“Any sign of them?” the trooper called into thin air, a gloved hand touching a shiny grey patch that was fused to the side of his head. He’d removed his helmet and held it underarm as his colleagues swarmed the alleyway. Bootsteps and clattering weaponry filled the alleyway with irregular raucousness.
“Negative, Commander Syren,” another called. He kept his helmet on, tight. He subtly adjusted it with his free hand. It was parallel to the seam down the exact centre of his uniform. Syren’s lips twitched very subtly in assent. “Sweep of the area comes up no results.”
“Damn,” Syren sighed. He paced back along the alley toward the back entrance to Silicon Dreams. The shadows in the alleyway had been dispelled under powerful halogen lamps, tied with umbilical cables through the back window of the shop. The PANDORA troopers had placed a metal frame at the base of the window, allowing armoured men easy access to the shop.
“Sir,” a trooper called from the window. “Your attention, please.”
Syren shook his head. He ascended the ladder quickly, leaping the final step back into the back room. Inside he saw, at the base of the stairwell, an old man was being held by two PANDORA troopers, both looking as anonymous and identikit as the others.
“This is Hirem Chang, owner of the establishment, he’s unco-operative…” the restraining trooper began.
Chang cut him off. “Are you grunts done ransacking my shop?!” he protested. He tried to take a step forward. The PANDORA trooper gave a slight squeeze on his shoulder. Chang winced and his knees bucked. The commander walked past, wordlessly. “Yes, you, skin!”
The term skin made Syren stop dead. He shivered, expressing a rare glint of emotion. Hatred. Anger. Disgust. The LEDs on his implant blinked furtively, this time red. He turned, the grey augmentations to his face glinting in the fluorescent light as he pivoted easelessly on his heels.
“What did you say?”
The old man stood defiant. He winced as the PANDORA trooper tightened his gloved grip on his hand. “You heard.”
“No,” the commander said quietly. “I’d like you to repeat that. Now.” He nodded to his trooper colleague. The shopkeeper winced again.
“Er…” the old man croaked. His lip trembled. “My shop…”
Syren took a step closer. “You used a racial slur. You called me a skin. Didn’t you?”
The shopkeeper met the commander’s gaze. He closed his eyes in resignation. “Yes. Sir.”
“You know what that means?” Syren tapped his implant. The lights on it flittered. “You consider… the uplifted… less than human.”
Chang grimaced. He knew, alright.
Syren paced around Chang for a moment. His free hand formed a fist, subtly, one digit at a time. He continued pacing for a pregnant moment until a glint of the halogen light outside reflected on his dewy, grey eyeballs. Then he pounced, punching Chang straight in the kidney. The old man fell to the floor with a clatter, the consciousness seemingly knocked straight from him.
Syren took a look around. He saw another trooper examining the cabinet. “Your misdemeanour will not go unpunished. These,” he took one of the CandySofts, “are yours I believe.”
Chang looked up with effort from the floor. His mouth agape, the shopkeeper gasped. “No, please, those are…”
“Seized,” the commander smiled wickedly. “Remittance for your crimes, earthworm. Though one thing puzzles me. How many were in there last night?”
“And how many now?”
“Wrong!” the commander roared, almost euphoric with delight. “You’re wrong, and you are harbouring criminals and subversives. Your marker has been amended.”
“So?” Chang spat with effort, defiantly. “I don’t want access to your… degenerate utopia up there. I’ll stay here on the real ground.”
“As I said, you are an earthworm. Someone has taken one of these devices. Your sales records are incomplete. I have to say, your list of misdemeanours is becoming lengthy. Shall we negotiate?” He nodded to the restraining trooper. He squeezed. The shopkeeper audibly yelped. There was a subtle but perceptible sound of bone fracturing, crunching and parting. Chang grunted but didn’t move. Syren stepped over his prone form, nodding to another trooper, who hauled the motionless form of Chang outside. Syren stepped out of the shop back into the night, and a thud emanated from the alleyway, as trash rattled against the metal sides of a now-occupied dumpster.
“Sir!” one of the troopers called. “We have an update from PANDORA control!”
Syren’s eyes glinted wickedly. “Good. What’s the report?”
“SweepNet search has localised the NEXUS cell to this locality. We’re sitting on top of them.”
“Any results from triangulating the data transfer?” Syren hummed. He knew the system well. “We know from prior experience NEXUS has liked to snoop in on the network?”
The other trooper tapped at the grey, mottled implant on his left temple. A few LEDs flickered fluorescent green. “We’ve an open pylon nearby.”
Syren sighed and smiled contentedly. “Scum never change.” He vaulted out of the backroom, onto the metal ladder that wobbled under his heavy feet.
“What about him?” the restraining trooper asked.” The commander didn’t turn back.
“Neutralise and process. And confiscate the stock. We’ll put that to good use. Happy new year to the entire of Bravo Unit.”
The commander jumped down, back into the alleyway. He gestured to two of the troopers that stood idly by. “With me.”
“Where to, sir?”
“Let’s flush ‘em out,” the commander hummed and rounded the corner. He looked up, his neck craning, and tapped his implant a couple of times. Motors very subtly whirred in his augmented eyeballs, his eyelids narrowing. “Yeah, that’s the one we want. Up, now!”
The two troopers burst into action and up the fire escape. The commander waited, dusting his jacket expectantly. Subconsciously his feet tapped on the loose gravel of the alleyway, and a breeze wrapped a discarded food wrapper around it. Irritated, the commander flicked it away with a quick motion of his ankle. Just then his implant chirped and he focused intently, one finger holding down the haptic zone around his temple He nodded silently then smiled.
Aven looked severely at her display. “We have to move.”
“Where?” Bray called. “Now?”
“Yes, now. Unless you finally do want to have that boot up your ass.”
“What about all this?” Bray said, gesturing to the displays and computer equipment that festooned the NEXUS lair.
Aven had already moved quickly to an area behind the workbench. She wrenched at another iron hatch that was so rusted and ancient-looking it blended into the brickwork around it. It gave a loud, piercing squeal. On the other side was pure gloom and a damp smell.
“What is that?” Bray coughed.
“Inspection capsule. Repurposed by us,” Aven explained briskly, not looking at Bray. “Alright,” she said to him. “This time we’re going into the sewers.” She saw his face contort with disgust. “But it’s not the actual sewer. It’s a service duct. You’ll see. If anything…” she began, climbing into the hatch, “it expedites our plan a good bit.”
“How’d you make that out?”
She gave a glinting smile. “Time for that later. Come on, in!”
Bray gave a wary look over his shoulder. No sound but the constant hum of a distant air purifier, the steady motion of the air disturbing ancient plastic wrapping on pipes in the ceiling. He turned back and climbed into the metal can, closing the hatch with a squeal. Then the can shuddered and dropped into the darkness.
PANDORA troopers surrounded the entrance to the sewage works. The commander sidled up to the door. One of the troopers nodded in assent and, with a heave, lifted the ram from the floor, where it had rested. The metal scraped on the rough cement floor.
The commander held out three fingers. Then two. Then one.
The door parted in a flurry of rending metal. The ancient steel wailed as it crumbled into rusty fragments.
“Freeze! Hands in the air! Don’t move!” came a flurry of voices from the troopers as they careened down the stairs.
Nothing. The air purifier hummed, and underneath that was the sound of the troopers breathing heavily.
Slow, calculated footsteps now came down the ladder. The light glinted on the exposed implant. Syren emerged, and the group of troopers parted before him.
The service room was deserted.
Syren approached the large bank of screens against the wall. He held a hand up. They were still warm. His touch activated one, and he smiled expectantly. They’d been too quick to allow NEXUS to wipe their system. This could be the motherlode.
Four words flashed on the screen in great white glyphs.
Syren stared, his wry smile dissipating into a furious aspect. He took a long breath and roared, punching the screen, which erupted in a flurry of sparks.
A few blocks away, a doorway opened. Two forms emerged into the shadows. A man and a woman.
The woman’s face was illuminated by the rectangle of light from her phone.
“The night begins,” she whispered, and disappeared into the ether.