Jared's pacing heavily outside a non-descript metal door. It has gathered a strong layer of rust that's creeping in from the corners. The wind and rain are tangling his hair into knots, rivulets of water mixing with beads of sweat before sliding down his neck and soaking into his shirt collar. Jared wipes his forehead with the back of his hand every couple of seconds to keep the water from getting into his eyes. After each futile swipe, his left hand comes to rest against the wet denim over his thigh, a vein effort to keep them from twitching nervously. The right is shoved under his jacket to keep his fingers from freezing, so he won't fumble with his gun if he needs to use it. When he needs to use it.
Lighting flashes nearby, a rumble quick on its heels. He has a feeling that this is one of those nights when the old piece of metal will be his most trusted friend.
The weight of his relic of a .45 is pressing against his abdomen, snug in his waistband, and he can't help running his fingers over the hardness of the gun. The wind's blowing right into the dark back alley where he is, whistling between the larger debris, in the cracks of the walls of the tall warehouses around him. It's picking up pieces of paper and plastic, random human junk, from the ground, tornadoing it in the corners before they get snagged and land. He trails them with his eyes to keep himself focused, from giving rein to what he knows in his subconscious.
Chad's been inside for too long.
Jared stops, anxiety immediately collecting in his bones, and he frees the gun, curling his fingers over the modded ceramic grip. He lets it rest under his jacket, ready. He wasn't born for this, a son from a good family, but life happened and it's Chad, his best and closest friend, and he's going to be there for him. They've always got each other's backs because that's how the world works. If you're alone, you die.
There's a brief pause in the wind. Rain washes soot from the air, shouts coming from inside through the door. Then shots.
Jared pulls his gun, keeps it pointing down and balances himself. He opens the door quietly, listens for any gunfire coming to his direction, and when there isn't any, he shoulders the door wide open and goes in gun first.
It's dark inside except for two fluorescent tubes in the back of the room strapped to the high ceiling. It's nothing but quiet.
The shout comes from his right, followed by more gunshots, sporadic but hitting the sheet-metal wall between him and Chad.
"Chad! Got your back! Get the fuck out of there!"
Jared shoots blindly towards the muzzle flashes on the other side of the room, scans the area where Chad's shout came from. Jared spots him now, just when Chad's rolling to take cover, only his blond hair shining in the meager light. He's trapped behind a pile of crates, six yards away. Doable.
"Quit dicking around and move!" Jared yells, takes another shot at the opposition.
"Can't, they got my leg."
Jared makes a quick decision. He's not fucking leaving his friend behind. "I'm coming to you, cover me."
Chad's 9 mil roars, a signal for Jared to move and everything slows down. Jared takes two more shots, swears he almost sees the bullets fly true on their trajectory and launches himself into action. Feeling like he's running underwater, he dives for Chad. He tries to pull Chad up by his waist, has to tighten his grip and push hard because Chad can't boost himself up. Bullets are hitting the crates, the wall above them. The air is filled with old lead, but the gunfight sounds like Jared's far away from it all, watching it happen to someone else.
He hauls Chad up, one arm around him, his fingers clutched white-knuckled in Chad's jacket, his other hand holding his gun and shooting wildly. They start for the door, Chad limping between Jared's body and the wall, in cover. The door is still lying open. It's another foot before he can shove Chad out into the thunder and rain. But he has to stop shooting to make it out.
The chaos catches up with Jared, slaps him in the back, says 'howdy, partner' and pushes the world into overspeed. Pain rips into his left side, into the arm around Chad, and Jared's knees fold on the wet asphalt, almost bringing Chad down with him.
He yells to Chad to move the fuck along. Shakes his head to stop the world from spinning and scrambles up. There are a dozen voices inside Jared's head, screaming for him to make the pain stop. Jared ignores them all, survival the only thing in his mind, and it's not going to happen if they don't get to the car.
Jared catches up with Chad, turns to empty whatever is in the clip into the frame of the door, into the blackness of the room, and pushes them around the corner to the car. The street is empty this far on the outskirts of Dallas metro just like they expected. Only the big-city lights gleaming on the horizon a sign of human life.
"You okay to drive?" he asks Chad. The words are bitten off because Jared's left arm is limp and on fire.
Jared nods, and they pile inside the old Ford that under the metal shell is a mod-job through and through. Tires squeal when Chad pulls off the curb and guns for the city; they slide sideways on the flooding road before Chad gets the car under control.
For the next mile Jared keeps a close eye on the mirrors and the infrared camera, scopes the dark and empty husks of buildings they pass, tries to find anything suspicious in the landscape around them. All Jared catches are clouds hanging so low they're almost sweeping the tops of the buildings and rain making patterns in the air. Finally he lets himself pass out from the pain.
Jared comes to in a brightly lit room, his head like it's been stuffed with cotton. He blinks against the harsh fluorescent lights, shifts around to see a glimpse of something else that isn't a splotchy, off-white ceiling. The movement jars the bones in his back, sudden waves of pain radiate from his limbs, nausea hitting him hard.
He pukes over the railing of the bed, new pain bringing up more bile until he's dry heaving. There's a warm hand on his back, Jared realizes, and maybe some words being said, but he goes back under before his back hits the mattress.
The next time he wakes up, his mouth tastes like ass and a hand presses his chest to keep him down. Panic claws in his ribcage, trying to break loose like a frightened little animal. Jared's not so little, and because of his 6 foot 4 frame carrying 210 pounds of muscle, he's rarely been that frightened, but he's never responded well to being kept still. It's an instinct. If you're alone, you die, and if you're still, you'll be alone soon enough.
The face hovering above him is making noises; desperate, encouraging, pissy noises that wash over him with the force of a tsunami and are as welcome. It's familiar, though, and Jared suppresses his animal instinct long enough to recognize Chad's blue eyes watching him.
"Stop squinting, man. Gonna get lines," Jared rasps.
The eyes widen for a second, and then Chad whoops loudly, a pair of crutches pointing at the ceiling when he raises up his arms in victory and a smile wide enough to drink in a tray of whiskey shots. "Fuck you too, J-man. Thought you were a goner there for a second."
"Can't get rid of me that easy." Jared coughs and Chad reaches over to offer him a straw hanging from a glass with a chipped rim. Jared drinks in weak sips, cool water fighting the coughing fit. "No one else would watch your back anyway."
Jared settles back down on the bed and asks Chad the whats, the whys, and the wheres. They're in a med clinic, a low-key place in the metro area, and Chad says he knows a nurse there. ("Not that it's any of your business, J-man, but yes, blond. With a rack like a--" and Jared cuts Chad off as he looks like he's gesturing that they're the size of basketballs, and Chad should know where to draw a line even when he's exaggerating.) They should be safe for now, but no one messes with the Southies and is really safe. The doc patched them up the best he could and as fast as he could.
Chad shows him the bandage around his thigh, blood on the frayed edges before Jared can tell him to pull his pants the fuck up because no one wants to see that. Chad shakes his ass in something that the lost tribes in the Amazon probably find sexy and pulls his pants back up.
"Went through the muscle, missed the bone and arteries, man. How fucking bad shots the Southies are anyway? Jesus, think they can fuck a deal just because they're the hot shit."
The strange numbness is starting to wear off, Jared's left side throbbing inside a plastic hard cast reaching up to his left shoulder and then disappearing down under the blanket thrown over him. There's a beat of silence, the atmosphere in the room turning like a tide.
"How bad is it?" Jared readies himself for more pain, wiggles his fingers, but he can't feel them. There's no movement against the scratchy blanket just unlocalized throbbing. He tugs down the blanket wanting to see his fingers move even if he can't feel them. They have to be moving.
The hard cast goes only to his elbow and stops. Nothing below it, no arm, no hand, no fingers. Jared sees it, but can't handle it. Can't even get a word out.
Chad's voice goes apologetic, something Jared's only heard twice before: the time when they were twelve and Chad got him into trouble with his parents by taking him out on a joyride in a stolen car and the first time he got Jared shot at.
"Doc had to cut it. You caught a slug to your left side, no permanent damage there. But two hit the upper arm in the artery and bone. You were bleeding out in the car, man, so I had to tie it off." Chad looks away with wet eyes, but he blinks them away like it didn't happen. "Took so long to find a safe place that your fingers and arm were gone. The bone in the upper arm is shattered and might not heal right, but I couldn't let them take that too."
Jared stares at his stump of an arm absolutely stupefied. How did he never think this could happen? Dying, sure, but a cripple? Fuck, that's even worse than dying.
"Jay," Chad's voice startles him back into reality. "Man, you saved my life. Pulled me out of there and-- Those slugs would've been in my back if you hadn't been dragging me out."
There's nothing but silence and Jared meets Chad's eyes. It's a whole new look on his best friend's face; guilt, shame instead of the usual unapologetic leer. Chad watched out for him, got them food and shelter after Jared's parents tossed him out on his ass for following the rules they themselves had taught him, and Jared can't feel sorry for himself. He's alive, his best friend is still alive because of him, and that feels good. They've been off worse, and Jared knows a guy who knows a guy to see about cybernetics. Won't matter for shit if his new arm's planned or not because he's still here.
"Nah, man. We're even now. Just don't expect me to do it again with the other arm." Jared raises his right arm, curls his fingers into a fist and holds it up. Chad takes a second, bumps it with his own fist. "'Til the end, man."
They need a solid plan to move. They got away with a third of the payment for the data Chad wanted to fence; this time some old-school juicy dirt on some big-name Holoweb actors. That was what Chad managed to grab after the Southies pulled their guns on him, trying to steal the money and the data and kill him off. Good thing Jared was there for backup, skillfully blending in with the shadows. But Southies don't take kindly to stealing, even if they started it, and Jared's pretty sure Southies know they got some bullets in. Med-clinics will be the first places they search.
Like Murphy's Law, there's shouting coming in through the closed door. Bad news.
Jared exchanges glances with Chad, rips out the stat pad from the back of his good hand and goes for the IV next. Chad's barely on his feet, and the IV is still in when the door is kicked in, two guys in all-black and full combat gear rushing the room. Big pulse guns point at them. Definitely not Southies. A third guy comes in after them, heavy black leather jacket on his shoulders and a relaxed smile on his lips.
"Hello, boys. Jeff Morgan, Dallas Tactical. " He flashes a badge. "I have a proposition for you."
Rats skitter inside the walls of Jensen's apartment, their claws loud against the thin concrete. The white paint on the walls is bubbling from moisture in the high corners, turned gray throughout the room by time and pollutants. Eight floors up, the filth should form fewer layers than the lower floors, but it's bad enough. He switches on the air filters only when he's at his place, otherwise the filter mesh would clog up in a matter of weeks. Jensen can feel the fine particulates that have collected in his lungs from all the years spent on the streets.
The road here's been slow. After his parents died he ran, became a measly street rat, the lowest cast of them all. Every meal was either stolen or earned by hustling and those are days Jensen never wants to think about. His break came on a rainy August night when one of the joeboys on his street was ganked after pushing a rotten deal, his deck left lying in the alleyway. Between one second and the next, Jensen ducked out of the shadows and grabbed it for himself.
The world of code and cyberspace sucked him in, and Jensen loved every second. With a fast mind made for building and tearing down logical constructs, he was good. His reputation grew, brought him jobs ranging from single port hacks to sneaking around firewalls to helping rich kids play fucking pranks. But he got paid, he got out and that was the only thing that mattered.
Jensen eyes the cramped space in front of him through his lenses, three old flat Sony screens mounted on the wall, one loose on the floor, salvaged from an old office building. The corners of the room are taken up by his bed, the kitchenette, the bulge of the bathroom unit and the electronic door Jensen also installed mechanical locks on. Both locks secure. His deck and dermatrodes lie on the bed where he set them in preparation for his next run. He reaches out, adjusts the angles of the screens so they're visible from his spot on the bed.
With the pillows arranged behind his back, one in his lap to set the deck, Jensen adjusts the band holding the trodes, two on his forehead, two on his temples. He takes one habitual look around to remember how he left the room, another at the worn, folded and unfolded flyer of the LenLibrary taped to the wall to remind him why he's doing this. This run's personal.
He flips the switch on the side of his deck, and his optic nerve is flooded with encoded data.
The familiar grid of cyberspace unfolds around him, his starting point set four nodes down from the Len Corporation's Los Angeles branch. A massive thing with data streaming in glowing pathways, it flickers brilliant white against the standard cyberspace black, drowns out the steel gray grid unless he scales the flux way back. Information lights up the view. A rainbow of colors spreads in all directions from the node, the government green, federal brown and banking gold, all arranged around the central point according to physical location. Jensen prefers it that way, likes how it gives meaning to the kaleidoscopic chaos, riding the matrix like walking on a street. Not all cowboys view cyberspace the same way, some default to tracking the packages moving in and out, some show the array of locations the node's connected to.
Jensen lays three careful waves of mislabeled data packets, directs them to his node and rides in on one of them.
After the node redirects his packet and pulls him into the data stream, he passes through other nodes down the line with no problems. He grabs a hold of one of the smaller nodes, sticks to its side and punches his way through its intrusion countermeasures electronics, ICE, the programs protecting the system from unwanted visitors. From there on he's riding on legitimate packets and no one can sniff him out. He jumps from node to node until he's just a jump away from the LenCorp cluster.
He slots in his special Denial of Service program that calls servers all over the world to flood the cluster with fabricated data, jam the LenCorp servers with address and data requests. The DDoS attack gives him the opportunity to jump in unnoticed to take a closer look what he's up against. The second he hits the cluster, he'll get the LenCorp tracers on his ass, but he puts his trust in his program to spread misinformation and make it look like the Tigercast is the one doing the hacking.
He hates naming them as the masterminds for this because he supports their resistance to the all-powerful megacorporations. LenCorp is their prime target, the one controlling most of the world's data and the means to twist it to suit their purposes, with ties to the highest political echelon influencing their every move. Tigercast has been on them for years, collecting evidence of everything shady, but they're just a small, loose band of hackers, so it's slow going. Jensen doesn't need the credit for a simple recon mission; the only time he'll give them his alias straight up is when he gets his revenge for his parent's murder. Or maybe he'll make up for the trouble he's caused for the resistance by leaving the Tigercast emblem on the smoking heap of ruins that LenCorp will be.
From the servers onward, it's a beautiful trail of clues he leaves behind, messages taunting the trackers to be faster than him. It's such juvenile behavior, but that's what the console cowboys usually ride with, and it's not just all talk. He is faster, and the knowledge makes him even better. The LenCorp pursuers can't keep up and lose him in the chaotic DDoS traffic. Just as he's sending out another message, he hits a wall on the servers, then backtracks and punches a tiny hole in it with brute force. And slips completely on the ICE behind it.
The code protecting the server cluster flows wrong somehow even underneath the heavy encryption. The code lines have broken apart and drift all over the place, hovering around the servers rather than locking them down airtight.
Makes it look like the easiest crack he's ever done.
But everywhere he tries to worm himself in, the ICE blocks him, like it knows what Jensen's going to do. With every attempt, it gets harder to find a vulnerability. The blocks hit him smooth, fast, like the surface of water freezing at the precise point where he tries to poke it. The elegance fascinates him so that he forgets to run.
The trackers find him, inevitably, as he sits in his apartment plugged into the robust underbelly of the Web where raw information is being moved around until the byte packages find their destinations. Through the adrenaline rush he hears when a field team is behind his door, when they break through the electronic and mechanical locks, and still he marvels at the code--pokes, prods, pushes at it--until the team terminates his connection by force.
He wakes up on a cot in a small cell with an older guy with dark hair leaning on the wall, staring at him, decked in a t-shirt and jeans, topped with an armor of a black leather jacket. There are no windows, just tiled gray walls and a heavy metal door with a wire glass window. There's nowhere to run, nothing to jack into and throw into chaos to conceal an escape. Jensen blinks himself fully back to consciousness and a slow smile spreads across the man's lips.
"Welcome to your future," he cocks his head, referring to the room. "You're gonna get at least good ten years to make yourself at home, Winchester. Or can I call you Jensen? Imagine that, ten years here in this block with a cellmate and two hundred other people you're gonna learn to know. You're gonna make fast friends with your pretty face and those silver mirrors on your eyes."
The guy nods at him, and Jensen cocks his head to make it clear that he's glaring behind his inset lenses.
"And you know the best part? Ain't nowhere you can run. No decks, not even screens here, so you're gonna learn what real life feels like, and you're gonna learn it 'til you can't help but feel it all day, every day. Yeehaaw, cowboy."
The smile turns into a smirk, a crazy, reckless glow appearing in the guy's eyes. Jensen fights the urge to squirm, and he sits up, back against the wall.
The hacks he's done, sure, more than enough to bring him ten years, how the fuck do they have my alias?, he knows that. And Jensen's been a thorn in the side of LenCorp for a long time because, unlike 98% of the population, he is not a sheep and can think for himself. Doesn't need them telling him their lies about how LenCorp is their friend and how it makes everything good and fine by keeping all their sensitive information safe and educating people when all they're doing are guarding the interests of the rich and powerful. Sure as hell doesn't need them to decide he's "a dangerous individual" and point their finger at him to make him a non-citizen.
They've already destroyed his family, ruined his life while they were at it. He'll gladly go to jail for taking them down, take what's coming to him, but he hasn't finished the job, not yet. And he got out of the streets so he's not going to let anyone near his ass again.
One thing Jensen loves about riding with the deck is that no one can see the real him, dig up those memories from the time he survived on the streets. It's the same deal with his lenses, mirror-coated, high-reflectance polycarbon surgically attached into his eye sockets to make his eyes unreadable. The wide-frequency microlenses feed images straight into his optical nerve, more information he could ever take in by just using his eyes, warning bells going off a lot earlier. He's not gonna bend over for anyone or be a pretty face and a hot hole for them, he climbed his way out of the gutter already. He'd rather kill himself and take a bunch of those fuckers with him.
He grinds his teeth, eyes the cell to find something he can use to hurt the guy with, but there's only a pillow and the sheets, and suffocation and strangling take time. Not that he's useless in hand-to-hand, but he's always been better with his hands on a deck than on a gun. That he found out the hard way.
"So that's your future. Or you can come work for me." The guy pushes himself upright lazily, shrugs his jacket straight. Then takes a step right into Jensen's personal space, looming above him like he could intimidate Jensen into agreeing.
Jail's not an option unless LenCorp is in shambles first, and it looks like jail isn't the only option for Jensen. He hates losing his independence and hates himself for even considering the deal, but he knows he'll listen, and he'll probably say yes. Can't win the fight without a deck.
Jensen nods to himself, focuses a glare on the guy who instead of flinching, just smiles white-wide, knowing he's won. Jensen's blood pulses angrily in his veins, he's not going to make this easy for the guy. "Uh-huh, old man. What's the job?"
"Just doing what you do best. Running a deck. Hacking."
It wakes a mild interest in him because it's true: riding is what he was fucking born to do. Ever since Matt, the neighbor's kid, hooked him up secretly when they both were ten, the cyberspace grid and code have been a slow crawl under his skin, and then his first deck made his brain fucking sing. Continuing to do it after he's been caught, instead of something else, gives him hope.
Jensen must look suitably unimpressed at the answer because the guy elaborates, "Jeff Morgan, Dallas Tactical Squad. You'd be a part of the tech team that runs info to field ops."
Tactical. Fucking figures. LenCorp and the other megacorporations have their slimy tentacles everywhere, in people's lives, the government, law enforcement. Getting mixed up with cops on either side of the law isn't good, but at least you know for sure where you stand when you're staring at the business end of a gun.
"Great. So basically I'd not only be a fucking puppet for the highest bidder, but doing small shitty stuff any cowboy picked from the street can do."
Morgan looks amused. "No, son. You'd be my puppet and I don't let just any pretty cowboy in my team."
It's a compliment of sorts, nothing Jensen's ever been after because a successful run is all he needs to know that he's fucking good. Biting the inside of his cheek, Jensen fiddles with the sheets because his fingers need to be doing something. It's a no-choice, they both know it. Morgan probably read his file to know just which strings to pull. Threaten him with big, brutal cell mates who spend their time sticking it to whatever warm hole they can find, and offer him a deck. Low and unimaginative, but effective.
The cot creaks when Jensen pushes himself up, barely fits in the space between it and Morgan, but he draws himself to his full height of six foot one and comes eye to eye with the man. Morgan doesn't look the least bit shaken.
"Guess I don't have anything better to do with my time, boss."
"That's settled then." Jeff offers him his hand, the honesty in the gesture striking Jensen quiet.
He takes it, shakes, and watches Morgan leave with a smug smile before he collapses back onto the cot. Now that's over with, he can go back trying to figure out how the code in the LenCorp cluster was constructed, so elegant and light, simple and steady. He's fucked, but all he can think about is that new code and how to go through it. He's thinking about reading up on how neural networks learn when he doses off.
The next time Jensen wakes up, his head is pounding like someone took a steel pipe to it, the thump thump thump in his temples set to his heartbeat. Or maybe a persistent hangover has left him here, trapped. He fumbles a grip on the edge of the cot, misses and falls face first to the floor. The disorientation is new, he didn't take anything so he'd be coming down from it now, but the familiar comedown near-vertigo feeling is there.
Yesterday comes back in flashes of floating code and a shiny leather jacket and a devil deal he now wishes he hadn't made. A terrifying idea occurs to Jensen: maybe the deal and the horizon-shaking confusion are linked. Maybe Morgan took some liberties and... The only pain--apart from the pulsating headache--he can feel is in his neck, nothing else feels out of place. So he wrestles his arm from the cold concrete floor, goes by cautious touch from his temple to the back of his neck until he feels something.
The bastard jacked him, actually drugged him and shoved him under a knife. A smooth metal disk sits in the nape of his neck, a plug in its middle, supposedly an upgrade from the trodes, but Jensen likes the trodes. He's never been too keen to let anyone cut him open, play around with his brain, wire it up. Call him old-fashioned or a control freak, but his 100% organic brain's served him well all these years, and that's not something he's willing to mess with. Except now it's been done, and he's gotta go play with Morgan's other tech zombies like a good little boy.
Jensen gets up, legs barely providing him with balance, slumps back on the cot, winces at the creaking. When the waves of pain let up, he starts planning.
At noon, according to the small digits flicking from one to the next on the inside of Jensen's lenses, Morgan comes back, carrying that leather jacket of his like a trophy. As soon as he steps into the cell, Jensen throws him against the wall, his knuckles against his windpipe. His reaction is nothing more than vague amusement.
"Morning, Jensen. Good to see you're back to full strength."
"The hell did you do to me?"
"Jack's standard procedure for techs. You're a tech, so you get a jack."
"A little warning would've been nice," Jensen grits his teeth. "Anything else besides the jack?"
It would be par for the course to have them put in something else as well--in fact, he'd bet on it.
"There's a small tracker, which you probably guessed. And a microexplosive because with your record you're a liability. It's not gonna blow your head off, but it will tear your brain stem into pieces. Same result, less brain to mop up."
Jensen doesn't need to be told what a microexplosive is, he's seen them used on street cowboys. A tiny explosive lodged right against the brain stem. There's no sound, no warning, you just drop to the street dead and leave one good-looking corpse behind. He wonders if Morgan's telling him the truth, if that's all there is.
"You can run to your buddy Hartley. The wannabe doc in Fort Worth, right? Tell him to scan you if that makes you happy, but he'll tell you the same thing."
Fuck. That must be one impressive file on him, Jensen thinks, no way would Hartley's name be mentioned on a standard sheet. He wonders what else is on it, his parents for sure, but anything on the years between then and now? He hopes not, but when does his luck run like that? Besides, Morgan's put some serious effort into tracking down Jensen's past, whatever the reason is, so he's not going to off Jensen on a whim. Jensen leans off and lets Morgan go.
The moment Morgan cuts him loose, he'll go to Hartley, jump on the rapid trans to FW. He'll listen Hartley spout his medical jargon like he's a real doctor and not a greedy lowlife with access to a med database and a wide-spectrum scanner. Jensen'll tell him to cut the shit, and Hartley'll tell him he picks up a tracker signal and residue from the explosive. Then Hartley'll add that somewhere right then a red light is blinking and telling everyone that Jensen seriously needs to get laid. Jensen will either tell him to shut up or punch him, depending on his mood, and leave. He'll do all that because Morgan expects him to--Jensen is nothing but stubborn, and Hartley is nothing but predictable.
"Hey, do whatever floats your boat, but be here tomorrow morning bright and early," Morgan says, slightest rasp in his voice from Jensen's knuckles, the skin of his throat decorated with red pressure-shapes, and hands over a slip of paper with a simple address.
A twenty-storey round building rises in front of Jensen, guarding the downtown's elegant high-rises, looming over the city, a furious watchdog. The imposing colorless surface a signal to the passers-by that this building needs no imagination. The only thing it wants is everyone to fear it. The sun gleams on the steel supports of the Dallas Tactical headquarters and reflects from the windows in an ellipse of dispersed light. Jensen's mirror lenses adjust automatically to the brightness, but even then he can see only the dark windows and not what goes on behind them.
Hartley was a bust, digging up nothing else in Jensen's head than what Jeff had mentioned, a tracker inlaid to the jack and its wires and a button of an explosive wrapped around his brain stem. Jensen knew going in that Morgan had told him everything, but he wanted to get a good look of the setup they had done and see if Hartley's operation was still profitable. Keeping track of resources with friendly faces is just common sense. Morgan's surely keeping an eye on Hartley, so if Jensen wants to get rid of the tracker quietly, he'll have to find someone else to do it.
Morgan steps into Jensen's path from out of nowhere and offers a lopsided smile that Jensen's starting to recognize. They head in, stop at the lobby to add Jensen's biometrics to the building's security system and take a short elevator ride up.
Jensen spends the day doing kiddie stuff. Long rows of screens and workstations fill up a floor of the Tactical building and Morgan sits Jensen down in front of one. For ten hours straight he pulls down floor plans and camera feeds, tracks down unauthorized packets coming in and going out of the headquarters during operations. Traces them to a supposed infiltrator, nothing a trained monkey couldn't do. Other techies are either old and unimaginative or snot-nosed teens, their curious eyes glancing at Jensen every so often right from the moment Morgan parades him past everybody. He doesn't pay attention to the subdued hubbub around him, instead spends any downtime sniffing around the Tactical system to see what's what, going through firewalls, getting access to the deeper databases via a simple keylogger. All it turns out is a whole lot of nothing useful.
Only a kid called Colin comes up to talk to him after a couple of hours. Jensen saw him lurking around, probably building up the courage to approach Jensen, and he was so bored that he actually tried to make himself look less intimidating. Turns out Colin wants to talk about the job, trying to pick Jensen's brain. But Jensen cuts him a break, because the kid's not just a cocky smartass but actually trying to learn shit, and the kid doesn't mind the coffee runs Jensen sends him on before introducing him to optimization and stealth.
Half the job is about being faster and less noticeable than the watchdogs, and this Jensen tries to pass along with one hand on the cup of coffee and the other on the keyboard. If you're invisible to a system, you have all the time in the world to go through its ICE; if you're faster than them, you can do your thing, get out and live to hack another day. He doesn't mention how knowing who knows what can be very useful because there's getting the kid to improve his skills and then there's practically telling him to trawl the system and get caught. The kid looks like he's waiting to be handed a master password to any and all systems if he only gets Jensen's coffee right (black and strong, so how hard could that be?) and keeps them coming, but to his credit, Colin still takes the lesson seriously. The kid's not that bad, Jensen thinks.
That night Jensen heads to his apartment, walks the cracked and crumbled sidewalks, navigates the small street vendor stands separated from each other by tarps and aluminum sheets, takes narrow walkways. He stops at a narrow, windowed booth to buy an extra-spicy chili dog for late-night dinner. Neon shine from signs high above the street lands in a psychedelic rainbow of colors as he waits. His building is off the main streets, a thin shell stacked with small apartments. It's not a real home, just somewhere to sleep--the last place he called home is long gone.
He brews coffee on his old Braun, pulls up his deck and thinks about the mystery ICE. He codes little subprograms just to see how they could come together, drinks his coffee, learns to apply the newest techniques that are currently rolling out in megacorporations--neural networks with non-linear predictive algorithms and adaptive systems--and he thinks he's getting somewhere. The code holds Jensen's attention. He can't let it go without understanding how it's built and compiled. The blocks and parries of the ICE begin to take logical form. Pseudocode runs through Jensen's mind, fingers typing it out, and he lets it expand into promising directions until he'll find a way to pull it all together. Coffee's keeping him awake and when it can't, he pops a hit of ampa to keep him wired. He'd worry about being able to do his job, but his job seems to be boring and shitty anyway.
The second day Jeff has him doing marginally more demanding tasks. Tracking down suspects of murder and pyrojobs doesn't make him really feel any different. It's a job, and based on the quick look at the suspects' files, his good deed of the day. Also, it's fast because these are the type of people who don't really know how to efficiently cover their tracks inside the digital system. The third suspect Jeff sets him on is different. Jensen's given a hacker's alias and system logs to at least a dozen different systems, including LenCorp's spawn corporations. Jensen falters, wonders if he can give up a fellow cowboy, especially one that's throwing a wrench into LenCorp's business. But he goes through the logs and finds clues that maybe this guy isn't worthy of protection.
He's left a sloppy trail of himself on some systems, barged right in and announced that he's there. Jensen can't tease out what the guy had actually done inside the systems, but he can tell that the guy wasn't using stealth or even speed. Jensen picks a couple of the most curious cases and hacks into the systems himself to find out the big picture. What he finds is the usual signs of a petty thief after data that can be sold easily. Jensen lets out a breath and starts a trace on the alias and his possible location. Thieves like this deserve to get caught.
Jeff comes in to relieve him of duty a couple of hours later, just as he's dug out the address for the hacker, says that he did a good job today. Jensen feels like, yeah, maybe he did. It only motivates him to spend his evening with his ICE breaker code.
The next morning things change. Morgan takes him to the basement floor instead of the computer floor where he's spent the previous days.
The special high-speed el makes no sound gliding on the rails like a vertical maglev train. The walls are shiny matte steel and featureless, there's only a camera in the ceiling, a panel of buttons, fingerprint scanner and a small screen by the door. Jensen fights not to fidget.
"My team has field agents and each of them has an operator. Operators have a direct connection to their agent's sensory feed and an uplink to the lenses in their assault kit." Jeff nods towards him, wry smile on his lips. The guy smiles too much and too casually. It makes Jensen's skin crawl. "Your job is to provide your guy with current info about the situation in the field. Think what you did these two days but doing it live while someone's life is depending on you."
Jensen must have shrugged or rolled his eyes too hard because something makes Morgan smile even more. "You know, normally, we give new guys a week on the tech level to get to know the system. But seeing as you seemed to be very familiar with it, we figured it's more productive to put you to actual work."
Morgan sounds amused, like he knows Jensen sniffed out the Tactical system and even expected it. Jensen wonders how Morgan could have done it because he made sure that his unauthorized ventures couldn't be traced. He's thinking about what he missed when he notices Morgan glance at the el camera. Of course. If they had a camera pointed at his screen and a skilled enough hacker watching him, they could've figured out what he was doing. Morgan looks straight at Jensen and smiles.
Jensen feels oddly like he passed some test.
The el slows to a smooth, precise halt. No ping from the doors when they slide open, Morgan stands there, waiting for him to walk out first.
Big fans rotate slowly in the ceiling, the room maybe twelve feet high, the air moving with the low whirring of the fans. There's no direct overhead light, just diffuse curtains of it, fluorescent spectra bleeding from where the walls meet the floor and ceiling. Half the floor's an open space, massive pillars running through it like they're a part of the building's concrete skeleton and the high stacks of servers in front of him are its nervous system. The part of the floor Jensen can see off to his left is divided into four areas by tables, each area with screens mounted three high on the outer walls. Massive hard-backed chairs sit in front of the screens.
Jensen can't see anyone, but as he steps out of the el, Morgan whistles sharply. Jensen flinches.
A group of people trails out from a room somewhere behind the el shaft. There's five men and two women, four of the guys in light combat gear: boots, pants, t-shirts all black. The rest are in casual, which for the women is identical blue-neon and pink camo jumpsuits, and the last guy's wearing an old-school cowboy hat and denim jeans. The casually dressed must be the operators Morgan was talking about, Jensen thinks. A jack disk is visible on the guy's neck.
"Hey, Jeff. This the new kid?" The guy with the cowboy hat turns to Morgan.
They all eye him from head to toe, the operators with the knowledge that he's one of them and the field agents obviously trying to gauge if they could take him down. Jensen's used to the suspicion, the extreme scrutiny, and also tired of it. Tired of being underestimated and called a kid. He pulls himself taller, lifts his chin to rile them up, show that he won't roll over for them. He knows that his mirrors have a way of making people feel uncomfortable and off-balance and he plays it to his full advantage.
The tallest of field agents, six-four or six-five Jensen thinks, is the youngest; he breaks into a friendly smile. Jensen's not sure what to make of it, if the guy is trying to lay claim to Jensen already, trusting that with his size he's got no competition and will find no resistance, or if he's just eager to make friends. Either way, he's got Jensen pegged wrong. Jensen's not here to be claimed as a trophy or to make friends.
Morgan introduces him. "Everybody, meet Jensen."
He gets a wall of nods. Grudgingly acknowledges them, best to keep things professional for now. He has no idea what he's here for, what these people are doing here or if they even can be trusted. They could be doing the dirty work for LenCorp, finding people the corporation deems a threat.
"Jensen, this is Jared. You'll be his new operator," Jeff says, introduces him to the smiling tall guy. Fucking figures that Jensen's going to be stuck with the other guy who smiles too much and has fucking puppy eyes. Jared sticks his hand out and Jensen wonders what's up with all the handshaking.
"Hi, good to meet you, Jensen. Jeff's told us that you're one of the best cyber cowboys there is, so it's good to have you onboard."
Jared's palm is warm, slightly sweaty and Jared's grip is as friendly as is his smile, but the strength, Jensen thinks, could crush his hand if it came to that. The smile on the man's face falters when Jensen keeps quiet. As the silence gets longer, hurt appears in the guy's eyes. Jensen never thought he'd see that after the alpha act. Guilt quickly prods at him, and he figures he has nothing to lose by playing nice.
"Don't know about that. Great to meet you, man."
Jared flashes a big smile like he's grateful that Jensen talked to him. Could be that the guy isn't marking his territory. The warmth of Jared's palm takes a long time to dissipate from Jensen's skin.
Morgan continues with the introductions. No awkward handshakes this time, but the team smiles carefully. "This is Chad, his op Chris and those two idiots are Tom and Mike with their brains, Danneel and Soph."
Squinty-Eyes, Chad, stares at Jensen and Danneel and Sophia give him identical waves.
Jeff's eyes shift from Jared to Jensen and Jared follows them instinctively. The moment Jared meets eyes with his new operator, he feels a pull of want so strong he'd follow it into a fire. The silver of Jensen's mirrors bleeds smoothly into pale skin, a canvas for a handful of faint freckles. The mirrored stare is unreadable by itself, but Jared's used to picking up people's body language and tells, a necessity when doing business on the streets. The tilt of Jensen's head, the tightness of his mouth says he's not happy, but he's being more cautious than aggressive. The silence brings down Jared's enthusiasm, he doesn't want an asshole for a partner, but then Jensen replies with a low voice, and Jared's very interested.
"Jared, why don't you show Jensen around, get to know each other?" Jeff suggests.
"Yeah, sure." Jared directs Jensen towards the screens, starting with what Jensen's probably most familiar with so the guy can feel a bit more comfortable with the surroundings.
Jared's never really understood the neon appeal of cyberspace. He's been in the matrix once, seen the cold, vast geometric void dotted with coded information. To him it was incomprehensible, flickering data points against the dizzying infinity of space that narrowed down into data units of cities, streets, phone lines and computer ports. He had ripped off the trodes and puked until his balance had come back and the world stopped snapping against his senses like a rubber band. The HUD in his work lenses he can deal with, information laid over the real world, but the disorienting, directionless cyberspace makes him go insane.
Jensen looks fascinated with the equipment, staring at the computers and screens, moving slowly around the room. Jared notices that he doesn't really turn his head like people do to take in everything. It's the lenses, Jared guesses. Maybe they offer an in-focus peripheral vision that Jensen's used to, and he just doesn't bother with keeping up appearances. Or he's forgotten how. Jared wonders what the story is with the mirrors.
They zigzag through the consoles and around the level, Jared pointing out the bathroom, Jeff's office and the rec room, and finish the tour a floor down where they do physical training. Jensen's been quiet, hasn't asked questions about anything that Jared's been telling him. Just grunts and uh-huh's and copy that's, which are slowly starting to get on Jared's nerves. He thought Jensen wouldn't be an asshole, but it's starting to look like he was wrong. Which is bad because Jared's not sure he can stow the faint fluttering of the crush he has for Jensen. He's fascinating, and Jared can never leave interesting things alone.
Jared makes a sweeping gesture at the room. "And this is the gym. I can give you a little hand-to-hand training some time if you want. Jeff encourages everyone to participate."
"Uh huh." Jensen stares at the room.
Well, Jared's not sure if Jensen stares or blinks behind those mirrored lenses or if he walks around with his eyes closed, but he has a feeling Jensen's staring and unimpressed, and Jared's starting to take it personally. "What the hell is your problem, man? I've tried to be nice, but all I get is you glaring at everything. Don't think your shiny lenses can cover it."
Jensen turns to face Jared. His eyes are unnerving if stare'd at for too long.
"Let's get one thing straight. I'm not here to make friends, Jared. I'm here so Morgan doesn't fling me into jail. I don't know you and, hey, I'm sure you're a great guy and all, but I'm here to do the job. That's it."
Unbelievable, Jared thinks, the man should be covering Jared's back and he's just here to skirt prison. He didn't mind Morgan hiring ex-cons to do the job--hell he's technically one himself--but a self-involved jackass puts all their lives at risk. Jared figures it's just his luck to land a hot guy with attitude issues as his operator. He's about to give Jensen a piece of his mind, but Jeff strolls in with Tom, Chad and Mike in his tow. The mirrors on the walls expand the gym into forever, now populated with images of the team.
Idly, Jared wonders what Jensen feels when he looks in a mirror. He glances at him and realizes that since they came in, Jensen's been avoiding the two mirror-covered walls, focusing on the gym bags, kendo sticks, and other training-appropriate items lined up along the walls.
Jeff nods at Jensen. "Jensen, the last part of your job interview's up." He tosses Jared a sensorium unit attached to a long strap of Velcro, shorter strand of fiber optics dangling from the bundle. "Jared, warm up. You're up against Tom this time."
Mike and Chad toss them a pair of carbon-fiber kendo sticks and cackle loudly.
"Man, not his ninja stuff again," Jared grumbles and hides his smile. The sourness caused by Jensen's behavior is already fading.
Despite what he said, Jared likes to train with the kendo sticks and, when he's feeling really dangerous, the curved swords. He's never going to use one in the field, but wielding it makes him feel totally badass. He's good with guns and hand-to-hand but ninjas, man.
"You got it, Sasquatch. Try not to lose any more limbs," Jeff grins. "Jensen, you're needed at your console."
Jensen flicks an indecipherable look at Jared before slipping out of the room.
Morgan sits Jensen down at the console that's clutter-free. "Try your deck. It's a little jazzed up, not commercially available, so it should be fast enough for you. If you want to tweak it, ask me or Chris about it first. There are a few subsystems we need for ops and should not be cut out."
There's no choice, but he was expecting this to happen. They didn't put in the jack for nothing. Work, work, work. He's getting tired of being bossed around, but he gets in the chair because there's no alternative, and he is a little interested in seeing what all this is about.
"C'mon, Jensen. You'll get a kick out of this." Morgan hands Jensen a small rectangular stick that he knows will slot into the deck. "Set that, jack in and flip."
The predatory grim on Morgan's face unnerves him, but he's not letting it show. The stick slides smoothly into place, snaps when the contacts meet. He grabs the fiber optic cable snaking out of the deck, smoothes out the tangles. His lenses pick up movement; Kane and the girls are skulking off to the side, obviously interested in this. Whatever this is.
"Don't worry, Jensen. You'll love it, like tripping on the best shit," says either Sophia or Danneel. He can't tell which, can barely tell them apart in their identical jumpsuits and shadowed cat eyes.
Morgan shoots a look over Jensen's shoulder. "Wouldn't know about tripping, but Danny's right, you'll like this."
"If this wiredance's supposed to be that hot, why is this a test and why do I have an audience?" he spits out. His best work is done in the dark, alone.
"This isn't for everyone. Half of cowboys loathe it. And the first time can be entertaining for viewers," Kane pipes up.
Jensen looks around the room, half-shrugs, pushes the plug of the cable from the deck into the jack.
A familiar zap of a data current hums in the back of his head. The deck's ready to do his bidding, the boundless freedom of the cyberspace ready behind one single command. The input is crisper with the jack than with the trodes, less noisy--looks nice, but it's like a too perfect plastic copy of the digital realm he knows.
Morgan's lost the smirk. "Flip to the stick."
Jensen finds a small stub of a switch in the corner of the deck. He thumbs it to route whatever signal the stick's receiving through the deck and into the jack.
Vertigo hits him instantly, his body wants to correct for the sensation of free fall. He almost drops the deck and falls out of the high-backed chair. Snickers and whoops come through the feed, and based on the direction and pitch, Jensen recognizes them to be from Kane and the girls. He forces himself not to move.
Slowly, the sensations separate themselves. He gets an image from the feed, a closeup of Tom's knees and then his face looking down at Jensen. Except Tom's not looking at Jensen but someone whose eyes Jensen is using. Then, Jensen's limbs feel like they're pushing him up and back to vertical. His thighs are straining, lungs taking in oxygen in short, fast bursts, one hand holding a long carbon-fiber stick near the end, the other curled next to the first. Arms raised high, the stick hovering vertical in the air.
The feeling's not quite right, the span of arms too wide, legs too long. Then it dawns on him. Fuck, he's in Jared's head, receiving input from Jared's senses. His own head's giving him the impression the limbs belong to his body, but the odd dimensions remain. Jensen curls his left hand into a fist, the ghost of Jared's left fist hovering there while Jensen's muscles work. The sensations blend again when Jared launches an attack at Tom with the stick.
Now that he knows what to expect, Jared's separate from him. The urge to react to what he feels and sees through Jared's eyes becomes less imperative.
Jeff's voice floats into his ears. "Looks like you're getting it, champ. It's sensory feed from Jared. One-way street so that you receive him, but he can't hear you."
Jensen dives deeper into the sensorium. It's high-sensitivity data in hi-res. The information he gets from Jared's hands gripping the stick is strange, though, somehow asymmetrical. Incomplete on the left side. Jensen focuses on that, isolates the left hand from the flood of other feelings by moving down Jared's nerves towards the tips of his fingers. The sensations he gets are all movement and pressure, the temperature perfectly constant. No sweat, no calluses. Jensen compares the hands, left to right, then the forearms and elbows, then the arms before it dawns on him. Jared's left arm is cybernetic. He traces the feed back up the arm, and discovers the feeling changes somewhere between elbow and shoulder.
Looks like the kid's taken some damage. The arm doesn't move quite as smoothly as the right one, so maybe it's still new. Jensen reassesses what he knows about Jared, and yeah, maybe he could go a little easier on the kid. They're going to be working together at least for a while, so making enemies now isn't smart.
Jared's wearing his work lenses, so Jensen keys in a message through his deck. It pops up for Jared to see and Jensen also sees it through the sensory feed.
::SORRY ABT EARLIER::
::BAD DAY -J::
Jared answers him by speaking out loud. Voice low, breathless from the exertion. "It's okay. Happens to the best of us."
The corner of Jared's mouth twitches up enough that Jensen figures they're okay for now. Just then Jared parries a hard blow and springs into a counterattack. The stick is light, Jared uses it with control and precision rather than wielding it with sheer strength. For a while Jensen studies the way Jared moves and how it feels. Not all the steps or sweeps of his arms are fluid; some are choppy, some almost like dance. This is not the way Jared's body is used to fighting, and it shows, but Jensen can tell but he has been training.
Eventually Jensen gets more curious than he should and his focus is pulled from Jared's limbs to his torso and dick. The muscles bunch, tighten, loosen; his dick rubs softly against cotton. Jesus, the kid's packing, Jensen marvels.
When Jensen flips out of the sensory feed and back to the real world, he finds Sophia and Danneel looming only inches above his face. They squint, and despite their blue-pink outfits and thin frames, they're intimidating and intense. It's like they know Jensen took a good long look at Jared while wired in.
"He really is a good guy, Jensen. Loyal to his friends. And, yes, he likes dick and is really fucking built, too, but one has nothing to do with the other," Sophia says, not blinking once. It's a warning, and Jensen gets it: Jared's not to be fucked over or hurt.
Either Morgan really wants to make Jensen believe Jared is a good, trustworthy guy, or Jared is a good, trustworthy guy. The problem is that in Jensen's experience no one's that good of a guy.
The day sees the field team heading out and Kane running the op show. Jensen watches the action over Jared's sensorium unit, gets a feel for it, learns to use the deck and listen to the op team chatter while riding Jared's feed. It's his soft landing. The most exciting incident of the day is when Tom and Mike get into a heated discussion over old monster movies.
Despite the slow day, Mike decides to celebrate it and their newest addition with beers in the team's rec room. They have a pool table there, Tom's already playing Kane, and Mike and Chad are flirting with Danneel and Soph. Jared grabs two bottles from the fridge and hands the other to Jensen.
Jared follows Jensen's gaze, or what he thinks Jensen's looking at. Smiles. "Mike and Chad are like that. They have a snowball's chance in hell with the girls, but they like to think they only need to wear them down."
Sophia is practically sitting in Danneel's lap, Mike and Chad leaning towards them like they're trying to see down the front of the girls' jumpsuits, past where Sophia and Danneel had unzipped them. They're all carefree, smiling, but Sophia's fingers are twirling Danneel's hair, and Danneel's petting Sophia's knee.
"So, how did you end up here?"
"What do you mean?" Jensen takes a swig of his beer, the taste on his tongue familiar and welcome.
"The team. Jeff caught me and Chad after a deal with the Southies went bust. Grabbed us in a public clinic and told us he could use people with special skills who could run like us."
Jensen gives him the short version. "Got careless on a run, got caught."
"What kind of a run?"
"Why do you care?" Jensen is trying to keep his voice even. At least the kid's open about being nosy, and Jensen doesn't have the heart to snap at him again. Besides, if Jared's close to Jeff, he already knows what Jensen did.
"Tried to get into LenCorp servers."
Jared's eyes widen. "Did you?"
Jared scrunches his nose a little and Jensen's not sure what it means.
"So Jared, you been with Morgan long?"
"Me and Chad for two months, the others too. He put the team together, said we have complementing skills."
"And you had an operator before today?"
"Yeah. A young hotshot, Brock. Don't worry, he wasn't nearly as pretty as you." Jared grins and waggles his eyebrows, but it's not malicious. "He didn't show for work one morning, so we checked out his apartment. It had been cleaned out, no sign of Brock. Jeff thinks he wigged out."
Jensen's curiosity is piqued. "He the sort who would do something like that?"
"No, man. No way. We tried to look into it but got nothing."
Jensen files this info away to fit into the big picture later. It's so flimsy, it's not even circumstantial evidence against Morgan, but he's looking for any info he can get, so he lets Jared tell his tale.
At the end of the night, with the amount of information Jared has volunteered about himself, Jensen's sure he could build a functioning neural copy. Jared spills stories, though mostly about him and Chad, never names his friends anything other than there was this guy, Jake or Jason or something or one of Chad's skeevy contacts, but putting the pieces together would yield plenty of info in a deep search. Jared's the same with his smiles and words, open and unguarded, none of them hidden or bitten off.
If Jared and Chad really were smugglers and traders, they would know the value of privacy and caution. Instead, Jared reads like an open book. Jensen's not sure if there's a catch or if someone could actually make it on the streets without becoming a cynical bastard like himself.
Jensen learns soon that Kane is good. The guy works with his feet on the table, boot-clad, and the cowboy hat on his head. And he loves to sing and talk shit while working, but he doesn't miss anything. So of course Jensen does a search on the guy. He does it extra carefully, because hackers value their privacy, and good hackers protect themselves actively and aggressively. Jensen takes a gander of everybody's files so it doesn't look like he's singling Kane out if he finds that Jensen's been digging Actually, he'd bet that Kane will know he's been looking.
He doesn't find anything that disagrees with the intel he's been told or gathered, but he decides to keep his eyes open. Be friendly enough to talk to in hopes they'll slip out something incriminating while keeping information about himself private.
The rest of the week goes like Jensen's first day. Jared and his team in the field busting down doors, running down fugitives and trapping hackers, dealers and killers. It's a very average week, but it's cut short when someone gets the drop on Jared during a drug bust.
Jensen's warning comes through Jared's HUD a fraction of a second too late, and he can't duck out the way of a steel pipe. It hits him squarely in the back, his body buckling under the force. Jared drops to his knees, and even though the standard body armor absorbs most of the impact, it hurts like hell. Mike gets a hold of the pipe and then the guy yielding it, pinning him to the nearest wall. In the end they declare it a successful bust.
It's enough for Jeff to call it a day, though. It's a Friday, so Mike--in his typical way of thinking--suggests going out for drinks. Before Jared manages to object, rather hoping to spend the night on a comfy couch or a bed somewhere, Jensen speaks up.
"Jared's back's a mess so maybe we should stay in."
With all the time Jared spends in the field, he hasn't had many opportunities to get to know Jensen, but the way everyone goes quiet suggests maybe Jensen doesn't speak up that often. There are now at least five pair of eyes on Jensen, and Jared can tell he's trying not to fidget. Jensen's unexpected attention makes Jared feel warm and happy. But that's offset when he realizes Jensen knows just how bad Jared's back is because he too felt the impact. Jared curses himself for being a little too slow on all fronts today.
They get Jared settled on the couch. Mike and Chad vanish, and Jeff hovers around the office, occasionally stepping in the rec room to steal a new beer. The girls play pool with Jensen and Chris while Tom tends to Jared's back with an ice pack he keeps moving around. Jared can't really do anything when lying on the couch, so he digs into his stash of candy and watches Jensen.
The candy is gelatinous but tough, and he chews it with deep satisfaction. Eating's always been one of the more difficult things to master with his new arm, the hand-eye coordination required finesse if he was to avoid smearing protein slop all over his face. Now he fine motors the candy into his mouth and wishes he could feed it to Jensen. He'd pick the pieces up one by one, press Jensen's lower lip with his thumb so he'd open his mouth, leaving fine crystals of sugar on his lips while he pushed the candy in. He'd see his own reflection in Jensen's lenses, and maybe he'd see Jensen tilt his head slightly, like he didn't know what to think of Jared.
The way Jensen moves around the pool table suggests that he's still not completely comfortable here, but he's trying. Chris says something that gets a smile out of Jensen, and the girls laugh as Jensen blushes and seems to relax. Jared feels a rush of irrational jealousy and hits the bag of candy with fervor, but fishing out pieces with the cybernetic arm is not that easy. Jensen's lining up his next shot, and for a second Jared gets the feeling he's being checked out too. Jensen's lenses make it difficult to tell, but he can feel it.
Mike and Chad return with more beer and boxes of takeout as Jensen's finishing the game. Half of the boxes are Thai and half are Chinese, Mike and Chad obviously both getting their favorites. Tom helps Jared sit up without jarring his back too badly. When Tom leaves to get food, Jensen appears out of nowhere and claims Tom's spot on the couch, offering Jared a box of Pad Thai and a fresh beer.
"I'll live." Jared's attempt at sarcasm is ruined by the smile he can't fight.
"The hit felt pretty bad even to me."
"Seriously, Jensen, I'm okay. That wasn't the first time somebody hit me." He sniffs the food, heaven, and grabs a fork. "I'm sorry you got your share of it."
Jensen chews his food carefully before replying. "Nah, my fault, should've seen the guy sooner, given a better heads-up."
Jared has no idea what to say to that, but Jensen doesn't seem to expect anything. The conversation around them picks up, and Jared joins a deeply philosophical discussion of who would win in a fight, zombies or vampires. Jensen quiets down again. He gets up once, gestures to Jared and brings them both new beers. He sits down closer than he was previously and hands Jared the bottle.
He gets Jensen to nod at his comments, but that is the extent of their conversation. As the night winds down and Jared and Chad head to their shared apartment, the hurt in his back is lost in his body's memory of Jensen's body heat.
Jensen's lenses flash 08:03:27 when he walks out of the el on Wednesday morning, already focused on getting a cup of strong coffee before even thinking about the deck that's waiting for him. If they insist on him using his most efficient sleeping hours on getting to work, the least they can do make sure he stays awake when he gets there.
He walks right into Morgan's broad chest.
Morgan steadies him by his shoulders and pulls back. "Jensen, just the team member I was looking for."
Jensen grimaces, this can't be good. "What's up, boss?"
He tries to put as much sarcasm into "boss" as possible, but he's not quite awake yet, so he might not be that successful. Going by Morgan's face, his attempt is weak at best.
"I've seen what you can do with a deck, son, but can you handle yourself in a fight?" Morgan's not even trying to tone down the smile. "I know you can move fast, but I wanna see what else you can do."
Morgan gestures Jensen to follow him, leading him past the rec room and its coffee machine, down to the training floor. Jared and Chad are present already, wearing light training gear with thin shock absorbers around the limbs and torso.
Apparently Jared wasn't lying when he said Morgan encourages his techs to get off their asses. He could so have done without this.
Chad yawns loudly. "Why do we need to do this in the morning? Some of us aren't awake yet."
"Consider this your wake-up call, then. And since you look like you're in a serious need of one, you'll go first. Jensen, try to take Chad down. Don't worry about technique because Chad doesn't have any."
They let Jensen suit up, and Morgan throws them each a pair of gloves to protect their hands. They will lessen the impact force if either one of them gets hit and Jensen hopes like hell they're are good enough to prevent broken bones. He needs his hands in perfect shape to work the deck.
Chad moves to the open floor, and Jensen trails him. The floor's padded with mats, and the mirrored walls Jensen hated on sight are hidden behind black canvas drapes. There's nothing but space and them.
They get stationed in the middle of the floor, and Jensen lifts his arms to protect himself when Chad stops slouching and looks more alert. Jensen's never liked to fight with his fists and doesn't want to drag this out. The sooner the first punch is thrown, the sooner this circus is out of town. Jensen goes in with a fast jab to Chad's left side, but Chad blocks it. He doesn't follow with a counterattack, which leaves Jensen on the offensive again.
His patience snaps.
Punches, kicks, his whole body is in motion, vision blurred with speed and anger. His pulse picks up, lungs scream for oxygen, face drips sweat.
When he stops, he's pinned to the mat, face down. He can't tell how long the fight took, but it was long enough for him to tap into the parts of him that were very determined to survive on the streets. He hates that feeling because it makes him feel small and vulnerable.
Chad helps him up after he's lain still for a moment, calmed down. Only then he sees that Chad's bleeding, nose busted. The shock absorbers of Chad's suit are lit up where Jensen hit him hard enough to trigger the chem luminescence of the pads. Jensen's suit is hardly showing signs of hits, but he suspects his unexpected outburst failed to elicit a response from Chad because there's no doubt Chad could hurt him--he wouldn't be in the team if he didn't have skills.
Jensen stands there awkwardly, unsure what to say.
Chad decides it for him. "Knew you had it in you, Princess," clapping him in the back, he turns to Jared. "J-man, you owe me a week's worth of beer and booze."
Jensen looks shell-shocked. It could be he's having a hard time understanding Chad's thought process, but no one really understands how Chad thinks. Jared should know, after all he's known the guy practically all his life and even he's surprised sometimes. However, this doesn't really look like that. Jared just nods, because Jensen doesn't need to hear about the bet Chad forced on Jared. Jared insisted that Jensen's tough exterior was just that and that he wouldn't really hurt anyone. Jared think maybe the look on Jensen's face is somehow connected to whatever made him deliver the beat down.
Chad struts to him and Jeff, "Guys, you totally owe me for putting my ass on the line."
"Yeah, but you're not yawning anymore, either, so suck it up." Jeff just waves him to the showers before turning to Jared. "You got what you need?"
Jared mentally reviews what he just saw Jensen do. He tries to ignore the way Jensen went off the rails and concentrates on analyzing his strengths and weaknesses. "Looks like Jensen has speed and enough strength. So I think I'll start with some basic moves, offense, defense. Maybe get him to take it easier."
Jeff looks at him for a beat longer than usual, then turns to Jensen. He's still standing in the middle of the floor, so Jeff raises his voice. "Jensen, you're gonna train with Jared for a while. He's going to show you some tricks that could be useful."
Jared walks to the mat where Jensen's shaken off most of the shock. He's not sure if he should mention what just happened, but they're partners and he should at least try to get an explanation. He wants to hear why it happened. He wants to know everything about Jensen.
The glow of Jensen's suit has diminished, but some faint blue-greens still reflect from his lenses. "I'm fine, didn't really get hit."
"Can I ask what happened?" Jared's aware of how nosy that sounds and he adds quickly, "I mean, is that how you usually fight or did Chad provoke you?"
"I don't usually fight, I'm the guy behind the deck, remember?"
"Yeah, but if you'd have to fight?"
Jensen turns his head minutely, giving Jared the impresssion he's avoiding his gaze. Just as the moment's gone and Jared thinks he's left without an answer, Jensen replies quietly. "I didn't mean to hurt Chad, he didn't say anything. I just-- was frustrated. Jeff grabbed me from the el and wanted to see me fight. Guess he got his wish."
The corner of Jensen's mouth turns up, and Jared wants to jump around the room to have witnessed that, but he needs to be a professional. "Man, for a second there I thought you'd beat the shit out of Chad." Jared lets out a deep laugh. "Would've served him right."
The tension breaks after that even though Jensen didn't fully answer him. But Jared knows too much prying will only shut Jensen down again. Jared begins to lead Jensen through the basic offensive and defensive moves culled from several fighting styles, not hesitating to tell him to fight dirty if he can. He pushes Jensen's limbs into correct positions, shows him how to maximize the force behind his strikes. Jensen allows all of this and takes Jared's direction better than Jared would have thought. As they progress, his hands are on Jensen's shoulders, hips, torso, guiding him through the moves, showing him the tender spots of the human body. Jensen's quiet the entire time, listening to Jared babble. When Jared realizes that he, in fact, has his hands all over Jensen, he flinches away and a wave of blush travels throughout his body.
Jared wonders if Jensen's quiet because he's uncomfortable with this or maybe he's trying to discourage him. He certainly doesn't want to give Jensen the feeling that he's using the practice as an excuse to grope him. But Jensen hasn't said anything, and even if Jared didn't previously think Jensen was prone to bouts of explosive violence, he knows now Jensen's more than capable of voicing his displeasure. Jared opts not to draw any attention to the issue, promises himself that he'll be a gentleman and a professional about this. But that still doesn't stop him from secretly enjoying the feeling of Jensen in his hands.
Jared's got Jensen repeating the moves in a long, smooth series when Jeff walks in. It's almost noon and Jeff tells Jensen to hit the shower before getting to his deck. Before Jensen has the chance to take off, Jared smiles, squeezes his shoulder.
"You did good, Jensen."
Jensen turns fully towards Jared and nods.
When Jensen's out of sight, Jared collapses in a daze, not sure what they did here. What he does know is that he really, really needs to jerk off in the shower.
That night at his apartment Jensen debugs his first attempt at the ICE breaker. The screen of the Sony flashes pieces of code, syntax checks and short simulations. The program's not ready for a live test yet, the critical parts of ID masking and countermeasures are missing and there's no optimization for speed or stealth, but this is the backbone on which he will build and improve.
The debugger will take time and notify him with a beep if there's a problem, so he lets his thoughts drift. It's no surprise they go to Jared and the training session today. Listening to Jared was not that bad, and in the confines of his apartment, he can admit that the touching felt good. It's been a long time since Jensen's had someone touch him that much, never as gently and with such careful purpose. Jensen lays down on his mattress, unbuttons his pants, pulls his underwear down.
The training session was like the longest and most convoluted prelude to sex Jensen's experienced. Jared everywhere, showing him how to position his shoulders, move his weight, guiding him with his hands on Jensen's shoulders and hips and on several occasions, murmuring his instructions right into his ear. Jared kept it professional but also smiled bright and innocent, praised Jensen on how quickly he picked up the moves. Jensen smelled Jared's sweat heavy in the air, couldn't focus on anything else than what Jared was telling him.
He's never forgotten himself like that, had someone shut down his higher brain functions. He'd be angry and maybe ashamed of himself if the memory of it wasn't so fucking good, a bright beacon in the dark night. He takes his dick in hand and starts jacking. He thinks about Jared's smile, his dimples, the touching, gets revved up on the low voice in his ear. It doesn't take long before he comes, come spurting in his palm, dripping on his stomach. He lets himself doze off afterwards, is only awoken by the end of cycle beep from the debugger.
Rick's is a small watering hole on a dead-end street. Nestled between a beauty parlor with a backroom brothel and a shop with used electronics parts, it is anything but an obvious choice for Tactical team agents to vent on their downtime. For a ragtag bunch of criminals the place is as good as home. There are dealers across the street and hookers of all genders walking the street, street rats among them trying to score any kind of a job. Junk collectors keep hauling crap in and out of the store next door. The heat wave got really bad yesterday, promising thunderstorms again.
After a week of following Kane's orders, Jensen got bumped to the tech ops leader. It didn't change things any, Kane's still loud and Jared goofs off, but Jared now takes the point on the field and Jensen manages the techs. Jensen's first complete week is decent enough excuse to go out for the drinks they missed before when Jared got hurt.
The girls took off somewhere with a promise to arrive later with the rest of the team, leaving Jensen alone with Kane. It's not that he minds, Kane's been cool despite his cocky asshole persona. Mostly, Jensen can't hold it against the guy since all cowboys end up being more or less dicks. It goes with the job.
"So what's your problem with Tigercast?" Kane twists the cap off of his beer, flicks it in the air, catches it and slams in on the table face side up. Pentagram in red ink.
Jensen looks at him, Kane's nonstop intensity tempered with the kind of curiosity that kills cats. Or ex-street rats. He wets his lips, buys time. Sips his beer and schools his face into vague disinterest. "What's it to you?"
Kane's expression doesn't change. "Heard you were pinning all your shit on them."
"You wanted them to take the heat instead of you? That it?" Kane's staring at him now, blue eyes sharp like they've been cut from a stone. Even with the mirrors, Jensen wants to throw down the stare-off, but he knows how to use the advantage. He keeps at it, picking his next words carefully.
Instinct tells Jensen to shut up about his runs and the motive behind them, because nothing good can come out sharing. His every word will probably get to Morgan, either directly from Kane or through whatever street rackets Kane might be involved in, and even if the man knows that Jensen's not a part of TC, it's possible that the word will get back to them. If they're merciful, they'll beat the shit out of him. If not, they'll do some dirty hack and leave Jensen's brain wide open for the vultures to pick clean. Either way, silence is his best bet.
"I don't care what you heard," he turns fully towards Kane, gathers years worth of making himself look menacing into the angles of his shoulders, face. "It doesn't concern you."
The last bit of curiosity drops from Kane's eyes, Jensen witnesses their transformation into menace equaling his. And then some. "Maybe I didn't hear it. Maybe I saw it myself."
Jensen's brain kicks into overdrive. Could someone have seen him, spied on him when he was doing a run? They would have to be better than him to do it, only maybe a handful of people in the world good enough to uncover his tracks. Jensen looks at Kane, thinks about it for a second. The guy is working for Morgan and Morgan doesn't buy bullshit, so the guy has to be good. Hell, Jensen is working for Morgan, knows what the man expects him to do. Only question is why would Kane be on his case.
"Again. What's it to you?" Jensen knows he won't get an answer, so he picks up his beer from the chrome tabletop that's lost its shine years ago and takes a pull. Sighs. "I should've been more careful. Seems that I wasn't as good at hiding as I thought."
Kane chuckles, and the tension mixed with the thick air between them fades. "Oh, you were plenty good. Just that I was better."
"You and Morgan, both."
"Nah, man. Morgan hasn't touched a deck in years. I got him the information."
The front door bangs loudly, both of them turn to see a stoned rat practically fall in. The guy settles in right beside the door. Kane turns back first, Jensen eyeing him.
"Yeah? What's the guy got on you to make you do his dirty work?"
"Nothing, man. I volunteered for this job and he's been straight with me."
There are things Jensen wants to say, spit in the air to join the invisible venom that's already floating around, words about the hacker code, ethics, about being a voluntary traitor to your fellow people. He narrows his eyes, about to kick out of his chair when the field team appears out of nowhere.
Chad's there with a loud yowl, slapping him and Kane both on the shoulders, then clinging to them like a trained holo-monkey and draping his already drunken ass between them. "Fucking glorious, boys."
Jensen detaches himself from Chad's arm with no finesse or care for the fucker's bones, Kane doing the same as the rest grab chairs and sit down.
Suddenly there's booze and food and more noise Jensen could've thought the bar can handle without the windows exploding. Jared's pressed against his side, trying to make room for everyone, and Jensen swallows his anger. He looks at Kane with the urgency of unfinished business and lets it go for now. The heat from Jared's body is already making him too warm and the quickly fading adrenaline surge leaves him just tired.
Jared passes him one of the tequila shots from the tray, and they share a look. Jared doesn't ask anything, doesn't say anything. Jensen's accepts the shot, the tips of his fingers brushing Jared's palm. Jensen knows it kills Jared not to talk, he's always yapping away, but in the past week he's shown he also reads Jensen better than anyone else. Grateful for the headspace, he pushes his thigh against Jared's, lets Jared talk for him.
It's like communicating with Jared through the HUD. There's limited space for Jensen to write, not much time for Jared to answer, and they've already developed a mutual shorthand they understand.
He's drunk. Absolutely smashed. Tequila does that to him every time. Already did back at Luce's when he was a street rat and rats with new money gathered to celebrate and buy rounds for everyone. Now it's going to his head faster, like he's slamming down doubles. The image of Jared handing him a shot appears, and he can't be sure if they really were doubles dwarfed into looking like singles because of Jared's massive palms.
"You got my people in trouble. Lucky that I like you, Ackles." Just before Jensen passes out, he hears the low voice continue. "TC material if you'll learn to handle your liquor better."
He hears the words, but they refuse to arrange correctly in his brain. The next moment they're lost anyway as Jensen drifts off.
The next morning comes with the sound of torrents of rain and confusion and temporary amnesia. A foul taste in his mouth reminds him why he prefers a chemical cocktail to alcohol. Something important is just outside his grasp. It takes a couple of moments more to dawn on him.
This isn't his apartment.
Jensen's stomach lurches.
Kane confronted him about Tigercast last night and, fuck, this could be awkward. Kane's staring him from a few feet away and holds out a bottle of water. Jensen eyes it for a couple of seconds, takes it.
"I get why you're not telling me why you're pinning your shit on Tigercast. Word gets out that you've been using TC's name? LenCorp wants to hang you for being one of them and TC wants to hang you for getting them into more trouble. That's not a good place to be."
Jensen tenses. The water bottle sweats in Jensen's hand, mirroring the way Jensen feels. Kane has a serious fixation about him and TC, and Jensen's alone in Kane's apartment. No shit Sherlock it's not a good place to be. The butterfly knife he carries with him at all times is in his back pocket, no way to get it out before Kane would punch him and toss him to the floor.
Kane must pick up on Jensen's desperation to find an exit strategy, but the upper-hand smile on his face isn't quite as smug or wide as it could be. "Don't worry, Jensen. I can protect you."
Jensen gets an uncomfortable flashback. On the streets, protection carries a high price. "I don't know what you think you know about me, but I'm nobody's bitch."
Kane smirks, predatory like one of those extinct big cats toying with their food. "Awww, Jenny. You're pretty, but not pretty enough to make me like dick."
Jensen releases his held breath in a low, short burst, trying to suck it immediately back into his lungs to silence it. He fails. If Kane's not after his ass, it's something worse, something that's likely to land him back to the streets.
"You don't have many choices left. So tell me and I won't let the word get out."
Jensen glowers at Kane, the mirrors eating away the fire in his eyes, but he keeps his guard up.
"Oh c'mon, Jensen. Look around."
That's not the strong-arming Jensen expected. And maybe taking a look at his surroundings would've made a good number one on his plan right after getting his eyes open.
There are screens neatly lined up on a long desk, three side by side, one more off to the side, a jumble of symbols running through it. He recognizes it as the cyberspace, but it's represented in a way he's never seen before. It looks like a stream of data semi-decoded, no bytes, no machine language, but more like a hieroglyphic-picture language. Jensen reluctantly moves on, spots two decks lying around on a beaten lounger. The couch he's on divides the space he sees into a kitchen and living room. The walls are painted in light shades of everything but white and on the wall just off the holoscreen hangs a printed image. It's a tiger done in oriental style, the one still used in the heartland of Old China.
The tiger's fur is orange, white in the face, black stripes running down its sides from tail to nose. The cat has bared its teeth, head thrown majestically back as it roars and claims the world. Above the tiger hangs a full moon, silvery on a small black backdrop. It casts a weak light on the ground behind the big cat, revealing masses of smaller tigers, a blur of orange and black and white, all following their leader's roar.
"You can say it, Jensen. My place, my rules. No one else is listening."
"You're Tigercast?" It's a huge realization, and suddenly they're in a quid pro quo with both of them possessing dangerous knowledge of each other. But Kane doesn't look like he's out for blood.
"Well obviously I'm not the only one, but you could call me the face of the organization."
Jensen's out of reasons to keep his mouth shut. "I have nothing against TC, but I had to let the blame fall somewhere. You're the ones with the most power, so you were believable."
"So you're after what? LenCorp's data, money...?"
"Nothing like that," Jensen glances at the symbol screen where the green hieroglyphs run in streams down the screen, then at Kane. "I wanna destroy them. They--" And he can't get the words out. He's never talked about his family to anyone.
"Good, 'cause you and me, we're after the same goal, and I think we should partner up," Kane gestures at himself and Jensen. "I've been following you a long time, Ackles. Told Morgan you could help the team. So don't fail me now."
"Is Morgan LenCorp?"
"Jeff? I don't know. Haven't seen any concrete evidence either way. But with you in the picture, he'll be too busy keeping an eye on you to notice me."
Jensen nods; it's not the worst idea. They're not ready to share any secrets, but if they can make this happen, join forces, LenCorp won't be up for long. He drains down the last of the water, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
"By the way, if you haven't noticed yet, Padalecki's sniffing around you. Either fuck him stupid or put an end to it, because if you don't, he'll be like a dog with a bone. He's harmless and unlike me, not straight."
Jensen's face heats up. Almost an unfamiliar feeling after all these years. He ignores Kane's comment. "So how did I end up here?"
"Told him that I wouldn't let him molest the new guy. Kid's all hugs when he's toasted." Kane grins.
Jensen declines Kane's breakfast offer, takes off, heads down Elm to catch the green line train, the buzzing in his head reduced from the hornets nest of this morning to a single, annoying fly.
It's a start, what Kane has. He didn't volunteer the information, but at the core of Tigercast are about seven to ten hackers, according to Jensen's guesstimation, that can get into the LenCorp system. There are more who support the cause, but don't either want to risk the attention or don't have the skill. With a good plan, he and TC could be enough to disrupt LenCorp's domination. But those guys would be hunted for the rest of their natural fucking lives. And Jensen can't do that to them. Maybe they'd have no issues with running and hiding, but this is his revenge and he wants to do it his way.
When he exits the train, he wonders about the situation with Jared.
And that right there is it. Jared. They've been flirting from the start. Or at least Jared has, and lately, Jensen's found it increasingly difficult not to respond. The floppy hair and dimples get his insides to float around like they're forgetting where they're supposed to be. The kid's a catch, criminal record or not, and Jensen can't figure out why he'd pick someone like Jensen, the surly hacker that pushes people the fuck away. Who has seen shit that'd probably make the kid cry just to hear the CliffsNotes.
He's fairly confident he can trust Jared, but he's also paranoid enough to see that everything up to now could have been engineered by someone so that he would start trusting Jared and be influenced by him.
Jensen gets home, decides against stims and throws some water down his throat along with just a tab of ampakine to get his brain awake and ready to work instead. It's Saturday and he's got facts to check and code to write.
During his research on the ICE, he's bumped into AIs, and he's simultaneously creeped out by and fascinated with them. Building one, coding one, is possible, even for a single person if they have enough time, and coding intellect into something is the kind of creativity that Jensen loves. Manipulating control structures, finding ways to bend them; the basic program parts of variables and subprograms combined to produce logically unexpected behavior like human thought. On the other hand, the idea of machines mimicking people raises his skin into goosebumps.
With the hard ICE learning like a human, conventional thinking won't suffice. The machine is a big seething mass of logical thinking and it will learn from every move Jensen makes. He can pinpoint the weakest points, plan ways to attack them, but if the ICE blocks him, he has to do things the hard way.
Jensen hates Mondays and weeks that start with a bang are the kind he hates most. This Monday is giving him a seriously bad vibe.
"Building manager said these should be regular half-inch plywood with a solid core," Jared says, Jensen picking up the words through the comm link.
"Copy that," Jensen responds, "nothing reads wrong here." He taps out of the electric grid monitor, there's no current bleeding out of the sockets to feed an alarm or a trap. The electric grid may be the most obvious source for booby traps like that, but there are countless of other ways to power them: old-fashioned finger batteries for small stuff, chem batteries, car batteries and fuel cells for larger, and of course the environmentally friendly options of solar and wind. A low level current hooked to a metal sheet right behind the wooden door, and the guy busting the door can get a good jolt. Maybe the whole team if there's more current or if there's an explosive coupled to the door. Jensen's seen both, knows what they can do. He even installed one in his early days, but wirework wasn't his specialty, and the one job was enough to make him stay out of it. But he knows what kind of traps there could be, and waiting helplessly for Jared to scope out the situation is like a vice brutally squeezing his heart.
Jared places three of his left-hand fingers against the door, sends an ultrasound pulse from the glove through the surface. The result appears in Jared's glasses. Nothing exotic. Jensen sees it, too.
"Okay, Jared. You're good to go," Jensen says, flips out of the sensory feed to double check the apartment for data transfer. It looks quiet.
Tom has the battering ram, and Jensen listens as the team takes their position in the dank, narrow hallway. "On two," Jared whispers into the silent comms.
The quiet order carries into Jensen's ears. He flips back to Jared's sensory feed and is flooded with details, everything Jared's trying to ignore is blanketed by his sharp focus on the moment at hand. Jensen feels how Jared grips his pulse gun in a tight fist, how his hand sweats inside his gloves, the short breaths he takes, and, on top of everything, the focus he has on the door, on what lies behind it. Jensen should be focused on the door as well, but Jared's sensorium is too intriguing to let him flip out.
The door splinters into dozens of tiny dry shards and the bolt fails as Tom swings the battering ram. Tom falls back and Jared goes in first, sweeps the room. Couch, table, chairs, kitchenette register at once and are ignored. His eyes stop on a lone figure slumped on the floor right inside the door. Tom appears again, battering ram traded for a pulse gun. Tom does another sweep and stills when he reaches the object of Jared's attention. Jared could observe protocol and command the figure to put his hands up, but it'd be useless. A face so pale it's almost white looks at him, a wire biting deep into his throat. The guy's long dead.
The face looks like it has been mummified, desiccated skin sunken and tightened around the bones. A mask of browns and yellows, teeth bared in a grotesque grin. Doesn't even look like a person anymore. What registers to Jensen then are the trodes hanging on its forehead, the band they're attached to still sitting on the skull. Moreover, there's a wire around the throat, going around the neck, a thin black collar before snaking into the plug of a hardwire jack in the body's neck. Images of dead console cowboys and street rats flood into Jensen's brain, but this the first time he's seen this happen to a body. It's not natural. No cowboy would ride with both a set of trodes and a jack. Someone did this to that body. The worst part is that Jensen recognizes him: Jared's old operator Brock.
Jared's nausea hits Jensen out of nowhere. The image of what he sees is bad but apparently there is a smell, too, and it has Jared gagging. The dry heaves trigger a reflex in Jensen, his body reacting to Jared's body and he fights to keep it under control.
"Goddamnit, Jared. Get some air," Jensen barks to the comm link.
Tom has already taken a step or two back when Jensen hears Jared's voice come down through the comms. "It's Brock."
And this has to be a warning. For the whole team but especially to Jensen. Jared's old operator, killed in one of the most gruesome ways a cowboy can go, left to rot.
There's a reason why trodes and a jack are not used together: the feeds cause interference, it's like two interlaced images, but the brain tries to read them as one. Synapses fire randomly, neurotransmitters spike and the final result is a drooling mess of a cowboy with a fried brain.
Jensen shivers, fights against Jared's retching, the sharp, pungent smell his brain makes real. He can't get rid of the image of Brock, though, and the nausea and fear for his own life amplify each other. Fear he thought he left behind on the streets. Cold sweat beads on his forehead and he feels like the massive chair is sucking him in. He cuts the sensory feed, rips the jack out and takes off.
If he concentrates hard, he thinks he can hear Jeff's voice over the whitecaps rushing in his head, but he doesn't stop to check. Focuses on not stumbling as he leaves the floor and finds the bathroom.
He throws up in the toilet and passes out cold.
"I can handle this, Jeff." Jared leans on the wall outside the apartment door. He's not sure at all he can handle the sight inside.
"I know you can, kid, but we need you here," Jeff says over the tinny connection, hurried. It's the big boss tone Jared's heard so many times before. He's not going to argue with that tone, so jumps back to action mode.
"What is it?"
"It's Jensen. He freaked out when you found Brock. Took off to the bathroom, threw up, locked himself in."
"And you need me why?" Jared's not sure what he can do about it. Maybe Jeff is over-dramatizing the situation, but Jared can't deny the tug in his mind, telling him to go help Jensen.
"He listens to you. And because he was riding your sensory feed when he freaked out, all that nasty shit-- you could maybe do some explaining."
"On my way."
Tom takes over the scene on Jeff's order. There's not much for them to do besides scan the apartment and the area for anything that could give them a jump-start on finding out what happened before the forensic lab guys go through everything. Their assault van is outside, hunched on the curb, away from the only two working streetlight, nothing out of the ordinary is visible when Jared walks down to it.
The trip back to Tactical takes five minutes after he asks Chris to give him green lights across the board and overtakes a couple of vehicles in a questionable manner. He figures he can abuse his authority this one time. His heart is pounding by the time he gets back, fingers white-knuckling the steering wheel. It's Jensen.
Jensen's prickly and likes his privacy, but there's something between them that could grow. The potential is enough for Jared to give him space, closely monitor his moods and make himself harmless. And sometimes, sometimes he could swear that the mirrors flicker curiously at him like Jensen finds him interesting.
The elevator feels slower than usual even though he counts the seconds and comes up with as many as usual. Jared gets out of the el and comes face to face with Jeff who looks grim.
"Jeff, Brock was--" he can't even finish what he wants to say. Brock didn't deserve this. He was a good guy, a little shy at first before he got to know the team, and Jared got along with him okay.
"I know, Jared. We'll find the one responsible. Now handle this," Jeff points Jared towards the bathroom.
He knocks on the bathroom door. "Jensen? You okay?"
There's no sound for a couple of seconds. Jared's already assessing if the door would be weak enough to be brought down with a kick, when he hears Jensen's voice.
"I'm good." His voice sounds rough. Jared's heard the sensory stuff can be really vivid, and he knows just how bad the nausea had hit him. So Jensen apparently got his share of it.
"Jeff figured I should talk to you." No answer. Jared leans on the door. "I'm sorry about what happened, man. I just couldn't stop it. He was a good kid, Jen. Seeing him like that--"
The latch is released. Jared takes the invitation as it is and opens the door. A settled smell of sickness is in the air. Jensen's standing in front of a sink, eyes unreadable, but the rest of him rumpled: hem of his shirt twisted around his middle, hair slicked down with water in the front and spiky on the sides, splashes soaked into the front of his t-shirt, stray droplets beading on his leather pants.
"Close the door, Jared."
Jensen lifts his chin, turns his head from side to side. Jared gets the feeling that Jensen's scoping out the bathroom more than measuring him.
"How good was Brock?"
"You saw the trodes and the jack on Brock?"
"Yeah," Jared answers slowly, not sure what Jensen's aiming at.
"You know that scrambles a cowboy's head, leaves them brain dead?"
"What do you mean?"
"You can't use them together. You do that and you can kiss your ass bye-bye. If he was any good as a cowboy, he would've known it."
"So what you're saying is that it wasn't an accident."
"Someone wanted him dead. And whatever they did to him, leaving him like that was a message."
"For the team?"
"Maybe. Maybe for just for you or me. I don't know."
This is getting weird, Jared thinks. Working for Jeff's been straightforward so far, and this-- this level of intricacy is something you only ever hear as rumors on the street. "Who would do that?"
"I don't know who, but believe me, Jared, someone wanted us to find him like that. If Brock really was good, they want us to know that operators aren't worth shit for them." Jensen shrugs. "And he was your operator, Jared. If they think you know something or that he told you something, you're in trouble."
"You're crazy. This has to be about his past. I don't know anything!"
"Listen, it's not just your ass on the line, it's mine too. And I happen to like my ass, Jared, so you better straighten this shit up."
"I like your ass too, Jen." Jensen huffs and Jared continues before he can screw things up completely between them. "No, I get what you're saying, but I don't know why anyone would want to target me. I have no idea why they'd do this to Brock."
"Better be on your toes," Jensen says and exits the bathroom, arm brushing against Jared's elbow when he goes.
Jared stands there for a while, tries to remember if Brock ever said anything, did anything, but all he can see are his empty eye sockets staring at him.
Jensen tiptoes his way into Tactical's system first. He's been there before to snoop around, but this time he's going deeper. Then Morgan's files hadn't told him anything about a connection to LenCorp, and Jensen hadn't really cared beyond that. But now he looks into Brock's personnel files, the jobs the team worked before Brock went missing. He discards everything as normal. Buried in the system he finds a log for Brock's deck, cross-references the dates and hours and there's one anomaly that comes up.
The Friday before going missing, Brock had done a couple of late-night hours of sensorium surveillance on his deck. Jensen finds a match with a unit the team uses. It's Chad's. The log on that is a little more informative, showing Chad's route while the sensory feed was on. Jensen plots it on a map, and it comes up as a brilliant red line squirming from downtown to the Eastern outskirts. Jensen makes a copy of the file to come back to later and checks if anyone else on the team was active at the same time as Chad and Brock, but it's a dead end.
If Brock was a warning to the team, then any one of them could be the next target, depending on what Brock's killer is after. One thing's for damn sure, there's cryptic shit happening too close to Jensen. He's got to take more precautions and work on his ICE breaker.
"Why didn't you ask me to cover for you? You know I'da been there."
Jared and Chad's apartment is close to Tactical HQ, not in one of the high-end scrapers but still high enough to be on the better side of the offered listings. The air filter hums to life when Jared closes the door behind them. Jensen mentioned just before Jared left work that day that Chad did a run with Brock providing backup and Jared's determined to find out what it was about. He also feels a little betrayed that Chad didn't ask him.
"I didn't need a guy on the ground. I'd made two courier jobs for the same guys before and everything went velvety. Just, too smooth, y'know? Gave me the jeebs so I just wanted an extra set of eyes for the run. I wore the sensorium unit and Brock did his thing. Not that he had much to do. No problemo."
Jared suspects this is not the whole story. Chad hasn't asked Jared even once to cover his ass since Jeff recruited them. It doesn't surprise Jared that Chad kept couriering on the side, he's always liked the stealth and spy shit a bit too much. And if he's being completely rational, he knows Chad was probably trying to protect Jared's new career. His new fucking beginning. It wouldn't be the first time Chad left him out of the loop to protect him, and Jared can't get mad the guy for doing what he honestly thought is right.
"Did he find anything?"
Chad pulls out two beers from the fridge, hands one to Jared. "Nothing he told me. Said that that my route shouldn't be so quiet, but gift horses and mouths, right?"
But maybe Brock did find something and he started pursuing the lead, which ended up getting him killed. This is the only thing so far that stands out, the only lead Jared has.
"Why didn't you ask Chris for back up? He's your partner."
"It wasn't supposed to be a big deal, just a second pair of eyes. Almost anyone can do that and I figured the kid would want some excitement in his life. And Chris is so into protocols that he might've ratted me out to Jeff."
Jared doesn't push it further. There's still a chance Chad's little excursion has nothing to do with what happened to Brock, but in the absense of other clues, Jared has to consider that maybe this is it.
Jensen doesn't trust their rec room to be secure, so he invites Kane for a beer after their Tuesday turns into unpaid hours. Jensen chooses a bar seedier than Rick's, a place where people are too involved in their own business to get interested anyone else's.
They get a table in the back, away from the door, and Jensen orders two beers. He skips the social niceties because Kane's not expecting them anyway.
He peels casually the label on the bottle. "You ever run into ICE that learns?"
"Son, if you ain't heard about adaptable systems by now, I got no idea how you're still alive."
"I don't mean just adaptable or the chess machines." Chess machines look like they know what you're doing, but they rely on brute force to map out the next steps for a variety of moves. Like the first generation that played chess, it's all probabilities and processor power. "I mean learn, like a real AI."
Kane's eyes widen, "I've heard about them. LenCorp's rumored to have one, but I haven't gone in that deep. I like my brain intact."
"Well, it's true."
"You seen it?"
"That's what got me caught." Jensen rolls the bottle in his hands. "You got any idea how to crack one?"
"Hell no. I'm good, but neural networks--it's neurals, right? Those are tricky bitches. Show them one door, they'll lock it up tighter than a virgin in a whorehouse. And do it all around the system, too."
Fuck. It's not that Jensen was sure that Kane would have a solution, but this is pointless. If Kane gives him nothing, he's just wasting time here.
Kane must have read that, sees a chance. "You should join Tigercast, Jensen. It'd help both of us."
"This is my thing. I won't drag anyone else down."
"You can't do this alone, LenCorp's too massive for one cowboy to take down," Kane almost whisper-shouts.
"Don't worry, Kane. I'll make sure TC gets the credit."
"It's not that. It's your ass I'm worried about."
"Why's everybody focused on my ass?"
"It is a mighty fine ass." Kane leers, gets serious when Jensen snorts. "You sure you won't join us?"
"Maybe after it's done. Gonna need people to make sure this won't happen again."
The broadcast van is cramped, screens embedded in the walls in patterns. Two large Sonys for every operator and a variety of smaller Panas. With the whole team on the job, four operators populate the van, and Jensen doesn't appreciate the lack of space at all. It reminds him of the streets where you found yourself a corner and defended it no matter what it took. If you were lucky, you had friends to provide safety in numbers. If not, you either armed yourself to the teeth, or went willingly.
His console is at the back of the van, right next to the door. An all-pervasive hum fills the space, the air scrubbers whine low, and the combined body heat warms the new air quickly. He's flipped to Jared's sensorium to monitor the site live for any surprises, while Soph and Danneel are wired to the building's grid and Kane keeps an eye on the integrity of their system and the overall situation.
They got an anonymous tip that someone directly linked to Brock's death would be at this address, so everyone is extra jumpy and aggressive.
It's his first time in the broadcast van, and he already hates it. Can't breathe, too aware of people in his space and of their habits while they ride. It's not that he can't block them out, but he'd have to trust them completely to ignore them and he still doesn't. Sophia and Danneel are harmless, that much he's gathered. Well, harmless as far as he's considered--get on their bad side and you'll pay. Danny's got tech skills, she's also a cat burglar and a razorgirl to private interests, and Soph's her partner in every sense of the word. Jensen has no idea how that feels, to have someone you can always rely on and go to bed with at the end of the day. He's not opposed to having someone himself, but he can't picture anyone wanting settle down with him. He'd rather not think about how good it would feel to trust someone like that if he can't have it.
Kane's still a question mark. The man is fucking TC, but he's also a puppeteer, and something about his eagerness to recruit Jensen rubs him the wrong way. Hackers can be united for a cause, but most are loners. Mike and Tom share history and inside jokes. Mike's an obnoxious asshole but funny, and Tom balances him out with his Zen patience. Then there's Jared and Chad. Chad's skeevy but he doesn't cover it up and he defers to Jared.
Jared, well. He smiles like he hasn't been blackmailed into running government ops with a team of criminals. Like he has no place better to be and no people he'd prefer to see. It could be true, but Jared's a charmer and a survivor; he'd succeed anywhere. And the problem is that Jensen likes Jared. Okay, he is maybe crushing on the guy. Definitely wants to put his hands all over Jared's body. Jared flirts with him constantly but is careful to never overstep his boundaries or to misuse his position as the leading field agent. Jensen respects that.
Jensen tries to stretch his legs but he ends up kicking the van wall with his boots. The building has its own security system that is not hardwired to anything else, which explains parking their asses on-site.
Jared's voice comes through the comms. They're ready to move into the apartment. Tom's wielding the battering ram again, and Chad and Mike are positioned on both sides of the door to provide cover for Jared who's ready to head the charge in.
Morgan gives them a green light from his office at Tactical HQ. The door goes down and Jared moves in. For a second, Jensen thinks this might be okay and done with, and the next moment the sensory feed cuts.
"Kane. I lost the sensory feed, we're running blind."
Kane doesn't panic. "I don't read anything extra, could be just a glitch. Girls?"
"Nothing here," they pipe up in unison.
"Let me get Chad." Kane pauses, flicks the sensorium switch on his deck. "Shit."
Kane begins muttering and cursing. It doesn't sound good and Jensen tries to flip back in. He doesn't get Jared's sensorium. Million of colors explode in his eyes like starbursts. He screams.
Somebody's trying to get into Jensen's head.
Old street rat instincts kick into action, reflexes so deep within him he doesn't even notice them at first. His fingers fly on the keys, blocking off what he can of the attack, triggering his personal ICE, and a couple of seconds later the digital black hole falls away. Being released from it feels like every one of his muscles suddenly relaxed after being tensed for an eternity. He draws air like a drowning man, and the ringing in his ears combines with after-flashes of the gunpowder fireworks relayed by his eyes.
"Whoa. What the hell is going on? Where did this come from?" Kane gruffs, pulls himself to the console.
Jensen can hear his voice in the distance, barely understands Kane's stream of expletives. The bursts swirl and pulse, pull his other senses in like he's being sucked through a vortex of light and pain. On an abstract level it feels like Jensen always imagined falling into a black hole would, except he's still sitting right there. His deck is still in his lap, fingers on the keypads, spasming from the assault on his brain. Slowly his senses are coming back, the attack on them fading.
Kane's staring at him. Mouth wide, surprise written on his face.
"You okay, son?"
"Peachy," Jensen rasps, throat itchy and sore in a way only screaming can do. He hasn't missed the feeling.
Kane turns away, eyebrows raised, shrugs, and a gives a short laugh. "That was a virus. Our system's been infiltrated. I'm trying to keep it out." Kane's back on the console, furiously typing and checking the screens. "It looks like it got to your deck and snaked into your head. How the fuck did you block it?"
There's a note of almost pride in Kane's voice. Jensen's not sure how to respond. "Reflexes, I think. I have no fucking idea."
A voice floats through the comms. It's Jared. "Jen, I need you to check on Chad. He went in, but--"
Jensen types in commands to access Kane's deck, a big no-no, but this is an emergency. Finds the right port. Flips.
As soon as the signal of Chad's sensory feed comes in, Jensen feels like his brain is exploding again.
He's seen some bad shit because there's nothing but bad shit in the Dallas underbelly, but this is his body's raw nerves being dipped in acid, spikes driven into his brain. Jensen almost seizes. The pain fires up everywhere all at once, and Jensen feels like he's stuck in a slow-motion crash with a maglev. It's bad, very bad.
Someone's messing with Chad's head, rooting around for whatever they can find. They're not being subtle. Fingers forced to work the deck, Jensen pushes the pain aside, rides in on the feed, but it's a one-way street down to Chad. He's stuck there, with no way to block the attack on Chad's brain. The all-encompassing pain fades suddenly, the feed going silent and still. He can't get anything. Chad's gone. Jensen flips quickly out, not wanting to experience the last neurochemicals ceasing to transmit. Listening to a body without life is close to cyberspace without traffic or the grid lines. Just endless space, no horizon, no yard sticks, no way to maintain sanity.
"Jensen, what are you doing?"
"Checking on Chad. He's-- Shit. He's gone."
"Get the fuck out of there." Kane's tapping his deck wildly. "I'm reading that the virus is coming from your deck."
"Can't be, I purged the memory." Jensen starts a full systems check on his deck while he's trying to figure out what's going on.
"No, I mean I traced the origin of the virus to your deck."
This is insane. "What! I didn't do this."
"Put the deck down and we'll talk about this." Kane's inching his hand towards the gun stashed underneath his console. Danneel and Sophia are looking at them quietly, guns already drawn but not aimed, ready to protect themselves. The girls relay orders to the field team to stand down.
"You think I'd try to fry myself?" Jensen yells.
Jensen goes through his options. He didn't do this, the claim is absurd. Someone tried to kill him, killed Chad and there's something really fucking messed up happening here. His deck finishes the systems check, flashes the result through his jack and into his lenses. It looks normal except that one subsystem is flagged for abnormal behavior; one of his special booby traps has gone off. There's a major change masked as system dump when Jensen lost the sensory feed to Jared. So someone slipped past Kane, tampered with Jensen's system, almost turned him into a vegetable and is attempting to frame him for this clusterfuck.
A dark thought flashes in his mind.
Jensen backs away from the console, pulls the jack out slowly. "Okay, Kane. Just don't fucking shoot me, I didn't let the goddamn virus out."
"I'll call Jeff, we'll go back to HQ and we'll figure this out."
Jensen lets his hands rest on his deck, Kane appeased and raising Morgan on the comms.
"Jeff, we've got a situation here--"
The impact of Jensen's deck against Kane's skull vibrates through his arms, resonates in his bones like they were metal. Kane falls on the floor, in a heap of chair, body and fiber optics.
Danneel and Sophia aim their small pulse pistols at him. From this distance he has no chance, so he holds his hands up, the now busted-up deck dangling. He throws it aside.
"You gotta believe me, I didn't do this. Something fucked up is going on, and if I don't get out right now, I'll never get the chance to prove it."
Danneel gestures with gun. "Go." Sophia brings her pistol down. "We know you wouldn't kill Chad like that."
Jensen wonders if they can naturally read people or if they have other evidence, but he's not sticking around to find out. "Thank you."
"We'll try to give you a head start."
He pulls Kane's gun from the nylon holster duct-taped to the plastic bottom of the console. Then pauses to think and yanks the plug out of Kane's jack, hauls his deck up. He rips the van door open and takes off running in the rain-soaked street.
He's so very screwed.
The scene is bleak. A smoke bomb probably on a delay timer wired to the door filled the apartment five seconds after they stepped in; the thick, black smoke now slowly dissolving around him. Mike and Tom are securing the rooms, but are coming up empty.
Jared's on his knees next to Chad's lifeless body.
Chad was the last to go in, always was when the whole team moved, his potential for creating diversions on the fly put to use there. Jared lost visual on him after the smoke permeated the room, but still heard the thud of Chad collapsing on the floor.
Jared closes Chad's eyes, tries to hold back bitter tears. Chad's dead and someone killed him.
Almost twenty years of shared history, friendship, and this is how it ends? Jared vows revenge, he wants to scream and fuck shit up. Someone is going to pay for this.
Jeff hails him on the comm. Jared struggles to find his voice to reply.
"Jared, we need you to go after Jensen. Chris told me he ran after a virus hit them." Great, another babysitting gig. Jensen's a grown man who can take care of himself.
"He'll come back, Jeff."
"No, he won't." Jeff hesitates for a second. " Chris said Jensen might have done this."
Jeff's voice is breaking up in the comms, but surely Jared didn't hear right. "Jensen? Are you sure?"
"That's what Chris said. We're tracking Jensen, but he knows it, and we need you to take off now." The urgency Jeff projects gets Jared moving again.
Jeff instructs Mike and Tom to finish checking the apartment, tear it down to the studs if they have to for leads. Jared ignores the chatter, presses his palm over Chad's heart, silently promises to get whoever did this to him. Seconds later he scrambles to his knees and heads out.
Jeff has Chris direct the real-time data from Jensen's tracker into Jared's glasses while he gets out of the building. Jensen's signal puts him at the outskirts of downtown. Jared grabs the other light two-man hover and opens the throttle.
Something about Jensen running makes fear bubble up in the far corner of Jared's brain. The tough-guy image Jensen projects is a facade, he's pretty sure. Jensen could probably kill someone, but not in cold blood like he wants everybody to believe he could. He's trying too hard to stare others down, covering his vulnerability with the impervious quicksilver depths of his mirrors.
Jared can't help but to be attracted to him and the mysterious aura around him. It's something new, challenging in a world where he's seen too much. Whatever is going on, Jensen's running, completely aware of being tracked, which makes Jensen either very stupid or very desperate. Jared's 99.9% sure Jensen's not stupid, so something stinks, but he's got no idea what. He removes his right hand from the handle bar, pats the holster of his pulse weapon to make sure he didn't leave the gun lying next to Chad's body. Satisfied with the shape he finds, he replaces his hand and gives the hover more throttle.
The hover clears to the main street, whipping dirty rainwater to the pavement and the familiar rumble-shake of it travels down Jared's body and softly rattles in his skull. He traces Jensen into a maze of streets, would have a lot harder time finding him if it weren't for the tracker. Jared wonders about backup, but he's not going to raise the issue now. Tom and Mike could be on the way, someone monitoring his sensorium. He rips the unit off.
This is between him and Jensen.
With the tracker in his neck, there's no way he can outrun whoever they send after him. Five minutes is the max the girls can get for him; worst case scenario: they'll be nipping at his heels any second now. The microexplosive embedded in his head he tries hard to forget. Going like that would be painless but very anticlimactic.
Jensen can't think about that now. He has to find a place to get the tracker disabled and then he needs to disappear.
After a few minutes of frantic running, his muscles burn from lactic acid and his lungs are desperate for more oxygen. His body's not familiar with use this hard. Kane's deck is strapped to his back, a blocky shape hidden underneath his jacket, one corner digging into the small of his back. His pulse is pounding inside his head like his brain is trying to get out of his skull from all of the abuse it has taken in the last twenty minutes.
He's close to downtown. Weatherly's his only contact with a base close enough he could make it to. This late in the evening, the rats and joeboys are coming out to cater to potential clients. He weaves through them, searches the boarded windows, finds Weatherly's shop door that blends in with the other beat-up, one-room establishments. Pounds on it.
The only attention he gets is looks from people passing by, and the looks say he should get gone. He rushes down the dark street, darts to the first alleyway he can find. It's piled with metallic and wooden crates, giving Jensen plenty of space to hide. There's a door at the end. It's his only shot. Morgan's probably told everyone that Jensen's armed, so he can use the cover to delay them further, the door's good for an exit strategy. They won't rush in to an unknown situation. He has no idea who Morgan sent after him. Tom and Mike wouldn't hesitate to bring him in, but he'd be in one piece. Jared, he figures, would either kill him on sight for killing his best friend, or if Jensen's very lucky, Jared would be willing to give him a chance to explain what's going on.
His butterfly knife is in his pocket as usual, so Jensen fishes it out, flicks it open. He picks a pile of old, wet-rotten newspapers dumped in a wooden crate for his cover and gets down to his knees.
This will hurt a lot. He feels out the smooth disk of the jack with his left hand, then places the knife in his right at the edge of the metal. He cuts.
The stinging lingers for a good while. He draws blood that slicks his neck and makes cutting harder. He has to wipe the handle of the knife clean so it won't slip. He's just about to risk a deeper cut, when he hears a voice from the mouth of the alleyway.
The resolution of the map in his HUD has increased, telling Jared he's gained ground. The dot that indicates Jensen's location has stopped between narrow, thin lines. An alleyway. He ditches the hover before coming up to the alley. Long strides carry him to the mouth. A careful look around the corner reveals piles of packing crates, giving Jensen plenty of space to hide. Jeff said Jensen's armed.
"Jensen, don't shoot. It's just me here."
"Don't come any closer, Jared." Jensen sounds pained and out of breath. "I didn't kill Chad, man, I swear." It's clear that he's desperate.
Jared wants to trust Jensen. He can't just drag him away without hearing him out. The guy's had his back, beat himself up when Jared got hurt on his watch. He went off like a rocket on Chad, but was shell-shocked afterwards. There's no way Jensen would do this. Kill Chad.
"I don't think you did, but something doesn't add up here. I'm not going to take you in before I know what's going on. So can I come talk to you or do we do this long-distance?" Silence. "You can trust me, Jen. I wouldn't lie to you like this."
"Okay, yeah, come here."
Jared keeps the pulse weapon in the holster. He needs show good faith if Jensen's to believe him. Cautious steps take him to the back of the narrow alley. The top of Jensen's head peeks out behind a wooden crate filled with stained newspapers, his hair colored sodium-yellow under the lights.
Jensen's mirrors catch the light from Jared's flashlight and shine back at him. "Give me a hand, Jared."
Jared rounds the crate and sees Jensen sitting on his shins, holding a butterfly knife. His gun is on the ground. His left hand is bloody in the flashlight's beam.
"Jen? What are you--"
"There's a tracker in my neck," Jensen says, glancing up. "I need you to cut it out. Then we can talk."
Blood drains from Jared's face. He really doesn't want to go cutting in Jensen's head. "Can't you just, I don't know. Short it?"
"No can do. Morgan said they put a microexplosive in there, too. Scan confirmed it, right against the brainstem. Good bet it'll go off if jolted too hard."
"You gotta take them out, Jared," Jensen grits, hands the butterfly knife to Jared and bares his neck. There are bloody nicks and cuts around the jack, some deeper than others. Jensen must've tried to take it out himself. How Jensen trusts him to do this, Jared has no idea.
Jared takes the knife, notes the pearl handles stained with bloody fingerprints. "Jesus. I can't do this. I slip and you're paralyzed."
"You don't do it, I'm dead. Or worse," Jensen looks up. "You've got a cybernetic arm, don't you?"
"Yeah, but it's not a precision instrument! I can barely feed myself with the thing," Jared shouts, shamefaced and frustrated. He doesn't want to let Jensen down, but he can't see an alternative.
"It's all a matter of how you think about it. It won't shake, and that's what important. You can do it, Jared. Small moves. The tracker is in the jack, the micro is underneath that."
Jensen bows his head and lets it rest against his forearm that's now propped on the crate, the nape of his neck offered up. His short-cropped hair is sticky and spiked with red.
Jared wipes the welled up blood on the knife with his sleeve, puts the blade to skin.
"What if I cut something important?"
"Then you trigger the micro and call it in," Jensen replies, his tone even.
Jared can't think about killing Jensen, just can't. Losing Chad and Jensen is unacceptable.
Jared holds his breath, releases it and straps the flashlight to his shoulder. Cuts. He knows he should be quick, and the pressure is licking his fingers and toes is like wild fire. All the hours spent training his arm and fingers are being put to use now.
He loses track of time. The jack separates from the skin easily, and there's less blood than he thought. Every cut loosens the jack until he can gently pry one edge up. He tries to pull it a little but there's resistance. But then the metal cylinder is loose, a bundle of thin wires travel just under the surface of the skin, disappearing shortly into the tissue. He has to cut the wires to release the jack. Pulling more of the wire out causes Jensen to tense, and there's sharp intake of breath when Jared cuts it.
"Jen, I got the jack but I can't see the micro."
"Whatever it takes, Jay." The words sound strangled and pierce into Jared's heart.
Jared sets the knife at the edge of the wound. He's about to press the tip to the space where the plug was when the name registers. No one's called him Jay before. Chad used ridiculous names, and his parents never called him other than his proper name. This new connection to Jensen gives him strength and the will to get this done. He pries the tip deeper, nudges it along but is careful not to cut.
Then he sees black against red flesh, an arc-shaped bead less than an inch long is visible in the light. He worms the blade underneath the explosive and lifts it up gently. With an inhale so deep Jared almost passes out, he shakes the micro from the knife and tosses it to the end of the alley where it goes off like a New Year's firecracker on the pavement.
"Holy shit!" Jared flinches, automatically tensing up.
Jensen just looks down the alley, says nothing, but his breath is shallow, scared. It takes no more than a handful second for him to clear his head, to overcome the realization that the thing in his neck really would've killed him clean, that Jared saved him. "Let's move before they find us."
They scramble up, Jared strangely worried about the bloody scrapes in Jensen's neck, when slipping under the radar bumps them on top of the most wanted list.
Barely out of Jensen's hideout, the alley explodes around them.
The blast tosses them through the air, bodies tumbling in the fight between pressure and gravity. The motion stops. The world grows quiet again except for the rain of debris and their fast breaths.
Hitting a fucking planet would probably hurt less, Jensen curses as he attempts to peel himself from the pavement. There's a heavy weight on top of him that turns out to be Jared, who must've tackled him. That's two rescues a minute apart.
"Fucking attack drones," Jared mumbles.
Jared gets off of Jensen, but Jensen's limbs aren't co-operating any better without the extra weight on them. They move but it's uncoordinated and he can't lift himself up yet. He turns his head to place Jared on his internal map. Jared's shaking off dust and detritus from the blast in the direction of Jensen's feet. Some of the junk floats in the air like big flakes of dirty snow. A large chunk of the building lining the north side of the alley is missing.
"Jen?" Jared asks while he turns him over, eyes wide when he gets a look at Jensen.
Now that Jensen's looking up, Jared is framed by the burnished blue-silver of the sky. The image is off. Blurrier at the edges, the intensity different, black spots in his field of vision.
A lens must've disconnected due to the force of the blast, Jensen rationalizes, but then a gust of wind catches him and he knows this is worse than a simple detached cable. He feels the air move on his skin, on his cheek where it's supposed to be covered by the lens on his right eye.
He barely gets an arm up, gingerly feels out the lens. It's shattered.
A large piece of the polycarbon is missing, and the shards that remain cause the black spots in his vision. The cracks underneath his fingertips spread out like spiderwebs.
Jared's looking down at him, shocked, hand extended in an offer to help him up, obviously wanting to ask him something. Jensen doesn't know what the guy expected, but maybe it was dark pits of burnt flesh, not a functioning eye. He thanks his stars that they really need to run. Any excuse to skirt Jared's questions welcome.
"Don't, Jared," Jensen says and takes Jared's hand.
Jared pulls him to his feet, visibly swallows. "Can-- can you still see? We need to run now and I have to know if you're blind."
"I can see enough," Jensen replies truthfully. Besides, the other lens functions perfectly.
Buildings still shake around them, groaning and yawning. The wind is making Jensen's eye tear up. He closes it, both of them, like they've been for a long time, lets the remaining lens provide him imagery and takes off with Jared.
Jared leads him to a small hover that has Tactical's insignia all over it. They can probably track that too, but it's easy to ditch if they just get somewhere where they can disappear.
Jared grabs the controls, Jensen on the second-man seat--half of his body blocked by Jared in front of him and half out of his shadow. They head downtown where there are lots of people, lots of opportunities to lose the hover, maybe even have someone steal it and lead the people on their heels on a wild goose chase.
Now that he has a minute to breath free, Jensen checks his neck. The bleeding is not that heavy, but he's gonna need the socket cleaned and sealed. Getting snuffed by an infected wound after surviving two attempts on his life would make for a crappy ending to his story.
He's also going to need something for his eye. The lens was stitched into his skin; Hartley did the job as a payment for the scanner Jensen got for him. The polycarbon was slotted into an incision cut into his skin, and then the edges of the skin were threaded together through the perforated edge of the lens. He can feel where the lens cracked along the perforation, along the high of his cheek, blood pumping out sluggishly. If the mirror had been pulled out completely, he'd be in a trouble, so he's getting off easy.
The remains of the lens have to come out. One ruined lens is not good for anything.
Jensen taps Jared on the shoulder. "You have a plan? Gotta ditch this bike soon."
"Yeah, I know a place where we can crash. It's not far, we're getting off in the next block."
Jared stops right in front of a young street rat. They climb off, Jensen hanging back while Jared approaches the boy. Jared gestures at the bike, tells the boy that it's hot, but he can have it if he's interested. Jared takes off his glasses, too, hands them over with a smile. The boy looks like he's being handed a ticket out to the big leagues. And he is, if he survives and plays his cards right. A means of transportation is an advantage. Even a hot cop bike will disappear fast in the Dallas streets.
The boy takes off and Jared leads them in the opposite direction. The street is crowded, tourists and the good people of Dallas long gone, only the dealers, clubbers and thrill seekers left.
Jared leads them to an arcade, everything from retro to 3D holos represented with loud music and laser lights. Without stopping, Jared takes them through the floor and to the back room. It's populated by two armed guys in sleek leather that show no interest in them.
"Evening, boys," Jared says.
Jensen's not sure if Jared knows these guys, if this is some sort of a code word, or if he's just pretending to know what he's doing, but then he opens a hatch built to the floor. Jensen climbs down the ladder first, meagerly lit shaft surrounding him before he gets to the bottom. He's looking down the hallway that opens up with four doors on both sides, when Jared reaches the bottom of the ladder.
Jared goes for the farthest room on the right, opens the door by pressing his finger on a scanner.
They get in, a spartan decoration of a sink, a table and a raised bed. There are boxes under the bed and lined-up along the walls.
Jared must sense Jensen's curiosity because he shrugs and says, "This is a hideout Chad and I've had for a couple of years. It's not in our name and we haven't used it often, so it's safe."
There's a fleeting sadness in Jared's eyes when he mentions Chad. A quiet moment follows when Jared realizes that his friend is gone. Their eyes meet, and Jared nods like he's made a decision. "Sit down, Jensen."
He does. The bed is the closest horizontal surface.
"You said we can talk if I helped you in the alley. So, now talk." Jared paces the floor like a caged predator.
Jensen takes a moment to think where to start.
"What do you know about LenCorp?"
Jared stops, looks confused, probably not expecting that at all. "Um, well, they do pretty much everything. Do you mean something specific?"
"Have you heard anyone accusing them of anything? Data theft, blackmail, corruption? Murder?"
"Well, among pleasing the citizens with offers of cheap information and founding a church and the library project and building their space station they do all that." Jared's frown deepens. "They have collected enormous amounts of data. Everything that has ever been sent or stored in the New Internet has probably ended up in their drives. A lot of the pre-digital too. They can steal it, change it, distort it. They can send misinformation and pull out everything and anything that says otherwise."
"Like changing history?"
"That too. They can make their word the only word. And when more and more people access the new information, the more LenCorp will be trusted. They can steal pieces of research and put it together with nothing more than a search algorithm. They're nice to the ordinary citizen because they need the people to trust LenCorp and offer them more information and spread their versions of truth."
Jared looks at Jensen, unconvinced. "That's kinda paranoid."
"But it's true. There's an organized resistance of sorts, they call themselves Tigercast. Hackers trying to expose parts of LenCorp's activities. The problem is that if proof of any of this manages to get out before LenCorp muddles it, no one listens or cares because the resistance has been labeled paranoid 'cause LenCorp is everyone's friend."
"What does this have to do with anything?" says Jared, trying to puzzle it out.
Jensen only thought of it when Kane put the blame from the virus on Jensen. But the pieces fit. It sounds like a classic nutjob conspiracy theory, but everything fits.
"I think that LenCorp controls Tigercast." He hesitates, watches Jared closely for protests or realization. Any reaction. "They want the anti-LenCorp hackers to join, so they can keep an eye on them, keep them happy with scraps so they don't go for the big fish."
"LenCorp has something that's awfully close to an AI protecting their system. Won't maybe pass the Turing Test yet, but it's a major part of what an AI needs."
"But those are illegal."
Jensen shifts his weight on the bed. His body hurts all over, too much action and excitement for one day.
"How do you know?"
"I've seen it. I found it just before I got caught."
"Kane blamed me for the virus that almost burned me and killed Chad. But when I flipped to check on Chad like you asked, someone was rooting around his brain. And it wasn't me. Kane would've known that. Someone's trying to set me up."
"So you think Kane works for LenCorp?" Jared starts to root around the boxes, searching for something. The first he cracks open contains knives and tools.
"That's my bet. I told him about the AI, refused to join Tigercast when he asked me to and two days later this shit happens. I have no hard proof yet, but I got out with Kane's deck, so there could be something."
Jared starts pacing again, working things out. "It's fucking smart. Play both sides. Recruit the resistance to work for you and feed them useless data no one cares about. The resistance is happy because they think they're getting somewhere and LenCorp's happy because they have most of the resistance under their thumb."
"Assuming you're right, what can we do? I mean, two people against a megacorporation? Those are not good odds."
Jared's unhesitating use of we gives Jensen hope. This isn't Jared's fight--in fact he could still walk up to Jeff, hand Jensen over and not get into trouble--but he's still there, ready to fight alongside Jensen. It's trust, and it's foreign to Jensen.
"I'm not sure yet. First we need to tell the Tigercast members they're working for the enemy, and for that we need proof so they won't think LenCorp's trying to disband them. Second, we need to take out the AI before it replaces LenCorp's simple search algorithms. Let that thing loose and who knows what they will do with it."
"But that won't destroy them."
Jensen sighs. "No, and believe me I'd like to see them fry, but we gotta start with this and see where it takes us. If we're lucky, we'll make room for a new resistance that's not controlled by LenCorp. Then we'll be on even ground and can see how good their security really is. And it's the only way to get proof that I didn't kill Chad."
Jared finds a towel in one of the boxes and wets it under the tap.
"I'm just gonna--" Jared gestures at Jensen's cheek. Jensen nods, too tired to demand to do this himself.
Sitting down, Jared cups Jensen's chin, brings his face up toward the single bulb hanging from a rusty socket in the ceiling, and gently wipes the blood from his cheek. For a second Jensen's afraid Jared will ask about his eyes, so he keeps them closed.
Jared's quiet. As the seconds tick away slowly, the cloth brushing his cheek, Jensen understands this has been a very long day for Jared as well.
"They fucking killed Chad."
What can you say to that? Jensen opens his eyes, a tiny bit grateful that the other lens is gone so Jared can see Jensen means what he's about to say. "I'm sorry."
Jared's smile is small and forced; he lets Jensen's chin go and gently presses Jensen's head down to get to the mess in his neck. "Thanks."
Silence lands on them, lets Jared work in peace. He takes out the shards, has to cut some out, but gets them, and sprays the wounds shut. They should be planning their next steps, but today has been too long and taxing for that. 23:13:42. It's hard to believe it's not later. They're safe here for the night, and Jensen doesn't want to take another step.
It seems like Jared reads his mind. "Can we pick this up in the morning? My head's not working anymore."
When Jensen wakes up in the morning, it's a slow process. A warm body registers behind his own, then a concrete wall in front of him. The room's darkness registers only as noise in the image his remaining lens forms.
Before he connects the dots, Jared pipes up. "Morning, Jensen."
Jensen stops wondering why he didn't freak out waking up in this room. His body recognizes Jared, trusts him to let him this close. He rolls onto his back and Jared's there, already looking at him, petting Jensen's side with a warm, large palm.
Maybe it should be more of a surprise when Jared kisses him, but all he can think is that Jared's solid and warm and he kind of likes this.
"Jensen, I want-- Can I suck you?"
It's like his body is booting up slowly, Jared's touch bringing it back online. He's hyperaware of the pressure of Jared's palms sliding down, bracing against his thighs, the desperation in Jared's voice. It washes over Jensen, some parts of him resisting, but he's surprised he actually wants this. It's been so long since he's let anyone lay a finger on him. Maybe it's the fact that Jared asked. Maybe it's just Jared and his goddamn dimples.
"Yeah. Yeah, suck me."
One of those dimples comes out as Jensen gives him the go-ahead, and Jensen thinks about maybe coming on Jared's face, licking his own come off Jared's dimples.
After Jared paws Jensen's pants open and pulls them to his thighs and has Jensen's dick hard in his wet-hot mouth Christ, can it feel like this, Jared gets greedy. "Wanna ride you. Please let me ride your cock."
Jensen nods, watches close as Jared gets his pants down to his ankles and pulls them off, then wets his fingers. Opens himself up efficiently and sinks down on Jensen's cock.
"Fucking hell. So fucking tight, Jared. Yeah, ride me."
Jared leans forward, braces his palms on Jensen's shoulders and rides.
"C'mon, Jay, gonna come. You too," and Jensen grips Jared's dick, fists it. Triggered by one of the twitches, Jensen blows his load deep. "Shit yeah." And Jared rides through the last of it, spurting between Jensen's fingers.
Jared rolls off Jensen, yanks his pants off before getting up to find another towel from the box. Jensen checks him out, tight ass and long, corded muscles in his thighs and calves. Jared comes back with the towel and wipes Jensen off before doing the same to himself.
"Checking me out?" Jared smiles.
"Maybe," Jensen flirts.
Jensen has no idea what to say, why Jared wanted to ride him. Just then, Jared bends down and kisses him.
"I like you, Jen."
Jensen sits there, dazed, with a small, swirling emotion of happiness in his heart.
After they dress, the unavoidable events of the previous day resurface.
"We're gotta find a place where to lay low," Jared says. "This is just a temporary solution. Safe, but not long term."
Jensen watches Jared zip up his pants, thread the utility belt through the belt loops.
"And I'll need a new deck."
"What do we do about LenCorp?"
"I need to see what's on Kane's deck, but I think we're going to need more proof anyway. The plan is to expose Tigercast as LenCorp's puppet and to take down the AI."
"What I don't really understand is why they killed Brock and Chad." Jared's voice quivers a little when speaking Chad's name.
"I think that side job they did might have some clues as to why, but that will take some digging."
The room makes him claustrophobic, and there's nothing to do except for wait to Jared to return. Kane's deck lies on the bed, holding no evidence they can use against Kane; the virus code is in the memory, but the log shows only that Kane read it from Jensen's deck. The logs could be fabricated or Kane could've sneaked the virus into Jensen's deck somehow, activated it remotely during the op. Jensen doesn't want to believe his deck was tampered with, but grudgingly admits Kane's had the opportunity and most likely the skills to skirt Jensen's custom security routines.
The silent motion sensor alarm rouses Jensen from his thoughts. He's been bursting out of his skin since Jared left a couple of hours ago and had Jensen swear to stay in, radio silence and tracker free. He promised that everything would go okay, that he'd be in no danger, but Jensen was a little reluctant to let him go.
Now he checks the feeds and confirms it's Jared, alone and unharmed. He sighs, opens the safety bolts, disengages the electric lock, lets him in.
"How did it go?"
Jared digs through his bag, hands him a shiny new deck and grins. "Without a hitch."
Jensen hooks up the fiber optics he scavenged from Kane's deck, checks the connections and starts the preliminary diagnostics to see what exactly the deck can do. Out of the corner of his eye he notices Jared's watching him, undoubtedly gauging if Jensen is up for a talk. Jensen doesn't have to wait long.
"Why are you after them?"
It's obvious what Jared means. Jensen looks at him, wonders if he can share his reasons just to discover he's already started talking. "They killed my family."
It's more than he's said in a long time. Out loud anyway. Or maybe it's just taken him this long to get perspective, to piece the information together. Jared stays quiet, looks satisfied with this scrap of information, but now that Jensen started, he can't stop.
"I was just a kid. My parents, they had a friend who was a reader. Had real books and shit. On paper, y'know?"
Jared looks at him surprised and why not? You can't get paper books anymore, everything shifted to digital to save the natural resources for survival. A lot of the forests were cut down illegally, the rest of it saved for climate regulation. There's still paper, but it's hard to come by and expensive. Or it's old like the bills people use to trade in the seediest parts of town where people have lost or never even gained a credit chip.
Fiddling the deck is a comfort gesture, Jensen recognizes, but he needs the familiarity.
"And my parents, they were big on education. Read a lot. Made me read, too. But not on paper. I don't know how it really went down, but I guess my parents realized what was on paper and what was in digital didn't match. So they started digging and found a lot of discrepancies. Like someone had edited the digital versions. The real kicker was that the edits were everywhere in the LenLib but nowhere else. They went public with what they found, but LenCorp shut them down before the word really got out. So my parents started to spread the word on the streets, and people listened. Then, a couple of weeks later, those who knew started dropping. Mom and Dad-- I found them. At home."
He can't finish, the flames licking the apartment walls still too vivid in his mind, the dead stares of his parents a weight he still can't fully deal with.
Jared is suddenly right there, taking the deck from Jensen's shaky hands and setting it on the table. He envelops Jensen in a hug. "I'm so sorry, Jensen."
Quiet, so quiet. But the pain inside Jensen feels lesser now, somehow, when Jared's there. When someone else knows his story.
There's little time to waste, so Jensen extracts himself, but lets Jared kiss him. "Gotta get this done, Jay."
Jared pulls back and gives Jensen room to work. Happy with the deck specs, Jensen sits his ass down and forgets everything else.
He trawls through the data he took off Tactical's systems when he was looking into why Brock was killed. He'd cached it onto servers that don't get traffic, old and forgotten somewhere, existing perhaps as just blinking lights in a dark basement. Machines that no one sees unless they know where to look. He downloads the logs and starts looking for clues.
The route Chad took is recorded in the incoming/outgoing connections logs, the sensorium unit pinging back the location automatically every couple of seconds. There are connections to the Police and Tactical servers that collect the street-camera data. Makes sense, watching if Chad had anyone on his tail. The log goes on like that, but after a while connections are made to the City Building Database and farther out from there.
Jensen tries to put himself into Brock's shoes. What would he do if the guy he's keeping an eye on has a suspiciously clean route? Check where everyone is. Who cleared the path? Where is Chad going and whose data he has in his head? After all that has happened he assumes it's LenCorp, and what he's learned about Brock tells him that the guy had some professional pride. Suddenly, he gets an idea.
He vets the connections Brock had to Chad. And there it is, among the routine sensorium calls and HUD updates, one entry through a non-sensorium port. Brock used the sensorium data port to get into Chad's courier unit. Couriers carry their data encrypted, but for any hacker worth his deck that's a speed bump, not a concrete wall. If Brock got in, got anything out of there, the information could be extremely useful to Jensen. There's no saying if the info ever got out of the courier drive or if Brock stored it safely, but if it's out there, Jensen intends to find it.
Jensen double-checks his firewalls, sets up his ICE if anyone gets too close, and grabs the trodes. Hunting down every byte of data that ever passed Brock's work or personal deck will go faster through cyberspace. Having the decks and their memory banks physically in his hands would help, but that's not a workable option right now. The deck might be scrapped already. He digs for hours, aware that time is scarce as it is, but this could be big.
He follows all the leads he can get from the data and goes back for everything Tactical has on Brock. Tactical's system is easy to find in the cyberspace, its data flow one of the few visible things after he filters out 99% of all traffic. A simple port scanner is his way in, a weakness he spied during his first day there. Once inside the system, he masks himself as an automated backup. After hours of searching files and logs, he finds something in Morgan's data. It's from the day Brock disappeared and it looks like a copy of a deck mem. The basic crypt layer has been peeled back already, but there are more encrypted files matching the date and time of the run, and Jensen sets on those.
It's like working a puzzle when you're in. Find a piece, rotate, put in place or throw away, repeat. Jensen's body is stiff because he forgets to move, thirst and hunger not even registering even though he recognizes them on an abstract level. The crypting is strong, but Jensen's been doing this all of his life. He gets it, the final piece snaps into place and a world opens up before his eyes. Jackpot.
Jensen makes a copy as he's skimming the documents, the LenCorp logo all over them: hardware specs, code fragments, time tables. Architecture. Address. He backs away from the file with more care than he's ever had, because now he can't get cocky.
He's not sure if Jared's there, but he speaks anyway. "I got it."
Jensen covers his tracks extra well, saves copies of the file in his usual caches. He flips out and the first thing he sees is Jared, sitting right across him.
He grins at Jared when he turns to look.
"Brock got into Chad's data. I know the location of the AI code, where they're compiling it. I'll need to get past the ICE but I know the code is right behind it. I can wipe it. Better yet, I have proof to give to TC."
"Good to hear, but is it going help us to stop running from Jeff?"
"There are code fragments in the files, maybe for adding it to the monster they have, but it's got Kane's fingerprints all over it."
"What do you mean?"
"Every hacker writes code in a certain way." Jared looks unimpressed. "Yeah, you'd think that code is code and there's only one way to do it, but there's not, especially if you're optimizing. The code in Chad's courier files has the same sticky fingerprints as the virus code in Kane's deck."
"But how do you know the virus is Chris's?"
"Well, it helps when those fingerprints are all over the Tactical system."
Jared grins back.
They need a strategy, a solid plan that includes clearing their names, stopping the bad guys and not getting them killed or jailed--not necessarily in that order. For disappearing, desert is the way to go, but Jared doesn't want to risk venturing out there. With LenCorp's eyes in the sky, they can scan the whole region for heat signatures that don't belong, and Jared can't get the kind of gear they'd need to hide, not in a day. They can't travel far either or they risk getting caught on camera. So they're doing this part in the city, disappearing into streams of people, the crammed parts providing anonymity and bodies and traffic to make things hard for the search party. The only thing they can't hide is Jensen's online connection, but that would be impossible wherever they go. So for now it's somewhere with clean exits, preferably several of them, and lots of place to hide.
Jared would be happy just to survive and not live the rest of his life being hunted like a mastermind criminal, but Jensen makes a good argument. If they let Chris escape, he can start the AI work again. LenCorp can't reproduce the work from scratch without Chris, but Chris will know what to do and who knows how he would use an AI. Jared noted that Chris might not ever finish it, but Jensen said that hacker brains don't work like that. He will finish his code if not to profit from it directly but to prove to himself that he can. Besides, Jared has a personal reason to bring Chris down.
The sun is setting behind the high towers and scrapers of Dallas downtown. The heat from the buildings dissipates into the darkening sky, producing a shimmering image of the farthest edge of city Jared can see. He has cameras set to monitor the street below, a face recog software running and set to ID anyone working for LenCorp in case they get too close. Motion detector sensors coupled with small fiber optic cameras in the hallway and roof warn him of activity. A high-power sniper scope sits on a low hardwood coffee table Jared moved next to the window.
Jensen did his magic with his deck and emptied them an apartment in the heart of the business district. They had picked it carefully because for what they're about to do, location is everything. Jared cracks the drapes covering the dark solar glass, picks up the sniper scope and targets the window 300 yards away. The apartment is empty. Chris is not home yet.
They can't afford to wait too long, hunted as they are.
Jared doesn't mind that Jensen's part of the plan requires Jensen to sit on his ass and leave the surveillance to Jared. Every time Jared was backing up Chad, he was bursting with nervous energy he channeled into all of his senses and being ready for anything. He wouldn't be able to just wait for Jensen to do his thing, manipulate bytes in the cold, abstract cyberspace. Jared needs to do something, so his contribution to the plan is himself. Watching Jensen's back because the second Jensen hits LenCorp's system, they will start a trace. Spying on Chris to see what he's doing, to stop him from escaping. He wants to unleash an unholy amount of violence on Chris for what he did to Chad, for pretending to be their friend. The desire to put his fist through Chris's face makes his knuckles itch, but for now, this watching and waiting is how the plan goes. He may get his shot, but protecting Jensen comes first.
Jensen expects Chris to come find him in the cyberspace when Jensen launches his attack against the ICE. Jared doesn't know how Jensen will do even half the things he said he'd have to do, but Jared trusts in Jensen's skills. Hell, this pull between them makes him trust Jensen in everything. Jared would feel more comfortable outside, prowling, surveying, but Jared's the last line of defense that they have if Jensen's signal is tracked to this apartment. And Jensen said the trace is just a matter of time.
The sun sets and the soft red light in the apartment fades, is replaced by the cold, dim glow from the computer screen. In the back of the room, Jensen sits stoically, trodes set ready on his forehead, his good eye closed. He's either in cyberspace or covertly observing Jared through the unbroken lens. As soon Jared has eyes on Chris, Jensen will go in. It's a risk, letting Chris be near a deck when they start, giving Jensen almost no headstart but they can't let Chris escape. Jared's going to make sure he doesn't.
He pulls the drape aside an inch, gently, gets comfortable and lifts up the scope.
Jared lasts all of two minutes without sneaking a glance at Jensen. The whole evening's been quiet, not awkward, but their plan has so much at stake for either of them to ease the mood by talking. Jensen's looking at him, this time with his good eye open, the green iris dark in the low light. Jared doesn't know what to say, just knows that when this is all over, he'll kiss Jensen and charm him into taking Jared along wherever he's going.
Even with one silver lens gone, Jensen's stare is unwavering. Jared can't tell what Jensen is thinking. He nods as a sign that he's ready, turns back to the window, lifts the scope.
"We've got movement." Jared shifts minutely, Jensen catching the activity only with the help of the infrared wavelengths on the remaining lens. "It's Chris. He just entered the apartment."
Jared turns back to look at Jensen, wide eyes flashing fear and uncertainty before the start of the fight, then settling on anger and determination. There's no doubt the plan is reckless, hinging on details out of their control, but Jensen has to take action now, because this is the best chance he has. He can't just let LenCorp have free rein, allow Chris to get away with Chad's murder and misleading Tigercast. The odds are not in their favor, but Jensen's glad to have Jared to back him up without demanding anything in return.
Jared lets the drape fall back, rises to his feet and straps on a black vest packed with surveillance and assault gear. Maybe it's selfishness or fear, but Jensen wants to keep Jared here, where he can keep an eye on him, protect him. However, they have a plan. Jared slips a pulse pistol into his thigh holster, pulls on a long-hem leather jacket to cover the holster. As a final touch, he sets a pair of assault kit lenses on his nose.
This is it, Jensen thinks. Fuck it.
He jumps up.
One hand clutching the deck, the other grabbing Jared's neck, Jensen pulls him close and kisses him. Jensen tastes salt, stubble prickling against his chin while he commits this very moment to memory.
When Jensen releases Jared, Jared follows his mouth for a second. Dimpled grin coming out when they separate.
"I'll see you soon," Jared says. He heads for the door.
"Count on it," Jensen replies and watches Jared slip out into the shadowed hallway. He locks the door, sets the bolts and engages the security system. The upside of swanky pads like this is that they come with built-in door shockers, no wirework required.
Jensen sits back down, pulls the deck to this lap, makes sure the trodes are set. Let's do this. Flips.
The cyberspace grid forms around him instantly.
Jensen's already situated himself two nodes outside the LenCorp LA building and its data cluster when he was waiting for Kane to appear in Jared's sights. He sends in a DDoS attack like the one he used to get in the first time and rides in. There is a lot of traffic between the LA building and LenCorp's other branch offices all over the world. His attack will hopefully push the load so high that it will leave the LenCorp net open for an attack from everybody for a moment before it starts to shut down the overloaded connections.
He locates the ICE, runs head first into it in his hurry. It's like a big cube in cyberspace, enveloping LenCorp's systems. Jensen slots in his ICE breaker. He has no idea if his plan will work, but this is his only chance. The program does a few pokes around the ICE, testing. The ICE shimmers where it's been hit and already the oily rainbow slick of the code is getting stronger, more opaque. The ICE breaker goes into the first cycle, poking the cube all over, using Jensen's slightly better tricks to get in, but the colors of the cube just get stronger.
A green spot appears next to the cube, closes in on Jensen. It moves faster than he can comprehend, shows up almost out of nowhere, an effect of the brain perceiving motion in the cyberspace. When it's next to him, Jensen can tell it's Kane. Bits of code reform to show him Kane's face. It's a cool effect, but completely without practical use. Cocky sonofabitch.
A distinct voice comes through the connection. Only on rare occasions does anyone send direct audio, and even then it's usually a computer modulated voice.
"Looks like you're having some troubles with my ICE, Jensen. Should've joined me when you had the chance because you're not gonna survive this." Kane sounds smug even in cyberspace.
"Well why didn't you kill me earlier?"
"We wanted to see if you could be persuaded to join TC. You're good, Jensen, too good to be killed off like that. So we wanted to get some use out of you. And there wouldn't have been a damn thing you could've done without me knowing about it. I monitored your every step, even let you get close to us to see if you could eyeball a pattern." A cowboy hat appears on Kane's coded head. "But you're as harmless as a kitten, aren't you?"
A sensorium unit without an ID was too difficult on obtain on their schedule, even if they could have covered the credit with Jensen's skills, so Jared's only connection to the apartment are the assault glasses. The feeds from the cameras Jared set to monitor the streets around the apartment are directed to the other lens, coming up monochromatic when Jared allows external vid on them. The motion sensor alerts will override everything, displayed in red because if Jensen's in danger, Jared wants to know. He has a phone, but using it will give away his location immediately, so it's reserved for extreme emergencies only.
Long strides take him closer and closer to Chris's building. The nerve-tingling anticipation that built while waiting for Chris to show is evaporating, letting the anger surface again. His first priority now is to stop Chris, alive if possible, but it won't matter much to him if Chris dies. They have enough evidence to clear their names. And Jared's not sure if, given the chance, he could stop himself from killing Chris.
The hustle and bustle of the streets is picking up as the sky goes darker. Red and blue neons push through the particle haze, replace sunlight, color the streets and the bases of scrapers. Food carts, hustlers and rats are setting up shop on the sidewalks when Jared rushes by them, keeping an eye on the cameras at Jensen's, taking the shortest route to Chris's building.
Jared sweeps his fingers over the shape of the gun when he gets a direct visual of the building and the front door. This will be fast so his only attempt at stealth are the glasses and the popped collar of his jacket. Pulling down a sonic grenade from his vest, Jared flicks off the safety and throws it to the lobby while he takes cover behind the tiled wall outside. It goes off with a thump, breaks the safety glass on the door. The leather protects Jared's face and torso, his dense-woven pants shucking off any errant shards.
Counting to three, Jared draws his pulse pistol and charges into the lobby. The dust is settling, a lone guard is unconscious on the floor among the debris, gun in hand. Jared waits a couple of seconds, detects no movement and heads towards the stairs. The elevator could be rigged in so many different ways that he doesn't want to risk it. 17 floors to climb. The first steps don't wind him at all.
Kane comes at him, Jensen's firewalls alerting him of an intruder attempting to get into his system. Jensen's blocks are holding, and he abandons watching the ICE breaker. It's automated to ramp up the attack cycles so Jensen doesn't have to keep an eye on it as he starts a trace that will lead him to Kane's hardline. Kane hasn't bothered with much stealth, letting Jensen find him easily, his arrogance working in Jensen's favor. Fighting Kane off as he launches his counterattack feels like his body is stuck in a gigantic ocean whirlpool, but his brain is wired, neurons sparking faster and faster, keeping his fingers hitting the keys of the deck, his thoughts directing him in the cyberspace.
He loses all track of time.
Jensen starts a jumper program that keeps moving him from node to node around the cubic shape of the ICE. Kane has to follow him, which is easy, but he loses time when he has to find Jensen after every jump. There are a limited number of unguarded nodes around the ICE, so Kane's back on him in less than a second, but it lets Jensen mount his offence better. The trace is fast because Jensen knows Kane's physical location, but it ends outside Kane's deck. Kane has also firewalls up, like Jensen, but these are built differently from his, something Jensen's met before when poking at LenCorp's systems.
If he weren't sure that Kane's a double agent, he'd be now.
The large cube shimmers in the background, flickering as the colors lose saturation before returning. The ICE breaker is doing something to throw it off, giving Jensen hope that the ICE is starting to take too much time to learn and adapt. An alert from his deck tells him that Kane's gone through one of his firewalls, and Jensen ignores the cube again.
It's been a long time since Jensen first started riding a deck, but he remembers those first times as clear as a day. Back then, he was relentless, determined to find a way to go around anything he faced. And what he hadn't been able to crack on the go, he came back to later. And he loved to use LenCorp's firewalls as a learning stick.
Now he recalls what he had done back then and targets Kane's firewalls. He needs to stop Kane before Kane comes through his defenses and trips Jensen's own personal ICE. It's lying beneath all his firewalls, the last line of defense against Kane rooting freely around in his deck and, more frighteningly, in his head. If the ICE is tripped, Jensen's connections will be all cut and he's out of the cyberspace for as long as his firewalls take to go back up. And if someone managed to break through them, it'd be insane to go back in without reprogramming them.
He's seen people who have gone right back in, people who have had their brains scrambled. They live screaming like they're trapped in an eternal nightmare, a virus going around in their brain in a loop. He wouldn't wish that to anyone.
Kane's firewalls are coming down now, in a pace that equals the failing of Jensen's own defenses. The outcome is down to who's faster on the deck. Jensen's going through ports, sniffing the firewalls for fastest routes, trying to force himself in or mask himself as something benign. Soon only one of his firewalls is left, and he hopes that Kane's more cocky than paranoid, that he's not hiding behind a barrage of firewalls a hundred deep because he can only go through one more before Kane triggers his last one.
When Jensen punches through Kane's next wall, the entire cyberspace grid erupts in silvery flashes.
Suddenly, Kane's gone and Jensen's view of the grid matrix is restored to normal. He must've tripped Kane's ICE and forced him out of the cyberspace. Jensen takes a deep breath, wants to take the trodes off for a second, but he's too far in to take the risk.
Deep breaths. In. Out. Eyes closed. Grip on the gun. Door behind his back. Heart rate dropping back down after the climb.
Jared's sweating, right hand shaking while he checks the camera feeds in the glasses. The cybernetic left hand is steady with the gun. Nothing unusual shows up on the feeds. Jensen's still safe. Deep, slow breaths. The door behind him will open to the hallway where Chris's apartment is. Jared digs a pocket in his vest for a roll of detcord. After making sure that he's got the blasting cap secured in another pocket, he sets his hand on the door handle.
With a quick shove, he's in the empty hallway, running to door 1802. It's the second door on his right, according to the building specs Jensen hacked into. Jared starts unrolling the detcord, working fast, sealing it on the edges of the door, intent on blowing the door clean off. No noisy clamoring with a battering ram, no attempts to kick it in, just a silent, surprising assault. He's finishing the hinges when the door opens.
It's Chris, a bag on his shoulder and a gun in his hand, obviously ditching his place and taking off. He isn't surprised, maybe he caught Jared on a cam before. Chris turns, points the gun at Jared.
Jared's caught off guard, but he acts fast. The roll of detcord drops to the floor as Jared turns to grab Chris's gun. He takes a double hold of Chris's wrists, lifts them up to get the muzzle away from him. Jared uses his weight to trap Chris between his bulk and the wall, bangs the gun against the door jamb. Chris doesn't let go, but the gun discharges with a sharp gunpowder bang. It's enough that Chris drops the gun, but gives Jared an elbow to the face.
Jared doesn't let go of Chris, blocks the next elbow directed at his head. He knees Chris in the stomach. Chris doubles over but punches Jared in the ribs as he goes. They wrestle and Jared eventually throws them back inside the apartment. He gets the upper hand then and uses his reach effectively. It only takes a single, well-placed punch to lay Chris on the floor. Jared follows, his left hand on Chris's throat. Something shorts in his brain, and Jared doesn't stop hitting Chris until he bleeds.
"Why did you kill him?" Jared asks, his field of vision narrowed, almost pulsing red.
Chris doesn't bother asking what Jared is talking about, a clear admission of guilt if Jared ever saw one. There's a crazy glow in Chris's eyes. "Because he was a loose end. And a way to get rid of your little lover boy."
Jared shakes Chris, angry at Chris's callousness. "Your 'loose end' was my best friend, you fucker. He always had my back! And you killed him like a fucking coward."
Another punch to Chris's ribs. Shouting. "Feeling like a mastermind now?"
Chris gives him a bloody, toothy grin. "Aww, Padalecki, trying to compensate for something? You taking it from Ackles? He fillin' in for Chad?"
Blood pulses in Jared's veins, throbs in his temples, rage bursting out. Jared grabs his gun from the thigh holster, holds it against Chris's head.
Jared's breaths are short, fast, heart pounding, finger tightening on the trigger. His vision flashes red.
For a moment Jared doesn't realize what is going on. He thinks maybe he shot Chris, blood spatter covering Chris and the floor. But it's not Chris. It's the motion sensor alarms back at the apartment where Jensen is. One of them has been tripped, and another alarm comes in just then. It's the one Jared set in the hallway, right outside the apartment. Jared uses voice control to bring up the camera feeds and sees a team in all black and with hi-tech guns outside the apartment.
Blood drains from Jared's face.
He can't waste anymore time here. Jared holsters his gun.
"Looks it's your lucky day, you fucking piece of shit," he snarls. Then he knocks Chris out cold and rushes out.
In the stairwell, Jared gets out his phone, dials a number he knows well. "Jeff? Got a pickup for you at 1700 Pacific, apartment 1802. It's Chris. Can't explain it now, but he killed Chad." Jared hangs up there, leaps down the stairs and runs to the street. He dials Jensen, but gets no answer.
The ICE breaker alerts Jensen. It has hit a trap Jensen programmed into his attack plan. So far the ICE has been taking in Jensen's magic tricks, learned the logic of Jensen's attacks. It's copied them into its neural networks so the ICE can block similar attacks in the future. Jensen is hoping that the ICE has been watching the tricks, focused on the magician's assistant while Jensen now does the real trick. If this doesn't work, the ICE breaker has only a few attack cycles left.
Jensen refocuses on the cube. It gleams in the cyberspace grid, colors terrifyingly strong, code flowing in layers that move in different directions. If this plan fails, LenCorp will have ICE stronger than anyone can crack. The AI might be gone if they take Kane out, but with just the ICE LenCorp will be safe from hackers for a long time. Until someone else has a whole new bag of tricks.
Jensen trips the routine that holds the trap. He's been teaching the LenCorp ICE new tricks, steadily getting more complicated, and the ICE has taken all this in, assessed that this is new and updated its neurals. It's sucked up all the knowledge from Jensen's program. If everything has lined up correctly, the ICE might have now left him a way in, the tricks assembled so that one minor port should now have become available. It was blocked when Jensen first tried it, but the reconfigured ICE might still be under the impression that it's secure.
There are viewers around the cube, maybe LenCorp's people, maybe other hackers, maybe even members of TC. Tigercast witnessing the carnage would make it easier to convince them later of what transpired. For now, the audience is just observing Jensen, Kane and the ICE, likely reluctant to get involved in a fight where they don't know the whos, hows or whys, and if there's a jail cell on the other side of the scuffle.
He moves around the cube, pinpoints the exact location of the port he needs. And dives in.
Jensen's jumping closer and closer to the cube, so close that it fills his entire field of vision. The colors are unlike he's ever seen in the cyberspace, vivid and shifting from one to another, the surface of the cube smooth and intact. Just as he fears he'll hit it, that the port won't be open for him, he slips in. The blinding colors are gone.
He's inside the LenCorp system.
Jensen inhales sharply, flexes his fingers on his deck. He sets to find the ICE module and erase it along with all the parts of the current neural network. Any copies of the ICE module will have to start learning from scratch if the neural network is wiped clean, anything it has gathered from Jensen and others will be gone. System reset.
LenCorp sends people after him, their hackers, while Jensen is doing his system maintenance, but they're too slow. There's more ICE, traditional and inviting, between Jensen and LenCorp's secrets, and Jensen idly wonders what he could find. If he could find evidence of them killing his parents, of other wrongdoings that could help bring them to justice and show the world what they're doing.
But he's running on half a firewall, and this is just the first battle. The ICE module looms ahead.
He evades the hackers and sets a program to rewrite the sectors where the ICE module was. The program is set to loop--the ICE will be irretrievable either because it has been rewritten or because the holo disks will flare up after they're unable keep up with the rewrites.
What he's rewriting on ICE module, says simply Winchester.
While he's getting out of the LenCorp's systems and covering his tracks, the outside world is starting to register. The high from the hack subsides, other senses come online. There's shouting outside the apartment, the door rattling in its frame. Jensen flips out, pulls the trodes off.
The door shocker has gone off, acrid smell from burnt flesh and fiber wafting inside the room. The quiet beeping from the motion detector alarm comes through Jared's computer.
LenCorp has tracked him down.
Jared insisted that Jensen shouldn't be unarmed, so there is a gun close to his deck. Jensen reaches for it, targets the door while backing away to the bedroom archway for cover. The door's being hit with a battering ram now, splinters breaking off and skittering across the floor. The bolts hold, but the door will give way soon.
Fuck. Jensen wishes Jared was there, that he could see Jared one more time before the end came, maybe kiss him to see those dimples again. His phone rings but it's yards away, next to where he dropped the deck, and he can't risk going for it because the door's almost busted.
It's the hinges that fail first. The door cracks and Jensen wastes no time shooting through the door. He tries to save ammunition, not shoot blindly. The door flies open and at least four men in full combat gear swarm in. This is the time to start shooting, and Jensen tries to aim at the body parts that are unprotected by Kevlar or helmet. They're shooting too, but he's well covered by the wall. He gets some shots in, but they come at him kamikaze style.
The first one who reaches him goes straight for the gun. Jensen fires. It's a direct hit to the guy's Kevlar vest, and there's nothing more he can do but sock the guy in the jaw. Everything gets blurry after that. His knuckles ache, shots are fired and someone screams. The guy in front of him punches him, but the next second the guy goes down like dead weight.
Silence settles after that. Jensen can't move.
"Jensen?" Jared's voice.
Jensen blinks once. Twice.
Jared's tall shape fills the doorway. Then it's in front of him. "Jensen?" Jared sounds frantic, worried.
That worry jolts him back to the moment. Or maybe it's Jared hands on his shoulders, shaking him. "I'm good."
"Yeah?" The worry disappears, a relieved smile takes over.
Jared gathers Jensen in his arms, like he needs to make sure Jensen is real. And Jensen knows the feeling.
"The alert came and I was so worried about you." Jared eases the hold a little. "You make it?"
"I did. The ICE's gone. Kane?" Jensen's not sure what he'd like to hear. It doesn't matter, though. Jared's solid against him, a smile twitching in the corners of his mouth.
"Knocked him out cold, called Jeff to pick him up. They'll probably be here soon." Jared sounds slightly apologetic, not too much, though.
This fight's over and they won. There will be more, but that's for later. "Doesn't matter anymore. We're good."
Jensen lets Jared kiss him, not worrying about anything else for a while.