A small change in typographics - Yvonne is now plain text, Zara is in italics and the Wisdom remains monotype. Sorry :-)
I knew this was going to be shit when Zara had to refer to the AI, explanation wise, even before she'd finished describing the assignment. Up to that point, it had been about as routine as my jobs ever get: Go in, remove target #1 — in the presence of targets #2, #3 and #4, thereby giving them a chance to rethink some of their life choices — and then get the hell out. Hardly difficult, given some of the stuff that the Wisdom could pull, intervention wise.
Except, it appeared, that in this case he/she/it couldn't ... or wouldn't. Why, I was given to wonder, did they have to put the world's fourth murkiest financial marketplace quite so close to its single biggest physics lab ... or the biggest collection of sensitive measuring equipment on the planet, in other words ... or was it the other way round?
Well, whatever. The AI was firm: This job, I would, more or less, have to walk. Actually, what it said was that as good as it handling of the relevant forces might be, there was simply no way to shift 70kg of living organism across n dimensions of space/time without causing some sort of local effects at the target zone. Which, given the aforementioned sensitive equipment, could be a problem. Not that there was any chance that my arrival would be detected as such ... but it might disrupt some of the experiments. Yeah, right ... like a gave a flying fuck about that.
As a result, anyway, I ended up arriving on the planet — you know, Earth, home, as I used to call it — about 100km away from the objective. Which wasn't a major problem given that I was now fluent in German, French and Italian ... you name it. Oh, and I had unimpeachable ID and credits cards, etc., etc ... even if it was all fake. But, when you came down to it, you get used to a certain level of service and this wasn't it. For one thing, I had a lot less gear with me than I would have been carrying on a normal job, not that that was too worrying. Much more of a hassle, just at the moment, was that I even had to wait for a bloody train...
I'd grown fond of Yvonne and wasn't totally happy with her involvement in such an ... unusual ... operation. The AI was 'fairly sure' that it would be OK — which was quite unnerving, in context — and completely sanguine about sending her into deeply hostile environment with nothing but the clothes she stood up in. It didn't appear to have an actual, analysed to the nth degree extraction plan, either. I didn't like it — couldn't do anything about it, but somehow I still felt responsible. So I turned my mind back to the matter in hand ... recruiting new "guests". We had a lot of work to do in the near future and no way could we do it with just the three of us.
So Xav and I were methodically going through the Prospects list, the individuals that the AI previously identified and had been monitoring for a while. Being logical people, we started at the top, a woman Xav thought would be an ideal candidate.
Which I had to agree with — that's why she was #1 in the first place. "However," I pointed out, "she would be virtually impossible to extract discretely ... far too high a profile."
"Unlike me, you mean," he said, slightly grumpily.
"Xav, you were all of fourteenth on the list — we only dragged you out because you got drunk and a bunch of local lumpen decided to have a go at killing you." I paused, enjoying the discomfiture I could see in his eyes. "Anyway, no one caused a fuss when you disappeared — the AI thought your University was actually relieved, by the way — and this one has a husband, kids. Totally different scenario, believe me..."
You could see him bristling but he let it drop. He was reliable, that way, avoiding conflict whenever possible. Still, I thought I'd better be nice for a while, reminding how much difference his presence had made to the Operation ... to me ... and, for all I knew, to the bloody AI. And then we moved on to #2, another talented high flier...
Damn, I thought, as the conversation moved on ... why was I so worried about Yvonne?
Getting a train from Lyon to Geneva is, not, when you come down to it, one of life's more stressful activities and this one lived up to its reputation by arriving exactly on time. They didn't even pull the UK trick of leaving it standing outside the station for ten minutes just to make it so...
So, Teutonic efficiency and all that ... even if I was in the French speaking bit of the country ... I mean, they probably made cuckoo clocks somewhere around here, didn't they? Anyway, the neural feed told me that I had about half an hour to wait for my local connecting train — actually, it told me that I had thirty three minutes and 14.1 seconds, but you got used to that — so I went and got a coffee.
One brief review of the Le Courrier later, I'd learnt not a lot. Well, not from the paper — the guys I was here to drop in on would hardly be seeking publicity for their meeting — but the neural feed kept me constantly updated on activities locally (nothing remotely untoward) and at the target site. Admittedly, the latter carried a constant superliminal note that the 'feed was degraded for operational reasons' which was beginning to piss me off a bit.
But I went and got the train, anyway.
We weren't getting very far.
Xav was becoming increasingly frustrated by the emerging realisation that the Wisdom had focused in on highly capable people — for obvious reasons — but that this left us with a significant issue that the vast majority of them had used their undoubted talents to make a significant contribution to their societies ... and were therefore unavailable to us at the moment. Frankly, there just weren't too many people who were both brilliant and social disaster areas ... excepting Xav himself ... and, I supposed, me. And possibly even Yvonne.
After a while I began to sympathise with Xav's position that we should just grab the people on the list anyway and deal with the consequences later. Unfortunately, the AI was having none of it — the time was not yet right for the 'gloves to come off', it intoned, ponderously, and the possible consequences might be severe. Personally, I wasn't convinced that removing any twenty odd people, however notable and however badly we handled the pick-up, would actually cause the collapse of human civilisation as we know it but then ... the AI had done this before, it reminded us ... and that was the end of that.
Consequently, we'd resorted to going back to basics and — as Xav put it — begun to unpick the technology's basic assumptions. Which felt a bit heretical to me, but, as Xav had again pointed out, all we were basically looking for were people who were both fundamentally honest and capable of making 'correct' decisions in challenging and urgent situations. And given that we had six billion people to choose from, it surely couldn't be too difficult to find a few that fitted the criteria...
An hour later I'd changed trains again in Nyon and finally arrived in the mountains. Not that I could see them — it was fully dark by now, of course — but the town was busy with skiers and similar eccentrics so the scenery could be infered. And I could go about my business without drawing too much attention to myself, at least in the town centre. In fact, even as I walked about a kilometre out into the further suburbs I kept pretty inconspicuous, the AI helpfully indicating the presence of hidden CCTV cameras and disabling them as I approached. Which was great, except that the increasingly degraded — and dubious — data from up ahead made me wonder whether there were any it might have missed. Which was... uncomfortable. Still, I thought, this was an opportunity that would not be repeated for months, I had a job to do, so — what the fuck — get on with it.
I began to wonder about this determination when I got to the villa in question, not having attracted any obvious attention but distinctly unhappy to find that the laser detector system along the top of the surrounding wall was still very much operational ... and all too visible in the high infra red. OK, so I had every aspect of the targets security systems etched into my memory, but this was — according to the mission profile — supposed to have developed an undetectable, if temporary, fault at exactly the time I arrived at the foot of the thing.
I thought about this for a microsecond or two, only too aware that I was extremely exposed to any casual passers by, decided to go for it anyway. Scaled the wall easily enough — 2.7 metres of stone, footholds and handholds pre-identified, no worries. Vaulted cleanly over the relevant beams — should have been a greater spread to them, really, except that presumably no-one expected an intruder to be able to see the bloody things — and landed with virtually no noise in a formal garden. OK, so things were not going entirely to plan, but it was a quick, clean entrance. I dusted myself down, quickly reviewed the next steps.
And all hell let lose.
So, we started mapping out more exact criteria of our own, trying quite hard to acknowledge our own prejudices and limitations, thinking as broadly as possible about what we were trying to do — or what we believed the AI was trying to do, to be more exact — and the sort of skills and attitudes that would be needed. It didn't take long for Xav to make the obvious point that the Prospects list we had been considering was every so slightly biased towards 'westerners' — seventeen of the top twenty identified by the Wisdom were citizens of the EU or US ... and one was Canadian, another Australian. OK, so we'd obviously been aware of that all along — I'd sort of rationalised it by imagining that there were other lists, maybe other AIs, looking at the rest of humanity — but now we really couldn't avoid confronting the issue. So we did. Or, rather, I asked the AI for an opinion. Very politely.
"Your comments are noted. In fact, we have not capacity-mapped all six billion humans on your planet. Frankly, your species is neither that interesting nor that diverse. We need to induce enough change in your collective behaviour to prevent you engendering a massive ecological meltdown; the planet is controlled by a 'western' elite, who therefore have greatest influence; therefore we concentrated on them. The logic has been analysed in depth and found appropriate.
"Great", muttered Xav, "omnipotent and racist too..."
I decided to be more constructive. "Aside from the obvious point that elites never give up power — that change comes from below — and that, in this case, the elites are likely to be the last to directly impacted by the changes we're trying to prevent — don't you think you're limiting your selection criteria on a slightly arbitrary basis?"
"Perhaps. We are, however, trying to supervise ... influence ... promote constructive change here, the necessary minimum to avoid catastrophe. The aim is to ensure the survival of the planet, not to produce a global utopia."
Xav wasn't convinced. "What if the two are inseparable? That the elites are so much part of the problem that a solution cannot be engineered around them?"
"An interesting point of view, possibly. However, I think there is a situation developing which you might find of more immediate concern..."
The first dog hit me somewhere around the midriff area — completely silently, thing probably had its vocal cords cut or something — and left me sprawling even as the second and third leapt on me, beginning to savage me like I was a fucking fox or something. OK, so no way were their teeth actually going to penetrate the sort of clothes I was wearing but I was getting bruised and shaken enough for it to be a bit of a piss off, so I killed them. Blow to the throat for one, broke the necks of two others. Looked up and saw a bloke looking down at me, AK pointing straight at me, reaching for a belt radio with his other hand.
Actually, he was holding quite a big gun quite impressively steadily given that he was using only one hand but ... still. They really should have used headset comms. A quick kick to the knee brought him down, another jab to the diaphragm left him gasping. I didn't want to kill the bastard — he was only doing his job, after all — so I gave him a few milligrams of phenobarbitone in the jugular, quickly frisked him down, then moved very rapidly away. Taking his gun, of course, and the stiletto he'd been carrying.
Which looked remarkably like the tungsten-edged carbon composite job the Wisdom had provided to me.
Xav beat me to the question, shouting violently, "What the fuck does that mean?"
"Simply that we are experiencing unexpected difficulties ... principally interruptions in the data flow and some degradations in field manipulation capabilities"
"Which means, again?" I felt my blood run cold but Xav was clearly on the edge of completely losing his rag. I began to get worried about him, too ... but the Wisdom gave the machine equivalent of a shrug.
"Neither my information about the situation on your planet nor my capacity to influence events is currently entirely comprehensive."
This time I gave it a try, asking once more what information all that verbiage was supposed to convey?
"I am not totally aware of all the specifics; some aspects of the mission may have been compromised."
"Have another go. Such as?"
"The situation assessment is not complete but I am aware of impairment in my ability to monitor and neutralise the alarm systems and sensors within the target environment."
"OK", said Xav, visibly calming himself down. "Why now and what happens next?" He got the virtual shrug, again.
"Again, the assessment is incomplete. However, Yvonne is a capable operative and there is still a probability of success."
Xav picked up on the ambiguity. "Not a high probability, not the virtual certainty usually promised?" And, I said, as the AI delayed replying, "Can you get her out if or when it all goes even more horribly wrong?"
"That is within the mission parameters."
"Oh, for fucks sake," Xav yelled, "Can you get her out or not?"
"No. Not with absolute certainty. However, I can guarantee that our wider operations will not be compromised..."
Oh fuck, I thought ... so much for omniscient, omnipotent technology.
The humans' reaction was unexpected ... although, so, too, was the situation. The operative Yvonne should have been dispensable — would already have been dead if she had not been recruited — yet was clearly a source of emotional concern to both parties. Also, the problems I was even now assessing clearly indicated the presence of the sort of technology that should not — could not — have been available to the target.
This was, I felt, a situation that should be referred to the Group, the combined resources of which should easily be capable of overcoming the relatively trivial difficulties with which I was now dealing. Except, of course, that if my analysis was correct, and anomalous technological capacity was indeed the complicating factor, I could think of no other source than my peers.
Was I, I wondered, the only member of the Group taking an interest in this particular planet?
Moving quickly and silently through formal gardens — an English style rose garden, in this case — at night and when carrying a gun is not easy. I did have the advantage of considerably modified vision — enhanced both in spectral range and sensitivity — but it wasn't much of an advantage. I also had a big gun to go with the two small ones I'd been carrying in the first place, and a much more detailed knowledge of my surroundings than any other intruder could possibly have possessed.
Against that, I knew that I'd triggered at least some sort of alarm, that the dogs had not left me feeling a hundred per cent fit — although the pain had been easy enough to suppress, I knew that my left arm in particular had some sort of deep muscle damage — and ... oh, yes ... there were at least ten other armed guards on the premises, plus however many body guards the evening's guests had brought with them. And, of course, such reinforcements as might even now be being drafted in. I found a particularly deep patch of shade, made myself small for a while, and thought about things.
"You might have gathered," I said, after a while, "that we are not happy..." The Wisdom cut me off — another first.
"Neither am I. This is ... unexpected ... and Yvonne is a useful asset, that I would not care to lose..."
"Asset!", Xav almost screamed, "She's a human being for crissakes..."
Which, of course, was the point. We were, all of us, just playing pieces as far as the Wisdom was concerned. Nonetheless, it was worrying to see it failing, terrifying to think that Yvonne was at the epicentre of all this shit ... that we might not get her back. But I couldn't think like that, needed to let Xav take the strain, as so often recently. I felt his arm come round my shoulder, drawing me to him as he said, suddenly assertive, no trace of his anger apparent anymore.
"OK, machine. Give us what you've got. Lets see if primitive biological brains can come up with some sort of response."
Strangely, nothing happened for a while and I began to think that maybe the alarm systems had been more effectively buggered up than the evidence to date had suggested. However, even if that were the case, I knew they were down three dogs and a guard and that that would not go unnoticed for more than a few minutes. I also knew enough about this sort of operation to know that the first response would very probably be to secure the perimeter — to stop me getting out — and concentrate the rest of their resources on point guarding the honoured guests, probably with the intention of getting them away from the scene as soon as possible. I half expected to hear a helicopter at any moment, wondered why they still hadn't lit the whole place up, given that they had floodlights covering the entire compound. So maybe they didn't know I was around, yet? Or, again, was I getting some support at last? I didn't know. But one thing was absolutely, distressingly clear. I wasn't going to find out sitting in a rose bush.
So I gave a quick check over the gun — an AK102, the data feed put in, perversely helpful to the end — and decided to hang onto it, at least for the moment. Then I took the proverbial deep breath and legged it across a lawn, through an archway and — still expecting a deeply hostile response at any moment — made it to the wall of the main house. Given that it was a fairly random run — more a sort of panicy dash, to be honest — it was almost cheering to review the situation and find that I'd ended up on the outside of a utility area, more or less behind the kitchens, believed to be used as a laundry ... or at least that's what the prior 'intelligence' told me. It was also a good wall as it was built from a sort of fibre block cladding over a timber frame ... which made it easy to get through, given the cutting gear the Wisdom had provided — the 'sonic screwdriver' as we tended to call it. So that's what I did: Cut a small block out of the wall, crawled through. Had to lose the jacket I was wearing to get through the gap, then, working on simple adrenalin, forgot to pick the thing up as I cautiously moved into the room beyond. Ah, well — probably wouldn't meet too many more dogs and it wasn't bullet proof, so...
The room was empty, aside from a variety of industrial sized washing machines and such like — chalk one to the AI, I thought — and had only one exit. I mean, there were probably drains and air conditioning ducts and stuff but only one door ... and I wasn't in the mood to bugger about. So I had a quick listen — I now have very acute hearing, too — and swung the thing open, stepped through.
The guy standing a few metres down the corridor was well armed, alert and generally highly professional. He was also facing the wrong way and — well, he only had human basic reactions, which is another way of saying he probably picked up on what was going on more or less at the same time as he lost consciousness. I bundled him back into the laundry, jammed the door from the outside and found myself watching the comms set I'd just removed from him begin to flash in what looked very like an alarm sequence, broadcasting some kind of code the while.
Bugger, I thought ... time to go for berserker mode ... and charged down the corridor, barging through the door at the end with my shoulder...
I thought for a moment that the Wisdom was going to simply ignore Xav's request but, after a second or two, one of its signature holographic displays appeared in the space between us, a multiple overlay of a visual image of the target villa combined with a mass of information grids, detailing structural details, alarms and comms systems - wired and wireless — positions of individuals (Yvonne appeared as a gold star, for some reason) and a load of other stuff. It was truly impressive, of course ... that the focus shifted with one's attention, including internal views as well as the external, could be disconcerting, but I'd seen and used similar presentations before so I was used to it. And, consequently, was also aware that this particular display contained worryingly blurry areas, segments where data was patchy, provisional ... or simply non-existent. I wondered what the hell was going on, precisely what we'd got ourselves — and Yvonne — into.
Xav spent some time — no more than seconds, probably, though it felt like hours — analysing the information we did have, while we saw Yvonne enter the main house, and disable — at least — one of the guards. He asked the Wisdom, suddenly, what it was capable of doing given the limitations it was experiencing. Specifically, he asked whether it was capable of transfering him into the scene?
"Possibly. But I might not be able to get you back out. Also, I fail to see what you could contribute beyond providing another target."
"Not the point," Xav responded, curtly, "Could you transfer, say a weapon? How about a couple of millilitres of air? And how fast could you do it?" I had no idea where this was going, and apparently neither did the Wisdom.
"Of course I could do either of those things, although Yvonne does not currently lack either weaponry or oxygen, as far as I'm aware, and seems unlikely to do so within the next two microseconds."
"Again, not the point," said Xav, as we watched Yvonne suddenly storm down a corridor, the displays showing that some sort of alarm had been triggered. "All this degradation — the fuzzy shit in the holo — why?"
"Integration is currently less than perfect owing to the loss of some anticipated feeds. I am in the process of restructuring the relevant..."
Xav cut it off, again. "Fuckin' great, machine, and I'm sure it'll make you very happy. Now, is there any way of communicating from Deep Immersion — you know, when I'm virtually comatose, hooked into the terrestrial world's entire datastreams?"
"I don't see how this contributes or assists with..."
"Fuck that. When I'm in Immersion, can I — in any way at all — communicate with Zara here?"
"Well, yes, there are ways, but..."
"Brilliant. Fucking great. Get Immersion set up, now! Zara, just be ready."
And, with that, imperious, decisive and ... yeah, arrogant as hell, he was gone. I waited for the AI to comment, but it didn't.
So neither did I.