by Roderick D. Turner
"You've entered the proximal quadrant. Should be able to see it by
now." Rick's voice sounded distant and hollow over the Qlink. There was
a strange scraping noise, like an anvil being dragged over cement.
Maybe he was clearing his throat. "Watch yourself, Bel. You're close."
Belinda continued to gaze dreamily at the vibrant holographic
paradise advertised in the travel agent's window. She adjusted her
sunglasses, casually, tuning the dual filters further into the infrared
and turning up the amplification. They didn't know what to expect,
exactly, but there would be infrared scanning beams for sure. "Don't
sweat it," she said softly. "You've been working too hard, Rick. Voice
sounds a bit strained."
"Yeah, and you've been sitting on your fat ass doing nothing the past two months, right?"
She allowed herself a slight grin. This had been the most intensive
mission prep she had ever undergone, both physically and mentally, and
her body was at the peak of conditioning. No fat anywhere, or both the
mirrors and the scales were lying. Sixty kilos was light even for her,
and it was spread judiciously over her one-seventy centimeter frame.
The image that looked back at her from the shop window appeared
harmless enough, but the baggy knee-length culottes and loose Hawaiian
shirt concealed a tight body suit and four slim line pouches. She was
not what she seemed.
Satisfied, she turned and set off slowly down the street, gazing
innocently about her like the tourist she was meant to be. The sidewalk
was busy with look-alike sightseers, and she blended in easily.
"Nothing yet," she said. "Those filters need some tweaking. Sun's screwing with the IR view."
"Quit complaining. Next, check on frequency six in ten minutes. Good luck."
"Hey Rick," she said. "Jan and Tara in position?"
There was a short pause. "No reports yet," he said at last. "I'll let you know next contact."
"You do that."
She forced herself to be satisfied. At least, her reasoning side
took it all in stride, but there was a part of her that heard alarm
bells as soon as she caught Rick's slight hesitation. Something was
The district was a tourist haven, a thousand trinket vendors selling
anything from candies to clocks, cheap plastic models to glass
ornaments, the latter hand-made in full public view. There was no
mistaking the landmark, Milan cathedral squatting like a massive stone
alligator dozing in the bright morning sun. Its tall spiny spires
stretched skyward, poised high above the vast open piazza, watching
quietly as the throngs of tiny ant-like visitors swarmed about its feet.
It was a distracting image, ideal for diverting attention away from
other activities occurring right under its very nose. Belinda scanned
the street, both sides, her head moving slowly as if to take in the
sights. Behind the glasses her eyes made rapid searching sweeps. In
this sunshine, the infrared sensors would only just pick up a signal
from across the street, and even that very faintly. Several times, she
was fooled by light reflected off car bumpers, and once by the polished
brass sign over a shop entrance. CASA D'HUOMO VECCHIO, it read, 'house
of the old man': an interesting name for a business, well-suited to
Milan's Old World atmosphere.
She reached the end of the street, stood for a moment frowning up at
the great gates of the cathedral. There was a soft beep from the Qlink
in her ear and she fumbled with her necklace, twisting the appropriate
bead to connect on channel six.
"...you been, Belinda?" Despite the distortion of the link, she
could sense the tension in Rick's voice. "You should have checked in
five minutes ago."
"I figured you'd call me. Besides, I had nothing to report."
"Knowing you were still around would have been nice," Rick said.
"The other controllers have hit dead air. We can't raise Jan or Tara."
"Doesn't mean anything. They could have walked into a low signal
area. You know how easily the Qlink signals can be shielded out by
metal structures. Hard to detect but easy to block, right?"
"I don't believe it, and neither do you. There's nothing in that
whole area that would block our signals for long if the transmitter
kept moving. They've been off line for over half an hour. They'd at
least have sent a status chirp over regular COM bands."
"So what's the story? Are you telling me to abort?"
"We don't have official word yet, but the three of us figure you should--"
"I'm going looking for them," Belinda replied. "Where was your last contact?"
"Just give me the damned positions."
She saw them then, cruising along the edge of the square, cool and
relaxed. Professionals, of course. The woman tall and slender, with a
Disneyland sun visor and Mickey Mouse spread-eagled across her tight
T-shirt. Her companion slightly shorter, a brick of a man wearing a
Baltimore Orioles tank top and matching cap.
"...streets east of you, about half a block south. You get that, Bel?"
"Give me it again. The closest one only."
"I got company. It's OK, just make it quick."
"Jan was closest. Last location five blocks east of you, half a block south."
They were about sixty meters away now, straight east. Walking
hand-in-hand, chatting happily, occasionally glancing about them as if
taking in the sights. Not the only couple doing the same, but the only
couple with the poise and gait of extensive training. They never once
looked at her, but Belinda knew instinctively that they had her
"I'm on it," she said. "Watch my trail, and be ready for quick entry on channel eleven. I'm counting on you Rick."
She checked her watch and feigned surprise. Then she turned and
headed back the way she'd come, moving fast. As soon as they reached
the corner behind her, the nice American couple suddenly put on speed
and took up the chase.
Belinda's mind raced. Where there were two, there would be more.
Simply heading east to the site of Jan's disappearance would likely be
disastrous. She decided her best bet was to keep scanning as she went,
looking for any sign of a guarded or protected entry. The complex was
vast, so there would have to be multiple entrances.
She crossed the street at a trot, her pursuit keeping pace about
fifty meters behind. Several heads turned as she passed--nobody in
their right mind jogged in the blazing heat of the noonday Italian sun.
About half way down the block, she saw it, this time unmistakable. The
CASA D'HUOMO VECCHIO's sign was not just glinting in the sun. This
close, the entire entry glowed feebly, and the sign's lower edge shone
a dull orange.
She mounted the steps in two quick leaps, touching channel eleven on
her necklace as she did so. "Give me a tone, Rick," she said. "I've got
maybe ten seconds."
She stood facing the doorway and waited, rigid. Out of the corner of
her eye, she followed the movements of John and Jane Brick as they
elbowed their way through the crowd towards her. Five more seconds and
"I'm in, Bel," Rick said. "Forward through the entry arch and turn right."
The infrared signature of the sign was gone. She strode under the
arch and, ignoring the beautifully carved wooden door in front of her,
turned right into a small alcove ending in a solid stone wall. "Rick?"
"Walk through. It's open."
She closed her eyes and stepped forward tentatively. A moment later,
she was in a vestibule with a sliding metal doorway ahead of her. "My
pursuit?" she asked.
"Already taken care of," Rick replied. "The IR scanner is back on,
and they'll be locked out for at least a minute. You got metal ahead of
you, so I'm only accessible through the complex computers, but for this
moment, nobody can see you." There was a pause. "You sure this is wise?
The alarm'll be raised the second your pursuers get inside. Maybe
"As if I have a choice," Belinda said. She stripped off her tourist
garb and stowed it in one of her pouches. Activated the holographic
generator at her collar. An entirely new person now stood in the
vestibule. Thirty seconds.
"Seal this chamber when they break through, Rick. See if there's an
intruder arrest system, and use it. I'm going to need time." She pulled
an embossed plastic card from a pouch under her arm and strode forward
to the doorway. "Is my pass card valid?"
"Cleared. Security check on the other side of the door, Bel. They're
offline, but move fast. I’m in chat room 77. See you in Virtual."
Belinda pressed the card against the logo to the right of the door
and it slid open silently. She stepped through, heard it close
instantly behind her.
Two uniformed men stood a few meters ahead in front of an open metal
arch alive with infrared. Beyond the arch, an empty corridor stretched
as far as she could see. The guards raised their pistols and one of
them touched a COM panel on the wall beside him. He turned to look at
it, puzzled by its lack of response. It was her cue.
"Deanna Maravo, Internal Affairs," she said. Belinda’s heavy French
accent concealed her poor Italian. She strode forward, both men
recoiling under her withering glare. "Put the guns away. I don't take
kindly to being threatened by idiots."
Her body suit was restricted government issue, rank insignia of
Marshall prominent on the left breast. She flashed her card across the
scanner, giving the nearest guard a grim smile.
"My apologies, Marshall," he spluttered. "I was--only following standard procedure."
"I suggest you learn the rank symbols before your next shift." She
pocketed the card, waited while the archway barrier faded. Then she
moved confidently forward into the corridor and found, as she had
expected, that it was not as it had seemed from the other side. She
stood in a richly appointed waiting room, reception desk on the far
wall. The rugs were Persian, the paintings high quality copies of
Italian Renaissance masters. A man and a woman, neither in uniform,
eyed her curiously from a couch beside the entryway. The receptionist
didn't even look up.
There were short hallways to left and right of the reception desk,
each leading to elevator banks. Belinda took a guess and headed for the
left elevator group, hardly breaking stride. The receptionist, she
noted, was painting his nails a curious green. He remained engrossed in
this meticulous task as she passed him.
She chose an empty elevator, stepped inside, inserted her card. The
doors closed. She took off her glasses and stowed them in a pouch.
"Automatic elevator forty three at your service. Please state your
destination." The computerized voice generator was an old model, slow
and spastic in its word formulation. Belinda winced.
"Cafeteria," she said. Always a safe bet. The elevator began moving down. She gave it a second before she ordered it to stop.
"Network voice link," she told it. "Interactive bulletin board." It
was the agreed upon connection. The bulletin board allowed voice
message posting for verified users, along with secure Virtual Reality
chat for multiple groups. She accessed chatroom 77.
"Bel. You're on the wrong elevator. Should have taken the other bank."
"So I guessed wrong. Shoot me."
"That might be easier than you think. I've plotted your course to
the Records vault, then to Artificial Intelligence. Put your storage
card into the readout slot and it'll download."
Belinda obliged. The card had a miniature display and when she'd
completed the download, it showed a map-like maze of corridors, her
location marked by a winking blue dot.
"Where from here?"
"What's the elevator's destination?"
"Cafeteria. I was hungry."
There was a muffled chuckle, then a pause. "You're in luck. The
cafeteria is common to both wings. When you arrive, get to the other
bank and ask for Public Relations--that'll be down. The card's map will
guide you from there. Once you're on track, I'll have the surveillance
cameras blink for ten seconds just before they go into loop mode. That
should set your pace. I don't want to divert them for more than thirty
seconds each or a good security witch'll get suspicious, so your
window’s going to be tight."
"What about alarms and interlocks?"
"I've got the matrix downloaded, but I'll have to deactivate things
manually as you go. It's too complicated to program in the time we
have. Doesn't look too bad, though. I'm up to it."
"You better be. I'm out."
She disconnected, re-started the elevator, and requested security.
"Security central. What's the problem?" The controller was
narrow-eyed and thin-lipped, giving his nose the appearance of a small
beak. His voice and bearing suggested utter contempt. Belinda was
pleased to note a slight widening of his eyes as he saw her across the
"This is Deanna Maravo, Internal Affairs. Get a crew to work on
elevator forty-three immediately. I placed an outside call and got
jammed here for a good minute. This piece of crap should be replaced.
Make sure you tell the maintenance department I said so."
Beak-face nodded obediently. If he could have crawled on the floor
and groveled, Belinda thought, he would have. "It will be done,
Marshall. Is there anything else I can do for you?" He grinned at her,
the movement contorting his face into an unnatural mask.
"Smirk at me again like that and I'll have your balls," she said. "Maravo out."
The elevator service screen indicated arrival at the fifteenth
sub-level, the cafeteria. Belinda stood directly in front of the doors.
When they opened, she drove her way forcefully through the small throng
of employees crowded around the elevator entrance. They gave way as she
passed. It was an essential part of the image.
There was a distinctly nauseating stench like a blend of sweet
incense and rancid grease. Belinda ignored the stares that followed her
as she entered the cafeteria. She bought bottled water and exited to
the second elevator hallway. There were again several people waiting,
but most got into the next elevator going up. She had only one
companion on the downward trip, an older woman with a rank of senior
technocrat. She eyed Belinda with distaste, but remained silent. Yet it
was not the woman's appearance or scrutiny that unsettled Belinda--it
was her destination. She got off at the twenty-fourth sub-level:
Internal Affairs. Belinda hesitated momentarily, then followed.
The woman turned to face her the instant she realized Belinda was at her heels.
"You needn't bother checking," she said coldly. "I took a standard lunch break."
"I'm sure. Where can I find the Marshall?"
"In conference, probably for the rest of the day. What do you want with him?"
"It's none of your business. Where is he holding this conference?"
The woman gestured toward a receptionist's desk. "She'll tell you. When she gets back from lunch."
Belinda gave her a contemptuous glare. "I don't have time for bull.
Nor am I in the mood to be lenient with technocratic insubordination.
If you don't know where your Marshall is, show me someone who does.
The woman sniffed and looked down her nose at Belinda. Then she spun
abruptly and moved off through the maze of office dividers, arriving at
last in front of a door marked 'Invigilator'. She nodded her head
towards the door, and then strode back into the maze.
Belinda could see the Invigilator through the window beside the
door. She was hard-linked to the network, lost in full VR. Belinda
opened the door quietly and slipped into the room, silently closing and
locking the door behind her. She ran her hand gently across the control
for the blinds covering the window, screening the office from outside
view. Then she withdrew her only weapon from its long thin pouch on the
inside of her right thigh, adjusted the projectile selector, aimed it
at the Invigilator's back--and fired.
There was a soft hiss. The targeted woman grunted as the dart struck
her in the neck. She raised a hand to the injury, and then slowly
dropped it again.
Belinda moved forward and knelt beside her. "An urgent call has just come in," she said softly. "You have to disconnect."
The Invigilator nodded and terminated the interface. She made no effort to remove the Virtual Reality headgear.
"Take off the VR unit and turn around."
The Invigilator was a shrewish woman of about forty with a permanent
frown etched into her forehead, a frozen pout on her lips. She had a
solid build, with firm shoulders and arms--a lifter, Belinda thought.
Now under the influence of the dart she sat calmly in her seat, staring
straight ahead. Belinda plucked the dart free of her victim's neck,
smiled down at her. This one was perfect.
"We will have a short conversation, after which you will decide it
is time for a good workout at the gym. We will leave together and you
will go straight to the weight room. You will tell nobody where you are
going. Stay there for at least two hours. After your workout, you will
feel refreshed and renewed. You will return to work and remember
nothing other than the workout."
The Invigilator showed no indication of having heard her. "Confirm," Belinda said.
The Invigilator repeated her instructions, word for word.
"Good," Belinda said. She removed her data storage card from its
place at her belt and activated the holographic scanner. Aiming it at
the Invigilator, she walked slowly around her, holding the card about
fifty centimeters from the woman's head. The scanner beeped, indicating
a successful scan.
Belinda took her spare holographic field generator from its hip
pouch, transferred the new image into it. She clipped the generator to
the other woman's collar and turned it on. Instantly there was a blur,
a brief wavering of the air about her head. Then the Invigilator sat as
she had done before--but the generator could no longer be seen.
Satisfied, Belinda reached through the holographic field and shut
off the generator. She returned it to her belt, took the Invigilator's
ID card from its pouch, and helped the woman to her feet.
"We are ready to leave. Behave as you normally would. You are in a
hurry to get to the gym. You must have forgotten your ID card in your
Belinda led the way to the door, unlocked it, and held it for the
Invigilator. The other woman nodded as she passed, waited for Belinda
to close the door, then locked it with her key.
"Thanks for your help," Belinda said. "I'll see you later."
They each went their separate ways. Belinda traced her route back to
the elevators and took an empty one. She requested Public Relations
again. This time, she went there.
She followed her storage card map along several hallways, moving
slowly to wait for Rick's signals. He deactivated the security cameras
just ahead of her, adjusting their normal cycle only slightly to leave
her a clear unmonitored passage. It took her five minutes to get to the
Records vault. She gave Rick twenty seconds to work on the access lock
codes, then inserted her card. There was a sharp beep and the door
swung slowly inwards.
She walked forward into a small Plexiglas chamber, the airlock.
Through a small window she could see that the room beyond was about ten
meters square-- encased, she knew, in meter-thick steel. There was a
woman in the room, her attention fully focused on a small computer
display. The airlock door behind Belinda sealed and the inner vault
door swung aside. She scanned the walls quickly for security cameras.
All inactive--Rick had promised her two minutes. A glance at her watch,
then she moved inside.
The woman at the terminal looked up briefly as Belinda entered.
Belinda acknowledged her, walked quickly around the perimeter of the
room studying ID markers on the storage sub vaults. Each sub vault
would be individually security coded and contain upwards of two
thousand high-density storage keys. Within seconds, she’d located the
one she wanted, almost directly behind the woman. She inserted her
access card, took under thirty seconds to decipher the security code
before the sub vault sprang open. Her trainers would have been proud.
Belinda slid out the inner drawer, scanned the neat rows for the
target keys. There were two, each three centimeters in diameter. She
continued an apparent search as she fitted them into her thigh pouch.
Belinda checked her watch again as she closed the sub vault door.
She had another fifty seconds--it would have to be fast. Deftly she
drew her dart pistol from its pouch, adjusted for knockout payload, and
fired at the other woman's back. The target slumped forward almost
immediately. Belinda put her gun away and reached up to her collar. She
shut off her holo generator, removed it, and attached it to the collar
of the woman at the desk. She did the same with the removable
Marshall's insignia, transferring it to sit over top of the technocrat
symbol already there. Deanna Maravo's ID card went at the woman's belt,
and Belinda pocketed hers. Then she hauled the woman to her feet and
lay her in an awkward position on the floor, one arm outstretched. She
pulled one of the storage keys from her pouch, dropped it beside the
outstretched hand. Finally she fished out the spare holo generator with
the newly-acquired Invigilator's image, hooked it to her own collar,
activated it, and stepped back from the sprawled body.
The cameras came alive five seconds later. The security squad arrived within another minute.
"She came into my office with a request to interview some of my
junior staff. I was suspicious, so--I followed her here." The voice
sounded good, she thought. So far, the security sergeant seemed
"She passed through the west gate about an hour ago," he said. "Our
scan indicates she held a conversation on the IBB from an elevator.
Outside line. I'll have it traced." He looked sidelong at her. "We're
checking her ID now. What made you suspicious when she was in your
"Nobody ever tells Internal Affairs the truth. We have to be able to read people pretty well."
"I suppose you're right. Listen, we'll follow up and let you know
when we find out more. We'll need you to come down later for a full
report." He glanced at the storage key in his hand, then up at her.
"You wouldn't happen to know what's on this, would you?"
"Sorry. I'm not an IS expert. I guess the code will tell them quickly enough, but it doesn't mean anything to me."
"Information Systems are always too busy fixing problems to check
things like this. I'll get our Marshall onto it." He held out his hand.
"Thanks for your help. We'll be in touch."
Belinda nodded and left. With any luck they would be hours
discovering that the storage key contained the schematics for their VR
field generator, and even longer figuring out they'd had two copies on
file, not just one. If the Deanna Maravo holo generator stayed in place
long enough, she would have plenty of time. If.
Belinda followed the course laid out on her storage card. She
descended another four floors and at the security door produced the
Invigilator's ID. They waved her through into AI division without a
second glance. Now all she needed was one look at exactly what this
thing could do--once recorded, it should help her tech team construct
an equivalent instrument.
Belinda's map indicated her arrival. She was in a large laboratory
dominated by what looked like a cylindrical water tank about three
meters high and a meter in diameter. On closer inspection, she could
see racks of circuit cards radiating outwards from a central column
inside the tank. The VR generator. It had to be. Several lab-coated
technicians prowled the room, checking monitor readouts and making
verbal entries into control interfaces. She headed for the nearest VR
hookup. This was her chance to see what the thing was really capable of.
None of the technicians seemed even to notice her as she sat down.
She inserted her stolen ID and plugged a blank data key into the
headset to record the online session. Then she hooked up, put on the
headphones, and settled the Virtual Reality headset down over her eyes.
A wave of vertigo swept over her as the blackness closed in. She
became gradually aware of a faint background noise as of someone
shouting in the distance. Then suddenly she was standing on a
brightly-lit street, looking into the window of a travel agent's shop.
There was an incredible holographic display, a tropical paradise with
sparkling sandy beach and aquamarine water. Waves ran in foaming crests
up onto the sand, coconut palms lending a dreamy shade to the scene.
"You've entered the proximal quadrant," Rick’s voice said. "Should
be able to see it by now." The words sounded distant and hollow. There
was a strange scraping noise, like an anvil being dragged over cement.
Maybe he was clearing his throat. "Watch yourself, Bel. You're close."
© 2015 Roderick D. Turner
Bio: In his own words, "I like writing stories, and am
particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is
the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only
audience. Second best is when you start writing about a character and
they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you
read it through and the characters surprise even you. Several of my
stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Breach in November 2014. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."
E-mail: Roderick D. Turner
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