Dalton lay on the ground panting, shifting glances between his discarded gun and the power-armoured thug stomping on his arm. Later he would reflect with pride on the way he largely ignored the massive gun pointing in his face, but at this moment he was squirming in terror and introspection was not at the top of his list of emotional states.

Dalton was good at cataloguing his emotional states; his last girlfriend had told him he spent too long thinking about them and not enough time feeling them … if she could see him now …

“You’re not as good as you think, Dalton,” the man grunted in a kind of hissing, angry mid-western accent. “You’re fast, and smart, but you lack any kind of … combat sense. And you’ve got tics, you make mistakes that are easy to read.” He waved his (massive) free arm in the general direction of the receding battle. “You’ll never make it at this. Sure, you’ll make a bit of money but you’re never gonna make the big leagues, and there’s no room here for small fry, you know that.” The gun didn’t waver.

“Then just shoot me already! You’re wasting both our time.” Dalton surprised himself with his bravery. “It’s not a movie, cut the soliloquoys and -”

The big dude kicked him, a stinging strike across the face with the sole of one powered boot. It stank of dirt and burnt things, but somehow the smell was stronger than the pain. “Shut up! We don’t have time for banter. Listen, you’re never gonna make money here but I’ve got a job for you where you can use these skills to make real money. You want real work or are you gonna keep hustling with your busted crew? You wanna be something?”

Dalton worked his lips in a way that probably looked amusing to the thug. He was confused. In this world instant execution was the norm, there was no bargaining or negotiating, let alone job offers. Best take the chance. “Um, sure … How can I contact you?”

“No problem, Dalton. We know where you live. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The man lifted his foot from Dalton’s stiffening arm and ran away, remarkably fleet for his size. Sighing, Dalton picked himself up and reached for his gun.

How did that man know his name?

The raid: Ground floor

They went in through the chocolate shop windows, a specialized explosive net taking the entire glass pane down in a flash and the two assault guys leaping straight in after, spraying bullets wildly. Dalton came in the second wave, their medic/comms guy on his right and a heavy weapons/explosive guy behind them. There were three people in the shop but they went down before Dalton hit the room, and their corpses were already still by the time he got to the inner door. Here they had a short hallway, exactly according to the plans, and now Dalton was first, the two assault guys setting up a cordon at the far door so he could dive through. As promised the door was unlocked so he just charged through, firing from the hip into the room and hitting the right hand wall between the cabinet and the sink as planned. From here they were in the museum proper, and as expected the first of the plain clothes guards was in this room, pistol out, in cover behind the statue on the left of the door.

From Dalton’s perspective in the middle of the room the statue was no cover at all, and the guard was still adjusting his position to take account of Dalton’s rush. Dalton fired first, a slightly uncontrolled fusillade that chewed up the statue and tore the man apart in a cloud of blood. When you’re pretending to be a museum invigilator you can’t wear armour, so you have to shoot first. This chump didn’t.

There were three customers screaming in the room, trying to hide behind some glass installations in the opposite corner. Dalton gunned them down as the rest of his crew ran through and hit the main room. The glass didn’t protect them.

The main room was some kind of photography exhibition, a maze of cardboard walls with pictures hanging, all passing by in a blur as they sought out targets and put them down. Dalton checked his watch as they got through the third turn, but he didn’t have to, because as they headed for the stairs the Controller spoke in their earphones. “Too slow, one target missed. Get up fast before the guards assemble a barricade. Make time.”

They hit the stairs.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The thug lived up to his word, and next morning Dalton found himself having breakfast with a man who looked remarkably like the soldier he had met yesterday. They were in Tiffany‘s, the greasy spoon cafe across the road from Dalton’s flat, and the man had promised to pay so Dalton was enjoying Tiffany‘s best pancake pile, with gene-engineered maple syrup and (allegedly) real cream. There was a lot of coffee.

“You read the news article I sent you?”

“Yeah,” Dalton stuttered through a mouthful of steaming batter. “Not pretty.” Words were difficult, mostly because of the pancake but also because the situation he’d stumbled into when he moved to America was kind of crazy. Yesterday the Red Tide had hit a football stadium in Spokane, killing a couple of hundred people before they were taken down. The Red Tide had soon claimed responsibility, and promised more attacks to come.

The Red Tide: since the collapse all politics in America had gone local, but the Red Tide had gone national. The USA had fragmented into a bunch of different countries, made up of groups of states or single states that decided they were better off going it alone. Communal violence, purges, sometimes genocide, had accompanied the crash, but one group had risen above it all to fill the power vacuum at the national level: The Red Tide, a violent native American liberation movement that could lay claim to members from as far afield as New Mexico and New England, Seattle and Miami. While the past colonial powers squabbled over petty local political victories the Red Tide had consolidated nationally, formed a national movement, and armed itself. Now it was moving to take back what had always been its members rights, and it had been stunningly successful in the past few years. Fragmented local governments couldn’t cooperate to defeat it so it had scored striking victories, and recently declared its goal of establishing a sovereign native territory in America. People had scoffed, but since the stadium attack the laughter had died down. People were starting to realize something new was here.

Dalton shrugged. “Nothing I can do about that. National politics.” He liked to pride himself on being a man of few words.

“Actually Dalton there is something you can do about it. A lot. And we’ll pay a lot. Are you interested?”

Dalton finished his pancake, pretending to maintain some calm. Dalton really needed money. He didn’t care at all about America’s stupid politics, but like every 20 year old he saw himself going places, and like everyone in America he understood that money was the ticket to those places. “I am. Sure. Yes. Tell me more.”

The man reached across the table and gently, but firmly, and decidedly threateningly, grabbed the front of Dalton’s t-shirt. “I can tell you more, Dalton, but I don’t tell you nothing if you don’t agree to help us. You understand? I can’t have you leaving here and blabbing to your friends about this. You agree to work for me and you’re mine, you get that?”

Dalton coughed and looked around nervously. The waitress was unsurprisingly absent, and there were no customers. A car parked outside looked like it was suspiciously full of ugly men. This man was decidedly ugly. He guessed that there were going to be no hints forthcoming, and he needed the money. “Is it gonna be dangerous?” He asked meekly.

“For you? No.” The man gave a wicked little grin that suggested it would be very, very dangerous for someone.

So long as it wasn’t Dalton. “Sure.”

The man let go, and the waitress miraculously reappeared with coffee. “A good decision Dalton, very wise. Let me tell you a story …”

The Raid: Exhibition Hall

This museum had its masterpieces on the second level. Everyone knew the layout, but the big problem was the guards. As a state institution the museum had the right to armed guards, who were at the back of the main exhibition hall. This hall was a labyrinth of small rooms and installations, with the guards likely scattered throughout the chambers, so they could hope to get to the doors before the guards assembled. It was a quiet time of day but this mission was planned for a class visit from a high school named after a famous killer of Indians[1], which would be likely spread around the exhibition hall. Their job was to kill them all and the guards.

The first guard was at the top of the stairs, firing down at them as they mounted the stairs. He scored a couple of hits on Spider, who went down and stayed down. Dalton was coming in second but had enough time to think: he took what cover he could and fired up into the doorway, driving the man back. The other assault squaddie, Snake, drifted across the stairwell, firing as he went, and crouched behind a statue. They waited. Spider was gone.

“Time running out. Move.” The controller’s voice sounded in their ears. Dalton had a translation bot installed but the language they were using, Sioux, was not available on most translation software and the open source chip he was using was pretty poor. He knew some of the other soldiers were not fluent Sioux speakers – none of his team were Sioux, in fact – but they at least knew some, and his chipset was essential. He doubted any of them realized it was a chipset though. The controller, however, was fluent in several Indigenous languages. He needed to be careful of the controller. “Ghost, get up and take that man.”

He grunted. “Sure boss.” He moved, firing as he went up, drifting right and left. The guard tried to spring him on the way out but moved to soon and Dalton hit him, four or five times. Dalton fell through into the first chamber of the exhibition hall, firing off the last of his magazine as he did. He didn’t have to call backup; Snake and the other two, Grass and Doc, were through before he had come to a stop. They were in the hall.

The students were screaming a lot and running, pretty hard to find. They took their time stalking and killing, probably after the event some Red Tide propagandist might say they were like hunters of old but cornering a pimply fifteen year old near a vending machine and shooting him full of lead is not what hunters do, it’s the work of an entirely different sort of personality. It didn’t phase Dalton.

The Controller gave his orders in Sioux, but he had a strange and alarming habit of giving advice in English. Dalton couldn’t figure out why, but as they rampaged through the Exhibition Hall the Controller berated them in Sioux and advised them in English. The Sioux came through Dalton’s chipset in a kind of rough and stupid patois, broken by the vicissitudes of digital translation, but the advice came as cute and abrupt information.

“Ghost-san, you should crouch more! Let’s enjoy crouching together!”

“Ghost-san, standing tall is dangerous. Let’s enjoy belly movement! 1, 2, 3 drop!!”

“Ghost-san, your back is exposed! I love your back, don’t get it shot! Guard that back!”

“Senpai says run faster!”

“Ghost-san always drops his right elbow and moves right! That’s a bad pattern! Let’s make exciting new moves!”

This strange didactic manner confused Dalton, but he moved through regardless, killing high school students. Near the end of the Exhibition Hall was a big chamber with a huge sculptural installation. The guards were in cover at the rear, firing on them as they entered. There was no way to the back of the building except through the guards. Dalton hit the room second, and prepared to make a break for cover.

Mission Statement

They had drunk a lot of coffee. The man was talking. His card was on the table. It said John Doe, Central Intelligence Agency (Des Moines).

“Did you know there’s a schism in the Red Tide? No, most people don’t.” After a lot of coffee, John Doe was big into monologues. Dalton just listened, didn’t even get a chance to nod or move his face before John Doe assumed his answer. “Apparently lots of these redskins don’t like killing people, they want to have some other kind of revolution where people don’t die. Haha. So we found a member of one of their assault crews who’s big on peace, and also pretty serious about heroin. It’s a good mix. Now he’s giving us the info we need, and he does what we ask provided he’s stoned.

“Thing is, he’s a member of one of their assault crews. They’ve got a bunch of missions under planning but we don’t know where. But we found out some things from this guy. Main thing we found out is how they train.

“They train virtually. They’ve set up a system of private servers for an old first person shooter called Call of Duty. This private server, it has maps of all the places they’re planning to hit, and tactics for how they’re gonna do it. The trusted team members log on every couple of days and go through assault scenarios, so when they hit the target they don’t just know the map – they’ve been through it in person, they know it right down to the lighting. Apparently this Call of Duty system is old but that means it has really good maps, a real network, it’s an industry standard so you can access maps for almost any public building.

“Fucking game designers, eh? Traitors, you ask me.

“Thing is, we’re not so good at computer games. But we’ve got some good hackers. What we need to know is where the server is, so we can get our hackers to it, and maybe get to its physical location and grab the backups. But to do that we need someone in the system, drawing a trace. And they need to be continuously logged in. They need to be good enough that they can stay alive for the couple of minutes we need to run a trace.

“The plan is you go in using our turncoat’s account, which is still trusted. You stay alive in there long enough to run a trace, and you leave without anyone knowing you’re an intruder. Then we go in and get their server, either virtually or physically, and we have the full list of their targets plus hopefully the IP addresses of all their members. All you need to do is stay alive in their virtual world. So it’s completely safe for you, and we’ll pay you a fat load. Then you clear out of America and no one ever knows you stopped the Red Tide. King fucking Canute. What do you say?”

He didn’t wait for an answer.

“Good, thought you’d agree. All the activists, they speak in Sioux, because they’re crazy, but it’s been a real problem up till now. We’ve designed a chipset that translates to and from Sioux but it’s not so great so don’t talk much, okay.” He laughed. “Guess that’s not a problem. Also they like to use Kinect Sensory systems, so you’ll feel a bit of physical effort – a bit of pain from being hit, a bit of dizziness or confusion where it gets busy, but nothing dangerous. We’ve set up a training session for this afternoon. You go in tomorrow, okay? No time to waste.

“By the way, this turncoat. His online name is Ghost. So you’ll be going in as Ghost. Good luck.”

The Raid: Timing

They hit the back of the Exhibition Hall. The installation was a large room full of wax statues of zombies, some kind of commentary on modern society and consumerism. The three armed guards were clustered behind the entrance to the Museum Shop, firing light weapons into the room. The team fired back, chips of wax flying as they fired past and through statues. They moved fast and forward, taking cover behind statues.

“Ghost-san! Always dropping that right elbow and moving right! Too predictable!”

The Controller’s language was too weird. Dalton was sure he’d heard it before somewhere but he was kind of distracted.

Screaming from behind the desk, someone hit. The other two fell back. The Museum shop was full of floating feathers and dust kicked up from all the stuffed toys they had shot. One guard was hiding behind the stuffed toys, firing madly. They wasted him when the magazine clicked empty, but number three had run away somewhere. Beyond was the walkway to the shopping centre.

“Timing is too slow.” The controller spoke. “Police will arrive at the shopping centre in two minutes. This is not a suicide mission. Push forward.”

They nodded agreement. The controller spoke again.

“Ghost-san! Hold gun lower before firing, recoil pulls up and right! Let’s ensure a solid shooting base!”

This incongruity of styles was really beginning to bother Ghost. The Controller spoke again. “Ghost, there is a group of academics on the third level. You go and kill them. Two are famous historians. The rest of the team enter the shopping mall and make your escape.”

Was this a test of Ghost’s suicide drive? It didn’t matter, this wasn’t a real mission. Going up would keep him alive longer. “Okay. Good luck comrades.” He assumed the chipset could handle that. They parted. Everyone was inscrutable and identical in their combat armour, so their leave-taking was perfunctory. Ghost headed up the stairs.

Why we fight

“You’ve been doing the Call of Duty combat circuit for a year now Dalton, you’re good but you don’t have the touch.” John Doe was doing the arrogant boss act now. “We also know that you did the hit on Wells Fargo Insurance two months ago. We don’t know who the solos were but we know you ran cyber-shadowing duties, you left a trace. You really need a better rig.”

Dalton understood now why they’d chosen him. He was looking at a world of trouble. He’d come to the USA to make his fortune because legend had it that after the crash the US had a terrible security system and robbery was easy in cyberspace. He thought he’d got away with a few jobs. So long as this guy didn’t know about Rapid City Nuclear Systems …

“Of course, Rapid City Nuclear Systems was a plant. None of that data is real. But you really gave yourself away there. You really need to improve your hacking if you’re gonna make it in this world.”

Ghost tried to look nonchalant, but he didn’t like where this was going. John Doe was leaning forward, his ugly brick-like face contorted into what probably resembled rage to a man with so much cyberware he was barely capable of real human expression. “Personally I think your kind should just be flatlined, you know? Bang! Another coward in the ditch.” He looked around conspiratorially. “In the New America that sort of thing’s okay, you know?” Sat back. “Governor was going to tick the box for me to deal with you properly, until this Red Tide rose. We don’t have much use for second rate hackers but right now we’ve got a big use for second rate Call of Duty players. So here’s the deal.

“You succeed in this mission, we let you go with a fat wad of cash, you vacate the Iowa Free State and get out of America. You fail and I take great personal pleasure in flatlining you. Great. Personal. Pleasure.”

He grinned. “Got it?”

Ghost nodded, flushed and sweating. “Got it.”

The Raid: A kind of recognition

He ghosted up the stairs. The controller spoke in his ear.

“Ghost-san always charges into a room. Wisdom arises from restraint! Try pausing!”

The top of the stairs opened into a small room. Dalton charged into the room, crouched low and moving fast. Someone fired at him but he picked them off. A last guard, unexpected by everyone. He hit the wall next to the archway leading into the next room. Where were the academics?

“Ghost-san! Always on the right side of the door! Your competitor will shoot through once they understand your patterns!”

Dalton sagged against the wall. Why did the controller care about his repetitive patterns? No one at the target zone was going to know about his previous history of fighting. And why did he always give his assessments in stupid weird English, but his orders in Sioux that got manged in translation?

It was deadly silent up here. Something was nagging at Dalton’s memory, a game a long time ago with a friend. He ducked around the corner and ran down the hallway to the cover of a vending machine.

“Ghost-san! Every time you run down the right hand side of the corridor. Let’s enjoy creative fighting together! Move left!”

Dalton thought “fuck it!” and moved left to hit an uncovered area. Bullets shattered the air around him, hitting the wall and glass above him. He dived but he’d been a fraction slow and the bullets hit his target area. Fuck! He’d been led into a trap by the controller’s instructions! What was that? He rolled back into the space he’d vacated, firing madly as he did so.

Then he realized: the manic English was not the controller, it was an Analysis Bot. Software that studied patterns of behavior in combatants. That software was illegal in all professional games, so Dalton and his friends never used it, but a year ago in casual gaming he’d noticed it. All Analysis Bots had a database of existing players loaded up, and they compared the players they were analyzing against the database to get ideas and advice.

The controller was using an Analysis Bot to give advice to his soldiers. But the Bot had identified Dalton’s combat profile from his history as a gamer, and the controller had realized he was an imposter on this account. He’d brought Dalton up here to kill him.

The Bot, of course, was ignorant of all of this.

“Ghost-san, good work! You broke a pattern!”

Too right! Dalton ducked back the way he’d come, and into a doorway. He smashed the window to the right of the door and hurled a grenade out into the hallway, then ducked and ran to an inner door. This door opened into a narrow, dark corridor, parallel to the main corridor. Something blew up back where the grenade was, but Dalton was running. There were no schematics – this was some kind of hidden level invented just for him. He ducked left into a big room, bizarrely an abattoir, completely different to the room he had left. Robot-like figures worked on screaming, dying cows and pigs. In the far corner a hulking shadow fired at him.

He ducked and dived. The shadow was big.

“Ghost-san, faster than usual! Adrenaline can – ”

The chirpy bot-voice cut off. Someone had noticed he understood. He fired a burst and cut left towards a large freezer. The big figure was moving towards him, firing as it went. He ducked behind a twitching cow corpse and opened a new comms channel. “John Doe are you in yet? I have trouble.”

A brief second that felt like an eternity. He fired over the cow for good luck.

“I don’t care about your trouble. Stay alive. We’re very close.”

The huge figure hit the cow at a run. It had come much faster than he expected. It was bigger than he expected, some kind of gleaming red power armour with a rifle in one hand and an insane chain saw in the other. He fell back, shooting madly, but the thing’s armour was immune to his assault rifle. It picked him up and hurled him across the room, into a block of ice. The kinect system sent twinges of pain up his back, nothing serious. He fired again but the thing just kept coming. It was wearing power armour, so he couldn’t see anything about it – no eyes to look into and plead for mercy. Just red death. He ducked as the chain saw cut into the ground with a huge burring roar. Rolled away and fired again. No luck.

“John Doe, it knows I’m here. Get in here, do something!”

The thing grabbed him with its other hand, lightning fast, a huge clawed glove getting him by the neck and raising him above the ground. Electricity flowed, his body twitched. In the confusion Dalton recognized ICE, software to hold him captive and unable to exit while the system traced him back to the source. He had been uncovered. Red Tide warriors were more than he had expected or been led to believe.

“Got it. Get out!”

Ghost

Fortunately for Dalton, the Red Tide’s local troops were further away than John Doe’s team, and he was able to get away before they mobilized to his apartment, where they met John Doe and some of his friends. In the ensuing battle someone leveled the block, but Dalton was out and safe so he didn’t pay it much attention. They also found the location of the server, and although some kind of failsafe physically destroyed the server their hackers got there first and they were able to get both a list of targets and a couple of names. For his couple of minutes of Call of Duty success Dalton got a lot of money, and a new sense of humility.

He left America, aware that he had drawn a lot of heat.

He left America with a newfound awareness of his vulnerabilities. Not a great hacker, he realized, easily caught by second rate governments like John Doe’s. That was going to change. He devoted himself – and John Doe’s money – to learning better techniques, getting better decks.

Two years later, he arrived in New Horizon, polished and ready for the big time.

He never looked back. Except for one thing: he chose a street name that suited him.

Ghost.

[This short story was inspired by a news article a friend showed me about the Paris terrorists using Call of Duty or some similar game to communicate their plans. Cunning! So I imagined how this might work in the future. I swapped Islamic terrorists for Native Americans because this is the future, and an American connection ties Ghost to our group through the people he was involved with or enemies with in our first session.

I like cyberpunk histories!]

fn1: Hard to believe you say? Iron arse himself has a school district named after him

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