Rico motioned at the brick barrier.

Shank stepped forward, edged past Bandit, and attacked the brick with his Wallacher combat axe. The brick and mortar split and crumbled like an old plaster wall in some derelict tenement. After the first few blows, Shank began using his free hand to tug chunks out of the barrier, the pieces bursting into dust between his fingers. The noise level was minimal. Rico gave Bandit an approving nod, but the shaman didn’t seem to notice.

Dok and Filly came hurrying along the main passage as Rico was suiting up. Kevlar mask with integral headset, commando-style harness, flak jacket. Predator 2 heavy auto, Ingrain 20T submachine gun, both with integral smartlinks.

For tonight’s special work, he and the rest of the team also carried Ares Special Service automatics, medium autos with silencers and extended fourteen-round clips. The clips held Armamax gel-stun rounds loaded with special chemical agents. If the impact of the round didn’t disable the target, the chem agents would, absorbed directly into the bloodstream through armor, clothing, skin, and damn near anything else. Unconsciousness would result in about three seconds. Sometimes less. People with a dozen armor-piercing slugs in their meat sometimes went on shooting for longer than that, so the delay wasn’t really an issue. No more than with any other bullet.

And the mortality issue took precedence, in any event. The Armamax slugs disabled without killing. Rico wasn’t into wetwork, murder by another name. He and the rest of the team would switch to hard ammo if and when they had no other choice. When it became kill or be killed.

But only if it came to that.

The objective was to get in and out before anyone even knew they were there. Smooth as a teflon slide, painless as a razor’s slice. Surgically precise. Leave the heavy bang-bang warfare scag to the amateurs out in the streets.

By the time Dok and Filly had their gear set and ready to go, Shank had dug a hole through the brick barrier almost big enough for a troll.

Rico fingered his headset. “Time check.”

Piper replied, “Zero-one-zero-three hours.”

“Right,” Rico said, glancing around at the team. “Lock and load. Namecodes only. Stay alert.”

Slides snapped and clicked. Spring-fed ammo clicked into firing chambers. Rico slipped past Bandit and motioned Shank into lead position. They advanced past the ruined barrier, keeping to intervals of about three meters, weapons at ready. Dok and Filly would handle rear-guard. That put Bandit right in the middle, right where he belonged.

This passage was just like the main one, but with one crucial difference. It led directly to the principal utility and engineering building of the Maas Intertech facility. The walls were seeded with vibration and motion sensors. Taking them out was part of Piper’s job. She should be in the Maas Intertech computer nexus by now, doing her thing.

If she wasn’t, the five of them in this tunnel were meat.

Every system cluster, like every individual system, had weaknesses, and those could be exploited.

Piper’s map showed that the interconnected mainframes that composed the Maas Intertech computer cluster had one serious flaw. R D mainframes were the most vigorously protected, rated at Security Code Red-4. Intrusion Countermeasures guarding the access nodes to these systems would be black, as vicious as IC ever got. The corp knew where its most important assets were located and spared no expense in defending them. The primary security mainframe, however, was merely Code Orange, tough but by no means impenetrable. And the main engineering system, which monitored and controlled the facility’s physical devices such as water, light, and heat, was only moderately defended by Code Green security. And that was the cluster’s flaw.

Besides controlling heat and light, elevators, automatic doors, and the like, the primary engineering mainframe was also responsible for such operations as supplying power to security monitors and related devices. The flaw that Piper would exploit.

The sculpted interior of the engineering CPU had the look of a power station control room or maybe the bridge of a trideo starship. The heart of the node took the form of a chief engineer icon seated at an immense, semicircular control console. An array of huge display screens ranged across the walls facing this console. Data blazing like electric neon streamed continuously across the wall displays and the main console displays. From millisecond to millisecond, the chief engineer icon would reach out with a stark white hand to adjust some console control or to enter a brief series of commands via the console keyboard.

As Piper crossed the threshold of the CPU node, a window outlined in brilliant green opened directly in front of her face. The enormous eye of another Watcher IC access program faced her squarely. Her masking utility had already changed her iconic appearance. She now wore the dark gray zipsuit of a Maas Intertech exec. The identity card clipped to the lapel of her jacket read, in big bold print, PRIORITY USER, CLEARANCE AA. The window closed, the Watcher vanished. Piper stepped up behind the chief engineer icon. This icon ignored her. Representing the most crucial decision-making circuits at the core of the CPU, it relied on Intrusion Countermeasures to defend it from harm. It lacked both the ability to identify unauthorized intruders into the node and the capability to do anything about them.

Piper initialized a custom combat utility. She called it Power Play. In the consensual hallucination of the matrix, she drew an enormous, gleaming, chrome automatic pistol with a muzzle the size of her fist and put it against the back of the chief engineer’s head. In another version of this reality, thirty megapulses of command/override program code infected and interpenetrated the firmware programming of the CPU.

The chief engineer icon hesitated, turning its head just slightly as if to look back at her.

“I’m in charge,” she told it.

“Affirmative,” the icon replied. “Instructions?”

“Continue normal functions. Do not interfere with any modifications I may make to system operations. Do not initiate any special activities or security alerts without my approval.”


The chief engineer returned to making adjustments of the various controls. Piper reached out with her free hand and tapped a key on the console. One of the huge display screens on the walls facing the console went black, then blazed with light as the stark white iconic face of the security CPU came into view.

“Identify,” the security CPU said.

“Engineering CPU,” Piper replied.

“I don’t recognize your icon.”

“Manual override has been invoked. Authority assistant director Facility Engineering, code seven-seven-nine-four-nine, clearance double-A. Facility engineering is marking power systems microanomalies and is now beginning level-one manual and computer-directed diagnostic checks.”

“I understand.”

“Be advised that facility technicians will be performing unscheduled maintenance in utility passage One Main at zero-zero-four-five hours, and in other utility passages and service corridors throughout the facility. Disregard all sensor alerts from these locations until further notice. Engineering personnel are on site and will advise when the situation has been corrected.”


“End of line.”

Piper broke the link with the security CPU, then spent something less than a millisecond shutting down the security sensors in utility passage One Main and other locations critical to Rico and the rest of the penetration team.

It was just a matter of pushing the right virtual keys.

From five thousand feet, the plex looked like a dark ocean of hazy orange, lit by the brilliant red strokes of fire at the top of chemplant stacks and the hundred million glinting, gleaming lights of towers, buildings, and plants.

The Hughes Stallion helo cruised smoothly through the spectral dark. Inside the chopper’s command deck Thorvin kept his sensors moving, his throttle back. No need to rush. Not yet Direct-vision overlays cut up the terrain below into its discrete parts: Jersey City to the south, Newark to the southwest, Union City, the Hudson River, and Manhattan to the east, the Passaic-Ridgefield sprawl directly to the north. Thorvin noted that in passing. He had plotted a hexagonal course around the Secaucus industrial zone. He watched his course and kept his sensors searching for any suspicious air traffic.

The comm cut into his thoughts, first, a beep, then Rico saying, “Beta… time check.”

What freaking time was it anyway?

Didn’t matter…

Thorvin checked his radar and navcomp, initialized the chopper’s autopilot, then flipped the main switch on his remote-vehicle multiplex controller.

No more helicopter.

Instead, he had the body of a Sikorsky-Bell Microskimmer, a kind of saucer-shaped drone the size of a trash can lid. Sensors provided a full, 360-degree global view of everything around him, disorienting, but only for a moment.

Dok and Filly were just then lifting him free of the carrypak strapped to Shank’s back and setting him down on the floor, which looked like ferrocrete. The penetration team was to one of the underground utility tunnels beneath the Maas Intertech facility. From a few centimeters above the floor, the top of the skimmer’s sensor pod, Shank still looked like a dumb trog.

“Beta,” Rico said, “Take point.”

No problem.

Thorvin wound up his turbofans and slid forward, weaving around the ankles of Shank and Rico and advancing to the end of the passage. Directly ahead was a cavernous labyrinth of massive conduits and equipment rising three stories from the floor, all rumbling like a roadtrain on a quicksilver run.

This was Maas Intertech’s power and water hub. Thorvin shot straight for the ceiling, then vectored right for a quick recon. Security cameras had every service aisle and catwalk under surveillance, but that was Piper’s problem. Thorvin’s problem was the odd dozen technicians moving throughout the hub.

He contacted Rico via direct laserlink to guide the penetration team through the maze.

The cat-and-mouse game couldn’t last. There were too many techs and they never seemed to stay in one spot for more than a couple of moments. Sooner or later, one or more of them would turn the wrong way and see the wrong thing. Rico knew it-it was inevitable-but he played the game as long as he could. The longer he and the team went without putting people down, without doing anything that would rouse ‘suspicions, the better their chances of getting out of this alive.

They were moving up a service aisle between conduits at least half a meter in diameter, stacked up two stories on both sides of the aisle, when Thorvin reported, “Contact ahead, passage right, three meters in.”

No choice, no alternate routes, ho time to wait for the contact to wander away. Rico tapped Shank’s shoulder to get his attention, then quickly pointed and gestured to indicate the new threat, somewhere around the corner of the passage coming up on the right. The instant Shank nodded, Rico turned and motioned Bandit forward. A quick whisper and Bandit nodded, then did something with his hand.

About five meters ahead of them, something banged and clanged. That was followed by what sounded like the sharp, shrill shriek of an alley cat.

“What the frag was that?” a man exclaimed.

A big slag wearing a gray and blue technician’s jumpsuit stepped into the aisle just ahead, first looking up the aisle, then back.

Rico saw the man’s eyes widen, but Shank was ready, crouching, Ares Special Service gripped and uplifted in two big blocky hands. The weapon thumped. The technician grunted, lifting a hand toward his ribs, then stumbled and collapsed.

“Larry?” a woman called. “Larry! Oh-!”

A woman in the same style jumpsuit stepped hurriedly into the aisle, bending toward the fallen man. Shank fired again. The woman jerked, falling onto her hands and knees, then, head lolling, slumped to the floor.

Here was one advantage of soft ammo. The two techs would be out for maybe an hour, but nothing about them gave any obvious evidence as to what had happened. No damage to clothes, no apparent signs of injury. Nothing that would necessarily instigate a full-scale security alert. The pair could have passed out drunk. Inside this power and water hub, they could conceivably have contacted some toxic substance or even high-voltage electric and been accidentally stunned or knocked unconscious. Whoever found the fallen techs would probably take a long, hard look at the surrounding pipes and equipment for signs of some technical malfunction. That was good because it would waste time, and one man’s loss was another man’s gain.

Before this was over, they’d need every millisecond of advantage they could get.

Control of the engineering CPU was just the beginning. By manipulating aspects of the engineering mainframe, Piper could extend her control and manipulate other aspects of the Maas Intertech facility that might impinge on the run.

The chief engineer icon, the critical circuits of the engineering CPU, was now working for her voluntarily. In addition to preforming its usual duties, it was monitoring the progress of the penetration team, it was also disabling security monitors and sensors in an ostensibly random pattern designed not only to safeguard the team and prevent discovery, but also to conceal the team’s objective.

Abruptly, a warning tone sounded.

“Medic alert,” the chief engineer informed. “Automated signal. Sublevel two, section seven, Advanced Water Purification unit.”

“Intercept the signal,” Piper said.

“Negative. Signal dispatched via radiolink. Facility MedStat responding, E.T.A. three minutes.”

That was too fast, because the site of the alert was too near the penetration team’s location. Piper brought up facility maps on the big display screens on the walls. The Maas Intertech emergency medical unit responded from a central suite. They would have to enter the Engineering Facility through a ground-floor entrance. “Cut power to all north-facing ground-level entranceways and lobbies for the next five minutes. Advise security CPU that we are experiencing scattered power outages related to the anomalies detected earlier. Also, reroute all priority A, double-A, and triple-A engineering terminals to the database management CPU.”

“Acknowledged,” the chief engineer replied. “Executing. Except I don’t have authority to reroute triple-A priority terminals.”

“If you had that authority, which key would you use?”

“The big red one there.”

Piper reached over and tapped it.

Utility Passage Nine Main led out of the north end of the engineering building and into a series of auxiliary tunnels leading to the engineering sublevel of Residence Quad One, which was composed of four residence towers rising to fourteen stories. The majority of Maas Intertech’s corporate citizens and their families lived on-site in this and other quad condoplexes.

The game of avoiding facility technicians ended at the service hatch for Elevator Three West. The hatch swung open as they approached. That was Piper’s doing.

The inside of the elevator shaft was about twelve meters square-not a lot of room for five bodies that included a husky ork and a shaman who didn’t seem to be paying complete attention-but they’d all been through this drill before.

Secure hatchway. Secure weapons. Secure kevlar-reinforced web-straps to body harness. Crouch low and wait.

They didn’t have to wait long.

Cables along both sides of the shaft began to move. A low-pitched humming carried down from above. Rico’s microchip-enhanced vision drew the image out of the darkness. The elevator above them was descending, dropping down fast from something like the eighth floor. It didn’t stop till it was just centimeters above Rico’s head, about half a ton of metal just hanging there, waiting.

They went to work.

This elevator car, like most, had a solid steel floor designed to absorb impact. Cutting a hole through that would take time, minutes they couldn’t afford. The run was already twenty minutes old, fifteen from first penetration. By the odds, they didn’t have much time left.

A soft electronic tone sounded inside Rico’s headset, followed by Piper’s voice: “Time is zero-one-two-eight.” That was a warning, and it echoed the warning of Rico’s own instincts. It meant that things were happening in the Maas Intertech computers that would inevitably lead to some kind of alert condition. Not right this minute, but soon enough. When it happened, whatever happened, they’d better be on their way out.

The strap now connected to Rico’s body harness ended in an industrial-grade suction cup. Rico slapped the cup against the bottom of the elevator, pulled the cup’s metal latch and locked it. The cup flattened out against the steel of the elevator. Rico bent his knees till his whole body weight pulled on the cup. It held.

The moment the rest of the team was ready, Rico keyed his headset. “Time check.”

“Time is zero-one-two-nine.” The elevator hummed and ascended. The floor of the shaft fell away quickly. Hanging from a single thin strap, having nothing to grab on to if the suction cup or strap gave way helped make it seem that way.

Two stories up, then three. The saucer-shaped drone Thorvin had running followed them right up the shaft, hovering maybe a meter beneath their feet. Rico looked up, but there was nothing to see but the flat steel plate of the elevator. Four stories, five, then six. Almost there. Rico drew his Ares automatic. At his right elbow, Filly did the same.

Seven stories.

“Stand by for landing,” Rico said.

The elevator slowed, then stopped, perfectly positioned. They hung directly in front of the doors to the ninth floor. Rico braced his feet against the edge of flooring at the bottom of the doors and lifted the Ares, gripped two-handed. Filly Mowed suit. A moment passed, then several more. The doors didn’t open.

Shank grunted. Impatient.

Maybe half a minute went by, time they couldn’t afford to lose. Either Piper was having serious problems in the matrix and couldn’t spare the time to pop the doors, or there was another problem. Maybe people in the hallway outside. Maybe security personnel. Maybe an alert had been declared.

The only way to find out without risking more radio traffic was to get-

“A man and a woman,” Bandit said. “Up the hall. On the left.”

“What’re they doing?” Rico asked.

“They’re bored.”

“Bored like guards standing watch?”


Rico gave it a minute. They couldn’t afford to do anything that might give them away, but neither could they wait. Someone would find the techs they’d put down. Someone would notice an elevator apparently gone out of service. Someone would consider a bunch of seemingly unconnected events, have a sudden flash of intuition, and hit the PANICBUTTON. The longer they waited, the more likely that became. It posed a danger to Piper as well. A decker could die in the matrix. And this was a classic case of how that might come about.

The minute ticked off. Nothing changed. Rico made the unavoidable decision. “Right. We advance. Four, take left, I take right. Two and Three, stand by to jump.”

Filly acknowledged.

Rico keyed his headset “Alpha, pop the doors on my mark. Counting two, one, mark.”

The doors slid smoothly apart, revealing the hallway beyond, extending out maybe fifty meters. Standing in front of a doorway about halfway along on the left were a male and a female in loose-fitting gray suits and black mirrorshades.

As Rico brought his Ares into line, his smartlink put a gleaming red triangle over the male’s chest. The auto thumped once. Filly’s auto thumped at nearly the same instant. The male fell to his knees, then rolled onto his back. The female went down like a bag of rocks.

Thorvin’s drone flashed past, humming.

Dok and Shank swung themselves forward, planted their feet on the floor of the hallway, popped their harnesses and then knelt down, training their automatics up the hallway to provide cover.

Once they were set, Rico followed them out, with Filly close behind. The two of them then turned back to tug Bandit clear of the elevator shaft. Filly reached out and popped Bandit’s harness. It was a few precious moments, but that couldn’t be helped. Bandit tended to do things in one of two ways, like an expert or a dunce. Left to himself, he’d probably hang there under the elevator for a couple of hours before figuring out how to get out and then actually getting around to doing it.

Rico reminded himself, not for the first time, that the shaman’s strengths far outweighed his weaknesses. And everybody had weaknesses. It was built-in.

Inside the brilliant cube of the Engineering CPU, a window outlined in green suddenly opened and the giant eye of a Watcher program gazed straight into Piper’s face. Things were starting to happen now, all over the Maas Intertech computer cluster. The power failures she had ordered had been noticed. Programmers and technicians were trying, without success, to get into the engineering mainframe. The security CPU had doubtless put the cluster on passive alert. It knew something serious was wrong, but it didn’t know what. It needed more data.

The giant eye gazing into her face was evidence of that.

Piper drew a balloon from her jacket pocket, stretched it, blew it up, and tapped it toward the Watcher IC. The balloon undulated and expanded. The Watcher’s eye drifted aside to avoid it, but couldn’t. The balloon speeded up, enveloped the Watcher, then just held it. The watcher’s eye moved back and forth, but drifted slowly and steadily upward-inside the balloon-toward the glaring white ceiling of the node, then just hung there, immobile.

“Security CPU requesting node-to-node interface,” the chief engineer icon reported.

“Denied,” Piper said. “Lock out all external systems.”


The clock was running down.