The Eastern Tollway carefully held four lanes of traffic in each direction moving at exactly 200 kilometers per hour. Peter Simonovic paid no attention to the movement of the cars at all, he didn’t have to. He passed a nondescript plaque at Springvale Road, that marked the opening of the automatic tollway in 2019. There had been quite an argument up to that day, about the whole idea of a road that, in effect, drove the cars for the drivers. Chaos had been predicted, with an imagined catastrophe of cars piling into each other. The day of the opening had come, the dignitaries had gathered, the ribbon had been cut, and somebody important pressed a big green button. The sun shone, and cars had locked together at the maximum speed. Time, that was the pull. It cut the travel time, and the rush rush had won the argument before it had even started.
He reclined the seat as far back as it would go. Quiet music at just a high enough volume to mask the traffic noise. He had long since ceased to marvel at it - in a very real sense this was the most peaceful part of the day. If he turned off all the alerts he could catch a quiet 20 minute nap.
If he had looked around he would have seen a school of cars, much like a school of fish. How do fish keep in formation? If you looked at the school, it was hard to see each movement. Seen together it was like some hidden hand kept them all together. In the case of the school of cars, it was quite simple. Each car sent a radio signal out to a beacon on the road. In a fraction of a second it knew it’s exact position. It immediately sent that position to all of the cars in within radio range. No need for any radical moves, enough to slightly adjust the speed to keep distance between itself and the car in front. The steering followed the beacons. The designers had been quite confident of running it at 300 kilometers per hour, but nobody was quite ready for that.
The school of cars wound its way under the Chandler Highway overpass. Peter angled the seat a bit further back, raising the volume of the music, relishing the peace. Soon he would have to re-engage the manual controls. If he failed to do this before entering the tunnel, then he would be moved to the slow lane, where the slow street level automatic driving was the regime. It would mean he would be late for work.
It was as if he was punched. Thrown sideways, he lurched in the direction of the passenger seat as the car turned to the right suddenly. Heading for the right hand edge of the road.. At a speed of around 150 kilometers per hour, but rapidly braking, the car bounced along the rough ground in the central reservation. Peter was vertical now, grappling with the steering wheel, desperately. No response. It slowed further, and he saw the rope barrier beside him. A malfunction? He scanned the display, but it showed all normal. The speed indicator showed 60 kilometers per hour. At least it’s stopping he thought. Then he was stationary, in the middle of the central reservation.
He tried to remember who to call for car faults. The tollway authority? Police? It was so rare now that he had forgotten what to do. The car had run the full length of the ropeway. A metal cable that kept stray cars on each side of the tollway. Every few kilometres there was a crossover. So that maintenance and emergency vehicles could do a u-turn. He was at the end of the ropeway, stationary.
In one horrible moment, he realised that the car was moving again. it turned slowly right, directly into the path of the oncoming traffic. Furiously he grappled with the steering wheel. He hit any button he could see, trying to at least turn the car off. No response to anything. Whatever had control was not going to let go. Peter tried to calm himself, thinking that it’s just going to merge into the traffic. Maybe it’s going to stop here, he was saying to himself. The car gathered speed again, following the wire barrier.
On this side of the tollway there was not as much traffic. ‘Maybe it’s going to take me home’ he thought suddenly, clutching at something that might be remotely normal. Suddenly, in a powerful lurch, the car threw itself straight into the oncoming traffic. For what seemed an eternity, he saw the desperate face of the truck driver as in an instant the full power of tons of moving metal violently compressed his car.
The school automatically merged around. In seconds the accident site was isolated, and the traffic flowed neatly around it. Overhead the drones hovered, keeping watch. Failing to detect signs of life, they sent the ambulances back.
George Kostas stood in front of the wall. He stared at his instructions, and spoke, even though nobody was listening. George had the dark good looks of a faded Greek pop star if you looked from a distance. In the lost years of his late thirties, up close you could see the results of late nights spent chasing killers. Bad food, not enough sleep.
“Traffic. It’s traffic. Since when do I do traffic accidents?” he said.
The wall was a display, but it was much more than that. It was a huge interface to the homicide division’s vast computer resources. It changed all the time, bringing updates and new data to the open cases. You could talk to it, or interact via a keyboard. It was the natural descendent of the web search engines of the 00’s. Nowadays it was centre stage to any investigation. It was like having a super-intelligent oracle with access to every piece of data you ever wished you had access to.
George walked back, towards Alice, who was engrossed with something on the screen. He suspected that she was avoiding the conversation.
“That bloody thing. It’s got me out chasing ambulances.” he said.
She looked at the wall, at the images. Yes, it looked like a traffic accident. A very messy one. The body was almost not recognisable as a body. Like a streak of red on a body of metal. In the centre reservation of the Eastern Freeway, just past the Chandler Highway off ramp.
“Arguing with the wall, again. Bit like a peasant arguing with the weather, don’t you think?” she said, grinning.
“OK. A truck veers in the wrong direction. Car in the way. Bits. End of story. A sad story, but what’s it got to do with me?”
“When was the last time you heard of a car straying at the top level?” she said.
“Top level?” he said.
“The fastest highways. To get onto those the cars and the trucks have to be validated. Why else would we let them go so fast?’ she said.
George paused. She was right. He was harking back to his youth when accidents were common. Alice gestured at the wall for it to receive spoken input.
“Top level highways, casualty toll, last five years.” she said to the wall.
A smattering of graphs came up. No deaths, just a few minor injuries from malfunctions. As Alice had said, it wasn’t just rare. It had ceased. All the accidents were in the manual areas. The sort of thing you didn’t notice, because it was below the radar.
“A car malfunctions. It happens.” he said.
“No it doesn’t.” she said
George glowered, and stared at the wall. Watching all of the pieces come, and find their place. She was right. It was mysterious. Perhaps it was some sort of accident. Or suicide. He watched the video. So steady, considered. The car steadily found its way to the wire gate, turned, and that was it. Somehow it didn’t seem like a suicidal thing to do. Much easier to just drive off a cliff.
It was the familiarity that was irritating. Swanston Street. Mia began the walk from the river north along Swanston Street. Not much in the skyline had changed. Except for the advertisements, and the types of cars. If you glanced at it, without looking too closely it was the same Melbourne. Try as she could though, she couldn’t summon up the old feelings. Ten years really was a long time. She had left as a girl, an innocent. Returned as what? A hardened professional, she thought to herself. Emphasis on the hardened.
In a crowd of backpackers, Mia would blend in totally. For as long as she could remember, that was what she had been. Tall, blond, short but not cropped hair. Eyes that flashed. Only now all of that was blunted by the passage of time. Maybe that was part of it, not to spend the rest of her days as a faded perpetual traveller. She didn’t want to get to that day when she met herself coming in the other direction. Throw in the pull of the only place she had ever thought of as home.
She glanced skywards where her own personal drone was watching over her. She wondered what would happen if she was recognised, or she was in danger. It might be possible to ask, but that wasn’t the hardened thing to do. It betrayed a lack of confidence.
Having arrived so secretly, she became aware of the powers of the backers. According to her passport’s stored log on it’s chip she had flown in on Air Asia this morning out of Kuala Lumpur. All the immigration checks were completed. In actual fact she had been ushered down a back stairway from a private plane, and driven away in a car. She had quickly disappeared into the nether reaches of Melbourne. Perhaps they had even doctored the surveillance footage at the airport, she thought.
Her apartment was neat, anonymous. It had to be. In a large block with hundreds of them. There was protection in density. In crowds. To get out of the apartment into the city took some doing. The local fashion, the local culture, worked in her favour. With the spread of surveillance, the placement of cameras on every corner, the Melbournians had grown weary of it. They knew about the car tracking. Once you were in a car, they could follow that car anywhere in the city from the control centre. If you walked then the gait analysis software would grab you. It only took a couple of traces, no more than a couple of hundred seconds of walking.
Everyone walked slightly differently. So any doubts about your identity were quickly resolved from the analysis. It meant you couldn’t walk down to the shop to buy some milk without the system tagging you. Years of the pervasive surveillance somehow caused a shift in behaviour. Overnight black hooded attire, almost identical, became the fashion. Dark glasses also. To defeat the gait analysis software, bicycles, identical single-geared bicycles.
Mia almost laughed at the simplicity of it. Streaming out onto Docklands with hundreds of other clones, she was grateful. Somewhere to hide. In the open air of Swanston Street there was enough of a crowd though to defeat the tagging software.
The instructions were clear. A location, a message. She had to be within ten metres of the location to get the message. Not the sort of thing to put on a network. Any network. Although the backers were strong, they were cautious.
It was cold. Not really cold by global standards. But very cold by Nha Trang norms. Her thoughts drifted. To the charms of her previous life. The freelancer in almost perpetual motion, around the globe. Being forced to trade that was quite different to choosing to trade it. She had reached the end of that road, she knew that. But at one level she wanted to somehow, find a way.
She had a flash of Binh’s apartment. Not in the most expensive part of Nha Trang. Away from the beach, almost out into the fields. You could see the rice paddies from his window. A flash of waking, slipping out of bed and staring at the rice fields. Of feeling at home, at rest. For a moment. It was only a week ago, but already it seemed a long time. In her heart she knew that she would never see Nha Trang again.
Turning into Collins Street, she went a few steps, then ducked into a shop. Turning to look at every person behind her, and across the street. Watching for a tail, or anything suspicious. She couldn’t remember a time when this wasn’t part of it.
She checked the address again. In the way of these things, she was to make only one pass. The modern equivalent of the letter stuck to the bottom of the seat in a park.
It was a bank, she realised. She only had a hundred metres to go. Again desperately scanning the street. Taking out the phone, and getting ready. Walking more slowly as the address came up. As she walked, setting it to accept incoming bluetooth connections. Then in a matter of seconds it was over. The transmitter hidden in the wall negotiated a connection with her phone, sent the right code, the right passwords, and the message was delivered.
Mia ducked into the arcade and looked at the screen. It was a simple enough message.
“Rainbow Cafe, 2pm, Oscar.”
In case of ambiguity it had coordinates and a map location.
She made her way back to the apartment to wait until it was time to meet. Up in the lift, then an anonymous white door. But behind the door, it was no ordinary apartment. The living room was large, but the equipment made it look tiny. Huge screens covered one wall. All turned off. She resisted the urge to hit a button, and just sat staring at the view. Waiting for the rendezvous time.
George adjusted the microphone to be closer to his lips. Unlike the younger staff, he preferred to interact with the wall quietly.
“Background on Peter Simonovic.” he said.
The wall paused for a moment then spewed out an array of standard reports. Birth certificate, school record, drivers license. Anything official. No police record. Employment history. Credit history.
Mr Normal, he thought.
Alice and Steve were occupied. Only glancing occasionally towards George. Pleased in a way that he was actually doing it. Too many times he relied on them to do the interaction with the wall.
“Mr Average.” Alice said.
“Yes. Almost too average.” George said.
“Like I said. It’s a zero probability event.” she said. Hinting that looking at the car and the roadway systems might be a good place to start.
“I’m going to look at the scene.” George said.
Alice and Steve exchanged glances. Knowing that attempting to dissuade George was something you considered very carefully. George had trouble getting access to the centre reservation of the highway. The road operators were not keen on a distraction in the middle of high speed traffic.
“But they are all on automatic, aren’t they?” he said over the phone.
“Yes. But.” the operator said.
“But what?” George said
There was a distinct pause. He suspected they were relieved that he had not taken up Alice and Steve’s suggestion. That the most likely cause was a malfunction in the roadway systems.
“If anything happens, it’s on you.” the operator said.
He didn’t even think about asking the operators to empty a lane for him just so he could walk down it. They were already on edge from the incident. Their people had already fed the media the suicide line, so having a homicide detective prying in public view wasn’t good for business. Instead, he just got the tram down Nicholson Street and walked from there. Most of the traffic went into the tunnel, so it was easy enough to walk east toward the tollway. He had to climb down a ladder at Hoddle Street, then follow a set of walkway markers. In the middle of the Eastern tollway, just before the Chandler exit. Cars whizzing past in both directions at 200 kilometres per hour. It was lonely. It was weird. He had Steve on the phone talking him through. He was walking the path of the car. No skid marks.
“How do these things work?” George asked.
“Which part? The car part, the highway part?” Steve said.
“Start at the beginning.”
“Well the highway part is simple. It has to be, since it is duplicated every few metres along the road. Passive beacons. Each with a magic number. The car interrogates the beacon and gets a number back. Each beacon is unique. With a string of beacon numbers, the car works out where it is, and how fast it is going.”
George continued to follow the tyre trail. Since the ground in the middle was soft, and cars didn’t travel across normally, it was easy to find.
“What stops the cars from running into each other?”
“They detect the beacons set into the road. Adjusts the speed to keep a fixed distance. If there is a likely collision then it will slow down. They form into platoons naturally.”
“Never happened. Well not yet, anyway.”
“So how does one car go feral?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Start by looking at the car.”
“It’s in the workshop?”
“Accident analysis. You want me to contact them?”
“No, its ok. I’m finished here. I’ll head straight there.”
He retraced his steps back to the beginning of the freeway. There was no way that he could cross the streams of traffic. He had no doubt that they would stop for him, but it wasn’t good to hold them up just so he could save five minutes.
On the tram to the workshop, George was distracted. It all looked like a traffic accident to him. A car goes crazy, jumps the barrier. No matter how they talked about systems not failing, everything had a weak point. He wanted desperately to shuffle this one off to someone else. Except that the wall, and Kate had other ideas.
The workshop was in Brunswick. Off Smith street. In a back alley. It didn’t look official, and George realised why. How many cars would they do a year? So few now, with all of the automatic systems. Bit dodo like this was. He could remember all of the car workshops of his youth. An overwhelming smell of petrol hit him as he turned the corner into the garage. Gingerly he made his way towards the car. He showed his ID.
“George Kostas.” he showed his ID.
“I’ve heard of you. Weren’t you on the TV a while ago?”
“Best we don’t mention that.” Nick grinned. No, he wasn’t going to rub it in. At least not now that he could see that George wasn’t perhaps the stuck up celebrity he thought he was.
“Rogue car? Malfunctions and jumps the wrong direction.” There was a long pause.
“Could happen.” he said.
George smiled. He pictured himself flick passing the case to traffic. Getting the wall off his back.
Nick continued “Except that I ran the integrity tests. All of them. It passed all of them. There is nothing wrong with the guidance systems.”
George looked discouraged. His thoughts turned to angles. Motives. Perhaps our dead friend’s wife had a lover. A lover that was the best computer hacker on the planet. One that left no trace.
“Can I take it to somebody?” he said.
“Sure. It all pops out. Just a processor and some memory. You can take it with you.”
Back on the tram with a small box in his pocket. Rattling down Nicholson Street. Past the housing commission. Where a group of the residents were about to be rounded up by some uniforms. The sun glinted on the handcuffs. Oh for the simple life, he thought.
“Back already.” Steve said.
“According to the mechanic, it’s perfect. Nothing wrong with it.” George said.
“You want to see the freeway logs?”
“Which will tell me that a car jumped the middle and hit a truck.”
“Who knows about this stuff?”
“Best guy I know is Alan, in IT. You’ll have to take a journey to the basement.”
She found the cafe without too much trouble. Entering, she scanned the occupants. Searching for that nondescript, blend into the background person.
Oscar wasn’t among them. She hadn’t expected him, it was best that she was early. His profile told her that he was higher in the rankings than her, if there was such a thing as the ranking. Which was interesting, since he was almost five years younger. He had specialised in technical hacks, where she had gone more for social media.
He didn’t have any of Mia’s hesitation as he arrived. Tall, windswept, blonde. If you didn’t know any better you would have taken him for a surfer. Not somebody who had spent most of his life traversing the world’s networks and systems. He didn’t scan the room either, just wandered in, caught her eye and sat down. No fear. Maybe that came later, Mia thought.
“Hi. Oscar.” he said.
“Pleased to meet you.” she said. Where to go next? Not a jump to the operational details. At least some small talk.
“You’ve just arrived back in Australia.” he said.
“Sort of. Recruited in Vietnam. Next thing I’m here back where I started.”
“You know. Poorer. Darker.”
“As in dark forces at work.”
“I came from back from Laos last year.”
“Nhong Khiaw. I was earning a decent living hanging off the edge. The monthly job, nothing too serious. Just enough to keep me eating.”
“I’ve been to Nhong Khiaw. Sort of the end of the road. Next stop China. I liked it.”
“How long did you stay there?”
“About a month. I liked meeting the veterans that would drift across from China. Showing the effects of too many years on the road.” she said.
“A future version of you?” he asked
“Maybe. Somehow I didn’t think that I would end up like that.”
“You got an offer you couldn’t refuse.” Mia looked up, wondering how much he knew.
“Me too. We should go for a walk.” he said.
No doubt a directional microphone could have picked up the conversation. Even in a crowded cafe. More difficult on a walkway, but still possible. Best to make it as much of a challenge as possible.
“BCSH. I don’t know much about it.” he said
“One of the newer banks. International, mostly business customers. More recently growing retail base. ”
“Why?” he hesitated. Maybe not the right line of questioning.
“Ours not to reason why. You up to this?” she asked. Not in a throwing the weight around way, but in a ‘if you’ve got a problem, now is the time to bring it out’ way. He stared out towards the boats in docklands.
“Yes. I’m confident. But if you’re asking whether I’ve ever destroyed a bank before, then the answer is no. You?”
“No. Of course not.” she said.
Mia didn’t have a detailed plan. But she knew where to start. They needed somebody on the inside.
“How does this go?” he asked
“We need access.” she said
“No. Way too difficult. Access by someone inside.”
“Now I’m a recruiter?”
“Sort of. Young, female. They will fall victim to your charms.” He smiled. Maybe they will, he thought.
Mia reached for her phone, and opened a connection. A list of candidates with resumes appeared on Oscar’s phone. He lazily scrolled through them.
“So now I’m a gigolo.” he said.
“If you want to see it that way, yes.” she said.
Xu Wei remembered very well the first time he met Li Guang. They were almost exactly the same age. They found themselves on a SciTec training course in the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney. SciTec favoured a rural location. Get the recruits out into somewhere with scenery, somewhere not their normal milieu. Outside their comfort zone. Away from the familiar.
Their backgrounds could not have been more different. Li was not quite a princeling, but close to it. He came from Shanghai, and most of his family was Communist Party. Giving him the inside track, so to speak. He had never ventured far outside Shanghai, before joining SciTec. Xu was from Wuhan, and his family background was simple, and not quite poor. Li scarcely disguised his view that Xu was a country hick, unskilled in the ways of the big city.
Physically, they might have been mistaken for twins. Tall, dark, fit. Ambitious. On opposite sides of the conference table. A role playing exercise. Throw a hypothetical at the group. It was in the nature of these things that most of the group were happy to sit back, if somebody else came forward and carried it.
Straight after breakfast, the instructor began.
“You suspect that a member of your group has been leaking details of your bids to a competing firm. This has lead to a series of losing bids. Take me through what you will do to address the situation.”
Xu spoke first. “Of course I would put watches on all of his communications. But I would not expect him to necessarily make a mistake. At the time of the next bidding I would make sure I am close to him.”
Li smiled on the other side of the table. He looked toward the instructor. “I would lay a trap for him. A deadly trap.”
“You would send him to the next world without learning of his associates.”
“I would solve the problem.”
The instructor quickly moved things on. Not wishing to promote a confrontation. The tension between them was immediate and palpable. At the next break, Li moved close to Xu beside the coffee. Not a word was spoken, just Li moving inside Xu’s personal space and staying there much too long.
George had never been in the second basement. Come to think of it, he didn’t even know there was a second basement. It certainly didn’t look like it was often visited. Coming out of the lift he wondered whether Kate had ever been down here. Starved of light, almost like a rubbish dump.
The directions were vague. Just keep going in a westerly direction, you will eventually encounter Alan. It looked increasingly unlikely. Empty cubicles, and stray electronics strewn across desks.
“Alan?” he asked.
“The very same. You’ve come to offer me an autograph? ”
George just looked confused. Alan was mid thirties, dark, slightly balding. But he looked fit, as if he ran.
“Yes, well. You really are famous, aren’t you?”
“It’s my cross to bear.”
“Really? Surely the followers are worth it?” he said.
George didn’t know where to start. Who Alan worked for. Alan sensed his difficulty, and his eyes moved to the box George was carrying.
“The box?” he said.
“Out of a car. Something to do with the guidance systems.” George said.
He explained the rogue car. The veering onto the wrong side of the road.
“Integrity checks?” Alan said.
“Passed with flying colours, apparently.”
He picked over it much the same way that George might approach a murder scene. Turned it over, poking, prodding.
“Can you help?” George said.
“With the followers? Yes, just give them this location. Don’t worry about sending too many. I can handle them all.”
George smiled. He liked Alan. Alan smiled back.
“How long?” George asked.
“Two or three days.” Alan said.
Returning to the wall, George stood in front of it. Looking at the latest configuration. The images of the car scene were there. Together with some more information on the victim.
“Personal life?” George said to the wall.
Images came up. Wife, kids. Suburban backyards.
“Have you looked at the infra-red overhead view?” George asked Steve.
“Why look at the tollway? It will just show the cars.” Steve said.
“No, broader. Was there anyone in the vicinity?”
“People on the path. That sort of thing?”
“Don’t pre-judge it. Just look.”
Steve brought up the infra-red data for the minutes before the crash. Sure enough, there were the people on the path. Cyclists, pedestrians. Much of what you would expect. He was about to drop it, when he did one last run.
“Have a look at this.” he said to George
“Stationary.” he said
There was a group of targets that didn’t seem to move. Anyone on the path would be in motion, but these didn’t move. Just seemed to hover in the vicinity.
“Visual?” George asked.
“Trees cover them.”
Alice took an interest.
“Homeless camp.” she said.
“Take a look anyway.” George said.
Which in a sense might have been an excuse to get out of the office. Steve and Alice took a car and parked at the beginning of the path. It was late in the afternoon, and bicycle commuters were making their way from the lights down the hill and onto the path. Gingerly they made their way into the maze of trees, comparing their location with the position from the infrared scan. As they approached the location, there was nothing visible.
“Perhaps they have moved on.” Alice said
“Let’s just look around.” Steve said.
Some large trees. Mostly just thick undergrowth. Not all native trees. Once you moved away from the path, it was hard to see for any distance.
“Infrared.” Alice said.
Alice connected to the drone above. It gave her an instant infrared scan of the space ten metres radius from where she was. There they both were. And there was the camp. Directly ahead, behind the tree cover. Alice slipped on the glasses, and put the earpiece in. It meant she was directly connected to the wall. As she moved and faced something, the image that the glasses captured was fed in, and she got feedback. If she asked questions, they went direct to the wall also. If she looked at Steve, asked his name and Steve said “Fred” she would get a quiet “incorrect” in the earpiece.
Two tents. They were a little startled. One male, two females, all in their late 20’s or early 30’s. He was unshaven. Camping rough for some time, but not with the look of those that lived permanently out here. Which made them more interesting. The simply homeless were unlikely to have the resources to stage a carjack over the wire.
“Alice Nguyen. Homicide.” she said, flashing her id.
He looked startled.
“Peter Kowalczyk” he said.
Alice made sure the glasses got a good look at his face. She turned to the other two.
“Tricia Jones” she said
Alice got the confirmation through the earpiece. All the id’s checked.
“Been here long?” she said
“About a month.” Peter said.
“Like camping, do you?”
“It’s our choice. Lost resident rights. What else can we do?”
Resident rights was shorthand for a number of things. It could mean that they had lost some sort of security clearance. Or lost a job.
“Last Wednesday. You were here?” Alice said.
“If you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t be here.” he said.
“We are investigating the car destruction that night. You notice anything around that?” Alice said.
“Heard it. Hard to miss.” he said. “We went up to the edge of the road. Saw the smoke. We can’t get across.”
“That’s all?” she said
“It didn’t look like we would be of much help.” he said.
Her earpiece was silent. It didn’t validate, just jumped in where there was an inconsistency.
“You work?” she said
“Used to, like most people.” he said.
“Network stuff. Nothing fancy.”
Alice was getting a list of jobs. In these situations it was hard not to be distracted by the chatter in the earpiece. It took a bit of practice to tune in and tune out from it.
She turned to Tricia Jones. Tall, dark hair. Quiet.
“How about you.” Alice said.
“I worked in software.” she said.
Again the chatter in the earpiece, ‘Elizabeth Wang. Zybert.’ Now Alice was disoriented. She would have liked to talk to the wall, and ask what Zybert was, and how it was relevant to this. As it was she just had to wing it.
“Elizabeth. What was your job at Zybert?”
In the early days of using the glasses, and the wall, suspects would freak out at this point. Now it was commonplace. They knew that whatever they had done was stored somewhere, and in seconds it would be in an earpiece.
“How good were you at it?” she asked
The earpiece had her at top 10%. But Alice let it go.
“You have plans to move on?”
“We are heading north.”
“Keep in touch.”
Which was a bit redundant, as for a while they would have their very own drone.
Oscar adjusted his hood, and rode carefully beside the Yarra. He looked up, for reassurance. As for Mia the drone hovered, just on the verge of being out of sight. At Punt Road he verged right, up the hill. To a nondescript apartment tower much like Mia’s. Not sensible to put them all in the same place.
22nd floor. Oscar took in the view. It was spectacular - almost 270 degrees. If he looked hard he might be able to see the airport. Not too late he thought. Some skills in hiding, and evasion. But the evidence laid out before him back in Nhong Khiaw was very convincing. It was a story with only one ending.
He laid out the photos on the table. Five of them. Not unattractive. All low level bank employees. Single. Carefully chosen, he thought. Someone with serious responsibility would be carefully screened. These were low level people. Not key security key holders or anything like that. No heroic internal hacking. All they had to do was take a very small container and place it. He would do the rest.
Still, it wasn’t something he had done before. Fools for love, he thought. Which of these eyes is the most foolish? He scanned again and again. Brought up social network views of all of them, which helped a bit. Even a set of photos gave him a useful window.
“Track Natalie Parkes. Last week.” he said
On the large wall screen a series of lines appeared. Facebook trails. Lots of them.
“Replay 9am to 12pm Thursday” he said
Sure enough, there was a coffee place. It wasn’t an every day thing. But often enough to have a persistence in the traces. Having picked a target, and a time, Oscar turned everything off. Even the lights.
With the apartment in darkness, only the lights of the city were visible. Headlights snaking their way along streets. He could make out the occupants of the tower just down the street. Sipping drinks. Talking on the phone.
It’s not Nhong Khiaw, he thought. But in a weird sense, it felt like home.
One name in the work history stuck with George. He turned to Steve.
“SciTec. What is it with SciTec?” George said.
“Chinese conglomerate. Many tentacles. Which part?” he said
George pointed at the wall. “Our disintegrated wrong way traveller. He worked for SciTec.” George said.
“So do lots of people. So what?”
“So something about that name is important, but I can’t remember.”
“SciTec news incidents. Last five years.” George said to the wall.
News stories scrolled slowly past. In the beginning there had been some semi-hysterical controversies about Chinese investment. Quickly giving way to the good news stories about job creation, and so on. George soon tired of it. He couldn’t remember what it was about SciTec. “Family.” George said to the wall.
To which the wall responded with the usual family photos. He decided that perhaps he better follow the script. Talk to the wife. However unlikely it was that some stray lover had the capability to hack into the top level highway network and steer a car without leaving a trace, statistics told him that most people were killed by their nearest and dearest.
“Wife’s location.” he said to the wall
She was within walking distance of Ormond train station. George only went by car when there was no other alternative. Which put him at odds with about 90% of his fellow Melbournians. Also at odds with about 99% of his colleagues, and 100% of his bosses. Who counted his time traveling as loitering, without intent. It was one of those rare things that he could get away with as a result of his star status. Despite recent stumblings, he had the highest clearance rate of any of his peers.
From the fun palace, it was only a few metres to Southern Cross railway station. This time of the afternoon the loop ran clockwise. It changed direction at around midday. Every now and then he would encounter a confused tourist. Trying to understand why the loop changed direction. Nowhere else on the planet did a loop change direction. ‘Why?” they asked. He realised with a smile that he had absolutely no idea why it changed direction. It just did.
On the Frankston line train, it was quiet. Only a scattering of passengers. The guy in his carriage was looking at him, but trying not to be seen looking at him. Trying to remember ‘where have I seen that guy’. Such was the nature of George’s fame. A minor rather than a major celebrity, he told himself. George smiled when he recalled the chat show. What a mistake that had been. He found himself on a stage with other minor celebrities. It had all been going well, a bit of background, a snippet of information from a case or two. Nothing serious. Then the host had steered it gently towards the “marvellous Melbourne” direction, with a “what makes the city liveable” question. A switch closed in George’s brain.
‘I understand the liveability surveys are for expatriate executives on short stays here. For those of us that actually live here it’s a joke. Not a ho ho joke, a very sick joke. This city is a cage inside which the idle rich do their idle thing. Outside the cage the rest of us make the best of the handoffs. Nothing works. Nobody cares.’
He might as well have vomited on camera. Of course they left it in the edit. Even featured it in the promotion. It didn’t play well at Spring Street, and it especially didn’t play well at the Fun Palace. A policeman with an opinion. A bit like a nun with a sex life.
At Ormond he descended into the underpass. It had one of those concave mirrors so you could see around the corner. See if there was anyone there. He couldn’t help but look back at it, an old habit. If anyone was tracking him they would be using the drones and the street cameras, not the old fashioned shoe leather approach.
North Road here ran all the way to Brighton. He put the glasses on and it showed the sale price of each house. To what particular purpose? Simply because the technology could do it. George sighed, and muttered “history of movement” and as he passed each car a map with a red trace of how it got to its current stationary spot appeared. Why? Because the technology could do it.
He glanced at his phone for directions, and realised that he was at Wild Cherry Road, and he needed to turn left. He entered the street, and noticed immediately the difference to North Road. There were a couple of kids playing outside, and they looked up. He had about thirty houses to cover, and he took notice of the numbers, the side of the street that he was aiming for. He walked more slowly.
He smiled at the kids, and they smiled back. Then they looked away, and he realised they were looking past him. He glanced over his shoulder, and became aware of the car just keeping pace with him, right behind him.
He stopped, and the car stopped. Through force of habit he looked for the driver, and of course there wasn’t one. Unusually though, there was nobody in the car either. He didn’t feel in any danger, but it was clear that he was meant to stop, to engage with the car.
The passenger side window slid down, and a screen rotated up into the window space. He could see a young female in a nondescript office. It could have been anywhere. She smiled at him.
“Good morning. I am wondering what your business is here this morning.” she said. There was just a hint of a Bangalore accent. A camera rose up beside the screen, and clearly began sampling images of his face.
“I didn’t realise I needed a clearance.” he said.
“An oversight, Inspector Kostas. It is easily remedied. You may not have been aware of how our coverage has expanded.”
“You are aware of our presence, of course. Our slogan ‘It doesn’t take a gate’.”
He was vaguely aware of the expansion of the security coverage. Even had seen one of those cute videos. Come to think of it, it could have been filmed in this street. It had a kids playing behind a gate, throwing a ball onto the street. A gate that disappeared, replaced by drones and sensors. Then a pitch based on the low up front cost, and the guaranteed performance.
“Yes. How could I not be aware of your presence.”
“I have you identified. Now I just need to get an authority number from your organisation.” she said.
He restrained himself. In a sense the ‘gated community’ companies were replacing him. The new high tech way of ‘safety’. This was neither the time or the place to argue.
“Just a moment.” he said.
He called Steve, and explained the situation. In the time he took to go through it, Steve had already punched in a code, and the systems had worked themselves out.
“Thank you Inspector. I see that all of the clearances are resolved. You have a nice day.”
Maybe it was just that he was too aware of all this technology. That a simple turn from a main road into a side street brings up a whole world of triggers and certificate exchange. Was it always the way that as you got older that you hankered for the simple things before? He continued towards his destination.
“Wife history” he muttered. The glasses were hooked to the wall, he didn’t need to say which wife. Context stayed with him.
Mrs Everyman had a privileged background. Private school. Father lawyer, mother real estate. It frustrated George. Everything here was plain vanilla. No distinguishing marks. If he didn’t have the actual physical bodies, he would assume this was created on a computer somewhere with the express purpose of slipping into the background.
He took the glasses off as he approached the house. If she was who she appeared to be then being interrogated, however gently, by somebody wearing the glasses was going to provoke a response. Not the response he was looking for.
“George Kostas. Homicide.” he said, then continued. “I am so sorry about your husband. But, I am afraid I have to ask you some questions.”
“Homicide” she said. Mid fourties, red hair. Traces of grey, where she had not succeeded with the dye.
“They told me it was an accident.” she said.
“They shouldn’t have.” he said, and immediately regretted it. He continued. “Did your husband have any enemies? Somebody who would want to kill him?”
She looked at George as if he had lost his mind.
“He was a middle level computer engineer. With a passion for his football team.” she said.
George paused. She was right, of course. He better use his brain instead of just spitting the standard questions.
“I’m so sorry.” he said, and turned away. “We are searching for a motive.”
She was looking at a photo, and in a tired way, she turned towards him.
“I have to ask. Your marriage?” he said.
“Was good. Or as good as they are, I guess. You married?” she said.
“Well then.” she said. She looked as if she had aged ten years this morning. People did. Some recovered. Some didn’t. George didn’t hesitate though. This was what he did. As bad as it was, he didn’t like to thing of how many times he had done this. He continued.
“Somebody had a motive. Somebody smart enough to hack into a highway system, and not leave a trace.”
Tell it like it is, George thought.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.” she said.
Mia was alone with the room, and the technology. She fired everything up. No messages from the backers. She had half expected a startup guide, or a manual. She smiled to herself. You leave behind that sort of thing. That meeting across the cafe table where it was all laid out. No choices. As if her whole life had many possible paths, but they all lead to that point.
He was quietly spoken, mid thirties. As if there was no need to exaggerate things, or speak strongly. The evidence that he laid out in front of her spoke volumes. He didn’t need to say ‘this is where you work for us, or you vanish into the gulag somewhere’.
She was still adjusting to the view. As if this was the best seats in the house. She was used to sitting down the very front in the cheap seats. All of a sudden transported to the private corporate boxes, the most exclusive. In one swift movement.
Sitting, watching the messages roll over. In a very real sense this was her home. The internet itself. Physical location was not important, as long as there was a strong connection. No matter where she was on the planet, she was reconnected with a couple of messages. To almost everyone that mattered to her.
Music. She needed some. Sitting in the room, with the darkening horizon, she listened to her favourite music. Like a buddhist monk with a gong. Oscar came up on the messaging screen.
“I need some gigolo lessons.” he said
“Just imagine you are in a hostel in Vientiane. You see a girl that looks cute.” she said
“You’ve been following me.”
“Don’t need too.”
“But from the internet?”
“Same deal. Casual interaction leads to noticing. Interest is sparked. Stuff happens.” she said.
“So trawl the candidates for an interest. Make my presence felt.”
“Now you are learning.”
Oscar dropped off. She thought about it. Like any skill, with a bit of practice it wasn’t so hard.
If it was so simple, how come she ended up here, she thought. Solitary soldier, paid by somebody she had never met. Didn’t even know. For a cause that she had no idea about. If she went backwards through her decisions then they all resulted in being at this location at this time.
George watched the suburbs flit by the train window on the way back to the fun palace, with not much to show for his efforts. They called it the “fun palace” as a tribute to it’s ridiculous architecture. As a police headquarters, it looked actually like a kid’s fun park. There was also the ironic aspect.
As far as he could tell from the wall, and talking to the wife, there was nothing mysterious about the victim’s personal life. The wall could do a scan of comings and goings at the house, and look for unusual financial activity. No matter how hard the participants tried to hide the affair, it would show up somewhere. Nothing. Not even a hint. So he descended into the dungeon again to meet with Alan. Hoping that he had something to show.
“Two visits in a week. I must have attractions that you can’t resist.” Alan said.
“Couldn’t keep away. The decor. The excitement.” George said.
“Yes, I suspected.”
“Anything?” George asked.
“Not much. I ran the integrity checks on the code in the car guidance system. It looks for any variation in the code. If somebody has hacked it, then there will be a difference. It’s not possible to hide it.” Alan said.
“See for yourself.” he said. The screens showed a line by line scan, that compared the code of the version of software that was installed in the car, with what was actually in the car.
“What am I seeing?” George asked.
“See the green mask. Well if there is a difference, it will show red.”
It continued on, at blinding speed.
“Lots of code.” George said.
“Yes.” Alan said.
George watched the green. Lots of it. It took minutes to go through. In the end, it stopped. No red.
“No tampering?” George said.
“It would appear so.” Alan said.
George sat back in his chair. Stared at the ceiling. Reflecting on what he had told the wife. How certain he had been that this was not a simple accident.
“Nothing.” George said.
“I didn’t say that.” Alan said.
A glimmer of hope. Alan continued.
“Look at this. Compare the size of the two files. ”
He showed two numbers. One was slightly larger than the other.
“I don’t get it.” George said.
“At the factory, they insert the code. It is the size at the left. But this has been overwritten. Over the air. Reset to the original. Whoever did this knew that we would run the integrity check. They made sure that it would pass. But they neglected to wipe their feet as they left. They left a mark.”
“Hang on. How does the code change while it is going along?” George said.
“It can be reset over the wire. You need the factory security locks. Top level passwords. But yes, you can.”
George came to life.
“How do we prove that?”
“Not so easy. But I would say that the code running when it jumped and did its stuff was not what it had from the factory. They have substituted on the fly, and then replaced it before the car was stationary.”
“Good question. Not so many people. Prime suspects somebody with experience in the factory. But of course they could be anywhere. Also well hidden. You don’t exactly advertise for somebody to do an illegal hack on the top level highway.”
“No. I guess not.”
But there was a new urgency in George’s step as he left. An opening. A glimmer of hope. He sprinted up the stairs in the direction of the wall.
“Hacked.” he said to Steve and Alice.
“How?” Steve asked
“Wireless download into the car control system. The file size was slightly larger, but it passed the integrity checks.” George said.
“Jump car. Wipe code.” Steve said.
“Classy. High level.”
Alice and Steve were sent to the highway control centre. George wasn’t expecting much.
Alice looked across at Steve, driving. There had to be more to him, she thought. More than just “young, eager”.
“We get the super-fun spots, that’s for sure.” she said.
“Ah c’mon. Better than trawling through records. Or watching the analysis bots do their thing. Sometimes I think we are just machine minders.”
“Yup. I guess.”
Alice was keen to penetrate the Steve demeanor. So she took the chance. “What do you make of George?” she said
“Is this a test? Got a recorder running? Back to the psych team?”
“No, stupid. It’s just you and me here.”
“He’s smart. Ferocious. Mono-maniacal. Frighteningly good. ”
“Well, there is dark George. Self-destructive. A loner. His personal life is like a desert.”
“So that isn’t something you aspire to?”
The scenery drifted past.
“Where did you grow up?” she continued.
“What is this? Twenty questions?”
“Just interested. You don’t have to answer. But you get to do the same.”
He looked across. Alice had a half-smile. He continued.
“Brighton. Local high school. Surf lifesaving club. Football. All the usual things.”
“Not exactly a poverty stricken area. How did you deal with that?”
“Well, I wasn’t a silvertail, if that’s what you are thinking.”
“But everyone else was?”
“Pretty much. In my case it was single mum, flat above a shop.”
“So you were the poor relation?”
“How did you feel about that?”
“It worried me at first, but then I began to understand them better. As I learned more, I felt sorry for them.”
“The rich kids?”
“I grew up with a structure. Somewhere to aim. Mum wouldn’t accept ‘just trying’. No indulgences.”
“All too easy. Nothing to aim for. Nothing to work with.”
There was a pause as they navigated through some tricky intersections in Geelong.
“Can’t be too many cops from Brighton.”
“So far as I know, I’m it.”
“I asked first.”
“It makes a difference.”
“So do a lot of things. A lot where nobody points a loaded gun at you.”
“It’s like an exclusive club. I like that. Also, the physical side of it.”
Sure, Alice knew. That adrenalin charge when you took off chasing someone. Knowing that not only would they be caught, but they would be on the dirt in seconds. The look of incredulity on their faces. She loved that. Where else could you do that, and not only be not prosecuted, but actually paid to do it?
“My turn.” he said.
“Balwyn. Yes, I know. Not a poverty stricken area either. Push, push from the parents. Shining straight A student.”
“Migrant success story?”
“No, I’m third generation. We’re supposed to waste it. Spend our nights clubbing and our days sleeping.”
“Medical school. I had the grades, but I wasn’t interested. Went travelling instead. I guess I tried to lose myself. I certainly got lost enough, in Asia.”
“What did you do for money?”
“Odd jobs here and there. It doesn’t cost much if you ditch the luxury.”
“Do you speak Vietnamese?”
She laughed. “About ten words. Not much.”
“How did you find it?”
“It’s really weird. In one way, you fit in. You look like everyone. They all greet you like a long lost best friend. But it is totally foreign.”
“What brought you back?”
“It got really fundamental. First few months I was fine. Then it just grew more and more. A terrible homesickness. I gradually realised that I am totally physically addicted to Melbourne.”
“You love it?”
“No, it’s a full on physical addiction. If I walk up Swanston Street, no matter how bad I’m feeling, by the end of the walk I feel better. If I sit in Degraves Street, I feel better.”
He laughed, picturing Alice sitting in Da Nang longing after Degraves Street. “But why the police force? You could have done anything.”
There was a distinct pause.“You know much about the Vietnamese community?”
“Well, let’s just say there are parts.”
“Drugs. Stuff? Protection?”
“All of the above.”
“The fear in their eyes.”
Oscar had the four profiles. He had the backgrounds. They all made fine choices. How on earth was he to decide? He just picked the third, Natalie. Her interests included computer games. Which ones? Searching for game aliases that matched her real name, and locations. Not something he would do, but if she felt she had nothing to hide.
Cyros was a role playing game, so Oscar needed an identity. He decided to play a hacker. Why not? It only took a few minutes to get an account, some credits. Sitting in the apartment he had a huge screen, and a headset. The 3D effects were sometimes a bit clunky. That was the worst of knowing how it was put together, that you looked for the seams. But most of the time it was seamless.
“Subtle. No charging.” Mia said.
No, he wasn’t going to rush right towards the area where she was and ask her out. In the hostels of Asia it sometimes was more direct than that. A glance at the right time and a sneaking into the bunk. He shook his head.
“Good enough for you?” he said. He had a trail. A presence. Just enough to get her interest.
“Now we wait.” Mia said.
Oscar sat at a screen, filling in time until Natalie took the bait. He was doubtful about it. So obvious, so easy. Was it really that easy? He searched for the microphone settings, and muted them all. Then turned to Mia.
“Do you know who the backers are?” he said. Directly. Just like that.
Mia looked flustered. Thinking that even if the microphones were off, then there was most likely some audio surveillance in the apartment. She hadn’t done a search. Not sure how the backers would react.
“No.” she said.
“Sophisticated.” Steve said.
“Fling it at the wall.” George said.
It was a matter of phrasing. “Wireless download reprogramming of master code, automobile.” Steve said.
A couple of pages of explanation came up. “Companies capable of executing.” Steve said.
There was a long delay. It was unusual for the wall to take time to respond. They were used to instant responses. A short list of companies came up. SciTec amongst them.
“Hacked by his own company?” Steve said.
“To what possible end? Instant redundancy?” George said.
It was hard to think of a reason why his own company would dispose of him in such a spectacular fashion. Much simpler to pay him out and send him on his way. George was more interested in the other companies. But where to start?
“How many people could do it?” George said.
“Not many. In Melbourne.” Steve said.
“So maybe rather than look for a company, look for the person. They might have contracted it out.” George said.
“Sure.” Steve said.
“Previous task. Individuals in Melbourne capable of executing.” he said to the wall.
A list of names. None of them meant anything much.
“Criminal records.” George said.
It didn’t help. About half of them had a record of some sort. Nothing too dramatic. Some relating to car theft, as you might expect.
“Movement traces.” George said.
A set of spidery lines appeared on a map, cross-indexed to the names on the list. “So now we know in great detail where they have coffee.” he said.
“The power of technology.”
So soon. Natalie had bumped his avatar. Left enough to establish a message thread. It would only persist for that part of the game. In theory once it was dropped the parties could not encounter each other again.
“Coffee?” he said
“Where?” she said
An array of places appeared on the screen, scattered around docklands. In this sort of situation better to get her to come here, rather than he to go there. Or at least that was what Oscar thought. Who knew what the rules were? Or were they universal? He picked one at random.
In what seemed a matter of seconds, Oscar found himself starting into Natalie’s eyes. Thinking he could easily get lost in them.
“I’m a beginner at Cyros. Too long in the jungle.” Oscar said.
“Which jungle?” she said, taking the hint
“I haven’t been there, but it doesn’t look much like jungle on the views that I saw.”
“Vientiane. No that’s not a jungle. But if you go out, far out. Then you get away from the grid. Away from it all.” he said.
“You escaped.” she smiled. He hair was dark, and short. A not quite innocent look. As if at the same time she was young, and old.
“I did. But I came back.”
“Nobody like you out there.” he said.
She smiled again. They talked, about nothing. About themselves. About Melbourne. Until it began to slow.
“Will I see you again?” she said.
They decided to ring all of them. Or at least those without a criminal record. On the thinking that this would be a pre-requisite for the interview for the contract. A fishing expedition. Desperate stuff. It seemed way too professional for the outcome. To dispose of a low level everyman you set up a stunt of the highest order. Wipe almost all traces. It was worthy of an organised crime hit, but it was a suburban accident. It made no sense on any level. George listened in on the conversations. Nothing. Until Steve got to Simon Masterson.
“How would you describe your expertise?” Steve asked
“Embedded systems. Control. Automotive stuff.” Simon said.
“We’re investigating the death on the Eastern Freeway. Car jumped the barrier and piled head-on into a truck.”
“I saw it on the news. Terrible.”
“You could reprogram a car while it’s in motion, couldn’t you?” Steve said.
“So could lots of people.”
“We have a forensic analysis that points us to you.”
It was the pause that conveyed all of the information.
“Bullshit.” he said, and promptly disconnected.
“He knows something.” George said.
“I’d say he’s our man. But I couldn’t tell you why I’m convinced of that.” Steve said.
“No chance of getting evidence to bring him to trial. You are charged with stuffing up the reversion of a chip by leaving dummy characters at the end of the file upload.” George said.
“We watch him. Task a drone.” George said.
“How goes the gigolo-ing?” Mia asked. Smiling.
“Well, I think. Only a little more sophisticated than a glance at a youth hostel.” Oscar said.
“The mating call. Same everywhere.”
“You seem impervious to it.”
“Nobody is immune. Don’t you believe it.”
“I’m meeting her tomorrow.”
“So how long?”
“Until she is ready to push the button.”
“A week or so.”
“Should be ok with the backers. They seem a patient lot.”
Oscar went to ask about the backers again. But caught his words. Mia didn’t know any more than he did. She really didn’t.
There was an urban park at the top of the SciTec building. Not quite the highest building in Melbourne. But near enough. A suitable place for Oscar and Natalie to meet again. The park was really just a string of cafes, with the latest in games and tech stuff sprinkled throughout. Young people stretched out on bean bags soaking up 3D this, and 3D that. Some experimental direct brain interface stuff. Oscar hadn’t seen it before, but he found it a bit spooky.
“Tell me a bit about yourself.” Oscar asked.
“Not much to tell. I grew up in Middle Park. Parents both executives. Father finance. Mother public relations. Had to do a full schedule analysis to get ten minutes to talk to them. So I quickly gave up.”
“School?” Oscar asked
“The best. You know the deal. But I got a scholarship to MacRob and went there.”
“Selective, isn’t it. Brain lab?” he said
“You’d think. But it wasn’t like that. Nice people. Good teachers.”
“So where did it all go wrong?”
“After VCE. Just fell apart. Sat staring at a wall for six months. Then drifted into the bank.”
“They wanted me to be a brain surgeon or something like that. It’s a big disappointment to them. Bit like being forced to drive a run down old Volkswagen instead of the latest BMW.”
“Trophies. It’s all about trophies. They wanted something they could impress their friends with.”
Oscar waited for the questioning to come back the other way. He had the profiling, the story the backers decided. They had a play for any situation. It was like being controlled by a giant brain. He decided to tell the truth.
“You?” she asked
“Like I said. Drifting about Asia for the last five years. Before that, my local high school at Bundoora. I was the top of everything. Then engineering at Melbourne Uni. Always in the top three. Talented, they said.”
“Until you crossed to the dark side.” she grinned
He looked up. How much did she know? For a moment he was shaken. Steady, he thought. She doesn’t know anything.
“Not really. Just contract hacking to pay for the next plane fare. I had an unerring ability to fall in love with a place, want to stay forever. Then six weeks later I would be on a plane to the next paradise.”
“This apply to people to?” she said
He smiled. Once he was in truth telling mode, it was hard to flip back.
“Yes. I guess. Mistake after mistake. But aren’t we all like that?”
She leaned back in the bean bag and gave him a look. A look that he felt had melted all of his predecessors. Smart. Maybe she was too smart for this gig, Oscar thought.
“Nothing on the car programmer.” George said.
“Huh?” Alice said.
“Not a thing.”
“Except that he hacked the car.”
“More accurately, he was very nervous when we asked him about hacking the car.”
“And he is one of the five people the wall thinks capable of hacking it.”
“The wall.” George said.
“Knows everything. All hail the wall.” she said.
George smiled. He would rather have been out there in a car trailing behind Masterson. Eating bad food, sitting in the streets. Except that now a drone could do all of that and better.
“Wife. Two kids.”
“Couldn’t she just be a terrorist to keep me amused?”
“It’s not all about you George.”
“SciTec.” he said, to Alice. Having already absorbed the full volume of facts from the wall.
“What about it? There’s nothing here to indicate that the company is a factor.”
“Random. Some kid with a gift. Likes to play.”
The silence filled the room, as Simon Masterson made his way to another contract programming job. His car weaved through the inner north, always in view from the drone.
“Who would know about SciTec?” George asked
“I can’t place him.”
“Drug squad, now a rising star in finance.” she said
As George ascended in the lift, he struggled to come up with a premise. He needed a rationale.
Peter Harris was mid fifties, lean, serious. He looked like a retired athlete with a suntan. George wondered where you get a suntan in Brunswick. Maybe Peter had some serious clout. But the wall had him as straight, so maybe he just had a sunlamp.
“Simon Masterson. Contract programmer. We are pretty sure somebody hired him for a hit on Simonovic, our SciTec employee.” George said.
“Clever. Sad. But how can I help?”
“What about it?”
“You tell me.”
“So now I’m Wikipedia, the CIA fact book?”
George sat back. As he feared, the lack of motivation was going to be an issue here. He, of course, was right. On the face of it, there was nothing unusual.
“I’m interested in SciTec’s enemies. I’m assuming they are important enough to have some ?”
“You have enemies. I have enemies.”
“Enemies with deep enough pockets to arrange accidents that really and truly look like accidents.”
“SciTec have an interest in the security industry here. Amongst their other multi-headed type things. Banking, insurance, finance. All of that. They are predominantly Chinese backed, and they like big. Big is better.”
“So who would have an interest in nobbling them?”
“The rest of the industry. Not quite a cast of thousands, but lots.”
“Usual. Nexus, Comaco, Defigo.”
“Those names mean nothing to me.”
“I’m sure the wall can give you a crash course. Come to think of it, I used to give a crash course. I could send you the links.”
George didn’t relish dredging through a course.
“Give me the 5 minute summary.” he said
“North and South. The north has all of the resources: iron ore, oil, coal, gas, water, sunshine. South has little of this stuff. So over the last ten years it has been a shrinking south, and a growing north. Rich and powerful. SciTec is a major force in the north. Now they want what is left in the south also.”
“Thanks.” George said.
None of which explained why a low level employee is suddenly thrown across a highway. He needed to visit SciTec. George couldn’t help but glance at the wall as he entered the room. In a sense he was a slave to it. They all were.
“SciTec. Who’s up for it?” he said.
“I’m in.” Alice said.
The car swung out of the underground garage of the fun palace up into the bright light of Docklands. Taking a left to Footscray. Not the central district, or St Kilda for SciTec. As the bright, shining future it took a new path and built its headquarters far away from its competitors.
Alice did a rapid catchup on the corporate history. Creation stories. Myths. It was long enough ago, and in a place not known for its critical press. Unlikely that out of Shanghai would spring a criticism or a correction.
It wasn’t meant to play out this way, Oscar thought. Natalie had quickly steered him in the direction of a taxi, back to her flat. Nodding to her flatmate as they crossed the lounge, she was a woman on a mission. In seconds she had shed her clothes, dived under the covers. He didn’t need encouragement, but he found himself underneath her, with those eyes locked on his. She tilted up, onto her hands and he was transfixed. Despite being smaller, she was stronger, and she was not going to let go.
In the darkness he didn’t dare look at his phone. She wasn’t snoring, but was breathing heavily on the pillow. He looked across. When he thought of what he was actually doing he was suddenly wracked with guilt. A new feeling. For so long he had been living from contract to contract, from place to place. Somehow the ruthlessness came more naturally to him in a foreign location. Here it was all so bloodless. He had begun to remember the old Oscar. Dangerous thoughts. He dared not share them with Mia.
In the early morning her eyes swung open.
“You didn’t disappear. I was sure you would be gone when I woke up.” she said.
“Would you rather I was?”
“Of course not.”
“Don’t you have to go to work?” he said
He was struggling to hold the cover. An actual software company, in Footscray. What if she decided to visit? He was so unprepared. He could say that the security was too tight, and meet her in the streets. She moved closer. He was totally unprepared for the eyes. Lost in them.
Alice swung into the SciTec forecourt. A largish building overshadowed the front courtyard. It wasn’t clear what to do with the car. The doors swung open, and a young man with a badge on came out. He gestured toward a parking spot.
George and Alice were escorted into the foyer. Through a series of gates, much like you would at an airport. Although these scans were new to George. Clearly the latest, looking for anything that transmitted, or anything that had the capability.
“What was all that about?” George said as they were in the elevator, with their escort.
“Anything. Everything. For a nondescript company they seem to expect highly equipped visitors.” she said.
They were ushered in to an office on the eighteenth floor. All shiny surfaces and empty space, it seemed the size of a football field.
A tall, male person in an extremely dark suit greeted them.
“Xu Wei” he said.
“I’ve assembled the people that worked directly with Peter. We are all just so upset, as you can imagine. Unfortunately we have two people off sick.”
His voice was almost perfect in its Australian accent. The profiles told George that he originally hailed from rural China. Somewhere he had taken the time, or the training, to perfect the sounds. George looked across at Alice, and she gave him a ‘don’t misbehave’ look.
They were ushered into a conference room.
“Thank you for giving us your time.” George said. “I am sure you are all shocked by this. But we need your help.”
He looked around the group. They were as ashen-faced as you would expect.
“Anything. Anything out of the usual is of value to us.” George said. “What was he working on?”
Xu glanced down the table. George thought that it was like a warning sign, as in don’t even think about it.
“Security.” he said
“I gather the whole division is devoted to security. That includes drones, city-wide systems, ...I’m reading from your website.” George said
“He was a key person. We moved him around a lot.” he said
George paused. He thought about doing the ‘murder inquiry’ speech. But he doubted that on its own that wouldn’t shift anything around here.
“Enemies?” George asked. “Any disagreements at work?”
“Peter wasn’t the type to get into arguments.” the male opposite answered. Similar age to Peter.
“Mark Abromowitz. We worked together most of the time.”
“How would you describe Peter?”
“He was a detail person. You have to be. It only takes one missing part, and it all collapses.”
George felt like he was at a funeral. Normal people suddenly mutated into angels. Somehow all those shitty things they had done vanished. He looked along the line, to the end. A woman of indeterminate age, somewhere from 30 to 40. He caught her eye, and just for a moment he thought he saw something.
More questioning of a nondescript nature. More banter. Then they were on their way out of the conference room. He caught sight of the woman making for the exit, in the directions of the toilet. Quickly he whispered to Alice “follow her”
“The toilets?” Alice asked
“Just over there” Xu replied.
As Alice entered the toilet one of the cubicles was occupied. She could clearly hear the sobbing. But as soon as the cubicle occupant became aware, she stopped.
Alice and Steve made their way back out to the foyer.
“Did you catch her name?” George asked
“No. But I got a photo.” she said.
“Brilliant. Upload it to Steve.”
George messaged Steve:
“Get the wall to chase all intersections between that face and the victim.”
It would take a while. Match the face, then search surveillance footage, then look for matches where they in close vicinity. No doubt a long list of them arriving at work. But the sobbing was all he had to work with.
Oscar walked back along the Yarra in the early morning light. How was it that he felt totally lost in such familiar surroundings?
Mia smiled. She could see from his disheveled appearance the success, but also see how disoriented he felt.
“Your new career not quite what you thought?” she said.
“I doubt that anyone would complain. But yes, not exactly what I anticipated.”
“She’s a handful.”
“But she’s in the best hands. Yes?”
Oscar slumped in front of a monitor. Wishing that everything in life was as abstract as computers Mia busied herself with cultivating and feeding the online presence. Much like the care of a tiger, she thought.
Then there was another incoming from the backers. She looked across at Oscar, making sure that he didn’t see the screen. Then it was time for a walk through Southbank, to another dead letter drop. A radius to penetrate, a bluetooth connection to make.
It was growing. Another recruit. Jesus he was young. Mia fixated on the image. Since when did they start to look like they had just graduated from kindergarten?
Like a dance of birds. She headed for the open space at the western end of Docklands, on the bike. With the scarf and the glasses, suitably anonymous. He also. Of the tens of moving commuters circling in the open space, he was one, and she was another. They circled, trying to decide whether it was safe to stop moving. Watching for a movement in the drones overhead. Once satisfied, they sat on a bench.
“Offer you couldn’t refuse.” she said.
“When you were recruited. They put you in a position where joining was the only option.”
“Not at all. They contacted me, mentioned a job. It looked interesting.”
Flexible, she thought. Different approaches for different targets. Still, he was definitely in.
“You like it?”
“Sure. But they are super-secretive. I know they are in the secrets business, but it gets a bit ridiculous.”
Tell me about it, she thought.
“Hardware. You comfortable with that?” she said.
“Absolutely. It’s my thing.” he said.
“Well you won’t have trouble with this then.”
She opened up the cardboard box, and put one of the chips on the table. He picked it up, read the numbers. Which seemed to mean something to him.
“Drone guidance systems. These are good. But what are we going to do with them?” he asked.
“They sent a briefing. Where was it?” she fiddled with the pad, and finally passed the note to him.
He sat back and went through it carefully. Mia looked out over the city, with the sun glinting over the bay. It looked so beautiful.
“They look authentic.” Michael said.
“At the prices they charge, they should.”
“But they are not. Copies?”
“More than copies. We can program them.”
“Seriously? We tap in and change the code.” he said.
“Even better. We show the drone a picture and the mode changes based on what we have programmed in.”
Michael turned the chip over.
“So all we have to do is substitute the chips. But don’t they do integrity checks?”
“These will pass the sort of checks they do. ”
By the time George and Alice were back at the fun palace, the wall had assembled a vast array of footage. As he expected, most of it was of Simonovic and the girl arriving at work. The wonder of computers, so literal.
“Exclude locations inside their work location.”
There was a visible pause. George liked it when the wall paused. It meant he was asking questions that made use of all of that massed computer power. He half expected a zero tally from this. But there were ten videos including them both.
A street. A cafe. First his car. Then hers, minutes later. Even better, she looked around as if to check whether they were followed. He checked twice, to make sure they went into the same place.
George turned to Alice.
“How upset was she?” he asked
“You mean was she sobbing because she had engaged our fancy hardware hacker to dispose of him?” she said
“No, of course not.”
“On a scale to 10 of grief stricken, I’d put her at a seven.” she said
He scrolled through the videos. Cafes. Not the same one. Did the shift in location signify anything?
“What do you make of this?” George asked Alice.
“A relationship of some sort. It might be completely innocent.” she said.
“And it might not be.”
He was half inclined to ask the wall ‘Find the two of them in bed together’ and expect to get an answer. He smiled to himself.
“So you want to know whether they were doing the horizontal jogging.” Alice said. “Why not just the old fashioned way. Find her best friend and ask her.”
“Associates. Girl in video.” George said to the wall. He didn’t even need a name. It would do that.
“Name of all.” he said. Finally.
It gave him the name of the girl: Amy Christensen. It gave him a list of friends, with pictures.
“You up for chasing the girlfriends?” George asked Alice.
“Tea and sympathy.” she said.
“Yes or no.” he said.
Of course the answer was always going to be yes. So as Alice trudged off to chase the girlfriends, George was left with his thoughts and the wall.
“Financial analysis. Simonovic.” he said.
The wall threw a whole array of graphs at him. He turned to Steve.
“Can you make anything of this?” he asked.
“Nothing unusual. Family expenses. Try this.” Steve said, turning to the microphone.
“Time based. New transaction types, last three months.” he said to the wall.
Another set of graphs came up.
“Look at that.” Steve said.
“At what.” George asked. It was a bit abstract.
“We knew that from the video.” George said.
“Unusual cash withdrawals.”
“Worth a search?” Steve said.
“But how do we do that? If he’s paying cash.”
The wall was very powerful. But you had to know how to drive it. These were not stupid people. They knew that if they showed their faces in a motel foyer, or outside in the street then it would be recorded. Once it was recorded then it was up for search. Once it was up for search then it was going to be discovered.
“Hm. They are not going to leave a trace, are they?” Steve asked.
It must have been one of his earliest memories. The train from New Jersey sliding into Grand Central Station. Up the stairs and onto the street it was a different universe. A universe where the buildings were tall and shining. He liked this universe. It seemed to have all of the things that were not at home. Money. Excitement. Possibilities.
As he held his mother’s hand and stared up at the glass he made plans. He wasn’t aware of it, but one of the buildings was the Defigo building. Beckoning.
At school he found a way. He asked the teachers how he might get there. They told him that mathematics and physics might get him a ticket. It was the only hint he needed. There was a well worn path from MIT to Defigo. He got on it.
Her thoughts returned to the bank, and Oscar. As she entered the flat he was asleep on the couch. He stirred momentarily.
“Nice work if you can get it.” she said
He smiled, and returned to his dreams.
It wasn’t just a matter of breaking into the bank’s networks. That was hard enough, and why the girl was needed. But this on its own would not really inflict any lasting damage.
Mia searched, curious as to why the backers wanted this outcome. Try as she might she could not help but be curious as to who they were. Apart from anything else her whole future was inextricably tied up with them. She only slowed down slightly as she walked down Swanston Street towards the apartment. Melbourne still worked its magic on her, but now it was part of every day it was harder to notice.
“Great to see you in the land of the living” she said to Oscar, as he stirred to life.
“Hard night partying. Reminiscent of my bad old days” he said
“Before you became an upright citizen.” she said.
“The bank.” he said
“You think it’s time?” she asked
“Well I think she’s up for it. I’ve sold it to her as a protest thing. Big bad bank suffers a slight hiccup for a while. Just a protest at their outrageous profits.”
“How much do you think she knows?”
“How much do we know?”
“You know what I mean.”
“She’s smart, in that non street-smart way. That I’m not exactly who I say I am. Adds to the thrill I think. Still angry with mummy and daddy for being rich and indifferent. That sort of thing.”
“She won’t run?”
“Exactly how do we do this?” she said
“Treacle.” he said
“They assume that attacks are for the purpose of stealing money. Not a hard call when you are a bank.”
“Slow everything down. To a crawl. We bog down the main servers doing useless stuff.”
“I can show you the simulations.”
George looked away, in the direction of the wall. Struggling to come up with a query that would progress things. Sometimes all of that computing power was not very useful. So he went for a walk. He headed west down past the stadium towards Docklands proper.
Docklands had been the subject of endless criticism from the city. ‘This is what happens when developers control things.’ had been the mantra. Lots of open space, no life. The ‘real Melbourne’ was in the tiny lanes leading away from Flinders Street station. As if things had to be Tokyo scale before they were human. It stung, all that criticism. About ten years ago they had migrated artists into Docklands with free rent. Ever so gradually it became more human. There was nothing about open space that couldn’t be humanised.
George admired the sculptures, and the 3D media spaces. A straggly crowd, some young families. It pleased him that it had changed. Reinvention. That sort of thing. He tried not to think about the case. It was that time, when the progress versus time flags would trigger. Soon he would be sitting in Kate’s office explaining, or trying to explain, his lack of progress.
He reached the edge of the water, and the yachts moored. When did these things ever get some use? Were they just trophies? He’d never understood the urge to float about in the water.
Turning back towards the fun palace, slowly walking up the hill his thoughts returned to the car diving across the freeway divide. It was such an elaborate way to kill someone. If they had the capability to modify the car’s code almost without leaving a trace, surely there was a less spectacular way of achieving the objective? Was it a message?
Alice and Steve looked up as George came in. As if expecting him to have found the missing pieces in his walking. He just smiled at them.
“Going out again.” he said.
He didn’t need to explain. They knew the patterns. After taking the train, George was early. He was always early. On a bench in the rotunda, at the hill above Sandringham beach. You could see the curve of the coastline. In the late afternoon the wind had come up, strong enough to blow white into the top of the waves.
Joggers were passing him at the edge of breathlessness. But when George walked down the track he was in no hurry at all. Almost a funereal pace. Watching the edge of the light as the sun descended. The last windsurfers tracking across the field of view, holding the wind until they were forced, finally, to tack. Throwing the sail and standing still for a brief moment, at the point of balance. Then rushing back, with the wind at their backs.
He followed the narrow headland track around as far as the where the road diverged down to the marina. He turned slowly and headed back towards the lights. Toward the cafe.
George and Alex Marchetti went way back. Not back to school, but to University. They were part of the same crowd. That went to the same places, the same parties. Alex would catch George’s eye, or vice versa. She was tall, dark, tanned. George was fit in those days. He was tall, and had that hint of good looks. The slightly unshaven look. Then came that summer. All of them. All twenty of them. On a train, a bus. To a caravan park at Marlo for the whole summer. Just a short walk to the pub. So days would be the beach, surfing or swimming. Nights would be sessions at the pub. Long sessions.
George and Alex had both had partners. As much as anyone had partners. It was a bit of revolving circus, but there were attachments. Nobody was supposed to get too jealous, and nobody was supposed to cling too tight. George and Alex would often be seen sitting, talking.
The fateful afternoon. They had both stepped away, to walk along the beach together. Nothing unusual about that. Happened all the time. Nobody gave it a second glance. Alex and George. George and Alex. Sitting at the top of a dune. Far away from anyone on the beach. Talking, as they did, about anything and everything. What was it? As they sat George looked at Alex framed by the sun. Her dark hair falling straight. The look: hesitant, brief. It had happened before. But this time it was as if George suddenly, somehow, just decided that it was then, or never. His hand strayed in the direction of Alex’s waist. Held. Then held tighter.
They tried to keep it a secret, at first. With some success. But chaos has a way. A phone call overheard. A pattern of behaviour suddenly broken. Then there they were. George and Alex. Alone. No partners, no problems. The blissful days just stretched, and stretched.
Back in the city, before you could say “life’s expectations have a way of tripping you up” it was all over. George’s ambition. As he entered the police force, there were too many dinners missed. Too many lonely late nights. As suddenly as it started, it was gone.
Now here they were again. Like brother and sister. Just talking. But if it was so innocent, why did it need a cover story?
George walked confidently into the cafe, straight up to Alex’s table. She smiled, just slightly, and he sat.
“How’s tricks?” he said
“Same. Hamster on a treadmill.”
“I hope that husband of yours appreciates you. Otherwise I’ll be forced to take you on an extended tour of the Greek Islands. There are hundreds.”
“Sure. But what about the unsolved murders that would result?”
“Stuff it. Seriously.”
“Admit it. It is you. You are it.”
He paused. It wasn’t about the job really. It was about that summer.
“Where does he think you are?” he asked.
“So we have exactly 55 minutes. Plus travel time.”
“I hope we are not going to make a break for the nearest motel..”
They both laughed then. A connection. It ebbed and flowed, but for both of them now, it was a constant. At times the only anchor they had.
“How is your ex?” Alex asked.
“Not even sure which continent she is on.”
George’s attempt at marriage. Like a lot of things in George’s life was a victim of his obsessions. At the times he was there it was good. But those times became sporadic. Too sporadic.
“You should have tried harder.” she said
“Too late for ‘should have’ “
“Sorry. I shouldn’t be giving lectures.”
Alex’s marriage was normally outside the ambit of their conversations. But it was of course a backdrop. Not long after the demise of George and Alex she had been pursued by Nick. An architect. Now in some ways he was the architect.
“How is life in the shadows.” George asked.
“Yes, he is insufferable.”
Alex’s eyes lifted up from their focus on the table mat. Looked up, and straight into George’s eyes. As if searching for something. But they both quickly changed the subject.
There was a long pause. Both of them thinking the same thing. George and Alex on a plane, flying somewhere. Somewhere where there was no pressure. No furtive hiding in cafes - one eye on the door, watching for the familiar face. After that long pause, they both looked back at each other. That lost look.
“Time nearly up?” George said.
“I always stop and chat to the girls for a few minutes.”
George tried to imagine that conversation. It was a world away from his life. The murder room beckoned.
“Next class?” he asked.
“I can’t skip the next one.”
“One after then.”
The actual leaving was tricky. Did they just wave goodbye? Or did he do the “small kiss on the cheek” thing. Or did he just throw caution to the wind, and grab her? The younger George would probably have gone for this option. But now he was more cautious.
“First we plant the fake gold” Mia said
Oscar looked up. It was a very dramatic looking report. From a Norwegian think tank. An economic risk research group.
“Very impressive.” Oscar said. How much?
“Six figures.” Mia said.
“Do I have to read it?”
“I can give you the elevator summary if you like.”
“Imagine you are in an elevator with somebody really important. You have ten floors of travel to convince them of the merits of your case.”
“It’s a corporate thought experiment. Imagine if.”
“When did you learn corporate speak?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Oscar looked at the document. The presentation.
“Does the research group exist?”
“Did they do the research?”
“They get a research grant. It’s large. All they have to do is pretend that they did the work. If you were down on your luck, would you take it?”
Oscar flipped the pages.
“The further away the source, the more mysterious the source the more credibility the average punter attaches to it.”
“The punch line?”
“CSBH are short of cash reserves. Bad debts accumulated. Latest reporting covers up the problem.”
“Based on fact?”
“Yes. There is a small amount of fact. But the problem is nowhere near as bad as the report indicates.”
Mia showed him a flow chart. A series of postings to various outlets. To a set of email addresses. It was a carefully staged scattering of information.
“A feeding plan?” Oscar asked
“More than that. It’s scattered in a precisely timed manner.”
“To feed a frenzy.”
“Why don’t you think they are being cooperative?” he said.
“Naturally secretive. They don’t want their business thrown around.”
“It’s more than that.” George said. “Again. What do we know about SciTec?”
Steve waved up the views on the wall. “They pretty much own the north. From Broome across to Cairns. Began investing way before everyone else. Bought stuff up, got on the ground. Took the risks. But the time the north was the next big thing they were already in control.”
George wondered how many egg shells there were waiting to be trodden on here. He could always go and ask Kate for guidance. He shuddered. No, that wasn’t a good idea. He would get the ‘don’t meddle with stuff you don’t understand’ lecture.
They all went silent for a moment.
“The crying woman.” George said.
“Amy.” Alice said.
“Yes. Where does she work? What department?”
“Hang on, I’ll just look.”
Alice turned to the wall and threw a few pages around. Searching. It didn’t take long.
Far below in the early morning light, early morning workers were stumbling in the direction of the nearest coffee place. Almost colliding with late night revellers finding their way out of nightclubs. A dim light, the Yarra almost invisible. A few leaves flying around. Her first autumn for a very long time. She thought about winter. Too many years to count since she had to endure a winter. How many places on the planet were there where it was near zero, raining and blowing? Not for the first time she thought about fleeing. How far would she get? In one way or another the backers would be waiting for her even as the plane landed in some far away place. In this world there was no longer any such thing as a far away place.
There were tasks rolling over on her screen. For the moment they could proceed unattended. Hijacking twitter accounts. Creating new identities, with a short history of tweets. Journalists, financial commentators. They didn’t have to be able to stand up to detailed examination. By the time anyone took the trouble to dig deeper it would all be over.
Oscar was stirring. He opened his eyes to see all of the screens showing activity.
“Early bird catches the fake twitter handles.” he said.
“Something like that.” Mia said.
“Today the day?”
“If you think she is ready.”
Oscar studied the screens.
“The art of creating a firestorm.”
“All in the timing.” she said.
They were both nervous, although both determined not to show it. Up to now, in a sense, it had been easy. Sheltered by the backers, hidden away. Once this came up on the radars, who knew what the response might be?
“Timing.” Oscar said.
“How long will it take you once she has the link in place?”
“About twenty minutes.”
“Ok. Twenty minutes.”
“I’m aiming for early afternoon. It’s not raining, so the queues should grow.”
“People wanting to convert their savings into cold hard cash.” she said.
Mia had a series of surveillance points showing on the far screens, the large ones. Divided up into many smaller screens. Each of them showed an ATM.
He had paused in the foyer on his first day. To take it all in. Like a tourist whale watching. The impressively tall building with the silver exterior. Hiding all that took place within its skin.
At the end of one journey, and the beginning of another. The silver barriers with the human width openings went from floor to ceiling. Much like an airport scanning area. It had the normal scanners, together with the electromagnetic scanners looking for anything remotely resembling a chip. It was such a vast space, filled with such a large array of detectors.
The queues shuffled forward. He held back. For the everyday workers it was just an annoyance. For him it was a gateway to a new world. He felt like he was coming home.
It was almost as if the wall organised its own sweeps. Searched the nether reaches of data, then woke up a human to do the gathering. This morning it had for George a video of an older man wandering outside to attempt to douse a car on fire. At first he made some progress, but then the flames jumped to him. It quickly enveloped him.
“We got one of the Peregrini” Steve said.
“The what?” George said
“The guy that torched himself. That was a Peregrini stunt.”
“Are they clowns or something?”
“You are showing your lack of a classical education. Ancient Rome. The dispossessed. All those not allowed to own property.”
“So you devote your life to trashing other people’s. Is that how it goes?”
“That’s the advertised script.”
“You have your doubts?”
“They don’t often take credit for their events. They don’t seem to fit the mould as agitators.”
“Where is he?”
“Holding cell. He’s been stewing for about five hours.”
George caught a glance of him through the cell door. He was sitting comfortably against the wall, as if waiting for a bus. Short hair, fit. Dark. He didn’t look Italian. The wall had a profile up, of course. Dennis Kennington. Twenty something, string of casual jobs. University drop out. No apparent financial means of support. The wall had him at a large number of Peregrini sites. Maybe he’s a supervisor, George thought.
Dennis didn’t look up as George entered. Either he was a hardened operator, or he had assumed the part.
“Stirring up the suburbs.” George said.
“Somebody has to.”
“Except that this time somebody died.”
“You’re not going to pin that on me. All his own work. I wasn’t even there.”
“Sure. I’m sure you can point to some hard evidence somewhere that puts you completely across town.”
“Interesting calling you have. This Peregrini stuff. All a bit much. Impresses the young girls in the back bar does it?”
“I’m a legend. Yes.”
He didn’t seem in the slightest bit worried about George charging him with something. It all seemed like another day at the office.
“Tough customer.” George said.
“Look at this.” Alice said. She had an animation of sites of Peregrini style attacks. Time based.
“What am I seeing?” George asked.
“Pattern of attacks. They pick an area, launch a wave of attacks, then move on.”
“It’s systematic. Not just random hooligan style behaviour.”
“Says you. Maybe they do nine to five, performance plans, bonus payments. ”
Alice laughed, and looked back at the wall. Thing was, that was exactly what it looked like.
Oscar sat, while Mia crafted identities, and lit fires online. As it grew she stopped monitoring messages, and instead just displayed graphs. It sputtered and slowed, then took off. A flurry of retweets, and quoting. The first top level articles began to appear. Some international articles. She watched the Norwegian site, and the responses. They responded with the script the backers had prepared. Yes, it was a real study. They fed out graphs. In most cases the research and data were real, but it was presented in a way to amplify the message. It rolled on like a very large army of tanks traversing a desert.
She turned towards Oscar.
“You better go.”
He was reluctant. He didn’t need to have the conversation with Mia about having second thoughts. It would end up back at the point where he viewed his future, and chose the shelter of the backers. Indeed, ‘every form of refuge has it’s price’.
He messaged Nicole.
“Breakfast @ Achelaya”
Dodging early bicycles as he walked around to Docklands. Looking across at the Melbourne skyline, looming and shimmering in the early morning light.
She smiled. That smile.
“You’ll be able to show me all of your best haunts. The long trail. All the way from Bali to Xian.” she said
“My pleasure. We don’t need to follow my tracks though. We can make our own tracks.”
“You won’t miss Melbourne?”
“It will be here when we get back. I doubt it will miss me.” he said
She smiled again, and searched his face. As if there was a sign there that would show his commitment. That even though he was a wanderer, a permanent traveller, that he was now a traveller in tandem.
“Your friends?” she asked
“My friends are mostly in motion all the time anyway.”
“Maybe there will come a time....”
She thought better of pursuing that line. It was a twenty something thing. That commitments were not to be nailed down. That it was enough that they share a ticket. It wasn’t cool to question things, or to ask.
“You got the tickets.” he asked
“Yes.” she said, showing them on the screen.
“Have you been to Bali before?”
“Only when I was very young. I have few memories.”
“You’ll love it.”
Oscar brought out the drive, fingered it. Then placed it on the table. Glancing up at the surveillance cameras, hoping that nobody had a capture running. Sometimes you had to take the chance. If he passed it to her without showing her then it would be an indication of it’s level of seriousness. He didn’t want that.
“Have we accounted for all of the SciTec team members?” George asked
“All those working with our victim?” Steve replied.
“There were two off sick.”
“If they are in hospital the wall will know.”
The wall sometimes was like your mother. It had a medical report of the sickness of two SciTec staff from Legionnaires disease. They were in a critical condition, not expected to last the day.
George turned to Steve.“Legionnaires: it’s about dodgy air conditioners, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I thought it was a hygiene type thing.” Steve said.
Steve adjusted his microphone.
“Use of Legionnaires as a weapon” he said
The wall paused a moment. Then listed suspected infections, and their spread. No definite cases. Just rumors. George summoned up the location on the wall.
“Time to talk to our favourite chatty people.” George said. They headed for the exit, for the short drive to Footscray.
Once again they were ushered into a standard corporate environment. Somewhere there was a factory that made these places, George considered. They were again in a conference room, with a group of nervous people. George addressed them.
“We are treating these sicknesses as suspicious.”
He looked around the table, for signs of emotion. They were calm, but nobody had slept much.
“It seems beyond doubt that your colleague’s fate is a direct product of where they work.” he said, and paused. “Perhaps somebody could give me a short overview of what you do here.”
They looked at each other. It seemed the absence of the executives created a problem. Nobody was going to volunteer anything. In the end Li Guang began.
“There is a limit to what we can disclose.” he said.
George looked annoyed. “No, no. That’s the wrong script. Let me make it crystal clear for you. I am here to investigate what looks like a triple murder.”
He scanned the table again. To see the reaction to the word ‘murder’. They were confused.
“I’ll give you the overview. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.” Li said, then continued.
“Our activities are across several continents. Difficult locations to secure. This site is where we develop our security solutions, for all of those sites.”
George looked across at Steve and Alice. In a sense they didn’t need to know much more.
“So you might enlighten me, why you might be a target.” George said.
“I’m afraid that you will have to wait for somebody more senior to answer that.” Li said.
Before you could say ‘more to SciTec than meets the eye’ they were heading back towards the fun palace. They assembled at the wall. Like devotees. Desperate for what the wall might be able to find for them.
“Coincidence?” George asked Alice and Steve.
“SciTec. It might be.” Alice said.
“It’s quite different. One is highly specific. Almost like an assassination. This is almost indiscriminate.” Steve said.
George gazed over the wall.
“If it is specific to SciTec then there is something they are not telling us.” he said.
“As in anything. What have we got from them?” Alice said.
“Delivery. We are looking at a highly secure facility. They can’t just wander past the front desk and spray stuff. Can we trace it?”
“I don’t think so. Small amounts moving through the air conditioning.” Steve said.
“Random or specific. Look at what the three have in common.” George said.
“Find out where the air conditioning vents are. If there is any surveillance on them.”
George turned to the wall.
“Links between first and second group of SciTec victims” George said.
He waited. Yes, that was exactly the point. If it was all about SciTec, then how and why? It was something to pose questions for the wall that stumped it. Some of his friends were nostalgic about these things, preferring the old days of walking about and writing things down. Old days much over-rated, he thought.
Having said that the wall wasn’t giving him much. Maybe there wasn’t much to give. Trivial things like the date of their joining SciTec was similar. Those at the middle level would have joined at the same time.
Stumped, he did what he did when he was stumped. Rode a tram. Out onto the street and sitting on the 70 tram, heading for Wattle Park. Past Flinders Street station, heading for Swan Street. He would ride it out, and then back. If he didn’t get any inspiration then he’d just ride it all the way back again.
He thought about motives. Greed, jealousy. It was easy to become trapped in the statistics and just zero in on the immediate family. Suddenly school children charged onto the tram, breaking his train of thought. Shouting, and waving phones.
So it went. At a very high volume. George smiled. Remembering that this was the only place where they could actually shout. That in the school room and at home they would have to toe the line. He tried to remember what he had been like at school. His reports all said the same thing: ‘..it is obvious that George has incredible talent. If only he decided to use it.’ Every year, the same thing. Until in the final year he woke up one morning and realised that he was in trouble. If he wanted to get to University then he would need much higher grades. From that day on he studied pretty much 24 hours a day. If he was awake, he was studying. That was when the chase had started, and pretty much it hadn’t stopped.
Now the tram was heading for Camberwell junction. Rattling past the cinema, then patiently waiting at the five way intersection for a long time. George had grown up east of here, in what were then the new suburbs. It seemed like the country to him. Now it was almost the geographic centre of Melbourne.
He returned from the tram ride, and headed in an uncommon direction. Towards Kate’s office. Several levels above. What was it, closer to heaven? He thought to himself. The more powerful and important you were the higher up the building.
She turned to greet him. “You’ve come to resign.” Kate said. Smiling. “A sudden passion to become a Zen monk. Up at 4am, the slaps of the staff on the back. Ten hours a day meditating.”
George smiled. In the nature of these things he still saw the gangling kid who had joined more than ten years ago. Nobody else saw that now. She was mid thirties, attractive in a serious way, dressed to match that. No wasted energy. No wasted anything. What was she? Two below Chief Commissioner? Speculation that she would make it all the way.
“Would you like that?” George said.
“Of course not. The force would lose its best.”
Kate sat back in the chair. She could tell George that he should know that. Or where to look.
“You figure a politician like me is the right person to ask?”
“Into everything. I get the impression that they are moving in, taking over.”
“Emphasis on the word ‘taking’. It’s not a tea party where they pass the scones around. Think kids in a sandpit, fighting over the toys.”
Oscar watched Nicole walk from the cafe. Paying particular attention to the way she walked, swaying of the hair. How this played havoc with his pulse rate. He opened up the laptop and looked at the brewing storm. Lots of mainstream media were picking up on the Norway report, pushing it, paraphrasing it. CBSH had come out and denied the reports, but the reference to the report just seemed to feed it all.
“How goes it?” Oscar asked Mia.
“See for yourself.” She said, feeding him a link to the image of the ATM queues. It was impressive. Some of the images were in darkness, from Europe. People getting up out of their beds to convert their money into cold hard cash. Impressive.
“When?” Oscar asked.
“About an hour. I’ll send the signal.”
Timed for opening hours across China. Maximum pressure. Then he thought about Nicole, and the trail of images in surveillance cameras all over Melbourne. How long would it take them?
He only sent a cryptic message to Nicole.
“10.50” he sent.
The Yarra didn’t really flow. It just drifted. The saying was that it flowed upside down, which was a bit unkind. At least it didn’t flow with raw sewage floating in it, he thought. He scanned the crowd, and decided he should find a less public place. Just in case they traced back to the laptop. It was always possible. Following the protocol he had distanced himself from the apartment. It wasn’t really possible to trace Mia’s stuff, but what he was about to do he couldn’t do without leaving a trail.
It was always possible that it wouldn’t work, he thought. He remembered images of Bali, the light. So easy then. Easy to be sentimental, but even then it was more about what he was doing on the laptop than what was happening on the beach.
It popped up. A message. From the drive Nicole had planted. All he to do was tunnel back to it. He looked at the clock, and began the process. In New York a fight began in an ATM queue. Nothing unusual, really. But it went viral within minutes. Mainstream news began leading with it. Oscar had a window with the fight on his laptop. He had everything set up, ready to go. A door closes, a door opens.
George glanced at the wall, and then at Steve and Alice. He decided that following the trail of geopolitics was only going to generate a fog of confusion.
“SciTec?” Steve asked George
“I talked to Kate. Movers and shakers. Important. All code words I think. There seems to be some sort of turf war. But it’s not clear who with.”
“I’ve got nothing from the surveillance yet. I tried looking for somebody loading up the air conditioning with dust. But there are several inlets, and it is hard to get a lock on it. I doubt that they would be stupid enough to walk up to the inlet and hold a nozzle to it.”
“But the physical evidence is our best shot.” George said. “Somehow somebody got it in there. It’s a physical trail. Can’t be wiped. The three shared an office. Let’s get a search expert to go over their internal footage.”
“Sure. I’ll get SciTec to upload, and ask Alan who he recommends.” Alice said.
It wasn’t possible to search the footage with stuff like ‘..look for something unusual in room X’. For a start, what was unusual? Statistical? Every time somebody from outside the workspace entered, that would trigger the gate. They needed an expert.
Alan was fast. Within minutes, their best imaging expert was standing in front of the wall.
“I’m Li Xiu. Alan said you have a tricky image search problem?” she said. Li was mid twenties, neat. She had that hardcore nerd look. As if she spent her off time doing marathon running.
George laid it out.
“Legionnaire’s disease.” she said. “What makes you so sure that it is introduced?”
“Within the same work area.” George said. “But yes, we don’t have anything that tells us that they were killed.”
“It’ll take a while. Best to check back.” she said.
Anoop Menon came in early to the operations centre. Cradling an extra large cardboard cup of coffee, he appreciated the quiet after the Mumbai streets. The centre was new, with its own power and air conditioning. Unlike the streets outside, it was calm and ordered. He was looking at a ten hour shift, and he placed the coffee as he ran the reports. An animation of the past twelve hours on the CBSH network sprung into the air.
To most people the animation would have meant little. But to him it had the same level of appreciation as a classical music concert. It was smooth, and well behaved. He liked that.
“Anything?” he asked.
“You might like to look at the news.” Akish said.
The video of the fight was in a loop at the top right of the large screen.
“What’s this?” he said
“Depositors queuing for their money. The fight broke out in the queue.”
He looked at the system load. It was high, but not unusually. The ATM network really didn’t generate much traffic. They could handle a 50% surge without any drama at all.
“Some rumors about liquidity.” Akish said.
“It’s ridiculous.” Anoop said.
“You know that. I know that. But they don’t know that.”
It was quite a contrast. The calm of the displays, with the fight in the upper right corner. Anoop was annoyed at it all. He didn’t want the disorder to penetrate his world. It was as if the chaos on the streets of Mumbai was at the door knocking, trying to get in.
Oscar was still sitting. He was asked whether he wanted another coffee. Taking it as rent for sitting, he decided to take it. So now he had an excuse to hold off, as he sipped it slowly. Soon Mia would be asking what the delay was. She would be waiting. He pressed the key, and let it loose.
At first it was innocuous enough. It sat in the background on the CBSH server in Williamstown, gathering network data. Spreading itself. It didn’t announce itself to Anoop. As it slipped onto the main monitoring servers. Within a few minutes it had spread to every corner of the CBSH network. It’s aim was not to crack passwords, or to gain access to accounts. It only had to find its way. All of the defenses were for access. It didn’t need access. It simply had to be there.
No more guidance was needed. As the various incarnations spread, messages on progress filtered across the planet. Each of the installations gathered them, waiting for the torrent to cease. He eyed the exit, and thought of what he had to do, where he had to go.
So it began. On a server in Toronto, a process was launched. It seized the highest priority on the server, and captured a small amount of processor use and memory. Then it launched two new processes. Each of those then did exactly the same. In the manner of a chain reaction. Within thirty seconds, the server had slowed to a crawl.
Anoop was on to it. He patched from the main server at Toronto to the mirror server. There was a small pause, then the mirror server caught up. He was pleased. In a normal week, this was a highlight. But he looked across the screen, and every server was either in a state of overload, or getting there. Then the board itself started to slow, and updates became fewer and fewer. It was like a very slow internet download. It sputtered, and then it died.
Only seconds later, the twitter feed showed the response. ‘CBSH’ frozen. ‘ATMs on four continents down’. One after another the posts came. Closely followed by the news stories. ‘CBSH under cloud, now service underwater’. Anoop began to probe, using only the computer on his desk, which was still working.
Li Xiu began by gathering footage. The SciTec building had a number of external cameras, and every room had a camera high in the corner. They focussed on the cameras close to air conditioning intakes outside.
“How much dust?” she said
“Not much. I could get the expert if you like.” George said.
“Don’t worry. We’ll assume only ten seconds are needed to deliver it.”
“Somebody walks up and squeezes a puffer?” George said
“Maybe. That sounds a bit bull in a china shop to me.” she said
“How would you do it? A drone?”
“So how do you configure the search?”
“Motion filters. Size based. We look for movement in the frame, of the target size. Simple movement search will get every person walking past.”
“Sort of like a signature movement.”
“So how long?”
“Quite a while. We’ve got thousands of terabytes of stuff here. Best to set it running and come back in a couple of hours.” she said.
George turned away, scanning the wall. It was picking up news stories relevant to the cases, but nothing terribly exciting. He checked in with Steve and Alice.
“Anything?” he said to Alice
George walked past into the street outside the fun palace. Turned right towards the water.
A bit like letting loose a tornado. So fast. Mia looked at the queues world wide. As the ATMs froze, some in the queue gave way to throwing missiles at the building. She flicked to the financial feeds. To the bond spread for CBSH - as the liquidity disappeared she could watch the spread grow. In the space of three minutes it went from 3%, climbing to 10%. Then the first media stories dribbled out onto the feed. For a moment or two the spread hovered at 13%, as if pausing for breath. Then it began an almost vertical ascent. It was as if in an instant the market gave up on CBSH.
She sat back, and waited. It came in the form of a seemingly innocuous story:
A group of investors has this morning acquired control of the CBSH banking network. A spokesman said that synergies with the broader business network would bring benefits to CBSH. The American bank has been lackluster in performance for several months. Just today it has been further downgraded by IT systems failures. The spokesman said that he did not expect any difficulties in integrating the new business.’
Mia messaged Oscar:
“OK. All done. See you.”
A single keystroke, a few hundred bytes, and the logjam was broken. Oscar looked up, almost expecting somebody to come in his direction. But all was in its place. The backers had their result, and they would be happy. Now all he had to do was disappear. Airports, international terminals would all be monitored and watched. On their systems, the most likely paths would be marked. Based on Oscar’s movements since he was born. Somewhere in Nhong Khiaw a computer would be receiving a message. Someone would be awaiting his presence.
Oscar walked beside the Yarra in the direction of Southern Cross station. Just in case, he had the hood and the dark glasses. With his personal drone hovering overhead. Enough pedestrian traffic for him to huddle in. Even if they got a lock, it would be difficult to keep on his trail. He had to be out in the open for the gait analysis to get a clear series of images. The more crowded it was, the better.
He thought about Mia, alone in the apartment. It wasn’t as if you easily got to know Mia, but in a sense each was all the other had. The backers were their owners, but he had no idea how quickly they might discard them. Maybe that process was already in motion.
At the entrance to Southern Cross station, he paused. Monitors high up showed the news. In a silent performance he could see CBSH. Against a rising graph, which he took to be cost of debt. A falling graph, which looked like the stock price. He smiled. At least he had a result.
Hesitating at the coffee cart in the south-eastern corner, the crowd looked harmless enough. The protocols called for him to break contact with everyone. No messages. He was to vanish. Out of sight. Nowhere was really out of reach of the drones, but some places were more difficult than others.
At least they still have cash sales, he thought. No trail left. He made for the ticket counter, still with the hood and the glasses on.
“Ararat. Next train. Can I get a bus ticket for Halls Gap?” he asked
“Sure. One ticket. That will be $30.”
Handing over the cash, and clutching the ticket he consulted the departure board, and made for platform 4. It was still about 45 minutes, but he figured he would be safer there than in the waiting room. So far, so good. Somewhere there was a statistical analysis system thrashing about. Looking for him in plane departure lists, airport waiting rooms. Airport buses. He smiled to himself. Stupid computers.
Oscar pulled the hood closer as the train pulled in. A small group of passengers got off the train. There was a wait until he could board it, as they cleaned it out and did all of the checks. A slight jar as the engine shunted itself onto the carriages. Soon he would be able to board. He would feel safer actually on the train. He surveyed his fellow passengers, looking for signs. But they were uniformly nondescript. That one looks like a student heading for the Deakin campus. That one a farmer.
Oscar dozed off as they left Ballarat. The scenery became an endless loop of open grassland and sheep. Normally this would be incredibly soothing. A feeling of going home, in a sense. When he wanted to shake something off - the end of a relationship, or a problem. He would just take off out here.
As they came into Beaufort station he suddenly woke. Last station before Ararat. He could see the mountains hovering in the distance, like a challenge. He started to gather his things together. The tour group started talking louder, and collecting things from the overhead racks.
Coming into Ararat he was on edge. If they had somehow got him on the Southern Cross cameras, or anywhere along the way, this would be it. He felt incredibly exposed as he stepped out of the train and walked. The platform was just a lonely step-up surrounded by open scrubland on one one side, and the outskirts of the town on the other. The station was not in the center of town - in the time when the railway had been downgraded, it had all migrated elsewhere. Which meant it was open and not crowded. Not that anything was that crowded in Ararat.
He blended in with the tour group as they huddled around the bus. Some got off and made a run for the toilets, after they realised that this was the only stop. Only a short bus ride to Halls Gap. So far, so good, he thought. There were no signs of anyone taking an interest in him.
The student in the adjacent seat struck up a conversation.
“Camping in the mountains?”
“Yes. I’ve done it before.”
“First time for us. We are staying at Halls Gap - local walks.”
“You’ll love it. ”
Rather than double back from the information centre, he headed East, towards Mount William. Not a popular track. He was realising that he had to start to reject the first direction that came to mind. That those pursuing him would have a history, and would feed this into the analysis programs. Somewhere there was a model of Oscar, that predicted where and when he would be. He searched above the tree line for drones. He felt silly, as if he was play acting. It was early afternoon. In the camping and walking scheme of things, too early to stop. But he had to search for the best hiding places, rather than just making distance. He needed some serious tree cover.
“What was that woman’s name?” George said.
“Which one?” Alice said.
“The one that cried after the meeting.”
“What about her?”
“She might be useful.” he said as he walked toward the elevator.
George was wearing a path back and forth to the dungeon. Alan looked up as he made his way.
“Again.” he said.
“Data scraping.” George said.
“You want some? You want to know what it is?”
“It’s an alternative to bugging. Everyone knows about bugging. You plant a device and it has to transmit. So the victim monitors the radio waves and looks for your bug doing its stuff. As soon as it comes to life, it gives itself away.”
“So we have to be smarter.”
“Lots smarter. A device that just listens. It gathers up all it hears, stores it in memory. You retrieve it later, and you have your listening post.”
“They have scanners.”
“What did you expect? They are a security company. It’s their job not to be penetrated.”
“What if I had an insider?”
“That helps. But they can’t go through the scanners with one of our devices.”
George headed for the elevator, back to the wall.
“You want to turn Amy?” Alice said
George looked annoyed. “Who says we are on the other side here? SciTec are holding back. Holding everything back. Why?”
“Protective. Cautious.” she said.
“So polite. I don’t think so.” George said.
“So we try and sign her up. What if she just reports us?”
“She didn’t strike me that way. Racked with remorse. Will do anything to uncover who did it. All we need to do is convince her that we are committed to uncovering it all.”
“Purity and light.” she said, smiling. “Shouldn’t you clear this with Kate?”
Yes, George thought. He should clear it with Kate. They weren’t a spy agency, and signing up random members of the public wasn’t in their charter. Come to think of it, there was probably a whole chapter of misconduct charges devoted to it. He looked across at Alice and Steve. Fine for himself, he thought. But.
Kate looked up as he brushed past the outer office. She could see her assistant hovering, looking hesitant.
“It’s ok.” she said.
“Sorry. It’s about the freeway thing.” he said.
“Not really. It doesn’t follow the script. No aggrieved ex-lover, nothing like that. It seems to be more about his work.”
Kate stood up, walked to the floor to ceiling window, with its view right across Docklands.
“You want to probe around inside SciTec.”
“Well not just that, actually.”
He explained about Amy. About signing up Amy to probe. Kate turned around and looked him straight in the eyes.
“Have you considered you might be putting her in danger.” she said.
“I’ll be careful.” he said feebly.
Dennis rode his bike into the park off Jasper road in Bentleigh. Looking around, it would be harder to imagine a more suburban scene. Kids playing on the swings, dog walking. For a fleeting moment he was almost sentimental about it. Then his attention turned to the fact that the latest recruit was five minutes late. Not a good start. So hard to get good help these days, he said to himself, and then laughed. A middle class chant.
He sighted him navigating tentatively along the path. Casting his eyes right and left, then relieved at sighting Dennis. His bike was towing a trailer, and he began unloading. The two small drones were of the recreational type, and nobody would give a second thought to them flying them around the park.
“You are late.” Dennis said.
“Sorry. I don’t really know this area.” Jack said.
“Your nav fluttered all over it then.”
Jack looked up. He wasn’t used to apologising. The money was good, so he was trying to make it work.
“I’ll make up time. You just want the standard setup?”
“Yes. Nothing special. The cannister is controlled from here.”
A reference to the small container at the back of the drone. It looked like a gas tank.
“Where do I place them?”
“Just over there.”
Jack hesitantly walked a few metres away, placing it on the ground. All designed to look like a casual day in the park for the surveillance cameras.
Then the drone took flight. Jack put the glasses on, and holding the phone he could easily steer it. At first just around the park.
“This Peregrini thing. It’s like a protest thing?” Jack asked.
Dennis looked across. He was handling the drone well, but he balked at the question. Was he going to go with the cover story, or the actual story. Still pissed off by starting late, he couldn’t go with the pleasantries.
“That’s just a cover story. For the media. Titillate the punters.” he said.
“So it propagates. Angry of Alphington. That sort of thing.”
Maybe he wasn’t completely and hopelessly stupid, Dennis decided.
“Exactly. You remember the government planning system. Keep the ‘character of the neighbourhood’. All that bullshit. Lock away areas like this.”
“Yes. When do we turn the tap on?”
“Leave that to me. Get it hovering lower over the roof.”
“The bullshit government. Doing the King Canute thing. Trying to hold back the tide. Well we are hired by the tide. To make sure that the tide happens.”
There was nothing visible happening, which Jack found disturbing. He had expected something like the media events. Something visual. He was reluctant to ask though, as he needed the work.
“This housing is financially ridiculous. Too expensive for anyone to buy. So we are hired by those that will turn it into apartments. Simple really. Just the economy finding balance.”
“Where do you want me to navigate?”
“Just close to the houses, all the way from Jasper Road across to South Road and Centre Road.”
Jack was struggling to process Dennis’s story. To reconcile it with flying the drone about and dropping what seemed like nothing everywhere. In the end, he just had to ask.
“What’s in the cannister?” he asked.
“Scabies. Instant itchiness. Give it two weeks and everyone here will get a visit from somebody with a wheelbarrow of money. Itchiness or money? Pretty easy choice.”
“What if they say no?”
“Ramp it. No real limit. They all surrender eventually.”
He was nervous, being sent out on his own. The drone bay was East of Dandenong, in the industrial zone. Normally as it was so open, they would not have even considered it. Too easy to be spotted from the air. But with the backers all things were possible. Donning the headset, and the subvocal microphone, he would be in constant contact with Mia.
He drew the two drones behind him as he rode the motorbike off the South Gippsland Highway exit. In a sense they were too close. Right at Thompson Road he was within two kilometres.
“OK. Have lock. Keep going.” Mia said
He grabbed the accelerator and the front wheel raised slightly off the bitumen. The sun only just glinting behind his shoulder. But enough light to see almost the full 180 degrees. No-one around. Too early.
It was as if a child had drawn two grey lines towards the heavens. Not quite straight. The lines wobbled and stuttered, gaining speed. Then formed the arc. A thing of beauty, he thought.
“Magic.” he said
As they gained speed, they locked. A death dance. As the drone moved to the left, so did the missile. Close enough to engage the heat seeking. Which combined with the sensors looking for electrical activity gave an almost perfect definition.
No sound. Two small puffs of smoke.
“Clear.” Mia said.
“I like travelling first class.” he said
He swung into the street with the warehouse, slowing. Expecting the cameras to pick him up. Expecting a response.
“Too much to ask for them to open the gate.” he said.
“You’re getting lazy.”
It was a simple enough matter to cut through the fence, rather than deal with the gate. He cut a small square then folded himself through. Instinctively watching for signs of anyone in the yard. A dog? No. Nothing. All done remotely. Assuming that the drones and the perimeter cameras would be enough.
He made for the racks of drones. Ten in total. It was a race against time now, to replace the chips. He pulled the slot, with the board. He liked the way that the replacement chips had even been pre-aged so that they looked in place on the board.
“You’ve got thirty seconds each one.” Mia said
“Ok. Ok.” he said
He couldn’t feel his left foot. Lying stretched flat, in the dark, he was on the third level of the drone bay. Maybe if he wriggled his toes? But he still couldn’t tell.
“How many more?” he said to Mia. The sub-vocal headset on - it was something made to help those with damaged vocal cords. But it found its application here. He had only to very quietly whisper and Mia would hear it full volume.
“Five more.” she said. “They are on the next level.”
It had been easy enough to get into the yard, and clamber up the framework. As he ran across the yard, their cameras got a loop of the previous traverse. Unless they were watching like hawks, hard to notice.
Up here, twenty metres above the ground, he wriggled along, searching for the socket point. No lights, in case somebody was watching. He jiggled the plug into place, just so. Then tapped on the keyboard - the tray slid out, with the circuit board. He had to carefully place the tool above the board, grab the chip and pull it out. Any sideways movement and the board would be damaged. Not only that, but the drone would fail and reveal his attempts.
His hand shook. He pulled it back and steadied for a moment. Then completed the insertion in a single movement.
“Done. Moving on.”
He froze. Someone was walking directly below the rack. The footsteps were heading directly underneath where he was lying. In the dark he wasn’t easily visible, but if they looked straight up...
It seemed as if he was holding his breath.
“Had somebody below me. Moving now.” he said.
Time seemed to stand still as he worked along the row of drones. Was this what he had in mind when he signed up? In a way, yes.
He dropped to the ground and made for the exit gate. Knowing that Mia would open the gate just as he got to it. The lane was his pathway out..
It was pure chance. The perimeter patrols did not follow a fixed schedule. Instead they were directed by a random number generator. Mia and Michael could not anticipate.
Stepping into the lane, ten metres in front of him was the patrol. In a moment they looked at each other. In that instant they were in full view of each other. Michael hesitated. But the guard was wearing the glasses. He blinked.
“Guard. He got me.” Michael said.
“Shit.” Mia said.
It had blue wires. Looking like the mutated cousin of an ethernet terminal station. George, Alice and Steve gazed at it. Looking to Alan for an explanation.
“Beautiful, isn’t it.” he said.
“Sure. But what is it?” Alice asked
“Passive ethernet tap. It looks at the data going past, and checks it against stuff we are looking for. If it fits the templates, then it stores it.”
Alice turned to him.
“Great, so it scrapes stuff. But how do we get access to the data?” she said.
“Of course. That’s the real masterpiece. We can’t transmit anything, even at low levels. They are scanning all the time. You said you had an insider, in support?”
“Yes. We haven’t signed her up yet. But we’re confident.”
“OK. Here’s my plan. She orders a new printer. We put this thing, and a stack of memory cards with wifi support inside the printer. Of course they scan everything, but this stuff is what you expect to see inside a printer. Network, memory. All supposed to be there. Won’t raise any flags.”
Steve leaned back in his chair.
“She plugs in your blue thing. It scrapes the internal network for the whole day. So at the end of the day we end up with a memory stick full of data. We can’t ask her to smuggle them out. It’s too risky.”
Alan paused. “I thought as much. These sticks are wifi enabled. This is the good bit. She throws them out with the rubbish. The sticks have a timer - only start transmitting after a time delay - say 8 hours. We send a drone over the rubbish tip, it talks to the memory sticks, and we’ve got it.”
“Really?” George said.
“Yes. Really and truly.” Alan said. “We can trial the rubbish thing before we send it in if you like.”
It was such a small thing, a stray employee blinking. But that blink instructed the glasses, which took a photo of him. Even in the low light. That image put him in danger. More importantly, it opened up tracking.
He knew the protocol. Making himself anonymous, and threading his way through the city. He sheltered in the vicinity of the Yarra, down below the M1 with the homeless people. They stirred from their night’s sleep. Throwing bedclothes, a bit bemused to see a stranger in their midst.
A battered old guy, with a wistful smile turned to him.
“Missed the last train home. Had a fight with the drones?” he said.
“Sort of. Yes.”
“Daylight now. They will be all over you.”
“I’ve got to get to Southern Cross station.” Michael said.
“You got money?”
“Wait until about 8am. It will be ok.”
The protocol. He had to follow it. No communication with anyone. A train journey.
Overhead the thumping of the cars on the freeway above told him that the traffic was building. On the Yarra the rowing sculls were heading back from early morning training.
As far as the homeless were concerned, it was money for jam. Most of them would head towards Docklands anyway. No real problem to go as a group. To the overhead drones, it was just a group of stragglers following their morning path. Michael had the hood, the dark glasses. He blended. The old guy had negotiated with the group. At $50 each it was an easy sell.
Opposite Southern Cross, Three of the group held back.
“Ok. Go. Good luck.” the old guy said. Michael found himself in the middle of the huddle, as the lights turned green. He was almost carried along by them. A tight group, with no real chance for the tracking software in the drones.
They had made a couple of steps across when behind them, the three began to fight. A bottle flew into the air. Above them, drones tracked across, centering themselves to get the best view of the fight.
“Thanks.” Michael said, as he headed for the ticket window.
Amy was nursing her coffee in the mall. Quietly, thinking about SciTec and what it might do if it encountered an image of her talking with George. He had assured her that she was safe, but she wasn’t so sure.
“He was so brave.” Amy said.
She looked tired. Her hair had been trimmed, but it almost looked like she had done it herself. Tight and dark, it framed her face. Which was drawn, and showing lines. The shopping mall lighting didn’t help. It was bright, and sharp.
George couldn’t remember when he had last been in a shopping center. It was a mecca for all of the things that he was not a part of. Domestic things, kids. But it was the perfect meeting place. Large, anonymous, and unlikely.
“In what way?” George said. “What was he working on?”
That, of course was the question. So far SciTec had been less than forthcoming. But it was quite another thing to bug them. Now that they were in such an innocuous setting, it was harder to ask what they were going to ask. ‘Please betray your employer, and put your life in danger’.
“I’m not exactly sure. But he was doing research on Defigo.”
Alice began searching on her tablet. It told her that Defigo was a large American security company. But more importantly, it told her that they had a very strong presence in domestic security right across Melbourne. Their market share was growing, and growing fast.
“Defigo seems to be a very large player in this city.”
“The largest.” she said quietly.
George quietly explained what they proposed to do. To strip SciTec’s network, and to dump it in the rubbish. Through the explanation she just sat quietly.
“So will you help us?” George asked.
“Yes. It’s what he would have wanted.” she said. All she had to do was order a printer from a local supplier. It would arrive with the box installed inside. In opening up the printer once it arrived she would be simply doing what she did every day.
They discussed the signals. She would send a message, any message to her friend Roberta when she had put the chip in the rubbish each day.
Alice and George sat in the back as the car wound its way back toward the fun palace. George still couldn’t get used to the absence of a driver in the front seat.
“Gutsy.” he said
“Or Quixotic.” Alice said.
After the lake, at the Borough huts, he turned and walked down Redman Road. The gradient increased and looking back he could see the whole valley. When you got away from the highway you could look from horizon to horizon and see no signs of human habitation.
It was relaxing to be on a familiar trail, without the obvious pressure of all those chasing him. Up, and up. He stopped at the top and had something to eat. Scanned the sky for drones. Of course he would be the only reason to see one. He got up and walked on slowly. Turning right at Mitchell Road. More of a track than a road. But he was grateful for the tree cover.
He consulted the map, and realised that he was drawing close to the coordinates that Mia had provided. Putting up the tent was also reassuringly familiar. Almost like a muscle memory. He could imagine that it was just another camping trip. He got everything into the tent, with a sort of system to it. Clothes on the left, food on the right. He wasn’t going to take a chance on leaving food outside the tent.
Almost before he lay down completely, he was asleep. It was as if he was transported directly to the next morning, when the light played on the tent.
He wriggled out of the tent and looked around. A figure emerged from the undergrowth. He looked like a weathered version of himself. About the same age. He was holding out his hand in greeting.
“Sorry about that.”
“You are camped... “ He wasn’t carrying anything, so Michael figured he had to be camped somewhere near. He laughed.
“A bit silly really. The rangers come around to collect the fee.”
He wasn’t at all embarrassed about dodging the fee.
“Been here long?”
“About a week. Best to move around. They know that I’m here. But it’s much easier for them to chase the car campers for the fee.”
“My first night.”
“Just come in from the city?”
Michael wondered if it was that obvious.
There was a pause. As if each was about to ask the other, but they instead sat at the edge. Wondering.
He cast a glance over his companion. He had obviously lived in the city at some stage. But now the impact of camping for a long time was beginning to show. Not so much an untidiness, but more specific. Days in the sun, in the wind. The farmer look. In a crowd in a city, a farmer stood out. You were not sure why, but they did.
“How long?” Michael asked.
“A week now. Plenty of places to camp here if you know where to look.”
Which brought them back to the question.
Which left the unsaid. The shared background.
“Why did you join Ctrl-X?”
“Bright lights. Big city.”
“Really. You just joined?”
“Made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Laid out all the evidence of my great achievements. Either side with them or it went onwards to those who would be interested.”
Michael paused. Maybe he really was naive.
“You said you move around.” Michael said.
“The rangers won’t walk the tracks to find you. But if there are walkers going through, some of them will report you. Not in a dangerous way, just chatting, that sort of thing.”
“So how often?”
“About once a week. Usually only carry that much food anyway. I try to go into Ararat and use the internet sometimes.”
Michael thought of measuring out the weeks.
“Your tent?” Michael asked.
“Only just around the corner.”
“Ok see you tomorrow.”
It was called a “stakeholders meeting”. Similar in concept to a shareholders meeting. Except that Defigo was owned by those that bought contracts. Instead of a room full of corporates, there was a room full of middle class householders. In the US it was a shareholder meeting: he had hated them, but the Australian version made him nostalgic for the US version.
Local halls meant that the setup for the displays were more difficult. He had them go the day before and do a complete setup and run. Tonight was Ivanhoe. Heart of the blue territory. Also very lucrative for Defigo as it fronted onto the red zone. Anywhere north of the Yarra was prime security territory.
It had a faded art deco look to it. Upper Heidelberg Road, Ivanhoe. He arrived in the car straight off the eastern tollway. It only took about twenty minutes from headquarters at this time of day. He found the techs setting up, and strolled to the podium.
“Ready?” he asked
“Just a moment.” while a line failed, and had to be replaced. He hated that sort of thing. He was the only one of them that bothered with this sort of full dress rehearsal. Everyone else just trusted to the technology.
At 7.30pm he found himself back there doing the meet and greet. Smiling and shaking hands with the locally prosperous. They of the multi-million real estate. Of course they were the ones who wanted the Defigo security, and they had the means to pay for it.
He tensed up as he mounted the stage. A bit of nerves was good, too much would throw it.
“Welcome to the tenth annual Defigo stakeholder meeting. It is so great to see you here.
When we began, we set ourselves the task of transforming Melbourne. I don’t want to remind you of the bad old days, but suffice it to say that when we arrived, it was time. We set out on a journey, to make your neighborhood safe.
Our new gateway technology gives you the strongest guarantees. As we say, ‘.. it doesn’t take a gate to make a gated community.’. We are now into the third generation of barrier technology, and I am sure you will agree that it has helped us realise your dreams....”
He paused at the end for questions. A smartly dressed woman about halfway back waved for the microphone.
“You say ‘it doesn’t take a gate’. Last week we had an intruder in our backyard. He tried to break open our back window. It took over twenty minutes for a response. A gate would have kept him out.”
Robert paused. Looked around. There were nods of agreement. He turned back to the microphone.
“I’m troubled by your experience. Please be sure that I will investigate thoroughly, and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. But I beg to differ about the gate. No matter how high we build the gate, somebody will climb over it. That’s why we view security as a total systems problem. I can’t share with you all of the responses we have in our arsenal, but I can tell you that they are much more effective than a simple wall. You can judge us over how we improve.”
The meeting continued in this vein, with similar questions. The level of insecurity was no more or less than the last time he had done this. It was an insular world, this. As long as it all stayed outside the blue boundary they were happy. He couldn’t help but wonder how these people would go in Mumbai, or New Jersey for that matter. No doubt they would be in an armed convoy.
The house was just echoes. Alex couldn’t come to grips with opening the front door, to be greeted by nobody at all. It was so large to be empty. Before it had almost seemed small as they fell over each other at breakfast.
She looked out the kitchen window to the leafy expanses. It was hard to imagine the world at it really was. Beaumaris. The famous one could hardly live in Coburg, could he? They had argued about that. ‘Stuff. It’s just stuff’, she had said. To an architect, whose whole life, whose whole being, was about stuff.
How to explain? He would send a message at least once a day, without fail. She imagined George: “a girl” he would say. Young man, easily distracted, no reports of him being in an accident, or any other report. Mother worries too much. That was the syndrome. ‘A bad feeling’ she would say. Just a bad feeling. That wouldn’t go away.
She argued with herself. She wondered. His schedule was full. Sometimes he turned the phone off for long periods. Looking in the mirror. Wondering. A line had to be crossed. George was the only person she could ask for help that would know what to do.
“Usual place: 6pm?” she sent to George.
Now she waited.
“See you there.” George replied.
Michael awoke with a jump. He looked through the door of the tent up at the stars and tried to tell himself calming thoughts.
There was a protocol. No messages at all for five days. Then a coded message. He was to post a nonsensical sentence. Planted anonymously in the depths of the internet. So that somebody somewhere could google that sentence. But even to get to that point seemed difficult. It was his second day, three to go. Now the light was coming over the mountain, so he headed up the track to find Oscar. The veteran would have ways of filling the time, he figured.
He swung around, startled.
“You sure are well hidden.”
As they climbed up the narrow track there was no real possibility of conversation. Oscar was fit. Almost a rock scramble at the top. He tried not to look down at the drop.
But then the silence, and the horizon to horizon. As far as the eye could see in any direction there was no sign of human habitation. For a long time they just sat. Michael thought about trust. How sometimes on a long journey you sat next to a stranger, and started talking. Sometimes you shared things with that stranger that you would not share with anyone.
From the fun palace he walked towards Flinders Street. To get the Sandringham train you had to go to the far platform, right next to the river. He needed to clear his head. Alex never messaged out of the blue. It was always coordinated with the movements of the famous one. So it required forward planning, and a cover story.
The train was up in the air at Elsternwick station, George could see out along the Nepean Highway. Turning around he looked out over the old houses. The backyards. It was a view that had not really changed for twenty years.
How many times had he made this journey? That there was a window of opportunity, to sit and stare into each other’s eyes for an hour or so. What was he doing? He asked himself. Not for the first time. He felt himself pulled by the under-current. That in a very real sense he was all she had. She was struggling not to hold onto him as if he actually was a life-preserver thrown into the surf. The realisation that he was walking up to the line, and looking at it. Was it a matter of courage?
The train pulled into Sandringham station and he was aware of the open nature of the surroundings. No crowds here to jump into. He imagined the drone above him, switching to infrared and adjusting position to keep him in the centre of the field of view. He walked towards the usual restaurant, at the usual time.
Alex looked up as George entered the restaurant. She had tried to cover up the effects of the crying, but he knew her too well. It slowed him as he approached the table.
“Hi.” he said, weakly. Aware that this was unfamiliar territory.
“Nothing. Not a thing for 36 hours.”
“I don’t think I have..”
George had fallen into deep water, and it was as if he had an arm up. Somehow he had to swim.
“Is in motion. He’s always in bloody motion. The famous one is famous. He doesn’t give a shit. You know that. He’s on a plane from Rio to god knows where. Out of contact.”
“You want me to find him?”
“Yes. Isn’t that what you do? The great George. The unstoppable George. The ‘just point him and pull the trigger’ George?”
George looked away. It was a feeling he could only imagine. To be in fear for your own. It wasn’t something he was going to experience in this life, was it?
“Tell me more about him. I need somewhere to start.” George said.
Alex tried. Really tried. But the tears just welled up, and try as she might to hold them back, she failed. Her head went down, and she began quietly sobbing.
For a moment, George was frozen. But he reached across.
“It’s going to be ok. You’re right. I am the guy to do it. We’ll find him.”
“His friends. What he does?”
“You won’t like it.” she said.
“Criminal? He didn’t strike me as the type.”
“No. Political, I think. Or something like that. Hackers. He was always into that. The number of times he got into trouble at school....”
George thought she was going to start crying again.
“Has anything changed lately?”
“He said he had a new job. But he couldn’t tell me about it.”
“He said he couldn’t say.”
“No. He would never work for them. He was dead against them.”
Spooks but not spooks. Anti spooks. George had enough to work with.
He stood, and went to her chair. Put his arm around her shoulder.
“I have to go. I need to get onto this.” he said.
George instinctively looked up as he left the restaurant. But the sky was vacant. He talked to Alice as he boarded the train back to the city.
It didn’t make any sense to be each cooking a few metres apart. So Michael moved to Oscar’s camp site, and they began the preparations for a meal. Not many words were necessary, and to an extent they seemed superfluous. As if the scenery overwhelmed language. Later, sitting with the light fading, it was as if the stillness waited for something.
Oscar spoke. “CBSH. That was me.”
He glanced speculatively at Michael, as if expecting something. The question of how you get from there to here. Also the why.
Quang and Liuping worked the system. He could see them working the geographic models, and the statistical models. It gave a branching view, with colors indicating the most likely. They worked the model, and flipped scenarios. It was like fishing. Change the lure, throw it in, scan the data and see if anything hits. Problem was nothing was working. They cast glances in Robert’s direction, clearly nervous that they were not making progress.
He could sense the difficulty, and walked towards them. That was the problem in chasing somebody who knew about the systems. Knew how they would chase.
“Ask where he would be most comfortable.” Quang said.
George walked quickly into the fun palace, not making eye contact with Alice or Steve. He found a chair facing away from the wall. Just sat, and stared. Steve and Alice exchanged glances. They had never seen George like this.
“It didn’t go well?” Alice asked, tentatively.
George rotated the chair, smiled a grim smile. “Her son is missing. She wants me to find him.” he said.
“He’s not just out partying?”
“No, I don’t think so. Three days. I know, it doesn’t sound like much. But he would be always connected.”
George reached for his phone. He had one somewhere. In a moment it was up on the wall. It began to do its stuff. Steve motioned to the wall to show progress. Spidery links came and went. A fleeting picture of the famous one came to the foreground, then folded away.
“I don’t want to drag...” George began, then stopped.
“If it was one of us?” Steve said.
The wall was almost finished. It had a tag for Michael, and some possible locations.
“What is Ctrl-X?” Steve asked. Alice looked up.
“In the shadows. Tiny. Seem to be freelance. Wall links them to the CBSH takeover.” she said.
“The what?” George said.
“Takeover. He’s in business?”
“No. Suspected of damaging it so that it was ready to be taken over.”
George looked at the innocent image on the wall. Tried to imagine. But he just couldn’t. Last he remembered he was a small kid at a family barbecue.
“So how do we find him?” George said.
“He’s not showing up anywhere. Last register was...” Alice grappled with the wall, bringing up a trail that ended late at night three days ago.
“He’s Ctrl-X?” George asked
“Maybe. Either that or he is close to somebody who is. The wall definitely thinks that.”
George reached for a wall microphone.
“Tell me about Ctrl-X.”
A picture of Mia came up. A trail through Asia. A list of exploits. Ending with the vanishing some weeks ago. Thought to be in Melbourne, but no sightings. Then it branched off into the bank thing. With business stories that George did not understand.
He clicked, and Alan came up on the screen.
“Can you come up?”
Alan was bemused. He hadn’t been summoned before. He looked at the wall as he walked towards the group. It didn’t seem to have any of the normal stuff on it.
“I want to find someone.” George said. He went through it all.
“Dangerous territory.” Alan said, glancing at the wall.
“I know. But it’s important. It’s personal.”
Alan glanced at Alice.
“Sure. Leave it with me.”
He made for the exit.
Natalie sat in the Qantas club, taking in the surroundings. So much nicer than the normal airport. No plastic chairs and rush in here. She thought about Oscar. They had to stay apart in the lead up to the attack, he had said. It was all a blur, the last few weeks. An incredibly pleasurable blur. The bank. The bank that was no more. Had she done it? Her fingers on the keys, yes. But it was Oscar’s design. In one electric afternoon, just as Oscar had said, it had all vanished. Such an abstract thing, trust. But once it is gone, it is gone.
As it went down, she had walked. That’s what Oscar had told her to do. No looking back. Never look back, he had said. She looked at the clock. He was cutting it fine, she thought. She rang his number, but it rang out. Maybe he can’t answer, she thought. Time seemed to slow, and the hands of the clock hardly move between glances. The boarding pass. Bali. We’ll rent bikes, Oscar had said. Just drift from village to village.
It was almost a relief when the gaggle of men in dark suits came through the door.
// Michael & Oscar
At first you might wonder how to spend the day camping. Just sitting, for most of the day. But there was a ritual of things that had to be done. Making the meals, looking for firewood. In between that time just seemed to stretch. As they became more used to each other’s company less and less was said. They had told both their stories, of exit and fleeing.
“I have to post a message.” Michael said.
“Plaintext. Innocuous location.” he said.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“It’s what I would do.”
“So is there a public internet cafe somewhere?”
“Halls Gap. Only one.”
“So what do you think?”
“There is no street surveillance. Not like in the city. It depends if they are actively searching for you here. Does anyone know where you are?”
“There’s always the drones.”
“Solar powered. Low flying. But again, they would have to be tasked here. There would need to be a reason to send them.”
In the morning they packed everything. Then the swinging of the pack onto the shoulders, the momentum almost knocking them over. Somehow it seemed heavier. Laughing at the awkwardness of it all. Watching the sky for the glint of reflection from a drone. Coming into Halls Gap from the western side of town. For a long time they could see the town before they came down. Again, searching for signs. The road. It may as well have been 10 kilometres wide. Michael and Oscar huddled, looking for traffic.
“What I would give for a drone scan.” Oscar said.
Normally they would have all the scans they wanted. Wide area, and detail in the surrounding kilometre. You took these things for granted when you had them. But in the last half hour only two cars had gone past. The drones looked to be locked into a large circular search pattern. Meaning they had no idea where they were.
“Ready ?” Oscar said.
“Ready as I will ever be.”
Scuffing feet struggling to get traction in the red dirt. A broken run. Aiming for the gap opposite, the track that continued west. Tensing for the sight of drone slipping low and locking onto them. In the open like this it would all be over in seconds.
Alan had an array of stuff on the wall. Props for his explanation.
“We insert a virtual boy into the street. Run him across a public space. We can make him close enough to the actual boy. Only later will they realise they have been taken in. We can’t just hack into the surveillance network though. It has to be physical” Alan said. “ The codes change irregularly. If there is an error in the sequence, alarms go off.” Alice looked mystified.
“So we can’t just add to what is there?”
“No. The system is prepared for that. The stream won’t add up to the right numbers at the other end. Again with the alarms.”
Alice looked at the live feed on Alan’s screen. It showed two technicians working on the box above the square. They had nondescript uniforms on. Nobody was paying any attention to them. Alan continued.
“We clone the hardware. Monitor it working and work out the sequence. Then we substitute our hardware. ”
George walked in, and looked at the screen.
“Have you got our substitute junior terrorist ready?”
“Sure. Here he is.”
On another screen, the boy was walking across a nondescript square. It was only when you looked at it very critically that you could see that it was a construct, an artificial figure, rather than a real person.
“What if they don’t go for it?” George asked.
“Then we won’t know.”
“So what’s the first sign?”
“They will blank out the street surveillance. They don’t like to be watched. Then most likely they will just try and snatch him.”
“So how will we know?”
“We have our own cameras, our own feed set up.”
Alex looked at the wardrobe. Opened the door, and sat on the bed, looking at it. The rack of dresses. Catching sight of herself in the mirror, engaging with the ravages of time.
She knew from the way that George looked at her that it would only take a small move to set it all in motion. No, not that dress. Maybe that. She tried on the short dress. All that time on the treadmill had not been wasted.
The virtual boy began his crossing of the square. Alan wanted to degrade the quality, to give an amateurish impression. But George wanted high quality, reasoning that perhaps they would only get once chance at it.
Their own feed was low down, with one camera sweeping across the square, and the other fixed on a long view. At 11am in the morning, the square was not crowded. On the south side a group of office workers on a break. On the west side a young mother with two small children. A blonde child kicking a ball, then yelling. Seconds dragged. Somewhere systems were tagging it, doing their stuff.
“Detection time?” George asked.
“Less than thirty seconds, I think.” Alan said.
Nothing. George looked up at Alice, at Alan. Of course in a sense they had lost nothing if it didn’t work. But they had invested so much energy and time in this path, that it was really hard to think of a result of just nothing.
A figure running across the square. They watched, and waited for him to head towards the boy, but he just kept moving - a jogger. To Steve and Alice, this was George worrying about the plan failing. But George was picturing explaining to Alex. It was something he’d done many times before. That look in the eyes. People seemed to age ten years right in front of him as he told the story.
“Here they come.” Steve said.
Onto the square came two casually dressed, fit looking people. No nonsense types. Their arrival triggered a complete collapse of the public cameras, so they only had their own to track them.
How do you realise you are chasing a ghost? You have the surveillance on your glasses. So you have the target right in front of your eyes. But when you take off the glasses and look at the scene, there is one crucial difference. The artificial boy is not there. So in the space of a few strides you realise you are being played.
It was deathly quiet in the fun palace. Like the pause after the first move in a chess game. George knew the boy was a pawn, but he had done well to stay alive this far, and for the obvious reasons he wanted his luck to continue. He heard the beep from his phone, and glanced at it. Now he stared at it. At the image of Alex. Since when did Alex send images?
“Sorry. I better take this.” George said.
Steve looked confused. He couldn’t remember George taking a personal call.
“You pick the place.” Alex said.
George was pacing laps. All of them knew about Alex. Or at least of the existence of her, if not the details. When you worked together it didn’t do to go digging into each other’s lives.
“Run the dust scanner.” Alice said.
“I’m not sure I know how to do it.’ he said.
So Alice ran it over him. Looking for any signs of tags on him. Assuming that he didn’t want anyone to start tagging Alex.
“Clear.” Alice said.
“Nothing?” he said.
Which gave him the clearance he needed to head for Sandringham, in the Alex direction. He hesitated and looked back at the room. As if sensing that he was crossing a line, even if it might be crossed for him.
At first he couldn’t spot Alex in the restaurant. Two scans. She was different somehow. More attention to detail, the hair, the clothes. Enough to produce a surge of emotion.
“Here you are.” she said.
Now it was different. Famous one on the other side of the planet. Michael somewhere, out there.
“Must be strange with an empty house.” he stumbled. Like a teenager.
“Yes. But it’s good to see you.” she said. Confident.
With George departed, Alice and Steve were left with it.
“You think he’ll need an instruction manual?” Steve said.
“Don’t be unkind. Isn’t he entitled to some happiness?” Alice said.
Alice turned to the wall microphone.
“Last week. Movements of the boy.”
It was uncharacteristic. Always a spidery set of paths came up. They had to sort and dig. A case of too much information. Considering that every camera in the city, every drone would have instances, it added up to a ‘needle in a haystack’ type of thing. There were only occasional marks. Mostly it was blank.
“A pro.” Steve said.
“Bit young to be a pro, isn’t he?”
He had taken great care to be invisible. To the extent that tracking him from this set of data was not really possible.
“Go further back.” Alice said.
So they rolled it back, over months. They could almost mark the time he was recruited, when he started to disappear.
“Long term statistics.” she said.
Not helpful either. Born and raised in Melbourne, that was what it told them. Useful things like between the ages of 6 and 16 mostly he was in school. Alice leaned back in the chair. The physical world wasn’t going to help them. So they turned to the internet. Again, he was beyond careful.
“Associates.” she said, in a hopeful, give me something type of search.
Again, it told them what she already knew, that he was Ctrl-X. It gave them Oscar, and Mia.
“The team?.” she said. The wall paused, as it lurched through everything.
It gave up Oscar and Natalie, and the bank. Which of course was the last time Oscar was in the open air. It wouldn’t have been good to turn up to meet Natalie with the hood and glasses, would it?
“Airports?” Alice asked Steve.
“Certainly fits with Oscar’s and Mia’s profile. Perpetual motion.”
“But they know that. They know that we will have to profile. They will flip it.”
“So they are sitting in a cafe in Degraves Street?”
“No. I don’t think so. That fits with the profile as well.”
They didn’t need to ask the wall to invert the profile. That was the thing about Australia. Most urbanised country on the planet, but there was lots and lots of empty space to hide in.
“Trains.” Alice said.
“Don’t have cabin surveillance.” Steve said.
“Exactly. We go for random cameras at railway end points. Or more generally just random photos from anyone.”
“You’re just trying to thrash the wall.”
“Worth a try.”
So they threw it to the wall, and not only did it pause, it went off into some enormous loop of wherever it went. Searching for any image of the boy. Hours later it would get a result, and set an alert for those it was programmed to talk to: Steve, Alice and George.
George remembered why he never ate in restaurants. The formality of it. Of feeling like he was on display. But Alex’s smile was completely disarming.
“What would...” he began.
“What would the famous one make of this?” she said.
“It’s not my place to...” he fell over the words again.
“Don’t you think that there are really only two types of people in the world. Those that give love, and those that feed off it?”
He just sat, and thought. The pain behind those words. She continued.
“His son is out there. Somewhere. In the crosshairs of god knows what bastards. But he’s not here. You know that even when he’s here, he’s not here.” she said.
“I know. Of course I know.” he said.
The waiter chose that moment to appear, and to hover. They ordered quickly.
Afterwards, slowly they walked back to her house. The empty house. What did it say when you could face somebody with a gun pointed at you, but you balked at this, he thought. Then past the front door, hesitating at the unfamiliar surroundings. In an instant her arms were around him, grabbing hard, and her mouth was tight against his.
George had not seen the silent alert, but Alex did. The phone lit up, and showed an image. She was instantly awake, as she recognised Michael immediately. She slid out of bed quietly. Fumbling with the keys, glancing back at the house. Half expecting a light to come on, and George to race out. She crawled the car slowly to the corner, and then planted the foot.
Set a course on the automatic driving system to the location that had come up on George’s phone. The car silently picked up the roadside beacons, and accelerated to the allowed speed.
Which gave her way too much time to think. Why hadn’t she woken him? They could have gone together. But deep down she wondered whether George was a detective first, and everything else a long second. Once she got to the location, how would she find him? He would be constantly moving. With George she could have had access to the police systems. They could find him quickly.
The car slowed as it entered the CityLink tunnel. She dared not look at the other cars. The surveillance cameras hung ominously from the roof of the tunnel.
“On that ridge we are going to be totally visible.” Michael said.
“Yup. I’ve got a plan.” Oscar said.
“Care to share?”
“It’s radical. You might not want to know.”
George woke up with a start. Looked across at the empty bed, and for a moment thought of the previous night. Smiled. But something was not right. He listened for the sounds of activity. Nothing. He tentatively stepped his way around the house. Still nothing. He looked at his phone, at the updates, and instantly understood. Started throwing on clothes and heading for the door, dialing Alice.
“Send a car. I’m at 14 Linacre Crescent Beaumaris.”
She didn’t ask. It was obvious. He wasn’t the usual indestructible George at all. More the I am in so much deep shit George.
Alex suddenly imagined the scene when George woke up, and found her gone. She glanced at the phone again, as if willing it to have a message. She should ring and confess, or something. The GPS told her that she had fifteen minutes before she arrived at Halls Gap. It didn’t tell her what to do when she got there.
Truth was she was totally conflicted about George. Mostly she worried that his feelings for her were just sentimentality. The wish to be transported back to being a twenty-something, with a whole life to look forward to wasting.
“OK here we go.” Oscar said.
He started gathering twigs, and small branches. Michael had a realisation.
“You’re going to light a fire.” he said.
“Told you it was radical.” Oscar said.
Yes, it would render the drones and the satellites useless. The infrared sensors would just see one large heat source. The visual surveillance would see a large smoke cloud. But, it had one clear problem.
“We send them a smoke signal. Pinpointing us.” Michael said.
“Within the space of the fire.” Oscar said.
“Sets a timer.” Michael said. “They will surround it.”
“Once we don’t appear on cue at the western point, they will move the search to here anyway.”
“OK. I see. But how do we do it?”
“We light it upwind and walk through the smoke.”
It was simple enough to make the link between Michael and Alex, and to begin tracking Alex’s car. His equivalent of the wall gave the park as the most likely location. It was a very big park. Even with all the technology.
“Searching Eastwards from the last contact.” Quang said.
“Based on?” Liuping asked.
“High visibility points here, he pointed, and here.”
“So when they get to these points we can spot them easily with the satellite?”
But based too much on logic. On what a normal person could carry in food and water.
“All good.” she said. “Logical. Thorough.”
The wall showed a probability based overlay. Not just based on surface analysis. But also past history and even some elements of personality, gleaned from social media.
“But if we reverse this. The human element. They know that we will make assumptions. So they take the most unlikely path.” Quang said.
On the topographic map it was very clear. The ridge was totally exposed. Not a lot of tree cover, only a few tracks. It was like a trap.
Mia rode slowly down Hardware Lane. Looking at the street cameras and imaging the processing working overtime to keep her image in sight. As she moved from one camera to another, handing over. Out into Lonsdale Street and a larger stream of traffic. Hopefully being lost amongst the multitude of targets, then onward to Docklands.
A public bike parking terminal. Place the bike and watch it disappear skywards. Although it wasn’t cold she flipped the hood over her head, put on the sunglasses. Going from Mia, prime target, to hopefully something anonymous. Diving deep into the swirling crowds. Blending, and jumping. Doing circles, doubling back. Then finally diving into the apartment. Up the stairs. Into the room filled with projectors and displays.
For a moment they huddled under a large outcrop of rock. It was like a natural verandah. Hid them from view.
“Infrared. What do we do?” Michael asked, as if Oscar would be a drone expert. But he had no real experience. This was something that Michael had brought with him.
“We need a river.” he said.
“Enough just to get in the water, I think.”
They looked up the terrain. Realising that to get to the nearest creek involved straight up and over. Really hard work with the packs. As they got higher there was less vegetation.
“Try and move it going downwards. Fast and random.” Oscar said.
Running down the steep slope became a process of falling and running at the same time. They sat at the bottom, and waited for the drones to give up. They headed fast into the water. Stopping to look back, to see if they had lost them.
Eventually the undergrowth got so deep that they could relax. Michael and Oscar struggled further into the valley. Struggling with the undergrowth. A miserable meal of muesli bars. They couldn’t avoid looking upward. But eventually a fitful sleep came. Morning bringing more munching on dried food.
“We have to cross the road.” Oscar said.
“If we keep going this way we are heading for Ararat.”
“Which is the way we would be expected to go.”
“But it’s at least three days walk the other way. Over Mt William, down to Jimmy Creek and over the ridge.”
George watched the wall. All of the local police had the photo. Old fashioned stuff - showing people the photo. Asking.
His phone had a tiny version of the wall. He could watch the wall anywhere. So George being George he decided to watch the wall on a tram heading for St Kilda. It rattled past the shrine, past Melbourne Grammar.
“They know how we work. What we model. Everything points to them heading to Ararat.” Liuping said.
“So let’s assume they head West.” Quang said.
“But it’s three days extra walking.” she said.
“Where in the profile does it say they are lazy?” he said.
// Michael, Oscar
The road might as well have been 10 kilometres wide. Michael and Oscar huddled at the side. Under the last of the large trees, scanning the skies for drones.
“What I wouldn’t give for a drone scan.” Oscar said.
Normally they would have a live feed. You took those things for granted when you had them. Felt naked. In the last half hour only two cars had gone past, and one drone. They waited another ten minutes and it didn’t return.
“Ready?” Michael said.
“Ready as I ever will be.” Oscar said.
They jumped out of the bushes. Slightly unsure on their feet at first, then gaining speed. Aiming for the track on the other side of the road. The tree cover. Only relaxing when they had something between themselves and the drones.
Ahead it looked like an illusion. As if the ridge were overhanging them.
So tinder dry. That if you threw a spark, it would just explode. Just madness. No other way to look at it. Which gave it an edge against a machine programmed to look for the most likely of all of the possible outcomes.
If they were overtaken by it, they would be burned alive. Oscar surveyed the landscape, the conditions.
“If we light it here it will drive smoke north. We can cross through the smoke and head for that road.” He said, pointing to the road on the map, in the valley beyond the ridge. Which of course begged the question of what they did when they got to the road.
Michael thought about those holidays with the family in the Grampians. Back before the famous one was famous. It seemed like three centuries ago on another planet. He thought of how to construct a message to his mother that she would understand, but nobody else could decipher.
“Need some light stuff to get it started.” Oscar said.
They gathered twigs and leaves. Light sticks. For the explosion, he thought. Oscar got out a box of matches.
“Twenty kilometres due north of the pizza meltdown.” Michael sent. Breaking all the rules, complete desperation.
Now they were up and running, in anticipation of the smoke that would cover them. Scrambling, and falling through the undergrowth. Here it was scrubby, and low. Scratching and pulling at their clothes. But they dared not look back.
George was silent all the way to the fun palace. Alice looked across at him. He’d never been picked up from Beaumaris in the morning. They all knew about Beaumaris, who lived there, and what the attraction was. This was the opposite of all that. She had never seen him look so uncertain, so fragile.
“You ok?” she said.
He looked across, smiled. A sheepish smile. Knowing that he didn’t have to fill in the background.
“Alex did a runner. She’s chasing the boy.” he said.
“How much does she know?” she said.
“Only the location.”
“You told her?” she said.
“No. Of course not.”
He looked desperate. It was all out of character. George jumped. It didn’t make any sense. He paused, then continued.
“She saw it on the phone. Just went for it.”
He saw it first. “What’s that? On the ridge.” he said.
They all swiveled to look at the large screen. It wasn’t much. Just a slight wafting of grey smoke.
“It’s a fire. Look at the infrared.” Quang said.
“Zoom the drones. We need a clearer picture.”
The three drones broke off and moved toward the smoke.
“Lower.” Robert said.
Now they were swarming, just above the tree tops.
“There.” Quang said.
Sure enough. It was almost like ‘smile for the camera’. There they were just north of the smoke, clambering down the slope. The smoke grew stronger, and it became harder to see them. First contact for a week, and they had a clear indication of direction.
“Heading west.” he said.
“Nearest road?” he asked of the system. It zoomed and rotated until the road map was aligned.
They knew they had been sighted. So it couldn’t just be a sprint to the nearest town. There had to be more going on.
“Nearest food.” Robert asked. The display updated.
“Anything in emails?” Robert asked of Quang.
There wasn’t much to show. There was the pizza email.
Robert stared at the screen.
“Shit. This is a private code.”
Alex didn’t slow on the highway, even though she had no idea of her final destination. Charging towards an unknown target. The email flashed on the windscreen as part of the head-up display. Pizza incident? For a moment it meant nothing. The intensity of the moment overtook her.
Then it came flooding back. Camping on a dirt track. He wanted pizza, had to have pizza. So they pointed the car towards a small town on the map. But when they got there, everything was shut.
She asked for the map on the display. At least now she had a target.
If you had an aerial view, from a drone, you would see three vehicles converging on the park.
“The nav is not clear.” Michael said.
“Don’t use it. Just set a bearing and pace it.” Oscar said.
Ahead of them they could see movement in the undergrowth. Surely not? How would anyone find them? They couldn’t find themselves. They slowed, and watched the vegetation moving. It looked about the size of a person.
A huge red kangaroo jumped out right in front of them. Clearly as startled as they were. It hesitated, then turned and bounded off quickly along the track.
Oscar was watching his screen, looking for a sign.
“How far to this road?” he said.
Michael looked around. “About a kilometre.” It really didn’t matter. If they kept going in this direction, they had to hit the road.
The dirt roads were laid out leading north, in a regular grid going east. They marked the edge of properties. Not all of them were farmed. Some were surrendered to the dust.
Alex stared at the dialling display. She should call. But she couldn’t. She just had to hope that he understood.
For a moment she thought of the famous one. Was this the end? The absence said it all, didn’t it? Some things looked alive for a long time when on the inside they were long dead. Fuck him, she thought. Then ‘fuck him’ she shouted to no-one in particular. She recognised the corner, and turned quickly in the direction of the pizza incident.
Quang looked at the satellite view. The smoke was being driven by the wind like a blanket spreading over the intercept zone.
“There are two roads running north south. We’ll try the second one.” he said.
Neither Liuping or Quang was about to question this. But it was a guess. First road in was too obvious. They had played with the private code for a while, but it wasn’t giving anything up. Too personal.
“Look for a vehicle.” Robert said.
George sat slumped, his phone on the table in front of him. Alice and Steve just looked at each other. This clearly wasn’t a case of blue funk. They were used to that. This was George in new territory.
“Ctrl-X?” George asked.
“They are there but they are not talking to us.” Alice said.
“The fire?” he said.
“It’s spreading, but it won’t get them. The smoke will make drones useless though.” she said.
“Alex?” George asked, finally.
“About twenty minutes from an intercept.” she said.
“Ours?” he said.
“Stawell the nearest. But we haven’t alerted them yet.” she said.
George put his fingers on the table. Pushed the phone away. Looked at the satellite feed, then across at the tracking. Estimates of Michael and Oscar’s location. The drones, Alex’s car.
// Liuping, Quang
Liuping and Quang worked the status display.
“You have 5 kilometres to go. Drones can’t track them.” Liuping said.
“Take the next right.” she continued.
They had GPS feeds from the car. Based on the last sighting of Michael and Alex they had a likely location. It was a blur on the screen, about 200m in length.
“You are there.” she said.
Alex was struggling to recall, searching for landmarks. This road? Yes. She turned and went slowly, not knowing where they would be waiting. She tried to think of exactly where on the road the pizza incident was. Made for that. Then very slowly came to a halt.
“Where?” the driver asked Liuping.
“Just ahead.” she said.
// Michael, Oscar
Michael and Oscar were exhausted. They hovered at the edge of the road, searching for a car.
“You’ll recognise the car?” Oscar asked.
Michael looked puzzled. “Yes, of course.”
Liuping was getting worried.
“It’s right in front of you.” she said. Trying to keep the emotion out of her voice.
“I don’t see it.” the driver said.
She looked at the display. It showed the two cars within 5 metres of each other. Right on top of the blur where they were supposed to be.
Black is white, white is black.
“Do you see anything distinctive? A large tree. What do you see? Send me an image.” she said.
But even as the image was coming, she worked it out.
Michael saw it through the smoke. Tentatively at first, then in a flat run for the car. Oscar fell into the back seat, Oscar in the front.
“You came.” he said.
“Of course.” she said.
Alex moved the car tentatively forward.
“Where to?” she said.
Michael and Oscar looked at each other.
“Just stay under the smoke for the moment.” Oscar said.
He called Mia.
“Hi.” he said.
“Hi.” she said.
“Made it.” he said.
“Into the middle of a shit storm.”
“You have a plan?”
“Once you are out in the open, you are sitting ducks.”
“Public assassinations. You really think they are up for that?”
“I don’t want to test the odds.”
“I’m going to call George.”
“The Alex connection?”
“Not just that. We have a problem in common.”
“GPS hack.” Liuping said.
“Clever.” Quang said.
“Sorry. I should have realised.” she said.
“How exactly should you have realised.” he said “Don’t sweat it. We have them within a radius. It’s just a matter of time.” he said.
He could see the progress of the convoy on the wall. With such a police presence, he doubted that the pursuers would show their hand.
He moved the microphone closer.
“Mia. Full history.”
Moving every few months. Above and below the radar, with just enough presence to fund her modest lifestyle. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam. Then, all of a sudden, here she was. Hired and planted.
He stared at all of it for quite a while, then dialed the number. Listening to it ring. It took a while. Imagining her bringing up stuff on her version of the wall before deciding to answer it.
Mia had George up on her screens.
“Hello.” she said.
“We have some mutual friends in trouble.” he said
“It seems I should be grateful to you for rescuing them.”
“I wouldn’t put it that strongly. We are just making sure they arrive back in Melbourne safely.”
Understated. Mia was taking in the stuff from the wall. Especially the high public profile that George had. Then the link to Michael, via Alex.
“Nevertheless. Not something we could have done.”
Which brought them to exactly what was Ctrl-X.
“You seem to float about a bit. What brought you back to Australia?” he said.
There was a significant pause. Of course he was going to fish for information.
“Homesick.” she said.
“A bit late in coming, wasn’t it?” he said.
“You know how it goes. Somebody burns a gum leaf, and before you know it you are on a plane.”
The wall was giving him quite a different version of all this. At times it was almost impossible to conduct a conversation, with the wall updating and contradicting as fast as it could.
“Perhaps I should explain where I’m coming from. You know about my interest in Michael, through Alex. I’m also trying to unravel a string of murders that seem related.”
“You think we are tied up in that? We don’t do that sort of thing.” she said.
Unless we are instructed to do so, she thought. In a sense she was being accurate. The backers hadn’t asked for anything like that. Given that she didn’t know who they were, or even what their motivation was, she wasn’t going to be much help.
“It’s the ‘we’ that interests me. Exactly who is involved here?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Because you won’t tell me, or you don’t know?”
No shame, she thought. For hire.
“You know that I don’t have that information.” she said.
Actually he didn’t but he did now.
“Have you considered that you might have passed your use-by date with whoever is operating you? That the easiest way to make sure there are no unexpected events further down the track is to make you all disappear?”
“It’s an occupational hazard.” she said.
“Maybe so, but I think we can help each other here.”
It wasn’t a conversation she was going to have with the backers. By the way, how do you feel about me helping George in homicide? He had a point though, she had no way of knowing.
“I’ve always found that looking after myself worked for me.” she said.
George paused. No way to force the issue. In any case, whoever was chasing them might well make the case for him.
“You know where I am.” he said.
George made the necessary calls. It became a police convoy.
He stared at the phone. The car was reaching the outskirts of Ballarat. Finally he called Alex.
“Hi.” he said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. It just happened...” she said.
“I know. I know. Don’t worry.” he said.
The drones hovered as the car continued through the outer suburbs of Ballarat. What if they took the risk and just torched the car? He shook the thought off.
“Take care.” he said.
The convoy was safely on the top level highway, which gave them a good chance of getting all the way to the fun palace.
It had been more than a week of running the vacuum cleaner on SciTec. They had high expectations. That a direct dump of everything would give them some deep insight. It was a torrent, a bit like wishing for a drink and being knocked over by a flood. They had everything, but they had nothing.
In a sense having everything was a bit like having nothing. They were hardly likely to find an email directing the drone with the syringe. Or even anything discussing it. For so long the assumption had been that if it is in digital form, then somehow it will leak.
They were left with the strategic overview stuff, and miscellaneous stuff. It was like having a frame from a movie every twenty minutes, and trying to fill in the missing bits.
“Chinese developers.” George said.
“Almost all of the housing developers are Chinese.” Alice said. “You have to look at each one. Yes, some of them are quite aggressive. They don’t wait for each house to sell, they get in there and encourage a bit of movement.”
Steve brought an animation up on the wall.
“This shows the growth of the aggressive side. They start out slowly in 2015 and grow steadily. Now about 50%.”
“They fund the Peregrini?” George asked.
“Yes. Indirectly.” Alice continued. “The money trail goes through several intermediaries.”
“Relationship between SciTec and the aggressive developers?” George asked.
“Not good. SciTec are aligned with the softly softly developers.”
“The victims? Any common threads in their work?”
“All of them had looked at Defigo closely.”
“So. What are we left with?”
“It could be Defigo. It could be the aggressive developers. Or it could be an internal dispute in SciTec.”
“This is very interesting.” Alan said. He brought up a set of connections over time. It made no sense to George at all.
“You better translate for me.” he said.
“Connections versus time. There are normal stuff. I’ll mark that green.” The display changed, with almost all green, but a smattering of red. “Red lines are break-ins.”
“Internal break-ins. One employee hacking another?”
“Do we have the content he is chasing?”
“Yes. I’ll get a sample.”
Alan went back to the keyboard.
“Xu’s school record, childhood.”
George looked puzzled. “And?”
“Photos. Family. That sort of thing.”
“They are friends?”
“If they were friends then he wouldn’t be breaking in to get this stuff.”
“As in traffic systems?”
“If you say so.”
As always, there was another task awaiting. A message drop to negotiate, a goal to complete. She thought back to that meeting in the cafe where they had laid out the two alternatives. Work for us, or we throw you to the wolves. Maybe she should have taken her chances? After all, there was always the possibility of escape. In a sense this was everything she had run away from in the first place. She scanned the Melbourne skyline, the commuters bustling. Did she really feel a part of this?
This time she had to get the tram to St Kilda, and sit on a bench facing the sea. Make the bluetooth connection. Get a message. But this time the message was incredibly cryptic. It was just an IP address, a login and a password. With the message there was a tablet stuck to the under-side of the seat. She reached underneath, trying not to make it too obvious just in case. Luckily it was close to the edge, and not difficult to dislodge.
Rattling back towards docklands, she thought about Oscar and Michael. Wondering why the backers had changed their mode of operation. Wondering who they were. Thinking how long she could continue this life of obedience. Of being a cog in what seemed like a very large machine.
An IP address. A login. A mobile phone. She could guess. That it would be two-factor. Even with the login the phone was needed to validate. Sure enough. ‘Login:’, ‘Password:’ then ‘Code:?’. It stopped. She waited, and then she almost jumped out of her chair as the phone bleeped, and the code appeared.
But where was she? Logged in somewhere. Where to start? She had a prompt, on a terminal. So that was something. She listed the files in the directory. Piped every file to a command line editor, skipped over the binary files, looking for a text document. Or a document that could be viewed in text
Li Xiu was hovering. Like the kid in the class with their arm in the air, reaching for the ceiling. As if she had the answer to the question and couldn’t wait to blurt it.
“Anything?” George said, ignoring the body language.
“Lots.” she said. “Have a look at this.”
At first the video footage was a bit vague. It just seemed to show a small blur. But enhanced and cut, it showed a drone about the size of a dinner plate hovering near an air intake duct. But even better it showed the moment. A white puff of dust, only just visible.
“Great stuff. You’ve done really well.” George said.
“There is more.” she said.
She swung the video into virtual 3D mode. To a view that was constructed from all of the relevant cameras. It wasn’t actual 3D, as there were some gaps. But enough to show a trail. It was marked in black.
“Trail of the drone?” George asked.
“Trail of the person who launched the drone.” she said.
He swung around. Looked straight at her. Like a kid who has just discovered there is an extra present under the Christmas tree that he missed on the first run through.
“Seriously?” he said.
Now they all gathered. As if watching a maestro in action. Which in a very real sense they were. Again it was a 3D view, from at least twenty cameras. Back along the street, all the way to the subway station. A hooded figure, with a bag. A bag big enough to carry a micro drone. Still, it followed him. He descended the escalator, looking around, trying to make sure if he was being followed.
Then, he pulled back the hood.
Absolute silence. George, Alice, Steve and Li Xiu stood in front of the wall, with a twenty metre by twenty metre still image of his face.
“Shit. You are a dead set genius.” George said. Speaking for them all.
With a face, there were a whole range of things the wall could do. Search for every location that it had seen the face over a period of time. Everything the internet knew about the face. His friends, his financial transactions. Pretty much a full picture. Too much in fact. The real challenge was to narrow it down.
“Last month. City map. Traces.” George said
A set of spidery lines made it’s way through a map of the city streets. We can arrest his barista, George thought. Not really expecting any great revelations. But if he is careless enough to show his face on a train, who knows what is possible.
“Weighted by number of visits.” George modified the map.
Now it showed as darker, the more times he visited a location.
“Look at this.” he said to Alice and Steve.
The screens flipped to the convoy, as it made the last exit, and slowed to approach the fun palace. Timing when they went outside to meet them. George found himself nervous, fidgeting. Then standing at the roadside, scanning the traffic.
The three black cars pulled up, and Alex, Michael and Oscar were standing there. She walked hesitantly towards him.
George turned to Alice and Steve, very clumsily. Alice smiled to see George in such an unfamiliar situation.
“Alice, this is Alex.” he said, thinking, of course, she knows how this is. “Steve.”
They milled about, then the group moved inside. Leaving George and Alex. Standing.
“I’m sorry.” Alex said.
“For what?” George said.
“Running off. I should have trusted you.”
They were walking now, with no real destination in sight. A coffee place on the left. George gestured, and they entered. A long, a painfully long silence. Both of them looking down at the table, as if frightened to look at what they had become.
“Michael will be ok. He’s a good kid.” George said.
which left another silence.
“I can...” George stumbled.
Alex smiled. This was far from the self-propelled George. It was George struggling.
“Us.” she said.
“Is there an us?” he said, hesitantly.
“If you want there to be an us, then, yes, there is an us.” she said, still smiling.
“I should have left it all years ago. Decades ago. It’s an edifice. Held together with duct tape. A facade. A farce if you like.”
“We can go somewhere. Anywhere.” he said.
She looked skeptical.
“You could really leave it all behind?” she said.
“This? Yes. Pretty soon they will eject me anyway.”
Oscar was grateful to be back in the apartment. For a while they just sat. No welcome from the backers, nothing. Finally Mia spoke:
“George put it to me that it was the backer’s disposing of us. Past our expiry date.” she said.
“Possible, I guess. In the absence of anything, assume the worst.”
Michael just looked puzzled. As if it hadn’t occurred to him.
“Maybe it’s time we learned more about them.”
Neither of them dared say anything. Assuming that the room was bugged.
// George, Alex.
As they walked in the direction of the water, she sought out his hand, and held it. Tightly. He smiled. Then lost himself in thoughts of where and when. They stood at the sunset. Her head found his shoulder.
It was no larger than a small bird. If you saw it from more than ten metres distance, it might be mistaken for a sparrow. The two counter-rotating rotors kept is perfectly still when it hovered. If it leaned forward then it could advance at about ten kilometres an hour. Its body was really no more than a metal skeleton. Being so small, it was unlikely to meet any opposition. If it wasn’t for the rotors spinning it would be almost invisible.
The small cousin of the large drones, it was called a mini drone, or more accurately a micro drone. It made its way down Victoria Parade, hovering just above the tram lines. If it stayed below the tree line then it was almost invisible from street level. Coming to La Trobe Street, it rose over the tree line, and gained altitude. Hugging the apartments, in the late afternoon sun. In the sharp light from the walls of glass, nobody noticed it. The street surveillance cameras were all pointing in the direction of the crowds milling about, making their way home.
It didn’t need any detailed control. With a target programmed it was almost completely autonomous. Of course it provided monitoring to it’s launchers, but it didn’t need to be steered.
Crossing Swanston Street it suddenly descended, to dodge a drone going north south. This was almost a central corridor for drones. It rotated and fluttered, as if it was going to fall out of the sky. Being so light though it recovered in an instant, heading towards Docklands.
At the next block, it changed modes. Now it was in target searching mode. It could tap into the street level cameras, in the search for only one of those faces. At first nothing came, so it hovered, waiting. Maybe the face was not on the street.
In a single motion, the face came, and it began its descent. Even in a crowd it could distinguish between the targets. There were two people walking ahead, slowly. It looped back and sought the faces. Fortunately they were unshaded, and it had the target on the right.
Falling to only a metre above the pavement, it began its advance. A final check on systems, and getting ready. Rising to shoulder level, holding a steady course.
Mia was daydreaming, leaning back on her chair. Not really paying attention to the screens. Taking refuge in that nothing serious was happening. With Oscar and Michael returned, she anticipated that soon a new message would be forthcoming. Until then, it was a relief to take it slowly, just drift.
It was nothing, but it was something. A window appeared of a street scene. A couple walking very slowly. Long shot, from behind. Something familiar. She leaned the chair forward, and recognised George and Alex.
The system labelled them in red. Then pulled back even further, labeling other dots. As if taking her through it by pointing and showing trajectories.
Oscar had turned and was paying attention also. Something was happening. Now it was labelled “micro drone attack”.
At first George was inclined to busy out the call. Then he saw who it was from. He answered, and the tone in Mia’s voice communicated much more than the words.
“Don’t talk. There is a drone targetting Alex. Grab her and drop. Now.”
George looked back over his shoulder, as he grabbed Alex. Diving for the pavement. It was close. The drone diving, as they fell, in an awful embrace, the syringe plunging forward, making contact with Alex’s shoulder.
“I’m ok...” Alex said.
Mia glanced quickly at the screens. The drone had bounced on the pavement. Now she was shouting at George.
“Grab the drone. Grab the drone.” she said.
He looked startled. He could see it about two metres away, floundering on the ground. Struggling to become airborne.
“Stomp it. Break it.” she said.
Now he was in motion. It almost appeared to be startled, as it stuttered, and fought to leave the ground. George lead with his foot, it was so small, so fragile and it was crushed beneath his foot.
“Got it.” he said to Mia
“Are you ok?” he asked Alex.
“Yes, I’m fine. Don’t worry.” she said
George wasn’t going to take any chances.
“I need an ambulance. La Trobe Street, 90 meters south of police headquarters.” he spoke into the phone. There was a seat, and he half-carried her towards it. She was still unsteady on her feet.
“You worry too much.” she said
“Show me.” he said
Alex pulled aside her shirt, and there it was. A red mark on her shoulder, where the syringe had found its target, but interrupted in the process of delivering the deadly goods.
George didn’t want to think about the possibilities. None of them were good. It seemed as if the ambulance was taking weeks to arrive, but his phone told him it was no more than minutes.
“Tried to inject her with something.” he said. It sounded delusional when he explained it to the ambulance officers. As if both of them were junkies. They knew who he was, and for once it worked in his favour.
He raised Alice.
“I’m on the way to hospital with Alex.” he said
George went through the micro-drone description. Trying to downplay it, so that Alex would not be too alarmed. Alice’s questions were his questions.
She pointed to the nearest screen and turned to Michael.
“I’ve got a login here, but need to explore.”
“Anything and everything.”
He surveyed it. Then hesitated.
“OK. I’ll prowl about for a bit.”
He began with a survey of the file structure. A full display of all of the directories, sub-directories. But the drone stuff was of most interest.
“Drones.” he said, and brought up the display of that part of the file structure.
“Get the full spec on them. Model numbers.” she said.
Mia was becoming nervous. To linger here was to invite interest. Some scanning program looking for unusual patterns of access. She didn’t have the history for this user, and couldn’t mask what they were doing.
He extracted the directory with all of the drone drivers, and data files. In a sense better than just the model numbers as they could check the software update state. Get a complete picture.
“We better be quick with this. Have a go at the email.”
“Yes, that would be best. We can search through it here.”
Michael only took a few minutes, and the email backup, together with the latest email was on their system.
“We better wipe our feet on the way out.” Mia said
This was a reference to the system logs. Which would keep a record of all of the actions he and Mia had performed. It took a little longer, but he deleted all traces that they had been there. No guarantees, but at least they kept a low profile.
Michael turned to Mia, pleased to have completed all that so fast.
“So now we go to the backers and ask them what they want with this?” he asked.
“Not exactly. They don’t work that way.”
“As in they don’t have conversations.”
“No. Just issue instructions.”
“All faces coincident with target.” he asked of the wall.
But it wasn’t that simple. An array of affiliations, no direct connections. He slumped back in the chair, realising that of course it wasn’t going to be that simple. Opening up a connection to Alan, he asked.
“If I wanted to communicate with somebody but not leave a visual trace, or a network trace, how do I do it?”
“Crossing to the dark side are we. Got a drug deal on the move?”
“There are ways. I’ll come up.”
Steve explained it all. He brought up the movement traces. Alan smiled.
“So how does he communicate?”
Alan surveyed the wall. Brought up the faces. He turned to the wall microphone.
“Stationary for more than thirty seconds. Public place.” he asked
He took the mouse and rolled slowly over the videos. Searching for what he was looking for. It took quite a while.
“There.” he said.
“What. He’s looking at his phone.” Steve said.
“He’s opening up a bluetooth connection.”
Steve turned to the wall.
“Aerial view.” he said
Sure enough, the drone view showed the phone screen. The opening of the connection.
“Local range only. There will be a transmitter within ten metres.”
“Off the grid.”
Hidden information. But it also communicated important information.
“Thanks.” Steve said
“Wish I could be of more help.” Alan said
“No, it’s great.”
“We tag him?” Steve asked
“Not enough. He connects to the bluetooth. I expect that the box he talks to will disappear soon after he has made the connection.” Alice said.
“Pay a street kid to collect it and dump it in the river.”
“Yes. So even if we scan surveillance all we get is a nondescript doing a carry.”
“We’re going to have to retrieve one of these things.”
“Catch him in the act?”
Steve looked again at the wall’s display of his movements. He needed another way of looking at it. To see if there was any regularity to it.
“Period between stationary episodes of more than 20 seconds in public places.” he said to the wall.
A sequence of graphs appeared. Yes, there was some regularity to it, but not a fixed sequence.
“We’re going to have to watch him closely and tag it.” Steve said
“Can we flag every time he stops in a public place?” Alice asked.
“Maybe.” Steve said
It’s as if we are trying every solution short of actually following him around in person, Steve thought. That was the problem with the wall, you became a slave to its methods. Everything had to be done with a camera or a drone. He thought about recruiting street kids to grab the boxes, then pictured himself explaining it to Kate.
He turned to the wall.
“Time to travel from here to stationary locations.” he asked the wall.
A graph appeared, showing that if they sat on an alert they could intercept within ten minutes. Alice and Steve nodded.
Mia and Oscar sat quietly. On the large screen, the surveillance video of the micro-drone was playing a loop. It was buffeted by the wind, shook, corrected and flew with unerring accuracy at it’s final target.
Michael was at the hospital, but they didn’t like to ask for updates. In any case, they got a direct feed from the fun palace. It was unspoken, but their new close relationship with the police was both a source of gratitude, and a concern.
Mia turned to Oscar.
“George is considering the possibility that the backers might be the one’s trailing us. It follows that they might be responsible for this.” referring to the loop playing.
Oscar liked to think that Mia had the answers. She was older, but really it was another way that he dodged the basic question. The mercenary aspect of it all. They knew nothing about the backers except that they had the resources to lock them both in. In a sense they were both ashamed of that.
Mia gestured towards the door. Hooded, they hunted for a crowd. A big enough crowd to throw all of those tracking them. Preferably a buffeting crowd, where the algorithms would construct paths, resolve the ambiguities for a while, then eventually give up, lost in confusion.
When they were confident enough, they headed towards the gardens, up past the arts centre. Only the long range surveillance cameras there. Unless they already had a lock, they would be unable to zoom in and grab a conversation. Still, out of reflex, they glanced upwards. It was clear. Mia turned to Oscar.
“The bank. I had a look at who benefitted from it. It was owned mostly by US shareholders, and the rescue was a consortium of Chinese banks.”
“Linked to property developers?”
“All banks have links to developers. Especially in Australia. That’s how the money wheel turns. Build it, sell it.”
“It’s a long way from hacking banks to executing the innocent.” Oscar said.
It hung there. Neither of them could shake the Alex images.
“I don’t know. You don’t know. So we find out.”
“We do what we do.”
“Biting the hand that feeds.”
“As opposed to life as a robot?”
At the hospital, George became a familiar sight. They were a bit taken aback that he slept on the visitor’s room floor.
The boy came, and stayed for quite a long time. George couldn’t really look him in the eye. But Michael sought him out in the visitor’s room.
“Thanks. For everything.” Michael said.
“Just doing my job.”
“Bullshit. It had nothing to do with your job. You did it anyway.”
George looked away. ‘Fat lot of good it did.’ he thought. He recognised the anger as a product of the situation. Let it go.
“He’s visiting this afternoon.” Michael said.
Smart kid, he thought. That George would want to know, and would want to make himself scarce. This wasn’t the time and place. There wasn’t going to be a time and place. George had a momentary flash of the famous one. No, there wasn’t going to be a time or a place. They were never going to meet again.
Alex stirred. It was only the fluttering of an eyelid, but it brought a flurry of activity. Nurses, doctors, the whole army. She wasn’t speaking, but she was smiling. She was going to be ok.
He hurried along the walking path at Victoria Harbour. He was relieved. It was always tense at the end of a contract period. No knowing if more work was coming. He had sent in the reports, the annotated harassment. It had certainly worked, there was much movement in Bentleigh. Turnover was remarkable. His employers had only to clean up the last few residents, most likely with the influenza, or something similar. It was on its way.
Dog walkers going the other way. Not really paying much attention. Early crowds in the cafes. Soon he would be sitting and haggling, this time from a strong position. It felt good.
Two drones flying in formation, joined together with an elastic cord. It was possible to see the flexing. Each drone had to compensate for the pull of the other to keep the cord tight. Small drones, no larger than a dinner plate. Four rotors, that kept them very stable, even with the pulling sideways. Coming in low, across the water, no more than ten metres in the air. They had to dodge boats in an attempt to get a clear run at the dockside.
Dennis looked up, asking himself ‘why are two drones tied together?’.
They glided, then jumped, to lock onto his neck. Over the water, crossing to the pier, with clear space. On closing to three metres, they suddenly accelerated. There was no time for him to react.
A furious catch. An awful elasticity. Hooking his neck, the drones swung forward, pulling his body weight. Then, the flourish. As the two drones rotated towards each other, one went high, the other low, flying with the cord in tension. Circling around each other, stretching the cord tight. Then leaving it.
Dennis was left with the cord tight around his neck, lying on the dockside, the life draining out of him.
It was like a reflex, the heading for the fun palace. Only a short walk. He looked up, and expected to see a drone, but if it was there then it was high up. They will freak out, he thought. But at least they would not throw him out.
All eyes swivelled to lock onto him. Watched him as he made his way.
Alice opened her mouth to say ‘go home’ or ‘what are you doing here?’ but then choked it off. Home was an empty room, where else was he going to go?
He tried to not look at the Alex video in the top left of the wall. Not going to ask the obvious, the motive. Too clear.
“Any progress?” he asked no-one in particular.
“Too good at hiding their tracks. The car guy has disappeared. The face launching the legionnaires likewise. Dead ends.”
“Generic. It’s been shutdown and erased. Logs gone. They were fast.”
Even as George was stomping the electronics, the drone was making sure that no traces were left.
“We have to trap them.” he said.
He pulled back the threads from the attacks. The car jumping the freeway, the legionnaires .
“The forces of darkness.” Alice said.
“You interested in nailing them, or just lining up with Ctrl X and taking them on?”
Steve watched the wall juggle and sift the data from all three incidents. He sure was giving it a workout.
“It’s not just about going at it with whatever you have at hand.”
“Frenzied attack.” Alice said.
“You have to look at the big picture. Who funds Ctrl X? Yes, they are a collection of talent. But that doesn’t amount to much.”
He decided it was time to pay a visit to Kate.
George walked straight through the outer office. He didn’t even look up. Kate’s assistant rose from the desk, walked towards him, to intercept. Kate waved her away from behind the glass.
He fell into the chair. As if he might never rise again. That it was as much as he could do to keep breathing.
Kate studied him closely. She could see the beginnings of a tear in his eye. He wiped it away.
“Will she be ok?” she asked
“They say so. It only got to deliver a tiny fraction of what it was supposed to...”
Not knowing how to fill the silence that followed. They could talk about lines that had been crossed. Of absolutely being sure that whoever was responsible would feel the full force. If they had been talking to somebody else, either of them could deliver that speech. But not to each other.
“You go way back?”
“In a sense. Only just got back together. Her son...”
“Is Ctrl X. He looks about five years old to me.”
“I just feel responsible. That if she hadn’t been with me.”
“If you hadn’t rescued her son, you mean.”
He looked up. She was right. It all went together. To feel responsible in the sense that he was who he was. The same stuff that rescued Michael also attracted the drone.
“We’re no closer.” he said.
“Yes we are. Whoever launched that drone did it to cover up the SciTec murders. The more out in the open they play, the quicker we catch them.”
“Yes, I think.”
It was as if George was hearing himself talking. He had trained her well.
Quietly, he walked towards the door. Turned, and smiled.
Mia and Oscar left at different times, taking different paths. Only to meet up on the 96 tram as it hurtled towards St Kilda. On a crowded tram they could talk without the possibility of being overheard.
“The Peregrini.” Mia said. “Strangulation. Nasty.”
“I’ve got no way of knowing.” she said.
They watched the scenery fly past. Soon the tram would be at Fitzroy Street, making its way around the foreshore.
“None of the stuff in the apartment will have links back.” she said.
“Unless they have bugs.”
“I don’t think they do.”
Which of course begged the question of why they were taking such elaborate precautions.
“An event that they will want to monitor. They send drones. We capture one, and put a trapdoor into it.”
Oscar turned to face Mia.
“High risk.” he said.
“What sort of event?”
“I think this is all about the Peregrini and the developers. I’ll talk to George.”
Before the tram reached its final destination, Oscar exited the tram and quickly headed up a narrow street, too narrow for the drones to follow him. Heading in the direction of a train station. They would both end up back at the apartment, but by different paths.
He took a sharp left at the exit of the fun palace, and put on a hood and glasses. Blending himself into the crowd. Heading for the center of the city. Along Flinders Street and into Degraves Street. The back street laneways were too narrow for the drones to get clear line of sight. Which had served to make them even more popular.
It didn’t take long for Mia to appear. Dressed much like him, but looking as if she belonged in the gear.
“Melbourne. In its essence.” he said
“I never really much liked this place. But it’s the only place out of drone range.” she said
Cutting to the chase, Mia explained what she wanted him to do.
“Feeding me to the lions. You can imagine what the system will do to me.” he said.
“You’re not really worried about that. The day you looked us up, you had already decided.”
He looked up, straight into her eyes.
“Yes.” he said, and made his way back to the fun palace.
Alice and Steve sat quietly. The wall had the Dennis video looping in the background. George was preparing himself. Finally, he spoke.
“Development. They would politely call it ‘transition engineering’ or something like that. Those that don’t actually use the Peregrini benefit from the climate of fear and disruption. The good citizens get put off balance, kept off balance and eventually the bulldozers get their way.”
Alice looked to the wall.
“Which brings us to the small matter of evidence.” she said.
“Yes. Everyone here knows that as soon as they put something into bits it will find its way to us. So they don’t commit any plans to digital form. They mask conversations. No records.”
“Only actions.” she said.
“Yes. They have to come out into the open to achieve their objectives. Same for the backers of Ctrl-X”
“You’ve talked to Mia?”
“Yes. I don’t think she knows who the backers are, and she would like to know. So would we.”
He paused. Something caught his eye. The doors to the fun palace hesitated, opened, then shut again. Alex walked slowly through the doors, gingerly stepping forward. George rushed to support her.
“I thought...” he said
“I’m fine. I’m fine. Don’t fuss. It was just too boring there.”
Alice and Steve hovered. Pleased to see her vertical, but concerned.
“Go on with your work. Don’t mind me.” Alex said.
They could hardly do that. Given everything, they were not about to send her somewhere. In a sense she was in the safest place possible. She knew that.
George turned to Alice.
“The Peregrini.” he said.
“You want me to join.”
“Yes. It’s the only way. We will tag you to the max. You will become an evidence vacuum cleaner.”
Alice refrained from stating the obvious, that they might as well paint a target on her back.
All she was given was a location, a large building, and a task. Gather everything possible, as quickly as possible. Throwing the dust seemed the only way.
After ten the drift into the cafes ground to a halt. Like farmers sowing seeds they had thrown as many as they could. There was nothing more to do until they came out again. If they had thrown too many then a general alert would be triggered and everyone would be scanned. Then they would get nothing. But if they had thrown wisely, or luckily, then one or two of the chips would bring forth something.
For the harvesting of information they could use the drones. The dust only had a few hundred metres range. The micro drones would hover low and attempt to harvest. One small chip would take its data and throw it into their waiting arms. Or not.
Back in the apartment they waited. The early scans had given nothing.
“Core systems people leave later?” Mia said
“Or indulging in wishful thinking?” Oscar said
Everything coming in or out was encrypted. But the chips picked up internal network communication from stray fields. Not that they were going to get a password or something like that. Almost everything had a biometric cover anyway. But enough related information could be used to synthesise. If they were lucky.
“Something.” Mia said
They started to get small feeds. Nothing in itself, but a beginning. Like a farmer gathering the crops. Small handfuls only gradually assembled into a big pile to be carted away.
It wasn’t hard to follow the instructions at first. At least to get to Beaconsfield Parade. Then she had to follow the phone as she got closer. No address given, just go this way, then that way. She turned into Ashworth Street, an alley and kept walking. No sign of a shop or an office, as she had expected.
As she passed a garage, the door opened.
It was not what she expected at all. Not your hard core terrorist enclave. More a group of volunteers working on signs, and what looked like art works. Her host was tall, dark and serious looking. Sort of an ‘in-charge’ person without the trimmings. Along one wall were placards ‘people places, not money places’, ‘peregrini’.
“I am Anita.”
“Alice, of course, you know that.Thanks for letting me come.” Alice said. “I’ve been concerned about the issue for so long.”
She was trying to look like an enthusiastic amateur and hoping she made it ok.
“How much do you know about us?”
“Only the name, the reputation, what my friends told me. I don’t really follow the media.”
“Nobody really does, do they..” she said. “Where to begin. We are agitators for the new city. Some like to portray us as a front for the developers, but we are our own people here. For too long it’s been impossible for anyone of working age to own a place to live. Hence the name, Peregrini. Sort of like the almost slaves. Closed out of the system.”
“Sure. I understand.”
“We stage events that highlight our position.”
“You meet some opposition?”
“The ‘neighbourhood preservation’ people. They want it to be like Paris. A monument to the past. Monuments are fine, but people don’t live in monuments.”
Alice walked quickly into the fun palace.
“In ?” George asked.
“Yes. Well, sort of. It’s a bit like a mother’s club. Protests, lobbying.”
“Umbrella. Inside that they recruit the Dennis types. To do the heavy lifting. Direct from the developers.”
“You want me to push it. Go for that?”
“No. The mother’s club is fine. We need to gather evidence.”
Steve shuffled the wall. A graph of mortality statistics. George turned and watched as it took shape. It wasn’t the sort of thing that normally came up on the wall. He wondered where Steve was going with it.
“Mortality? I know we’re homicide, but ...”
“Bear with me. You know about H3N3?”
“Sounds like a disease.”
“A flu strain. Or more particularly a new strain that is causing a lot of deaths in Melbourne. It’s peaking.”
“It’s winter. Flu always peaks in winter.”
“Sure. But look at this.”
The screen showed the mortality statistics for different areas of the city. It wasn’t uniform at all.
“It starts, it spreads.” George said.
“That’s what I thought. But I talked to a few experts and they say this is non-typical. In a city so tightly integrated, locality of flu outbreaks should not happen. You’ve got mixing in the trains, the trams, the supermarkets. It should be much more even.”
“There is another strange thing.”
“There is an email mentioning it.”
“He’s actually tagged to this.”
“Nothing else is ever identified. Everything is kept outside the system. Just this one link.”
“You think it is planted.”
Steve continued to work the data. George leaned back in the chair, quietly studying it.
“Overlay H3NS outbreaks on new developments. Say, the twelve months prior to the development commencing.” he said.
It only took a few seconds.
“Shit.” Steve said.
Gathering the dust was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. They had fragments from across networks, but no idea of what was missing. To make it more difficult, most of it was encrypted. Simply trying to crack every item of data wasn’t possible, they had to target what they broke.
“Projections. Targets.” Oscar said.
He brought up a map of Melbourne. Contracted areas were marked. He brought up the developer’s zones.
“I’ve marked the target development areas, and the security contracts.”
It came up on the large screen.
“Bit like a war.” Mia said. “Developers pushing, residents resisting. Hiring contractors to push back.”
“What did the backers ask for?” Oscar asked.
“They didn’t. Just wanted as much as we could gather on the transition.”
Returning to the garage, it was a bit less populated than the day before. She found Anita.
“Anything I can do? ” Alice asked.
“We’re preparing for the street party.”
“It’s the neighbourhood thing. Sort of community get together. Next Sunday.”
“You’ll be welcome?”
“Not exactly. We plan to go anyway. Nothing too confrontational. Just make our point.”
// George, Mia
George called Mia.
“Can you come to the fun palace? I have a plan.” he said.
Mia didn’t need any encouragement. ‘If only my mum could see me now’ she thought as she fronted the security doors. Wondering how she was going to negotiate them. But just as she hesitated they opened before her.
As she walked past the wall, she couldn’t help but turn around and take it in.
“Impressive.” she said.
George handled the introductions.
“Steve, Mia. Mia, Steve.”
There was no need for further explanation. In a sense each of them knew too much about the others.
“Alice is with the Peregrini, at least the public front for them. Mother’s club version. They are planning something for the street party.”
“Also an opportunity for those taking the Peregrini out. A rare public opportunity.”
“Yes. They seem to be into messages. Almost theatrical, that strangling.”
“You have a plan?” Mia asked.
“Yes. We tag everything, including the drones. That’s why we need you.”
“You need Michael.”
It was a beautiful Saturday. With the streets blocked off, it was uncharacteristically quiet. In the early morning, the stalls were setting up on the beachfront. Tent walls only slightly fluttering in the sea breeze. Idle chatter between the stall holders. A coffee stall was doing a great business as all the other stalls gathered to keep themselves awake. A day when the good citizens of Middle Park could tell themselves that all was right with the world, that they could forget about the shadow of the developers.
The garage was subdued. They were well aware that their message was not going to be welcome. That everyone would be hostile.
Anita attempted to lift the mood.
“We have a right to express our views. It’s not only the residents there. It’s a public event.”
Still, it remained downbeat.
“OK. Let’s go.” Anita said. They headed towards the foreshore. Spread out along the lane, they looked such a tiny group. So exposed.
Alice looked up. She could have asked Oscar to do a drone scan, but she needed to retain her cover. Maybe she could pretend to do a personal call, and get it. In the meantime she scanned the skies.
Mia raised Michael.
“You ready to go?”
“Yes. Just give the word.”
The group of placard wavers threaded their way past the stalls, with mums hovering over jam, piles of produce filling each of the white tented cubicles. It was all very good natured. If anything, they were mostly ignored.
In the air, it was quite a different story. Drones came lower, and circled above. Just high enough that they were difficult to see.
Then, one broke from the heights and swooped low. Alice caught it out of the corner of her eye. That awful low, correcting, aiming. It was flying slowly in front of them. There were only a scattering of people at the front. Hardly a swarming horde.
Those at the front caught sight of it, and were frozen. Not knowing what to do.
Alice couldn’t hold out any longer. She raised Mia.
“I don’t like the look of this.” she said.
“Go with it.” Mia said quietly.
Michael could see the drone. He positioned himself out of the main field of view. He had to be close.
Alice had a bad feeling.
It sped up, coming within a metre of the front row, aiming at a girl pushing a stroller. Closing, it sprayed a fluid in a jet stream that caught her eyes. She screamed, and held her eyes.
Mia sat quietly. The awful calculus of it.
Michael moved forward, raised the gun and aimed at it. A rubber bullet skimmed past the drone, harmlessly into space. Quickly he reloaded, and fired. This time the drone skidded and fell. He ran to where it was on the ground, lay it flat on the ground. Tagged the drone with a small package, and threw it into the air.
“Got it.” he said to Mia.
Alice ran to the girl. Calling an ambulance as she got to within reach. The march had scattered, as more of the drones found their mark.
Mia looked at the feeds.
“How long?” she said to Oscar.
He didn’t reply. Just feverishly tapped on the keyboard, and looked for signs of life. He knew that once they realised the drone was tagged, they would power it down, or destroy it.
The drone footage was up on the screen. George watched as the demonstrators were battered by waves of drones.
“Can we broadcast this?” he asked.
“Yes. You want to?”
Oscar looked up as the wall showed it all.
“Got it.” he said.
In one sudden moment all of the links in the chain connected. Their mining connected the drones to Defigo. All of it. The killings, the attack on SciTec.
He watched as the drones disappeared from the screen. As the last of them ceased transmitting he could see them making south from the off-ramp.
“Surveillance?” he asked quietly, as if anticipating the response.
“Jammed.” Liuping said. “Scrambled.”
He could sense their focus. Even though they could not break any of the messages. Just knowing who was talking to who and how much gave them information.
“Smoke them.” Quang said.
// Mia, Oscar, George, Steve
It was a sharp sound. Metal on glass. Mia turned to where she thought it came from. But there was nothing. She scanned the full field of view, settling on the main door. A rapping, there it was again. Now a longer pause.
It was almost like a small bird rapping against the glass. The robot backed up, as if sizing up the situation, taking it in. Then it made another run at the door. At a metre, it flipped out a lever and pushed up from it. This time the door gave way, and it tumbled through.
“Shit. Something through the door.” Mia said, and they all turned.
It must have been only a second or two, as it grappled with the remains of the door, struggling to make forward progress.
“Watch it.” Steve said.
They tried to anticipate it’s direction, that it would fire at them. But there were no cameras on the front that they could see. There didn’t seem to be any more coming. A surveillance bot? They don’t break their way through front doors.
“Gas.” George said.
The white gas didn’t just drift out, it pumped. In a short time it would fill the room.
“Move.” Steve said.
They ran for the elevator. They were in luck. There were open doors. Quickly they pressed the button.
“Where?” Mia said.
“Up.” George said.
In the intervening seconds they had time to collect their thoughts. It wasn’t an easy story to tell. It sounded distinctly paranoid.
Kate ushered them in. They took up a significant part of her office.
“It’s isolated to your floor. Fortunately the fire system is pretty much air tight.”
Mia interjected. She was going to introduce herself, but thought better of it.
“I want to broadcast the footage.” he said.
Kate paused, and walked towards the floor to ceiling windows.
“You haven’t already?” she said, rhetorically, knowing the answer. She scanned the skyline, then continued. “There is a line. No-one comes along and waves a flag when you cross it. These guys crossed it a long time ago. Do your worst.”
They looked hesitant. Having nowhere to go. Kate gestured to the outer office, and summoned someone to help them. It was George that drew the attention as they entered.
“All of it?” Mia said.
George turned. “All of it. Why not?”
It only took about thirty seconds. As it was playing out, Mia’s phone made a bleep.
“I’ve been summoned.” she said to Oscar, and to whoever else was listening. George turned around.
“Instructions?” he asked.
“I expect so.”
“Southern Cross station.”
“Bit exposed.” George said.
Yes, it was. Not like their normal park benches and quiet corners.
“We’ll cover you as much as we can.” George continued.
With that she was on her way, out the garage exit Looking skywards, even with both Oscar and the others watching for her. For a second or two, she physically shook. It took her by surprise. Like a wave catching her and throwing her to the sand. In the surf, that moment where you found yourself deep underwater and short of air. She took a deep breath, and tried to calm herself.
It was simple enough, she walked past the corner and the message appeared.
Mia forwarded the message to Oscar, who sent it on.
She could feel it coming again, the shakes. More deep breaths. Only a few hundred metres. As if there were hundreds of eyes. Hundreds of drones adjusting their targets, banking and turning in her direction.
She called George.
“You got it?” she said.
“We have you, yes.” he said.
Around her the day buzzed in its normal manner. Passengers making for the station. Office workers clutching paper coffee cups as if they contained life giving medicine. Was she walking into a trap? The codes all matched. She told herself that it was the same as all the other times. But then there were not flying syringes and robots that broke doors and spewed gas.
Turning at Collins Street, past the food sellers on the corner. The platform board was right behind her, and she looked to see what was on platform 4A. Through the ticket barrier. Here the roof meant the drones couldn’t get a lock, but she imagined that they had access to the cameras. She walked forward, then sat at a seat, still on platform 4. It was further down to 4A. She lingered long enough that someone following her would have to seek refuge. Then gingerly continued towards 4A, further west along the platform.
She became aware of him from a distance, in a sort of ‘it can’t be’ moment. A tall, fit Chinese man. Who had made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. What seemed like a long time ago, in a far away Asian place.
“Xu Wei” he said. “No doubt you remember me.”
“How could I forget.”
Just then Mia’s phone started bleeting, and spitting messages at a rapid rate.
It was Oscar.
“We’ve lost you. No tracking. You ok?”
“Yes. I’m fine.”
Xu gestured. “I should have warned you. We have blacked out the whole area. You can understand that we didn’t want any observation. Defigo have direct access to the surveillance.”
Mia returned to the phone.
“They have blanked it. It’s fine. Talk to you later.”
Xu gestured for the seat, and they sat. He continued. “You have done well. We are very happy with your work.”
“Now we are out of time. Defigo understand what is going to happen, and they are striking out at random. They are weakened, but in this weakness they can still be very dangerous. We need to proceed carefully.”
“The influenza doesn’t seem very careful.” she said.
“We are not behind that. Rogue elements. They will be dealt with as well. Once we have Defigo out of the picture.”
Mia stared into the middle distance. “I would have thought it was simple enough. A single missile would solve the problem.”
“This is a city thing, not a military operation. We can’t just do it that way. A city is more than just the buildings, the infrastructure. It’s about people, their wishes, their allegiances.’
There was an even longer pause.
“Meaning we have to win the population over.”
“Which is where we come in.”
“Yes. The exposure of the targeted eliminations. This circulates, it moves everything in our direction. It’s not enough just to strike.”
“The illusion of a popular uprising. That’s your gig, is it?” she said.
Xu didn’t react. He paused, and then continued.
“No, not at all. It’s about destiny. You really think that Defigo is a better choice than SciTec?”
The phone went off again. Oscar. “You have to move.” he said.
Xu just smiled.
Oscar was back on the phone. “Don’t go back into Spencer Street.” he said.
Leaving her only one choice. She ran for the stairs, climbing them two at a time. Her thighs burned, she tried to gather speed.
Next to her, a man grabbed at his face. He screamed, and looked like he was trying to claw his own eyes out. Instinctively she looked up, to the top of the stairs. Hovering and spitting, a ground robot was squirting a liquid in her direction, in bursts.
She knew to move fast, that it would only take a single hit. Down, down now, heading back toward the platform.
“Groundbots” she said to Oscar. “I’m making for the loop.”
She looked back - the robots were rolling, or falling, down the stairs. Depending on how they landed at the bottom, they would be on her in seconds.
No time. Running across the country platforms she came to the first city platform, looking left and right as she jumped onto the tracks. Then arms high and pulling herself onto the platform. How long? The display said only 1 minute, but she could see the groundbots coming down the escalator. It was going to be close.
A stream of people exiting, with the groundbots closing on the door. She jumped in, and closed the door. Watching the other doors to see if one made it in. So far so good. But there was a person approaching, opening the door. The groundbot seized its chance, and jumped in.
A moment. She looked at it. It was scanning, and she knew that it would attack as soon as it found her. At least the blackout was still working and it didn’t have access, it was in full search mode. It tracked around, the camera going up, down, then rotating.
In a single movement, Mia crossed the train, opened the door, and kicked the bot out onto the platform. The doors beeped, and they began moving.
As long as the blackout continued, she would be ok until they got to Richmond. It was above ground, but if she stayed away from the windows a drone could not get a good enough view.
At Flinders Street it seemed to take forever.
“Anything?” she asked Oscar.
“Lots of activity at Richmond.” he said.
The train rattled out into the yards, and she looked ahead. The train went in a slight arc, so she could see the front of the train.
It was like a swarm of bees. The drones around Richmond. She thought about staying on the train, but there was no way back. Oscar would have to get a car to a station before she arrived. It didn’t seem possible.
Pulling into Richmond, it was like she had a welcoming party. On the platform the groundbots, in the sky above the drones. She worked her way back closer to the centre of the train. The passengers were looking alarmed. They had no way of knowing that it was all for her, they could just see that things were not good.
She hung back. The passengers naturally crowded the door, even as the bots crowded towards the door on the other side. As the train stopped, she crept towards the opposing door. The bleeping of the door.
Forcing the door, she looked for a train coming the other way, then jumped down onto the tracks. Quickly to the other platform, pulling herself up, heading for the underpass. It was small, and crowded. Too crowded for the bots to make any progress.
“When?” she said to Oscar. He had the view of the incoming train.
“Ten seconds.”... then “Now.”
She ran for the door. It was so crowded that none of the technology had a chance. Only the steps up, and the train mattered. She had to run in a ragged way. As she gained the top of the stairs, there was a fog of gas. Disoriented people were stumbling. She could see a drone only a metre or two above the train, it almost looked like it was going to get tangled in the overhead electrical equipment.
Somehow, she made it through the door, grabbing the upright. It happened every day. People ran for the train. Nobody gave it a second thought. Unlikely as it was, she was on her way to Parliament station.
She messaged to the followers “..nearly there.”
George waited in the garage for the car. Even after all this time he still looked for the driver, but of course it was just the car. Only a momentary pause, he sat in the back, and quietly said “go”. Up the ramp, onto the street. Half expecting a reception, but he had the all clear.
“Defigo headquarters.” he said. “Fast.”
It was quiet. The car had the light flashing, so it would go as fast as it could. It was frightening how fast the autonomous car with all the sensor feeds could go. Much faster than any human would think about. He had to brace himself against the inside as it accelerated up the Bourke Street hill.
He called Kate.
“How do you arrest a whole company?” he said.
“Start at the top. Work your way down. ” she said.
At William Street the car swung wide and down towards Collins Street. Almost at the spot. He called Mia.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Yes.” she said.
A crowd had gathered. In response to Mia’s messages. All of them holding small signs, with an “X” marked on them. Mia could see a small group feeding it live. She hoped that Michael was watching. So imposing the glass and concrete tower. Somewhere inside there were the launchers of the drone with the syringe. She scanned for George, spotting the car pulling to a halt. He stepped out.
Robert Travail was inside the glass, looking out. He looked upward, almost for reassurance. The drones swirled, down to the crowd, then back into formation. Ready, and armed. On the street the groundbots were silent, and stationary. He looked to his left, and right. All waiting for the word.
“OK. Go.” he said.
The drones had their instructions. They ignored the crowd, ignored George. They swirled into a tight formation with a single target. Swinging high, then arcing over the street and turning. Towards Mia.
“Now.” she said. The crowd turned the signs to the sky.
Programmed they were to scan their environment. Especially anything new and distinctive. Not that they necessarily had to do anything with that information.
The first drone saw the held up “X”. An image was absorbed, processed, and then sent to a chip. Which was where it ended.
Michael was watching. The first drone fell. Not in a controlled way, in a totally lifeless way. It simply fell from the sky. Michael’s hand formed a fist, he punched the air, and was happy for the first time in a long time.
One by one the others fell. Lifeless to the street. The ‘X’ went straight to the chips that Michael had replaced.
Mia didn’t move. She could see George standing to the right. He smiled.
Then, quietly, it was all over. From Flinders Street up the lane, a steady stream of groundbots surrounded the Defigo building. What seemed like thousands of drones was all of a sudden swarming around the empty sky.
A car slowed beside Mia, with Xu as the only occupant.
“You ok?” he said.
“Never better.” she said.
Xu walked slowly towards George.
Xu paused, as if checking George for signs of damage. He turned.
“I guess we better do what we have to do.” Xu said.
“Of course.” George said.
Together they walked towards the building. There was a flurry of activity. Rounding up of robots, and people. There were buses, and queues forming. Defigo employees being handled, and processed.
Alone, now in the foyer, Robert Travail watched as George and Xu approached.
Xu walked slowly with George at his side. They stopped, and Xu looked towards George.
“Robert Travail I am arresting you for the murder of Peter Simonovic, Dennis....”
Some weeks later, George came in late to the fun palace. He had been coming later for a while. As if the final resolution of the Defigo cases had given him the right to take things easy. This was most unlike him, almost a new departure. But in a sense he had some credit to draw, so he did. Alex smiled at the new George, who lingered over breakfast almost as if he was reluctant to depart.
As he strolled past the wall, Alice and Steve looked up. Alice pointed at the meeting schedule.
“You don’t want to be the odd one out at Kate’s meeting. She’s already been down here looking for you.”
“Really? Must be important.” George said.
He decided to walk up the stairs, as if savouring the idea of meeting with Kate and not being reprimanded. He didn’t think it would last long.
Sitting down at the table, he looked across. He was struck dumb.
“I believe you have met our new Director of Counter Intelligence.” she said.
“Yes.” George said.
Mia smiled broadly.