jl8e: (shadowfist)
[personal profile] jl8e
This is the first truly new bit of fiction I wrote. The TFT Dragon frame was new, but it pretty much followed along how I planned it out way back when.

The second half of the Critical Shift story, on the other hand, was much vaguer in my head. I had some idea how it ended, but not the details, and everything in between was uncertain.

This is certainly not the story I would have written back then. A number of elements are just things I wouldn't have thought about using, or wouldn't have been comfortable with.

It's also a lot longer than the previous chapters. The first three combined are about as long as the fourth, and there was a section that was going to be in this chapter, but I ended up bumping to five for a variety of reasons, mostly pacing. I don't know if the length is because the plot really starts moving forward here, or because I'm writing differently.

It was a bit tricky to get started on this one. I eventually just started writing what ended up being the first scene, realized what the chapter title was, and everything started rolling from there.

Rei Okamoto started cursing.

As she traced her way through the corporate network, she continued to curse in four different natural languages, two constructed ones, and one assembly language for good measure.

She hated security consulting. It paid well, but it was boring, tedious work, requiring painstaking attention to detail. She'd only agreed to take this job as a favor to a friend.

At least it wasn't boring anymore. She fired off a priority message to the corp's security lead. It would get him here, even this late; then she got back to carefully unravelling the mess she'd found.

Whoever had done it was very, very good. Surrounding the core processes were tripwires, watchdogs on the tripwires, watchdogs on the watchdogs, tripwires to protect them all, and on and on and on. Its tentacles spread everywhere, from accounting to the backup systems to the intruder-suppression systems. Pulling at any part of it would set the entire thing in motion, tearing the entire network to shreds.

That was the offensive part. There was no purpose to this beyond destruction. It wasn't spying. It couldn't take over the network. All it could do was destroy the company. It wasn't even good for extortion -- it wasn't designed to be disabled.

Of course, that didn't mean it couldn't be. Once she found the first watchdog process with nothing checking its integrity, she injected some new code, and it happily reported everything was well as she corrupted everything it was supposed to protect. From there, she could take it all apart.

She heard the door open, and tore some attention from her work. Without turning around, she tapped into the security camera feed to confirm it was who she was expecting.

"You have real problems," she said, as she shut down a process waiting to ship the contents of their warehouses to a random assortment of slums in Europe. "Somebody's been in your systems, and they know far too much about how everything works, and they really, really don't like you."

She hadn't really noticed he was still approaching until he was right on top of her. She snapped her head around. When she saw the hate in his eyes, she barely had time to send one command to the system before he grabbed her shoulder.

The charge from his shock implant sent her into convulsions. She felt herself crash to the floor, the computer falling on top of her.

Everything went dark.

"I'm still amazed at how easy it all is, Geoffrey."

Curtis Boatman grinned. A gesture, and an image of the globe appeared above his desk, turning and zooming at his command to display points of interest.

Smythe, lounging in a chair across the room, tore his gaze away from the Paradox Cube floating before him. "How so?"

Boatman continued, "I was expecting a more classical military campaign, and there's still some of that. Look at Chiba."

The map zoomed in. "They're not budging at all. So we up the pressure. Get me Gog."

The computer slid open a window in the air. After a moment, the abomination's face appeared. "Yes?" it snarled.

"I want increased abomination attacks in Chiba prefecture and surrounding regions. Deploy more nanovirus seeds as well. This will be our beachhead in Japan."

"Yes, Doctor," it said. "I will need to move forces out of the China coastal regions to do so. I will transmit a summary shortly." The window slid closed.

Boatman leaned back in his chair. "Do you have any useful puppets there?"

"Just the governor," replied Smythe.

"Ah well. I can hardly expect to get everything I want. Still, he should be useful to keep the people calm and get them to cooperate. Get me Holz."

No window opened. "He is not responding," said the computer in a pleasant woman's voice.

"Send a message, then. Tell him I want assault plans on the Chiba Board of Directors in front of me in 24 hours. As soon as we have enough of an excuse, we'll decapitate and take over, all in the name of public safety. We have enough business interests in the area I doubt anybody will even look twice."

He turned his attention back to the globe. "That's going to be one of the messier ones. But take Singapore." The globe zoomed in. "All that work you did? Barely necessary. In exchange for a contract to provide special security services and control of nanotech outbreaks, we now have a significant stake in the government of Singapore."

Smythe shrugged, "Perhaps my toys are not so useful now, but what about when they realize how you've played them?"

Boatman chuckled. "They know. They have to know. They looked at the numbers, and decided it was worth their while to sell out."

A window slid open, again revealing General Gog. "Doctor Boatman? I have revised the campaign plans and uploaded them for your approval."

Boatman popped open a data window, and skimmed. "Everything looks in order. And the casualty estimates?"

"I am still trying to adjust some details to get the ideal number of casualties." It paused, and another data window opened. "These are only preliminary; as I adjust the plan, they may increase by up to ten percent. Is that acceptable?"

Boatman barely looked at the numbers. "They're fine."

Gog's response was only a low rumbling noise. "Very good," it finally said.

The window closed again. Smythe looked at Boatman quizzically. "Was he laughing?"

"I believe it was purring." A message window opened before him.

He sighed. "Finally. Hong Kong's board has been jerking me around for days. They want in-person negotiations, but they won't say when, or who's representing them. This morning, they finally agreed to a dinner meeting, which is in an hour, and they're just now telling me where and who I'm talking to."

"Rather late for dinner, isn't it?" said Smythe.

"I had a late lunch." replied Boatman. "It's typical of the way they've been behaving all along. I'm half inclined just to give them the same treatment as Chiba and to hell with it."

Another window popped open, "So, what do we have on their mystery negotiator?"

Boatman sat up straighter, and reflexively straightened his tie. "Well. This just got far more appealing."

A light rain was falling on the roof of the Dao Biotech building. Holz ignored it as he leaned against one of the air-defense batteries and watched the city below, a sprawling mass of light and activity and barely-controlled chaos, so different from the grey rigidity he'd grown up in.

Did Boatman really think he could control all this?

No. That would be what Bonengel would have wanted; to take all of this and shove it into the mold of his perfect society, cutting off everything that wouldn't fit. Boatman just wanted to own it all; he didn't care what anybody else did with their lives as long as he got what he wanted.

All things considered, not the worst attitude for anybody who aspired to rule this version of the world.

Holz sighed and turned his back on the city. It was a long way down; a fifty-seven story run to street level, then five more by elevator to the underground command and control bunker. Of course, he didn't have to run all the way down, but he needed to stay in shape. The day-to-day routine of military life was the one thing he'd missed since the world changed: the training, the drills, all of that.

Not so much the alarms in the middle of the night, the slaughter, the friends he'd never see again. But there really wasn't going to be much of that. Boatman was right; there really wasn't any resistance to be found here.

Scar Kuo strolled confidently down the street. The display in his shades let him keep pace with Vinh and Ed as they moved down parallel streets, looking for trouble.

There wasn't much trouble to be found. Three weeks before, these streets would have been empty this late, the bars closed; the people who had to be out hurrying on their way. Now, things were starting to get back to normal. People were still jumpy, but business was better.

He nodded politely to Nine-Finger Ma when he passed him. The Red Knives claimed this part of Sanlitun. If Kuo or any other of the Four Dragons gang were seen here, somebody would have to bleed.

But not right now. Right now, there was a truce. As far as Kuo knew, nobody had got together to say there was a truce, but there was. The gangs knew what was bad for business, and they set their own concerns aside to deal with the greater threat. The Four Dragons could sweep the Red Knives' streets; the Red Knives could hunt on the other side of the bridge without fear, and so on.

He heard the screams right before he got the ping from Vinh. He started running, moving to intercept. He watched the dot that was Ed move to flank and cut off retreat. He took half a second to copy the feed to Nine-Finger; no reason to cut the Red Knives out of the action.

Then he was running full speed. He hurdled over a woman lying bleeding in the street, her guts ripped open. A man knelt next to her, barely aware of the blood running down his own arm.

He heard the thunder of Vinh's shotgun as he rounded the corner into the alley and saw what they were hunting tonight. It was ugly: man-shaped but short, maybe four feet tall and almost as wide, solid muscle. It had a goat's head and horns, and it hissed at Vinh, a snake's tongue flicking out of its mouth. It crouched, watching them, black blood oozing from its side and steaming on the street. The insectoid red lens over its right eye glowed dimly in the shadows.

That was the part that bothered Kuo the most; not just that somebody was growing these monsters and setting them loose, but they were cybering them up. He'd cut some of the tech out of a previous one and brought it to a mod parlor; the doc there had said that it didn't work, couldn't work, had no interfaces, and really, just looking at it was making him ill.

Ed was behind the thing now, a knife in each hand. Nine-Finger caught up to them, breathing heavily, but ready to fight. Vinh pumped the shotgun.

Ed was looking up, at something above their heads. Then something dropped from the roof above him. Kuo saw a wolf's face, foot-long metal claws, and far too many arms.

Then something hit him hard from above, claws tearing into him. He heard the shotgun; he heard Vinh screaming.

Rei was conscious enough to hear the man's body hit the floor. She tried to order the intruder-control drones to move to a guard pattern, but the computer she was connected to was dead.

Unless her jacks were fried. That would just make this day complete.

Slowly, fighting her still-spasming muscles for control, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. Her vision was still blurry, but she could see the computer well enough to tell that it had not fared well when it landed on her rib cage.

She hadn't done too well in the exchange, either. A few deep breaths convinced her that nothing was broken, but it still hurt like hell. Slowly, she removed the control glove and unplugged the direct-line cable from the back of her neck.

The nearest working computer was all the way across the room. She didn't try to stand; she half-crawled, half-dragged her way to the other desk. Was it really only three meters? She had to stop twice to rest.

Once there, a painful stretch got her the direct-line cable. She hesitated briefly before plugging it in.

She exhaled. She was still working. Authenticate to the system, grab control of the drones. She was starting to feel better. She sent one drone to get her a bottle of water. On the way out, she shot another dart into the security guy, just in case. She did not want to have to deal with him until she had backup.

She put the rest of the drones into paranoid mode. Nobody was coming through that door and remaining vertical.

The next step was to open a com channel. Her first call went unanswered. Not that surprising. She took several deep breaths to steady herself before her next attempt.

"Hunh... wha?"

"Sweetie, it's Rei."

"What's wrong?" His voice was muted. He was subvocalizing, of course; he wouldn't be alone.

Rei tried to keep her voice steady, "A lot's wrong. Right now, I need two things: I need a direct line to your mother, and I need you here, now."

Before he could say anything, she continued, "Tell Lian that she can kick my ass for this next time I see her."

She could almost hear Song smile. "She'll understand. Wait... how could you reach me? I'd turned comms off."

"You were the one who decided to put a computer in your head."


"How many times do I have to tell you? If it contains software, it is mine to do with as I will." Rei tapped into his visual feed and switched on his night vision, just to prove the point. "She really needs to clean near the ceiling better."


"Sorry. Please, get here as soon as you can, love."

She cut audio, but kept visual as he woke Lian and explained to her. When they kissed and embraced, she felt warm and safe.

Once Song was on his way, Rei turned her attention to the building's security systems, giving him unrestricted access; the only one save her who could move freely about the building.

Even by ballistic shuttle, he was still a couple of hours away. Until then, she was alone.

Sitting under a desk, Rei Okamoto hugged her knees to her chest, and pulled the security cordon tighter around herself.

Boatman watched admiringly as Xu Mei stalked back and forth on the restaurant's private balcony, heedless of the light rain. He wondered what was so important as to drag her away from this painstakingly-arranged meeting. She was subvocalizing to avoid any potential eavesdroppers, so it would be difficult to find out. He pulled out his com pad and make a note to talk to his doctors about having a subvocalization sensor implanted; he'd seen the utility, but never made the time.

While he had it out, he checked on the signal intercept. Unsurprisingly, it was encrypted. The device was recording for later analysis, but its preliminary report said she was using a one-time pad, so it was unlikely to be of any use.

At least he had a rational explanation for all the secrecy around this meeting. Not that it was any less irritating, but the woman was practically a legend in this juncture. He'd reviewed what little they had on her on the way here: brilliant cyberneticist, master martial artist, extremely wealthy, a board member or advisor for a number of major corporations. Fifteen years ago she had probably been the most famous person on the planet, and even after many years of relative reclusiveness and retirement, she still beat all but the major media stars.

She didn't look her age, either. He shifted in his his chair to better face the balcony and admire the view.

He wished he had more solid information about her, but she'd clearly spent years muddying the waters, even going as far as to personally fund three mutually contradictory bio-vids.

Still, he didn't need his intelligence division's best guesses to know that she was well-connected, and that this was about more than just Hong Kong. He was disrupting whatever balance of power existed here, and all the major factions were going to be interested in him. The only real surprise was that it had taken this long for any of them to approach him, however obliquely.

All in all, he thought things were going quite well so far tonight.

Her conversation finished, Xu Mei returned to the dining room. Small beads of water slid off her long silver hair and onto the carpet, and her dress clung even more closely to her figure than it had before.

She slid into the chair opposite him. "My apologies, but some things cannot wait."

Boatman smiled. "I understand completely." He sipped his wine. Just like the rest of the meal, it was superb, better than anything even he had been able to obtain in the old days.

"While I was out there," she continued, "I sent the Hong Kong board your latest proposal." She picked up her own wineglass and drained it. Boatman watched the ways the light reflected off the surface of her cybernetic arm. It was a fascinating piece of work, almost certainly hand-made by its wearer. "They certainly won't be eager to accept, but it's not completely impossible."

Boatman shrugged. "They're not going to get a better offer by waiting."

A waiter appeared to silently remove their empty dishes and glasses. "It's late," she continued, "and they're not going to have an answer until tomorrow." She stood. "So we're done with business for the evening."

Boatman stood as well. "A shame to part company so soon."

The restaurant's owner hurried over, bowing deeply. "I trust everything was to your satisfaction?"

"Indeed," said Boatman. "I believe it was the finest meal I have ever had."

The owner bowed again. "Of course, there will be no charge," he said, bowing to Xu Mei. "That you have chosen my establishment is payment enough."

Xu Mei laughed softly as he hurried away. Noting the quizzical look on Boatman's face, she said, "He'll be able to triple his business over the next month while raising prices twenty percent just on the rumor that I was here. I should be charging them."

Boatman chuckled. As they walked through the otherwise-closed restaurant to the high-security entrance, she slipped her arm through his, pulling him closer. "We don't have to part company just because we're done with our business." She smiled, the left side of her mouth twitching upward slightly. "Would you like to join me while we wait for their response?"

Holz was covered in sweat and breathing hard by the time he reached the ground floor. It was a harsh reminder that he was getting old; that he'd let himself get soft.

Palmprint, retinal scan, and password, and the secure elevator admitted him to the underground complex. His rooms were five floors down, near the command center, so he could be at Boatman's beck and call at all hours.

At least he was mostly in training and planning here. Boatman had plenty of people half Holz's age to do the fighting. They didn't need an old man slowing them down.

They were a mixed bag; some from this juncture, who knew the tech and the world but didn't have the mind-set for even half-assed military organization. Most of the rest were recruits Boatman had dug up from one of the past junctures, trained and disciplined, but completely lost when it came to the tech and handling situations in the field. Between the two of them, he'd managed to scrape together something workable. It'd never have cut it in BuroMil, of course.

And then there were the abominations, without which none of this would be possible. Fortunately, he didn't have to deal with them directly.

The elevator doors slid open, allowing him into the command center. It was mostly empty. Boatman was gone for the night. He was sure that Smythe was lurking somewhere, but not here. There were just a few people awake, keeping an eye on things.

As he walked through on his way to his shower and bed, the light from a side chamber caught his eye. Speaking of abominations...

He paused to watch. The computers here were far more sophisticated than anything the Buro had ever had; Holz still wasn't that good with them, and neither was Boatman. Smythe could barely handle the basics, but he claimed technology was beneath him.

He watched Gog, standing in the middle of a kaleidoscope of floating holographic displays, an order of magnitude more than the best humans could manage. They were continuously in motion as it slid screens around; reading a report here, sending a message there, a map, a building schematic, stock transactions, troop movements, and many that he could not identify; it was virtually running the entire operation on its own.

"Holz," it rumbled, not even turning around to see him. "Boatman wished to speak with you; he has left instructions."

Holz groaned. "Is it something I need to deal with now?"

Gog continued to juggle data. "No. It will wait until the day."

"You're very busy. What's the situation?"

"The true war begins. It is still subtle. They prepare, not act, but I see the patterns. They prepare to attack on all levels: physical, electronic, financial."

"Have you told Boatman?"

"No. He is away. That was the first movement. Since his departure, they have begun to probe, to prepare."

Holz scowled. "How much of a security detail does he have?"

"Little or none. Do not be alarmed. They do not attack. I suspect they attempt to reach an accommodation with him."

Holz relaxed very slightly. "Do you think he'll take it?"

Gog turned to face him, its eyes burning. "I can not know. I am many hundreds of years old, but I do not understand why you humans choose what you do. I have learned only one thing about you, but it has served me well."

Holz took a step back, not even realizing he was doing it. "What?"

Gog smiled. Holz expected to see sharp teeth, but Gog had no teeth at all, just chitinous ridges for crushing and tearing. It was not a comforting sight.

"Eventually," it said, "You always make a mistake."

"So I will watch, and wait. They will maneuver and position. I will wait and prepare. When they make their mistake," it said, "I will be ready to destroy them."

Holz wasn't armed, and desperately wished to be. "Are you waiting for us to make our mistake, too?" He did his best to keep his voice even, to not show fear.

Gog's laughter was a horrid buzzing noise. "Boatman has made his precautions against his own mistakes. The device in my brain provides unspeakable pain upon any thought of turning against you. It conditions me. In time, it may not even be necessary, but it will still remain."

It turned back to its work. "Sleep well, human."

Curtis Boatman got out of the bed, yawning and stretching. It was late morning, and he had got very little sleep. A hand snaked out from under the covers and grabbed his ass. "Do you really want to go?" asked Xu Mei sleepily.

"My business interests will not look after themselves." he said.

"A pity," grumbled Xu Mei, and she rolled over and buried herself deeper in the covers.

In the bathroom, he washed and dressed, pausing to examine the bite marks on the side of his neck. One of them still stung a little. Xu Mei was certainly more aggressive than he was used to, but it was an enjoyable change.

Back in the bedroom of the hotel suite, Xu Mei had pushed the covers aside and ordered the curtains open. Sunlight spilled into the room and across her naked body. Boatman paused in the bathroom doorway, admiring the way her body moved as she stretched.

She was wearing a delicate earpiece. She opened her eyes and looked at him. "They've made a counteroffer: six percent and they'll make you chairman of the Board."

He shook his head.

"It's a generous offer," she said. "More than I expected them to even consider. Offering the chairmanship to an outsider is a huge concession."

"And yet it is not enough," said Boatman, "The chairmanship without enough voting shares to back it is meaningless. Especially as I will be, as you say, an outsider."

"You'd be surprised," she said, sitting up and stretching some more, "You can accomplish a lot as the first among equals."

Boatman shook his head again. "They know how to reach me when they wish to offer better terms."

She shrugged. "It's the best offer you're going to get."

Boatman turned away. "Then I hope they can find some other solution to their problems."
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