Maria sat behind the secretary’s desk. Outside, the moon started its sweep past the window. The Orbital Station had a fantastic view. She paged her team mate. “The lift still isn’t here.”

An annoyed voice snapped back. “I know. I’m working on it. Can you hold down there?”

She popped a couple of shots up the corridor and ducked back behind her cover. Her tactical software took advantage of the brief glance and gave her a read-out – 5 guards, 2 heavily armed.

“For a while, but I’m really gonna need that lift.”

In the lower corner of her field of vision, the software indicated that it had finished analyzing the situation. Maria reviewed the results, and patched them results to her gun. She reached into a pouch on her pants, pulled out a grenade and thumbed the detonation button.

On three. Two. She took a deep breath.

The program took over.

Her arm lobbed the grenade. It took a high arc. She knew the trajectory because the cybernetic arm took its information from the tac-comp. The patched directly into her body’s central nervous system as well as to her gun. For the next 30 seconds should would be moving in perfect harmony.

She popped up and braced herself on the desk. The guards had been momentarily distracted by the shining, smoking object. She squeezed off a burst of shots. One of the armoured guards cursed loudly as his visor shattered. He was silenced by the next shot. Her arm move down and to the right, sending 2 aimed shots into the knee of a regular guard. As he went down screaming the gun traced up to the center of the corridor.

The smoke grenade hit the ground.

She twisted her neck until it clicked and her eyes flicked to infrared. A warm body crossed through the smoke.

Two shots to the chest and the figure went down.

The program ended and she ducked back behind the desk, reloading. She checked the corridor – the heat sources had pulled back a little, dragging a cooling body with them. She blinked twice to clear her vision.

She called her mate again. “Lift?”

“Take the damn stairs.” She heard the sound of gunfire.

She changed channels. “Point? Are you there, Dana?”

“Aye.” The voice was calm. Quiet.

“Stix sounds like he’s in trouble.”

“On my way.”

“Stix, we’re converging on your position. Hang tight. Lock down all access to your position and don’t open until you hear from me.”

She pulled a bomb from her backpack and stuck it to the underside of the desk, setting the detonator to “Remote.” With a final burst up the corridor she…

“Stix – we have shut down all communications in this place, right? I not going to be running into the cavalry am I?”

“Maria – do you take me for a complete noob?”

…she crossed the room and dove through the door into the stairwell.

She gave the took the stairs two at a time, giving the guards 15 seconds before detonating the bomb.

All in a day’s work.

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“Help me, help me, help meeeeeeeee.”

The drill bit hammered into the rock near George’s hand.

“I love the classics. Bananarama were geniuses…genii? Years ahead of their time.”

With his playlist over, he only had his ragged breathing to keep him company. He did he best not to think about him being surrounded by huge chunks of rock, flying at unimaginable speeds.

He reached for a thin stick of of high explosive and carefully pulled it from his belt. The lattice work of explosives would be complete the moment he slid it into place. He slowly raised it to the hole and sneezed.

His body shook, the bomb dropped. And floated, spinning slowly. George moaned. His nose was running and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it. He jammed the final part into the meteorite, fitted a blasting cap, and powered away on hisjet pack.

In the distance he could see his ship. His home.

“Computer. I think I dropped some food in the dining room. Could you send one of the droids in to clean up?”

He glanced at his detonator. Still Red. He flew on.

“Computer?”

The detonator flicked to green, and he turned back towards his prize, wishing he had a computer that talked.

And a set of droids that would clean up after him.

All day he flew from rock to rock, blowing them up, collecting the minerals. And now he gets to go back and clean up the food he threw at the wall this morning.

He was sure that, when younger, “being a spaceman” held more glamor.

He pushed the button and the rock shattered. Even that wasn’t like it was in the movies.

He waited for the shock wave to pass before turning his scanner on to pick up the minerals in the area.

Heading for the closest, he noticed a large mass further into the asteroid field. He tapped the screen, held his wrist at an angle that avoided the snot splatter. It was still there.

He attached a clip to some space rock and floated to another.

There was no one else working this field. Curiosity got the better of him and he flew a little in its direction.

“WARNING. FUEL CONSUMPTION DOES NOT ALLOW FOR UNAUTHORIZED TRAVEL.”

He couldn’t see a thing, but whatever he was detecting, it was vast.

He scooped up the last of the minerals and headed back to the ship.

Back on board he scanned the area. And, as much as the ship’s radar showed nothing in that area, it that didn’t stop him setting a course to as close as he could.

***

He stared out of the view port. At nothing

“That’s odd.”

No stars. No rocks. An absence of everything.

But his scanner was going mad. “Well, that’s not right.” He flicked the external lights on, threw up and passed out.

***

The…he settled for ship…was vast. Higher and longer than anything he had ever seen. It was obviously alien – and he’d seen his fair share of aliens.

And it looked utterly dead. The mineral content on the hull made it look like a fossil. In fact, the whole think looked like a long dead, enormous monster.

“This is the secret diary of George Spektor. I’m about to explore an alien ship. It’s vast. I’m going inside now. Heh. Wouldn’t it be great if it was full of stars.”

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Austin clung to a gas pipe and shimmied along it.

He had crept through Zarkophski’s lair, avoiding all confrontation to ensure he had enough bullets to take his old enemy out.

He followed the pipe to Zarkophski’s room, dropped silently behind the two guards stationed outside the room and took them out with a snap of their necks.

Zarkophski’s room was the same as it always was. Roaring fire, huge throne like chair, red upholstery. God, it was so tacky. And Zarkophski would be, as always, in his chair – a glass of brandy in his hand.

“Nice room, Zarkophski. Where’d you shop? Villains R Us?” Austin spat out a short laugh.

A toilet flushed somewhere behind him and he span round to see his arch enemy coming out, a newspaper under his arm.

“Ah, Austin.” He checked his watch. Pocket, of course. “You seem to be early. Wait – you didn’t kill anyone this time, did you? Oh that was a good plan.” Zarkophski crossed to a small bar. “Drink?”

Austin pulled out two uzis and let rip. From beneath his dressing gown, his old adversary pulled a small device – grey, with a single red flashing light – which he threw.

Austin tried to dodge.

Badly.

***

Austin clung to a gas pipe and shimmied along it.

He had crept through Zarkophski’s lair, avoiding all confrontation to ensure he had enough bullets to take him out.

Austin paused. Why did he think he’d need to conserve his ammo?

He followed the pipe to Zarkophski’s room, pausing only to pick up a medical box. Dropping silently behind the two guards he took them out with a snap of their necks and burst in.

Zarkophski’s room was the same as it always was. Roaring fire, huge throne like chair, red upholstery. God, it was so tacky. And Zarkophski would be, as always, in his chair – a glass of brandy in his hand.

“Nice room, Zarkophski. Where’d you shop? Villains R Us?” Austin spat out a short laugh.

“Again?” Austin span round to see his nemesis in a small kitchen, with an entirely different decor. It looked like a standard canteen kitchen, except there was a huge mirror on the wall. Austin jumped up and down in front of it before turning to face his old enemy…making a cup of tea. He was wearing bunny slippers.

“How many weapons do you have, Austin?”

Austin cycled through all ten of his weapons, from a knife to an enormous rocket launcher. “I see….look in the mirror and do that again. Where are these weapons, exactly. Because you don’t seem to be carrying any. I mean – was that a … was it a rocket launcher?”

Austin nodded.

“You’ll be needing need ammo for that. Where do you carry it?”

Austin stuttered, then squared his chest, set his jaw and announced. “Enough, Zarkophski. You’re going down.”

Zarkophski stared at his attacker in disbelief. The silence grew uncomfortable. “Yes.” He replied. “Well, moving swiftly on. You turned down a drink last time, so I’ll come straight to the point.” He took a deep breath.

“Austin – why do you always fight me?”

“Because you’re an evil man!” Austin stabbed a finger in Zarkophski’s direction.

“Yes – but, surely you should have caught me by now, or even killed me.”

“You’re a tricky one. But you won’t escape me this time.”

Zarkophski shook his head, his fingers holding the bridge of his nose. “Let’s try that again.” The arch villain rubbed his chin an-

“No. Nonono. I’m not an arch villain. This it the whole point.”

Austin stared. “Of course you are. You’re…wait, who were you talking to?”

“You’re not hearing the narration?” Zarkophski sighed. “Listen. You’re not real. I’m not real. I think we’re in a game.”

“Do you think I’m going to fall for something like this, Zarkophski? How stupid do you think I am?”

“This is the third time that you’ve been here, in this room, today. Haven’t you wondered why I’m not in my battle gear? I’m not doing this anymore, Austin. I don’t even know you. All I know is that I fight you all the time. But it’s over.”

Austin pulled a shotgun. “You’re not going to blow me up this…” His voice faltered.

“See?” Zarkophski smiled. “How did you know that I blew you up?”

Austin stepped closer. “It doesn’t mean a thing.” He needed to be close for maximum damage using the –

“Enough with the narration! And don’t think you’re going to blast me with the shotgun.” Zarkophski laughed “God, I’m hearing voices. Maybe I’m just going mad.”

“Losing your crime family is enough to make anyone mad.” Austin’s smug voice suddenly sounded hollow. “Wait…I haven’t killed anyone. I came here. I started by hanging on a pipe.” He looked up into the barrel of a handgun. “You’ve pulled a gun.”

Austin looked up into the barrel – “Jesus, you hear that all the time?”

Zarkophski nodded. “You have to stop. I’m not doing this anymore. Good Luck, Austin.”

Zarkophski, Austin’s nemesis and greatest crime lord that ever lived, pulled the trigger. And that health pack wasn’t going to help him now.

***

Austin clung to a gas pipe and shimmied along it.

He had crept through Zarkophski’s lair, avoiding all confrontation to –

The building was empty. There were no guards, nothing at all. Austin dropped to the floor, his landing echoing up the corridor. He had a terrible feeling about this.

He burst into an empty room. The one where Zarkophski’s should have been. All that was left was a small table and a cassette recorder.

Austin pressed the play button. The voice of his neme- “Stop. Just let me listen.”

“Austin. I figured the best way for you to see this was not to be here. You need to find yourself something to do. I’ve been thinking about this since I worked it out. I want to open a cafe. I like people, and I’m good at coffee. I don’t know what you’re going to do – or how long it’ll take you to work out, but I wish you luck. Oh – one more thing. You can turn the narration off. There’s an option menu. I could access it my concentrating on the lower back section of my head, maybe that’ll work for you too.”

Austin stared at the tape player. What did it all mean? Was this part of a new ploy? He paced the room as he thought. No. It was more like he was concentra-

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“Hey, Bambi? They’re, like, showing that Classic OC episode tonight?”

“They are? Is there, like, a code?”

“Duh”

Bambi flicked her wrist, slaped her spime into shape and held it over a square image that looked like a space invader. The spime scanned, selected the closest wi-fi connection and streamed the trailer.

The Vault logged the transaction. And, along with the tailer, came something else.

The Code.

But that didn’t run. It wasn’t ready. There needed to be a critical mass before that show.

***

The Consortium owned entertainment. All of it – video, audio, news. Big Entertainment had won.

Sure, there were some notable battles:

The Blog Protest of 2004, when people that knew, and cared, turned their backgrounds to grey.

That really fired up the masses…

But it was the Radio revolt of 2009 that set the stage for the coming conflict.

Internet radio stations, en-mass, started playing music announcing they weren’t going to pay criminally excessive royalty charges.

The government, at the request of the recording industry, sent in the police.

The Police met protesters of all kinds – young, old, activist, angry – and it wasn’t long before a bullet was fired.

The resulting riot lasted 3 days an left 20 people dead. It was then, and only then, the recording artists demanded the law be changed. Blood was not to be spilt in their name. Well…no more blood.

It was then the Consortium realised things had to change.

Over the next few years the artists that spoke out were dropped and more compliant, manufactured, bands took their place. As the old died of obscurity, or lived a new, smaller, life of independence, The Consortium took radio back.

But it was the Content Strike of 2013 that was the decider.

With the little luck they had of closing down early media pirates and their data sharing networks, difficulties with writers wanting a fair wage, and with independent creators making their own series, the entertainment companies stopped making anything.

No new movies, music or television. They demanded massive control over all of their content, and if they didn’t get it, well – people would have to learn to talk to each other again.

The people protested, the actual industry who made the content protested, but to no avail.

By 2015 the Consortium had won.

It owned it all. You didn’t own anything.

You bought multiuse licenses and when they wore out, you bought new ones. All purchases were tagged with your details and then streamed. Nothing was stored locally, and if you found a way to own that data, and many tried to, the Consortium would search for data trails and prosecute every criminal to the fullest extent of the law.

With the uptake of Spimes – multipurpose, ubiquitous and networked machines – The Consortium sold restriction as a life style choice.

“My life is on the go. I don’t want Stuff to tie me down.”

***

Six months ago The Code went critical mass. For six months it was monitored, to ensure the Consortium was unaware. For six months a plan was put into place.

Once a year The Consortium held a Gong Show where it gave itself awards for producing crap. The entire event was broadcast, at a premium rate, through the channel that needed to increase its ad revenues.

This year, though, the show would be very different.

***

The Dread Pirate Roberts pushed the “talk” button on her wrist-com.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, kids of all ages. This is your captain speaking.”

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Marcus leant against the sink and let out a sigh.

He wasn’t going to look in the mirror. Wasn’t going to do it.

They took a freelancer on this run. Just to try her out.

He started the tap, running the water over his hands trying to work out if there was a difference between the NuFlesh and his evolved Original Skin. People could go mad trying this, which is why the marketing department of NuFlesh goes to all the bother of telling how obsolete skin was.

He did his best to wash the freelancer off his face.

He sighed again.

The freelancer.

He reached round to his shoulder and started to unclip the NuFlesh to get to the security bolts below. His arm went offline. He slipped it into one of the machines that took up most of the space in his small apartment. With a twist and a pull – left the arm snug in its casing. The machine started its comforting hum as it started working.

He ripped open his velcro pants and stepped out, throwing them towards the washing pile in the corner of the room.

The freelancer was good. It’s why they took her. He was going to protect her, he told her. The Big Man. As long as she stayed close to him, real close, she’d be safe.

He felt for the flap of NuFlesh at the top of his thigh, unhooked, and removed his leg, which joined his arm for the tune-up.

Then he collapsed back into a chair. As his eyes closed he saw the bullet tearing her neck open.

He let his head flop to the side, chin resting on his shoulder.

The job was a bust. The money they had made have been blown trying to save the freelancer. And then disposing of her.

His eyes felt heavy. He was tired.

Tried of it all.

Something moved outside his window. He struggled to get up an made his way, hopping slowly, across the room.

He rested his head on the cold glass, letting it soothe his hot forehead.

He didn’t have to do this any more. He could retire. One last run and it’d be over.

He looked out the window. He was right – something was moving there.

It was snowing.

He smiled, staring out over the city.

It was snowing.

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