Call The Bluff, Event File 02

 

File Tag: Mission Assignment

Timestamp: 080:00-11-1-2155

 

“Okay guys. Let’s hear it. Tommy starts, then Donny, then Dilly.”

“Aw Kev, we haven’t even eaten —” Donny whined, but he didn’t get far.

“When I can trust you to show up and take your quiz when you say you will, then I’ll stop interrogating you at inconvenient times.” Kevin stated, crossing his arms and looking over the rims of his glasses at the three young people. “Until then, we do this once a week at breakfast. Go ahead Tommy.”

Aidan watched absently, spooning sugar into his porridge as Kevin ran the kids through their Force education lessons.

Tommy’s little chest puffed out. “CES. Citizen Excellent Standing. Two percent of the population, maybe one. Citizen Standing Number eight hundred and one to eight hundred and fifty points. They pay five percent taxes and they don’t have to worry about anything ever.”
Kevin chuckled. “Not exactly accurate. What kind of jobs do they have?”

“CEOs, CFOs, COO’s and boards of directors. They own stuff and run stuff and make big decisions for their Corporations. Almost all of Corporations pay for the CES to get gene-mods, so they never get sick and think faster and don’t care when other people feel bad.”

“Except for?” Kevin prodded gently.

Tommy smiled. “Except for you!”

Kevin rolled his eyes, a smile quirking the corners of his mouth. “Thanks for the seal of approval, but I was asking about the Corporations. Which Corporation doesn’t pay for their CES people to be modified?”

The little boy nodded, eyes turned upward as he recalled. “AgCo doesn’t, ‘cause they think it’s against their religion.”

Because they think it’s against their religion, Tommy. Watch your diction.”

“Heh, diction.” Lazarus smirked at his breakfast. Yvonne grinned at her cousin’s wordplay. Kevin gave them both a look over the rims of his glasses.

“Must you?”

“Because they think it’s against their religion,” the little boy repeated obediently, “CES people can even leave the country, to make business deals.” Tommy finished.

Kevin gave the little boy a smile. “Very good. Donny? Next rank down?”

Donny straightened in his seat. “CSS, Citizen Secure Standing. We think it’s ten percent of the population. Citizen Standing Number seven hundred and forty to eight hundred points. They do corporate management, run plants and factories, or they’ve worked hard for their company and done something special and their rank’s a reward. They pay ten percent in taxes, they have it good, but they can’t leave the country without a CES person’s approval.”

Kevin nodded. “Exactly. Dilly? CAS?”

Dilly ticked off her points as if she were the one teaching. “CAS. Citizen Acceptable Standing. Sixty percent of the population. Citizen Standing Number six hundred and seventy to seven hundred and thirty nine points. Twenty-five percent tax rate. Housing restrictions; they gotta live in CAS neighborhoods. Luxury restrictions in NatBank, AgCo and Argus, because they don’t want to waste resources on Low Standing people. CAS people get all the middle jobs: foreman, plumber, store manager, stuff like that. They’re normal people.” She tipped her head, considering. “Sometimes they get signed up for gene mods, but not a lot.”

“And CPS. Donny? Do you want a second turn?”

Donny grinned. “CPS. Citizen Poor Standing. Thirty percent of the population. But sometimes people erase the middle of the P and then it’s CFS, Citizen Fu—”

“Watch it.” Damian warned as he spooned cereal. Donny gave him a quick, guilty smile. “Aw man, everybody says it. Fine. Citizen Standing Number five hundred and fifty to six hundred and sixty nine points. It’s everybody who the Corporations don’t think are any good. You end up CPS if you screw up or you’re born someplace where they don’t like you. Then if you have kids, they’re CPS too. CPS people can’t leave their spot in the Grid without approval. They pay forty-five percent in taxes, they’re banned from buying luxuries by all the Corps ’cept Techo, and they gotta live in CPS housing. Which sucks.”

“Except, Donny. And it’s ‘they’ve got to,’ not ‘they gotta’,” Kevin corrected. “I know it seems silly, but the better you learn to speak now, the more Standings you can impersonate on the Grid when you grow up. And when you go on Grid, you need to remember which credentials you’re carrying and stick to stores and areas which cater to that Standing. Stepping out of your Standing is extremely —”

A calorie bar landed with a splat in Aidan’s porridge. Across the table Jim winced, bouncing his daughter on his knee. “Hen! No. You don’t throw!”

The toddler babbled up at her father, waving her hands. The skinny man’s stern expression cracked. He gave Aidan a sheepish look. “Sorry.”

Aidan gave the man a chagrined smile in return. “No worries,” he began, “it didn’t waste more than a spoonful and the shirt’s—” He trailed off as his tab pinged. Pulling it out of his pocket, he blinked. This early?

“Something going down?” Sarah asked, leaning over his shoulder for a look.

“Magnum,” Aidan replied, brow furrowed. He accepted the message and took a few steps away from the tables. A holographic screen showing his sector commander’s face shot into existence, surprising Aidan badly enough to make him miss a step.

“Sir?”

“Morning Headly,” the older man intoned. “Checked your tab lately?”

“Not in the last few hours,” Aidan admitted cautiously, “We’re finishing a base relocation. Is there an issue, sir?”

“You’ve got a mission informational debrief with me today. In person.” The man’s deep voice was amused. “Can I expect to see you this week?”

Aidan winced, cursing in his head. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ve been caught up here, I…um. Yes, sir. I can grab a truck and be out there in a few hours, sir.”

Magnum nodded. “Make it before sunset.” He cut the connection on his end.

In his chest, Aidan’s heart began to pound. How big did a mission have to be to require an actual call and an in-person debriefing? He’d never been called to the sector hub to get mission details before; they usually turned up on his tab and they were his problem from there. If Magnum wanted to talk about something, he saved it for their monthly meetings. Getting a personal call and a personal meeting off the routine schedule had to mean Magnum had something big in mind. The thought made Aidan’s gut twist.

At the table Topher caught his eye, gave a thumbs up, and stepped away to give Dozer notice that they needed to get a truck and a route ready.

“You want company on the trip?” Kevin asked as Aidan tucked his tab back in his pocket and sat down to finish his breakfast. A hand gently brushed his knee under the table.

Aidan gave his boyfriend a smile. “Don’t you have work here?”

“Spoilsport.” Kevin returned with an acknowledging smile. “Come back in one piece.”

“Don’t burn the base down while I’m gone,” Aidan replied, letting his eyes wander pointedly around the table. Most pairs of eyes turned to pin Lazarus.

The tow-headed munitions officer paused, spoon halfway to his mouth and bewildered affront on his face. “What?”

“You’ll be good for an ETA of three hours if you leave at 09:30 and keep to a speed of thirty miles an hour.” Dozer stepped over to add, his thick fingers running over his tab. He brought up the holographic screen, and the drone surveillance patterns superimposed themselves over the table. Heads raised, casually checking the patterns as the senior transport specialist studied them. Dozer glanced at Topher, then at the image. “How you feel about this, kid?”

Topher pushed his fedora back a little. “Um… looks good to me. Am I missing anything?”

“Nope.” Dozer agreed, shutting the screen off and giving his trainee a nod. He turned his heavy face back to Aidan, smiling. “You’re good.”

Aidan returned the smile. “Appreciate it, Dozer.”

The drive to find out just what they were getting into was long and dull. Aidan focused on his breathing and the terrain. He used a new visualization technique that his psychological wellness coaching program had been running him through to keep his mind clear, naming the colors in the landscape around him. If that worked, maybe the rest of the day would too. He could hope.

Rocks. Red. More red. Okay, don’t keep using red. Umber. Burnt sienna. Roan.

Hands on the wheel, Aidan smiled. When Kevin had heard about this coping technique, he’d loved it. Aidan had started telling him a little bit about the anxiety part of his mental state, its symptoms and what he did to cope in the past two months. It’d taken some pushing from his psych program, but he’d realized that it’d be Kevin who’d see the problems most often and that his boyfriend deserved to know what was going on. Kevin didn’t need to know just how far the mess in his head had taken him before, but Aidan could give him details about what the guy was going to see. As a bonus, it had gotten Aidan a fun night with his boyfriend. Being Kevin, he’d sat down with his tab once he’d heard what Aidan was trying and started bringing up tons of words Aidan had never heard of to describe colors of every shade. The conversations about words and the history of words had gone on till midnight.

Sky. Blue. Periwinkle. Aquamarine. What was the other word? Oh yeah. Ultramarine.

Something grey-blue zipped across the sky.

“Fuck!” Aidan hissed, stomping on the brakes. His truck fishtailed to a halt. Overhead, the long-range drone came back in an elliptical orbit. Fingers fumbling, Aidan slapped at the jerry-rigged touch panel Tweak had wired into the dash, activating the laser IR emitter on the roof. He forced himself to sit still and count to seven as he inhaled. A fucking random sweep drone. There would have to be one today of all days. He could only hope he’d gotten the infrared emitter on in time.

No, he could do more than that. He could breathe, and keep calm, and trust the work his people did.

The rotors buzzed overhead as the drone ran a sweep.

Fuck off. The thought burned hot in Aidan’s head.

Moving fast, the drone whirred away. Aidan breathed out. Safe.

He was safe.

Slowly, he set his truck back into gear and drove.

“Come in,” Sector Commander Magnum invited when Aidan reached his office, his face set in its usual implacable lines. “Grab a seat, Headly.”

Carefully, Aidan saluted and sat. Magnum’s dark eyes held his.

“Headly, I need your honest opinion. How’s your crew doing?”

“Good, sir,” Aidan replied, warily watching his sector commander. “They’re… they’re actually doing really well. Haven’t had to write anyone up in months, sir.”

“I’ve noticed.” Magnum studied his tab. “Based on your reports, your team is regularly running good missions, taking out targets, and expertly running their base. In fact…” he switched off his tab, raised his eyes and smiled. “On paper they’re running even better than they did when Taylor was commanding. I’ve got to say, you’ve performed a little miracle here.”

Aidan blinked in surprise at that. The base was running better on paper than when Taylor had the Wildcards? He was actually doing better than the man everybody on base remembered as a martyred hero or a lost father figure? Damn.

He shook his head. “No, sir. They’re the miracle workers. I just let them do their jobs, sir.”

“Well, whatever you did, they’re the base they ought to be again. And that’s a relief, because we need them on top of their game.” Magnum straightened, studying Aidan. “I wanted to wait until after the Winter Holiday before I really put the Wildcards back to work. I’ll be honest about that. But if you think they’re ready, I need them on something and I need them now, Headly. I’d been planning a version of this with Taylor. When he went down and the base went sideways, I took what I had and gave the mission to Base 1320. They’re known as Rolling Thunder, unit’s based out of the Poudre Canyon. Exceptional unit, impressive record, highly skilled personnel.” The big man’s face barely moved as he spoke. “Three days ago, Rolling Thunder’s base was destroyed. Their on-Grid team has gone radio silent. They’re presumed dead. Best case scenario, they’re in detention.”

Aidan bowed his head for a moment, the one gesture everybody on every base knew. “Regards to their families, Sir.”

“Respectful of you, Headly,” Magnum replied. “But I didn’t call you up here to give condolences. I need your team to pick up the slack. This mission’s too big to drop. I think your unit’s ready for something big again. Do you?”

“Sir?” Aidan asked blankly. The dark man across the desk watched him, impassive.

“Tell me, Headly. What are we fighting for?”

“The return of equality and democracy to the United States of America, sir.” Aidan rattled off without a thought, brain still processing the information as he spoke.

When a team in detention is the best-case scenario, things have officially gone to shit.

A mission that’s too big to drop?

What kind of mission is too big to drop?

Magnum’s eyes didn’t waver.

“And what’s that mean?”

Aidan’s brain froze. “Uh…sir?”

Standing laboriously, the big man turned to study the pic holos behind his desk, keeping eyes on images of nature scenes and a few group pics rather than his subordinate as he spoke.

“It’s about more than making life better for people, Headly. Though I admit that’s a strong incentive. It’s about survival. Either we change, or we die.”

The sector commander pointed at an image of what Aidan guessed the Front Range used to look like, such a startling green that it looked fake.

“The Corps don’t care what they’re doing, to people or to the world, but if we keep going at the rate we are, this civilization’s going to collapse.” Magnum’s resonant voice gave the words the weight of a prophecy. “It used to be a theory. Now it’s a fact. We’re running out of food, running out of water and nearly out of time to fix our mistakes. If we don’t change things, we’ll turn this country and maybe this planet into a place where our species can’t survive. Other species will pull it off, but not us. Already food and water shortages are routine on Grid, never mind out here. The food we do have is so chemically altered that it’s helping to bring down our lifespans. The temperature’s risen between two and three degrees across the world. The population’s down by twenty-one percent in the past hundred years. We’re killing ourselves by inches, and we’re killing our future, too. Out of the other hundred and ninety-seven countries in the world, a hundred and eighty are doing everything they can to mitigate climate change. But the United Corporations of America?” He snorted, shaking his head.

“Not a chance. And the Corps make sure to keep us too focused on short-term survival to notice the larger issues. Because if people really connected what’s happening with what’s coming, the Corps wouldn’t stand a chance.”

Slowly, Magnum paced along the wall of his office.

“What we have to do is make the issues immediate and personal. We have to make it short-term. It’s the only way we’ll get through to people. To do that, the Regional Commands have put together a set of data. We call it the Folder.”

Turning, the big man gave a grim smile.

“You and your unit are going to be working with this packet. I want you to be familiar with the material. Review the Folder in the secondary assembly room, it’s waiting for you. I won’t tell you any more at this time. I want you to draw your own conclusions before we go into this further. Debrief in the morning. You eaten lately?”

Aidan shook his head. “Nothing since you called me at breakfast, sir.”

The older man nodded. “Probably best. You can have barracks room 30C when you’re done. Lunch will be sent in if you want it when your file review is over.”

“Sir.” Aidan nodded, acknowledging the order.

The secondary assembly room was airless. Carefully, Aidan keyed up the files on the unlocked tab lying in the center of the table. Something in the way Magnum had talked about him wanting food after this implied he might not. That didn’t say good things for what he was about to see.

Something that would make what the Corps did personal, Magnum had said.

Something that had gotten a base bombed out.

Yeah, this was definitely going to be bad.

Breathing slowly, he looked over the list of files. They were arranged numerically. Glancing at the folder size, he blinked. A terabyte? The thing was huge.

He opened the file marked ‘View First.’ A list of fourteen vids unfolded from the file name.

Curious, Aidan clicked ‘One.’ The vid file shot up a loading bar.

Validating Proprietary Blockchain On All Media.

A heartbeat’s pause.

Validated All Media. Your Information Is Secure. Playing.

“Validating blockchain?” Aidan whispered to himself. “Seriously?”

If this vid had to be unpacked from a proprietary blockchain, that meant that it had been recorded by Corporate devices on Corporate systems. Nobody could fake a proprietary blockchain, and it couldn’t be edited. How had Command gotten hold of proprietary vid feeds off Corporation blockchains?

The second’s blackness flicked away, the content started playing, and where it had come from was a little less important.

The camera shot was an odd one, probably from a security camera in a corner. The screen showed icons over both women, their Citizen Standing Number and the logos that marked them as Cavanaugh-contracted burning with color. Details about their professions and their recent activities scrolled in painfully small print on one side. The woman in the bed was apparently part of a laundry staff crew, her Citizen Standing Score in the toilet. Sobs racked her body. The decent-Standing nurse in a full Cavanaugh uniform had a comforting hand on her back, murmuring something soothing.

“He’ll be better off in a facility, you’ll see. And we’ll get you a better birth control and better screening. It’ll be okay.”
“I don’t want fucking birth control, I want my baby!” The woman’s voice was a hysterical screech.

The nurse didn’t flinch. “I know honey. I know. But your baby’s not going to have a good life. He’s going to suffer. I mean, if you couldn’t pay for the genome screening, do you think you can afford the gene-editing treatments in time? Before his brain’s affected?”

The woman buried her head in her hands, sobbing helplessly. The nurse rubbed her back.

“They’ll place him with an angel investor who’ll pay for it. He’ll be with a better-Standing family. He’ll be happy. It’s really better for him and for you if you sign the paperwork, okay? Trust me, I see this a lot. It’ll be alright. Really, it will.”

For a few minutes, all the woman did was bawl. Aidan shifted uncomfortably, feeling like a creep for watching such an intimate moment of pain like this.

Finally, the woman raised her head. “Can… can I say goodbye?”

The nurse smiled. “Of course, hon.”

The nurse stepped out of the camera shot for a few minutes, leaving Aidan staring at a miserable woman. She came back with a yowling bundle.

For a long time, the woman held the baby, her head bent over the tiny bundle in her arms. Eventually she gave a shuddering sigh.

“Okay. I’ll sign.”

The vid cut out. Aidan clicked ‘next.’

The next vid picked up on the same nurse, carrying the baby into an exam room.

“Yeah honey. I know,” she was murmuring as the baby wailed. Aidan watched as the woman jotted a few records, then picked up a micro-injector and gave the newborn a shot.

The baby stopped moving.

Aidan’s gut dropped as the woman methodically folded the blanket over the child’s face and pulled a white keratin box from a cabinet, the kind that was designed to degrade quickly. She tucked the baby inside and dropped it down a chute in the wall marked with the words ‘Bio-Hazard Waste.’

She washed her hands, tidied her work area and left the room.

Feeling the barest tremble begin in his fingers, Aidan clicked ‘next.’

A sorting machine in a basement somewhere dropped sealed boxes into a refrigerated plastic crate marked in block letters: ‘ABERRANT.’ A set of Cavanaugh Corporation identification numbers for the Grid section and date scrolled in the corner of the recording. The bin was as big as Aidan’s quarters, and it was nearly full of neatly stacked white boxes.

Aberrant.

Aidan felt as if the room was spinning as his brain put the pieces together. In the vid, workers loaded the crate into a shipping truck with an American AgCo logo.

In the next vid, a truck pulled up to an AgCo Pets factory. Not completely sure, Aidan paused the vid, skipped back to the previous clip and checked the end. This time he got the truck’s serial number. He started the current vid. Same truck. Same container filled with white boxes.

He watched as the container was stacked in a holding area next to others full of huge bones still red with meat. Cow bones, Aidan assumed. Other containers held dead chickens and meaty stuff he couldn’t identify. He watched as the timestamp flicked forward a day, and the container full of white keratin boxes was lifted and emptied into long cylinders. He focused on double checking the container’s serial number. It still matched.

The timestamp flicked forward. The same long cylinder was being emptied of a fine, brown powder. In the corner, somebody was coughing and somebody else was yelling.

The next vid refocused on the heavy man in the corner of the meat factory. He was shaking with the force of the coughing fit that racked him, blood spattering his chin and the front of his uniform. The skinny boy beside him was round-eyed with terror, crouched protectively between the man and the shift supervisor screaming at them. The voices were tinny over the security camera, but they were clear.

“We’re short on quota because of this? How many fucking breaks have you two lazy fags taken today so he can catch his breath? Fucking months you’ve been pulling this, you sack of CPS shit! Dragging our quotas down! Ruining our stats! We’ve got quotas to meet! I’ve got quotas to meet! You useless pointless god-forsaken fuck! You want to ruin me with your goddamn lard-ass work, yeah? You trying to ruin me?”

“Sir, if he can get a medical approval… he’s coughing blood…” the boy quavered. The foreman snarled, lashed out and kicked the boy aside. Standing over the sick man, he pulled a gun.

“We’re eighty pounds under our quota. You can do something useful.”

The gun fired. The supervisor grinned like something rabid.”Preacher said God had a plan for everybody.”

Turning, he pointed the gun at the shaking boy.”I want him stripped and in the rendering tank.”

The boy didn’t move. Stamping over, the man slammed the pistol across the boy’s cheekbone.

“You do what I say, or you’re going in there with him!”

“Yessir.” The boy’s voice was barely audible.

Aidan felt like he’d swallowed a stone.

The next vid showed the same foreman taking a late-night delivery from an EagleCorp truck. This time the keratin boxes were long. Long enough for an adult.

“Street cleaning,” the driver said in a bored tone. “Boss said check it with you and take it to the biofuel production plant if it wasn’t good enough.”

The man grunted. “Let’s see.”

The driver opened the back door of the rig. Together, foreman and driver opened a crate with its lot number done in messy, dripping black spray paint.

Inside was an old man. He was emaciated, his clothes rumpled and stained. A dead dog and a couple rats had been thrown in on top of him.

The camera was at the right angle to show the skinny foreman’s nose wrinkle.

“Not good enough for dog food. Take it.”

Aidan was glad he hadn’t eaten.

Focus. Take down truck numbers and shipping lot numbers.

The next vid began in a pristine office. Outside the window, downtown spread out in a panorama. The ArgusCo logo shone in its friendly colors on the wall. The two groups of high Standing people in their pristine office clothes sat studying holos full of data. Aidan could tell them apart at a glance: the ZonCom employees had hints of tattoos under collars, large earrings, dyed hair, even a body mod that gave one woman blue skin. Across the table, the ArgusCo men looked as if they’d been printed out as a set: all well-built, hair close cropped, eyes blank and steady.

“We can make a deal on biofuel to ZonCom at a slightly reduced rate this quarter, in exchange for a reduced ground shipping rate on our steel and metal. Agreed?”

The blue-skinned redhead glanced at her companions. Then she smiled across the table. “I think we’re authorized to agree. We’d also like to pick up a lot shipment of biofuel for the cross-country trucks while we’re here.”

“Of course.” The speaker for ArgusCo smiled like a shark and hit his tab. “The lot number is on your tab.”

The woman brought up her holo-screen, a visual verification for her companions and a studied insult for the man across from her.

Aidan checked the lot number. Another match. The old man and everyone else in that truck had ended up as methane for fuel.

The next vid showed an accounting room in a National Banking office. An older man in a suit stood beside an accountant’s desk.

“Williams, have you checked the monthlies on the AgCo Pets plant?”

“Yes sir,” the desk jockey replied, turning in his seat. “The labor force is down and they’re above quota.”

The man smiled. “Glad to see that place is finally turning around. I’ll recommend a pay bump for the foreman to his executive. Thank you, Williams.”

Aidan watched numbly as the series of vids tracked the same lot numbers of fuel and meat meal. The bio-fuel was used to fill ZonCom trucks that carried goods across the country. The meat meal was used to make a premium dog food called ‘Best in Show.’ A ZonCom truck was used to take the dog food to a couple of CES and CSS level boutique stores in the Denver Tech Center.

The last vid ended with a TechoCo employee coding an ad for the new product on his shelf. The discreet holo popped up. In it, an Irish setter romped across grass, ran up to its bowl and ate enthusiastically.

“Best in Show,” a woman’s voice narrated in honeyed tones. “The best ingredients, for your best friend.”

The vids flicked off. Aidan felt the shaking in his bones.

Columns of text scrolled by now, showing accurate figures on each Corporation: EagleCorps’s detainee numbers, deaths in detention and kickbacks. There were exact numbers on the prices of goods and services for each Citizen Standing level in each Corporation. No wonder the High Standings were rich: they paid almost nothing in taxes and fees. Full details of all Corporation surveillance techniques followed. After that, there was a full report on the climate changes in the past fifty years with reference to crop yields. There was a water report detailing shortages around the country. Aidan read it all. He knew he was barely taking in a word.

When it was finished, Aidan sat stock-still in his chair and stared. Eventually, he forced his legs to move. Finding his barracks room on autopilot, he lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

“So. Thoughts, Headly?”

Thoughts? Aidan stared at his commander, who stared right back. He thought his brain’s system had crashed yesterday. He still felt like it hadn’t completely come back online. Lack of sleep wasn’t helping.

He wet his lips. His voice came out a croak. “I knew things were bad. But this is a lot.”

“And what do you think people would do if they saw this?” Magnum asked.

Aidan shrugged, his mind blank. “Lose it?”

Magnum smiled grimly. “Exactly.” The big man shoved a cup across the desk. “Drink some coffee, Headly. Did you eat?”

Aidan shook his head. “No sir.”

“And I imagine you didn’t eat yesterday. Do that once we’re done. That’s an order.”

Loosely steepling his fingers, he studied Aidan.

“Tweak seems to be taking orders these days,” he remarked obliquely, dark eyes patient. “Is that right?”

Despite himself, Aidan laughed. Changing gears was a relief.

“I don’t give her an order if I can help it, sir. Suggestions work better.”

“But she is on board with our mission and generally falling into line, am I right?” the sector commander asked patiently.

Aidan considered a moment before nodding thoughtfully. “For the most part, sir. She’s been doing coding that funds our unit and a couple others with cash redirects from one of NatBank’s holdings, and doing a lot of things that make life easier on base. She’s working really good with Grid-related missions, coding things for the teams making the runs. I wouldn’t trust her to make mission decisions on her own yet, but… she’s doing pretty good.”

Magnum smiled quietly. “How good would you say Tweak’s coding skills are?”

“The best,” Aidan replied reflexively. Based on what he’d seen since she arrived, he doubted there was a better freelance human coder in the Western Region. Maybe not a better coder, period.

His commander nodded. “That’s what I thought. Based on our plans and the abilities we’ve observed, myself and the other Sector Commanders have decided to ask you to pick up where Rolling Thunder left off. We’ll give you everything they had, and everything the missions before attempted.”

“Missions before, sir?” Aidan asked, feeling his chest slowly constrict.

Magnum tapped his desk’s surface thoughtfully with two fingers as he spoke.

“We should have made this happen twenty years ago, but the attempts made at that time failed. Several similar missions have done the same over the years. We’ve gotten closer every time. We’ve tried this with six lone operatives on Grid; each one was found and taken out. We’ve learned what doesn’t work through trial and error. Rolling Thunder has been the best attempt so far. But with the benefit of hindsight, we see a chance of getting it right this time. I’m asking you to make, gain approval on, and execute a mission plan.” Magnum’s heavy brows rose. “Unless you’d prefer to refuse?”

Aidan swallowed hard. Refusing a mission this big. That’d go in his record. That was setting himself up to lose his base. Besides, there was no way in hell he was letting what he’d seen yesterday keep going on without trying to do something. He forced the words out.

“No, sir. I don’t want to refuse. But if I can speak freely, can I know what the mission is?”

Magnum smiled. “We’re requiring your unit to code a virus with the Folder as the payload file. We require these specs: complete copy fidelity, fault tolerant and redundant. Self-replicating. Able to breach all Corporate firewalls up to the CSS security level. We want to take advantage of the Winter Holiday Shopping Season to help cover your team’s actions. The Commanders require that this goes out before New Years’.”

Aidan blinked. “Sir… there’s no way in….” He wet his lips. “The Grids’re… I know the sensory overload’s through the roof on Grid during the Winter Holiday Season. Our people don’t do great with the grid-buzz. I know it’s crazy hyped up this time of year in there, but even in the middle of that the Corps will spot a file like this and kill it in seconds, no matter where we upload it. Won’t they?”

“Not if it’s coded properly,” Magnum replied calmly, dark eyes holding Aidan’s. “And not if it’s delivered directly through the Social Feed, to every profile in the system.”

Aidan’s chair squeaked as he jerked.

“Um. Sorry, sir, but… I thought you said you want us to put a file into every Social Feed profile in the US.”

“Is there a problem, Headly?” Magnum asked, his patient smile never wavering.

Aidan’s brain spun. He had heard what he thought he heard. Holy shit.

“N-no, sir. I just…um. That’s a…very large mission, sir.”

“For a very talented base. I think it’s a good fit. Faced with verified proof that the worst Corporate crimes aren’t urban legends after all, the population’s going to have a personal reason to fight back. Especially the lower Standings, since they’re fighting for their lives in a very real way here.” Magnum’s chair groaned as he leaned forward. “The population’s systems will authenticate the Corporations’ dirty laundry with the Corps’ own tools. It’s taken twenty-four months to put together the evidence in this file. Every word is backed up with sources. Incontrovertible evidence. Documents. Pics. Details. All linked to them and encrypted with their software in a way they can’t deny. And that’s why we need the population to see it.”

For the first time since he’d met the man, Aidan saw real fear in Commander Magnum’s eyes. It was hidden down deep, but it was there. He wished he hadn’t seen it as his Commander spoke.

“Frankly, Headly, we can’t afford to scrap this work and start over in a few years. We need this win and we need it now. The Force needs this win. The country needs us to start winning. You follow me?”

Staring into his black eyes, Aidan nodded. “I follow, sir.”

The big man nodded. “Then you’d better get to work. Consult on anything you need here at Sector before you leave. And go eat, Headly.” The Sector Commander nodded slowly. “Dismissed.”

Aidan saluted and got the hell out. He walked to the canteen in a daze.

Infiltrate the Social Feeds with a viral file that would make it to every user?

Holy shit.

Would that be possible, even for Tweak? Was that possible for anyone? After all, other bases had failed. Several, Magnum had said. Aidan wasn’t surprised. He knew for a fact that TechoCo had the Social Feed locked down tighter than some banks. Nothing in the seven filtered streams of the Feed they provided themselves and the other six Corporations got by them. It was hard enough staying under the radar with simple conversations, and if you started talking in a way your Corporation didn’t approve of on the Net you might as well write yourself off.

How many times had Command picked a base to try this insane stunt? How many operatives had died trying this?

And now it was his unit’s turn to go up against that monster of a system and try to deliver a terabyte-sized file that would set the country on fire.

“This is nuts,” he whispered, “this is fucking nuts…”

Aidan had no idea what he ate for breakfast.