark. No-one sensible started a fight that they weren’t sure of winning

# Come Lucille, finish up now#

Lucille finished her portion, handing the container back with a private message of thanks, the vendor nodded and replied.

# Thank you for your custom. You are welcome back# Lucille read the message then deleted it.

The Upper placed her palms together and placed them to the side of her head. Even Lucille understood that gesture. Some of her systems were coming back online and enough data was flowing through their link for Lucille to know that her gran was not keen on taking the Upper to their flat.

# She has not harmed us, so far gran#

# It’s not her I am worried about. It’s what she might bring to our door#

# Please... #

Her gran sighed. # I hope that I don’t live to regret this... # She nodded to the Upper to follow. # Quickly now Lucille#

Lucille followed her grans nervous glance. There was a growing cluster of enforcers. It wouldn’t be long before they collected enough courage amongst themselves to make a move. Lucille moved as fast as her malfunctioning prosthetic would allow. The enforcers only followed a short distance, just enough to see that they were leaving their ‘patch’. It felt good to eventually get back to their small flat. Lucille was absolutely shattered and hot. The biomechanical action going on inside her was in danger of raising her body core too high and the exertion of moving was not helping. The consumption of all that food was having inevitable consequences and after a quick visit to the toilet, she moved straight to her bed and was asleep seconds after her head touched her pillow.


NINA

Consciousness slowly made itself apparent via aches, pain, and a fully terrible after-taste in her mouth. There was a painful twinge in her neck and her eyelids refused to open. Gingerly, Nina touched her eyelashes with her fingertips, finding the lashes caked together with something crusty and brittle. Gently pulling at her lashes, she broke the seal, allowing her lids to open. The room was almost in darkness, a soft glow emanating from a roof source above the flats door. Nina rubbed the back of her neck as she looked around, someone-most probably the old woman, had draped a thin blanket over her after she had fallen asleep, or passed out. She wasn’t really sure which.

The room was a little bit cooler than she was comfortable with, the thin shift not really hiding the prominence of her nipples in the cold air. Gingerly, she felt her face, running her fingertips over the various swellings. Her jaw ached and hesitant tongue probing revealed the presence of several loose teeth. Nina moved her jaw side to side, testing the range of movement and the levels of pain elicited. Her jaw thankfully didn’t appear broken. Surprising, given some of the blows it had received. Reluctantly, she thought back to the fight. She still hadn’t come fully to terms with all that had happened the previous day, or its wider implications. As one half of her brain re-ran the fight, her military training critiqued the fight and how she could have done better, the other half formulated a plan going forward.

She had never been one to mope overly long. A few hours to feel sorry for her-self had always been perfectly adequate for her. She mentally ticked off her survival List. She had shelter and food, of a fashion. She needed information, to find out where she was and equally importantly-when she was. She needed to find out more about the world she was in and improve her ability to protect herself. No more punching Terminator machines. Just thinking about the fight made her hands throb in remembered pain. No, definitely no more punching cyborgs.

Nina stood, stretching her spine, feeling it pop and crackle in response. She made her way to the toilet, trying to ignore the contents already in it as she relived herself. She really needed to find out how to flush the damn thing. As she left the toilet, she looked distastefully at her pile of discarded clothes in the corner and suppressed a shudder at the thought of putting them back on, given the stains that she could see and the fact that she could smell them from across the room. It wasn’t a pleasant smell. The room itself was quiet, not what she expected from a tower block. Either the block was empty but for the old woman and child, or the soundproofing was something else. Ah, the woman and child. Nina gently eased open the door to the other room. The child was wrapped-protectively in the woman’s arms. There was no cover over them and Nina felt a wave of embarrassment flow through her. She retrieved the blanket from where it had fallen onto the floor and tiptoed back into the room, gently laying it across the two sleeping forms. Neither stirred but the woman’s two unblinking diode eyes freaked her out and she quickly left the two of them to their slumber.

Back in the main room, she sat and stared at her dirty clothes. She itched to wash them but didn’t know how or where. Restless she stood back up. The sink didn’t appear to be functioning-in that nothing came out of the taps. Even the door to the flat failed to yield to her attempts to open it, nor did there appear to be any sign of a lock. She stood and stared at it helplessly, fingertips taping against her bare thigh. Shaking her head in frustration, she gave up on the door and went for a rummage through the sparse cupboard space, her stomach making its empty status known. The few packages and tins she found, left her none the wiser as to the contents, the words indecipherable to her and no accompanying imagery to provide a clue as to the possible contents. Nina found the inaction frustrating. She gave up on the cupboards and turned round to find the old woman standing in the doorway staring at her. Nina let out a little yelp of surprise, and immediately felt guilty for being caught snooping. The diodes in the woman’s eyes flickered and Nina could swear she heard an accompanying gentle ‘whirring’. As if the old woman wasn’t freaky enough. Nina opened her mouth to apologise, then closed it again as the pointlessness of the effort dawned on her. She shrugged in resignation, it was done, move on.

Nina pointed to the pile of her discarded clothes, mimed-she hoped- washing them. The woman just stared. Nina repressed the urge just to scream. The small child appeared behind the woman, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Crone and girl matched gazes in silence, and Nina had the unsettling impression that a full conversation was somehow going on between the pair. The crone broke the gaze first, moving to collect Nina’s soiled clothes. Nina moved to help but was waved away with a dismissive hand flick. The flat’s door opened on its own accord as the crone limped towards it, shutting again with a jerk once she was through. Nina walked towards it, but it stayed resolutely shut.

The child slumped onto the couch and stared at Nina with an unsettling intensity. The child’s deformities made returning the stare unpleasant for Nina so she looked around for something to take hold of her attention, her hands restlessly craving the comforting weight and feel of her mobile phone. No matter where she looked, she could feel the gaze of the child boring into her with an intensity that felt to Nina, as though the child was trying to set her on fire with the power of willpower alone. Nina gave up and steeled all her resolve and met the child’s gaze head on, trying not to focus on the facial sores and wounds that looked to be slowly festering. Some looked suspiciously gangrenous.

Raising her right hand, Nina pointed her forefinger towards her own face. “N.i.n.a”, she spoke slowly and as clearly as she could. “Ni-na”, she tried again. No response from the girl. Nina tried pointing the same finger at the girl, raising what she hoped was a questioning eyebrow as she did so. The child just continued to stare at her, not unlike the way once that a school friends new puppy had looked at her. Nina sighed and flopped back against the couch. It was going to be a long day.

Since she had no means in which to know the time, Nina had no idea how long the old woman was away for, but the girl seemed to know of her impending return, her head turning sharply to the door a good five minutes before the old woman’s entrance. Which was a bit freaky ... However, on her return she brought more noodles along with Nina’s freshly laundered clothes. The noodles barely touched the sides of her throat; such was the speed with which she consumed them. Licking her lips, partly to moisten the cracked flesh, partly to absorb the last dregs of noodle taste lingering there, Nina reached for her clothes, pulling her underwear out of the pile, slipping her pants up her legs into place before removing the borrowed shift. Naked but for her pants, Nina never thought that she would have ever felt so happy hooking a bra on. The girl and the crone watched avidly. Or at least the young girl did. Nina had no idea what the crone was doing/looking at with those weird eyes of hers. Nina had never had an issue with being naked amongst other women, after all, she had nothing they didn’t already possess, but she felt an unusual disquiet showing so much flesh in front of the two women. Two women who seemed to be more tech than flesh, and in the case of the younger one- missing so much flesh.

Whilst she had been waiting for the hopeful return of her clothes, Nina had been formulating a plan of action, and was now keen to get started. She needed currency, and she needed information. The crone was easy access to both.

Loathe getting her hands dirty again so soon, she forced herself to slide on and lace up her boots. Standing at the door, she beckoned for the crone to follow her. The Old woman made no immediate move, obviously weighing up her options in that silent way of hers. After another of those long weird looks to the young girl, before moving back into the room she slept in. She came back out with a tattered old cloak which she handed to Nina. Nina looked down at her obvious body armour, “Thanks” she slipped on the slightly pungent cloak, fastening it, just, over the chest plates. The crone watched nodding to Nina when she was happy, following her out of the flat when the door opened.

Forcing herself to slow down for the crones benefit, Nina paused at the entrance to the flats, using the respite to orientate herself and recall the route from the previous day. It turned out to be a slow journey, but eventually Nina led the heavily breathing crone to the bodies of Nina’s attackers. The corpses had already started to decompose and smell in the humid air, as well as showing signs of providing an impromptu feast for the local wildlife. Most of whom, judging by the eyes glinting in the darkness, were waiting for the two interlopers to be on their way so that they could finish their meal.

Upon sight of the bodies, the crone had pulled up sharply, giving Nina another long hard stare, obviously working out where both Nina’s tech and injuries had come from. Nina beckoned to the corpses, before picking up one of the discarded rifles. She flicked switches and pressed buttons, but it appeared every bit as dead as they had the previous day.

Watching Nina pick up the rifle and sling it over her shoulder after having failed to elicit any life out of it, the crone moved to the nearest body, and after baring the corpses chest, produced a small knife from somewhere and plunged it into the skin, sawing away into the flesh with a gusto that sent a shiver of fear down Nina’s spine.

“Fucking hell, get stuck right in there why don’t you...” The crone looked up at Nina briefly before returning to her gruesome rummaging; deftly pocketing a few items she had apparently cut free. “It’s a pity you didn’t bring the child, because then I could have changed your names from ‘Crone’ and ‘Child’ to ‘Burke’ and ‘Hare’.” The Crone looked back towards Nina and smiled. “Nope, that really doesn’t help matters you know. I wasn’t being complimentary and smiling when you are ripping into someone’s chest cavity with a pocket knife doesn’t make you any less a psychotic pensioner.”

Nina had long finished searching the clothes of the corpses, taking anything that she thought was of value and could carry, before the crone had finished taking whatever it was she was taking from inside the corpses. When the crone had decided that she was finished, she looked so happy and pleased with herself, that she was starting to terrify Nina.

The walk back from the failed mugging, or whatever it had been, was even slower. The crone breathing heavily and looking as though the onset of an imminent cardiac arrest was inevitable. Nina gently steered the crone back to the shop where she had bought the vials which she had injected into herself and the girl. At the doorway however, the old woman tugged on her sleeve and shook her head, leading Nina down several further narrow streets to a partly hidden door. The door, when it opened, revealed itself to be heavily armoured. The crone shuffled in, Nina in her wake. The smell reached her before she stepped over the threshold. Not a smell she knew, but it was familiar in its oiliness. A second door awaited them, the opening of which confirmed a growing suspicion. Rows of weaponry were neatly racked behind a clear glass-like barrier. Nina tapped the barrier with a cracked fingernail. The resultant sound didn’t sound like any glass she was familiar with. Nor did there appear to be any doors or lids to the displays. This was definitely a ‘Look but don’t touch’ establishment.

The crone nodded her head towards a counter, behind which stood another cyborg wannabe, optical ocular replacements flashing and metal fingers tapping on the counter top greeted Nina. Such blatant body modification seemed to be the norm here, which did nothing to stem the growing alienation she felt to the world she now inhabited. With a little sigh of relief, she slipped the rifle straps from her shoulders, dumping the rifles onto the counter top. The man, she thought it was a man, hard to tell under all the metal bits, immediately lifted one and started to strip it down with the dexterity of long practice, his metal fingers a clinking blur.

The crone and the weapons dealer stared at each other in a fashion that Nina was starting to recognise, an inclination that more was going on than just long looks. As the pair indulged in a silent staring match, Nina got bored and wandered around the display cabinets.

There were some truly impractical pieces on display. Flashing lights, ornate brightly coloured filigree, protruding bits whose sole purpose seemed to be just to protrude. Nina snorted in disgust. The shop keeper looked up at her, as did the crone, at her outburst of contempt. She headed back to the counter and dropped her appropriated pistol on the top.

“Have you got anything smaller?” The shopkeeper looked towards the crone, who just shrugged. “I get it; I get it, language barrier and all that.” Nina pointed to the pistol, boxed it with her two hands, and then shrunk the box smaller. “Smaller.” The shop keeper moved to a cabinet that slid smoothly open at the approach of his hands. He reached in and pulled out a smaller pistol. It was still heavily ornate, but looked to be of more manageable weight and size, as he turned back to Nina, she caught a glimpse of another piece. “Fuck no, I’m not carrying that blinged up piece of shit, WAIT!” He might not have understood a word of what she said, but he seemed to understand her tone. “What’s that? At the back?” Nina waved away the proffered piece not interested, pointing instead at the one that had briefly caught her eye. Placing the rejected piece back, he lifted out the one that Nina was pointing to. Compared to all the other pieces on display, this was the epitome of ugly duckling. Lacking in frivolous gaudiness and illumination, outline markings on the piece implied that it had been on the road to being pimped, but had somehow, for whatever reason, never reached its destination.

He handed it over. It was still a tice too heavy for Nina to be comfortable, but it still contained predominantly mechanical parts. Nina slid the mechanism back, checking the glide. It stuck a little, as did the empty magazine when she released it. She allowed the working parts to slide back forward under her control, before re-inserting the magazine and dry firing off the action. She handed it back, shaking her head. He gave her a flat stare, contemplating her for a moment before coming to a decision. He motioned for her to follow him behind the counter, leading her into a corridor, the old woman hobbling on after them.

The corridor led to a room outfitted with benches, stacked drawers, lathes, drills, abrasive wheels and various other items and tools of fabrication whose purpose was well beyond Nina’s comprehension. They left that room and carried on down another short corridor and into another room, which appeared at first glance to be empty, barring a few boxes thrown haphazardly into a corner. Without pausing, the shopkeeper, moved purposefully to one section of the empty wall, which preceded to spit out a well concealed drawer.

Nina raised an eyebrow “Clever.” She was handed a much smaller pistol. Unadorned, functional and a uniform matt black, its simplicity hinting towards a more military origin. When she took hold of it, it nestled comfortably in her grip, its weight just enough to imply sturdiness, but not heavy enough to affect use over extended periods of deployment. Nina nodded her head, “This is more like it.” She tested the mechanism, nodding her head in satisfaction. “Any ‘bang, bang!’ to go with it?” The drawer slid smoothly and silently back in as another slid out. A small box was produced and she was led to a set of stairs leading down, which in turn led to yet another corridor and a long room, which Nina could have deduced the purpose of, even without the existence of obvious targets at the other end. Sliding out the magazine she nodded her head in thanks as he handed her three rounds out of the box, watching her intently as she deftly loaded the rounds into the magazine.

Slipping naturally into a comfortable firing stance, she wasted no time in firing all three rounds down the improvised range in short order. If felt good to fire a weapon again, almost soothing. She had always enjoyed range days. Not always the cleaning that had followed, but then again, everything in life had its costs. She nodded to the shopkeeper as the crone shuffled into the room, having struggled on the stairs, “I’ll take it.” She handed the piece back to the shopkeeper who smiled. A sale was a sale no matter what language you spoke or where you lived, it appeared. “Oh, I need some ammunition,” She pointed to the box in his hand. He nodded once, curtly. “Oh god, explaining this is going to be a nightmare...” She slipped off the old woman’s coat and pulled apart the Velcro fastening on her body armour, handing it over to him. She slipped one of the ballistic plates out of its retaining pouch as he held the armour, pointed to the plate. “I need armour piercing rounds, “She pointed again to the box still in his hand and back to the plate, “Bang, bang, cugh!” she tilted her head over, sticking her tongue out to the side, mimicking, she hoped, death.” He nodded but then seemed more interested in the Velcro, repeatedly closing and pulling open the flap that held the plate within its pouch.

“Oh for the love of ... Don’t tell me that in the future, you don’t have motherfucking Velcro ... Or it’s not the future but an alternative/parallel dimension? My head hurts.” She sighed. “Armour piercing?” She tried again, hopefully. It took a while, but eventually he appeared to get bored with the Velcro enough to listen to and watch her pantomiming. He led them back upstairs, pulling out various boxes of ammunition, or at least she hoped they were different as the boxes appeared to be the same size, shape and colour. More miming followed and she managed to add a holster to the pistol on the counter top along with some spare magazines, though his gaze never seemed to stray to long away from her armour.


Argyll

The smell of coffee woke him. Expensive coffee, not the cheap stuff. He took another long inhalation. Or it could have been the baking. Another long smell. Yes, there was definitely baking going on as well. He checked the counter marking the time, top right of his vision. He had another five minutes before his alarm triggered. He debated resting, but decided against it. Once he was up, he was up. Argyll threw back the single sheet and stood, heading to the shower to fully remove the last vestiges of sleep, taking deep breaths as he entered the shower, enjoying the rich scents before they were obliterated by water. Anyone would think it was his birthday.

Towelling himself dry, he slipped into a pair of briefs and a fresh work jumpsuit before heading downstairs to the kitchen and his wife.

# Happy birthday! # She stepped into his welcoming embrace, planting a long slow kiss on his lips.

# Thank you my love. #

The kiss lingered for a moment before she broke it and retrieved a fresh mug of steaming hot coffee and a plate of fresh baking. Argyll took a sip and a bite, savouring the deep rich taste and contrasting textures. She moved in for another kiss as he carefully moved coffee and baking aside. He felt her hand slip between his legs, unable to fend her off, disarmed by mug and plate. She lightly rubbed him, fingers teasing him through the material of brief and work suit.

# I hope you’re not planning on working late tonight... .#

# No... #

# Good. I have plans... .# She slipped from between his arms as he took another sip and a bite. Argyll wondered if he had time, he looked at the clock display, a quick calculation, no, he didn’t. He seriously considered making the time, then discarded the thought. There would be plenty of time tonight.

His wife danced out the kitchen as he quickly checked his to-do list, scrolling down the notes, most of which had already been ticked or scored out. There was movement as his wife moved back into the kitchen, her hips moving in a deliberate sultry sway, her hands behind her back. She over dramatically batted her eyelids at him as she stepped close, whipping her hands from behind.

# Happy birthday! My love. #

# Awww. You needn’t have had... #

Argyll put the almost finished coffee and cake on the kitchen table, freeing his hands to take the gift. He kissed her again

# Thank you, my love.# He deftly unwrapped the present. It was a box. He lifted the lid and stared down at the contents, baffled. # It’s err, lovely.#

# It’s an antique. I saw it in a shop on the middle layer.#

Argyll lifted the object out of the box, wincing inwardly, hoping that she hadn’t paid too much for it. The objects case was loose and he peered inside at the internals and winced again. It looked as though it had been assembled by a three year old. His fingers glided over the surface. One flat side appeared to be made of glass, which was broken, the other, some crude form of composite. They really HAD seen his wife coming.

# I’ts lovely my love.# He finished his coffee and cake, slipping the gift into his bag.

# Remember, don’t be late, my love # Her eyes twinkled

# I won’t #

Argyll stepped out their house into the quiet pavement, a few others also leaving their houses as well. A slightly fetid wind rose up from the depths of the Lowers below. The usual faces were there, heading towards the maglev. He nodded to them, but didn’t initiate chat. They nodded back. Argyll did not have long to wait on the platform, the maglev bang on time as usual. It was a quick commute, ten minutes. Argyll stood and left with most of the others at the next stop. They all worked for the same corporation, their accommodation supplied by their employer. A reception desk waited behind an armoured screen, but no one headed there, aiming instead for a row of turn styles overlooked by a pair of heavily armed and armoured security types. Argyll ignored then, the real threat was from the two ceiling mounted auto cannons in opposing corners, more than capable of turning everyone-including the two security guards- into a mushy red paste in seconds. The scanners swept over him, checking his biometrics against those on file. The turn style clicked and he was through.

A query was placed against his bag, but Argyll ignored it, as did security, who knew of his penchant to take work home. By rights, he shouldn’t take work home, or even out of the facility, it was a compromise. He was a workaholic by nature and had a tendency to work late into the night. That did not go down to well with the new wife; however she didn’t have an issue with him working at home. So more and more work ended up being finished at, or taken home. Argyll didn’t think it would have worked, what with all the distractions of home life, but for some unfathomable reason, he seemed to be at his problem solving best at home. He could never fully shut down, even at home or when trying to sleep, his subconscious always needling away at things, coming up with solutions that his fully conscious mind had never even considered. It helped to keep the teams projects on time and under budget, and as a result the teams’ overseer made allowances, Okaying the breach with security.

As usual, he was first in the Lab. The AI welcoming him as it turned on the lights. Argyll pulled out his chair, different to the others in that it was missing a back, promoting the knees to be bent under the seat, and that it was his own and not company property. Supposedly it was designed to promote proper posture. The rest of his team were rather sceptical on the matter. He pulled up the plans of their latest project, one involving Militarised nano-bots. He’d had a few ideas last night, but there were some projects he was not allowed to remove from the labs. He quickly set to work while the ideas were still fresh in his mind. His other team members filtered in in drips and drabs, greeting him as they arrived, not bothered in the slightest by his lack of response. The team had been working together for years and knew how fixated, distracted and inattentive he tended to be first thing in the morning. Fully absorbed, his coms locked from all but the most important of callers, he worked diligently away knowing that he was close.

Argyll put the finishing touches to the circuit hovering in front of him and shut the virtual reality designer down, sending the saved design to the AI to check. For a moment, he simply bathed in the glow of another task achieved in time and under budget. Well, his part would be. It still had to be validated by the AI, but Argyll knew his ability and knew the design would work. He would have leant back, had it not been for his special posture chair lacking a back in which to lean against, a definite flaw, but one he was prepared to suffer to avoid back problems later in life.

Argyll looked at his bag and at his team, beavering away at their own problem pieces of the larger overall system. He reached into the bag and pulled out his wife’s gift, finally able to smile at her gullibility without having to fend off any recriminations to his amusement. He placed it on his workbench, pulling out some manual tools from a drawer. Sometimes it was nice to work with physical objects now and then rather than virtual ones. He removed the composite cover, placing it to the side. The glass part was connected by some cables to an exceptionally rudimentary circuit board. Automatically his mind started making improvements to some of the pathways. There was a large dense slab that took up most the ‘antique’ and Argyll gently inserted a probe, the data from which was sent straight to his HUD, data which didn’t really make much sense.

He detected a residual electric charge but apart from that, it didn’t seem to serve any specific purpose- but then, he mused, it didn’t have to it just had to look old, and mysterious. He set the probe back onto the counter top and looked at the device as a whole. Why all the effort for the internals, only to leave the outside looking new? As hoaxes went it was a pretty poorly thought out one. He picked up the freed cover that had protected one side of the object, turning it over and over in his hand. He wondered how old it really was. He put it down as being a year old, tops. Well there was one way to find out for sure.

Argyll stood, taking the cover with him, and left the room, heading down a couple of floors to one of the manufacturing design labs where there was a free Mass Spectrometer. He quickly set it up to detect Isotope Ratios and put the case in the testing chamber. Hit the’ go’ button and waited, bringing up a recording of the gifts internals for amusement while he passed the time as the machine did its job.

It wasn’t a long wait. He looked at the date range that flashed up and after a moment shut the recording down that was still playing in his HUD. He removed the sample and ran diagnostics on the Mass Spectrometer, everything came back as working. He tried the sample again, looked at the result. Nope. He scrolled down his contacts, seeing who the closest and available Engineer was. He commed the Number.

# What’s up Argyll? #

# I’ve broken the K836 in lab 49 #

# Define broken, snapped hinge or big smoking hole in the floor broken? #

# Somewhere in the middle? To be honest I don’t know #

# You don’t know? From you that’s something. I’ll be there in five #

Argyll sat in a nearby swivel chair, and just for the hell of it, spun himself round. He heard the engineer long before he entered the lab. The heavy tread of his mechanical legs thumping down the corridor. The door opened and in walked Egos. His name was actually Baracherusaval, but everyone just called him by his com number, Engineer 05 or Egos, as it looked in the com directory. Argyll nodded towards the K836, and Egos headed over, pulling a data cable out of its storage slot in his arm. His metal fingertips flicked open the service slot and he plugged the cable in. Argyll stayed quiet and continued to spin himself around. He hated people talking to him when he worked and always made a point of letting others get on with their specialist tasks in peace. Eventually Egos pulled the cable out and started rewinding it back into his arm.

# It’s fine. If anyone else had called me out to a false alarm, I would be stuffing them into the sample tray. What was the problem?# Argyll handed over the case part.

# I wanted a date for that # Egos took the proffered case side, turning it over in his hands and snorted, loudly, in real speak.

# You don’t need a K836 for that, I can tell you just by looking at it, that its a year to a year and-a-half old. Interesting chemical make-up though, I think you should get the compounds tested, if you don’t already know them.#

# Put it in the machine.#

# What?#

# Put it in the machine.#

# I really... .#

# Just do it!#

Egos shrugged and put the case in the test chamber and fired the machine up, the room silent but for the hum of K836 and the squeak of Argyll’s chair. The age appeared in Argylls HUD. He waited.

#That’s not right.# Admitted Egos.

# No, I didn’t think so either.#

Egos stood and stared at the machine.

# Second opinion # Egos finally declared, taking the case part from the sample tray and heading for the door. Argyll slipped off the chair and followed him out. Egos clanked his way down the corridor, Argyll having to adopt an awkward half run half walk pace to keep up with his long mechanical stride. Egos was heading for one of the main labs, the buildings AI pinging Argyll for conformation that he was entitled to be there. Technically, he had clearance, but since he wasn’t attached to the programs in progress inside and from a security point, he shouldn’t have been allowed in. No warnings appeared in his HUD so he just followed Egos in. Surreptitiously, he glanced about, his inner scientist unable to not nosey in to what other people and other departments were up to. He expanded his com to local chat, but no-one seemed interested, or bothered by his arrival.

Egos was moving in the direction of a K900 series. A lot bigger and more expensive than its K836 sibling. It was also currently being used. Not that seemed to bother Egos who simply lifted the female scientist out of the way.

# What do you think you are doing? How dare you... .#Egos reached inside and removed the object she was scanning and dumped it in her arms. He must have said something to her on a private channel as her mouth snapped shut.

Egos put the cover inside and entered some commands into the touchscreen mounted on the side. The woman s face had gone a bright shade of red as she turned her gaze to Argyll. He hoped that she wasn’t too senior, as a privacy block stopped him retrieving her name and position from the company records. He sidled closer to Egos not so much because the woman scared him, well, maybe a little bit, but mostly because he had no data link to the K900 and needed to be closer to see the screen.

The pair of them stared at the screen. The date was a few years different to The K 836, but what was a few years when talking centuries.

# Well, # Finally spoke Egos. #I wouldn’t mind looking as good in a hundred thousand years. #

# There is no way, absolutely no way, that’s a hundred thousand years old #

# I’m open to suggestions # Egos turned and looked down at Argyll. # Is that just the one piece you have?#

# No there’s more.#

The female scientist was craning her neck, trying to see what they were up to. Argyll reached round and removed the casing, clearing the screen at the same time. He debated sending Egos the footage but decided against it. He sighed.

# It’s back at my lab I’ll show you.#

Egos headed back to the Argyll’s lab. Argyll followed, having to adopt the awkward not quite running but not quite walking pace again. His wife’s gift was still lying on the bench where he had left it. He handed it to Egos who studied it for a moment before lifting the probe from the table and having a prod.

A data request pinged in chat. It was from Egos, so Argyll accepted. A window opened in his Hub, the shot taken from Egos point of view.

# That is some truly awful circuitry. But it makes sense.#

# It does?# Argyll was a more than a little bit put out, he’d spent hours looking at it and had been none the wiser.

# This block here# Egos highlighted the dense block that didn’t seem to serve any constructive purpose. # is the most hideously horrendous attempt at a battery I have ever seen#

# It’s a battery?# Now that it was mentioned, the data fitted and Argyll kicked himself that he had not noticed straight away.

Another outline appeared on the picture, encircling another bit of the mysterious object.

# That, if I’m not mistaken, and I’m pretty sure that I’m not. Is the world’s shittiest and most useless antenna, and that umbilical cord of crappiness links the whole shebang to a touch screen from the dark ages. And judging by the result from the K900, it really is from the dark ages.#

# Fuck me. # Now that it was pointed out it was all so obvious.

# Thanks, but no thanks.#

Argyll’s brain was in overdrive.

# It’s a communicator.#

# It’s a rudimentary communication device, yes, heavy emphasis on the ‘rudimentary’.#.

# That is the most bonkers thing I have ever seen, or heard, for that matter.# Admitted Argyll.

Egos lifted the communicator up to his nose, taking some very tentative sniffs.

# Do you want to hear something even bonkier, is that even a word? #

# Go on confuddle me even more.#

# I think this was operational until recently. Not 30 thousand years recently, but within a week recently. The circuits have burned out. I can still smell traces of smoke.#

# You’re telling me that hunk of junk, is older than The Fall and only stopped working in the last week or so? #

# Pretty much, yeah.#

# I think my head is about to explode. I know the wife will when I tell her.#

Egos moved over to the storage bins and rummaged around till he found some small sample tubes # Mind if I take some samples?#

# No, go ahead.# Argyll waved his hand at his wife’s birthday gift. Egos pulled out a scalpel and took light shavings from the case, antenna, glass, circuit board and battery. Dropping them into separate specimen tubes and sealing the tops.

# I’ll have them compound and date tested and uplink you the data?#

# Yeah sure thanks Egos. For everything today.#

# No problem. Livened up an otherwise tedious day and took me away from the blocked toilets on level 24.# Egos clanked his way out the door.

Argyll spun himself round in his chair a few times, stopped, looked at the communicator on his worktop for a moment, and then spun himself round again. So many questions, so few answers. He stopped his spinning and thought about the possibility of some one thousand year old human wandering about, pissed off because he had lost his communicator. He laughed out loud at the preposterousness of the image. A sudden cold shiver of fear and excitement rippled through him and he kicked himself back to the bench. Now that he knew to adjust his ability accordingly, he started looking at the device again with a more simplified eye. With the new knowledge of what its purpose had been, he started to build a three dimensional replica in his mind space. There was storage in the device, not a lot, but it was there. What would be stored in the storage facility of a thousand year old device...

# Mother fucking hell! # His breathing sped up and he had to access his body controls to forcibly slow it back down again. Argyll opened up his company contact list, seeing who was in the data recovery department. He scanned the names, seeing if he knew any of them. One name he recognised. He had helped her out once years ago, but had never had any dealings with her since, other than the occasional nod, wave and smile in passing on the daily commute. Argyll pinged her, and then had to wait ten anxious minutes for a reply.

# Hi Argyll. Is this business or social? #

# Hi, umm a bit of both Paolo #

# Ooo mixing business with pleasure? That’s a bit of a novelty for you isn’t it? What can I help you with? #

# I need data recovery from a couple of... # Argyll looked at the very basic components wincing slightly # chips. #

# What type of data? #

# I don’t know. #

There was a pause on her end. # That makes it harder, if I don’t know what it is I am looking at recovering.#

# I know, and I’m sorry. #

# Is this company sanctioned or something a bit more ... nefarious? #

# No, no, nothing that will get you into trouble from Corp-sec, just a personal item that has burned out... #

# A personal item, and yet you don’t know what’s on it? #

# Umm... #

# You are not selling this to me very well. What is the device? #

# A communicator #

# A communicator. If this is a domestic, I’m sorry Argyll, I want nothing to do with it. I will not go looking through your wife s equipment because you think she might be having an affair. That’s a really shitty thing to do. #

# WHAT!!! No, no, no. It’s nothing like that. My wife got me an antique and I was curious as to what was in the memory chips. #

# That’s a bit voyeuristic. I didn’t have you down as that type... #

# Look, can you just have a quick look, please? #

There was a digital sigh # A quick look? #

# A quick look... #

# What size of chip? Are we talking micro-nano here? Do I have to be ‘creative’ with acquiring sub cellular equipment time? #

# Umm... .# Argyll looked down at the communicator on his work top. # Not quite. I’ll send you an image of the chip. # Argyll pulled up a measurement scale, overlaid it across the chip, and then sent Paolo the image.

# Your scale is wrong. #

# The scale is right. #

# Really? That chip is so large I could walk down it’s pathways!! # Argyll could sense that he was losing her.

# Look, I’ll bring it down now and you can look at it. See what you think... #

# Hmm... #

# Just look at it before making a decision, please. I wouldn’t ask without cause. #

There was another digital sigh # I will take a look but I promise nothing. #

# I’m walking down the corridor as I speak... #


# Well, that has to be the most archaic thing I have ever seen. # Paolo moved the scanner aside. # If it wasn’t for the newness of the material. I might even have believed that it was ‘old’, except there are still traces of residual electrical current in the components, so it was working, and I use that term loosely, recently. So, and I’m trying to be polite here, your wife has been played. I’m sorry to say, I hope she didn’t pay a lot for it. #

# I thought that as well #

# And yet you still decided to show me it and risk the embarrassment? If it had been me in your shoes, I would have taken it to the nearest mass spectrometer and had it analysed BEFORE I started showing it around... #

Argyll said nothing.

Paolo studied him for a moment # Wait, You DID have it analysed before you brought it to me didn’t you, and yet you still asked for my help... #

# Just see what’s stored on there. That’s all I ask. #

She sighed yet again # I will have a look. But like I said earlier. I promise nothing. #


Argyll stepped into his flat and into the welcoming embrace of his wife. Even after all these years, he still loved her as much as he did when he had first plucked up the courage to ask her out. She had spent time and effort over the meal, cooking his favourites. It was lovely. Afterwards they snuggled up together on the couch, watched a sim drama that they both enjoyed, before she led them to the matrimonial bed.

Their lovemaking was slow and unhurried, the culmination of many years of intimacy. Afterwards, he held her close as they drifted off to sleep.

An incoming call roused Argyll from his comfortable slumber. His wife was still wrapped in his arms, one of which was dead; he slowly worked it out from beneath her, managing not to wake her in the process. Argyll flexed his fingers, trying to dispel the numbness as he read the caller ID.

# Hi Paolo, it’s almost midnight, surely you are not still in the lab? #

# I am indeed. And it is all your fault. #

# Umm sorry. There was no need for it to be done immediately. There was no hurry you know. #

# Yes, yes, I know. I had some free time tonight and thought I would give it a quick once over. It wasn’t as bad, nor as difficult as I was expecting it would be. To be honest it was all pretty rudimentary. The sort of shit they used to give us in school. Turns out there was indeed data to be recovered. #

# There was? # Argyll was curious and his drowsiness was quickly dispelled without having to go into his core and reduce his melatonin levels, or increase his histamine levels.

# Yes, lots. All of it garbage and unreadable. #

# Ahh. That was a shame. # Argyll was surprised at the crushing disappointment that he felt upon hearing the news.

# Mmm, Yes. However, something about it was niggling me, but I just couldn’t nail it down. Eventually I gave up and went home. #

# But you said you were still at the lab? #

# Shoosh! I’m getting to that. So there I was, halfway home on the maglev, and I had a bit of an epiphany. Been a while since I had one of those. Anyway, I hopped off at the next stop and jumped on the first Mag back. I was basically looking at the problem all wrong. The damn device was the biggest clue. It was sat there shouting the answer at me and I never even noticed. The damn thing was in Binary! #

# Binary! #

# I know! Who the hell uses Binary when qudits are so much easier. Anyway, Now that I knew what I was dealing with, things became so much easier. #

# Ah, right. I’m still sorry that I screwed your evening. #.

# Don’t worry about it. I actually rather enjoyed the challenge. I wouldn’t still be here otherwise. Anyhow, back on topic. I recovered text, picture and video with audio. #

Argyll felt his heart stop, though a hasty diagnostic check proved that it was still indeed beating. Thankfully.

# You did? #

# Of course I did! I am good at my job. So, anyway, I checked. Just to make sure that you weren’t perving. The text was unreadable, so I sent it to the AI to crunch whilst I looked at the footage. #

# And? #

# The resolution is terrible, probably due to the camera being so pathetic. That device really IS a hunk of junk. The audio is scratchy and poor, though that’s in line with the rest of the device, but it’s completely unintelligible. While I was scratching my head over the audio, the AI came back with its conclusion. It’s Origin text, Argyll. Origin text!! I’m going to ask you one question Argyll, and I want you to give me the honest answer. If you lie to me I am going to be really upset. Really, really upset. And I will kill you. Seriously I WILL kill you. I’m not even joking, and that scares me. Is this whole thing a hoax/prank? #

This had been the question Argyll had been asking himself all day.

# I don’t know Paolo. I genuinely don’t know. I thought it was at first, but now I’m not so sure. Preliminary testing puts it at around a thousand years old. #

# That’s before the Fall. #

# I know. #

# How did you get your hands on it? #

# This is the mad bit. My wife bought me it from an antique shop. As a birthday present. #

# She BOUGHT! you it as a birthday present! If it’s genuine, and not a hoax, do you have any idea of its value? It’s beyond priceless! #

# I know. And now it’s sitting right in front of you on your desk. #

There was a pause # I really wish you hadn’t just pointed that out. I’m absolutely terrified to go near it now. #

A connection request appeared. It was a data download from Paolo. Argyll accepted it.

Paolo came back on # I’m going to throw up. Seriously Argyll, I’m going to go to the toilet right now and I’m going to throw up. # the connection terminated.

Three folders were downloading labelled ‘text‘ ‘Pictures‘ and ‘footage‘. The one marked ‘text‘ finished first and he opened it and accessed one of the files contained within at random. Like Paula had said. It was unintelligible and made no sense. He opened a few others. They were the same. Just a jumble of squiggles. He closed it and moved to the folder marked ‘pictures‘, again opening one of them at random.

Internal alarms screamed in warning as his body controller fought against the onset of shock. His AI flooding his system with adrenaline to stop his heart going into cardiac arrest. His wife stirred beside him, forcibly brought out of sleep by her own AI, having been alerted to Argylls internal emergency by their symbiotic link.

Worried and confused she messaged him # What is it my love! What’s wrong? #

Argyll struggled to get a grip, taking large deep breaths as on board systems increased the levels of gamma aminobutyric acid in his brain as he tried to flood his lungs with oxygen. Argyll rapidly adjusted chemical levels throughout his body, continued to breathe deeply and attempted some basic meditation techniques whilst at the same time cancelling the medical emergency response alert that had been sent to the closest hospital.

# I’m fine my love. #

# I have a lot of data coming in saying otherwise. #

# I just had a bit of a shock, that’s all. #

# At half one in the morning... ? #

An emergency request appeared in his HUD. Argyll opened it. It was the hospital confirming his desire to cancel emergency pick up and treatment. He allowed them access to his biometrics and explained that he’d had a bad dream, and that things were calming down. The emergency AI studied his read-outs and noted the calming of heart rate and blood pressure. It agreed that no emergency treatment was needed, and informed him that his doctor would be notified of the incident. He acknowledged, and the Hospital AI terminated the connection. Calmer, Argyll slipped out of bed and headed into the kitchen for a drink of fruit juice, his wife softly padding along after him.

# What happened my love? #

Argyll debated lying to his wife, and decided against it. He had always been honest with her and had no desire to change that now.

# You know that gift you gave me for my birthday? #

# Yes, of course, what of it? #

# Well, out of curiosity I took it into the lab today. Well, yesterday now, and ran some tests on it. Turns out that it might be pre-Fall and might contain data from then. Possibly. #

# Oh... # She brought a hand up to her mouth.

# The results, well, some of them anyway, just came through and it was a bit of a shock. #

# A bit! #

# Okay, a large bit. #

# You scared me. # She started to cry. He stepped over and wrapped her in a tight embrace.

# I scared myself. # He admitted.

# I wish I hadn’t got you that horrible thing now.... #

Argyll kissed her # shhh, things will be okay my love # They stood in silence, just holding one another.

# What were the results? #

# Preliminary dating and an enquiry into any recoverable data. #

# And? #

He sent the data packet to her. She went straight to the video files.

# What are they saying? #

# We don’t know, nobody does, I think. We think it might be Origin speak. #

# Who’s ‘we’? #

# A woman named Paolo. She’s a data recovery specialist. I asked her to have a look at the storage chips, to see if anything was on them. #

# The clothes are funny. And there are so many people! # Argyll pulled up the video she was watching-There were indeed a lot of people. And yet the buildings were so low. It was all so ... alien.

# There are no visible augmentations! # No there wasn’t, he noticed now that she had pointed it out.
They sat there at three in the morning, looking at another world.


On his way to work, Argyll stopped at a shop to buy Paolo a Thank you gift. He hadn’t bothered going back to sleep. He knew it would have been pointless. The Mag-lev was quiet. It was still too early for the morning commute. Security paid him no heed as he negotiated the entrance to the Lab. Argyll stopped off at Paolo’s lab to find that she was there already. He handed over the gift.

# Early start? # He enquired politely.

She gave him a flat stare.

# I’ve not been home. #

# Ahh... #

# Did you really expect me sit at home, or sleep with this on my desk? # she gave him a critical look. # It doesn’t look like you slept much either, last night. #

# I didn’t # Argyll admitted. She nodded to the wrapped gift.

# That wouldn’t, by any chance, have the ability to clean electrical contacts? #

# Not so much clean as remove. #

# Excellent! Don’t stand there like a spare centrifuge; grab something for us to drink out of. # As Paolo unwrapped the bottle. Argyll acquired two beakers from the Lab next door. Paolo poured them both two large measures. Argyll looked at the measures and wondered if he should have found smaller containers.

It was strong and burned its way down his throat. He coughed. Paolo took another sip.

# I’ve been looking into the possibility that the data is a generated similarity, by either AI or human. The attention to detail is incredible. Did you look at the lab clips? There is equipment similar to some of the machines in this room, but built to ‘that ‘standard. # she nodded towards the communicator. Argyll hadn’t really paid much attention to those clips, having spent most of the night discussing the clothing and building styles with his wife.

# This is high level simulation # she continued. # Top level stuff with an incredible level of attention to detail. # she took another sip. # Now, if this was a hoax, I find myself asking why you would spend so much time and money perpetrating it. What’s the end goal? Who is it targeted at? That got me thinking that it was an attack of some kind against the company. I spent most of this morning looking for an aggressive payload, nano or program. #

# Did you find anything? #The thought that someone had used his wife as the delivery method for some insidious corporate attack was horrifying.

# No. Nothing. #

He took a sip from his beaker. # Well, that’s a relief. I suppose. #

# I keep coming back to the question ‘why?’ What’s the point? -If you were a joker, you would want maximum exposure, wouldn’t you? You would give it to one of the major media corps to have your face splattered all over the holo vids. #

# Maybe they want scientific backing/credibility first, it would make more of an impact, possibly? # He mused.

# Hmm, maybe. But then you run the risk of being discredited before you even got your shot at fame. #

# Possibly. Maybe, just maybe, it is what it is and we are looking to deep into it? # Argyll suggested.

# I considered that option, but the path that thought led me down, raised some really problematic issues. #

# Like the existence of some one thousand year old individual looking for their communicator? #

# Urghh, I’m not even contemplating that, or people will think my chips are fried. # Paolo refilled their beakers.

# What are we going to do with this, with it? # He asked.

# Woah! Do not drag me into your nightmare. If and this is a pretty big ‘if’, that is genuine-and part of me really wishes it’s not-Then that ... thing ... is going to be highly sought after. The big Corps will kill for that. Seriously Argyll, some of the bigger Corps will destroy this company to get their hands on it. #

# And if it turns out to be a hoax? #

# How much ‘collateral’ damage will be done before the truth is revealed? #

# Thanks for that, I’m not going to be able to sleep for weeks now. #

Technicians started to arrive at the lab for work, many of them looking at the half drunk bottle between the pair of them.

# Take it and go. My advice would be to sell it as quickly as possible. Take the money and run. Let it be someone else’s problem. #

Argyle took the communicator and left Paolo to the rest of her bottle.


Under the illusion of safety in his own lab, Argyll opened a drawer in his desk and slipped the communicator inside, sending a lock code to the drawer. He sat on the floor and leaned against the wall. The alcohol was already severely impairing his functions. He instructed his AI to start purging the toxin from his body. He looked at the bench drawer. Maybe getting rid of it was the best option. He found his attention being drawn to the recovered data. Argyll couldn’t help himself and opened the video files.

The lab door opened and in walked the facility’s director. Argyll made to hastily stand and found that he couldn’t. He glanced at the clock and was surprised to find that he had been sitting on the floor for hours.

# Sir... # The director was followed by several black clad commando’s. Argyle trailed off as he saw the directors face. He looked terrified.

# Argyll. Follow me please. #The Director turned and exited the lab, Argyll staggering after him. Four more commandos waited outside. The two that accompanied the Director took up position behind Argyle. Two of the remaining four moved into the Lab, the other two taking up station either side of the door.

The pace the Director set was brisk, the pace of a man who wanted to be any place but where he was. Argyll kept glancing back at his two commando escorts. The visors on their helmets were down, whatever lay behind them hidden by the matt mirrored covering of the visors. Their uniforms were unadorned. No rank, no insignia. The alloy of their weapons, also a functional dull matt black. Argyll recognised the design. He had done some work on the weapon blueprints. It had been marked down as being a theoretical concept, the theory had been there, but the cost to build and the cost of the ammunition had been deemed too prohibitive. It didn’t look like it was ‘theoretical’, not by his definition of the word. In order to try and waylay his panicking mind, he tried to remember the design. It had been a proposed rail-gun weapon, the ammunition technically having the power to punch through a building with almost no recoil. Argyll was in no hurry to find out if that had been achieved in practice.

They ascended the building, other staff in the corridors quickly moving aside. Argyll couldn’t help but wonder if that was more to do with the look of terror on both his and the Directors faces, rather than the faceless menace of their two ‘escorts’. They were now in managerial territory. Machinery having given away to potted plants and paintings on the walls.

A lot of nervous faces watched them pass. They appeared to be heading towards the Directors office. Argyll had never been there. In fact, he had never been on this floor. There was a waiting area in front of the Directors office. Paolo was sat there. Her bottle, almost finished, in her hand. Argyll wondered at the mentality that ensured that the bottle had come with her. Her own two escorts didn’t seem bothered by the fact that she was drinking. Another two guards were stationed either side of the directors door, one of whom reached out and opened it. Argyll followed the Director inside. The room might not have been the height of opulence, but it was pretty high up there. A nondescript man in a plain suit was sat in the Directors seat. An armed and armoured commando stood in the two corners behind the desk. The man hooked up at the Director.

“You can go” The real-speak startled Argyll. The Director fled. The door shut softly by the guard outside. The man pointed to the chair opposite

“Sit.”

Argyll sat. Hands on his knees, holding his kneecaps tight so that his hands didn’t fidget.

“Argyll is it?”

# Yes sir. # Argyll coughed, cleared his throat “Yes sir”

“Good.” The man reached over to a plain black box dumped carelessly on the Directors desk. He pressed one of the two buttons on the top Surface. Argyll found his access to the ever-net terminated. Even access to the buildings AI was terminated.

The man rested his elbows on the desk and leant forward “This facility’s AI has been flagging up some rather interesting behaviour in the last day or so, and all paths lead straight back to you. I think we need a little chat, don’t you...”

Oh shit.

VALLUM

Vallum -Val- to his very few friends, slowly woke to consciousness. The alarm in his cranial implant kicking him out of REM sleep. He mentally shut it off, opening up the feeds to his favourite news streams. The headlines scrolled across his retinas as he flicked through, nothing particularly untoward this morning by the look of things. He continued to scroll through the headlines as he smelled under his armpits, deciding that he could forgo a shower for another day. He checked his pore data input feed, adjusting his sweat levels to reduce the possibility of any undue body odour creation.

He picked a breakfast packet out at random. Supposedly they were of different tastes, but Vallum found that once heated up, they all tasted the same. He dressed quickly, not bothering to check his appearance. Vallum reckoned he could go to work naked and no-one would really care, his co-workers all being of a single focus. Scooping the last of his breakfast out of the packet, he threw it in the disposal as he sent the unlock code to his door.

The walk to work took less than ten minutes, the Upper streets quiet. He looked over the edge of the walkway to the Lower levels, which turned out to be almost as deserted as the Uppers. Twenty years ago, both had been fairly busy, and then the virus had struck. For year’s scientists and medics both, had been warning about the slow decline in the human genome. Somewhere in the distant past, human DNA had become damaged. It hadn’t been noticed at first, and when it had, no-one was sure of what the outcome would be. There had been panic at first, but when nothing seemed to become apparent with the small mutations, it was explained away as simply being evolution, and no-one paid it any more attention. At least, they didn’t until a common influenza outbreak started killing people en masse. Within a year, half the Worlds population was dead and the other half found they were suffering from varying degrees of macular degeneration. Gene therapy helped-to some degree- for the rich, but without a non-mutated DNA model for reference, all the medical profession could do, was repair the cracks when they appeared. For the less well off, well, they just had to take their chances.

Vallum arrived at his work, the city library. What used to be a bustling building was quiet and almost empty. There was no need for physical books when everything that could be read, could be done so from the comfort of ones abode via cranial neural link, the output of which was wired into both cerebral and visual cortex. Books had become obsolete, then a fashion statement, then just clutter. Now, what was left, were mostly tomes from before The Fall, or at least copies of them. The ability to read them lost with what caused The Fall. The desire to know what had almost wiped out humanity and sent it back to cave dwelling existence, had been the driver for Vallum to study history and take up employment at the library. He had believed that humanities dark history was locked away and accessible only to a few who could be trusted with the knowledge. It had been a great emotional blow to find out that such a repository did not exist, and that the truth of the matter was, that no-one knew. There were theories. There were always theories. That it was the result of a ‘super’ weapon, or that the planet had been hit by some celestial object-though that theory was widely discredited due to the lack of a corresponding impact crater.

Whatever the reason, humanity had regressed to base level nature, and by the time it had managed to claw its way back to some semblance of intelligence, language had changed and the knowledge of what had gone before was lost. In the rubble, bits and bobs were recovered; some surviving technology was reverse engineered, which enabled humankind to advance faster than it had the first time round. What few texts that were discovered were jealously guarded by the various corporations that found/stole them. Anything with pictures or diagrams were sought after, especially anything that had a technical aspect. However even after all this time no-one had successfully translated language from before The Fall. The corporations had posted substantial bounties over the years to no avail. That’s not to say that many an ‘enterprising’ individual hadn’t created their own interpretation of what was written in pursuit of a lifetimes worth of riches. Needless to say, all had been quickly exposed for the frauds that they were.

The security system scanned his biometrics and opened the doors. Back in the day, there used to be over thirty staff in the building, now there was just eight. Vallum, at twenty nine, was the youngest. There wasn’t even a security guard anymore at the entrance. The last visitor to the library had been over six months ago and Vallum suspected it was done in error.

An incoming alert flashed in the corner of his vision. He opened the internal call. It was from Marvin, head librarian. No doubt alerted to Vallums arrival by the library’s security system.

# Vallum, some idiot is mucking about with one of the Origin texts. Can you go and sort it out please. #

# Yes sir, does it have to be done right aw... .# Vallum stopped when he relised that Marvin had already terminated the call. As he made his way to his workstation, he logged into the library AI and requested a log for all Origin text access requests. Sure enough someone had indeed accessed one, and was in the process of transcribing it. He pulled up the edit history. A good portion of the book was already transcribed. The editor had started at the front of the book and worked their way through. The library AI automatically translating every other instance of the word as the first was translated.

Vallum read through the supposedly ‘translated’ text. What had already been translated, he didn’t understand, but it didn’t read like previous forgeries he had seen. In fact, he saw that there was audio. Audio! That was a new one. He opened it up and listened. It sounded so weird, unlike anything he had ever heard before. Could someone have really unlocked the secret? He logged into the AI, sent it the data, see what it thought. Vallum marked it as a priority request. He had back in his chair interlinking his fingertips behind his head. Well this was a turn up for the books. He laughed at his own joke. The AI was already sending a preliminary report back. Vellum felt his pulse race as the AI was already rating the translation as ‘good’! How was this even possible, and why now? He dug deeper, looking to see where the access was coming from. The translator had tried to hide their tracks, as most people did by habit from a young age, but they weren’t as skilled as they thought they were. Vallum sent several trace programs of his own devising onto the trail. One of the perks of the job was a large amount of free time with server access. In order to facilitate his own hobbies he had created his own search bots to roam the data stacks and find information missed or overlooked by the libraries own system, which was cheaply sourced and barely up to the task for which it was commissioned. His bots were already narrowing the author down. They were in the slums by the look of things. Interesting, and surprising. Had some low level gutter trash stumbled on some text hidden somewhere? “Ahh, Gotcha!” The user had only just created a library profile the other day and had accessed several Lost Tomes, but this was the first one that seemed to have caught the user’s eye. A red alert ‘pinged’ on his HUD. Vallum impatiently flicked it open. “Holy crap!” He stared in disbelief at the message for a moment, before hastily accessing the catalogue of old Tomes, sure enough, the library AI was, remarkably quickly, translating a good portion of the other texts.

“Well that’s a turn up for the books’.’ Vallum started to flick through the new information unable to decide what to start reading first. Some Tomes didn’t have any words deciphered though, and he wondered why, though one was marked’ ‘French’ by the mysterious translator. Vallum wondered who or what ‘French’ was. So engrossed by the treasure trove of information, that Vallum failed to register the commotion going on downstairs, until it was virtually at his station. There was a large amount of crashing and banging going on and it was getting closer. Vallum accessed the security feeds in the building and watched in horror as armoured troops stormed into the building. It didn’t take a genius to work out that the invasion of troops and the sudden decryption of the aged texts weren’t related in some fashion. Cold fear swept through him and without even knowing why, he uploaded his files to secure storage out of body and wiped the data from his memory banks. He thought about fleeing, but a quick glance back to the security feeds, showed that barring jumping out a window, escape was not a feasible option. Boots sounded on the stairs as the flimsy door was kicked open.

Vallum filled his short term memory with meaningless data and some popular current open-web dramas. Security from one of the main technological companies spread throughout the floor, pairing off, then after some signal known to themselves, left two behind whilst the rest moved to secure the rest of the building. Vallum stared at the two soldiers, whose mirrored helmet visors appeared to stare back. More personal transports pulled up outside, suits and techs climbing out to enter the building. Vallum didn’t like the look of where this was heading, and made to stand. His vision fractured and letters appeared across his view demanding that he stayed seated where he was. He complied, sinking back into his chair. System intrusion alerts sounded and he found himself kicked out of the library’s system and his attempts to log back in were rejected. He ran through his own protocols, revising his threat levels, dumping more personal data, repeatedly over-writing his stacks as his net access was shut down. Someone had set up a local net jammer. That was high level and expensive tech, not something local corps had access to, or could afford. Four soldiers and two techs appeared. The Corporate soldiers took a firm hold of him.

# What’s going on? Why are you restraining me? I don’t... # the blow to his stomach took the wind from him, left him gasping for breath. One of the techs opened a case and lifted out a neural headset. Vallum felt crushing shame as he felt his bladder loosen, the hot contents running down his legs to pool on the floor. The use of neural headsets was supposed to be illegal, the mental equivalent of digital rape. He sobbed as the headset was put in place, the expected pain not appearing. Internal alarms flashed across all his senses as his carefully and painstakingly built defences were brushed aside as though they didn’t exist. Access to functions curtailed to just the basic functions required to keep him alive. The humiliation was total and complete, his memory copied, all his memories, his desires, his fears, laid bare in a heartbeat.

One of his captors dealt him a sharp blow to the back of the head, and he was released, the techs and- their protection moving on to their next task. Eyes red with tears, Vallum looked to the two remaining guards, who appeared not to class him as a credible threat in any shape or form. Red lights and warnings flushed across his optics. The company techs had moved through his memory banks and systems like a demolition machine, heedless and caring not of the damage left behind. Vallum hated them with more passion than he had ever felt in his life. His mouth dry and barely holding back the desire to vomit, he staggered to his feet. Someone verbally shouting, and then screaming somewhere above. Someone who had -was still- putting up more of a resistance than Vallum had, one of the mirror visored helmets swivelled to watch him stagger out the room and head drunkenly towards the nearest bathroom, his wet trousers clinging to his legs. The shouting from above was abruptly silenced by one single shot. Suddenly, his easy capitulation wasn’t so humiliating. He slumped to the floor, releasing this footwear and slowly peeling his trousers down his legs. He dumped his trousers in the sink, squirting some hand cleanser onto them.

The entire building shook, bits of dust, and ceiling slowly drifted to the floor. Vallum, in a daze, paid it no heed as his underpants joined his trousers in the sink. He scrubbed both together as smaller explosions reverberated through-out the rooms and corridors. The harsh biting staccato of gunfire piercing the air. The gunfire increased in tempo, becoming a solid stream of noise. Vallon held his underwear under the hand dryer, as dust drifted down, one of the mirrors shattered as a stray round ploughed through the thin walls. He leant against the bathroom wall for support as he slipped his underwear back on. They were still damp but he didn’t really notice. He squeezed the excessive moisture out of his trousers and as he was about to start drying them there was a deep ‘crump’ and the ceiling collapsed.

Coughing from the inhaled dust, he staggered out of the toilet as panels and light fittings fell around him. He just wanted to go home. Still carrying his trousers, he stumbled his way down the corridor, tripping over an armoured corpse on the way, one of many as it turned out. The way ahead was blocked by rubble made up from the upper two floors. Vallum climbed up on hands and feet, skinning his bare knees in the process. The corpse of one of the techs was near the top, a ragged hole in his chest. He deviated slightly to kick the corpse in the face and immediately felt better for doing so. Scrambling down the other side of the rubble took him back to the floor he had originally been on. The heavily dust laden air settled on his skin, slowly turning him white. His pace quickened as he stumbled towards the entrance, turning a corner into the main entrance to the library and stopped, as he was faced with a group of soldiers who had raised their weapons to face him as he appeared. The two parties faced each other off. One side holding weapons, the other a pair of trousers. The soldiers lowered their weapons and went back to their huddle.

There was another large explosion above, Vallum ducked, legs going suddenly wobbly as bits of building rained down. The soldiers ran passed him, one giving him a shove as they went passed, sending him sprawling onto the floor, the sharp bits of dislodged masonry cutting slices into the palms of his hands. The library’s door had been blown clean open, almost all the ornate door surround gone.

Armoured corporate vehicles were clustered together in the street outside. Vallum turned away intending to head in the opposite direction. Two soldiers raced towards him, clearly wishing to dissuade him from that notion. Vallum hoped that if he ignored them, they would in turn, ignore him. They didn’t. As they got closer one of the Corp-sec soldiers doubled over whilst the helmet of the other exploded, taking the contents with it.

The effect was instantaneous, the remaining Corp-sec troops taking cover behind their vehicles, leaving a bewildered Vallum standing looking down at the two fresh corpses, still holding his trousers.

# MOVE YOU IDIOT! # flashed across his eyes, sent from an unknown source and he jolted into action as rounds started to impact into the armoured cars. The Corp-sec troops fired back into the surrounding buildings.

Vallum didn’t really recall the journey back to his flat; only that he was stood at his door, half naked, still carrying his trousers. He let himself in, headed towards the toilet and threw up, collapsing in a quivering heap onto the floor.

When this story gets more text, you will need to Log In to read it