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Ardan Dulce est Decorum

Written by Ardan

 

Part One

The lowly hum of the box's fan was broken by the continuous typing of the man seated at it's monitor and keyboard. Fingers were a blur as he cursed and hit various keystrokes in order to overcome whatever obstacle it was he was facing at present. A small bead of perspiration ran down his forehead to settle in his eye socket, the salty liquid stinging and blurring his vision, but a slight annoyance like that was not worthy of the attention it would divert from his current task. Empty fast food containers were stacked haphazardly like mini-skyscrapers around the space. It would never be called clean, nor would it's occupant. The drawn blinds shut out the late afternoon Florida sun, with only thin shafts escaping through the heavy fabric to illuminate the otherwise dark room.

Outside, a dog barked, the occupant barely heard it. In an instant he was stirred from his deep concentration by the most minute of sounds - a tiny note that signalled a new role for him. The beat of the note steadily increased, as did the perspiration dripping from his receding hairline. Fingers flew across the keyboard as he backtracked through the maze of cut-outs he had established to cover his entrance into the forbidden server. A feral grin split his face as the beat slowed to a halt, and he raised his fists in exultation - this was what he lived for; the thrill of the chase, the sheer rush it gave him to elude his most persistent trackers. He was one of the world's foremost hackers, and whether the elderly couple that lived in the apartment next him realised it or not, he had the ego to match for the distinction.

The initial adrenalin still coursing through his veins, he decided to relieve himself, during the break in the action, as he referred to it. It was during this absence that the small diode that he had imbedded in a breadboard because to change colour. His action concluded, the hacker sat back down, and settled into his favoured position. Only when he was comfortable did he finally notice the diode steadily changing hue from orange to red. The monitor cast ghost images on his face, as the blood suddenly drained from his features. Panicking, he flicked the cover off a switch that he had hoped never to use. Debating with himself whether it was necessary, caution won out and the monitor flickered seemingly in annoyance as a thousand miles away the source of it's input was consumed in a fiery ball.

The adrenalin was once again coursing through his veins, as he considered his options. He'd been taught by the best when he was a rookie, so the unexpected loss of his gateway was an inconvenience, but not the end of his world - it was even a blessing as it allowed him to rein in his ego, which, he realised, had been the cause for all of this in the first place. Keep telling yourself you were invincible and soon enough you started to believe it. This rationalisation, the occupant was startled by the sudden reverberation of his landline phone. Smiling, he realised he'd probably forgotten to pay his rent again and the old man would be chasing it up.

The voice at the other end of the phone instantly put chills down his spine.

"Douglas Ballard?" he heard his name be called out through heavy modulation

"Yeah. Who's asking?" The quaver in his voice surprised him. Ballard was startled once more when the dial tone interceded, indicating the other speaker had hung up on his end. Shrugging, he settled down into a position to watch some TV. His face exploded in pain as the door to his apartment was blown off it's hinges, shards of the wooden door peppering his prostrate form. Ballard looked up through stinging eyes to see a canister the size of a soda can land about four feet in front of him. As it exploded, he was blinded, but a part of him noticed that it seemed to explode more than once. A wave of nausea hit him as successive concussions and staccato flashes of light rendered him blind, deaf and immobile.

"Clear." Ballard tried to blink away the afterimages of the flashes as his hearing started to return. The voice of the man? that had spoken was heavily modulated, similar to the one on the phone. He could only barely here the crunch of wood splinters under the boots of the figure in front of him.

His vision swimming, Ballard heaved and vomited on the floor. He heard a snort of derision as he picked himself up off the floor. Turning, he realised there was three figures in his apartment. Vision returning rapidly, he started to examine and mentally categorise the people in front of him. The one closest on his right was a woman from her figure, but her features were obscured by a nomex balaclava. A bulge at the back of her head testified to long hair. Her military issue coveralls were festooned with various devices and webbing. Her knees and elbows were protected but padding, and she seemed to be wearing body armour on most of her torso. A fletcher was strapped to her right thigh, riding low in a quickdraw holster. He looked at her hands, which were gloved, and started back when he saw the snug machine pistol she carried at port arms. Which was pointed at him.

Turning rapidly, he moved to face the next of the three, and received a hit in his solar plexus for his troubles. Looking up, he saw a similarly dressed man wielding a riotgun, but Ballard had hacked enough MilCorp servers to know he was carrying havoc ammo rather than the usual beanbag ammo carried by the local police. Whoever these people were, they weren't the cops coming after him for a traffic violation.

The last of the trio was kitted out the same, with the glaring difference of not wearing a balaclava. Ballard's blood drained from nearly ever recess of his body when he realised the man before him was a Clown. Not the funny kind, but one of the elite mercenary Maskirovka Clowns, veterans of the fighting in 2005-06, former Russian Spetsnaz and US Special Forces that had been abandoned with the onset of the computer warfare age of corporations and global governing bodies. Ballard didn't need to look to know the eyepatch the other man wore concealed an elaborate targeting sensor as a replacement for his right eye. He also knew the ceramic inserts under the epidermis of the other covered his vital organs and made fighting back an impossibility, had he been able to reach his hold out piece. For final confirmation of the other man's status, he quickly flicked a look at the other man's hips, where against all of his hopes, rode the infamous dual Avengers.

"Douglas Ballard, you are charged with violating the VRSM International secure server. How plead you?" Ballard was stunned - the Clowns were mercs for hire to the highest bidder, known more for their indifference in Corp affairs than their code of justice. That he was even being asked this question threw Ballard

"Uh, yeah…just lemme go check…" Ballard did an about-face and moved towards his keyboard, ready to fry the hard drive. His brain was still churning over the question. As far as he knew, VRSM were a small corp that specialised in agricultural products, how they'd have enough cash, and moxy, to hire the Clowns was beyond him. And he wasn't even sure he'd even accessed the server in the first place. If he had, it would have only been used to bounce the signal, not a full blown server hack. Anyways, he knew he had to cop the fine and conviction the Clowns would lay on him - Corps would pay big money for info on VRSM-Clown ties - enough to make him a very rich man.

"I would advise against that Mr Ballard." A shot rang out, and Ballard felt a searing pain in his right thigh. His leg collapsed underneath as he tried to move, and his hand came away sticky and bright with arterial blood as he instinctively grabbed the wound.

"That is the femoral artery Mr Ballard. I would advise you assist us, or you will bleed out in 15 minutes." The modulated voice was almost bored. "Maintain pressure with your right hand." The Clown's lips moved but no sound came out. Only when the soldier carrying the right gun moved to tie a tourniquet did Ballard realise they were using subvocal communications. Then why did the…

"Why did Sparky here call out clear when he entered then if you guys have subvox?"

The hint of a smile tugged at the Clown's mouth

"Because we wanted you alive, Mr Ballard - you see, you have stumbled onto something that is not of your concern, and we mean to rectify that." Once again the blood drained from Ballard's face.

"You're going to kill me!"

"Yes, eventually, but first we need to find out how much you know. Come now, Mr Ballard. Death is inevitable, at least make it a painless one for yourself, Co-operate fully and I'll make sure your seconds are painless ones. But for now, let's dispense with this ridiculous moniker and call you by your true name, Harbinger."

The use of his online nick finally took the fight out of Ballard, aka Harbinger, Seth Wallace, Michael Kazinski and a lot of others. He allowed himself to be restrained, and barely raised a whimper as the female pulled out a derm and rammed it home into his left arm. He thought he heard muffled shots as he drifted off into oblivion, but allowed himself to be enveloped by the darkness…

Part Two

"How many dead?" Special Agent Devon Cortland couldn't believe his ears.

"6 - and none of them Harbinger." They were standing outsides the ruin of a burnt out apartment complex in the Florida Keys. Cortland had been called from his base in Sydney to set up the surveillance of one Douglas Ballard, suspected to be the infamous Harbinger of the hacker elite. His special task force had been in the act of setting up when the report of shots fired at the apartment complex had come through. Arriving on scene they had discovered a building on fire, and the remains of 6 civilians.

"Jesus. What about his box? Is it still there?" Cortland was hoping that the case of the computer was still intact enough to disassemble and restore the hard disk, hopefully giving lead to where Harbinger had moved next.

"Sort of - someone unloaded a round of havoc on it, so the chipset is damaged, but the hard disk looks almost intact."

"Okay, get uniform to make a sweep of the surrounding area, see if anyone saw anything." Cortland was not hopeful of that eventuality. In cases like this, the hackers generally picked an out of the way place where people kept to themselves.

"Sir! Over here!" One of the uniform officers was standing next to one of the coroners doing an on site examination of the bodies. Cortland ambled over, wondering how the hell the bodies would help in an investigation like this.

"Sir, my names Sergeant McNally - served with the 10th Mountain in Afghanistan, and with the 82nd in 2005."

"That's nice Sergeant - but what the hell does it have to do with my investigation?"

"Oh yeah, sorry Sir - these wounds were caused by Avenger ammo, Sir. Clowns." The minute the word was spoken, the activity around the crime scene slowed to a halt. Whispers filled the air as colleagues pondered the possibility of Clowns being the cause of this slaughter. For all their mystique, the Clowns were well known around the world, even if they were more feared than respected.

"You better be sure Sergeant - anyone can get Avenger ammo, especially a hacker the quality of Harbinger." Cortland was losing his patience. Every time they had an investigation of this nature, the Clown's were touted as the culprits. Cortland knew the true figures - Clowns were responsible for fewer than 12 deaths, with most of their operations hitting the gateway machines and servers physically, normally with explosives. Murdering a bunch of civvies wasn't their style.

"Yes Sir - saw avenger wounds in '05. You can never forget 'em. But my gut says Clowns." McNally wasn't going to back down.

Cortland sighed

"Okay, Sergeant, keep checking and see if anyone saw anything."

Cortland wandered off to where the techs were busy disassembling the hard drive of Harbinger's box. He stood by helpless as uniformed officers circulated and techs installed the damaged hard drive into the transfer bus. He started getting restless, but all restlessness left him when the command prompt appeared on the transfer bus' monitor.

"Well? Does it work?" Cortland was filled with nervous anxiety.

"Hang on a sec, Sir" The tech was ignorant of the frustration Cortland was experiencing. His fingers flashed across the keyboard, and a surface scan commenced on the hard drive.

"Hmm, damaged clusters - lots of. If we get anything, I'd be surprised…Aww Hell! Quick get it off now!!" the tech ripped frantically at the jacks connecting the hard drive to the transfer bus.

"What the hell happened then?" Cortland was useless at this computer stuff

"Well, Sir, seems like Harbinger had a failsafe on the hard drive - self propagating sub service. Few more secs and we would have lost the bus, and anything connected to it - including the microwave link to base. Thing is - this drive should be toast. It shouldn't work, not with that many busted clusters. My guess is the bastard planted it after he toasted the place."

"So you're saying we've got nothing - nothing at all?"

"That about sums it up, Sir...sorry, but there's nothing I can do here."

"Okay, get back to base, and we'll send you anything worthwhile."

Cortland leaned back against the transport that had carried his team there. Six months of work tracking that bastard Ballard, and all for naught - now he was getting violent, with six dead bodies. What a mess….

"Sir, I think I might have something you might want to take a look at"

Cortland turned to look at the features of Sgt Mcnally. Cortland hoped this wasn't going to be another Clown story. Sergeant or not, if this guy kept saying that, he's have his stripes.

"Okay, Sarge. Let me have it" It was at this stage that Cortland realised that McNally wasn't alone. With him was a boy of maybe fifteen years, holding what looked to be a digital camcorder.

"Well, Sir, this here is Jeff, and I think I'll let him explain it"

"Okay, Jeff - tell me what happened."

"Well, sir, I'm a bit ashamed…but I gotsta tell ya. There's a chick who lives in one of the apartments here, and my friends dared me to record her having a shower." Cortland rolled his eyes in disgust. He glared at McNally.

"Go on Jeff" To Cortland "Sir, you'll want to hear this."

"Well, I got the lady in shower when all of a sudden these dudes in black start shooting into Mr Ballard's place. They wuz like some ninjas or sumthin, coz they had no faces except for one dude, with an eyepatch - y'know -like a pirate? Anywayz, I swung the camera over there, and I recorded most of what I saw." With that he turned the camcorders display towards Cortland and hit play.

Part Three

"Can you zoom in on that guys face?" They were back at Cortland's command post, cleaning up the camcorder recording and picking it for any detail. The angle of the camera had pointed directly into Ballard's apartment, where they saw in detail the entrance of the armed trio, Ballard's wounding, and the final exit. What happened next on the recording turned Cortland's stomach. The mike was too far away from the action, so the only sounds recorded where the gasps of Jeff as the Clown opened fire. Systematically, he went from apartment to apartment, stopping to fire thrice at each civilian - two to the body, one to the head, like the good soldier he was. At the end, the trio, plus the unconscious form of Harbinger loaded into a surplus Hummvee and drove off. A trace on the Humvee's plates had revealed it was hired for the day by a non existant company, but the hackers were into the accounts section, hoping to backtrack the money that paid for it.

The tech zoomed in on the Clown's face, and them sharpened the image to present a usable photo for comparative purposes. Cortland knew the GCD didn't have anything on the Clowns, and that the only databases that would have info on them was the restricted MilCorp machines, which he had to get permission from above to access, unless…

"Umm, how do you feel about a little, umm, expedition to the MilCorp server..?" The tech knew instantly what Cortland was referring to.

"I'll most likely get traced."

"I'll wear it - you're covered". With that the tech, flexed his fingers and got to work. A string of addresses appeared in sequence as the tech set up a series of bounces to buy them more time in event of a trace. The last IP to appear was that of the MilCorp File Server. At the same time, the tech loaded his bypass software, ready to elude the first layer of MilCorp security on their server. Cortland sat back as the computer first dialled the MilCorp server, and then fooled it into believing the protection was running when in fact it wasn't. The tech cursed as he realised the decoding software on the password would take a while, and the passive trace was well under way by now. Cortland walked away to get a drink.

"I'm in." Cortland rushed back to the workstation, as the tech loaded the comparison photo to the file server and set the wheels in motion. Cortland hadn't realised he was holding his breath until a match was found and he let out an explosive gasp.

"Here he is"

"Copy that and get out of there - try modding the log if you can, but if not don't worry - we're still the government, heh."

After the tech had shutdown the link and deleted as much of the log trail as he thought possible, he decrypted the file holding the details of the match. MilCorp standard procedure had a personnel file designated by photo, not by name. The tech opened the file and Cortland began to read.

"Colonel Aleksandr Pavelovich Radzik, born 7-19-73, Minsk, Russia. Served 14 years with the VDV post-USSR breakup, saw extensive action in Chechnya in '95-96, and again in 2K. Volunteered for Operation: Berkut in 2K3, had successful implantation of implants and inserts. 2K4, became one of the command staff for the Maskirovka Clowns, known as Spetsnaz back then. During the War in 2005, was captured by US forces. Reappears in 2K8 as a Clown officer - I guess he and the US spec ops made a deal - and so forth. Hang on a sec…what the hell? It says here he was killed in a plane crash in 2K9…." The tech trailed off.

"The SocSec machine is an open book to a good hacker, you know that. Changing his details would be childs play."

Just as Cortland was about to launch into a diatribe against the woeful SocSec security, another tech ran up with a print out.

"Sir, the lipreader has found something"

Cortland, with techs in tow, ran to the workstation occupied by a group of lipreaders trying to decipher everything being sain the recording, however innocuous it may appear visually.

"Sir, right before the Clown shoots Harbinger, he says something - and this is the gist of what we've got - VRSM International. Ever hear of it?" Blank looks answered the lipreaders question.

"Yeah, us neither."

Cortland made a decision then to go ask someone he thought might know.

"I'm going to ask Ardan. I think he'll know about the Clown/Harbinger/VRSM connection. If not, he's still in jail anyways." Daniel Thomas, aka Ardan, had been arrested for bank fraud, but even Cortland knew it was a fix up to get him off the streets. Harbinger was good - Ardan was better. Or so some people thought. Others thought him overrated. Whatever he was, Cortland knew he was straight up, and would most likely answer any questions that were asked of him, as long as they had nothing to do with Ardan, or anyone he'd worked for.

"You serious?"

"Yeah, wish me luck" With that, Cortland turned and strolled out of the command center.

Part Four

The Mazurka III maximum security prison at Christmas Island, situated in the Indian Ocean off the northwest cape of Australia, past the gas rigs, and very close to the Austro-Indonesian Exclusion Zone, was the home for the worst offenders of high tech crime in the world. Knowing the skills of most of it's inmates, the prison had been designed to operate nearly entirely without outside access. The guards rotated on and off on 3 week shifts, nearly all of them former Australian SAS troops who had served on the Mine front during the 2005-06 resource war. Everything was airlifted to the island, including visitors, such as Special agent Devon Cortland.

The man he was coming to see was best known as Ardan, though it was well documented he had operated under various different hacker aliases in his career so far. Ardan was unique in the hacker world in that he had been a federal agent, indeed, one of the elite Force 10 agents, dedicated to computer crime resulting in fatalities. Before that, he too had served in the fighting in 2006, on the Mine front - near the Ranger Uranium mine in his native Australia. Like most of the soldiers that had fought there, he was adopted into the global governments law enforcement agency. He had shown a remarkable aptitude for computer crime. From there, he had worked his way through the ranks, and was promoted in Force 10.

Then in 2009, his wife died of cancer, three months before the cure was released by BioCorp to the general public. Believing he and the rest of the world had been grievously wronged by corporate greed, he took matters into his own hands and systematically took down the BioCorp structure, culminating in the assassination of the CEO and senior management. Then he had disappeared, seemingly lost in the multitude of mediocre hackers.

Details become sketchy then, as one of his trademarks was to leave no clues, and due to his security training, the first servers he hit before he could have his access revoked had been the MilCorp and various other restricted servers. Thus, he was armed with a lengthy list of illegal software that had been designed to crack the milservers during the 2005-06 war. He still felt loyalty to his fellow Force 10 colleagues, and when they had investigated his apartment, only a few had been maimed rather than slain by the pinpoint charges in place.

He was credited for various assaults on corporate servers, and unlike most hackers, had developed a cabal of former federal agents, most of which came from the Rapid Response Force, the successor of the LAPD SWAT teams of the 20th century. With these operatives, his modus operandi changed from simple computer crime to actual physical acts of terrorism, such as the physical abduction of servers, corporate employees and other various illegal actions.

With a long list of suspected crimes, he had finally been detained when Force 10 had been tipped off about him visiting his wife's grave on the anniversary of her death. In the end though, they had been unable to prove his complicity in any actual crimes, and had resorted to time honoured tactics of just fitting him up. So rather than the techno-terrorist that he had become, he was charged with the petty crime of bank fraud. With a sympathetic judge, he was sentenced to life at Mazurka III, where he would be out of the way and unable to do anything else.

Cortland always laughed every time he came to the island - most of the worlds foremost computer criminals looked like malnourished teenagers, which in fact, a lot of them were. He also debated the wisdom of having one who knew the system as well as Ardan in an environment with a lot of other hackers that could quite easily benefit from anything he told them.

Cortland mentally tried to recall what Ardan, aka Daniel James Thomas, was like. Very tall, reasonably built with blue eyes and brown hair prematurely going grey. 29 years of age, no living family. Wore spectacles, rather than the more common contacts. Took regular medication as a result of the rad sickness he picked up on the Mine front, so his hair was thinner than it would have been otherwise. Well educated, spoke numerous languages, including Latin for some unknown reason, most likely catholic education. Soft spoken, and a bit arrogant. Still, he was quite honourable in his own way.

"Ahh, the esteemed Mr Devon Cortland has deigned to visit my humble abode. I'd offer you a drink Devon, but as you can see, the help don't really trust me to play nice." Ardan held up manacled wrists, and looking down, Cortland could see his ankles were chained as well.

"How are you Daniel?"

"As well as can be expected - quite bored though. Perhaps you'd like to reminisce about the old days - most of the children in this place refer to the nineties as a joke." Ardan's reference to the youth of inmate population did not go unnoticed by Cortland. "I'm assuming you've come to ask about my esteemed colleague," a snort, "Mr Harbinger, or whatever else he's calling himself these days." Ardan gestured with his hands, allowing Cortland to get a glimpse of the tattoo on his shoulder when the short sleeves of the prisoner's uniform moved away. From memory, Cortland remembered it was a tattoo of Quintus, the Flying Tiger, the unofficial emblem of the 5th Battalion, Republic of Australia Army Regiment, Ardan's unit during the 2005-06 fighting.

"How the hell could you know that in here Daniel?" Cortland was astounded that an isolated outpost such as this had even learnt about the events of the past fews days in Florida so quickly.

"Wasn't the Clowns though, you know." Ardan continued on, seemingly unheeding Cortland's question. "Not their style, despite the avenger ammo found at the scene." Cortland relaxed a bit. Ardan might have heard about the attack/abduction, but he obviously didn't know all of it.

"There was no ammo found there - and we have a capture of a known Clown officer. You used to run with the Clowns for a bit didn't you? Maybe you can fill us in on him." Cortland handed over picture of Radzik. "Do you know him?" Cortland was surprised by Ardan's reaction. The inmate just laughed when he saw the photo.

"God, Devon, what do they teach you guys these days. This wasn't the guy at the scene. Aleksandr Radzik, better known to me as Pavel, died a year or so ago in a plane crash. I should know - I was at his funeral." This wasn't going at all according to Cortland's plan.

"Maybe he faked his death - hell, maybe you hacked his file to make him dead." The accusation had no substance to it, but Cortland was grasping at straws.

"That, Mr Devon Cortland, is a doctored file. Mr Radzik's head has been placed over another's body. Check the orig-" Cortland's outburst cut off Ardan mid-sentence.

"Get real Thomas! How can this be a doctored file? It was given to us by some peeping tom kid…." Realisation struck as he said the words. Reaching into his pocket he clipped on the scrambler to his satt-phone, and dialled the number of the command center in Florida. "Get me Sergeant McNally." Moments passed as Cortland waited impatiently for the uniform sergeant to be found. "Okay McNally, I want you to find that kid, Jeff, and bring him in ASAP. You got me? Good. Call me on this number when you've got him." Ardan let a bemused smirk creep across his face. Cortland disconnected the call."

"What the hell are you smiling about?"

"I'm smiling, Mr Cortland, because you've been rolled. Though I pity the poor bastard who tries to fit up the Clowns though. And now, Mr Cortland, it appears you have a new threat to worry about. One that's already shown it's ruthlessness, though they might only be setting up shop - grabbing Harbinger was either retribution or points to the fact they're hacker-lite, like the Clowns used to be."

"But the Clowns are mercs, like your crew was, aren't they? They have no loyalty to a particular corp right?" Cortland knew a bit about the Clowns and the various copycat organizations that had sprung up to follow their example, but nowhere near as much as the former Force 10 agent who had first tracked, and then joined them.

"My "crew", as you put it, were guys like me, federal agents who were interested in seeing justice, regardless of whether or not we could catch the bastards at it. The Clowns were abandoned, literally, in 2K6 by their governments - disavowed, cut-off from it all with the formation of the Global Governing Body. They were an anachronism of a more violent past, and it was politically and economically damaging to keep them around. A group of about 20 Spetsnaz and US Rangers formed the first Clown set up, working as guns for hire. As more of their former brethren heard about them, they gravitated towards them, homeless, and trying to rejoin the only family they'd known. It was then that they started realising that e-crime was the way of the future, and the world didn't need another group of terrorists for hire. So they restructured themselves like a corp, and started advertising subtly. Though killing wasn't below their standards, they started to specialise in server assaults, but not like the hackers and sysadmins were used to - no bouncing a signal around the world - they simply assaulted the physical plant of the target corp and neutralised it the old fashioned way. No one else had tried this before, mainly due to the fact you needed to hit multiple servers at once. With their training and motivation, the Clowns found it easy and quite profitable." Ardan paused for a breath

"It was when they started coming up against the Harbinger's and Stalker's of the hacker world that they realised that physical assaults needed to be undertaken in tandem with electronic assaults. They tried hiring agents from companies like Uplink and Fortitude for a while, but found they needed a permanent hacker base to which to drawn from. This is how I got involved."

"Due to the operations my team and I carried out, we were thrust into direct competition with the Clowns. I guess you remember the Zurich Industrial assault, where Kingston Matthews Ltd paid both us and the Clowns to take down the Zurich mainframe at the same time - apparently it was part of a wager to see which could do it faster. Myself and a four man strike team parachuted in, while the Clowns drove APCs through the fence. My guys were equipped the same as Rapids - havoc, EMP grenades, pulse ammo etc - and the Clowns were equipped with those damned Avenger pistols and their standard goodies. A firefight broke out, with both of us retreating into the Zurich complex. It was here the Clowns learnt the value of a tac-hack as some newsie referred to us. I was able to access the complex security controls and turn it into a turkey shoot for my guys. Turned the sprinklers on to defeat heat sensors, activated the security doors randomly, and so forth. Also found out an interesting thing on the MilCorp server regarding Operation: Berkut, that whole implant sensor thing. It was designed to bounce a signal from the sensor to a base station, I guess for purpose of command oversight. Anyways, we hijacked the Zurich microwave dish, and freqhopped to get the Clown throughput freq. Then it was a case of correlating their position with the Zurich security camera logs, and setting up an ambush for them as they moved." The former agents eyes looked wistfully into the distance as he recounted what happened next.

"When we hit them, we had full surprise. One went down, but he kept firing, those Avenger slugs punching right through the Level 3A armour my guys were wearing. Then they did something surprising. They popped smoke and holstered their guns. One of them strode forward, voice modulated by the subvox things they wear, and called for our surrender. Not sure what the hell they were doing, I think I told them to go to hell. A couple of sniper shots rang out, the window next to me shattering, and two of my guys going down hard. I tried to move but got hit. At the time, thought it was shrapnel. Found out later it was a sniper derm, something their R&D team had cooked up. They'd only stopped firing to make sure their sniper support knew who was a valid target." Ardan took a sip of water, and got up to start shuffling around the room, motion still hobbled by the manacles.

"I woke up in an "undisclosed location". There and then, they offered me the role of training a bunch of tac-hackers to accompany their assault elements. I wasn't really in a position to refuse. As time went by, I became close with the senior officers, and my team became more and more integrated into the Clown organization. But we were still - still are - separate from the Clowns themselves.

"So to answer your question - yeah, the Clowns are mercs - but they've got buckets more integrity and honour than the government. They're good people." Cortland had had enough.

"Good people? Try listening to yourself Thomas! These "good people" have murdered twelve innocents I know of, and countless others I don't. So don't give me anything about they're being good people! For all I know they're the ones behind the Harbinger abduction!" It felt good to let off some steam at the arrogant bastard shuffling around the dimly lit room.

"Get over yourself Cortland. Both you and I know the government accidently terminates more than that a month. At least the Clowns know what they're fighting for - do you?"

"To put scum like you and them behind bars, Thomas. My God! You were one of the best - Force 10, everything! And you threw it all away! For what? Some misguided sense of justice? Hell, if you wife saw you li-" Cortland was surprised to see how fast the restrained man crossed the room to confront him form an inch away - their eyes boring into the others.

"You leave my wife out it! Cortland, you're out of your depth here - you're useless! Hell, you're not even Force 10! How the hell are you expecting to catch these people if you can't even work out that kid who gave you the freakin tape was a plant? For crying out loud, my guys would die laughing if they saw what a monumental cock-up of this you've made." Cortland's ears burned with the implied rebuke.

"Thomas, you might consider yourself above the law, but goddamn if I'm gonna sit back and take this crap from you, you traitorous son of a bitch. You know what your problem is, you problem is-" Cortlands diatribe was interrupted by the incessant vibration of his satt-phone. Impatiently he hit the receive button and borught it to his ear.

"Yes, goddamnit! Oh, McNally - you got the kid? Excuse me? What the hell do you mean "never heard of him"? He was there yesterday! Find him goddamnit!" Angrily he hit the end button. He turned to glare at Ardan.

"Happy are you now, you bastard? I suppose the whole VRSM thing is a plant too? You tell me that it's a plant, the Clowns are innocent, and yet I'm supposed to believe you know nothing about this group that took Harbinger? Get real!"

"What did you say?" Ardan looked confused.

"I said Get real. You hard at hearing or something?"

"Not about that, about VRSM. Where did you see that name?"

"It was on the recording, the lipreaders put it together when the Clown shot Harbinger. Why? It mean something to you?" His anger forgotten, Cortland felt the rush of excitement he was got when he hit on a new lead.

"VRSM International?" Ardan seemed to want to be sure they were talking about the same company.

"Yeah, that's the one."

"And he actually said it out loud?"

"Yeah. Look, do you know something about this, or are you just giving me the go around?" Cortland was curious as to why the fight seemed to have gone out of the former agent.

"I need a computer and a connection. Now." Ardan's words had taken on an icy tone.

"Like hell."

"Get me a secure box now, Cortland, or you'll be picking up pieces of this for years to come." The fire had been replaced by an icy determination. Never before in the presence of this man had Cortland been concerned for his personal safety. But now he could see why this traitor had been considered one of the most dangerous men alive.

"Do it. Now."

Part Five

The room they were in was in the sprawl of Yogjakarta in Indonesia, part of the GCD CompSec divisional office for the region. The room was bare except for a small foldout table and a rickety wooden chair. On the table was a highend AMD processor set up. Cables snaked from the back of the box to the wall. In each corner of the windowless room was a Rapid Reaction Force officer in full riot kit, ready to take down the tac-hack if he tried anything. Cortland was in the monitoring room that looked down into the locked down room. He motioned to the tech seated at the console in front of him.

"When he connects to his gateway, I want it's IP immediately, okay? He's got no gateway nuke software on that thing, so he can't get rid of it that easily." Cortland wanted the treasure trove of information and software Ardan's gateway would hold. The tech nodded and set up the trace as, in the room below them, Ardan was escorted in by more federal agents. The former agent had the gall to wave at the control box before sitting down. Cortland grabbed the control mike.

"Okay, Thomas. You've got your box - now tell me what the hell's going on." The hackers voice was distorted over the intercom.

"Patience, Cortland. I need to check something. Then I'll tell all I know. I promise." A small smile flittered across the hacker's face and then disappeared. Cortland knew that look. Like hell.

"You've got five minutes, Thomas. Go."

The tech gasped as the box dialled into the former agents gateway, and then was routed through a number of different servers to reach it's rather innocuous looking destination.

"Sir, he just set up a 167 bounce connection. And his IP he used for his gateway doesn't exist…" the tech took on a pained look. Cortland just grunted.

"Keep going."

Below them in the lockdown room, Daniel Thomas, better known to the world as Ardan, looked for all the world like he was a mild mannered librarian checking his electronic catalogue. His fingers moved lazily over the keyboard, for a minute or so, then his brow furrowed and his typing started gaining in intensity. Another minute later and his fingers were moving at frenetic pace. Sweat was dripping from his forehead and idly splashing the drab concrete floor.

Cortland in the control room was trying to keep up with what was careening across the screen of the linked monitor system, and failing dismally. Even the tech, well known for his hacking ability, had given up trying to follow the former agents path.

"He sent email - who to? And where the hell is he now…" Cortland tried to follow it all.

"Sir, I can follow the IP, but I don't recognise it. He downloaded something. But it's waaaay encrypted. We can't decrypt it unless he does." The tech looked on helpless.

All of a sudden, Ardan sat bolt upright and flipped the table, and everything on it, away from him angrily. Then, before anyone could stop him, he walked over to the section of the wall where the wires snaked to, and yanked them from their various sockets. The screen in the control room went blank as he did so. Cortland grabbed the mike.

"GRAB HIM! NOW!" The Rapids in the lockdown room immediately flung themselves towards Thomas, who just let them come. In a tangle of bodies he was knocked down and hastily restrained. In the control room, Cortland moved to the exit, and turned to the tech.

"Get as much info as you can, from the data there. Goddamnit!" With that he strode angrily down to the lockdown room. Slamming open the door, he moved to the restrained form of Ardan, and proceeded to lift him to his feet and throw him across the room.

"What the HELL was that all about, huh? I want some goddamned answers, Thomas. Now! We've put up with your cryptic nonsense for too long." Cortland was furious. Ardan lifted his head, lower split and dripping claret onto the drab green floor.

"I said I'd tell you everything…and I will." With that, he lowered his head and passed out.

 

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