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'Jessie, you got the drive?'

'Course I got the fucking drive you moron, now cut the comms!'

Silence.

The fugitives finally, cautiously, allowed themselves to breathe again.  The abandoned apartment block was scant shelter from their pursuers, but with any luck the false trail they had left would buy them some time at least.  The first order of business was rendezvousing with the rest of the team; they had all entered the complex on different floors.  Nasca fought the urge to key the comm set and keep abreast of his comrades' progress to the meetup.  The law almost certainly had all their frequencies tagged by now, so all communication had to be verbal, face-to-face - the old fashioned way.  It was ironic, he noted, that to preserve technology they were forced to avoid its use.  If he had spent less time noting ironies and more time looking where he was going, he might not have fallen through the floor.

The others all heard the noise, and dropped to cover.  Every one of them was hoping beyond hope that it wasn't trouble, and that whatever it was, nobody would be stupid enough to activate the comm link.  Silence fell once more.

Jessie picked herself up off the floor and made her way toward the source of the noise.  Twice she had to change her route because of missing floors or fallen masonry.  It was a wonder the building was standing at all, she thought to herself, before a noise from somewhere farther along the corridor made her pause.  Nothing.  Just as she was about to continue on, another noise came, louder than the first; concrete on concrete, perhaps.  Something was moving around in the rubble ahead.  The gun met her grip and she aimed carefully at the source of the noise, edging soundlessly closer.

It was the rain that saved Nasca's life.  Jessie's gun was trained on the spot in the rubble where the sound was coming from; the danger was that a drone had punched through the roof of the building and a number of subsequent floors.  The ceiling of the corridor was certainly collapsed, and recently; but there was no rain coming in.  Which meant that the hole did not go through to the roof, which meant that it wasn't a drone - which meant that Jessie did not open fire and empty her clip as soon as she saw something in the rubble.  She nevertheless felt the urge to harm Nasca severely for his clumsiness as he pulled himself free.  It was a relief, however, to be able to talk again.

'So the whole stealth thing is working out well for you I see.'

'Bite me, Jess.  I think I broke something.'

'Dude, you broke the fucking floor.  Let's get to the RV.'

They made their way up through the decaying building, rapid but cautious, eventually arriving at what had once been the common area on the topmost floor.  Watt was already there, inconspicuously slouched against the wall.  She got up as the pair entered the room and asked if they were alright.

'No thanks to this doof, we're both fine.  Nasca thought it would be a good idea to impersonate a drone and drop through a ceiling or two.  He's lucky I didn't pepper that whole heap of rubble.'

'Yes, he is' Nasca responded petulantly.  'He's thanked you and said he's sorry.  He would like you to drop it now.'

'Fine, not another word.  Where's Fed?'

'Not seen him,' Watt replied.  'He came in at ground level though so might take him a while to get to us.'

'Alright then, we get settled here.  Stay away from the windows.'

It wasn't long before Fed joined them, bleeding from the shoulder wound he had sustained an hour earlier, before their escape to the apartment block.

'Now THAT'S perseverance!' Jessie declared, fighting the urge to slap her friend on the back.  'Guess what Nasca did.'

- - - - -

'So do we know how they got the location of the drive?' Watt asked as they sat in the one-time common room, watching their clocks.  Nasca was working on the drive through his interface equipment, miraculously unharmed in his earlier descent through the building.  Fed was pale and breathing heavily on the threadbare couch, the makeshift bandage already crimson.  It was strangely peaceful with the rain sheeting down outside the windows.

'Not as far as I know,' Jessie responded.  'But that's not the priority right now; we have to do everything we can to get it to safety.'

'But won't this all just happen again if we don't work out how it happened?  If they have a way to trace the SubNet signal back to its source, then wherever the drives go they'll find them.'

It was true, but there was nothing they could do about it now.  If any of them survived the mission, then maybe they could help ensure the future security of SubNet.  But that was still hypothetical at best.  None of them expected to survive long after the transport arrived.

With a satisfied click, Nasca closed his interface kit just as their alarms buzzed and a low hum became audible on the very edge of their hearing.  Without a word, they stowed their gear and made for the stairwell, Watt supporting the near-unconscious Fed.  The rain froze their faces and hands as they emerged onto the roof, and they were soaked to the skin within seconds.  Visibility was so limited that it was only when the transport was within a hundred yards and making its final approach that they were able to see it, a chunky bare-bones craft used most often to ferry people from one continent to another with minimal cost - and comfort.

It landed next to them, and Jessie immediately approached the cab with her gun levelled at the pilot.

'We are not here to hurt you.  Activate your distress signal so that someone can come and collect you.  We are taking your transport.  Get out.'

A minute and some colourful cursing later, Watt was piloting the transport low over the rooftops and Nasca was busy again with his interface kit.  Fed was almost out of it, slumped in the passenger seat they'd strapped him to.  Jessie turned her attention to the escape pods, a remnant left over from the days when this transport would make short and bumpy hops to Rio Station.  They were out of repair, and the door on one was rusted so much as to be completely useless; in all, she thought that two were salvageable - at least for their purposes, anyway.

'Bogeys on the scanner, guys' Watt reported.  'The law is officially back on our tails.'

'Nasca, ETA on the hack?'

'Not long, Jessie.  Give me one, maybe two minutes.'

'OK, Watt.  Apparently we're evading capture for two minutes.  Can we do that?'

'We can try.'

The rain helped.  It dampened their thermal signature so they were harder to detect using infrared.  But their pursuers were not just using infrared; every means of detection was being utilised to hunt them, and escape was an extremely unlikely outcome in their current vehicle.  Watt dropped the transport down to street level, weaving through the buildings as skillfully as the heavy controls would let her.  It not only kept them off the radar, but also put more obstacles in the way of any projectiles that might be loosed in their direction.

- - - - -

'How the hell is this thing not waterlogged and useless?  Didn't they shoot it into a lake or something?'

Jenks turned the drive over in his hands as he spoke, sealed as it was in an evidence box.  It didn't show any signs of the ordeal it had been through over the last two days, aside from a little plaster dust from the apartment complex.  His partner Pux leaned over his shoulder to get a better look

'Yeah apparently they were trying to hide it somewhere it could be picked up later.  It ain't waterlogged on accounta the escape pod it was in was watertight, and the retrieval crew didn't open it until it was safely outta the lake.  Smart fuckers.  You know they actually called a cab for their getaway?  Must've known it still had those rusted-up pods.'

'We gonna check the contents on it or what?  Don't the UNet guys want to know more about it?'

'Nah, apparently it's going to just get destroyed.  Figure they probably loaded it with a virus, kind of a trap.  Definitely don't want that sort of thing linked into our systems.'

'True enough, I guess.  Woulda been nice to get some more info on these SubNet creeps though, maybe shut 'em down for good.'  Jenks put the evidence box to one side.  'So what's next, the black box?'

'Right.  We need to know if they sent any signals we might have missed.  Hook it up.'

On the screen came a stream of information which the detectives scanned and searched for any hint of something out of the ordinary.  What didn't appear on the screen was the information being transferred to the police mainframe, hiding itself in the data already there.  Once established, it accessed UNet and sent an encrypted message to a bulletin board for the axilium miners' union on Centauri IV.  It was flagged as spam and deleted in due course by a moderator, but not before a few hundred people scattered across all the settled worlds found it.  After decryption, the message spread across the ephemeral threads of SubNet:

Rio drive saved.
Cost: 4 lives.
Jessie Myers.
Joe Nasca.
Amie Watt.
Fed Santos.
Keep the signal free.
Set in the early days of interstellar travel, this story is the first to predate the establishment of Unity as an interplanetary government.

More information on SubNet, UNet and the universe itself at the Ex Nihilo blog [link] .
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