|(c) 2009 Frenic|
Two minutes out from New Sunan airport, the tapering spires of Pyongyang looming out of the dull grey smog ahead, and a cascade of CI routines are already blossoming neon orange in my peripheral vision against the scattering of tripwire probes that invisibly assail me. Nothing too serious; low-tech commercial grade and homebrew code that is used to dealing with far easier prey, tourists and businessmen who’d be none the wiser to the data they’d lost or the secrets they’d shared. I was packing a near-as military spec e-iris and docking system; enough to foil all but the most major of major players.
I settle back into the comfort of my seat and gaze out of the window at the passing landscape, little more than a concrete blur as the Maglev continues its relentless acceleration. I set fragments of scraped data, that my slave routines had worked up for me in-flight, drifting before me like snowflakes and allow myself to be lost in the hypnotic allure of aggregated data feeds. Ballistics data from an on-going case in Seattle, a set of invoices relating to a case in San Diego, reminders on rent for my office, an invite to a party (declined), the result of a blood test I’d taken after having been bitten (negative for pathogens) and a bevy of voicemails from people I either didn’t know or didn’t want to reply to.
The trail had not been an easy one to follow. Riddles wrapped within riddles and a rising body count that was scattered across at least three continents. Shell companies, convenient suicides, accidents, data loss; whoever was behind this had worked hard to make sure that it would be nearly impossible to untangle the web of deceit. Nearly impossible.
I could pinpoint the exact moment that this had stopped being just a case and had become something more to me, something personal. An empty New York parking lot, rain streaming down and pooling at my feet; a witness already dead and a shot that I’d felt before I’d heard; the pink scar tissue that runs across the breadth of my back a testament to the most fractional of misses. They had, I liked to believe, made a mistake that day. As I had lain face down on the black asphalt, cheek mushed up against the grit and gravel, cold rain soaking and mingling with the pulsing warmth that I knew was my own blood, I had changed. In that moment, I had gone from being merely interested to being fully invested.
A woman dressed in a black business suit threads her way down the aisle of the train, a Louis Vuitton suitcase trailing in her wake, and sits down opposite to me. Porcelain skin and obsidian eyes that look me over with practised disinterest, black hair knitted into thick dreadlocks that are coiled around her head like a serpent’s basket. She stares absently out of the window for a few moments before turning her attention back to me, her red lips pursed as if waiting for me to ask her a question. I decide not to disappoint.
“Can I help you?”
She stares back at me in silence for a moment, her face a blank canvas that betrays nothing. Finally she smiles, a thin smile that seems almost etched into place.
“I don’t know, Mr Melville. Is there?”
Her voice is soft, almost melodic, and I feel a rumble of discontent roll through my stomach. She knows my name. Not one of the names that I have been travelling under, not the false passport upon which I arrived into this country less than two hours earlier. She knows my real name.
“You seem to have me at a disadvantage, Miss…?”
She gives me that smile again but her eyes stay utterly cold. “My name is of little importance. I come with an offer from my employer for you.”
“And who might your employer be?”
She ignores the question and instead slips the suitcase onto her knee and opens it to reveal a yellow stack of US government bonds.
“There’s $20 million here.” she says, and pushes it towards me.
“And I’m supposed to just take this and go home, I assume?”
“That’s exactly what you do, Mr Melville. You take this suitcase and you go home and you never go poking your noise into the business of my employer again.”
I nod thoughtfully.
“And if I don’t take this briefcase?” I ask, “If I tell your employer that I can’t be bought? If I carry on coming and I don’t stop?”
“Then you force our hand and leave us with no choice but to make you go away.”
“And what are you going to do? Kill me?”
“I came prepared for all possible contingencies today.”
“I backed up immediately before this trip,” I reply, “I’ll be reskinned in three days. Kill me and I’ll be back here in a week, tops.”
She closes the suitcase in silence and places it on the floor of the train before standing up and slipping off her jacket to reveal a suicide vest that glistens beneath the train’s fluorescent lights. A metal belt knotted with strands of blue wiring that serve to stitch together several pale white blocks of C4. I don’t know a whole lot about plastic explosives, but I’m pretty certain that she is carrying enough to take out the entire carriage. She holds a wireless detonator loosely in her right hand, her thumb hovering against the button.
“Last chance to change your mind, Mr Melville.”
These are the moments upon which you are judged, I guess. The times where pressure acts to reveal our true character, lay bare our beliefs and motives.
“Death doesn’t scare me.” I say, and I realise I truly believe it in that moment. I’ve never been reskinned before but I know it’s tried and trusted tech, as proven as the train we were riding on today. “At best, you’re just delaying me.”
Her eyes glitter black, her smile a line drawn across her face that serves to eat away at any beauty it might otherwise hold.
“And what if, Mr Melville, there is no reskinning for you? What if this is all there is?”
She leans in close, the detonator now tight in hand, and I can smell the faint delicate tang of her perfume.
“I told you I came prepared for all contingencies, Mr Melville.”
Even as I try to process what she just said, her thumb closes hard on the button and I wonder whether her white face will be the last thing I ever…