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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: RELEASED TO PUBLIC | DATE OF REVIEW: 05.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: WIPO | AUTHOR: E WOLPAW |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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Speaking of curiosity, you're curious about what happens after you die, right? Guess what? I know! You're going to find out first-hand before I can finish telling you, though, so I won't bother. I'll give you a hint: you're going to want to pack as much living as you possibly can into the next couple of minutes.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: RESTRICTED| DATE OF REVIEW: 05.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK | AUTHOR: NETWORK COMPLIANCE COMMISSION |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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Gannet rolls his chair over to Lacey's. "Have you set up camera permissions before?" he asks. She tilts her eyes back in her head briefly as she thinks.

"Month eight of training," she says after a moment. "In the seminar on advanced intervention techniques." She takes a breath and drones with a little self-mocking smile, "Temporarily reassigning security permissions to lock out naturalized monitors requires a standard terminal procedure with a randomly generated encryption key forwarded to the Network duty officer responsible for on-side camera monitoring within fifteen minutes of implementation, voice confirmation of receipt by twenty. Such permissions are good for twenty four hours from implementation and may be used on the same camera no more than twice in a week long period without further authorization from your governing security officer."

He raises his eyebrows. "That's in the standard course line-up now?"

She shrugs, stifling a yawn.

"Hm," he says, and slides her a piece of paper. "Anyway, here are the coords and the camera IDs. Do visual confirmation of the exterior while you can, the weather's going to shit. You're looking for a factory and a cabin independently. Lock on-ground feeds out of everything inside both of them."

Ogilvy's relegated Cooper to exposition work. He's digging out snippets of archival footage to lash everything together against the pattern of the larger story and make it seamless. Queuing up one of the highlight reels from the months Dex spent training with KK Victoria, he sits quietly and watches. Dex is careless at the beginning of the reel -- angry, all scrapyard punk and jungle sadist. By contrast, KK is calm, reserved, willing to hold her upside down by an ankle at arm's length while she thrashes violently at him.

He scrubs forward along the timeline, looking for a clip from her fifth knife-throwing session. She's focused and indifferent when one of KK's soldiers, on command, catcalls and taunts her from the sidelines. Her knife thuds beautifully into the center of the wooden training target, burying itself up to the tang. KK has to extract it for her. Cooper smiles.

By the end of the reel, her training's nearly complete. KK talks about one final test -- a week-long manhunt where Spandex will be pursued and attacked by a crack team of his best soldiers. Dex turns it down, disappointing her mentor by calling it a waste of lives. Cooper's smile broadens with a fatherly kind of pride -- it was this decision that inspired him to take up Xingyiquan training with Master Durbin, the respect for life that came out of the mastery of violence. Dex quit the jungle the day he began his own training. She seemed happier, more at peace for it.

Ogilvy is relentless, though, and as he listens to Gannet and Lacey, he despises them all even more for not even giving her a fair fight. Take 'em down with you, he mouths to Spandex on the screen, the movement reflected in miniature on his face.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: NOT RELEASED TO PUBLIC| DATE OF REVIEW: 05.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK CLOSECASTING | AUTHOR: NETWORK CLOSECASTING |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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They eat and trickle from the kitchen minutes before their clanmates start arriving for the evening. "One of clocks," Z calls down the corridor to Ebenezer as he fumbles with his door.

"I kn-know."

None of them sleep, really. At one, Eben's alarm clock rings and he dresses himself carefully before going to knock at Haccadine and Dex's doors. They meet in the kitchen, dressed warm. Gulping coffee and whatever food they can stomach, they check their weapons and one-shots, look through Z's goggles for obvious traps, draw their coats tight, then go.

There's almost a foot of fresh snow on the ground in CyberCity 404 and it's still falling fast and thick. The Outpost is deserted, though a few guards stand posted on the walls, bathed in the blue light of their warning lamps. Z leads them toward the eastern gate -- easier to leave that way, along the cliffs, than to go south over the mountain's peak.

Outside the gate, they stop and huddle close on the path on the lee-side of a craggy outcropping. Their breath comes in short cloudbursts from the altitude and tension. Z glances down the path. "S'all that way," she says, gesturing southerly. The seaside trail to Kittania runs crooked and winding along the edge of the mountain's cliffs.

"How close? Hear anything else?"

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: RESTRICTED| DATE OF REVIEW: 05.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK | AUTHOR: NETWORK COMPLIANCE COMMISSION |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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Simpert has painstakingly adjusted the corrective filters on the night vision lenses that come standard on the all-weather cameras around CyberCity 404. He's maximized visibility for both the northerly and southerly approaches to the hunters' hideout for several kilometers, tweaking color saturation levels, brightness and contrast. Still, it's difficult to make out what's going on without an extreme close-up zoom -- and the lenses can only do so well with the amount of snow coming down.

Ogilvy loves how edgy it's making everyone -- both those on the ground and those watching alike.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: NOT RELEASED TO PUBLIC| DATE OF REVIEW: 05.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK CLOSECASTING | AUTHOR: NETWORK CLOSECASTING |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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"Close." She peels away from the group to turn in small circles and zigzag uncertainly back and forth through a drift as the boys check cameras through their lenses again. There's not much to see and it's damned difficult to see it. Though the cameras are all equipped with excellent nightvision, snowflakes overlay the image like television static.

"Follow this trail south from here with those," Dex tells Haccadine and Ebenezer before she takes two steps down the trail. She crouches, the snow already turning the fur lining of her bomber cap into frozen lumps. Snow's covered any footprints but for traces of someone that has come up the trail, likely headed back to the outpost. She closes her eyes and listens, but hears nothing except the faint rustling from her own group then the sudden heavier fumps and fwups of Z digging aggressively in the snow. "Th'fuck, Z?" Dex hisses under her breath.

"Horse," she says urgently.

"Here?"

"Some." She stops, ears pricked, then bores left through the drift. Much of the snow is still fresh, fluffy, easy to shift by hand. Dex doesn't move, imagining the sound of wood cracking under her boot like a tiny bone.

"Can't see m-much-much of anything," Ebenezer mutters, twisting a watch-dial knob on his eyeglass to change cameras. "S-snow. Trees. Snow. Rocks. Snow."

"Nothing at all?"

Z rocks back on her haunches, extracting an ice-coated splinter from the drift. "Found him," she says, resigned. Dex springs up and is at Z's side, pulling off her wool mitts so Z can set the piece of Horse into her hand. Except for the icicle surrounding it, it's identical to the one they found earlier today. As Dex tries to warm the sliver of him in her hands, Z wades out of the drift and casts further down the trail. She doesn't make it more than five feet before Dex snaps, "No. Stay together."

"S'gonna get buried deeper," she says, slinking back to Dex.

"Ebs? Guy? How bad is it? What can you see?"

"Sweet fuck all," Haccadine grunts. "Snow's pretty bad, but even so I don't think there's anythin' out there." Ebenezer nods his agreement.

"What you mean 'don't think...'? Tell me this doesn't have fuckin' trap written all over it." Right now she's struggling to see anything but a frozen splinter of Horse buried under feet of snow, and on some cruel schedule, Idris cutting more pieces out of him. Even so, she won't be played a fool.

"It does," Z says, stamping her feet. "But I donno why they'd have given us coordinates if they weren't there. Or the trap wasn't, anyway."

Dex looks off down the trail, then checks on the tiny wooden creature in her palm. The icicle around him is melting slowly and he's still sluggish, but warming quickly. "The trap's there, we just can't see it."

"You want to wait until it's stopped snowing? We could come at them another way -- from the south, maybe."

She stares hard out towards their path. "Yeh. We just can't walk blind into this. Stupid. Stupid goddamn fuckin' fuckhead ba-- stards." There's a break in the last word as she lifts her head. Zolotisty tucks her hands under her armpits, looking to Dex expectantly.

"Can I see the goggles for a sec? Put it on the camera on us now?" She unzips her jacket briefly to tuck the Horse pin into a inner pocket. Eben adjusts his monocle, as requested, and passes it over for Dex to look through. The boys weren't exaggerating -- the night vision's turned the scene to a green-out and except for the mass of rockwall beside them, they're cloaked by the snowstorm. "S'dangerous as fuck," she says, handing it back and gesturing for the group to pull closer, she whispers as low as she can, "Two by air, two by land," indicating herself and Haccadine first, and Z and Ebenezer second. "No more digging, Z, could be mines or someshit, just use 'em for tracking. We'll follow using echoes, don't get too far ahead. Eben, stay at an angle from her. Gun out." Grimacing, he obliges.

She turns to Guy. "Match my steps. It'll only be as wide as my arms." She takes a breath. "Let's go. Poke my back when we're getting too far for your gun." Stubbornness is what she uses to makes air solid, and she's got that in spades. She makes a set of invisible stairs, and they climb carefully until she feels the jab in her back. As they set off on her flat ramp some three stories from the ground, Eben and Z are already almost out of sight. They hurry as fast as they can to catch up.

The path is deserted as they head south. No lurking gunmen, no tiger traps, no landmines, but it's a hard slow, slog. Ebenezer and Z wade through knee-deep snow, slamming their toes into hidden rocks, scraping their shins as their feet come down awkwardly. The wind whines around Dex and Haccadine, threatening at every step to buffet them off of the narrow path of air that Dex is making for them. No one can see much beyond arm's length, and both pairs of them have to backtrack and reorient themselves when they bumble into niches in the face of the cliff.

Z digs things from her pockets as they go, setting baubles and bits of scrap to mark places she hears Horse -- like bread crumbs, Ebenezer observes. They all pause every few hundred feet as Dex and Zolotisty exchange echoing pings.

"Z," Dex whispers, head dipped into the freezing headwind intent on knocking them off their bridge, "Soon as you hear them, let me know." Zolotisty lifts her hand in acknowledgment, trudging onward through the snow.

Eben very nearly loses his footing as he takes double-quick steps to catch up. "What-what was that?" he asks, demonstratively repeating the wave gesture.

"Gonna stop if I hear them. Dex asked. You see anything?"

He gives a short hmn to show he understands. At the question, he rattles his head. "Snow. Rocks. S-snow."

The storm seems to get worse, forcing Dex to angle her ramp of air slowly lower, until the two below them are visible again. Coming around a bend, Zolotisty falters uncertainly, taking a step forward, then pausing, then another step, then another pause. She cocks her head.

They all spot it at almost the same moment. Just barely visible through snow and dark is what looks like an old brick building set snug against the cliffs. The windows, small and high-set as they are, are dimly lit against the night. The cliffs are carved around it, with well-defined manmade runnels of a size appropriate for a small barge that zigzag down to the ocean, and a road and stairs appropriate for carts, workers. The style of the building is much the same as the old abandoned industrial buildings in CyberCity 404 -- probably made around the same time.

Stopping, Z thumps her arm out to clothesline Eben backward around the bend.

Cloaked for sound, Dex realises, watching Z shake her head in frustration. "Hear anything at all inside?" she whispers to check anyway.

Z tosses her hands up and adds aside to Eben. "Can't hear shit. I don't hear any more of Horse past here, though."

"Cloaked. That means there's lots of Improb here," Dex says. "For now."

Eben's already exchanged his spectacles for his monocle, searching for any possible cameras inside the building. He sighs, sharp with frustration. "If there are an-any cameras in there, we've n-not got-not got access," he mutters, pushing his spectacles off of his forehead. "What now?"

"We wait for Dex and Haccadine."

Spandex curves her path east to get a better view of the front of the place -- many of the building's windows have been long-since boarded, though the snow's been recently tramped down in front of two very large doors. "Eben see anything?" She can hardly hear her own voice. Z gestures obscenely at the building in response.

Dex and Haccadine stand there, high above the treacherous rockfaces that lead down to the ocean, considering their next move. "I'm going inside through one of the upper windows. I'll scope the scene, come back out. Promise to stay invisible."

"What --" Z can't help herself, she looks up.

Eben echoes in Z's ear, "What?"

"She wants to go in alone--"

"Find cover. Guy, we're going down, this ramp disappears without me." She hesitates, looking at the building all sealed up. They know I can go invisible. She's got to count on some sort of anti-Improb defense, then, which will make her visible. For a second she considers getting Z to blow off the doors and windows first, but that'd only alert them to their arrival.

"No. Fuck me, Dex, they're expecting us! If we go in, better we all go in at the same time rather'n piecemeal so they can pick us off one-by-one or take hostages." He narrows his eyes. "Going in high might not be a bad idea, though. Not the top floor, too obvious. Think you could get everyone into the one below?"

"Don't like it. Only way to do that unnoticed is if we both go invisible, and that-- that's just got a load of complications. Just let me scout. Count out how long it'll take me to go from top down, and if I'm not back, storm the place."

Haccadine lets out a slow breath, whistling through his teeth. "What if the inside's dry of improbability, like the alleyway? S'what I'd do if I were them."

"'Course it is, but if we're standing on this ramp when we bust in those windows and there's suddenly no Improb, you and I risk a nasty fall. Unless you can scale down from the roof somehow we're all bustin' in the front door, which is definitely what they're expectiing." She stares back at him. "I brought my weapons, Guy."

There's a long silence, and then he grunts. "Fine. You got your one-shot? Finger on it as you go through that window, Dex. Don't give ‘em the slightest chance."

"It's here," she says, patting her jacket pocket. "I understand."

On the ground below them, Zolotisty has buried her mouth and nose in her scarf. She refuses to answer Ebenezer's skittish questioning, except to mutter, "Fucking daft."

"You move close, but only after I'm inside, yeh? Com'on." She walks them back around the bend in the rockface so they're hidden from any windows and makes a set of stairs down. "Here," she says, standing on the first and pointing to the ground. "Straight down. Narrow steps, feel your footing first."

"Be fuckin' careful," is all he says before starting the descent. It gets easier as snow begins to build up on the steps, dusting the path in front of him. Once back on the ground, he heads to join Zolotisty and Ebenezer. "You get all that?"

"Yeh. Eben, Dex is going in, we're following when she's in." Because Ebenezer can't get his voice to work, he jostles a nod in response. Cold and adrenaline have both had ample time to steep through him now, leaving the gun in his hand quivering. Tying her scarf over her mouth and nose in case there's no Improbability in the building, Dex waits until Haccadine's safely on the ground before turning and walking south. Watching, Z shifts her weight. "..Fuckit, let's go now. Slow, com'on."

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: RESTRICTED| DATE OF REVIEW: 05.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK | AUTHOR: NETWORK COMPLIANCE COMMISSION |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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"I've got a dead scene to work with, ma'am," Gannet grunts as Spandex disappears. He toggles through his interior feeds -- Idris and Ed are still invisible, presumably not far from where he last saw them on a solid ledge on the ground floor. They've got excellent footage of the trap downstairs being set up -- each wide floorboard carefully slotted into place on nothing but a brace of solid Improbability, ready to drop at a moment's notice. Both hunters are invisible and Idris is still puppeting Horse around at his leisure -- a horse-shaped golem made up of tightly compacted carved toothpicks.

"Leave it dark," Ogilvy says before Gannet reaches for the controls. "Use shots as if you're looking for them, as if Spandex is. Lots of looking back, so we get fear of someone behind us. Ever see footage of those antique first person shooter games? That. Cooper, you want this?"

"Like Resident Evil. However could I forget," Gannet says. He gives her a hard-eyed look. "My most favorite installment in the series was 5. The thinly veiled AIDs and 'black-man-as-demon' parables did a lot to ostracize my grandparents. I've got it under control, ma'am."

"Mmn. And today, we are the demons." Across the room, Cooper's looking like the last pick for the team. "Gannet's got this," she says, sidelining him again.

It's like she's deliberately trying to hurt me now, Cooper thinks. Simpert looks over at him, mouth twisted with fleeting sympathy.

 
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