Before: Poco tries to make a delivery

"I'm going to get it from him in a few minutes", Messalina told the figure projected in the corner of the small room she called home and office. Racks upon racks of computational and communications equipment filled the room like the aftermath of an F5 in a high end biology lab. She had long since run out of rack space and now circuit boards and solder, test tubes and growth medium, transmitters and antenna spilled forth across every surface, sometimes providing the surface for more spillage. The kitchen, in contrast, was perfectly neat--one bowl, one plate, one glass, one set of silverware neatly stacked in the sink, clean and dry.

"I just can't believe you think you can trust this punk", her patron was not amused at her choice of courier, "those stunts with the shoppers could have caused no end of trouble".

"Oh, calm yourself. I cleaned up, there's nothing to worry about".

She checked on Poco, he was coming across 1st, spewing so much useless traffic with his clumsy scanners and silly exploits that decent people were giving him a wide berth; what good moving a few feet would do to avoid pulses of energy floating through the air none of them could tell you. The reaction was involuntary, coming from the same primitive corner of the brain that blanches at the sight of maggots on meat. Nobody would ever believe that such an obvious teen vandal could be involved in the most important data liberation yet.

He didn't reply, his image was animated to look very patient and calm as he waited but he was off dealing with something else. She guessed she was getting no more than 5% of his attention. There was a major financial op timed to go simultaneous with the theft, they'd been building positions for months that they were going to unravel in hours as the shockwaves rolled through the market.

She took a few seconds to recalculate her projections for what the markets were going to do over the next few hours. She had made her own side-bets on the outcome of the next few minutes. Ideology was nice, but it didn't preclude making a buck or two in the process.

Back to Poco, he turned abruptly and walked toward a dark nook leading to an out-of-service bathroom.

"What the fuck?"

"What's going on", he asked, obviously still paying attention to something else.

By now, word of Advanced Infomatics security response would be pouring out across the network. They were taking down entire netblocks, quarantining them for analysis, tracing something back through the network to its point of origin. Not even a pretense at legality, whatever they were looking for valuable enough that they were willing to pay to settle the inevitable lawsuits. This is all the network knew, so it created its own stories. The finance guys were probably making a killing.

"Hold on", she said, and made her first mistake.

Something had crashed in her surveillance network. Poco had completely vanished from her display, and that just wasn't possible. It was too soon to be worried about an AI counter-assault, routing it through a human courier traveling on foot had completely baffled their response software. It had made a ton of assumptions about the attack being completely network based and was going to lose a lot of time while it started mobilizing actual moving people. She launched a background process to restore visual and data location of Poco while she dived into the target acquisition code to figure out why it had lost him.

"What's going on", her patron repeated.

"Hold on", she said, and made her second mistake.

Visuals were back up from the market, but Poco was nowhere to be found. The spectrum points he typically used for comm were quiet. She didn't think he had the sophistication to have prepared redundant channels; if she couldn't hear him here he was probably dead. She started a sync with her partial at the headshop and sent instructions for it to terminate when done. She didn't want to have to, the sync was expensive and would be visible to AI security, but she was going to have to run, very soon. How the fuck had they caught up with him so fast?

"Abort ops, abort ops", she snapped at her sponsor as she started issuing commands to prepare her for travel. She had spent a lot of time planning escape scenarios for this operation, she'd known all along that they'd probably get caught, but she'd expected to have a couple of days to get ready to get out.

"What the hell is going on, there, Messy? I've got hundreds of billions in play right now and can't just abort", she had substantially more than 5% of his attention now.

"Courier missing, presumed dead. It was probably AI security, although I'll be damned if I know how they caught him that quick. My monitoring still shows them two dozen hops away from where the data went offline."

His image went back into idle mode, he now had much more important things to worry about. So did she.

A thought brought up a status report on the AI security response. For some reason they were still quarantining networks, probably incurring trillions in liability as they took comm and comp functions down in cities on every continent. They were getting closer to where the data had dropped off-net, but were still 20 hops away. She didn't understand what they were doing, probably their finance systems had detected a way to make a bunch of cash in the market chaos if they continued the trace. She'd have to wait to figure it out, though. The analytics she needed had been turned off; she'd have limited computational capacity until she made it to the safehouse and that system wasn't critical to her flight.

She checked the status of her partial's sync. It had about 15 minutes left, then she could run. She regretted that she wouldn't have time to integrate its experiences, but properly stitching its memories into her neural structures would require several hours that she didn't have. It meant that she'd be running blind with no idea what actually happened at the market, but, she reminded herself, sometimes that's the way the cookie crumbles. Poco had come up with a bad case of the deads, and she needed to move to avoid a similar fate--that was all she really needed to know. Identifying and retaliating against his killers could wait.

She spent the next quarter-hour preparing various software systems for the move. In the 17 years since she had last left this room she had created literally thousands of micro-organisms for various housekeeping and processing tasks, not to mention untold terabytes of software to coordinate the activities of her vast intelligence network. Much of the bioware, especially the replicating stuff, had genes to induce geographic apoptosis; if it moved more than a mile or two from her apartment it would start to die-off. A substantial portion of the software had knowledge, both implicit and explicit, of the local environment--it was all going to break as she ran.

She took steps to minimize the damage. Even so she'd be essentially deaf, dumb, and blind until she made it to the safehouse. Once back to safety it would probably be years before she returned to the overall level of capability she had started with today.

The partial finished and killed itself. With a short glance back at the equipment that didn't fit into the two large knapsacks she was carrying she passed through the door and out of her former life. She'd just made her third mistake of the day. Like the other two, it wouldn't be noticed for some time yet.

Next: Lucas examines a package