Grace checked the ribbon-glass console around her forearm for the access codes to AIC. If the sum she’d paid for them – that made her grimace just thinking about – turned out not to be good, she’d have to concoct a ‘DisGrace Special’ for her less than honest contact at the AI corp.

She slyly checked her reflection in the giant, polarised plate-glass of the corporation’s HQ one last time, as the console retracted back into bracelet form. Yep – still the very picture of bland, hyper-capitalist corp flunky, her normally madly spiked crimson hair dyed a calm auburn and straightened down to cover her shaved sides. Living tattoos covered by a freshly starched and pressed business jumpsuit, filled with all the office-worker mod cons: gel cushioning, temperature regulating nano-fibres, etc. It was elegantly tasteful and very expensive, and Grace was going to take great delight in burning it all with a plas-torch soon as she was done with the heist.

She took one more deep breath and stepped towards the main entrance. The door pinged her Universal ID implant, newly imprinted with her purchased codes, and chimed happily.

“Good morning and welcome Miss Peralta. Please have another pleasant day at NXT MINDS.”

It was the “please” that really made her skin crawl.

She stepped through with an air of confidence she didn’t feel, and stuck to the plan. First, the mandatory security scan in the palatial lobby – the same one she’d have to fool on her way out later. Then the daily log in, to get Peralta updated with the day’s access codes and into the scheduling system. Last but not least – a  few carefully uploaded ‘security’ protocols – those would be needed later. Finally, a little creative ‘adjustment’ to her assumed-persona’s schedule. All the bureaucracy, the security, and it still only taken her a few well placed bribes, and some equally well placed smiles. Human greed: one of the few things you still can’t constrict with red tape.

As Grace followed the route she’d studied with an air of yuppie aspiration, she observed the interior of the giant NXT MINDS Atrium HQ. That damn slogan – “Our Minds. Your Matters.” – usually never out of one’s peripheral vision, was nowhere to be seen on the inside. There was one perk of the job at least. Bots of various sleek shapes and multi-functional sizes hovered or glided to and fro across the great floor, and were far more numerous than human employees. They’d only be single-purpose AIs but seeing them roam around by themselves after The Crisis still set her teeth on edge. A few of them looked more advanced than anything Grace had stolen, disassembled, and sold on at a hiked up price on the grey market before. Typical of them to save the best stuff for themselves she muttered inwardly.

No matter. This has been a long time coming. Time for a little robbing from the rich, giving to another kind of rich.

Suddenly, Grace’s reverie was broken by a sonorous yet gravelly voice, directed, frustratingly, at her.

“You new here Miss?” it asked.

“What? No, just daydreaming -” (Grace’s eyes had already flicked to his name badge the second he’d spoken) “- Mr. Jericho.”

“Call me Jack. You have me at a disadvantage Miss..? I don’t believe we’ve met. Which department are you in?”

“Internal Efficiency. I’ve not been here that long I suppose – but word of Jack Jericho gets around fast.”

The sonorous voice gave way to a rumbling chuckle.

“I’m delighted to hear it Miss mysterious.”

“Oh I’m sorry Jack.” Grace said, fluttering her eyelashes so potently it probably caused a hurricane in the China Sea. “My name is Jane Peralta. Pleased to meet you.”

“The pleasure” Jack said, slowly beginning to step away with a mock half-bow, “is indubitably mine.” And with that, he turned on a heel and left Grace to collect her thoughts and admire the way his taut white shirt shifted over the rippling muscles of his massive back. Creep. But a hot creep.

She had an hour to kill before her next ‘appointment’, so she sought out the cafeteria, located in a huge atrium at the heart of the complex. The smell of sizzling bbq seitan and butter-coffee latched onto her taste buds halfway down the corridor and yanked her relentlessly forwards. Stealing always made Grace hungry.    

She glanced around at the other employees while she wolfed down a thick slab of seitan, richly suffused with some kind of Yemeni spiced sauce, periodically chasing it with coffee her smart-cup was keeping at optimum temperature. Most were clearly drinking the kool-aid, and had plenty of tastefully minimalist implants or augments. The majority looked to be standard EyeWare, and a couple had the slightly off-kilter, thousand yard stare that meant sub-oculars. A giant live news screen and holo suspended from the roof flicked between reports of rapidly destabilising, balkanised states around the world and internal bulletins on the AI products that could fix it all. The holo displayed real time heat maps of what the company’s AIs were running – a city grid in Detroit, the power supply of Kazakhstan, another corporation’s entire archiving and server system. And of course, numerous military’s. The holo map morphed into an overlay of all the connecting lines of NXT MIND influence, and it looked like an aggressive virus spreading its long tendrils into virtually every corner of the world.

The people, the tech, it was all very elegant and tasteful looking and Grace took great pleasure in fantasising about taking a plas-torch to all of it. Finishing the last of her meal, she smacked her lips and made towards the travelator that would take her towards the R&D block.

Grace arrived at the R&D department, an unprepossessing assemblage of drab labs and uninspiring signs, such as ‘advanced fibrous systems manufacture’ or ‘cortical resistance hardware applications’. Grace’ intel – that sweet, oh-so-expensive intel – told her the interesting shit was below ground, well away from prying eyes.

Her access code and her earlier adjustment to her persona’s schedule meant she was admitted to the experimental testing area, ‘by appointment only’ apart from the highest of security clearances. She just needed a way to be alone there. That was the tricky part. Grace hadn’t got this far without a great instinct and quick-thinking. Or a carefully crafted masterplan. She just couldn’t remember which she had, and which she always thought she should have had instead.

She exited the elevator into a drab corridor, but there was light at the end of it – literally. A large open space full of glowing consoles and large workbenches greeted her. By a few of the consoles were small, fragile looking cradles holding smooth, black spheres, attached to the console itself by sticky nodes and thin wires. Her intel hadn’t stretched to what exactly she was looking for down here – only that it would be immediately obvious and unfathomably valuable on the open grey market.

Well, all this stuff was obviously expensive, but how was she going to figure out what the most valuable bits were?

As she walked the length of the room, she noticed large framed posters at regular intervals throughout the room. Investigating, each one proved to be a safety mandate with plenty of corporate bullshit speak surrounding three giant bullet points:

  • ALWAYS wear your neural dampeners when handling FUEL
  • Together we are stronger – and safer – Watch your colleagues closely.
  • From the cradle – to the grave.

Just then, her previously uploaded security ‘protocol’ kicked in. That, at least, she’d been able to whip up herself instead of paying some jumped up little script kiddy through the nose.

“Building wide fire and/or cyber intrusion alert – please report to your nearest available marshalling station until the issue has been resolved. Please note, this time spent will not count as extenuating circumstances in your daily work report”

There were moans, the shuffling of feet not used to walking during their working hours, as the staff began to file out.

“Come on you lot” a thunderous voice called out. “Quicker I report you’re all present and correct, sooner you can sit back down!”

It was him. Mr. Back Muscles. He was pacing around, rounding up the stragglers too absorbed in their work to care – or perhaps even hear – the announcement. She’d have to act fast, before he recognised her and starting asking awkward questions, or giving her more than awkward orders.

The space was, as she’d observed earlier, large and open plan, but packed full of research technicians various sizes and shapes of hardcore looking user interfaces. She wasn’t going to sneak anywhere without being noticed. Then again, maybe she didn’t need to sneak anywhere at all. The only thing in this room that looked remotely worth, and possible to steal, were the head-net things. She knew it wasn’t mere information that would rake in the cash – that could be taken remotely for a fraction of the expense and risk. So it must be those.

Weaving through and against the flow shuffling research technicians, Grace wedged herself firmly in the midst of them, where she was able to keep her head down and her face away from big ol’ Jack Jericho.

She’d only get one shot at this. As they passed one of the last workbenches with a hair-net-thing resting on it, Grace tripped the man in front of her, and stumbled. The man staggered, and rounded angrily on the person behind him, with Grace braced against the table that had broken her ‘fall’. Standing up straight and flashing her best embarrassed-angry-but-making-the-best-of-it smile, her trailing hand wrapped round the net. It was impossibly light and delicate in her hand.

It seemed to fizz with current, but she just tightened her grip, balling it up as gently as she could to keep it hidden. It seemed to pulse, and she unclenched her grip to try alleviate the pain, but found she couldn’t.

The net had condensed into an orb, and that orb was sticking to her skin.

Panicking, prized her fingers open with her other hand, and the orb rolled up the inside arm at speed, as though it was magnetised. At her shoulder it rolled around to the base of her neck where it ejected two tiny filaments that snuck into the soft skin there.

Sparks flashed before her eyes. No – behind her eyes. Both? And not so much sparks as a panoply of fireworks warped by an impossible gravity. The thoughts of ‘confusion’ and ‘pain’ and ‘panic’ all seemed to roll into one dull ache that Grace knew philosophically she should be able to parse, but couldn’t. She was dimly conscious of screaming coming from somewhere very far away, but couldn’t remember who might be causing such a fuss.

“OUT OF MY WAY” shouted Jack, storming through the now tightly packed throng of google-eyed technicians.

“Someone tell me how to extract the link!”

“No!” a dumpy female technician threw herself in front of him with her arms spread wide, which was a relative term next to Jack Jericho. “Extracting it forcefully could irreparably damage the link, and worse, the whole – “

“And what about her?!”

“She should have read the posters.” Someone from behind Jack said. The big man whirled around to see the culprit, but no volunteer was forthcoming.

And so they watched, as Grace spasmed uncontrollably before dropping to her hands and knees, her eyes rolled up and showing the whites of her eyes. Her skin glowed and the room suddenly felt degrees hotter. Lines began to appear up her arms and neck, not along her veins, a more complex, messy pattern – tracing her nervous system perhaps.

“Full, un-dampened exposure to a fusion link….fascinating to observe the effects” another technician whispered, to murmurs of approval.

The spasms abated. Grace collapsed to the floor. Jack walked solemnly forward to check for a pulse. He found one.

“GET THE MEDS” he bellowed.

“That…won’t…be…necessary.” Grace managed to say, in a fuzzy drawl.

“Hold on – if we study the effects now, the data will be invaluable – “

“I said, that won’t be necessary” Grace screeched, at the same time a hulking bipedal robot smashed through the wall behind her, rubble and dust spewing into the room. It was tall, elegantly curved and with a sensor array at its back that gave it a distinct hunch.

It extended a slender, corded arm towards one of the technicians gawking nearest to Grace, turned its palm to face him, and emitted a single pulse. The technician fell to his knees, breathing raggedly, as the Guard placed its other palm on Grace. There was a thrumming noise.

Grace stood up, the lines beneath her skin and glow gone. The only sign of her previous suffering was a vivid streak of blue hair shot through the rest of her auburn.

“My boss won’t be happy with your lax safety protocols.” Grace sneered.

“Oh he won’t be worried” Jack responded. “But I, however, am very pleased with your performance.”