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An Agent's Life

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Consciousness returns with the impact of Mack truck and the agony of limbs twisted in directions they were never meant to be in. Where was I? I cough a mouthful of blood onto the floor, where a thick layer of dust and metal shavings gobbles it hungrily. My breathing sounds hollow and loud. Did I blow my eardrums out again? No, it's echoing off of the walls. Where - oh, right.

With a grunt of pain I pull my hips around to their customary position, aligned with my shoulders, followed by my arm. The joints reseat themselves one by one, the mechanisms returning to their normal shapes and putting my limbs back together in the process. As each joint reassembles itself a surge of pain, like burning magnesium in a dark stadium floods my body, then fades just as swiftly. Soon, I'm standing on my own two feet once more and looking up at a fifty foot maintenance shaft. Pipes and flexible conduit cling to the walls like slime in a cave. How long was I out?

I flip back the cuff of my brown and black field uniform and peer at the display of my wrist computer, a compact device the size of two decks of playing cards that clings to the sleeve of my uniform. Poking at the neigh-unbreakable display with my forefinger I note that I was out for something like ten minutes. Mission time remaining: Four hours, twenty-nine minutes. Time to get my ass in gear and get out of this pit.

When I joined the Service they took my name (as the old song goes) and gave me a number in exchange. Special Agent 4125, at your service. Sort of. They didn't just take my name, their surgeons took as much of my mortality as they could, the better to get every last erg of work out of me while in the field. My bones were replaced with graphene smart matter; bend them, flex them, tie them in knots, drop a piano on me and they won't break. Same with my joints - memory metal ball-and-socket joints and bursa filled with non-Newtonian fluid replace just about every point of flexion in my body. To make sure my organics wouldn't come apart like overcooked drumsticks when (not 'if' - never 'if') something happened to me, they spun threads of Kevlar and Gore-Tex through my muscles and organs. More sacks of non-Newtonian fluid cover my vital organs, providing both electrical and kinetic insulation. Shoot me, hit me, zap me, I'll get back up again. Eventually. They didn't do anything about the pain. Drop the same piano on me and I'll feel every last splinter enter my skin right before the concussion knocks me senseless. At least they got one part of the stereotype right - my wrist computer may as well be a super spy watch. It's a hotline to the Service's gargantuan neural network computer installation and intelligent enough that I can ask it questions and get the right answers (most of the time). It has enough smarts on board for advanced pattern recognition and all but the most advanced cryptologic operations that might be needed on a field op.

The wiring conduits are attached to the walls of the maintenance shaft every few feet with steel straps that make perfect hand- and footholds. Say what you want about mad geniuses, they build their secret hideouts to code. It doesn't take me long to climb to just below the edge of the pit, where I pause for a moment and listen. The whirring and burbling of one of that maniac's security robots - the one that shoved me into the pit I'm presently escaping - tells me that it's about six feet away from the edge and headed my way. The burbling sound approaches the edge, pauses, then retreats. I swear, that damned thing sounds pleased with itself. It probably thinks that it got me and phoned home to its master to report the good news.

I scramble the last few feet upward onto the floor, right over the twin skid marks my boots left when the security robot barreled into me at 20 KPH and knocked me ass-over-tea kettle down to the bottom of the maintenance shaft. The security robot turns at the sound of my footsteps and charges again. At the same moment it charges I take a running start toward it, then turn into a cartwheel, two backflips and a backwards somersault over the head of the bastard. For a bit of poetic justice (and no small amount of personal satisfaction, which isn't going into my final report, of course), I kick the security droid in the back of the head with both feet with all my weight, tuck, and roll to a stop while the robot skids out of control, topples over the edge of the pit and lands with a faint crash at the very bottom a second later. There, fucker. See how you like it.

At the far end of the floor is a yellow-and-black striped lift and an oak bookshelf (of all things). One by one, I yank books from the shelf, riffle the pages, turn the books upside down and shake them a few times, peek down the bindings and behind the dust jackets, then toss them over my shoulder. Nothing, nothing, nothing... tucked into an old copy of _Silent Warfare_ as a bookmark is what I'm looking for: A piece of a battered IBM punchcard, blue ink on tan cardstock with a pattern of holes punched into it. Intelligence says that they think there is a sequence of nine punchcards that have to be entered into a card deck reader somewhere in this complex in the correct order to unlock the door to Elvin Atombender's lab.

Elvin Atombender. All of us in the Service know his name and reputation. He's a legend in certain intelligence circles, a computer scientist and hacker the likes of which come along once in every few generations. The Albert Enstein of AI, the Stephen Hawking of cryptography. Accepted to MIT at the age of twelve, cracked into the Homeland Security classified network at fifteen, full scholarship to Stanford to get his masters degree in Artificial Intelligence the same year. Rumor has it that DHS financed his stint at Stanford so that they could keep a measure of control over him and probably bring him under their aegis after graduation (and poke the NSA in the all-seeing eye at the same time). Then, and nobody's quite sure how, Atombender snapped. Maybe it was too much Red Bull, maybe it was the pressure of grad school at one of the most competitive schools in the country, maybe he just burned out. One of the better substantiated stories says that Atombender figured out how to build a true AI, a sapient piece of software that would run on as many nodes in the Stanford network as he could get access to, which was pretty much all of them. Right before it took off, something wrecked little Elvin, Jr., and along with it Atombender's sanity. Atombender disappeared after that, with scattered reports that he'd been spotted in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, New York City, London... pretty much every major city in the world. Nobody had any idea what he was up to.

Three days ago the USNORTHCOM nuclear control computers locked out their operators and, missile by missile, the US nuclear stockpile armed itself while new target coordinates were uploaded. Elvin Atombender took credit for the single greatest network compromise in the history of information security. A cursory investigation showed that the isolated and hardened computer networks had been compromised through the use of highly advanced robots that had physically penetrated the facilities, patched into the networks, and granted Atombender the access he needed to hold the world hostage. The intrusion robots also ruthlessly eliminated every human being and drone that came within ten meters, which Intel took as clues to what Atombender's real capabilities might be. Atombender's demands were simple: One trillion US dollars in cash and precious metals or he turns the planet into a charcoal briquet. While counter-terrorism negotiators tried to reason with Atombender the Service scoured the planet for the location of Atombender's lair and eventually smuggled me in. Where is it? How did I get in? I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. And then I'd have to kill myself because Service Counterintelligence would have a fate worse than death in store for me for telling you in the first place. Suffice it to say that getting in was relatively easy as mad scientists' lairs go. It's getting anywhere once you're in that's hard.

The world has six hours left on the clock before Elvin Atombender pushes the big red button. And here I am.

My reverie ends as I stuff the punchcard piece into a zippered pocket. What is it with mad scientists leaving vital clues hidden all over their lairs? You'd think that, on some level, they really want someone to figure out how to stop them. Not that I'm arguing, mind you. Time's wasting and I have... I check my wrist computer again... four hours and thirteen minutes to figure out how to fit all of the punch cards together, feed them into a reader of some kind (presumably - this could be a wild goose chase to distract intruders for all I know), and get into his lab to stop the countdown.

I kick the button labeled 'up' on the lift and head for the top of the library I'm in. There are two other security robots roaming around inside this room but they're easier to evade than the one that blindsided me earlier. Not that I'd let either of them stop me. The fate of the world's at stake and I'm not about to let down billions of people (I almost said 'innocent' but you and I both know that's not true) because of a little thing like getting zapped with a few high amperage volts of electricity. On my way out of the library I grab a potted plant sitting on an end table and dash it to the floor, on the off chance that Atombender hid another piece of keycard in the soil or beneath a leaf or something. No soap. Same with the endtable - I pick it up by its legs and swing it against the wall, where it breaks into three pieces with a satisfying crash. Nothing there, either. I shrug and jog through a steel security door into the standard issue supervillain's lair high-tech tunnel, complete with eerie looking sensors set into the ceiling every few feet. As I step into the elevator I make sure to flag one of them off, just in case Atombender's watching me turn his hideout upside-down while he's hiding in his data center.

You didn't get me last time. Or the time before that. Or the times before that. You might slow me down, but I'll stop you no matter what it takes.

Because I'm unkillable, and you're not.