The first installment. Read first, then comment. That’s it.
With an almost inaudible hiss part of the ceiling raised and then slid away to the side, giving way to a patch of darkness above. A few seconds later a head appeared, a long plait extending from its back like a scorpion’s tail. Aya grabbed the edge of the access hatch and pushed her body free of it, head first, doing a half turn once her feet were clear, and only then let go. She dropped into the corridor, gently landing on both feet at once, the soles of her boots muting any sound.
She smirked. Flawless performance, ten out of ten points. When she had nothing better to do and was in the mood she sometimes watched gymnastics tournaments, but competing herself had never crossed Aya’s mind; far too boring it was. It did give her ideas, though – for example how to get out of access shafts too narrow to turn around without falling on her head. And a bit of style didn’t hurt either, of course.
Without haste she headed down the corridor, employing a gait that was reminiscent of idle strolling and a cat’s graceful sneaking at the same time. She turned a corner and started counting the doors, finally stopping before the fifth one to the left. For a moment she glanced at the sign next to it, then gently pushed it. The door swung open.
Tampering with the building’s alarm system had been easier than it should have, almost criminally so. A couple of minutes physical access and there was nothing the system wasn’t ready to do for her, which in her case meant disabling certain parts of the sensor grid, shutting down a number of cameras and forgetting about it. She’d also unlocked a number of doors for her convenience.
To be fair, security was enough to stop any dilettante trying to break in, and only dilettantes would try to break into an office building in the first place. Besides the furniture and odd bits of decorative art, there was nothing of value to be had and even those didn’t sell for much. It simply didn’t pay for the pros. Normally.
Aya pulled the door shut behind her. The office positively reeked of money, or, to be more precise, of real leather and wood. Very likely air deodorant, but someone had definitely made an effort here. Polished marble lookalike covered walls and floor, with a huge company logo inlaid in the latter, and an enormous reception counter extended over almost the whole width of the room, shielding a good deal of the window front from the view – obviously someone had deemed the counter more impressive. Maybe it even was on some level, but Aya couldn’t stand faux wood. Sure, it was very high quality and to the bare eye probably indistinguishable from the real thing, but Aya’s night vision goggles showed it clearly for what it was.
The faux leather armchairs lining the walls weren’t any better, but at least there was the chance that they were at least comfortable. Aya prodded one experimentally, but even allowing for the fact that nobody ever sat on it in an office like this, the seat was astonishingly hard. At what these things had to have cost you’d really expect better. Oh well, she wasn’t here for the furniture anyway.
Three doors connected the reception area with the adjacent rooms. According to the building plans the two to the right of the counter led to the toilet and a small kitchen area; the one she wanted was on the left. It opened into a room almost twice as big as the reception area, with carpet covered floor and wood panelled walls. Faux wood. The same applied to the large desk, that was only sightly smaller than the reception counter. At least they had gone for different chairs, albeit in the same faux leather. Aya slumped herself into the one behind the desk; it hugged her body comfortably. Now that was a chair.
For a few moments she stared into the empty office, then swivelled around. Aya shook her head. If she had a view like this, she wouldn’t sit with the back to it. She pulled the goggles off and the world faded into an uniform blackness, that only gradually turned into separated into different shades of black.
A sea of lights unfolded before her, like reflections on still water. Here and there dark looming spires stood in the sea, only the orange lights gleaming on their surface visible, like reflections of a setting sun. Aya sighed. From up here even the position lights of the skyscrapers had something poetic. From up here, you could almost like the city. Almost.
Aya looked at the time piece on her arm and pushed herself out of the chair. Time to get back to work. She donned her goggles and the shades of black ebbed away, to be replaced by colours, and every detail of the room surfaced from the darkness.
A couple of man-high display cases covered the wall opposite the window front, filled with all kinds of tasteless junk that someone somewhere probably called art, and a number of awards and trophies just as tasteless. Not a single piece was worth more than the material it was made from and, if she wasn’t completely mistaken, even that was hardly worth anything at all.
For some inexplicable reason the manufacturer had made the locks much tougher than the actual cases, so Aya didn’t bother with those. She pulled a multitool from the holster at her hip and set it to cutter. The grey mass at the business end of the pencil like grip wobbled a bit and then a knife blade formed on it. Nanotechnology at its best – expensive, but still a lot cheaper than a complete tool chest. Slightly more portable as well.
The blade cut through the case material as if it was made of paper and in a couple of seconds Aya had cut out a complete circle, still sitting at its place. She made another small cut beside it and then used the blunt side of the small blade to lever it outside. She slipped her hand into the hole and grabbed a transparent something. It was a trophy for some obscure game she’d never heard before and it looked even uglier in real life than it had on the picture.
Aya took down her backpack and produced a small cylinder from it, some forty centimetres in length and fifteen in diameter. It was mostly transparent, only the caps at the ends were opaque and grey. She unscrewed the top and placed the trophy inside, then screwed it back on and pushed a large button on the bottom portion. Next to it, a light came to life, blinking furiously, while the whole of the tube filled with a kind of fog. In a matter of seconds the fog solidified into white filaments, filling the complete tube and catching the trophy in it like a spider’s net. The light switched from blinking to continuous mode: Object secured and ready to go.
Aya stuffed the tube back into her backpack and slung it over her shoulders. Now that she had what she’d come for, the only thing left to do was getting out unseen. She quickly crossed the office, carefully opened the corridor door the tiniest of slits and listened. Others wouldn’t have bothered. With that many floors, the handful of security personal in the building kept to the ground floors, but as far as she was concerned there was no such thing as too much caution. And double checking had saved her once already.
No sounds were coming from outside, however, and the only things she heard were her own breath and heart beat. She slipped out of the door and pulled it shut behind her once again. Aya tried the handle; locked. That meant the security system was working her little extra routines now. By the time she was out of the building only the broken display case would prove anything had happened.
Navigating the corridors turned out even more difficult than the floor plan had suggested. The original layout of the building had been three rings of offices, separated from each other and the building core by three rings of corridors and an additional sixteen corridors perpendicular ones connecting them like the spokes of a wheel. It was a nice, effective layout, but after trying desperately to meet the clients expectations, it was a genuine maze. In which way that was an improvement for the clients was beyond her. Maybe they didn’t want to be found, or maybe there were weekly floor competitions who could get navigate it fastest or something. In any case studying the floor plan in detail really paid off. Just one more turn and she should be… Damn. Where did that wall come from? Aya closed her eyes and tried to recall the plan. If her memory didn’t betray her, that particular wall had not been in there, but that didn’t matter now. Left, right, right? Unless there were more walls that weren’t in the plan, of course.
Fortunately there weren’t. She didn’t really mind stumbling around in mazes that much, but she was on a schedule. Not a terribly tight one, that would have been asking for trouble, but she preferred not to waste what extra time she had on office layouts. You never knew what you might need it for later on.
The outer wall’s curvature had been slight enough not to be overly noticeable in the office, but that close to the centre it was impossible to miss the circular nature of the building. The whole of the corridor was only a little more than twenty five metres in length and she could overlook almost half of it. Half a circle crammed with a multitude of doors. Most of them provided access to the ducting and cabling for the floor, and there were a couple of storage rooms as well, but Aya wasn’t interested in any of these.
She walked up to the door labelled ‘Core Access’ and pulled. Even though it wasn’t locked due to her tinkering with the security system, it opened only reluctantly. From the outside it looked just like any other door on the floor, but it was a lot heavier – solid metal, blast proof. Aya didn’t open it all the way up; she slipped through as soon as the opening was wide enough and then stared pulling it shut behind her. Once the door had reached it’s resting position the lock mechanism activated, sliding the heavy bolts audibly into position.
To anyone with claustrophobia this place would have been hell. To anyone with acrophobia – more so. The width and height of the passage way, if you could be call it that, matched those of the door, making it about a half metre in width and two in height. Unlike a normal passage way, however, it abruptly ended after a couple of steps. Not in a wall, though – it opened into the core shaft itself. One hundred and twenty floors of free fall, sublevels not included, and she wasn’t even that close to the top.
Free fall wasn’t what she had planned, though. The height wasn’t a problem, at least none that a good rope couldn’t deal with, but at five metres in diameter the shaft didn’t forgive any wrong move and ending as a smear on the wall wasn’t that enticing a prospect.
Where was that stupid service platform anyway? It should have been waiting for her when she came in. Aya edged closer to the shaft, to have a look around, carefully avoiding to get too close, however. The elevator had enough power to rip her head clear off and no safe guards to stop it from doing that.
It had no intentions of doing that, however. She could see the metal grate hanging right above the current floor, exactly where she had left it on her way up, and it was doing nothing. Great, and she had though the job was too easy to be true. Served her right.
The walls of the shaft were too smooth to get any reliable hold and none of the tubes lining them were close enough to reach from her position. Besides, she didn’t trust them to hold her weight. The framework beneath the service platform, on the other hand, should do just fine.
Aya took off her backpack and produced a grappling hook and a belt from one of its side compartments. If this didn’t work out, she was in real trouble. It could take weeks for anyone to notice that the platform wasn’t where it ought to be and come investigating. If she got really lucky, whoever was responsible to investigate the break in would check on the shaft, but chances where she’s either have to cause some kind of damage in the shaft, so people came looking for the problem, or disassemble the door from the inside, and it was unlikely she managed either of these before it was too late. She should really have checked on the damn elevator before closing the door.
Aya pulled a length of cable from the belt and attached it to the hook. The hook was light weight, but if she missed… There was nothing she could hold onto. If, on the other hand, the cable slipped out from under her fingers… Absolutely magnificent options.
She fastened the belt around her waist and sat down directly at the edge, pressing her back against one wall and her feet against the other. Aya took a deep breath, and threw the hook.
It missed its target by a couple of centimetres. The hook rebounded off the wall of the shaft and then dropped like a stone. Aya braced herself. With an uncomfortably strong jerk the hook ended it’s fall, but didn’t manage to pull her off balance. Aya exhaled audibly.
She had more luck with the second try, the hook caught on one of the struts and stuck. Aya tugged at the cable, but it held. She stood up and positioned herself at the edge of the shaft, then shortened the cable and grabbed it with both hands. Well, there went nothing.
She drew up her legs. The moment the weight was off her feet, the ground slipped away under her. Skidding over the edge like that still wasn’t one of her favourite sensations, but she wasn’t going to have a fit over it. After all, this wasn’t any different than the rope swings she’d loved when she was little. Except for the distance to the ground. And the far less solid fastening. There was absolutely no reason to enjoy it. And she so wasn’t trying to kid herself.
Swinging her body contrary to the cable, Aya quickly reduced its momentum to the point where it was near still, then pushed a small button on the belt. Slowly, painstakingly slowly, the micro winch inside started to pull the cable in. There was nothing she could do about that; the winch was meant for the cable only. Being able to lift her was only an emergency feature, and quite an astonishing considering its size.
If she could have climbed the cable, she’d already been up, but unfortunately it was too thin for that; nowhere to get a grip on it, even with the gloves. Instead this was turning out to become a trial of patience. Not the ‘overcome and get stronger’ kind, the other one – the ‘suffer to until death’ kind. Patience just wasn’t her; reputedly that ran in the family. Not that she couldn’t spend hours on, say, a jigsaw, she was fine with that, but waiting, especially when she didn’t know how long, was like playing harpsichord on her nerves.
In the end it took a whole seven minutes for her to get into range of the elevator’s framework. Aya set the winch to stop and grabbed the strut closest to her, then started to work her way towards the centre of the grate, where a hatch was. Swinging forward and backwards a couple of times she gained momentum, then folded her body up and pushed though the hatch, which gave way without even bothering to put up any resistance.
With the push of yet another button on her belt the cable detached from the hook and, without having her weight to bear, quickly retracted. She could have recovered the hook right away, but it was far easier when the platform was in ground position, and as far as she was concerned, she’d done enough acrobatics for that day.
Aya sat down cross legged in the middle of the platform and flipped the control panel next to her open. She pushed a couple of buttons, but the lift didn’t budge. Instead the diagnostic display sprung to live, greeting her with a jumble of status messages. Terrific. She’d always wanted to debug a lift.
Well, things could be worse. Even if she couldn’t get the thing to move, she was in a much better position here than she had been before climbing up. From here, she could always get out of the core shaft, and back onto the floor she had come from. She’d have to break a couple of locks this time, and crawling through the cabling floor twice a night wasn’t exactly her idea of fun, but it sure beat starving to death. Oh, wait, she’d actually die of thirst first.
Aya brought her train of thought to a halt and forced herself to concentrate on the lift control. Most of the messages were meaningless garbage, at least as far as she was concerned, but a few words caught her attention. It claimed to have suffered a protocol mismatch – probably when the building computer had tried to pass along her orders – and now the stupid thing had gone into diagnostic mode. There probably were ways to deal with that kind of thing amicably, but she wasn’t in the habit of carrying the lift maintainers manual around with her. Besides she didn’t feel very friendly about that piece of junk anyway.
She produced one of her multitools from their holster and set it to screwdriver, then placed the tip on the first screw. It instantly hardened into the desired form. Reputedly, there were still people using interchangeable heads. She’d never get anything done if she had to lug that kind of weight around with her. There, that was the last one. Aya put it into her pocket with the others and removed the panel. Yikes.
Whoever was responsible for that deserved to die – a slow, painful death. She had seen hastily thrown together jury rigs better than this… can of worms on a paint diet? Some were still dangling from the panel she had lifted off, but most of them were sitting in a revolting rubbery goo. Glue. Whatever. It was a wonder the elevator had ever moved at all. Too bad she couldn’t really file a complaint, but what should she put in the form? Issuer: A thief? Might even be fun.
Aya selected a pair a of wires that seemed marginally thicker than the rest and searched for the place where they connected to the circuit board. It turned out to be a small plug. Well, that looked promising; she pulled it off. The display turned dark; so either she had just cut the power, as intended, or fried the board. She plugged it back in.
For a moment nothing happened, but then the display came to life again, telling her to wait for self diagnostics to finish. Instead she screwed the panel back on. She was almost done when the tests finished and a reassuring ‘Ready.’ appeared. A few button presses and the platform set obediently into motion, as if nothing had ever happened, and of course nothing had happened as far as it was concerned.
The air stream from below made Aya’s eyes water as the elevator picked up speed and she had to take off her goggles. Instantly darkness enveloped her, but she didn’t mind. She simply closed her eyes and imagined being outside, brilliant sunshine warming her skin and a light breeze blowing. By the time the elevator had reached the bottom of the shaft she had almost managed to trick herself in believing it.
The platform came to halt with a jerk. Aya donned her goggles and rose to her feet; time to get out of this place. She pulled the hatch open and let herself drop into the space beneath the platform. It was rather low, and Aya had to actually get on her knees to avoid hitting her head on the elevator’s framework as she retrieved her hook.
A handful of steps led from the bottom of the shaft down into a small tunnel, tubes and cables lining one side. Above she could hear the gently hum of the transformers, supplying the whole of the building with power.
After several metres the tunnel ended in a heavy door. Aya pushed it open and stepped out of the building. You wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference by the looks of it, but the staircase in front of her belonged to the public infrastructure. With some effort she pushed the door shut, then tapped something into the keypad next to it. Creaking, the heavy bars slid into locking position, and not for the first time Aya wondered why they did that. No other doors she had come across did creak, at least not like that, and she had come across a few really heavy ones.
Anyway, from here it was a piece of cake. Just an unreasonably large amount of stairs from the depths of the building’s foundations to the infrastructure tunnels near the surface and a little stroll through said tunnels. Most people would probably have collapsed halfway up the stairs, no matter what kind of ‘improvements’ they had applied to their bodies; with all the lifts around, few ever felt the need to walk more than a handful of stairs at a time. Aya, however, was used to relying on her feet for moving around – and sometimes knees, arms and hands. Even hurrying to make up for the time she had lost to the elevator, she reached the top only somewhat out of breath.
She passed another door and then made her way into the maze of tunnels beyond. Their network spread under the whole of the city, making it at least in theory possible to get anywhere without being noticed by the surface world. Theory failed rather quickly when you actually tried to do it. For one thing, all doors in and out of the tunnels were secured by locks, that were not really hard to bypass, but extremely hard to bypass without tripping the alarm. Then, of course, there was the law enforcement. It was impossible, and impractical, to control all the tunnels, but they did secure all the major hubs of the system – with cameras, sensors, you name it.
Of course it did help, that through some strange quirk she had ended up on the mailing list for the security digest. Getting all the new codes directly from the source was definitely worth the effort she had put into making exactly this quirk happen.
By now Aya had reached a door set into the side of the tunnel. It looked a bit as if belonged into a ship rather than here, with its rounded edges and the lower border that ended several centimetres above the floor. That resemblance wasn’t exactly coincidental, the door did lead to the storm sewer.
Before she tapped the code into the panel next to it, however, she needed a change of clothes. She put down her backpack and produced a pair of baggy pants and a sweater from it, pulling them over what she liked to refer to as her ‘business outfit’.
For one thing, someone might make the connection between a woman in skin tight black apparel and a break-in in the neighbourhood, but mostly because she’d die of embarrassment. Skin tight was very literal in this case, and while it allowed an unprecedented freedom of movement, it also showed a great deal more than it concealed.
Some girls wore that kind of thing to the clubs for exactly that reason, but they were usually of the kind whose reputation couldn’t suffer for that kind of thing anymore, to formulate it diplomatically. Or how her father would put it: Slags. If her father ever found out she even possessed something like that… He wouldn’t approve. She knew she wouldn’t.
Aya tapped the code into the panel, then stepped through the door and into a different world. Water was everywhere. The muddy stream flowing down the canal in the middle was only a small part of it. It was oozing from the wall, hanging in the air and the algae growing everywhere didn’t make things any better. She had to carefully watch her step, not to slip on the slimy mucus.
Nevertheless, Aya welcomed the change. At least the place was alive, unlike the rest of the city; there was nothing artificial about it. And since it only collected rain water it didn’t smell bad, not even of rats. And there were plenty.
Rats, the universal constant of life. They were anywhere. On every planet, every station, every ship, adapting to the most adverse environments and thriving in places that were otherwise incapable of supporting higher life. Not before the advent of genetic analysis anyone had noticed that they weren’t even native organisms; they blended in that well. Even today, nobody knew where they came from originally, only a few rumours that they originated from some backwater planet, not even capable of space flight. Even mentioning them could send scientists over the edge. Aya didn’t really mind, as long as they didn’t start crawling around on her. Actually, they looked kinda cute.
Finally, she reached a ladder. She pulled the hood of her sweater deep into her face, but kept her goggles on. They looked perfectly like sunglasses, so nobody would give them a second though. She didn’t get why anyone would want to wear sunglasses at night in the first place, but if fashion allowed her to use night vision in public, who was she to complain?
The manhole led into a back alley. In the actual streets there were only drainage grates in the curbs, all the actual manholes had been placed out of the way for practical and security reasons, which served Aya well. After all, climbing out of the sewer in the middle of the road might have been just a tad suspicious.
She nonchalantly pushed the cover back onto the hole with her foot and then walked off, as if climbing out of sewers was the most natural thing in the world. There wasn’t even much acting involved. She did this all the time, after all.
A couple of minutes later she was in the open road, diving into the streams of people that even at this time ran through the city. Now she was merely one of many; impossible to single out.