Somewhere in the middle floors of the city, Inspector Dionne was waiting for her target. It was quiet, especially for lunchtime, and she couldn’t help but feel conspicuous. She was in a booth at a small yassa bar, the sort of spot typically favoured by ageing men looking for a midday drink. Not exactly her demographic, and not exactly ideal. But there wasn’t a good alternative. Half the street was boarded up, the other half even less apt than here. She wasn’t overly concerned about it. It wouldn’t matter if she was made, as long as the right guy walked through the door before it happened.
The proprietor was giving her sideways glances. Given his associations, he had good cause to be suspicious. Whatever else happened, he wasn’t going to be going home tonight. She sipped her tea and watched the headlines scroll by. Residential unit collapses on floor 48. American Federation yet to launch third warhead for the day – the slowest rate in two decades. Ten dissidents arrested in upper floor gathering. New filtering units to reduce cost of clean water by twelve percent in the coming period. Et cetera.
A few minutes passed. This was pushing it. The target was ‘Jefferson’, the latest in a highly select line of Federation infiltrators. Given his calibre, he must have had a good network. He might have caught wind of something, gotten spooked. There was still a slim chance that he was just running late, but she doubted it. These people tended to be meticulous. She moved her hands into her coat. It seemed increasingly likely that the firearm would be necessary. An assassin would be wearing something too thick for the nerve gun to penetrate.
Another few minutes passed. That settled it. She’d apprehend the owner now, try and get some information that way. Just as she stood, a young woman in a combat suit burst through the door. Dionne shot her in the neck before she could fire, training the nerve gun on the bartender with her other arm in the same motion. The whole thing was rather flamboyant. It felt like one of the manoeuvres that the idiots at the academy would attempt whilst failing their evaluations.
“Was this you?”
“What? Please, I…”
“You work with these guys? Federation cell?”
“No, no, no I just… food and drink, that’s all.”
Time for a snap judgement. If Jefferson knew that somebody was after him, he’d almost certainly try to enact whatever plan he had rather than go into hiding and attempt to rebuild. No time to waste on somebody who didn’t know anything. This man didn’t know anything. She fired the nerve gun and started walking. Her cochlear implant rang as soon as she hit the street.
“Correct. What’s the situation?”
“Jefferson didn’t show. Sent a gunman instead. Assailant dead, proprietor incapacitated.”
“Yes. Send a unit, but it’s not urgent.”
“Roger that. I’ll add one fatality and one arrest to the file. What now?”
“Jefferson must be about to make his move. Set the internal threat level to critical, get all available resources on the case and let’s see if we can pull a lead in the next ten minutes before it’s too late.”
“Are you certain?”
“Shit, OK. What’s your next move?”
“I’m heading to the office on this floor, southwest quarter, unless something changes. Dionne out.”
“Got it. Hopefully I’ll buzz you before you get there, or we’re probably fucked. Itani out.”
He wasn’t wrong. It was about a ten-minute walk to the office. If Jefferson had something ready enough to action, and it was likely that he did, he was surely going all-in on it now. She was falling behind. If nothing came up soon, he’d be too far ahead to stop. A device would be detonated, a vital system disabled, a biological agent released… something. She found herself now, suddenly, in the same moment that the greatest of her predecessors had shared. The brief, eternal window in between the die being cast and the number showing. The moment at which all preparation ceases, all relevant wheels are already in motion, and only blind luck makes the choice between certain defeat and the continued possibility of victory. Parts of her brain remained utterly focused, committed only to discerning and performing the optimal sequence of actions given the information available. Other parts flailed in numb panic. She did her best to ignore them.
The implant rang.
“What have you got?”
“Well, it’s something. Some uniforms caught a long-range connection in the northwest quarter of your floor. Not too far from the office. I’ll redirect them.”
“Good stuff, Mahmud. What are the odds on this guy?”
“Well, he’s got virtually no form, but the surveillance algorithm has him flagged from locational data. Must be associated somehow, right? Given the timing.”
“Agreed. Put the arrest on the file. Dionne out.”
She passed a beggar, and gave him a sizeable donation without breaking stride. She was back in business. Dissidents respond like bacteria. They thrive when it’s warm, but if you pile on enough heat and pressure, only the extremophiles remain. Those are the hardcore, the ones with serious ties, who truly believe in what they’re doing. The higher-ups had been stomping out long-range internet connections for months, long enough that all the everyday rebels were out of the picture.
She arrived at the office before shortly before the lead. ‘Office’ was generous – they were glorified armouries and interrogation rooms down on these floors. Just two small rooms, and a cubicle for decontamination if needed. She took the opportunity to refresh her equipment, then indulged in a glass of water and a deep breath.
It was a young man, no older than his mid-twenties, skinny and understandably panicked. Pale, which may have been the root of his Federation sympathies. The analysts could unpick that mess later. She took him into the interrogation room, sat him down, and applied a localised nerve gun blast to his legs, paralysing them. This would be ugly. It was the sort of situation that she would go to great lengths to avoid, on any other day. But there wasn’t time for great lengths. She needed a geodesic.
“What’s going on?”
“Shut up. Look, I’m sorry about this. But I need everything you know about a Federation operative. I think you know who I mean. And I really don’t have time to talk you into it.”
“What? No, don’t…”
She attached ‘the device’ to his arm, set the timer for three minutes, and walked out of the room. It was, fortunately, sound-proof. She turned away, shut her eyes, and tried not to think about it. Her own record during resistance evaluation was eight minutes, forty-two seconds. That was considered exemplary. Those tests also served as a reminder that the device was for use as a last resort only.
He was sobbing, caked in sweat when she returned.
“Information. Everything you know. Or that’s going back on and I’m walking out of here.”
“J… Jefferson? That’s what you’re calling him, right?”
“I, I don’t have m-much.”
“Do you know his plan?”
“He’s going to disable the nuclear defence grid. I don’t really know how. I think he has someone in the NDB, maybe. Disable the grid, let a strike through on the upper floors.”
“Is it ready? Can he do it today?”
“Probably. Probably. He had me put a signal out on the long-range maybe half an hour ago, but I don’t know what it meant. The plan was not today, but I think he’s going to try.”
“That’s it? That’s all?”
“You’ve met him? Describe him.”
“Um… ah. Only twice. White, of course. You would expect that. About your height, average build. Green eyes… shaved head.”
“Contact details. Implant frequency if applicable, current phone number if you know it. If he’s moving today, he must have given you something.”
“He did, he did… fuck. Give me a second.”
“Precisely one second. Go.”
“Try 7431-8011-8019. I think that’s it.”
“Got it. Listen, I’m sorry for that, I am. You’ve been good. Keep it up and things should be painless from here on. Be valuable, they should keep you alive.”
She turned and accelerated to a brisk pace, bordering on a jog. She fired up her implant.
“Mahmud, I’ve left the source at the office. Get a unit to him.”
“Sure. What did you get?”
“Jefferson’s targeting the NDB somehow. I’m heading to the interlayer elevator now. He’s ahead of his schedule, so we may have a shot.”
“You sure? That’s going to cause an utter shitstorm if true. Place should be completely watertight, impossible to compromise…”
“I’m sure. How many of our people are in there?”
“Let them know. Jefferson’s a white man, about six feet, shaven head, green eyes. Average build. Don’t know if he’s going there in person, but odds are good.”
“Will do. Current elevator code for B17 is… 54772. Anything else?”
“54772. Got it. Give our lead a green mark. He was compliant. I used the device.”
“I’ll put those both on the file. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Dionne out.”
“Good luck, Inspector. Itani out.”
She reached the elevator, entered, and dialled the code. High-security floor codes were kept very close to the chest, and changed every hour. Jefferson probably didn’t have it. He was most likely using a maintenance route. Much slower. The difference in speed would erode most of his head start. She afforded herself another deep breath, then signalled Jefferson’s number into her implant. Anything to slow him down. There was a click, and the connection was made.
“… right, that’s what you’ve been calling me. I like it. An inspector, I presume? Care to introduce yourself?”
He was willing to talk, then. Either he was in transit and could afford to waste time, or he hoped to confuse her in some way. He was making a mistake, she felt. If his plan was at all solid, this was his game to lose. Her best approach was to throw everything at him, hope to shake his confidence, encourage unneeded haste or caution.
“Well, I hope you weren’t too rough with my poor comms officer. I know how barbaric you people are.”
“You’re planning to compromise the NDB. You’re heading there now.”
“Oh, you’ve been busy I see. Well you’re correct, but you’re slow. It’s been compromised since a couple of days ago. I’ve got… substantial leverage over somebody inside. Substantial leverage. And I’ll be exercising it very, very soon. Then it’s goodbye Nuclear Defence Bureau, goodbye Pan-Africa. God, my blood’s pumping!”
“Your boy told me that the plan was to target the upper floors. That’s not true, is it?”
“Indeed it is not. You’re surprisingly capable, considering the obvious. No way in hell the Federation is going to waste a window like that putting one warhead into one layer. This whole place is going down, and all of us with it. It’s just hard to recruit people if you tell them that. Not a great pitch.”
“This is an ostentatious plan, Jefferson. More so than your forebears.”
“Oh, look at you with the words, sounding all educated. You don’t fool me! Anyhow, my forebears were worthless jackasses. Dinosaurs. I’m the new shit. Christ, these things are slow. Do you not have engineers on this continent? Well look, I’ve got a few seconds. Tell me that I’m going to fail. Tell me that you’ll stop me. It’ll be funny.”
“We’ll see how it goes.”
“That we will. Oh hey, my stops’s coming up. Be seeing you soon, sugar. We can spend the rest of our lives together.”
There was space for exactly one more deep breath before she arrived. She was about to conduct the most urgent, most critical field operation of the last six years, inside the most sensitive facility in the city. That was how it went. They were locked in a cold war that seemed desperate to ignite. Any assignment could veer wildly into crisis at a moment’s notice, and you just had to keep pace and stay on it. Discern and perform the optimal sequence of actions given the information available. The rest, the difference between nothing happening and nothing surviving, was a roll of the dice. There she was again, trapped in that moment outside of time, where everything is to play for and nothing is to be done. There was a sort of quivering, nauseous frenzy attempting to distract her. It would fail. She couldn’t control her adrenaline, but she would be the undisputed master of her thoughts. The situation demanded it – anything less than perfection in the coming minutes could mean extinction. Her grip tightened, her breathing slowed, and the fog cleared.
The hum of the elevator went silent. She had arrived.
The End (i)