Chapter 1

   "You told him we charge more for a no-kill job, right?"

   "Of course, Roland.  The client was very insistent that no one be harmed."

   "Figures."  He sighed a heavy sigh and lit his cigarette.  "When and where?"


   Things had not gone right for Roland Murphy today, starting with a hangover when he woke up.  That had been his fault, admittedly, but a hangover is never a good start to the day.  He had to try three times to pick up his key ring off the night stand next to his bed.  Double-vision made it hard to focus on the clock.  Eight AM? or nine?  Either way he was probably going to be late for his meeting with Grace.  He stumbled out his front door and lost his footing on the stairs.  Years of hand-to-hand combat training had instilled excellent reflexes in his legs to recover a lost footing.  But those reflexes had been trained on mostly flat ground.  He fell on his ass and slid down the last half of the staircase, catching his elbow on the guardrail.

   Bruised, he picked himself up and walked tenderly to his car.  He backed out of his parking space and heard the distinct "thumpeta-thumpeta" of a rolling flat tire.  A nail in the rear passenger tire, specifically.

   His car was soon parked outside Joe's Diner; the spare had gotten him there and Grace bought him breakfast while they discussed the client's requirements.  She left him an info-packet of the details of the job and he finished his eggs in peace, thinking about the day.  It had been bad, but not <em>all</em> bad.  He had a job now, and a free breakfast.  His crew would be pissed about the no-kill order though.


   "Mornin' boss!"  Roland cringed as Mariah greeted him in typical jubilance.  He'd been stopped by every red light on his way from the diner, and his foul mood had returned.

   "Alright guys, gather round."  The other members of the crew gathered around the impromptu podium as Roland stood on an overturned wooden box.  "I have good news and bad news.  Good news first.  I spoke with Grace this morning and we have a job.  A high paying job even."  The crew's eyes lit up as Roland spoke.  He glanced across their faces in turn, wanting to remember the looks of joy and elation before he delivered the bad news.

   "Doc" Gennson was the medic.  Stubborn and spoiling for a good argument, it was his job to talk to people when Roland wasn't available, to convince them to either pay the crew, or to not fight the crew.  He'd learned over his time in the crew to wait for the details of the job before objecting or asking questions.  He settled his tall, slender frame against a railing Julian had installed the previous week, overlooking the slightly sunken "conference" area of the hideout's open floor plan.  He'd originally thought the railing was an oddity, a short section of waist-high railing in the middle of the floor, with no purpose other than guarding against taking a ten inch step down.  He stared disinterestedly past Roland's left shoulder, paying attention, but acting for all the world as though he was lost in thought.

   Mariah was the techie, and the youngest member of the crew.  She was responsible for running the crew's communications and making sure they were secure while she hacked past the electronic obstacles in their way.  He hadn't had anything to do for weeks and was hanging on Roland's every word.  She perched more than sat on a chair next to Gennson, hugging her knees close to her small chest in a physical act of restraint to contain her excitement, rocking slowly forward and back on the balls of her feet.

   Julian was the mechie, doing with machines what Mariah could do with software.  His spy drones were instrumental in any covert job and when things went South, he always had a couple of cheap drones filled with explosives, and some slightly-less-cheap drones filled with ammunition for their mounted guns.  His experience driving the drones made a convincing argument for Julian to be the primary drive for the crew's van.  He sat on the floor with his back against the step, fiddling with a new gadget while listening for the details of the job.

   Anna completed the quintet, specializing in heavy weapons, but more than capable with small arms.  She seemed to have an affinity for all weapons: knives and pistols at close range, rifles at long range, .50 caliber sniper rifles for long range precision, and a minigun or rocket launcher for heavy hitting.  He explosives expertise had saved them on more than one occasion.  She stood nearly as tall as Gennson but dwarfed him in sheer muscle mass.  Her off time was spent mostly in the weight room, ensuring she'd be able to carry and fire whatever heavy weapon the situation demanded for as long as needed.  Roland had thought himself strong until he saw Anna in a bar arm wrestling a line of men while holding a pint of beer in the other, never spilling a drop.  She towered over Julian on the floor, her arms crossed on her chest.

   "The bad news is this."  Julian stopped fiddling with his gadget and looked up.  Gennson took out a note pad to jot down what sort of gear they'd need to deal with casualties.  "The client wants a clean job.  Squeaky clean.  No kills and preferably no blood."  Anna threw up her hands, speaking volumes without saying a word.  She snorted and paced once around a tight circle.  "Anyone dies during this and we don't get paid.  We wound anyone and we still get paid, just not as much."

   "What about knockin' 'em out?" Julian seemed about to say more, but stopped himself.

   "That's about the only way I figure we can do this.  It won't be easy, but it's not impossible.  Here's the building plans I got through Grace."


   Julian parked the van across the street from the target building.  He kept the engine running and crawled into the back to sit at his drone console.  He spoke to the empty van, trusting his earpiece to transmit to the team.  "I'm in position and the drones are ready."

   Roland responded.  "Good, stay alert.  You're our eyes on this one."  The rest of the team was under the building in the electrical and sewage maintenance passages.  Roland lead and quietly took care of any personnel he encountered.  He kept his mind off of how well the job was going so far, lest his family's namesake decide to make the evening more like Roland's morning.  He let the unconscious guard drop slowly to the floor before motioning the rest of the team around the corner.

   "I don't like this."  Mariah, worried.  "I'm not comfortable in the field.  It's safer behind a screen."  She had been talking quietly, mostly rephrasing the same idea, since they entered the tunnels.

   "I know.  I know."  Roland tried to reassure her.  "But I need you here.  There's no remote access to these electronic locks.  We need you to get us through that door."  Roland pointed without really looking at the door.

   "Still don't make it safe."  

   Roland held her gently by her shoulders, looking in to her eyes, trying to lend her some of his confidence.  "No, it doesn't.  But you're not here alone."  He gave her a slight hug.

   "Don't matter anyway.  I can't hack that lock."

   Roland released her and turned to see what she was pointing at.  The door was secured with an old lock, pins and tumblers instead of electronics.  He knew it was going too smooth.  Roland gently guided Mariah back around the corner as he glanced from Anna to the door.

   Anna understood and stepped forward, placing a small charge on the lock before dragging the guard to the relative safety around the corner.  She looked to Roland for confirmation and he nodded.  Everyone put their fingers in their ears as Anna pressed the button on the detonator.

   Seconds passed and she pressed the button again.

   Again, nothing happened.  Fed up, Anna stalked closer to the device and tore it off the door.  She hurled it down the empty corridor, past the T junction her teammates sought refuge in, and pulled a second charge off her belt.  She inspected it thoroughly, made sure it was keyed to the detonator's radio frequency and that it was armed before she affixed it to the door and stalked back around the corner.  She raised the detonator in silent warning to the rest of the group and pressed the button again.

   The two devices exploded simultaneously, one on the door, the other in the middle of the hallway.  Roland gave Anna a questioning glance.  She shrugged.

   "Excellent.  Well done." Gennson clapped slowly, looking at Anna.  "Explosives are your specialty, you say?  I, for one, could not be more impressed."

   "Can it."  Roland silenced Gennon's commentary before Anna did more than glare menacingly at the doctor.  "Let's just get this over with quickly and get this day behind us."  The smoke and dust settled and the team stalked through the open door, pointedly ignoring the scorched dent in the concrete floor around the other corner.

   Julian sent a Long-Legs drone, its softball-sized body suspended on eight spindly legs, to add his presence to the team.  The drone was the most maneuverable ground robot in his collection, and Julian thought of it as his best spy.  It could skitter along the ceiling and hide in small, shadowy corners.  It quickly caught up to the team and at Roland's signal preceded them down the corridors.  Julian checked the spider's position against the blueprints of the building.  "This should be the target room."  The little robot bobbed on the ceiling above a door.  "Five minutes until the scheduled patrol."

   "Understood.  You're up, kid."  The team avoided using names as a matter of course while on a job.  No matter how good Mariah's surveillance jammers were, they couldn't stop a curious guard from eavesdropping; Roland refused to trust them 100% and insisted on giving away as little as possible.

   Mariah stepped forward, examining the electronic lock on the door.  "10 digit keycode, two minutes.  Biometric scanner.  Tricky... normally three minutes minimum."

   "Better cut that down.  You've got --"

   "Four minutes, fifteen seconds." Julian interrupted Roland.

   Mariah pulled out her hand-held computer gestured toward the lock while tapping the screen.  Anna drew her KA-BAR, stalking quietly up behind Mariah.  Three quick flicks and it was over, the knife was sheathed again and Anna stepped lightly past the girl.

   "Thank you."  Mariah drew a pair of leads from her pocket and clipped them to the freshly exposed circuitry of the lock, its panel dangling four inches lower than its mounting bracket on the wall.  The girl keyed another sequence on her device and the numbers on the lock's readout began cycling quickly through likely combinations.  Mariah pulled another hand-held from her pocket and executed the hand-print program she wrote, keying in the specific make and model of the scanner she had to trick.  The first device chirruped and the lock's indicator light went green.

   The leads were removed and reattached to the biometric scanner.  Her program worked on a simple principle: every scanner had a database of valid inputs, and a log of recently used inputs.  All she had to do was read both sets of data and trick the scanner in to thinking it had just scanned a valid input, usually the most recent success.

   The lock on the door clicked and Mariah pushed lightly on the door, opening it.

   "One minute, ten seconds.  Hurry up, guys."  Julian's spider was watching the hallway for signs of approaching guards.

   "We're in."  Roland ushered the team through the door and closed it quietly behind them as a guard shone his flashlight down the corridor.  "Great work, kid."

   "This looks promising..." Gennson held a print out in his hands.  "What is it we're here for again?  And can we take anything extra?"

   "What'd you find?"

   Anna rolled her eyes at the doctor and walked around the room, scanning for threats.

   "Research notes.  They're close to a breakthrough in light-weight, small-scale, high-capacity power plants, suitable for, well, just about anything that needs power.  Cybernetic arms with wrist-mounted laser cannons capable of leveling a city block every minute?  All you'd have to worry about is heat dissipation, power consumption's taken care of with this." He waved the papers around a bit.

   "Jesus..." Roland whispered under his breath.  "Grab it.  That's what we're after, a new power source.  No idea it'd be that powerful though."

   Gennson put the notes in the empty bag he was carrying.  "That's a theoretical max, and couldn't be sustained for more than half an hour or so.  A couple of years away, but still..."

   "Right.  Notes aren't everything though.  There should be a prototype around somewhere."

   "Oh God... I think I found it..." Mariah sounded uneasy.  No sooner had the others spotted her than she ran back to the door. She sat down, one hand on her stomach and the other wiping her face as she doubled over.

   Anna was the first to the table Mariah found and kept a wary eye on it.  "What is that?" Roland asked Gennson as they approached it.

   "The host."  A child lay on the surgical table its eyes closed. Roland guessed it to be no more than nine or ten years old.  Its ribcage and abdomen were splayed open.  The heart was plainly visible, pumping in a normal rhythm while the lungs worked on either side, inflating and deflating in time with the child's breaths.  Most of the rest of the internal organs were scattered around the table, resting in silvery bowls.  In their place within the body was an oblong, rounded metal device.

   "Christ.  Is it ... alive?"

   "She, and yes, technically."  Mariah began sobbing quietly as Gennson spoke.  "Though I doubt very much the quality of life, the child is still alive."

   "Can we move her?"

   "Absolutely.  The machine can be transported quite safely."  Gennson paused as Roland looked him in the eye. "Oh, you meant the girl.  It will not be easy to move her without killing her.  She's not hooked up to a respirator, which is in our favor, but we can't simply wheel her out of here split open like that.  Infections aside, we'll get quite the look rolling her down the street."

   Roland was in no mood for Gennson's humor.  "Stitch her up.  We're leaving."

   "Shift change in forty-five minutes.  That'll be the best time to slip out." Julian looked over the guards' rotation schedule.  "Everyone will be in the monitor room, briefing the next team.  I can spoof the cameras.  You'll have six minutes."


   "Tell the client that if he wants us in the future, we'll need to know more about what he wants."  Roland threw the packet of notes on to the table.  They spun slightly and slid to a stop in front of Grace's plate.  "That's where we'll be to exchange the cash for his merchandise."  The diner fell silent for a moment after Roland stomped out the door.  Grace waved the waitress over to pay for her half-eaten meal.


World Tag: 
Ex Machina