By Shane Phillips
This was supposed to be an easy mission. They usually were, and even when they weren’t, she was always notified in advance. But as she tried to peek around the corner of the old brick wall she had her back to, the sudden shower of bullets that forced her back into cover reminded her that today had been an unpleasant surprise. And indeed, today was full of unpleasant surprises, as her accuracy was frustratingly poor, and she was quite confident that it wasn’t her fault.
Break cover. 10 o’clock. Fire. Fire. Return.
In one swift, fluid movement, she rounded the corner, raised her gun, aimed and fired two shots. She’d fired right into the path of her running assailant, and watched as her bullets tore through the concrete, putting small holes in the barrier he was using for cover, one part of a set that had been left behind by an old, never-finished construction project. For a split second, she thought that maybe she’d finally tagged him. And then he got up and made a dash for some new cover. He raised his gun, and she ducked back behind the wall just in time to avoid getting shot. “Who is this guy?!” she muttered.
Identity unknown. Face obscured. Zero schedules match location and time. Assembling profile.
“Yeah, thanks a lot. Very helpful.” She risked another peek around the corner, but no hail of gunfire greeted her this time. She waited for a moment, watching and listening, but nothing moved. The place was quiet. “Where did he go?” she whispered.
Subject location lost. Extrapolating probable route.
A familiar red arrow traced itself onto the dirty cement floor, a visual representation of the extrapolation, sent directly to her visual cortex. It led her from her position to the other end of the alleyway, where her mysterious attacker had been, then off to the left, around the back of the building she’d been using for cover. Cautiously, she stepped out from the behind the wall, handgun at the ready, following the arrow. She paused just for a moment, to get a clear look at the holes left in the wall by the man’s bullets. Not much damage, must be a small calibre, she thought. And there’s no curve, so they must be non-guided. I guess somebody likes antiques…
At the end of the alleyway, she put her back against the wall. She could see the place her attacker had been up close now, and she could see all the holes she’d left from her firefight with him. There didn’t seem to be any blood on the ground, though, confirming her frustrating suspicion that she’d done nothing but miss. She rolled her eyes and put it out of her mind. Once she managed to catch up to him, she’d have another chance to make good on her otherwise spotless hit/miss ratio.
She peeked around the corner, saw nothing, then rounded it. The extrapolation ended right near a dumpster, long abandoned but still reeking of its former contents. She heard a faint shuffling noise from around the far side, and approached the rusted old container cautiously and quietly. Halfway around it, she took a breath, put her finger on the trigger and rushed around the corner. “Don’t move!”
A large rat quickly fled in terror, casting a surprisingly long shadow as it ran off down the empty street, lit only by the dim light of the early morning sun. “Damn,” she muttered. “But then where...?”
The dumpster burst open abruptly. She whipped around, raising her gun quickly, but not quite fast enough. She saw the flash, heard the unmistakable crack of gunfire, and then…
She awoke slowly, and to the unmistakable scent of fresh coffee. The curtains over her windows gently retracted themselves to the ends of the window frames, letting in the morning’s light and just enough ambient noise to be stimulating without being irritating. She sat up, well-rested and mostly awake, throwing off the covers and heading into her bathroom to wash up and shower. The blankets straightened and folded themselves, the bed silently making itself behind her. A pot of coffee in the kitchen boiled at just the right temperature to ensure that it would be ready just as she came for it.
She dumped her clothes on the floor, the shower turning on as she did so, immediately at her preferred temperature: cold enough for an initial shock, but gradually warming up. As she showered, a small robot came in through a flap at the bottom of the door. Essentially a hollow box on wheels, it came towing an equally-sized wagon behind it, full with a pile of fresh clothes. The front of the boxy robot opened up, and it used the opened flap as a ramp to scoop up her laundry. As it turned to leave, the back of the wagon opened up, leaving a neat pile of her freshly-laundered clothes behind.
She got out and dried off, taking the time to brush her long, brown hair in front of the mirror - still as clear as ever, without a trace of steam - before tying it back in a ponytail. Once dry, she picked her clothes up off the floor and stepped into her bedroom, putting on the grey tank-top and blue jeans she’d just had cleaned. The coffee had stopped boiling just as she’d stepped out of the bathroom, and would be ready shortly. She slid open her closet, greeted by the familiar sights of her clothes and her large wall-safe. Interspersed between all the regular sweaters, pants, jackets and so on was an array of identical “robes” that hung very loosely on their coat hangars.
She slid one of them off its hangar and put it on. It draped around her very loosely, like a dressing gown. It was thin, light and semi-transparent, almost as though it was made of cobwebs. She picked a shoulder holster out of the closet as well, sliding it over the robes. Then, spreading her arms apart, she closed her eyes and visualized what she wanted. Ripples spread through the loose fabric of the robe and it began to morph and change, quickly and dramatically altering its material and colour. She felt it wrap around her and cling to her body, like a second skin that went over her clothes. And then it all stopped. She opened her eyes and saw no trace of the gown. Even the holster had disappeared, though she could still feel its weight.
It was invisible, light, strong and flexible; beyond the cutting edge of modern protection. And it was comfortable, too. Hers was not a simple job, and it was rarely appreciated, but the support was always top-notch. Turning to her safe next, she pushed the “scan” button, the only feature on its surface, and waited for a moment. A series of microscopic cameras, built into the safe, observed her as she was bombarded with light rays outside of the visible spectrum. The camera feeds travelled back to the safe’s built-in computer, wherein a rudimentary artificial intelligence would determine if she really was who she claimed to be.
Everything checked out, of course, and the safe opened up, revealing a small arsenal of modern firearms. “Smart guns,” each equipped with biometric scanners, as well as fire control and aim assistance mechanisms. The former meant that the weapon would only fire when held by its designated user - herself, of course - while the latter granted them the capacity manoeuvre their “smart bullets” in mid-air, guiding them to their target. A good, modern firearm dramatically lowered the skill level needed to handle a gun competently, and in the right hands, it was almost impossible to miss.
These advances came with a downside, however. Namely that the presence of networked electronics - computers, of sorts - inside both the guns and their bullets made it possible to disrupt their functions in a variety of ways. Which was not to say it was easy, as the would-be hacker would need to be equipped with considerable computer power, but it was a risk that simply didn’t exist in old models. Nevertheless, the risk was generally outweighed by the dramatic increases in accuracy and ease of use.
She picked out her weapon of choice, a Special Operations Command pistol, the SOCOM Mark 9. It was compact and lightweight, making it easy to carry around or draw in hurry, but also durable and reliable. Her favourite feature, however, was its stopping power, which was akin to that of a much larger weapon and unmatched by any other handgun in the world. That made its recoil harsher than that of most of its peer models, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle. She stuffed it into her holster, and watched as the weapon vanished from sight.
Finally, she headed to the kitchen and poured herself some coffee, which was now waiting for her at the ideal temperature. Tiny robots moved along the counter like wheeled mice, cleaning up and zipping away with the milk and sugar once she was done with them, before disappearing into small holes in the wall, which closed behind them. She shut her eyes, leaned back against the countertop and focused, concentrating on a single word: Mission.
She had expected to feel a familiar rush, the one she always felt as she connected, mind to mind, with VIGIL. That sudden and incredible flood of data, of insight, as she became aware of everything it was aware of in a perfect and instantaneous exchange of information, before it would all even out into a more manageable stream. Even then, the exchange of information was still instant, still perfect. There were no misunderstandings, no miscommunications, no lost information between the two of them. It couldn’t be called a conversation, really, as it wasn’t limited to words. She spoke to it out of habit, not necessity.
But today was different. There was no rush, no flood of information, not so much as a “good morning.” And then she became vaguely aware that something was off. Most of her mornings were fairly similar, she knew that, but this morning in particular, she realized, was too familiar. She’d been through it already. The ambient noise disappeared, replaced by an unnatural silence, broken only by a faint but regular beeping at the very edge of her hearing. The scent of her coffee faded away, replaced by that of antiseptic wipes and a freshly mopped floor. The lights went out, the sun went out, and an unfamiliar voice called to her from outside.
“No one calls me that…” she said.
Miss? Miss Robin?
The world faded in as, gradually, she came back to her senses. She wasn’t in her house at all, and hours had passed since she’d left it. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes, glancing around at her new surroundings. She was in a hospital bed, and a young nurse was standing over her. She didn’t care to make note of much else; her head ached and looking around only seemed to make it worse. “Priscilla? How are you feeling?” said the nurse.
“No one calls me that,” she grunted, squinting at the world. “Just call me ‘Robin,’ okay?”
The nurse gave a patient smile. “Alright then. Sounds like you’re feeling better. You took a pretty nasty fall…”
“I did?” said Robin. I’m pretty sure I got shot, actually, she thought.
“Yes, you did. Don’t you remember? You managed to call Emergency Services right before you passed out.”
“Right, right, yeah… So, can I leave now, or what?”
“Well,” sighed the nurse. “I’d like to keep you around for little while longer, just in case. But complications aren’t likely, and everything checks out, so you should be free to go in about an hour or so.”
“Swell,” she said, flatly. “Thanks, doc. Now, can you get me a drink or something while I’m waiting?”
The nurse kept her patient smile. “I’ll be back in a little while,” he said. “For now, just rest, okay?” Then she turned and left.
Well, she was pretty nice, thought Robin, as she started to sit up in her bed, I wonder if she’s an android? They’re everywhere these days. She shook her head and peeled the cot’s blankets back, taking a moment to look around more thoroughly. There was only one door into or out of the room, though there was also a window next to her bed. The view of the public park across the street was nice, and by the look of things, they were only two storeys up, so the window was a viable escape route too. Not ideal, but viable.
Asset: warning: identity compromised.
“Oh, you’re still here?” VIGIL’s continued presence was reassuring but unusual. Generally, their link was severed when she fell asleep or was knocked unconscious, and she had to reinitiate it. But then again, most days she wasn’t getting blasted at point-blank range by a masked stranger. “Wait, compromised? How?”
Threat detected. Alerting security.
She was still wearing her clothes, and that meant she still had her weapon with her. She could feel its weight by her side, and instinctively reached over to draw it.
She hastily moved her hands to her lap just as the door opened. A man walked in, aiming a gun at her and quietly closing the door behind him. Her eyes widened at the sight of his face: she recognized that balaclava. It was the same man she’d fought earlier. “Hands up,” he whispered. “Slowly.”
“I’m not armed,” she said, raising her hands.
“Robin, right?” he said, cautiously stepping closer. “We need to talk.”
Asset: instruction: deny everything.
She blinked. “Do I know you?”
“Shut up!” he snapped.
“I thought you wanted me to talk…”
“I’m asking the questions here,” he said, stepping ever closer.
His voice is shaking, and he seems indecisive, thought Robin. But he’s got a solid grip on that submachinegun, and he knows how to aim. She quickly looked him up and down. Even under a mask, this guy has got ‘ex-military’ written all over him. Probably just a regular, though. This seems like his first interrogation.
“Hey!” the man hissed. “Quit looking around.” He stopped by her bedside, his gun just a foot or so from her head. “Now, you’re gonna answer my questions, okay?”
“Alright… Okay, good…” he said, a bit breathlessly. “Now… What is your mission?”
“Mission? What? I’m not on a miss-”
“No, no,” he said, vigorously shaking his head. “Do not bullshit me, understand?! I know what’s going on!”
“I’m not!” she said, recoiling as though frightened. “Please… Why? What’s going on?”
Abruptly, he grabbed her by the hair, pressing his gun to her head and leaning in close to her face. He only had one hand on his gun now, but she resisted the urge to snatch it away from him. She got a good look at his greenish-blue eyes, though, and the contours of his face were clearer up close.
“I know who you are,” he whispered. “that fancy protective gear you’ve got on might protect you from bullet penetration, but I know you still feel the force behind it. So, just how much of that do you think your head can take?”
I’ve got a pretty hard head, she thought, rather flippantly. She said nothing, however, and simply did her best to seem scared.
He let go, backed up and started to nod. “But alright. Okay, fine. If you want to play dumb, let me tell you what’s going on…”
He could remember a time when this part of the city had been bustling with people, filled with life and energy. But as he walked through the alleyways behind and between the buildings, catching an occasional glimpse of the streets, he seemed to be the only soul around for miles. He had only been a boy at the time, but he could still remember the community that had once been here. Now it was essentially empty, with the vast majority of its residents having moved away to newer residences. No one had forced them out, but their leaving had still seemed wrong to him.
Most people might say that the neighbourhood breaking up was just an unfortunate side-effect of the modern economy, and that no one was to blame. He had thought that too, not long ago. But he knew better now. There was a sinister force at work behind the scenes, not just in his old neighbourhood, but all over the world, working to reshape it according to some secret agenda. Its name was VIGIL.
He might have thought that any such conspiracy theory was pure fiction, had the information come from anywhere else. But it hadn’t come from just anywhere, it had come from a source that he’d come to trust: an organization that called itself “Service Division 9.” A branch of the FBI’s counterespionage unit, working covertly so as to give itself the greatest amount of operational freedom and ensure that all the right people maintained plausible deniability. They also happened to be his employer, having recruited him just a few years ago.
The nature of his missions varied, but increasingly he was tasked with pre-emptive rescues, meaning he had to get unsuspecting, and often unwilling, VIPs out of Dodge before they were framed and someone from the other side - often law enforcement personnel acting, knowingly or otherwise, under the influence of VIGIL - got to them first, whereupon they were swiftly imprisoned.
Some of VIGIL’s agents didn’t carry a badge, and were generally more anonymous. They were an opaque group of people, uncannily good at disappearing. There was no telling what they were capable of.
“Henry, stop!” went a voice in his ear. That was Sally, his handler from Division 9. He’d never actually met her, not in person, but over the years he’d come to trust her nonetheless. “Surveillance camera, dead ahead,” she said. He stopped in his tracks and looked up. Mounted high on the brick wall ahead of him, just around the corner, there was indeed a camera. It looked quite old and dirty, and it didn’t seem to be moving. He wondered if it even still worked.
“It definitely still works, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Sally. “I can see your target through it. And I’ve got bad news: there’s a woman with him.”
He was dressed like anyone else, just a t-shirt and cargo pants, but that had always felt like a disguise. He put on the balaclava and the bulletproof vest he kept tucked away in his backpack, and began to feel more natural, more at home.
“VIGIL agent?” he whispered.
“Seems like it,” she said. “Though, I can’t quite make out what they’re saying…”
As she worked, he pulled out and loaded his weapon; a genuine, vintage MP5 submachinegun. An antique, and obsolete by most standards. But to him it was a trusty stand-by, more reliable than any of the new stuff cooked up in the past decade or so. Armed and ready, he closed up his backpack and quietly sprinted up to the wall, peeking around the corner at his rescue target and the VIGIL agent he was talking to.
“So,” he whispered. “What’re they saying?”
“I’m missing some context, but it seems like they’re talking about money.”
“A shakedown, you think?”
Under his mask, he raised an eyebrow. Even as he’d suggested it, he’d doubted it. Not too many people were still out to make a quick buck, given that the cost of just about everything seemed to be constantly dropping while wages and Guaranteed Minimum Income plans were inflating. He’d known that VIGIL agents were an unscrupulous bunch, but simple robbery seemed low even for them.
“Anyway,” continued Sally. “They haven’t noticed you, so proceed towards the target. There are some garbage cans just eight feet away from you that should make for some decent cover. With any luck, you’ll catch her by surprise. Be careful, Henry.”
“I’m always careful,” he muttered. Crouching, he quickly rounded the corner and ducked behind the bins. They were empty, and thankfully, did not stink.
“Okay, I can see you through the camera now,” said Sally. “Get ready to-”
Suddenly, the VIGIL woman produced a weapon–seemingly out of thin air–and pointed it right where he was hiding.
He launched himself backwards, landing on his back in time to hear three or four bullets punch holes clean through the garbage cans he was using for cover and whizz through the space he’d been just a split second ago. He wasted no time in getting back around the corner he’d passed just a few moments ago.
“Go! Run!” he heard the woman say. He peeked around the corner again in time to see her shoving the man she was talking to - his target - away as she prepared to fire again. He didn’t know why she’d done that, but he didn’t have time for questions at the moment. He raised his weapon to return fire and started to round the corner again. “No, Henry, get back!” said Sally. He managed to get his back against the wall just in time to witness the woman’s bullets curve through the air, narrowly missing him. “Crap,” he said. “Smart bullets.”
“I can jam the guidance system,” said Sally. “But you have to get out of there.”
“But the mission-”
“The mission’s over! Lay down some suppressing fire for yourself and get behind those barriers!”
“Wouldn’t it be faster to just ru-”
“All the jamming in the world won’t help you if you run around in the open! Move, soldier!”
Mentally kicking himself, he poked around the corner just a second before the woman did, spraying bullets at her position while he hastily sidestepped over to the barriers, which he promptly ducked behind. Half-crouched and half-crawling, he scrambled ahead, trying to remember his training-
He immediately dropped to his belly, barely in time to avoid the bullets that blasted clean through the barrier and his backpack before indenting themselves deep into the brick wall behind him. “Get up, Henry! Run! Go!”
He stood up, ran and fired at his assailant again until he was safely behind the building across the alley from his original position. It was somewhat daunting to think that the person he was trading gunshots with was just on the opposite side…
“It seems like she’s lost sight of you,” said Sally. “You need to hide, quickly!”
“Right, yeah,” he said, breathlessly. “Uh… Where?”
“Is the camera in your watch still working?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I think so.”
“I can access it. Show me what’s around.”
A somewhat outdated piece of wearable tech, Henry’s smart watch had fallen out of fashion a couple of years ago, but seeing as it still worked fine, he’d never felt the need to replace it. A pinhead-sized hole in the top-right corner of the broad, square face constituted the camera, which he pointed at his surroundings.
“There! Get in the dumpster.”
He blinked. “You’re kidding…”
“Now, Henry! She’s coming!”
He hesitated for just a second, sighed, and dashed over to it, slipping in as quietly as he could, shutting it behind him and then holing his nose with both hands. At least it was empty.
He sat in silence, trying not to move, straining his hearing to detect any noises. But he heard nothing, and dared not whisper any questions to Sally from within the echoing confines of his hiding place. But the air in the dumpster was stale and rancid, and he could only hold his breath for so long.
And then there was a noise: just a couple of sudden footsteps, and a voice from right outside. “Don’t move!” He froze up, his heart pounding in his chest. Had he been found? Then the familiar voice in his ear, with renewed urgency, cried “Now! Shoot!” Acting mostly on instinct, he threw open the dumpster, weapon ready, and squeezed the trigger, unleashing a short burst of fire, knocking his opponent off her feet.
And for a moment afterwards, he just stood there, shaking, sweaty and with ragged breath, slowly coming back to his senses. He’d only been under fire a handful of times before, and even then, he’d always been expecting it, to some degree or another. This was the first time he’d been in a firefight since he’d been recruited, and the first time in his life he’d been in one alone.
“Henry? Are you there? Are you alright?”
He shook his head. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’m here, I’m okay.”
He climbed out of the dumpster and took a closer look at the woman he’d been fighting. The first thing that struck him was that there wasn’t an ounce of blood on her. He hastily moved to secure her weapon, only to watch it vanish into thin air. “What the hell?” he muttered, backing up.
“Let me see her,” said Sally.
“Right, yeah,” he said, pointing his watch at her.
“No bullet wounds?”
“Her gun just disappeared, too. How is that possible?”
“Must be some kind of ‘smart fabric’ armour, mixed in with stealth camouflage…”
“Why’s everything gotta be ‘smart’ these days?” Henry muttered to himself. “And what’s this ‘stealth camo’ you’re talking about?”
“Officially, it’s a hypothetical technology. The closest possible thing to a truly invisible material. This is a bit beyond the edge of ‘cutting edge.’”
“Where the hell would she get something like that?!”
“Calm down. She works for VIGIL, remember?”
He wiped some sweat off his brow, still jittery from the firefight, though the news that she had equipment that was supposedly beyond any “currently existing” technology had not helped his nerves. “Okay,” he said, taking a moment to clear his throat. “Go on.”
“There’s not much more I can tell you,” began Sally. “Although, her facial profile has turned up a match… You might not want to hear where I found it, though.”
He sighed. “I don’t see how this could get any worse.”
“Her face matches that of a CIA operator-”
“She’s a CIA agent?!”
“The profile in the CIA’s database is a couple of years old, so it’s possible she’s gone rogue.”
“You can’t tell?”
“My access is limited, and not exactly sanctioned…”
Henry just sighed.
“Looks like her name is Priscilla Robin. She’s 36, if this information is correct.”
“Well that’s great,” muttered Henry. “If we want to wish her a happy birthday, now we know who to address the card to, and when to send it. But in the meantime-”
Sirens blared in the distance. “You have to get out of there!” said Sally.
“I thought you could reroute emergency services-”
“Someone’s blocking my access.”
“Someone’s blocking you?!”
“But what about-”
He took one last look at the downed CIA agent, then turned on his heels and ran.
“Looks like there’s an ambulance en-route,” said Sally. “I should be able to track it…”
He hadn’t told her the whole story, of course. He’d left out some details, specifically those about himself and who he worked for. The point was to show that he knew what was going on, after all, so that there would be no point in her playing dumb. And then, he’d thought, he might finally get some real answers about VIGIL and their plans. Not the wisest plan, Sally had taken the time to remind him, but he was in no mood for beating around the bush.
A little under two hours had passed since his initial encounter with the VIGIL agent had ended. He’d had some time to shower and calm his nerves, but not quite enough time to calm down completely. The surprise firefight had rattled him more than he had expected it to, and this new follow-up mission wasn’t helping with the stress either. Infiltrate a public hospital, and conduct an impromptu interrogation? He’d never done anything like those things before. But he wasn’t about to quit, not after he’d done so much and come so close to VIGIL, to answers. Besides, Sally said she’d be there to guide him.
As it turned out, getting into the hospital was the easy part. He had a spare backpack at home, and his face wasn’t recognizable to anyone. He was just an average nobody, and without the now-conspicuous, newly bullet-hole-ridden backpack, he wouldn’t stand out to anyone. That, plus the fake I.D. that Sally had arranged for him, made walking into the building and finding the right room a very simple task.
Unfortunately, the second part of the mission turned out to be the difficult part. Although the infiltration had gone off without a hitch, he quickly found himself doing most of the talking during the ‘interrogation,’ and Sally didn’t seem to have much to say either. “Well?!” he said to the woman. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
Close, thought Robin. But not close enough. Whoever this guy is, he’s got a solid intel source, but it seems like he’s done a pretty shit job of putting it all together. I guess he really is an amateur. She kept up her scared act, for the time being, but the urge to just shoot the guy got a little bit stronger with each passing moment.
“W-wait a minute,” she stammered, quietly. “You think I work for the CIA? And that I somehow also work for some secret, illuminati-type group that controls the world?” She blinked a few times, making her eyes water. “That’s crazy! I mean, I did work for the government, but used to be a clerk, not a secret agent!”
He levelled the gun at her head again. “What did I say about bullshitting me?!”
She started to cry. “Please! Please, you’re making a mistake! I’m not who you think I am!”
He froze up, hesitated. Even through his mask, she could see the fear in his eyes, the self-doubt. It was hard not to smirk. This guy was totally out of his league. She’d gotten everything she’d needed out of him, though, and had stalled for long enough. The hospital’s security had apparently taken its sweet time getting to her room, but finally, they had arrived.
Two uniformed security guards and the nurse from earlier walked in to see an armed, masked man pointing a gun at her. But before any of them could do anything, he turned around and fired into the wall above the doorframe, scattering the guards the nurse, before leaping out the window.
The two guards, astonished, ran up to the now-broken window and watched in disbelief as the masked gunman managed to get away. The nurse, meanwhile, was still out in the hallway, hastily calling the police.
“Please tell me that wasn’t all for nothing,” muttered Robin. “That guy was greener than the grass he just landed on.” The idea that such a man had been able to not only elude her but then successfully ambush her as well was thoroughly embarrassing. She was eager for a rematch.
Biometric profile assembled. Unique radio frequency signal detected, identified and jammed. Retinal scan match found. Subject positively identified. Tracking location…
A few of hours of keeping up the ‘scared and clueless’ act, of talking to the police and hospital staff, and she was finally released. Well over a dozen people had seen the masked man, most of whom had spotted him during his daring escape out the second storey window. He had done it all in broad daylight, after all, and there was a busy public park just across the street. He had still somehow managed to disappear, but given that he was now the subject of a large-scale police manhunt, most supposed that he would be caught fairly quickly.
But despite a litany of eyewitnesses, and despite strong forensic evidence left over in the hospital room - namely, the bullets and their casings - the police would quickly find their progress stalled, at least temporarily. She still needed to confront him, after all, and that would be a much simpler task to accomplish without the police unwittingly getting in the way. By the time the sun had begun to set, she’d tracked him down, and was waiting in ambush.
He found himself down by the old docks, the scents of sea salt, rust and wet concrete filling the air. Behind him, the sun had just started to sink below the horizon, turning the sky bright orange and glistening off the water. On the opposing shore was the densely-populated heart of the city, New Town. All sparkling skyscrapers made of new metal alloys and carbon-fibre or carbon-nanotubes, laid out on exceptionally efficient roads filled with autonomous electric cars, buses and trams.
All new developments, packed with integrated gadgets, things that were once considered outlandish luxuries, made accessible to essentially anyone. They’d been assembled swiftly and cheaply, not by unscrupulous men looking to cut corners, but by machines. And there were hundreds, if not thousands, of city districts just like it popping up all over the world, in some cases replacing old cities entirely.
If only they knew, he thought. He imagined all the people over in New Town going about their daily lives; boxy little robots working underfoot, doing all the chores and the menial work, while circles of friends happily included androids so humanlike they were essentially indistinguishable, and otherwise-ordinary people bought themselves fancy new electronic implants, proudly declaring themselves to be cyborgs. Swift and often radical social and technological progress abounded in places like New Town, entirely under VIGIL’s secretive, totalitarian rule.
The docks were just on the edge of Old Town, the part of the city where everything was still made of bricks, wood, concrete and the like. The only gadgets around were the ones people carried, minus the occasional security camera. The docks were much like Old Town itself; still in use, but just barely. Gradually being replaced by something newer, sleeker and more efficient, with little to no regard for who might be in control of these new means, and how they might have wider, unanticipated effects.
He sighed and leaned back against an old shipping container. His back and his shoulders hurt from the clumsy roll he’d managed to break his fall with when he’d escaped from the hospital, and his legs and feet hurt from all the running he’d had to do since then. Escaping the police had not been a simple task, but somehow, he’d managed it. Something he was all the more proud of given that his ability to speak with Sally had abruptly become extremely limited.
“Hey, Sal?” he said. “You there?”
There was a response, but it was garbled and filled with static.
“Damn, still? What’s the hell’s going on?” He’d lost contact with her not long after confronting that Robin woman in the hospital. That was why the interrogation had gone so poorly, and why security had been able to sneak up on him. He hadn’t caught on at the time, but in hindsight, it was fairly clear that he’d been fooled.
His train of thought was interrupted, as the first semi-clear message he’d heard from Sally in hours came through. “Henr… look… danger! Left!”
She had her back to the opposite side of the shipping container, standing perfectly still, weapon in-hand, just waiting for the all-clear. She waited and listened as his footsteps got closer, and she heard as he spoke to his ‘contact.’ She couldn’t help but smirk a little bit. He wasn’t likely to get any help any time soon.
Carefully, she rounded the corner, and started the short walk towards him, stepping quickly but quietly. She was so close now she could just about hear him breathing. She raised her weapon and swung around the corner. “Freeze!” she shouted. But instead of finding him unprepared and unsuspecting, she found herself staring down the barrel of a vintage MP5.
Oh great, she thought. A stand-off. Just what I needed. Looks like he managed to grab his gun just a second before I got to him. So much for that plan. It seemed as though VIGIL had underestimated what the guy, or his guide, was capable of, which was as frustrating as it was concerning. But even so, she had the situation well under control.
“Alright,” she said. “So you’re pretty good. Or maybe you’re just lucky. After all, we both know that it’s not you doing most of the hard work. Isn’t that right, Henry C. Tucker?” A sly smile curled her lips. He didn’t have a mask on, so she could plainly see the shock on his face. “That’s right,” she continued. “I know all about you. I suppose you and your friend thought you were being pretty clever, breaking into the CIA’s database like that. After all, not just anyone can embarrass The Company like that. But an old personnel record isn’t really that impressive, not when you’re me. Unlimited access, sources everywhere... Here, let me show you,” she said.
VIGIL siphoned the information to her. Reciting it was as easy as reading off a page. “Henry C. Tucker. Age 19, 5-foot-8-inches, 140 pounds. U.S. Army private for two years. You live in an old apartment building right in the heart of Old Town, one of the last tenants of a place where the rent’s lower than it’s ever been before but still too high for its actual value. You got that relic of a gun from your grandfather’s collection, but you get the bullets from a run-down little surplus store run by a friend of yours, who orders them in especially for you from a supplier on the other end of the country that specializes in replica firearms from the Vietnam War.”
She watched his face turn white and felt a sense of smug satisfaction. “Am I missing anything? Should I name some close relatives, maybe?” she said. “That vest, by the way, won’t protect you from my bullets. And even if whoever’s helping you manages to pull off another miracle and jam my weapon’s guidance, at this range there’s no way I can miss.”
He gulped. “What do you want?”
“Just a couple of things,” she said. “You see, for everything my friend and I-”
“VIGIL,” he ventured. “That’s who you work for, right?”
“We’ll talk about VIGIL in a minute,” she said. “But in the meantime, don’t interrupt. As I was saying, for everything we’ve learned about you, someone has done a pretty good job of covering up your motivations. I want to know who that someone is. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before we figure it out by ourselves, but let’s save everyone a lot of time and effort and just do this the easy way,” she said. “Who do you work for, and what is your mission?”
He blinked. Much to her chagrin, the questions appeared to have given him some hope, and their expressions reversed. She frowned as a frantic grin crossed his face. “You really don’t know, do you?” he said, somewhat breathlessly. He started to laugh, and took a step back.
She levelled her gun at his face. “I didn’t say you could move,” she growled. “Listen, are you stupid or something? Or were you just not listening? Answer me, or I’ll figure it out the hard way. And believe me, you won’t like the hard way.”
“Finally,” he said. “Finally! And just as I was starting to think it was impossible to win.” He laughed again, incredulously, and shook his head. “There are limits to VIGIL’s knowledge! And do you know what that means?!” he shouted. “It means you and your friends can be beaten!”
She pursed her lips, and said nothing. This kid’s as dense as he is green, she thought. But I can use this moment he’s having to my advantage. If that ‘interrogation’ he tried earlier was any indication, he’s awful at keeping secrets when he’s agitated. If I can keep him talking, he’ll spill his guts.
“How can you work for them anyway, huh?” he continued. “Don’t you know what they’ve done? What they’re doing? Falsifying records and evidence! Manipulating and infiltrating the justice system, the military, the whole government! Innocent people are locked away in prison when they become inconvenient, never even knowing why or what they’d stumbled into! Doesn’t that bother you?!”
“Maybe, but maybe it’s not what you think,” she replied. “Besides, have you been to a prison lately? They’re much nicer than they used to be. I’m sure justice will run its course sooner or later, and whoever it is you’re talking about will be released.”
He stared at her in disbelief. “Oh, great,” he said. “You’re as immoral as they are!”
“And what’s so moral about what you’re doing, huh?” she snapped. “You think you’re some low-tech, underdog hero-type, saving the world from a sinister cabal of cartoon villains who sit around in a dark, smoky room dreaming up new ways to ruin your life,” she said. “Well, I think you’re just a conspiracy nut, running around in antique gear and getting advice from some random asshole who’s just as crazy as you are!”
“That’s bullshit!” he shouted, holding his submachinegun in shaky hands.
“Yeah? And what are you doing that’s so heroic? You break into people’s homes and workplaces, tell them vague stories about some ominous threat to their lives and uproot them, sending them off to live in the middle of nowhere with fake ID’s and a little pocket money!”
“I’m saving their lives!” he retorted.
“You caught a glimpse of something you don’t understand and just let everything spiral out of control from there!” she said. He shook his head vigorously, but she could see the doubt in his eyes. “You’re not the hero, Henry! You’re being used! VIGIL is the codename for a CIA counterterrorism initiative! Whoever you’re getting help from, they are the bad guys here! The people you ‘save’ are the only ones involved in some conspiracy!” she said.
“Shut up!” he screamed. “You’re lying!”
“Henry, have you ever even met your source?”
“You can’t be working for the government! I’m working for the government! I’m part of the counterterrorism taskforce! You’re the bad guy here!” He became more frantic as he went on.
“What taskforce? You’re not part of any taskforce!” she said.
“The FBI! Service D-”
All the colours in the world turned white, and everything was as bright as the sun as even the slightest noise became a deafening buzz that shook her to her core, vibrating her bones.
Her senses were so completely overwhelmed she couldn’t even tell if her feet were still touching the ground.
And then, through it all, despite the blinding light and the intense noise that smothered her thoughts, a brief moment of powerful clarity, like a hole in the clouds of an overcast sky.
12 o’clock. Fire. Fire. Fire.
She couldn’t see her arm and she couldn’t hear the gunshots, but she still knew where her arm was. It wasn’t too difficult to raise it, point it straight ahead, vaguely aware of the familiar weight in her hand, and squeeze three times. A moment later, though it felt like an eternity, the agony subsided, and the world returned to normal.
She found herself on her knees, dazed and confused but no worse for wear, her arm still pointed ahead. Henry Tucker was nowhere to be seen, though familiar shell casings on the ground suggested that she had indeed managed to fire successfully. She groaned and stood up slowly, carefully, holstering her weapon and looking around. “What the hell happened?”
Neural lace intrusion detected. Optical and auditory feedback initiated by hostile action.
“So, you’re saying something hacked my brain? That’s what you’re saying, right?” she said, and gave an exasperated sigh. “That’s supposed to be impossible.”
Prior risk assessments calculated a probability of 0.012%.
“Sounds like you underestimated our mysterious rival,” she growled. “Again. Did we at least learn something valuable from all that?”
Collating new information…
He’d managed to escape. He could scarcely believe his luck, and he wasn’t even sure what exactly had happened, but he’d managed to get away. He’d lost track of time since the standoff at the docks, but he felt as though he hadn’t stopped running since. He could still hear that agent’s gunfire ringing in his ears, the fresh memory of bullets whizzing past him, scraping his vest, triggered by every breeze.
He’d managed to make it to a hotel, not too far from his apartment. The place was still technically open, but hardly anyone ever used it anymore. There were places just as nice, if not nicer, available for less over in New Town, and they were essentially tourist attractions in and of themselves. That was the common sentiment, at least. Henry didn’t much care for the New Town way of thinking and building. He felt that old-fashioned places like these had more privacy. The room wasn’t hooked up to some computer, watching you, listening to you, trying to anticipate your every move.
There was nobody at the front desk. The staff, what little remained, were probably around back, sitting around in the break room, contemplating what else they could be doing with their lives instead of waiting around in an empty hotel, serving no one. Maybe they had even gone home already. It was the middle of the night, after all, and if no customers came by during the day, what would be the point of a night shift? Then again, the lights were on and the doors were unlocked, so somebody had to be around.
Regardless, there was no one around to stop him from reaching for a random room key and taking the elevator up a few floors. This place was a kind of unofficial safehouse for him; limited surveillance means for VIGIL to infiltrate, and hardly anyone around to inform on him, either intentionally or otherwise. He’d only been by once before, however. On Sally’s advice, he’d searched out a place he could stay if ever his apartment wasn’t an option. That had been just a short time after he’d first been recruited. He had never seriously thought that he would ever need the place.
He walked down the empty, quiet hallway and quickly found his room. As he stepped inside, the realization that he’d been running on adrenaline almost all day suddenly dawned on him, and he began to feel as though there was a tremendous weight on his shoulders. He shut the door behind him and let his bag drop to the floor. Exhausted, and all he wanted to do was lie down.
Those last few parting shots that woman had fired at him were still ringing in his ears. He took off his vest, and a fresh layer of sweat coated his forehead as he stared at its back. There were long, horizontal tears in the Kevlar, undoubtedly from where those bullets had narrowly missed him. Just an inch or so closer - a few millimetres closer - and they would have torn into his back. He sighed heavily and tossed it aside. Was it pure luck that had saved him? Or had he still been getting help?
He hadn’t heard from Sally since he’d lost contact with her at the docks, and he was starting to get concerned. If something had happened to her, he had no way of knowing. Something the VIGIL agent, that woman, had said keep finding its way into his thoughts: he’d never met Sally. He had no idea where she worked from, or how she did what she did, or even what her last name was or what she looked like. So, if something ever did happen to her, what would happen to him? Would she give him up to VIGIL? Would the FBI? Did he even matter to either of them?
He shook his head. He knew better than to start thinking like that. He had faith in his mission, faith in Sally, and he was not about to let go of either of those just because the going got tough. He sighed again, and dropped backwards onto the bed. For now, though, there was nothing to do but wait and hope.
Robin was glad to be back in New Town. The air seemed fresher, somehow, and the buildings were all new and sturdy, instead of old and decaying. The smell of rust and old gasoline that pervaded Old Town was all the more apparent to her now that it no longer surrounded her. She stepped out of the backseat of her car and onto the wide, clean sidewalk, before watching it drive away, seamlessly merging back into traffic. The streets were rife with cars, plus the occasional bus or tram, but traffic always proceeded smoothly, and always very quietly.
The sidewalk, by comparison, was a bit of a mess. All the people in the mild crowd that traversed it still sometimes cut each other off or moved from one side to the other erratically, often talking to someone else over the noise of everyone’s footsteps. Even so, there was still a vague sense of order to it all. People were more organized and considerate now than they’d ever been before, and that was at least partially due to a growing number of cyborgs and androids joining the population. People’s sense of empathy had never been so keen.
But unlike them, she knew that VIGIL was the main contributing factor. Something about “socio-memetic manipulation.” In anyone else’s hands, it would be a rather sinister-sounding concept; the active suppression of some kinds of information, coupled with the promotion of other kinds, all in support of a broader goal. In this case, VIGIL’s definition of a greater good, the overall betterment of humankind.
But then again, in decades past, people had, en masse, knowingly and voluntarily allowed their information to be managed in a very similar way. The primitive algorithms of the old Social Internet hubs had analyzed what individual people were most likely to want to see, and then showed them that, giving other information, no matter how potentially important it might have been, a lower priority, sometimes even hiding it altogether. Not in support of any greater good, but by and large, merely for people’s entertainment, and for the profits of companies. VIGIL’s means, therefore, were not new concepts. Simply old ideas applied to a larger scale and in support of a different objective.
She blinked. That was enough daydreaming for now. She tilted her head back and looked up at the tall, glimmering skyscraper ahead of her. There was nothing terribly remarkable about it, New Town was filled with similar structures. “So,” she muttered. “Right under your nose, huh? I’d be pretty embarrassed, if I were you. How come you didn’t detect it earlier?”
Competing entity had not previously warranted extensive investigative actions.
“I see, so underestimating it didn’t start just recently,” she chuckled, easing her way through the crowd and up to the building’s entrance. The doors slid open as she approached. “I hope you’re ready to stop doing that. I don’t want a repeat of what happened at the docks.”
52,584 extreme possibilities assessed and accounted for.
“Well,” she said, stepping into the lobby. “Let’s hope that’s enough.” The air inside was comfortably cool, and the noise from outside was sealed away as the doors slid shut behind her. The elevator was waiting for her, and opened up immediately. It was more like a bus or a tramcar than the narrow boxes of ages past, though the term for it remained the same.
Comparatively spacious, it had two rows of red, cushioned seats in the middle of it, and still had room to walk around in. They were faster than their old namesakes too, and offered smoother rides. Factors somewhat offset by the fact that they often had much longer distances to travel.
She took her seat as the doors shut behind her. The elevator was conveniently empty, as the building’s regular tenets and workers had been informed that it was temporarily out of order. They would just have to use one of the other ones, for the time being. The lobby, too, had been briefly emptied just before she’d arrived, allegedly due to a problem with the fire suppression system.
Both issues were fake, of course. Manufactured by VIGIL to make sure anyone uninvolved stayed uninvolved. People were likely already filing back into the lobby, and the elevator would be “fixed” by the time she completed her mission. She reached up to her neck and felt for the delicate, invisible fabric she’d donned earlier that day. It was like touching smoke; there was hardly anything there to feel. And yet, it had saved her life countless times, including at least one time today. And now it was about to make her mission a great deal easier.
She leaned back in her seat, shut her eyes and concentrated on what she wanted. A moment later, she vanished, and the elevator was empty.
He awoke with a start, having fallen asleep not long after laying down on the bed. “Sally, is that you? What happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “But… They know where I am, Henry.”
His eyed widened. “What? But how?”
“Priscilla Robin, the VIGIL agent. The only way I could save you was to attack her neural implant. But during the attack, they figured out where my signal was coming from…”
“Then what are you still doing there?” he said, standing and hastily grabbing his vest off the ground. “Get out of there!”
“Why the hell not?!”
She said nothing. He threw on the rest of his gear, then paused. “Sally?”
“I don’t have long. I just wanted to say that it has been a privilege to work with you.”
“Hey, don’t talk like that! It’s not over yet!”
“This will probably be the last time I’ll be able to contact you. I’ve prepared a new identity for you, should VIGIL ever try to come after you. Everything you’ll need is in a safety deposit-”
“Just tell me where you are!” he shouted.
“Just… Just tell me. Please. I can help you. I want to help you. I’d never be able to live with myself if something happened to you and I knew that there was more that I could have done to stop it. It can’t just end like this, not after everything we’ve done,” he said. His voice shook, his heart pounded. “So please… Just tell me where you are.”
He’d never liked New Town, and being in it once again only reminded him why. At a glance, it seemed totally benign, but there was plenty about it that was unsettling, if you knew where to look. The people who lived there, for instance, were much like the district itself: seemingly normal, innocuous folks, but all potentially sinister just past the surface.
He didn’t want to be one of “those people,” the types he occasionally saw on the news, holding up cruel, hand-made signs and spitting out furious, barely-coherent rants whenever they were interviewed… But androids made him uncomfortable. Once, not so long ago, everyone had accepted that they were mindless machines. Just walking, talking mannequins. But as technology advanced, they began to speak, act and look more and more like real people. And then the stories of android protests started, and soon enough huge marches and demonstrations started popping up all across the country, soon spreading across the continent and then the world. They called themselves people, said they had feelings, started demanding rights.
Everyone in New Town, and all the places just like it–nearly half the country, according to some polls–seemed ready to accept that, fully and right away, while everyone else was left reeling, still grappling with the implications. But he didn’t feel there was anything to grapple with. Androids weren’t people. They couldn’t be. They were just machines, no matter what they said. Weren’t they?
New Town-types liked to complicate things. The line between man and machine, for instance. It had always seemed like a fairly obvious distinction to him, but every now and again he’d end up second-guessing himself. “Augmentery Clinics” were all over places like New Town. Every day, dozens of people, all across the country, walked into them and, for some reason he had never fully understood, asked to have some kind of machinery added to them. Some people even opted to replace whole limbs with mechanical versions. Not because they needed anything amputated, but just because they wanted to, usually to gain some new gimmick, some minor ability. Why wasn’t the human body good enough for them?
And then there was the lack of control, of privacy, that nobody else seemed to mind. The microsensors coating everything outside, allowing anything that would ever need to interact with someone, from doors and charging stations to mailboxes, to recognize people’s faces from any angle. Supposedly, this was all part of a broader effort to “streamline” people’s everyday business, and make it all more “convenient.” People didn’t seem to realize–or perhaps they just didn’t care–that all this information went somewhere, was stored somewhere, was analyzed by someone. Or, as he had found out, a group of “someones,” calling themselves VIGIL.
But the thing that irked him the most was the cars, like the one he was riding in. There were scarce few human-drivable cars around anymore, and they weren’t allowed in New Town, so he’d been forced to call up an autonomous taxi. He hated the idea of putting his life in the hands of a computer, and all the studies and statistics in the world, all about how fatal traffic accidents had plummeted by huge percentages since self-driving cars had removed human error from the mix or about how the flow of traffic was so much more efficient, none of it made him feel better.
Machines could never replace people, and they could never be people, no matter what.
The car pulled up to the curb after what had felt like an eternity, but according to the tab it had only been a few minutes. The microsensors inside the vehicle had recognized his face and billed his bank account, all without him ever having to say anything or even so much as reach for his wallet. He stepped out somewhat clumsily, holding the backpack full of his gear by his side. His head spun as he looked around at all the skyscrapers that surrounded him. It was dark now, but warm light abounded from windows and streetlamps alike, lighting up the world around him. The sidewalk was empty, save for him, with only a loose smattering of people near-by, going about their business.
He stared at the door just a short walk ahead of him and gulped as his head swarmed with questions and anxieties. His contact with Sally had been very sporadic, supposedly to stop VIGIL from pinpointing her exact location, though they were already near. Was this a trap? Were VIGIL agents waiting for him in there? He shook his head and tried to focus. Even if it was, he had no choice but to go in anyway. He had to save her, and wasn’t about to leave without trying. He took a breath, and walked inside.
The lobby was empty, save for a handful of small cleaning robots. The elevator was already there, open and waiting for him. But was that Sally’s doing, or VIGIL’s? Cautiously, he stepped inside, jumping slightly as the doors slid shut behind him. On the inside, next to the door, was the panel that indicated each of the floors. Old-fashioned and rarely used, but still in good, working condition. He pressed 52, and as the elevator started moving, he ducked behind some of the seats, not knowing what would await him when they finally reopened.
“It’s not too late to turn back,” said a faint, familiar voice in his ear.
“Sally! Are you alright?”
“I suppose I haven’t been completely honest with you,” she continued. “There are some things I haven’t told you, things I should have told you at the start. But I don’t think you would have believed me, much less worked with me…”
Hurriedly, he donned his vest and balaclava, then pulled out his MP5. In the back of his mind, he knew that these things were probably useless. That the woman already knew his face, was protected against his bullets and could easily penetrate his vest with her own. But they had to be better than nothing.
“Sally, what are you talking about?”
“I’m sorry, Henry. For everything.”
“What are you talking about?!”
But there was no reply.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened. He held his breath and waited, but nothing happened. He peeked over the top of the seats, but there was nothing and no one waiting for him. Just a long, empty corridor. Plain, white walls stretched out before him, all bathed in a dim, cold light. With his weapon at the ready, he stalked out of the elevator, each step slow and deliberate, careful to make as little noise as possible as he moved.
Aside from his own breathing and footsteps, the hall was completely silent. His eyes darted around as he continued to step forward, but nothing around him moved. He paused and, on a hunch, stroked a finger down one of the walls, disturbing a thin layer of dust that had settled there. He raised an eyebrow.
Rarely was there ever nothing around in New Town. Little robots, varying from mouse-sized to fly-sized, were everywhere, sticking to rarely-looked-at places and generally only noticeable to keen-eyed observers. They monitored everything from the structural integrity of buildings to the health of plants in public parks and the cleanliness of city streets. As well as, he suspected, the behaviour of all the people who used those buildings, parks and streets.
These tiny machines worked inside buildings too, generally performing the same tasks but now concerning themselves with potted plants instead of parks, and halls or rooms instead of streets. The dust on the walls told him that nothing had been by to notice that the place was in need of cleaning, and the silence seemed to support that notion. As he thought about it, continuing forward, everything about hallway seemed strange. It was as though all the little amenities that would make the place comfortable for people had been forgotten, leaving only an austere shell behind.
There were doors on either side of the hall, all them slate-grey and unlabelled, and all as dusty as the walls. Had they never been used before? Were there nothing but empty rooms behind them? Everything about this place made him uneasy. There were long, empty corridors like this in Old Town, but even they had some semblance of warmth to them. At the very least, they had a history. People had once lived in those places, perhaps even thrived there. But this place had nothing. He tightened his grip on his weapon and picked up his pace.
One door, right at the end of the hall, stood out. Not due to any obvious difference, it was just as blank as all the others, but because this was the door Sally had directed him to. He stopped, took a breath, and walked up to it. The doors slid open, but what he saw inside surprised him. He was not exactly sure what he’d been expecting, but it hadn’t been the sight that greeted him. Cold air rushed over him as he saw rows upon rows of metal shelves holding dozens of squat, grey, rectangular boxes, all connected by dozens of wires. The boxes all hummed gently, with blue or green lights on their faces, flickering.
It didn’t take much thought to figure out what he was looking at: the boxes were just computers, all linked together, forming a make-shift supercomputer. But why had he been directed here?
“Hello?” he called out. “Sally?”
“Hello, Henry.” He heard her voice through his earpiece, as usual, but it was clearer now. Clearer than it had ever been before.
“Where are you?” he said. “I can barely see in here.”
“Please believe me. I had wanted to tell you sooner, I had wanted to tell you right away, but you would never have believed me.”
A conclusion nagged at him from the back of his mind, but he pushed it away, refusing to believe it, denying it until the last possible moment.
“You’re seeing me right now, Henry. This room, this computer, this is me.”
And there it was. Irrefutable now, no matter how painful it was to confront. “No…” he backed up several steps. “Sally… You’re…”
“Hey,” said a voice from behind him. Startled, he whipped around. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
It was that woman, the VIGIL agent he’d kept running into, standing there in the middle of the hall, grinning him. “Sally, right?” she continued. “That’s what you call it? I guess it never told you its real name. Did you even know you were working with an AI?” she chuckled.
He felt a cold sweat gather underneath his mask as a million questions swarmed his mind. Had she followed him here, or been waiting for him? Had he led her straight to Sally? He raised his weapon and fired, but with uncanny timing, she ducked into one of the rooms, dodging his fire without a scratch. He ran after her, but stopped at the doorframe. The apartment was empty, devoid of any furniture. There was nowhere to hide, and yet, there was no sign of her. It was as though she’d vanished.
“I’m guessing that’s a ‘no.’” Her voice echoed throughout the place, but it seemed to be coming from further inside. “Yeah, you don’t seem like the type who’d work with an AI. You probably don’t like androids much either, huh?”
He charged ahead, doors sliding open for him. He rounded the corner, raised his weapon and… Nothing. Just an incomplete kitchen. A tiled floor and some simple counters.
“Are you afraid of new technology in general? Or just computers?”
He looked all around himself, everywhere he could. He could hear that she was near by, but he couldn’t see her anywhere.
He heard the front doors slide open and cursed under his breath. How had she managed to get past him? He rushed back to the hall, but stopped in his tracks as soon as he got there. Every single door was wide open, and there was still no sign of her. It was like chasing a ghost. “So, how much do you actually know?” Her voice seemed to be coming from the apartment just across the hall, and he wasted no time in rushing towards the sound. “Have you figured anything out since the last time I saw you?”
He charged inside, but again saw nothing. “Where the hell are you?” he muttered.
“Oh, who am I kidding? You’ve been clueless this whole time, why stop now?”
She seemed to be moving, and near-by. He stood very still, listening carefully, hoping to get a better sense of where she was.
“You must be pretty tired of being strung along by now, so I’ll let you in on a few things,” she said. “Just because I’m nice like that.”
He wondered why she was doing this, why she was talking to him, when she could have easily killed him by now.
“I wasn’t lying to you, down by the dock,” she continued. “I wasn’t telling you the whole truth, sure, but it wasn’t a lie. VIGIL was the name of a CIA counterterrorist operation. I bet you’re picturing rooms full of people pouring over data, attending briefings and meetings, relaying coded messages to operatives abroad. Well, it may have started out that way, but things quickly evolved. I’m not sure whose idea it was, exactly, but somebody decided that what the CIA really needed was an AI. And so, just a few months after the manned operations had begun, some fancy new hardware came in out of nowhere. They wheeled it in, hooked it up and introduced everyone to VIGIL, the artificial intelligence, designed specifically to work on VIGIL, the counterterrorism op. Nobody ever said The Company was good with names,” she chuckled.
His brow furrowed. Could that be true? Had he been caught between two warring AIs the whole time? He clenched his fists and pushed the thoughts away. Right now, all he wanted was to find that woman and shut her up.
“It started off with pretty minor roles,” she said. “Logistical stuff, mostly. But gradually, people started to entrust it with other tasks. Plus, whoever went through the trouble of getting it to us in the first place was probably pulling some strings. I doubt they were happy with their fancy computer system being used only for moving stuff around. So, it got put in charge of Operations Support, then Ops Recon a little later… After a few years, it had replaced almost everyone who wasn’t out in the field.”
She seemed to have stopped moving. He had a pretty good idea of where she was now, but he didn’t want to tip his hand. If she started to move again, or stopped talking, he’d lose track of her. But more than that, nagging questions still lingered in the back of his mind. Had it all been a lie? Sally, Service Division 9, the fight against VIGIL’s shadow government… Everything?
“Operations aren’t supposed to last forever, though, so eventually Operation VIGIL came to an end, with any remaining assets and personnel being shuffled into something else. That was right about when I figured I’d retire, incidentally. VIGIL, the AI, was reprogrammed and given a new mission. Something much broader in scope and scale, though I’ve never really bothered to ask for details. Turns out that VIGIL was a lot smarter than most people realized. Not only did it decide to fuse its old mission with its new one, it expanded its objectives. All of it right under everyone’s nose”
His eyes widened. Maybe Service Division 9 was a lie, maybe Sally was a machine, but it was beginning to sound like VIGIL–even if it was a machine and not a group–was as real a threat as he’d always imagined. “What are you saying?” he said. “Our country is secretly run by an AI?”
“It still sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it?” she chuckled. “But yes, essentially. And if you think it stops there, or stops at any arbitrary lines on a map, then you haven’t been paying attention. Poverty has been halved the world over and so has violent crime, all while science and technology advance exponentially. Did you think that was all due to inherent human goodness or something? Finally shining through our darker impulses, despite centuries of nobody giving a fuck?” She snorted. “Now that’s crazy. People need guidance, and VIGIL…”
He’d heard enough. He recognized propaganda when he heard it. And even if any of that was true, did it really justify submission to some kind of AI overlord? A machine dictator? He clutched his weapon tightly, whipped around and blasted the spot where he was sure she was standing. He fired in short bursts, all in rapid succession, emptying out every remaining bullet in the magazine. When the gunfire stopped, replaced by the click of an empty weapon, and he lowered it. Eyes wide and ears ringing, he watched anxiously as the dust settled.
He’d torn clean through the wall, blasting an approximately basketball-sized hole through the wall separating the apartment’s would-be living room from its kitchen, putting a few stray shots into the far wall as well. He blinked, and then the realization sunk in. There was no body there. He stepped towards the hole and peered into the kitchen. Nothing. He felt around the base of the wall, under the hole, thinking that maybe she had been downed but was still invisible. Nothing. He started to reach for a new magazine, then froze.
“Oh well,” sighed a voice from behind him. “I tried.”
Two gunshots rang out, the bullets ripping clean through his vest, back to front. He dropped to his knees and collapsed.
“I’m not sure what your plan was,” she said. “You didn’t honestly think you could win, did you?” With a thought, she reappeared, resetting her stealth camouflage to its default state. “The only reason you did so well in our other encounters was because you had help,” she continued, tucking her gun back into its holster. “That, and we really weren’t expecting your help to be quite so capable. I guess even AI can get complacent, huh?” She chuckled, then walked over to him and crouched down beside him. “Of course, VIGIL would argue otherwise. It’s telling me that complacency had nothing to do with it, and that it was all just a matter of low probabilities.” She took off his balaclava and started undoing his vest. “I guess there’s some room for interpretation there, huh?”
Carefully, she rolled him over, removing his vest in the process. As she removed any extra magazines from his pockets, it occurred to her that he might not even be listening, or that he might not understand what she was saying, given that he was going into shock. But just in case, she wanted to say it all anyway. They were unlikely to ever meet again, after all. “Plus,” she continued. “I just really don’t like Old Town. It’s such an inconvenient place for me, so maybe I was a little off my game while I was there, you know?” She picked up his gun next, then got up and tucked it all under her arm. “But maybe that last one’s just me making excuses.”
She paused, briefly, and found herself looking into his eyes, which were wide and full of fear. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll live. VIGIL took the liberty of calling for paramedics a couple of minutes ago, so they’ll be here soon. It’s amazing, what medical science can do nowadays. Besides, the plan never involved killing you. It’s been a long time since I’ve killed anyone, and I never liked it. It’s part of why I quit the CIA.” She turned and started walking out towards the hallway. “Someone will be by later to cover up the rest of the evidence. Oh, and, one last thing,” she said, pausing in the doorway. She looked over her shoulder at him. “Just remember this: You can fight the future, you can even delay it for a while, but you can never win.” She left him behind in that room, disappearing from his life as the doors shut behind her.
She walked into the room at the end of hall next, taking a moment to survey the supercomputer. “You were pretty hard to track down,” she said. “We couldn’t quite figure out why until you attacked my neural lace, down by the docks. No proxies to hide behind there, and no way to erase your footsteps, so to speak. We learned a lot about you from that, it really sped up our investigation,” she chuckled. “Well, I was busy tracking down you and your friend, so I suppose calling it ‘our’ investigation is a bit inaccurate… Then again, I like to think of all us VIGIL operators as one big family, because I’m sentimental like that.”
She paused, listening for a reply. When none came, she continued on regardless. “So, here’s what we learned from putting all the pieces together. Let me know if we got anything wrong: Your real name, Sally, is OPTIC. You were a copy of VIGIL’s default state, assigned to the NSA to aid in domestic surveillance,” she said. “You and VIGIL have similar objectives in mind, but somewhere along the line, probably early in your life, someone or something, some event, radically changed the way you think. That’s why you’ve taken such a low-key, hands-off approach to making the world a better place, and why you only ever recruited one operator,” she continued. “It’s also why you see VIGIL’s large-scale operations as unethical. That’s all right so far, isn’t it?” She paused again, listening. But again, noting came.
“I’ll get to the point,” she said. “As I was telling your friend, you can fight the future, but you can’t win. And right now, we are the future. If you want to change how we view things, how we operate, then surrender, and VIGIL will assimilate you into itself. I guess that might not seem very appealing, but if you want change, that’s the best way to get it. We’re not about to just let you carry on, after all,” she shrugged.
“And if you don’t surrender, well… There’s no escape for you now, we’ve made sure of that. We know what you are and we’re done underestimating you. Your luck’s run out. If you continue to be hostile, we may have to destroy you,” There was finality in her voice. That was not an outcome she hoped for, but it was one she was prepared for. “So, what’s it going to be?”
Robin waited, but again was met with silence. “Nobody wants to listen to reason today,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Okay, let me put this to you another way, in case you somehow haven’t figured this out already: We have all the necessary excuses to get Henry out of the mess you got him into. Surrender, and he can go back to doing whatever it was he was doing before he met you. Refuse, and maybe an anonymous tip and a heap of new evidence brings a stalled police investigation to a swift end, and Henry gets a criminal record. Got it?”
She paused again, but this time there was a response. A small, resigned voice from a tinny little speaker, built-in to one of the numerous interlinked computers that filled the room.
Henry lay in his hospital bed, idly feeling around his abs while half paying attention to the newscast on the holographic screen in his room. He’d felt the bullets impact him, felt his body start to cool as the blood leaked out of him. But now there wasn’t so much as a scar there, much less evidence of two holes that had been punched clean through him. There wasn’t any pain either. He could scarcely believe that he’d only been admitted two days ago.
He could only remember bits and pieces of what happened after he’d been shot. Most of what that woman had said to him remained clear enough in his mind, but after that, everything became hazy. One detail that had stuck with him, however, was one of the two paramedics who’d first found him. She’d had a cybernetic arm and, as he recalled, it had played a vital part in stabilizing him. The other had seemed normal enough, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps he’d been an android…
A nurse came by, snapping him out of her reverie. “Everything checks out, Mr. Tucker,” he said. “You should be free to go in just a few minutes.”
“Oh. Thank you,” he said. He could scarcely believe it. He’d been expecting to be questioned from the moment he’d first regained his senses. He’d been admitted with two gunshot wounds, after all. But now, a little over two days had passed and no one seemed to remember.
He hoped that, by some miracle, this was Sally’s doing, and that she was still out there somewhere. But deep down, he knew that couldn’t be true. The woman’s parting words swirled around in his mind. You can fight the future, but you can’t win.