Original Work Streets of Payne (Sample)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by Jeff Brackett, Nov 17, 2013.

  1. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey+++

    All right. Below is a sample from my latest release, "Streets of Payne". It's a futuristic cyberpunk style novel. I hesitated in posting it here because it has nothing to do with survival or PA at all, but after a few comments back and forth on the HPM thread, I went ahead and dropped this sample here.

    NOTE - At the time of this posting, I have the book on sale for 99¢. Like I said, it's a new release, and I need to gain some attention and reviews to help it climb the rankings on Amazon.

    If you decide it's something you might be interested in buying, I want to encourage you to use the shopping link here on the forum (see the banner at the top of the page?), so the monkey tree can get a little percentage to help keep the tree growing.

    I hope you enjoy.


    Streets of Payne

    Part One

    The Payne of Her Convictions


    She struggled against the street banger who held her head. Strapped to the table as she was, there was little chance of breaking loose, but she refused to make it easy for them.

    The second banger leaned over her and sneered. “What’s wrong, baby? Don’cha wanna party with us?”

    The two men laughed, and she looked frantically from one face to the other. Then the first one placed a clear cylinder over her right eye and pressed something on top of it. She heard a whirring sound and felt a vacuum form. Her vision distorted, and she screamed as an intense, throbbing agony shot from her eye to the back of her head. There was a moment of relief as the pressure eased then searing torture when the eye popped from its socket.

    Amber forced back a scream and instinctively slapped her hip, reaching for her pistol, only to find naked skin. Heart pounding in her tight chest, she woke in a cold sweat, gasping as she sifted nightmare from reality.

    “Lights on!”

    The LEDs in her bedroom kicked in obediently. She lay still for several seconds, struggling to bring her breathing under control as she forced the nightmare back into its cage. When the final dregs faded, she compelled herself to hold onto the faces of her tormentors. The first banger had deep blue eyes—pretty eyes, completely out of place in an otherwise unremarkable face. The second had a jagged scar running from his left temple to a ragged split in his nostril. She went over each detail again, as she did every time they invaded her sleep.

    “Never again,” she whispered, the same promise she made each time it happened. Finally satisfied that she was back in control, Amber took one last steadying breath and called out to the apartment comp, “Chasm, what time is it?”

    The Computerized Home and Apartment Service Module, or Chasm, replied in a preprogrammed voice designed to be aesthetically pleasing to most people. “The time is…”

    “Visual only,” Amber snapped. She was most definitely not most people.

    The voice stopped, and the time display flashed on the bare wall in front of her. 04:46—not enough time to get back to sleep.

    “So it’s going to be one of those days.” With a sigh, she rolled out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. “Shower, hot.”

    The toilet pivoted into the wall, and a shower pan slid out to cover the floor. She stepped onto the pan before it finished moving, and seconds later, needles of hot water jetted from the ceiling and wall grids to massage the tension from her body. Almost immediately, her shoulders unclenched in the steaming artificial rain, and she sighed with pleasure.

    She allowed herself a few minutes of ecstasy, simply reveling in a rare moment of emptiness—no worries about work, or schedules, or what the day might bring—just the hot water sluicing over her knotted muscles. Then she looked over at the steam-proof mirror tile, and her calm evaporated. Cold gray orbs stared lifelessly back at her. Windows to the soul, huh?

    “Then you’ve got about as much chance of an afterlife as Chasm does.” She looked away, but the reminder was a sour knot in the pit of her stomach. Snarling, she slapped her palm against the wall.

    She immediately regretted that particular action, as the water temperature began to drop from wonderfully hot to barely tepid. “Shyte!” The regulator had done that before, and she knew from painful experience that she had only a few minutes before the water became intolerably cold. She reached frantically for the body wash and slapped it into her hair and all over her body before rinsing in the cold water. By the time she finished, the icy bite of the shower had her teeth chattering. Her skin was taut with the cold, and she felt like her nipples could cut glass.

    “C-C-Chasm. D-Dryer on. H-h-hot air.”

    Vents opened in the wall, and she waited in anticipation of the warm relief of hot air from the dryer. After a few seconds, she growled. “Chasm, w-w-why isn’t th-th-th-there any a-a-air?”

    “Dryer malfunction. Notification has been sent to repair center.”

    Cursing profusely, she stomped out of the bathroom and snatched the sheet off her bed. She rubbed it vigorously over her body to absorb the excess water and to help bring some circulation back into her chilled extremities. Finally dry, she grabbed a pair of panties from her dresser drawer and slipped them on, hurrying to get some clothing on her chilled body. “Chasm, can you make me any breakfast, or is the kitchen broken, too?”

    “The kitchen is not broken. What would you like to eat?”

    “Two eggs, over medium with sausage links—no salt, extra pepper.”

    There was a slight pause. “Unable to comply.”

    Slipping on her uniform, Amber cursed again. “I thought you said the kitchen wasn’t broken!”

    “The kitchen is not broken.”

    “Then fix my damned breakfast.”

    “Unable to comply.”

    “Damn it, Chasm. Why the hell not?”

    “Pantry contents are insufficient to fulfill request.”

    She tucked her tunic into her pants. “What am I missing?”

    “Eggs, sausage links, and pepper.”

    Belatedly, Amber remembered that she hadn’t placed her grocery order for the week. “All right, what do I have?”

    “Soy milk, synthetic meat substitute, dehydrated cereal, soy protein supplement, carbonated fruit-flavored water.”

    “Wonderful.” She buckled her fléchette pistol and stun baton in place with a sigh. “Cancel breakfast.”


    Heading for the door, Amber reflected on just how bad the day was shaping up to be. Not a great start at all. “Go to sleep, Chasm.” She made it sound like a curse, and the lights powered down as she palmed the lock on the door and left.

    Her stomach growled as she exited the complex, and she wondered if there would be any sticky buns at the station. Sticky buns and chocaffeine—maybe not the most nutritious of meals, but at least it would quell the grumbling in her belly. Her thoughts were on her nonexistent breakfast when a cold winter wind reminded her that she’d forgotten her jacket.

    What a freaking day! Could it get any worse?

    She had a brief second to regret asking that when she heard a bellowing roar behind her. She was barely able to turn before something slammed into her, knocking her off her feet and smashing her into the door of her patrol pod hard enough to dent it.

    “Son of a—” She was suddenly lifted into the air by her belt and catapulted into the wall of the nearest building. She hit face-first, a full two meters above the ground, and fell into a frozen flowerbed, screaming in rage and pain.

    Staggering to her feet, Amber tasted blood and spat a tooth into her hand. She ran her tongue into the empty socket and winced at the shooting reprimand the exposed nerve served her. She intentionally jammed her tongue into the socket again, using the pain to feed her anger.

    “What? You knock out my freakin’ tooth? Damned sheep-sodomizing, scum-guzzling…” Words failed her when she got her first clear look at her attacker.

    A hulking mass of jagged muscle, he easily weighed more than twice her slender fifty-eight kilos. To make it even worse, much of his mass appeared to be muscular augmentation. Fat Buddha’s balls! Implants.

    It was blatantly obvious, for in the narcissistic style of most street bangers, the man was bare from the waist up. And he was already charging again.

    Move it or die, Amber. Her head spun as she fought to stay focused on her attacker. He’d made a huge mistake in tossing her away, but by their very nature, bangers were usually more dependent on brawn than brains.

    The behemoth in front of her was no exception. Throwing her the ten meters from her pod to into the wall had been nothing more than a show of strength, and Amber had to admit, an impressive one. But it also meant a three- or four-second reprieve before he could cross the ground to get back to her, and that was all the time she needed. She ripped her pistol from its holster and fired a line of fléchettes into the charging juggernaut.

    Blood ran down his bare chest, but that and his bellow of rage were the only signs she’d hit him. He never even slowed.

    Subdermal armor, too? She felt the ground shake, then the giant was on her, and she barely danced out of the way in time to avoid his flailing fists.

    She keyed the comm link on her lapel, yelling frantically as she slipped on the icy sidewalk and duck aside again. “HQ! HQ! Agent under attack!” She was embarrassed when her voice cracked.

    Once more, her opponent turned and swung. Amber ducked and slapped her useless pistol back in her holster.

    Dispatch answered, “Agent, are you wounded?”

    “Not yet.” She skipped backward into the surer footing of the snow-covered lawn in front of her apartment building, once more slipping out of her attacker’s monstrous reach. “But that might change if you don’t get me some help! Ping this location and send backup.”

    “Understood. Backup ETA is six minutes.”

    She cursed. “Not good enough, Dispatch. This won’t last that long!” But she didn’t get to hear the reply, as her attacker managed to catch her with a flailing fist and knock her off her feet. Cursing, she watched helplessly as the comm link went skittering across the street.

    All right, six minutes it is. She knew there was no way the altercation was going to last that long. One way or another, it would be over in less than half that time. She was on her own. Fine. Looks like we do this the hard way.

    “Okay, Goliath”—she slid her stun stick out of its belt pouch—“you like it rough?” A flick of her wrist and the metal baton telescoped out to sixty centimeters of electrified pain. “I can do rough.”

    As he barreled toward her again, she charged as well. Surprise registered fleetingly in his eyes. He was probably more accustomed to his victims fleeing. She ducked under his outstretched arms and slammed the stunner into his ribs.

    Dancing out of reach, she slapped the baton into the backside of the ribs on the same side. She followed that with a kick to the back of his knee that caused him to stagger for a second, giving her time for yet another shot at his ribs. She landed the stun stick home again then kicked at the same ribs.

    With his armor, the kick did no real damage, but it gave her a toehold. Right foot planted firmly in his belt, she climbed the oversized torso, placing her left foot on his shoulder before slamming the stun stick down on his head. While he screamed, Amber stomped her heel down on his collarbone. She heard it crack as she launched herself into an aerial backflip.

    The giant staggered, grasping his side as the electrical charge caused his muscles to spasm painfully, then roared in agony as the movement ground the fragments of his collarbone together. “Freakin’ bitch!”

    Amber raised the corners of her bleeding mouth in a macabre smile as she looked up at him from her crouched position. Her bearing was that of a feral cat, coiled and ready to pounce. “Want more?”

    She needn’t have asked. The banger feinted right, and then, with more agility than she had thought he had in him, he juked left and swung a massive ham of a fist in a wild arc that almost missed her.


    Once again, agony flared as his glancing blow caught her on the cheek and spun her around. But as she spun, she swung wildly and slammed the stun stick into the banger’s ribs. Both of them screamed.

    If they had been capable, Amber’s eyes would have blurred with tears of agony. But cybernetic implants were designed to serve only specific functions, and crying was most definitely not essential. Her artificial tear ducts moistened the implants only enough to keep her eyelids comfortable. Securi-Tech had no concern for anything beyond that. So she stared at the street banger with unblinking, gray metallic orbs, recording his every word and action as he turned and prepared to rush her again. When he came at her, Amber dove to the ground and jammed the stun stick up between his legs.

    He shrieked a full octave higher than his previous scream. Amber held the baton in place for a moment as she stood, and he collapsed into a fetal position, twitching and retching. Finally, he puked and lost consciousness.

    “About freaking time!” she muttered, switching off the juice to the baton.

    With a grunt, she heaved the unconscious behemoth onto his stomach, rolling his face through the pool of steaming vomit in the snow. With more than a few choice words, she double-cuffed his hands behind his back then she staggered to where her comm set lay in the street and called HQ.

    “Dispatch, this is Payne. Backup is no longer required. I need a containment wagon at my present GPS with a team for pickup. Perp is heavily augmented with muscular enhancements and subdermal armor. Use caution when loading him. Charge is assault and battery against a law enforcement official.”

    “Roger that, Detective. Do you need medical assistance?”

    Amber spat out some blood and sat down hard, finally allowing the last few minutes to catch up to her. Cybernetic eyes or not, she was having a hard time staying focused on her surroundings. She blinked in an attempt to shake off the dizziness. “Affirmative, Dispatch. Looks like I’m going to need some time in the Doc Box.” She opened her left hand and looked at the tooth she’d lost in the fight. “And I’m going to need some dental work while I’m in there.”

    “Roger that. Wagon is en route, ETA four minutes. Do you need anything else?”

    “That’s a negative, Dispatch. But the perp will probably need some time in a Box when he comes to. Payne out.”

    She staggered to her patrol pod and pressed her bloody hand against the palm reader. “Amber Payne,” she said into the bio lock, and the door opened. She climbed inside and waited for the wagon to arrive.


    Amber stepped fully refreshed out of the medi-booth and found Kevin waiting for her.

    He handed her a steaming cup of chocaffeine. “G’morning, partner.”

    “You’re a lifesaver! I haven’t had any breakfast yet.” She burned her tongue on the first sip of the acrid brew but didn’t care as the warmth spread throughout her body. She closed her eyes and sighed.

    “How’s the mouth?”

    She smiled, showing him the newly reseated tooth. “Good as new. Amazing what an hour in the Doc Box can do for you.”

    He snorted. “Amazing what some people will go through to get an hour off from work. I mean, why couldn’t you have picked on someone a little bit tougher? That poor guy was barely twice your size.”

    She grinned. “Yeah, hardly worth the time.”

    “Well, next time you want to come in late, just call. No need to go through all this drama.”

    She took another sip of the heavenly warmth in her cup. Kevin Glass, fresh out of the academy, had only been her partner for six months, but they had grown close in that time, and she knew his concern was genuine. “I’m fine, Kevin. Really.”

    “Well, that could change. Fischer wants to see you. Post-incident interview.”

    “Crap. More forms to fill out.”

    Kevin smiled. “Don’t sweat it. I’ve already started on them. Just go placate the boss.”

    If it weren’t for the fact that he was her partner, she might have been attracted to him. But Amber knew better than to shit where she ate. Besides, rumor had it that he’d been pair-bonded once, and it had ended badly. She’d never asked. He’d never brought it up.

    It was enough that Kevin was the best cyber surfer she’d ever worked with. He’d graduated at the top of his class with the highest scores ever recorded at the academy. Specializing in computer sciences, he’d designed his own surfboard, complete with a surgically implanted neural input/output port behind his right ear. Amber suspected that someone who had managed to hack into the academy computers might have manipulated his scores. She also figured anyone good enough to do so deserved whatever grades they could get away with.

    Knowing her paperwork was in capable hands, Amber went to her incident review.

    She knocked on the chief’s door and waited.


    She opened the door. “You wanted to see me, Chief?”

    Shift Chief Jon Fischer looked up from his desktop. “Come on in, Payne.” He tapped the desk, and it changed from a translucent network monitor to an opaque, imitation wood finish. “I was just looking over your uploads from this morning’s incident.” He shook his head. “You’re lucky to still be walking.”

    “With respect, Chief, after the initial attack, the guy didn’t stand a chance.”

    Fischer tapped his desk and spoke to his console. “Open screen. Alter display configuration, project to wall screen. Open bookmark two.”

    Amber gritted her teeth and looked up at the wall behind his desk, knowing what she was going to see.

    The banger feinted right, and then, with more agility than she had thought he had in him, he juked left and swung a massive ham of a fist in a wild arc that almost missed her.


    “Freeze frame.”

    There, displayed for the world to see, was exactly what she had seen, recorded from her perspective—a huge fist as it impacted her cheekbone.

    “That must’ve hurt like hell,” Fischer said. “It could have ended you. What happened there? I thought you were supposed to have those fancy reflex enhancements.”

    She shrugged. “I can’t dodge what I don’t see coming.”

    “Yeah.” He closed the display. “How are things, Payne? You need some time off?”

    The non sequitur took her by surprise. “No thanks, Chief. I’m fine.”

    “You sure? This is the third attack on you in the last two months.”

    Amber shrugged. “I live in a rough neighborhood.”

    “By choice.”


    “You pull in enough credits where you should be able to move out of the Wards whenever you want. That leads me to conclude that you’re still there by choice.”

    She and Chief Fischer had discussed her living arrangements in the past, and he knew it was a touchy subject—one that Amber didn’t like to talk about. But the chief was as patient as the winter wind, and he would simply wait her out. She had to give him something. “It’s where I grew up, Chief.” She shrugged. “It’s home.”

    He shook his head. “Payne, sometimes the best thing for a person is to get as far away from home as they can, especially when they go through the kind of sludge you did.”

    Once more, she heard the echo in her head. Don'cha wanna party with us? It would always be a part of her. But she would not let it define her. “I’m fine, sir.”

    Fischer looked doubtful.

    “Chief, I’m okay. Really.”

    He finally nodded and pursed his lips as if he had made a decision. “All right. Back to business then.” He tossed her a data chip. “New case for you. We just got the call this morning, and it looks to be tailor-made for you and your pet hacker.”

    Amber snagged the chip out of the air. “Thank you, sir.”

    He sat back in his chair. “We received a call from the head of infrastructure security at Alta Corp. Seems they’re missing data on some top priority projects, and corporate policy dictates an outside investigation be conducted. He’s indicated that he suspects someone at his firm, and he’s contracted Securi-Tech to do the investigation.”

    Amber nodded. “Sounds straightforward enough.”

    “Hopefully. But it looks like possible corporate espionage, and if it is, that makes it a P-1 crime.”

    She raised her eyebrows. Solving a Priority One case from one of the largest corporations in the city would be a coup for Securi-Tech. The possible sponsorships and corporate donations could gain the company quite a bit of clout and a foot up in the security business. And maybe a nice bonus to pay off some of my debt to the company. Amber nodded. “Not a problem.”

    “Good. You’ll liaise with a Dr. Yau Jun Li, head of Research and Development.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Fischer flapped his hand toward the door and looked back down at his desk. “Don’t you have some paperwork to file?”

    “Will do, Chief.” She tucked the data chip into her belt and left.


    Amber met Kevin back in the squad room and tossed him the chip. “New case, partner.”

    “Yeah? What do we have?” He pulled the ten-by-twenty-five-centimeter board out of his jacket and slid the chip into a port.

    He unwound the cable, and Amber winced as he slid a ten-centimeter-long, gold-plated rod into the neural input/output port behind his ear. She knew the NIOP gave him faster data access than she could ever hope to achieve on her own. But the thought of sliding a spike into her brain was just too disturbing.

    “Data theft?” He grinned at her. “You did this just for me, didn’t you?”

    “Didn’t want your hacking skills to get rusty.”

    “I prefer the term ‘data acquisition,’ if you please.”

    “I’m sure you do. But I figure if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…”

    “You ever even seen a duck?”

    Amber chuckled. “I’ve seen vids. They were ugly birds with loud mouths, sorta like you. Now, how about we hit the road?”


    Amber and her partner stopped at the security station outside Alta Corp’s executive wing. The guard gaped at Amber’s eyes for a moment.

    “Is there a problem?” she snapped. She knew it was natural, but after her morning, she was in no mood to tolerate poor social skills. She read the name on the guard’s ID badge—Jason Krupp. “Jason, don’t you know it’s more customary to stare at a woman’s breasts?”

    Kevin made a choking sound behind her.

    The guard stammered then cleared his throat and said, “My apologies, fem. Name and business?”

    She pulled out her badge and flipped it onto the counter, the sound of bronze on hard stone echoed loudly off the polished marble walls. “Detectives Payne and Glass to see Dr. Yau Jun Li.”

    The man glanced at her badge, then at Kevin’s. In an obvious attempt to avoid further confrontation, he pointedly looked at the touchpad on his desk. “Please leave your weapons here, and I’ll need your thumbprints on the scanner.” He handed Amber a biometric pad.


    The guard looked up at her. “Excuse me?”

    Amber calmly pressed her thumb onto the bioscanner. “We can’t leave our weapons. It’s against Securi-Tech policy.”

    “I’m sorry, ma’am. I can’t let you in if you don’t. It’s against our policy to allow armed personnel into the executive areas.”

    She scooped up her badge. “No problem. Please let Dr. Li know we dropped by as requested.”

    The guard pursed his lips then sighed. “One moment, please.” He pressed a button on his comm set. “Dr. Li’s guests have arrived, and they refuse… yes… of course.” He clicked off the comm and stood. “Follow me, please.”

    Amber and Kevin followed the guard into the office area, the sanctum sanctorum of the corporate beast. One elevator and three long hallways later, they stood before a closed door that sported Li’s name on a brass nameplate. She knocked.


    They walked into an office nearly as large as Securi-Tech’s squad room, where they were greeted by an elderly man of Asian descent whose smile was polite but cold and distant.

    Amber extended her hand. “Good morning, Mr. Li. I’m—”

    “It’s Dr. Li, Officer.” Li cocked an eyebrow at her, pointedly keeping his hands behind his back.

    Amber nodded. “Very well. And it’s Detective, Doctor.”

    “I beg your pardon?”

    “Law enforcement personnel have been called detectives or agents ever since the government privatized the law enforcement industry twelve years ago. The term officer is only used in the military now.”

    As cold as Dr. Li’s smile had been before, it turned positively glacial after that exchange. “Of course. Thank you so much for coming, Detectives. I hope it was no inconvenience.”

    “Not at all,” Amber replied.

    Dr. Li cocked his head to the side, apparently noticing her eyes for the first time. “Ocular implants. Model 104… no, 105 aren’t they?” He grabbed her chin and turned her head to the side so he could get a better look. “Integral data collection… older model. Pity. The newer ones are designed to look real.”

    She jerked her head away. “So I hear.”

    Li stepped back. “Very well, shall we get straight to business?”

    Amber nodded. “Please.”

    Li’s desk was a huge mahogany affair made of real wood, not one of the imitation jobs. The guy was a heavy hitter. He went to the other side, picked up a small touchpad, and quickly tapped out a few commands.

    Amber smiled as Kevin’s interest perked up at the use of the device. Before she could catch his eye, a holographic display appeared in the air before them.

    Dr. Li walked back to where they stood. “These are log files of entries into our Research and Development database. You will note that they indicate sixty-three projects in progress as of two days ago.” Li indicated the pertinent section of the log. Then he tapped another key. Another display appeared beside the first. “This is yesterday’s log file. Note the number of projects.”

    Amber scanned through the display.

    Before she got to the correct line, Kevin said, “Sixty-one. I assume the backups are missing as well?”

    Dr. Li nodded. “No trace of the missing directories can be found in any of our archives.”

    “What projects are missing?”

    Dr. Li shook his head. “I’m sorry, Detective…?”


    Li nodded. “Projects HG-6239 and FV-5732.”

    “And what are these projects?” Kevin prompted.

    “Both are highly sensitive projects worth billions of credits each.”

    “What exactly are they?” Amber asked.

    Li shook his head. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name either.”

    “I never threw it.”

    “Detective, if not for civility’s sake, then at least for our records, I will need to know the names of the investigating agents on this case.”

    Amber shook her head. “Dr. Li, we both know you had our names before we ever walked into this room. I deal in reality, and as you stated a moment ago, I prefer to get straight to business. Now, if you would be so kind as to answer my partner’s question without further evasion…”

    Li sighed. “I’m truly sorry, Detective Payne. I’m afraid I am not at liberty to divulge that information.”

    Amber pursed her lips. “You called us in to investigate a theft, but you won’t tell us what’s been stolen?”

    Li reached up and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Then he took a deep breath as if preparing himself for some sort of exertion. “First of all, Detective, I didn’t call you. If it were up to me, we would take care of this situation with our in-house security. However, company policy dictates that such investigations be handled by outside vendors to prevent internal tampering. These same company policies also prevent me from divulging the nature of these projects. I will give you access to as much information as possible, but you must understand that the very nature of our research here precludes revealing the paths of our projects. If our competitors were to discover some of the areas we were investigating, it could give them ideas on how to either beat us to market or prevent us from ever making it to market ourselves.”

    Amber nodded. “I fully understand, Dr. Li, and I’m sorry to have wasted your time this afternoon.” She signaled Glass and turned to the door.

    “Detective Payne, before any more of our mutually valuable time is wasted, might I suggest you view this file?” Li tapped, and yet another screen appeared.

    Amber walked back and scanned the projection. It appeared to be a standard Terms and Conditions agreement, similar to those that preceded any case. Highlighted at the bottom, however, was an indemnity clause that stipulated Securi-Tech’s responsibility for resolution of the case “to the satisfaction of Alta Corp’s agent of record.” That agent of record was listed as Dr. Li.

    There was a single Securi-Tech signatory at the bottom, and while Amber didn’t recognize the name, the title after the name caught her attention—Chief Legal Council - Securi-Tech Board of Directors.

    “You son of a bitch.”

    Li smiled. “Indeed. It is unfortunate that this has become necessary, but you have left me with limited options.”

    Amber stared at the screen a moment longer and knew she was beaten, at least for the moment. “All right. We’ll do what we can to find your damned files. But given the limitations you have placed on us, I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”

    “On the contrary. Knowing your livelihoods are in the balance gives me all the hope in the world.”

    Kevin rushed over. “Our what?”

    Amber turned to her new partner. “Seems Dr. Li has a grip on some cojones high enough up the food chain that he can make our insignificant little jobs here go away if he doesn’t like the service we provide.”

    Kevin was almost comical in his shock. “He what?”

    Li smirked. “I assure you, Detectives, the cojones I have here are nothing compared to the pressure I can bring to bear if it becomes necessary.” He tapped a final key on his touchpad, and all displays disappeared. He walked back to his desk, dismissing them without looking back up. “You can find your way out.”

    “But—” Kevin protested.

    Amber grabbed him and spun him toward the door. “Don’t worry, partner. It isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.”

    She fumed as the two of them left the building and climbed into their pod. She didn't trust herself to speak, and Kevin was in his own world, busily tapping on his board. As they left Alta Corp's campus, she engaged the autopilot and turned to her partner. “All right, Kevin, where do we start?”

    But the younger detective didn’t reply. He simply stared off into space.

    “What the hell?” Then she noticed the cable running from his board to the data jack behind his ear. The lights on the board flickered rapidly. Amber nodded. “Rookie just might make the cut, after all.”

    Ten minutes later, Kevin sighed and tapped the touchpad in his lap.

    “Get anything?” Amber asked.

    He grinned. “I got it all.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Their R and D database.”

    Despite her ocular enhancements, Amber felt the need to blink. “You actually got into the database? That’s a protected system. You’ve only been doing… whatever you were doing for about five minutes.”

    He shook his head. “I didn’t get into it all. Most of it’s encrypted. So I just found a back door through the firewall and loaded a script to copy the database and put it on my board. I figure I’ll break the encryption later.”

    Amber’s jaw dropped. “You mean you copied the whole freaking database?”

    “Well, not yet.” He pointed to the blinking lights on his board. “It’s still copying. I figure it might be another half hour or so.”

    “Holy crap! I take back what I said about you being a hacker. You are so far beyond a hacker I don’t even think they have a name for you.”

    “They call us leets, short for ‘elites.’ And I did tell you I was the best.”

    Amber pulled up to the station garage. “That you did. Remind me never to question your abilities again.”

    “I did manage to get into a few items, though. Stuff I thought might be particularly useful.”

    “Good work, partner. Really good.” She swung the linked pods into a parking place and reached to thumb off the ignition.

    Kevin grabbed her arm. “Leave the engine going for a minute.”

    She pulled her hand back. “What is it?”

    “While I was poking around, I found something. There’s a notation in one of Li’s personal folders that refers to a data stream address. Tracing it back through cyberspace puts me directly in your head.”

    She gaped at him. “What?”

    “Li has direct access to the data stream from your eyes.”

    Amber sagged back in her seat. “Crap.”

    Kevin nodded. “That was my thought, too. He could be watching the direct recordings from your eyes at any time, with minimal lag. Basically, anytime he wants to, he can see and hear everything you do.”

    “Fuggle me! He could be viewing my uploads right now?”

    He shook his head. “I took care of that for now. Your data stream has been redirected to my board. In the meantime, I substituted the feed from your pod’s dash cam and deactivated audio. For now, he’ll just think you’re staring straight ahead, in some kind of funk. That’s why I didn’t want you to shut off the engine. Once you do, the feed ends.”

    Thinking fast, Amber came up with the beginnings of a plan. “Okay, we can’t very well sit here all day. Can you do that redirect anytime you want to?”

    “Yeah, pretty much.”

    “Good. I’ll signal you like this when I want you to do it again.” She extended her right pinkie and waved it back and forth. “When you see that, redirect my feed so we can talk. You do the same when you want to talk. You’ll also want to start recording my feed at random times so you’ll have some stock stuff for him to review.”

    Kevin nodded. “You got it. You ready for me to shut it down?”


    “Look straight ahead, right where the pod cam is focused. I’ll start a conversation when I have everything back where it should be.”

    Amber turned and stared at the wall in front of them.

    A second later, Kevin said, “Amber?”

    She slowly turned to face him. “What?”

    “Uh, well, you’ve been staring at that wall for a few minutes, and I… I mean… I just wondered if you were all right.”

    You’re acting for the camera. Always remember that. “Well, let’s see, rookie. We got ourselves a shit case that’s impossible to solve, yet our jobs go away if we don’t solve it.” She shrugged. “Yeah, kid. I’m just freakin’ wonderful!”

    She yanked open the door, hopped out of the pod, and slammed the door behind her.

    Exit, stage left.


    The next few days were torture for Amber. Since anything she did might be seen by Li, she had to depend on Kevin to do any sensitive investigation while she stayed busy with mindless paperwork. Occasionally, he came to her, wagging his pinkie to let her know they could speak freely. Sometimes he had a question, and other times he had a suggestion. They tried to keep those times to a minimum, not wanting to draw any attention to his work, while Amber played decoy.

    On the second day after their confrontation with Li, he came to her desk, signaling that she was offline.

    “Please tell me you have something,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer I can take reading these damned contracts and reports.”

    He drew his chair up beside hers and held up a timer on his chrono. “I’m playing a sixty-second recording of you studying that screen, so we gotta keep this short.”

    Amber looked at the timer—fifty-two seconds left. “All right, what do you have?”

    “The database is decrypted, and I’ve stripped all the security protocols from it so we can go through it without any problems. You okay meeting after hours? We can go through it at your apartment.”

    “Just make sure you have my eyes turned off.”

    “Yeah, I’ve been working on a solution to that problem, too. It still has a few bugs, but I should have it figured out by this evening.” Kevin’s chrono beeped. “Fifteen seconds. I’ll meet you at your apartment tonight at twenty-two hundred. You should go to bed at twenty-one thirty and keep your eyes closed until I knock.”

    “Will do. See you then.”

    The chrono pinged again. “Ten seconds.” Kevin grabbed his chair and pushed it back to his own desk. “Look at your screen, and page down when you hear the next ping. Don’t look at me. I’m not here.”

    At shift end, Amber went home, spent a few hours on mindless vids, and ate a completely unremarkable dinner. Finally, she went to bed and read for a while. At some point, she must have nodded off because a pounding on her door startled her awake.

    “Chasm, who’s at the door?”

    An image from the door cam on the wall showed Kevin waiting outside. “Chasm, open the door.”

    Kevin grinned as he entered. “Here. Before we get started, I thought you might want this.” He handed her a small device with a series of buttons and a thumb dial on it. It was about five by three centimeters and fit easily into the palm of her hand.

    “You know, I was just thinking the other day that what I really need is a little mystery box to make my life complete. Thank you so much, Kevin!”

    He snickered and took it back from her. “It’s a redirect device for your feed. Select the first setting on the dial and press the top button. At that point, anyone watching your feed will see you reading a book on your screen.” He clicked the dial again. “Or it can show you watching a vid”—click—“or sleeping.” He pointed at a button on the side. “This one will record whatever you’re looking at. Press and hold it down to record. Release it to stop recording. Press twice, and it will play whatever you just recorded in a loop until you press it again.”

    “And the bottom button?”

    “That one disrupts your feed completely.”

    “Nice. Thanks, partner.”

    Kevin handed her a bundle of wires. “And for tonight’s entertainment, I brought an uplink helm. It’ll make things go faster. Maybe not as good as my NIOP, but it should still be a hell of a lot faster than trying to read through all these files manually.”

    Amber examined the webbing of wires and electrodes. She had heard of the new technology but had never actually seen one. “What do I do?”

    “Give me a minute here.” He tapped some commands into his board. “I’m setting a one-hour timer for us. It’s your first time in, so before you tell me an hour isn’t long enough, let me warn you. Time inside passes faster than it does out here. What seems like hours will only take minutes, but it will still affect you as if it had been hours, and it’s just as exhausting. You’ll see what I mean, but for now, just trust me.”

    Amber nodded. “It’s your turf. You guide, I ride.”

    “Good.” Kevin reached over and placed the helm over Amber’s head, then pressed the various electrodes in place. He took the cable lead and attached it to his board, plugged another into the jack behind his ear, then tapped a few commands into his board. “Now just close your eyes and let me guide you.”

    She did and heard him tap a final sequence.

    Without warning, she found herself in a wild nexus of sensory overload that threatened to shatter her mind. Strobing bursts of light and sound were accompanied by unimaginable stenches that made her gag. Cloyingly sweet tastes merged with the sickening sour bile rising in her throat, and every inch of her skin flickered from the sensuously orgasmic to such searing pain that she was convinced her skin was burning off of her bones.

    Screaming, Amber tried to raise a charred hand to rip off the helm, only to find that there was no helm. Her body convulsed in orgasmic bliss, then she screamed again as her eardrums ruptured from another detonation of sound. Bright explosions of color and what her mind briefly interpreted as information burst past her, immersing and buffeting her as she was caught in its fiery current. She flailed wildly in an attempt to find something to which her mind could relate, but everything was too wild and foreign. She dropped to her knees, vomiting into nothingness.

    Then, as abruptly as it began, everything dimmed. Her skin was still intact, her eardrums whole.

    “There.” Kevin appeared beside her, translucent and floating. He looked panicked, and spoke rapidly and reassuringly. “Filters are back in place. I’m so sorry about that. There’s no way that should have happened. I would never take a virgin into a raw feed without a filter. I know I checked it before I dropped you in!”

    Gasping, Amber staggered to her feet and stared at him in disbelief. “You mean that’s the way you see cyberspace through your port?” She looked around at the now-muted colors and patterns. “How can you stand it?”

    Kevin shook his head. “That wasn’t cyberspace. That’s just the data stored on my board. Raw feed from cyberspace would make you want to rip your eyes out.” His own eyes got big as he realized what he'd said. “Oh, sorry about that. I didn’t mean—”

    “Don’t worry about it.” Amber turned away. It always came back to the eyes.

    Kevin worked with the filters. “Anyway, most people never get beyond using filters. I’m one of a handful of people in the world who can navigate raw data, and I can only take it for a half hour or so. It’s faster, but it’s also a lot riskier.”

    “You think?”

    He chuckled. “Here we are.”

    Amber found herself in a blank white room with several hanging holographic screens similar to those that had appeared in Dr. Li’s office. Only the first one had anything visible on it.

    Kevin pointed at it. “These are the files I’ve decrypted so far. Mostly financials and personnel, but I highlighted anything with any kind of reference to the missing projects. Just touch the directory structure to navigate it. Tap any file or subdirectory to see what’s in it. Hold your hand on it to absorb its contents. If you want to compare files or view several at the same time, just grab them and drag them to one of the other screens.”


    He smiled. “Try it. You’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll try to decrypt some more of the research files. Just call me if you need something.”

    He moved to the farthest screen and stuck his hand into it. As the maddening chaos of raw data flickered from his screen, Amber shuddered and quickly averted her eyes.

    Then she sought out the highlighted files. First was a journal entry in Dr. Gabriel Marenco’s personnel folder. Marenco was a biologist with advanced degrees in organic chemistry and genetics. His gene-splicing techniques appeared to be the basis of the missing project HG-6239. Most of the notes were well beyond Amber’s understanding, but they seemed to have something to do with genetically enhancing human intelligence.

    FV-5732 was referenced in conjunction with some kind of viral research.

    “Oh crap,” Amber muttered. “Bioweapons?”

    But then she found another reference in the lab journal of a researcher named Marcia Colby who was attached to the project. Her personnel profile showed advanced degrees in various fields. She wrote about FV-5732 in conjunction to some research she had done in electronic security. From her references, the project was either a smart variant of a super virus or an antivirus program of some kind.

    “So, not a bio weapon. Just an electronic virus.” She sighed. A sufficiently advanced electronic virus could do every bit as much damage as a biological. “Okay. So who stands to gain by stealing research on intelligence enhancements and an electronic virus?” she muttered.

    She tapped the tree and grabbed the financials folder. While there were several entries that would likely have raised an accountant’s eyebrows, there was nothing to indicate any funny business related to the missing projects.

    Next, she perused information on their main competitors. As far as she could see, nothing indicated any interest in either of the missing projects from any of them. In directory after directory, she searched for clues. And in directory after directory, she found nothing.

    Exasperated, she went back to the main menu. There were thirty-two directories, each with a varying number of subdirectories, sub-subdirectories, and who-knew-how-many individual files. She looked at the timer on the screen and was surprised to find that barely forty-five minutes had passed. It seemed she’d been buried in data for hours. And she’d barely scratched the surface.

    “Needle in a haystack.” She’d never seen a haystack in her entire life and was in fact only vaguely aware of what a haystack was, but some sayings were timeless.

    Kevin called what he did “data acquisition.” To Amber, it was still hacking, but as she scanned through the sheer volume of information, she was happy he was on her side and not working against her.

    Working against her. The thought opened a new line of reasoning. Amber realized she’d been ignoring a possible motive. What if it’s not who stands to gain, but who stands to lose?


    He was next to her in an instant. “Found something?”

    “What if we’re looking at this backwards?” She grabbed the personnel folder from the directory structure and moved it to another screen. Then she pulled Dr. Li’s file from it and put it on the next screen. “What if the motive isn’t money?”

    Kevin’s brow wrinkled, and he shook his head. “I don’t follow.”

    “What if these files weren’t stolen because someone wanted to gain from them? What if, instead, they just wanted to make someone else look bad?”

    Kevin nodded. “You think it’s just high-stakes corporate politics?”

    “Why not?” She stuck her hand into Dr. Li’s folder and found she suddenly knew everything about him. As Kevin had said, it was a lot faster than trying to read through it all manually.

    Dr. Yau Jun Li had climbed the ladder of corporate politics quite rapidly, using many of his coworkers as rungs. As she saw just how many of them he had stepped on, she started dragging their names onto the next screen—twenty-two people with reason to hold a grudge. Cross-referencing those with a list of people who had access to the R and D database narrowed the list to four.

    She had already examined Dr. Marenco’s file.

    In addition, there was Jeremy Quast, doctor of metallurgy and mechanical engineering who specialized in robotics. He and Dr. Li had pioneered a new metallic alloy that eliminated biological rejection in cybernetic limb replacements. However, the only name on the presentation paper was that of Dr. Yau Jun Li. While Quast had been relegated to relative obscurity, Li had gone on to head up Research and Development.

    Fifteen years earlier, Li had worked as an assistant to Dr. Zachary Jefferson. Jefferson was a physicist and military weapons designer who had come up with a new method of manufacturing compressed carbon nanotubes for a new generation of ballistic armor. The process was expensive but promised incredible improvements over current body armor materials. Two weeks before they were to conduct their final trials, Li severed ties with Jefferson and accused him of fraud. Li claimed he had discovered the process was unreliable and created a material that quickly degraded when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Li provided some of the material for testing, and it disintegrated under sunlight as he had claimed. The project was shelved, and Jefferson had never again been given a lead position.

    Marcia Colby held doctorates in electrical engineering, programming, and cybernetics, as well as a handful of high-level security ratings. Cross-referencing her expense reports with those of Dr. Li also hinted that their relationship had been somewhat more than professional. Dinners, entertainment, and weekend getaways all indicated that there was a bit more than business going on.

    However, recent entries into her document folders showed that Dr. Colby was acquiring records of similar trysts between Dr. Li and two other women in the company. Personal notes indicated she was somewhat less than pleased at the situation.

    Amber dragged those four files—Colby, Jefferson, Quast, and Marenco—to the next screen. “Someone in these files has got to be involved. These four had the strongest reasons to want to embarrass Li. What if one of them decided they were going to step on him the way he’d stepped on them?”

    “What, one of them decides to steal the data for a couple of their top-secret projects just to make Li look bad to his bosses?”

    “Why not? With Li gone, maybe they hope to maneuver into the driver’s seat. Head of the department gets a fancy office, big staff, parking place on the ground floor…”

    Nodding, Kevin was silent for a moment. “Okay, which one?”

    Amber shrugged. “Won’t know until we do some old-fashioned legwork. We need to set up some interviews.” The timer began to strobe. “Looks like it’s time to go.”

    Kevin nodded and tapped a command on one of the holographic screens. As he hit the last digit, Amber found herself back in her apartment with the uplink helm strapped to her head.

    She reached up and disconnected the electrodes, then turned to Kevin. “Tomorrow we can contact…” Her voice trailed off as she realized her partner wasn’t moving. Granted, she was new to the whole thing, but she was pretty sure his lying on the floor and drooling wasn’t normal. “Oh fuggle me blue!”

    She knelt beside him, completely unsure of what to do. He was still connected to the board by means of his input cable, and she was afraid that simply yanking the cord from his data port might send him into shock. On the other hand, she remembered what he had said about time passing much faster while on the inside and knew the longer he stayed jacked in, the more… whatever was happening to him… would continue to happen.

    “Glass?” she shouted. “Can you hear me? Kevin, I need you to give me some kind of sign that you can hear me, ’cause you aren’t looking so good out here.” She watched his face intently for a reaction. Nothing.

    She slapped his cheek. “C’mon, partner. Gimme a sign.”

    His eyes rolled back in his head.

    “Damn it, Kevin! That is not what I had in mind.” Doing nothing was no longer an option. She turned his head to the side so she could get a grip on the cable plugged in behind his ear.

    “Unless you want to put me in a coma, never ever yank my cable out like that!”

    Amber screeched and dropped his head to the floor with an audible thunk.


    “You scared the hell out of me! Why didn’t you answer me sooner?”

    Kevin’s face took on a haunted look. “I was talking to someone.”

    “You were what?”

    “There was someone in there with us.” He picked up his board and tapped a quick sequence of keys before disconnecting his cable. Then he simply sat there looking at the board as if it were completely foreign.

    “Um, I know this is new to me, but didn’t you tell me that we weren’t actually online, and we were just in your board?”

    Kevin nodded. “And there’s someone else in there.”

    “Well, how could there be someone else talking to you from inside your own board?”

    “I don’t know… unless he’s telling the truth. And if that’s the case, the whole world is about to change.”
    Sapper John likes this.
  2. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    Interesting, IA.

    one flaw though.
    "Amber and Kevin followed the guard into the office area, the sanctum sanctorum of the corporate beast. One elevator and three long hallways later, they stood before a closed door that sported Li’s name on a brass nameplate. She knocked.


    They walked into an office nearly as large as Securi-Tech’s squad room, where they were greeted by an elderly man of Asian descent whose smile was polite but cold and distant.

    Amber extended her hand. “Good morning, Mr. Li. I’m—”

    “It’s Dr. Li, Officer.” Li cocked an eyebrow at her, pointedly keeping his hands behind his back.

    Amber nodded. “Very well. And it’s Detective, Doctor.”

    “I beg your pardon?”

    “Law enforcement personnel have been called detectives or agents ever since the government privatized the law enforcement industry twelve years ago. The term officer is only used in the military now.”"

    No one called anyone "Officer"
  3. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

  4. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey+++

    It's subtle, but there. ;)
  5. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    I stand corrected. i read through that twice , and still missed it. my apologies.[applaud]
    Jeff Brackett likes this.
  6. Jeff Brackett

    Jeff Brackett Monkey+++

    LOL. No apologies necessary. I need critical readers to keep me honest. ;)
    kellory likes this.
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