Saturday, 14 November 2015

Visitant: Inside Job

It was a cold night. Frost was settling on the ground, glinting where the security lights touched it. Rounding the corner of his rooftop patrol, Geertz paused and stared dutifully around, scanning the grounds with naked eye, then thermal goggles. Nothing, as usual. The last group of protestors had been nine months ago. Still, they had to stay watchful. Seeing Thompson and his Alsatian making a counter-circuit below, he waved a habitual ‘nothing’, then turned and paced away. The outer wall was three hundred yards away and ten feet high; a fence topped with razorwire separated the car parks and grounds from the compound itself. It would take an intruder several minutes to make the crossing, let alone get inside, and that was plenty of time for the guard patrols to spot them. Nobody was breaking in, not after that business four years ago.

Nobody human, anyway.

As the sounds of the passing dog patrol faded, Harvinder counted ten seconds, stepped back a few yards, and charged the wall. It was tall and sheer, but an impossible leap brought her within arm’s reach of the top, and that was enough. She dropped lightly from the wall in the dimmest spot available, the outermost edge of two floodlights. She threw a quick glance up at the walkway, saw nothing, and sprang forward, accelerating hard as she passed under a camera. Her mottled grey clothes blended easily into the dusty tarmac of the car park.

Inside the building, a bored Nelson sipped his frappucino and gazed vaguely in the direction of the monitors. Was there a blurry motion on channel six? He carefully put down the coffee, then pulled the camera to the main screen. Nothing there now. Probably a passing bird, or maybe a cloud of midges. Better check four just in case. Any intruder would be caught on the fence by now.

Time was wasting. Her bloodstream awash with stimulants, Harvinder reached the fence and hurled herself into the air. Her first bound took her halfway up, a powerful heave hauled her to the top. She gripped the top firmly, ignoring the blades slicing into her hands, and swung herself over with ferocious speed in a gymnast’s flip that took her clear of the wire. No cat could have done the trick more neatly. Landing with a roll, she vaulted out of the line of the next camera. Seventeen seconds.

By the time Nelson had switched his focus to camera four, there was nothing, only the fence swaying ever so slightly in what must be a night breeze.

The inner courtyard was grass, soft and quiet underfoot, criss-crossed with gravel paths. She leapt easily over the paths, keeping silent. Motion-triggered security lights on that outbuilding, more over there. She rolled under one, skirted a second, and ran straight over the top of a third. Twenty-six seconds.

By the time Geertz returned to his observation point, the intruder had long since slithered out of sight onto a fire escape. Nothing to worry about here, he thought, and continued his rounds. He didn’t hear the slow, careful crawl up the echoey iron stairs.

The fire door on the second floor was no joke; steel-reinforced, a card swipe and keypad to one side, and a heavy lock to complement it. Harvinder knew it well. She worked here, after all. She listened for a few minutes, but heard nothing. Satisfied, she concentrated on her wounded hands; the gloves had helped, but deep gashes still sank right to the bone. Closing her eyes, she focused determinedly. The blood slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether, wounds clotting and beginning to seal. There would be pain, later, but for now her system was awash with adrenaline and she felt nothing. Forensics weren’t an issue – there was nothing on the wire human science could identify as blood, let alone DNA.

Next, the door. Hacking wasn’t her line, and she had no intention of using her own keycard tonight. Crouching close to the joint, she folded her tongue sharply. Liquid sprayed from a gland in her mouth, seeping into the lock mechanism, and a sharp smell filled the air. Within a minute, the powerful acid had corroded the lock to uselessness, and reduced the handle to so much slag. It was a simple matter to extract the remnants, and draw the bar back with her tools.

A magnetic seal around the door would sound an alarm when it opened. The cable, as she had carefully memorised, left the sensors precisely one hundred and twenty-six centimetres up on the left-hand side, or twenty-one centimetres above the lock. She carefully slid a slender hand through the gap where the handle had been, and felt for the cable. There.

She took a device from her pocket, uncoupled a needle-tipped wire, and fed it through the hole. Jabbing it firmly into the alarm cable, she saw an indicator flash to show that the device had connected. It would feed false signals to the alarm system. Not without trepidation, she shrugged and pulled the door, which swung open. No sign of any alarm.

There were cameras here and there throughout the building. One pointed at the inside of this very door. There was a very small chance that the shift officer was looking at it, but there were another twenty-six cameras and nothing ever happened inside. As she knew well, whoever was on monitor duty spent most of their time either wildlife-spotting on the external cameras, or doing crosswords. Keeping her head down just in case, she strode out of the camera’s view and around a corner, staying slow enough to seem preoccupied rather than suspicious. With any luck, if that hundred-to-one chance came up, the officer would just think she was authorised personnel with a lot on her mind. Which, in one sense, she was.

Out of sight, she turned left into the lavatories. The anonymous jacket came off, and was hung carefully behind the door of the furthest cubicle. Underneath she wore an equally anonymous labcoat; regulation issue, though she’d bought this one at retail to make sure it held no clues. The trainers she wore had never entered this building before, and never would again. A high-quality wig covered her short hair, itself entirely artificial. Makeup had lightened her skin, cheek pads shifted her facial shape, invisible tape under the makeup altered brow and chin. Green lenses and a different pair of glasses completed the disguise. She’d never be recognised. The badge on her labcoat was a perfect fake, with a name carefully similar to several genuine employees; that subconscious sense of familiarity was invaluable. It should pass muster if anyone did happen to notice her. There were always a few staff around, no matter the time.

Safely disguised – or should that be re-disguised? – Harvinder headed for the lab. She passed a couple of other cameras on the way. They’d certainly review footage in detail later, but it wouldn’t help. The fire door camera would show an anonymous figure whose face wasn’t seen; the rest would show a mysterious Caucasian woman dressed like a member of lab staff. Fingerprints wouldn’t help either; hers had a perfect right to be wherever they might be found, but today she wore a different set.

The precautions were wise: she passed Nelson as she climbed the stairs to the top floor. Still sharpened by adrenaline, she heard him coming in plenty of time. The security guard looked at her with mild hesitation, but no real suspicion.

“Evening. Looks like you’re having a late night, miss.”

“You wouldn’t believe it! And the coffee machine downstairs is having a tantrum.” She didn’t stop to talk, and spoke in a higher voice than usual, putting on an exasperated tone. He could hear her eyes rolling. “Instant for me, then.”

The mention of the coffee machine put his attention squarely elsewhere. It was a constant cause of trouble, and outside office hours the security team always ended up tackling it. Nelson groaned audibly.

“Not again. I’ll take a look at it when I get time.”

Harvinder was already well past him, and called over her shoulder. “Thanks, but I know you’re on duty. It’ll wait ‘til morning.”

If he did check the machine, it might well be faulty again. If not, he’d more likely put it down to an intermittent problem than a lie. Not waiting for any answer that might come, she turned the corner and walked past another camera to Laboratory Four. It wasn’t her goal; her own lab, Secure Six, boasted a high-security door monitored by two cameras, alarms, the whole kit and caboodle. She could probably get past it, but it was risky. Luckily, Four was right underneath.

It was dark inside; the door swung open at her push, not even locked. Harvinder hummed with satisfaction, and as the lights flickered on she hopped onto the third desk along. She reached into a pocket for her gloves.

“Hullo? What are you-?”


Despite her buzz, she’d completely missed the woman sat to the right of the door, staring at her laptop. Most likely, she’d sat here quietly working so long that the motion-sensitive lights faded out. It didn’t matter much with a backlit screen, and most likely the researcher – Fi Carruthers, wasn’t it? – was too engrossed in her work to even notice, until they flashed back on with Harvinder’s entry.

Simply walking in on Carruthers would have been inconvenient enough; she couldn’t exactly make the next part unsuspicious. Having already sprung onto a desk and reached up to pop out the ceiling tiles, she was in trouble.

“Oh! Didn’t see you there in the dark. Fell asleep, did you?” she tried, hoping to simply bluster past it. That usually worked. People simply didn’t expect deception. They tended to assume people had a right to be where they were, especially when that place was a secure facility. The more unlikely an intrusion was, the more embarrassing it was to be suspicious of people.

Annoyingly, Fi didn’t seem very blusterable. “What are you doing?” She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the light, and stood up. “Hey, this isn’t your lab.”

“No, sorry. Just checking some connections.” This wasn’t going to work. She hadn’t prepared for this.

Fi was looking closely at her. She probably hadn’t worked out she was dealing with an intruder, because that was pretty far-fetched. On the downside, there were plenty of plausible suspicious explanations. Corporate espionage by a trusted employee. Intoxication. A sudden mental aberration induced by lack of sleep. Hell, just a regular employee doing something stupid.

“…oh, whatever,” said Fi suddenly, moving towards the door. “I’m going to take a break. You want anything?”

There was a small chance that she honestly felt a sudden urge to get some air and a coffee. More likely she planned to swing by the security room and ask the staff to just check out the situation. She could probably deal with that, although they did carry weapons. Why risk it?

She smiled. “Oh, thanks. I would absolutely kill for a double espresso. Or a triple. In fact, any espresso multiple at all would be great.”

The frivolity helped. It took people off guard. It said, I’m not on guard. I have no reason to be, because I’m not suspicious. We have a trust thing going on. Fi smiled back, a bit uncertainly, turned and reached for the door.

Harvinder’s leap cleared the intervening desks and landed her right behind Fi. The woman span round in panic, ready to scream. The spray from Harvinder’s eye glands took her right in the face. It was simplicity itself to subdue the choking woman, and administer a quick bite. As instructed, she sat quietly in the corner, facing the wall.

Returning to the desk, Harvinder slid aside a polystyrene ceiling tile, then hauled herself into the space above. With her pocket crowbar and inhuman strength, she ripped out two floorboards and slid them quietly aside. The laminate flooring sagged, and was easily cut. Entry complete. Secure Six was her oyster, ripe for the… whatever it was you did to oysters.

The sensors and cameras in here would certainly pick up her activities. Heat sensors were no problem, but she couldn’t move slowly enough to avoid motion-sensors. Abandoning stealth, she hurried over to the storage cabinets, unlocked them and began searching. There. A collection of sample tubes with the right codes. She tucked them into her pocket, and dropped back down through the floor.

Fi was still staring into a corner. But there were noises on the edge of hearing: distant footsteps, the hum of a rising lift. Someone had noticed her. Reaching the stairs and glancing down, she saw Nelson hurrying up from the second floor, muttering into his comm. He’d drawn a weapon. This could all go bad very quickly.

Still, she had it planned for. Harvinder double-checked her pocket, then swung herself off the end of the stairs and leapt into the stairwell past a horrified Nelson. Twenty feet down, she kick-jumped off the adjacent wall, reducing her momentum enough that the final drop into the lobby was bruising rather than bone-breaking. Rolling to take the edge off, she raced back to the lavatory and grabbed her jacket. Tug it on, heave the door back open, and out into the night.

The building was abuzz with activity by 8am, when Dr Harvinder Singh showed up to work with a green tea and a bacon sandwich. Nobody could have been more upset to learn that her precious samples had been stolen in the dead of night by a mysterious ninja. Their work would be set back years.

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