Psychedelic Electrons (Part 2 of 4)
By Will Greenway
New Angeles, 6 p.m. Wednesday, November 8th, 2079
Kath sat in the back of the van caressing the side of the M22A2 assault rifle. The air smelled of lubricant, gun powder, plastique, and phosphorus. Apollo knelt at the front of the compartment checking his equipment, each motion taken with care as if he was afraid to move too quickly. He’d driven with her to Brackham’s Headquarters. It wasn’t until he climbed into the back to gear-up that he saw and smelled the explosives stacked in the rear. From the way his eyes bulged, it looked as if he might have a coronary.
Apollo finished his examinations. “What do you know about this Achilles armor?” He indicated the two silver cases she’d identified earlier. “Never seen it, I’ve only heard rumors.”
Kath dragged a case to her. “I scanned a chip on it. The combat boys call it a dermal enhancing carapice, DEC for short. It’s made of living polymers and attached to bare skin. Supposed to be flexible as fabric but tough as any of the rigid suits in use.”
“Creepy, huh? These suits checked against the data I had on chip. Theoretically, they’ll take a .38 slug at a meter, won’t even leave a bruise.”
Apollo’s brow furrowed. “How? If the armor’s right against your skin?”
Kath shrugged. “Don’t ask me. The specs say it works. It must, or the S.F. wouldn’t have put a death penalty on anyone outside the corps caught wearing it.”
“Great,” he muttered. “No wonder you got hold of it. This junk must be hotter than a nuclear blast.”
Kath shrugged. “I’m not planning on getting caught with it.” She thumbed the locks on the case which gave a soft hiss as she lifted the lid. Inside were what looked like folded blue-gray segments of cloth placed in padded compartments. The material glistened as though wet.
Apollo examined it, eyes wide. “It looks even creepier than it sounds. One size fits all?”
“Yup.” She pulled out what looked like a glove and sleeve. Though it was half the thickness of a wetsuit, the material weighed more than a kilogram. The texture was similar to the underbelly of a snake. Steeling herself, she took off her blouse and slipped her arm inside, pulling the oddly heavy fabric up until it reached her armpit. It felt like sliding her hand down the warm gullet of a serpent.
“Body heat powers the dermal connection interface.” A tingling spread across her skin. “Whoa. Here we go.” A fierce itch began at her fingers then climbed up her arm. The unit constricted with an electrical snap. Her flesh seemed to swell. After a long breath, the transformation stopped.
Kath stared. The DEC armor had bonded into her skin. Except for color, she couldn’t tell skin from armor. She admired the fit, flexing her fingers and elbow, feeling only a slight binding.
“What’s it like?”
“Weird.” They both stared at the glistening blue-gray skin shimmering in the dim light.
Apollo bent to examine it, touching the armor then the bare skin next to it. His silvery eyes were wide. “This stuff is wiz.” A frown clouded his features. “It comes off, right?”
She nodded. “You tap a code sequence on the main joint of each armor segment.” Kath demonstrated, hitting the simple morse S.O.S. pattern she’d coded into the armor. She felt the material loosen around her arm. “See?” Kath thanked the maker that it had.
Apollo nodded, obviously impressed. He pulled one of the boot units out of the case. “The engineers who worked on this stuff must be real comedians.”
“Look at the heel.”
From the heel up the back of the leg, the armor looked twice as thick. The words ‘double reinforced’ were printed at the widest point.
“I don’t get it.”
“Don’t you know the story of Achilles?”
He sighed. “Nevermind.” He looked at the groin covering. “What the hell will this stuff do with privates?”
“What? Your thing too big to fit in the armor?”
He scowled. “Now who’s the comedian?”
“One way to find out.” She loosened her belt and pulled her jeans off.
“You going to strip in front of me?”
She stopped. “There a problem?”
Apollo rubbed the back of his neck. “I didn’t realize you trusted me.”
Kath’s gaze flicked to the gun on the floorboards. “I don’t trust anybody that much.” She pulled off her jeans, panties and bra, then picked out the triangular groin segment. Rubbing the slick material, she realized she wasn’t looking forward to having the material on her privates either.
The queasy sense was almost enough to make her scrap the idea of using the armor. They needed the bullet proofing this stuff would provide though. That in addition to the scanners, star-light, and other surveillance and stealth measures built into the armor’s cyber circuitry.
She pulled the thick shorts around her hips and then tugged on the individual ‘pant-legs’ with their integrated booties.
The itching as the armor grafted was nightmarish. She noticed where the material overlapped, the pieces melded into each other.
“A few meters away, I wouldn’t even know you were wearing armor,” Apollo marveled.
She nodded. “Only the helmet and the fuel cells left.”
“Yeah, what about hair?”
Kath’s answered by pulling on the mask. The face and scalp graft were even worse. The material somehow forced around her hair as it locked into the skin. It left the strands outside the armor. A clear membrane hardened over her eyes. A stiff ridge formed along the bridge of her nose. It covered the mouth, the material thin enough to speak through.
“Sure fraggin are. Trés chic babe.”
Kath took the two flat disk-shaped fuel cells and hooked them into the hollows designed for them on either hip. The moment power was added, the material came ‘alive’. A jolt surged through her body. She felt the Mortallis kick in, and every synthetic wire in her nervous system went incandescent. Colors and sounds whirled through her vision.
Her heart raced and her muscles quivered. Before she could worry that something had gone wrong, it all stopped.
Superimposed over the vision of her right eye, a digital readout displayed the diagnostics of her cyberware augmentations, revision levels and status.
The armor had not only interfaced with her skin, but her cyberware as well.
“Apollo, we are in business.”
New Angeles, 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, November 8th, 2079
Dressed in street clothes to conceal her armor, Kath conducted a perimeter sweep, identifying every guard and security system around the twelve story mirrored glass building that served as Brackham’s headquarters.
At 7:50 the rain had returned, a light patter she couldn’t feel through the heavy material but heard as droplets hit the rigid eye guards. It took time to get accustomed to the Achilles armor. The joints restricted movement in unexpected ways.
She thumbed the radio-link adhered to her throat. “The shift change is about to start, time for our devil dance.”
The receiver in her ear clicked. “Copy,” came Apollo’s gruff whisper. “AP-6’s in place, available on channel three.”
“Wiz. Rendez the van in two.”
Kath circled the building watching for out-of-place security. Lights glowed in a few office windows in the upper stories; late shifters who’d wish they called in sick after tonight. Only a handful of pedestrians and homeless people braved the rain. Vehicle traffic looked light and the maintenance crew left the building ten minutes ago.
Her gut tightened. The raid would begin soon. Somewhere on the twelfth story Brackham waited. A stolen copy of his appointment calender noted that he’d be alone except for a girlfriend and his trusted goons.
Brackham’s date would be hotter than he ever imagined.
Two blocks from Brackham’s headquarters she reached her gray-black van as Apollo’s bulky silhouette stepped out of the shadows. Kath hit the alarm switch in her pocket and waited until the security web dropped. The lights on the locks shifted from red to green. Sliding the panel open, she stepped in. Apollo drifted in behind her and closed the hatch with a thud.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“You’re right,” he said, voice muffled by the armor. “It’s do-able. They’re making up for sloppiness with firepower.” He patted his chest, his expression hidden except for narrowed eyes. “The armor should handle the bullets. The AP-6’s will cut main power, land lines, and cyber-net access.”
Kath rubbed her fingers. “Between 2050 and 2100 hours their satellite relay goes on maintenance cycle and they use secondary communication channels. It’ll take two minutes before a call gets out plus a three minute security response time. It leaves you a viable escape window.”
“What about you?”
Kath sighed. “Worry about your own ass.”
He stiffened. Wordlessly, he started harnessing the equipment for their run. Besides the four AP-6’s Apollo planted, they each would carry six of the antipersonnel incendiaries. The ammo belts held five clips of .32 caliber armor piercing Quicksilver for the M22A2’s and four of .45 caliber for the Guardian pistols. Both of the M22A2’s under-slung grenade launchers were loaded with five mini-warheads. First rate favors for Brackham’s surprise party.
Cinching the last of his straps, Apollo slapped a clip into his pistol. “You fired one of these yet?”
“No,” she admitted, looking at the big weapon. “I’ve used its cousin, a Predator-II. Heard the Guardian was top-gun for 12 mil Quicksilver— only the best for Brackham.”
“Watch the burst mode. It’ll spray a 24 round clip before you can sneeze.”
Kath nodded and touched the weapon in the holster under her arm. That aspect of the armor bothered her. The protective mesh dulled tactile sensations. For now, that was advantageous, since the Mortallis made her so sensitive.
She went to her van’s nav console and set the autopilot remote to receive. Now, if they needed to, they could control the van from in the building.
Kath calmed herself. “Let’s do it.” She checked her chrono. “2012 hours— mark.” When Apollo synchronized his watch, she continued. “Hit the comm-center at 2040. Plant two AP-6’s on ten minute timers and go for the top.”
“I scan.” Apollo pulled a backpack into his lap. He patted the full sack. “These boys are gonna have a full dance card.”
She made a grim smile. “Hope they like slam dancing.”
Heavy rifles slung over their shoulders, AP-6 grenades clipped to bandoleers, they zigzagged through the alleys into the shadow of the huge building.
Kath’s intelligence had uncovered a basic weakness in Brackham’s security. He used state-of-the-art intrusion detection equipment, but key wiring conduits were vulnerable if you knew where to punch through the exterior cement.
Ten seconds. A magnesium/phosphor charge burned a hole in the concrete destroying the main alarm gang. Thirty seconds to mount another that melted through the heavy plasti-steel window and grate. Twenty more to slip inside.
One minute, Kath was in and crouching in the darkness. Tactical displays flickered through the view of her right eye lens. The dim laser light of the armor’s retinal-cursor tracking her pupil showed as a brilliant pinpoint. She looked up and activated the armor’s internal cyber. Armor functions appeared in a list. She focused on the star-light imaging selection and rapidly blinked three times.
The shadowy confines of the office grew brighter. She pulled the Guardian pistol from its holster. A glowing red cross-hair appeared in her vision as the gun’s smart-sight linked to the H.W.I embedded in her palm.
Gun trained ahead, she slipped around office furniture and equipment to the door. The darkened corridor was empty. Kath tapped her comm-link twice.
Apollo slid through the opening and rose. He moved with surprising grace for a man so big. Gun out, he gave her a thumbs-up.
Kath checked the chrono; 2016. They had twenty minutes to reach the comm-center and plant the charges.
She signed to Apollo to stay with her and headed down the corridor at a trot. Kath scanned rows of offices now empty. So far, nothing appeared to be secured by visual surveillance. Reaching a turn, Kath slowed to peer into the adjoining passage. She saw what must be the main stairwell access about twenty meters down and an unexpected surprise—goons.
Light coming from the street access farther down the hall illuminated their faces. Dressed in dark three-piece outfits they slouched by the stairwell door drinking beer and smoking. Big guys, some of Brackham’s muscle boys.
Kath signaled Apollo, indicating enemies ahead.
He nodded, handed her his rifle and removed his pack. Holstering her pistol, she popped the safety on the rifle, readying it for an emergency. They didn’t want noise— yet.
Apollo pulled out a long barreled ceramic gun that looked like a child’s toy, a clip of small darts, and another clip of capsules that Kath recognized as compressed nitrogen propellant for a Narcojet pistol.
He worked with the weapon for a few seconds then put his shoulder to the corner. Kath raised the rifle to her cheek and sighted. The optics in her right eye lens pulsed as the H.W.I. synced to M22A2’s digital enhancement array.
The acne-scarred face of one of Brackham’s men loomed in her magnified vision split by black targeting lines. Through the scope she made out each slicked-back blond hair on his head, the comm-link in his ear, and noted the cheap make of his synth-wool suit. Peripherally, she saw Apollo brace against the wall for accuracy.
The gun puffed twice. In the scope, the darts appeared to sprout from the necks of the two security men. They slumped.
She threw Apollo his rifle and headed in, unshouldering her own in case of other sentries. Heart drumming, she kept the gun trained on the unconscious men and kicked away the pistol one had managed to pull before he hit the floor. She disarmed the other and thrust the gun forward to scan the stairwell. Clear.
Apollo trotted up and checked the men’s comm-links. He signed to her the channel they were using. She dialed hers in, and caught the tail end of a transmission.
A gravelly male voice spoke. “…checkpoint epsilon-2 clear.”
A roving patrol, they’d expected that. Together they dragged the guards into an office and stripped them. She put on the smaller man’s suit jacket. Her leather jacket on top of the thickness of the armor broadened her shoulders enough to fill out the muscleboy’s tailored V coat.
A camera key should get them past the video-surveillance in the stairwell. As they neared the entry, she pulled an egg-shaped device out of her pocket. She tapped Apollo on the shoulder and pointed to it. He nodded.
Driven by a ten credit logic circuit, the hacker’s contraption consisted of three components mounted in an egg shaped housing; a laser sight, a phase-shift sounder, and a common camera auto-focusing unit.
Operation was simple. Train the laser on the lens of a surveillance camera. The camera’s auto-focus would attempt to adjust for ambient light and its sounder would ‘ping’ the area. The key intercepted the signals and ‘pinged’ back false ones. With the sec-unit’s focusing confused, even a cheap disguise would pass the scrutiny of the watching guards. By hiding the rifles under their borrowed goon coats and acting as if their comm-units had malfunctioned she and Apollo could avoid tripping an alarm.
Three steps up, she confused the first camera. Not a peep from security. Her chest tightened. If they reached the fifth floor, half their job would be done. She rounded the bend and ‘keyed’ the next camera. If the guards in the security room were lax, they might not see them at all.
The creak of her footsteps sounded loud in the narrow confines of the stairwell. Kath took the stairs two at a time, sensing Apollo keeping pace.
She topped the next landing, then leaned into the next flight of stairs. Half way up, she paused and took a burning breath. Fifteen kilos of cyberware and 25 more of armor and weaponry made these stairs formidable opponents.
Vengeance had made her sloppy. How could she have accounted for every factor except herself? Dumb. Over anxious, and grave marker stupid. Hadn’t done one test drill to see if she was in shape enough to handle it. Just assumed; only fifteen kilos.
Assumed. God, how many dead runners had that engraved on their headstones?
Push through. Her chest grew tight. The Mortallis kicked in, heat flashed through her as wire systems came alive and dumped stress loads into her blood stream.
An explosion of energy ripped through Kath as the augmentations kicked into overdrive. She lunged up one flight, rounded the landing and leaped halfway up the next series before the Achilles systems flashed warnings across her eye lens. Lights danced in her head. She stumbled and caught herself on the rail. An angry wasp seemed to be trying sting its way out of her chest. The world grayed.
She didn’t feel herself hit the steps. The images in her vision pitched and flickered. She couldn’t control her arms and legs. No air.
Apollo caught up. He cursed, his anxious words drowned beneath the thundering of her blood. She couldn’t see what he did, only felt him shove something between her breasts. Kath heard the word ‘sorry’ before everything went black.
New Angeles, 8:36 p.m. Wednesday, November 8th, 2079
The read-out in her eye lens was sitting at cyber system boot prompt, the clock display read 2036 hours. Everything else looked blurry. Diffuse light from fixtures overhead gave everything a halo. Her chest ached. Every nerve ending throbbed as if her whole body had fallen asleep. She smelled something burning.
“Aaa—” she tried to say ‘Apollo’ but it came out jumbled.
He leaned over her. “Goddamn gamma series drek. Lucky my taser reset that Mortallis stuff.”
“Men’s room, third level. Hit you with my taser to force your cyber systems to shutdown. Don’t know if we were seen. Just zapped you and ran. No alarms yet, doesn’t mean anything though. On your feet, Babe.”
Kath struggled to move her arm. It felt glued to the floor. She dragged it up and over to lever herself onto hands and knees. An army of sewing machines seemed to be trying to stitch up her side.
Gasping, she blinked the sweat out of her eyes. Maybe she should abort. No, it had to be tonight. Otherwise, she risked Brackham learning about her purchases and augmentations. He’d be waiting then with the hardware capable of repelling her efforts.
She gathered her strength. Right now, a kid with a slingshot could shut her out.
Kath took a breath, ignoring the burning in her chest. The armor only made it harder now. Colors flicked at the edges of her vision. She fought to twist onto her knees and straighten her arms.
“Get up,” Apollo said, “or I throw you over my shoulder and we abort.”
“No!” Kath glared up at him. The big man’s face was all shadows and reflected light, no details. With a surge, she heaved herself up only to have her arms buckle. In the next instant, she was hugging gray and white tile, sparks dancing in her head.
“Listen to me,” Apollo said in a level voice. “Push those enhancements too far, they’ll burn and you will die. Never take fresh chrome on a run. When you said a new edge, I thought you meant a week— not a day. High-end augmentations overcompensate when new.”
Kath didn’t answer. Apollo probably didn’t expect one. He was politely telling her she’d been stupid. She didn’t disagree.
He spoke in her ear. “We’ll sit tight for a couple minutes. Pull it together, we go. Otherwise, I blow the AP-6s and drag you out in the confusion. Scan?”
She nodded, skull rattling as if filled with marbles. Apollo stood, chambered a round in his M22A2 and went to guard the door.
Kath marshaled herself, willing life into her paralyzed limbs. Her stumbling heart gathered speed. The shutdown of the wires caused paralysis. To function now, she needed to activate the wire systems.
Kath balled her hands into fists. She hammered the concrete floor, energizing the cold wires and driving new life into her body.
Come on, kick in— do it!
She took shallow choppy breaths and with a final heave of will forced the Mortallis to activate. Kath felt the autonomic cyber seize control, stabilizing heart rate, blood pressure. A numbness spread through her as the endorphin injectors dumped secretions into her bloodstream.
Kath grunted and stood. Arms and legs trembling, she staggered and caught herself on the wall. Apollo stared at her. All Kath could read of his expression through the holes of his mask were narrowed eyes. His jaw muscles tensed. He probably wished that she’d stay on the floor.
Something in her wished she could; that she might wake up from this nightmare. No, she stood nine stories beneath Brackham. She must avenge a woman who’d never lifted a hand in violence, not to her or anyone. Brackham had crippled Martha Hershel simply for being in the way, for being the head of a family that annoyed him.
He thought the Hershels had annoyed him before— wait until 2050 hours when five AP-6s went off.
The thought gave her strength. Straightening, she walked in a circle, gaining confidence as the Mortallis compensated for the shock caused by the psych-out in the stairwell. She stopped and held her hands out. Still shaky, but not too bad. A million credits worth of cyberware were finally functioning properly.
She reset the armor’s internal cyber and felt it link into the mortallis; ready to rumble. At the edges of her vision, colors still danced like wraiths.
She picked up her rifle and moved toward Apollo. A chrono check showed 2042. Eight minutes to get to the fifth level and set those charges.
“We go?” he asked.
Kath counted to five slowly. “Ready.”
“Okay.” He squeezed her shoulder. She didn’t see him smile but sensed it.
Apollo opened the door a crack and peered out. She readied her rifle. The tension came back in a rush. Two floors and seven minutes to their window of opportunity. If they bailed, the burned wiring would be found and their avenue of entry sealed. One chance at this deal; no more.
Apollo checked the corridor and led the way to the stairwell. He pulled the camera key from his belt as they neared the door.
Kath’s heart thundered and her breathing quickened. An icy thread of fear snaked through her guts. The Mortallis could psych-out again any moment and her heart would explode. The band of colors in her vision intruded for a second then faded. Kath swallowed. It was a reminder that while Apollo had salvaged the mission from her screw up, it still had the potential to bite her.
Chill, she told herself, it’s natural to feel tense. Heart’s got to work harder then.
Apollo cracked the entry, paused and entered. Kath took the steps with care, measuring her pace behind Apollo. They would have company soon. By now, the guards on the first level entry would have missed a check in. Everything rode on the next few minutes.
They passed the fourth level and headed for the fifth. Apollo froze. At the next landing a tech and one of Brackham’s muscleboys stared at a security-camera. The two men jerked and froze too.
Gazes locked across a distance of less than three meters. Neither side moved. The guard’s gun was still buttoned in its holster. She and Apollo had the M22A2s ready.
Kath gripped the rifle so hard so heard the plastic creak. The cold thread in her stomach had become a thrashing worm.
Wires hung down from the camera; probably blind. Security wouldn’t know about the confrontation unless someone started shooting— or they squealed on the comm-link. She tapped her comm into active mode. The taser charge forced everything into standby. No messages— yet.
“On the deck.” Apollo gestured with the rifle.
The tech kissed the concrete. The muscleboy hesitated, broad face set. His hands opened and closed nervously.
“If one neck muscle twitches to subvocalize into that c-link,” Apollo growled. “I’ll geek you.” He nodded to Kath. “Get that comm off him.”
She watched her footing on the steps, aware that the tech could grab her leg. The Mortallis revved up a notch and her heart drummed faster. She shouldered the rifle and pulled the Guardian from its holster.
Sweat beaded on the muscleboy’s face. Tension danced through his thick body. Having been in a similar situation, she knew what flicked through his mind. Am I fast enough?
Kath shoved the gun into his stomach. “Not a twitch. It has a hair trigger and it’s on auto.”
He stared at the gun, eyes seeming all whites. He stayed still. Keeping her gaze locked on him she reached for the comm-wire and vocal patch. The man smelled of Virago aftershave and cigars. Even through the armor Kath felt the coarseness of his five-o’clock shadow. Pulling the mike off his throat, she popped the listener out of his ear, pocketed them and stepped back.
The tech grabbed her leg. The muscleboy lunged. The Mortallis went full on. Kath went to one knee. A left-handed hammer fist dribbled the tech’s face on the concrete. With the other hand she reversed the heavy pistol and yanked it up between the guard’s legs. She heard a plasterine groin protector crunch under the impact of the gun-butt.
The guard howled. She jerked him sideways and so he tumbled past Apollo and sprawled on the landing below. Body electrified, she poised in ready stance.
The guard turned onto his belly and vomited. He made mewling sounds. Cursing, the tech clutched his broken face.
Apollo pulled out his taser and silenced both men’s noises. “You scared the drek out of me.”
Kath found it funny. She took hold of the back of his neck and stood on tiptoe. “Didn’t know you cared.”
He poked her in the stomach. “Move. Two minutes to the window.”
(… continued in part 3)