Expert mercenary hacker Inigo X attempts to pull off the perfect heist, backed up by hard-as-nails assistant Cherry and psychotic ship The Altered Cabrón, only to learn that even success comes with a cost.
Let me introduce you to Bullet Train a terrific story as you may know it was worth the third place in our Infinity’s writing contest. It was written by Christopher Hobday, MeekRebel in ITS, enjoy yourselves.
Bullet Train by Christopher Hobday (‘MeekRebel’)
The array fancied itself as a venus flytrap, snatching at incoming vessels and terrifying their software into admitting precisely what their business was at Unamuno Station. As with all smart machines, it bore the cloned foibles of its creator on its sleeve like a patriotic flag. Yes, it would concede to its prey, I am a bully. But I am also the gatekeeper and if I don’t like the cut of your jib, the bay doors will remain closed. The array could not, of course, enjoy its work. But it had perfected the skill of pretending that it did.
So when the drab and angular schooner passed through the first security ring, the shadow of the immense but delicate structure’s framework passing slowly across its pock-marked hull, the Unamuno array gleefully leapt into action. Aggressive scans slammed into the visitor’s software, officiously violating thousands of drives and scraping through half a million files with the electronic equivalent of sandpaper-coated boxing gloves. The array could not tremble with anticipation but it managed a rough virtual approximation.
I don’t like your face, it said to the visiting ship. You will wait here until I am satisfied that you are neither a saboteur threatening the sanctity of this station or a hoodlum preparing to lower the tone of the place. Now shut up and let me work through the mouldy cupboard you call a system.
Any ordinary ship would have quailed with grief until the interrogation was over. But this was no ordinary ship. This was the Altered Cabrón, a crack-addled wolf in sheep’s clothing, stacked to the gills with fierce black-market tech.
Its razor-sharp retort was silent, sudden and utterly mirthless. The array retracted back within the boundaries of its dominion with barely a whimper. Under its shocked gaze the schooner calmly glided into the docking bay, playfully flickering its signal lights.
In the cramped cockpit, Inigo X ran a ring-laden hand through his neon pink bouffant.
‘Told ya it would be easy,’ he said, smirking at the pilot.
Charlotte ‘Cherry’ Böm gave him a tired look, grey eyes cold beneath ivory bangs.
‘You should rein this ship in,’ she said. ‘You let it run wild.’
‘Hey, it’s good to let it flex its muscles every now and then,’ Inigo replied, crossing his boots at the ankles over a glitchy monitor. ‘You never know when we might need it to save our asses.’
‘The more you spoil it, the harder it is for me to get it to do what I want,’ Cherry said. ‘A ship is like a child. You need to lay down the law early or you’re in for a world of hurt.’
Moments later the Altered Cabrón nestled into a docking cradle, its whole structure seeming to sag like a bratwurst as gouts of steam sighed from its heat sinks.
‘Nice work,’ Inigo said, patting the monitor lovingly. He shoved a gleaming Desert Eagle into the holster at his hip, toyed briefly with his hair and then turned to Cherry. ‘Let’s do this.’
Cherry raised an eyebrow at the heavy, ugly relic sidearm. ‘What the hell is that? You look like a complete pendejo. Do you even know what end the slugs come out of?’
Inigo X cocked his head to one side, pouting.
‘You’re so abrasive,’ he moaned.
As they marched through the docking area and towards the main hub of the station, Inigo allowed some of the station’s obnoxious adware to infiltrate the periphery of his vision. Icons selling drugs, guns, cars, sex proxies, Aristeia! pay-per-views, fake gold watches, knock-off sportsware and illegal surgery flooded in from every angle. As he strode on, he dismissed the morass of junk with a groan.
‘Their filters are garbage.’
‘Or they let it flow,’ said Cherry, marching beside him, clenching her fists in anticipation of the action to come. ‘Better to know what’s going on in the shadows than remain in ignorance.’
They caught a bullet train to the financial district and found a quiet cafe. There, Inigo called up a blueprint of the area. It played behind his eyes, a crystal lattice that hummed with its own inner turbulence. The storm was money. It almost had a texture. Wet, crunchy, brittle. He licked his lips.
‘Our man on the inside certainly earned his cut,’ he muttered. ‘Look.’
He shoved the image into Cherry’s head. She frowned a little as she sipped her mint chocolate latte.
‘Looks comprehensive,’ she said. ‘But they have firewalls that’ll take your skin off.’
‘Not everywhere,’ Inigo X said. ‘Look.’
Suddenly the cafe vanished and they were both positioned vertiginously high up the spindle of the station, staring down at the financial district. Using the station’s security array, courtesy of the infernal hacking platform on the Altered Cabrón, the two mercs were able to explore the structure using any of the 1,322 camera feeds available. Inigo focused on a space near the cafe, an alley that curved around the back of a bank branch.
‘Again,’ Cherry said, ‘I know I’m the muscle, but I don’t see it.’
‘That strut,’ Inigo said, barely suppressing a gleeful grin. ‘Right behind the bank. That’s part of the superstructure. It’s crammed with data bus cables, coolant feeds, radiation shielding.’
‘It’s a hacking blind spot!’
‘Well, it’s more like glaucoma. If we’re subtle, we won’t be spotted.’
Cherry pushed the image aside and stared at the skinny kid with the ridiculous pink cloud of hair on his head. Black diamond tattoo under his left eye. Three hard crystal notches over his right brow. Barely visible scar tissue criss-crossing the temples, easy to miss with the hair. Which was why he had it styled and coloured the way he did. Gotta hide the hackwork of black market surgery, she knew.
‘Can you be subtle, Inigo?’
He cracked a crazy smile.
‘Wanna find out?’
The chamber was huge. Thousands of tiers high, or deep, depending on perspective. Through rhomboid windows seethed a broiling brown sky. Red-robed figures shuffled between the racks of diskettes, heads hidden beneath vast hoods, hideous shapes threatening to emerge from the shadow. Inigo inched forward, flicked through the diskettes, found the one he wanted. The name of the diskette matched the one he had been given by the informant, but the subtitle was more interesting. Project Godson. He snatched the diskette, slipped it into the matte black robes he was wearing, and headed for the staircase. As he moved, his fingers slid over the object. The touch rewarded him with fragments of data. Some bastardised alien tech embedded in a virtual human personality, allowed to percolate until it developed into something viable and frightening. The sort of device that would be valuable to the right buyer.
He froze. Several red-robed figures had turned to stare at him. Their hoods flew back revealing heads that resembled guns made of tormented and twisted flesh. Strange bird-like noises emitted from the figures as they converged on him. Cursing. Inigo threw himself face-down, placed a hand on the floor. A doorknob filled his palm. The door opened. He stepped out into a chinese garden.
A cat paused by a low wooden table and squinted at him. Inigo kicked it several feet across the grass and bolted through a hedge, emerging blinking into a white cubicle. He could feel something like cat’s claws mauling his temples. With a grunt he sent a request to a slumbering giant somewhere on edge of his consciousness. Without hesitation, the Altered Cabrón replied with a seething bolt of toxic data, corroding the defensive program until it fell away from Inigo spitting and writhing.
‘Thanks, dude,’ Inigo muttered, free now to shape, open and step through a portal into the real world of the alleyway. Blinking, he saw his comrade stoop to offer him a gloved hand.
‘You get it?’ Cherry said, helping him to his feet.
‘Hell yeah,’ said Inigo X. ‘Tell you what though, they’ve got some sick protection.’
‘Well we need to split.’
The breaker round cracked against her armour before either of them saw the shooter, sending her whirling. With a curse Cherry rolled, threw herself against the wall and fired back. The attacker was invisible – thermo-optic jank, for certain – but in the curved alleyway there were few places he, she or it could hide. One of her shots struck something. A figure slumped to the ground with a groan.
‘You shot him,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ said Cherry. ‘I mean, duh.’
Somewhere ahead of them a siren wailed. A hand grabbed Inigo’s shoulder.
‘We need to move right now, Inigo Xavier.’
They fled together, weaving at a pace through the district, trying to move in a pattern that would bamboozle the flatfoot AI attempting to track them. But the security system was too sharp and its human agents started to close in.
Inigo sent another plea for aid to the ship.
‘I feel like a proper freakin’ mendicant,’ he sighed. ‘But help, please!’
Wordlessly the ship intervened, causing several minor fires, system malfunctions, car accidents and false flags that drew the security forces away from the hacker’s position.
‘Jeez Louise,’ said Inigo as he caught a glimpse of the havoc being wrought in his name. Glaring red hazard symbols blazed behind his eyes, all over the district. ‘I didn’t mean to start the End of Days, AC.’
The Altered Cabrón sent him a dead-eyed smiley emoji.
‘Told you,’ Cherry said, panting as she jogged along. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the ship.’
They reached an intersection. The bullet train station was straight ahead. They had seemingly evaded capture. Inigo checked the security feeds. Every available unit was moving towards their original position in the alley. He heaved a sigh of relief.
‘We did it,’ he said. ‘We’re clear.’
Cherry flashed him a look of irritation.
‘Dude, we’re practically cleaning our knives at the crime scene. Don’t let your guard down or – ‘
Two figures appeared right in front of them. Hazy at first, then gleaming under the artificial sun. Black carbines swung up and opened fire, blasting the architecture around Inigo to dust. He tried to drop and roll like a pro but succeeded only in winding himself as he struck the ground. Cherry took several hits to her left arm and leg as she turned side-on, grimacing. Her body armour puckered as it soaked up the kinetic force. With wide eyes Inigo watched as she took careful aim despite the chattering assault and took both men down. No sooner had they dropped, she did too.
‘Aw damn,’ he said, sliding over to her. ‘They hit any vitals?’
She looked up at him, eyes fluttering erratically. The words she uttered made no sense. White foam bubbled from wounds to artificial limbs. Blood oozed from the real ones.
‘OK, I got ya,’ he said. ‘AC, she backed up, right?’
A thumbs-up entered his vision.
‘Awesome,’ Inigo whispered as he took a slender chrome device from his belt. Pointing it at Cherry’s head, he turned away, squeezing his eyes shut. The one-shot e/mitter did not flash. But his countermeasures flared in panic, filling the periphery of his vision with manic warning symbols. ‘Sorry, Cherry. Gotta leave no trail.’
Casting the device aside, Inigo ran towards the bullet train station. Using his hijacked feeds from the security cameras, he evaded the rest of the cops and found a dark maintenance alcove. Opening a link to the Altered Cabrón he reluctantly gave it an order.
‘OK, AC,’ he said. ‘I need a scrub. Get rid of everything they could use to track me. Clear out my locker.’
He half expected the ship to pause, give him time to reconsider. Perhaps even try to talk him out of it. But instead it went to work on him with the same zeal with which it approached everything else. In an instant of searing pain his entire suite was trashed. His rack of programs unspooled rapidly, making him vomit. Blank plates flashed before his eyes as vast stores of data voided out of him. After a few moments he collapsed into his own mess, desperately heaving a breath.
At least he was clean now. Nothing to track. Just an ordinary joe. His suite was backed up on the ship. Nothing was lost.
Groaning, he clambered to his feet and staggered onto the platform.
You have got to be kidding me…
Inigo spun to see the woman point at him. Her immaculate face twisted into a snarl as her hand shifted, came apart, revealed a weapon. Behind her eyes blazed the cruel intelligence of an artificial being.
Drawing his Desert Eagle, Inigo swung his arm in a wide arc. The woman shot him, the stun round slamming into his chest. With his last voluntary movement Inigo shot his own gun at the inconspicuous space between the train tracks. The slug left a clean hole as the gun tumbled from his grasp.
Inigo lost his footing and fell back. He heard the train coming and someone shouted a warning. His arms wheeled helplessly. The woman dashed towards him, reaching for his hand. She missed it.
The train hit him. It was like being booted out of an old system. One minute, lights. The next… well, no lights.
The kid felt uncomfortable in the heavy orange jumpsuit. Laden with tools and sweating like a wild boar, he climbed down from the platform and checked with system control that the trains had been redirected. Satisfied that he wasn’t going to be turned into paste at any moment he ambled along the tracks.
Red smears made his stomach turn. There’d been a terrible accident a few days earlier, the news reports had said. Some stupid thief had been shot by a cop and taken a tumble. Cleaning crews had done a reasonable job, all things considered. But there was still a bit of gizzard here and there.
‘Hurry it up,’ a female voice said, somewhere in his head. ‘Let’s not make another mess.’
‘I’m basically wearing an orange onesie,’ the engineer said. ‘I feel like a prize dickhead.’
‘Just get on with it.’
He walked up to the bullethole and crouched down. Drilled into the hole, widening it. Found the bullet. Perfectly intact.
‘Will you look at that,’ he said. ‘I found the Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’
The kid rubbed his fingers against the casing. This was no bullet. Instead, shielded within that tiny cylinder, was a shadow drive. Utterly undetectable, but bubbling fiercely with data. You’d need military-grade tech to even have a chance of cracking it open. Or a ship with serious skills.
The kid looked up and saw his supervisor. A fat guy, sporting the kind of moustache only retro games characters, porn stars and private detectives dared display.
‘You filled up that hole yet?’
‘Workin’ on it,’ the kid said.
‘Well, get a move on.’ The supervisor said. ‘After you’re done, Human Resources wants to have a word with you. Apparently they can’t find you on the system.’
‘Yes, sir!’ He grinned. ‘You got it!’
As his supervisor turned on his heel and walked off, Inigo’s salute turned into a flipped bird.
After waiting a few moments he climbed out onto the platform, checked to see nobody was watching, and then pulled his hardhat free and tossed it onto the tracks. Running a hand over his bald skull, he wondered how long this cloned body would take to grow an impressive enough bouffant. Then he noticed something. A clod of red, stuck between two of the tiles on the ground.
‘Hey Cherry,’ he asked wordlessly.
‘Uh-huh?’ She replied, back on the Altered Cabrón, impatiently waiting. ‘What is it?’
‘You reckon it hurts?’
She didn’t reply. But he already knew the answer. Death didn’t hurt. It was the ending of something, the termination of a coda. The violence leading up to it could be rough as all hell, but death itself? Like diving into water. A final immersion from which there was no emergence.
He had died here. Really died. Like, messily. But now he was looking at a tiny speck of his old body and felt nothing. No psychological trauma, no existential dread.
‘Hey AC,’ he asked, running his hand over his head again. ‘How many times have I done this?’
There was no response.
‘Come on, bro,’ Inigo said. ‘Why so tight-lipped?’
The ship’s answer, when it came, was icy and matter-of-fact.
You told me never to tell you.
‘When did I do that?’
The ship repeated its previous answer. Suddenly pale, Inigo took a final shuddering breath and headed back to the docking area, the bullet in his pocket feeling very, very cold.