It’s amazing how quickly things can change. One minute you’re pulling off a sleek and smooth data heist, and the next everything is going wrong.
As the red alarms filled their head up display, ArcFeather began to swear quietly and succinctly. The peripheral of their sight shifted to red and the escape timer appeared in the top right corner of their vision; five minutes and counting. ArcFeather spun away from the console, snatching the datajack and tucking it into a pocket, and began to run full-pelt at the window. Leading with their left shoulder ArcFeather hit the glass and burst out into the black night, 98 levels above Grid-0.
It wasn’t the blackness of night, of course, and the window wasn’t actually glass. There is no sky above the Grid, just an empty pallet, and it is black because this is the easiest thing for simpler systems to render. The glass was a representation, as was Maxid Tower, the building Arcfeather had just exited so dramatically. Giving datacores building-like structures made them easier to navigate, and allowed you to apply human logic to the world of the Grid. The logical approach to exiting Maxid Tower wouldn’t be via a window 98 levels above the main level of the Grid, however. Anyone with sense, and the correct levels of access, would just use a door.
But ArcFeather didn’t have the correct levels of access. Some might also suggest that xe didn’t have much sense either, but there you go. Now ArcFeather’s body tumbled downward toward Grid-0, a situation that needing rectifying ASAP. For all that the Grid wasn’t the same as the Real, hitting representative ground after a fall of nearly a hundred floors would still fuck you up royally. So ArcFeather tucked their arms in and pointed their head down, feeling a sudden increase of speed as they became more aerodynamic, and at the same time tapped a series of buttons on the keypad strapped to their thigh. With an electronic thrummm, silver and green glimmering threads burst from ArcFeather’s back, and in milliseconds a pair of wings twelve feet across had sprouted from their spine. They were semi-transparent, and exquisitely detailed, mimicking the shape and structure of raven wings, but each feather was a thin gossame material, like the wing of a dragonfly.
They had taken three months to create, programming the look and more importantly the physics, but as the wings snapped open and changed their tumble into a glide, ArcFeather grinned; three months well fucking spent.
All this had taken roughly 20 seconds, and the timer was still ticking. The countdown was a custom programme, a reminder to ArcFeather to hurry the fuck up; once the timer reached zero, whatever authorities that would be chasing them would have locked onto ArcFeather’s signal and entry point, and subsequently confirmed their location in the Real. ArcFeather had four and a half minutes to get off-Grid, and once back in the Real, to get lost. Xe banked to the left, still heading downward but seeking the stacks of silver and blue and purple buildings that were the smaller datacores. Once amongst those xe’d be harder to track and could lose any pursuit. As soon as the thought was finished another alarm message flashed in the top right of ArcFeather’s vision; incoming bogeys. ArcFeather looked back over their shoulder and saw three seekers glide around the edge of Maxid Tower and aim straight for them.
Seekers were silver and red insect-like shapes, simple but powerful AI watchdogs, automatic functions that chased and traced rogue programs and outlaw users. ArcFeather was the latter, and proud of it. Xe slowed in the air, allowing the three bugs to get a little closer, before tucking their wings in, dropping three levels before snapping them open again and jetting off in the opposite direction. It fooled the seekers for a moment, but soon enough they were following once more.
ArcFeather threw themselves into evasive action, looping around the other datacores, which looked like a mass of glistening skyscrapers, ducking and diving and swooping but the seekers kept up with every manoeuvre. The timer was at two minutes and counting; xe needed to get off-Grid fast. Another alarm beeped and ArcFeather twisted in the air, rolling to the right as a red harpoon hummed through the airspace xe’d just been in. It was a lockbolt; a freezer code that would lock an avatar in place, preventing them from moving but also from going offline. ArcFeather began a litany of four letter words, wracking their brain for a way out of this clusterfuck.
Then xe saw it. The lack of gravity in the Grid meant that, if you chose, you give a construct literally any impossible shape. On the edge of the group of cores that ArcFeather and the seekers were dodging amongst was something of a curiosity; the building, which had been nicknamed the Cluster, was the main core of a large design company, and whoever had coded it had taken an artistic approach. The building looked like a bird’s nest or a tangled mass of cable, each strand 15 feet in diameter. It was a vivid, shimmering purple, and had caused a stir when first coded into the Grid. The reason ArcFeather grinned when xe saw it, though, was that among the strands of building structure were gaps. Small enough for a human sized avatar, just about…
Ignoring the part of their mind that was screaming that the idea was insane, ArcFeather surged forward, racing toward the Cluster. The seekers also put on a burst of speed and followed. As xe approached, ArcFeather took a deep breath and held it, and as they reached the first gap they snapped the wings closed for a second, then open again. Through! Spotting the next gap ArcFeather jetted towards it, ignoring the booming explosion behind them that made the Cluster shake. That was one down, maybe…
ArcFeather was acting on instinct, trusting to reflexes honed from hours of flight and ghosting in the Grid, blazing a speedy path through the Cluster, around and down towards the bottom level, Grid-0. Another explosion echoed behind, and then a third, but ArcFeather didn’t slow; more seekers could come, were probably en route, and the timer was on 58 seconds and had begun pulsing. With 23 seconds left ArcFeather soared out into the open air, ten feet above the simulated ebony surface of the Grid floor, drawing a few surprised gasps from the figures wandering below. Xe snapped the wings shut, the silver and green lines vanishing, dropped to the ground and began to walk as casually as xe could manage. The Grid was always busy whatever time it was in the Real, so it was easy enough to blend in.
ArcFeather scanned the street for the closest jackpoint, spotting one ten feet away. Xe lowered their gaze and made a beeline for it.
Above the murmur of the avatars on the street came the faint whine of an approaching seeker, and a few turned to looked. ArcFeather ignored the sound and kept right on going.
ArcFeather reached the jackpoint and without a backward glance pressed their palm against the top of the blue glowing column. As contact was made, the Grid vanished–
–and ArcFeather blinked their eyes, looking out at the Real once again. Xe glanced down at the wristcom and saw the escape timer paused at 1 second.
“That was too fucking close,” ArcFeather murmured as they pulled the jack from the socket behind their ear, their voice hoarse. They coughed, and patted the many pockets of their coat till they found the hipflask. ArcFeather took a swig of water and sighed; definitely too close. And what had happened, why had a simple job gone wrong? That was still a mystery. Xe shivered in the evening air, deciding that the problem would have to wait. Xe’d gotten off-Grid in time, but it would be wise to get gone from here anyway.
ArcFeather sat huddled on the metal grille of a fire escape balcony, two floors up. The flat the balcony served was dark and silent; the occupant was away, which was why ArcFeather had chosen this spot for the jack. Xe detached the spike from the cable running into the wall of the flat and slowly rose, joints cracking and popping. A gentle rain began to fall, the drops making a faint pinging noise at they hit the metal of the fire escape. Rolling their shoulders, ArcFeather picked up their satchel and tucked spike, keypads and deck into it. They were waterproof, of course, but a professional looks after their tools. Then xe headed down the metal stairs to the lower balcony, climbed over the barrier and dropped onto the plastic lid of the industrial bin that stood next to it. Dropping at last to the floor of the alley, ArcFeather did a quick check of pockets to ensure xe had everything, then glanced out at the street. The glow of shop signs, the occasional whisper of traffic and the faint smell of Chinese food and falling rain permeated the autumn evening, and bodies drifted across the alley mouth, people heading out or heading home…
ArcFeather tugged their coat close about them to ward off the night’s chill, pulling up the hood and thrusting their hands deep into their pockets. A bad run, but they’d gotten away in time and clean, and that was something, at least. Nodding to themselves, ArcFeather moved slowly to end of the alley, stepped out into the street, turn right and started walking; just another figure drifting through the rain.