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The Mission

Corporate espionage - with a twist
I stopped at the entrance counter, looking around and noting the guards and security cameras — just as I expected and knew would be here. The guard behind the counter looked up from his desk. “Yes? Can I help you, sir?”

Reaching into my jacket, I flashed my identification badge. “Jarrod Fletcher. You should be expecting me. They told me I had to take a look at the elevators. There’s some problem with how long it’s taking some floors to see one and they thought it might be a configuration issue?” This should be simple enough to get inside, since Lucas had broken into the building management network and had put in the details of the service order request. From there, it would be forwarded automatically to the front desk.

“Oh, yeah. I saw that maintenance order earlier today. The big shots up on the fiftieth floor have been complaining to me about it.” Isn’t it great how guards have to show they know more than they possibly could? He looked back down at his desk. “According to this, you’ve been here enough times before, so you’re cleared by yourself.” Lucas had done the good job he always does, including enough history so I looked like a regular. He waved his hand toward the guard by the gate and shouted, “He’s good — just needs to go take care of the VIP elevators!”

Over at the security gate, I stopped, one guard holding his arm out. “Just a moment. You have to scan your hand here,” pointing to the scan panel.

“Yep. Of course. Just like always,” I said as I placed my hand flat on the panel. This was where things might start to go wrong if, somehow, Lucas hadn’t gotten all of my bio-scan details loaded so it went over to their security system. They had this huge gaping hole into the security systems from the maintenance side. However, I wasn’t going to tell them about it — at least not until and unless they decided they wanted to pay me to tell them how almost anyone could break into their network and into their building. This, however, was still just the first step — getting inside.

A green light flashed on the other side and the bar lifted. “You’re good. The VIP bank is …”

I waved at him as I walked through. “Yeah, yeah. It’s fine. I know where I need to go. Oh, and, so you know, I may need to use the elevators to go up and see what’s wrong, though.” I knew that I was going to have to use them, but I had to make it seem like it might be a surprise.

“Yeah, whatever. It’s been a quiet day, with none of the head guys running back and forth.”

With that, the first step was complete — getting into the building. Now, I just needed to tweak one of the elevators so I could get up to the forty-third floor for the next step. I walked over to the separate bank of elevators and opened up the control panel. Not that I had any idea what I was looking at, but Lucas had made sure I knew which buttons to push and which switch to flip. I reached in, doing that and then standing back for a moment and acting like I had to think about what I was seeing.

“Ah ha!” I said out loud in case any of the guards might be listening in. “The panel up on the forty-third floor is messing with the signals. Have to go take a look at that, and then figure out if I need to get a tech to repair it. I just do configuration changes.” Another couple of quick buttons and the elevator right next to me made that pleasant ‘ding’ sound, the doors sliding open. I walked in, shaking my head — showing everyone else that it was just another day on the job investigating silly little mechanical problems.

I pushed the button for the forty-third floor, which was where I needed to go in order to get this job done, and watched the doors close. As soon as they did, I heard Lucas speak up in my ear. “Hey boss. So far, things look nice and smooth. But can you remind me why we’re doing this? And why we’re doing it this way, rather than our usual approach of sneaking in at night?”

I chuckled, holding my wrist up to my mouth, seeming to cough, but then speaking very softly. “We’re doing this because, as always, we’re being paid quite well to do it. And we have to do it during the day because they lock this building up tight after everyone leaves … as you already knew.” While the elevator continued to rise, I thought back to how this job had started …

# # #

It was one of the usual job offers — sent through multiple fake electronic drop-offs and messaging systems that Lucas could wipe any trace of his presence and then utterly destroy the connections at a moment’s notice. The request was, of course, voice only and the voice was completely artificial. It sounded like someone was typing it and then having a machine read it to me. “Mr. Fletcher … we find ourselves in need of someone with your … particular expertise and skills. We need you to break into our main competitor’s headquarters. We have reason to believe they have made some advances that we would like to acquire for ourselves without needing to spend what would be necessary to do the research. According to what we know and the work you’ve done for us in the past, you are ideal for this job.”

Work I’d done for them in the past? Pffft … like I even paid attention to who I was working for. Pay me enough and I’ll be your mercenary industrial spy. That is, after all, what I do. Oh, and then, when your competitors pay me enough, I’ll do the same for them.

“Hold on a moment,” I placed the call on hold and flipped the switch so I could talk with Lucas — Lucas Q, my supporting computer system and overall assistant. “Lucas? How valid is this?”

“Already checking it, boss. It’s looking good. I’ve confirmed that the initial retainer fee has been deposited and they’ve requested where to send the additional information that they think you’ll need. Find out what else they have to say.”

“Uh-huh.” I went back to the potential client. “All right. You have my interest. So you need someone to get in and find out what they’ve learned, huh?”

“Yes, but this needs to be done a particular way. We already have someone there who’s working for us, but he is unable, on his own, to access the information we need. You will need to take a network virus pod that we will provide to you. It needs to be connected to their internal network from the Technical Administrator’s office. That will bypass all of their network security and allow our spy to gain access to what we need.”

“Sure, I can do that. Just need to sneak in at night and …”

“No. That will not work. The building is shut down securely every night and the internal network is scrubbed repeatedly while there is almost no one in the building. This job will have to be performed during the day.”

“During the day? What? Am I supposed to just walk into the administrator’s office and say, ‘Oh, excuse me … Don’t mind me. I’m just here to break into your network.’?”

“We are prepared to make this possible for you. You will tell us when you are going to do this job. Then, we will arrange for the administrator to be out of his office for an hour during that day. Our spy will be involved with keeping him busy, which is part of the reason we require your involvement.”

“All right. Send all of the information you have — especially about access points to any of their building networks and computer systems. I will get back to you in a couple of days with my fee and the details about when I will be performing this.”

“Very well. We will expect to hear from you.”

# # #

Getting out of the elevator on the forty-third floor was when things might start getting harder. We’d been given floor plans and Lucas had gotten other plans separately that confirmed the plans were correct. According to those, it was just down one corridor and then around a corner and I’d be at the administrator’s office. Since this was right in the middle of when I’d said I would be here, he should still be out of his office. The client said that he would definitely bring his secretary with him, so there wouldn’t be anyone there.

Walking to the office, I was thinking about all of the ways that I could deal with someone seeing me and asking why I was here. Of course, there was always the simplest one of asking where the mens’ room was. Surprisingly, that one almost always worked. You’d be amazed how damn near everyone stops being concerned about someone who says they just couldn’t find the bathroom. I got to his office and, yep, just as expected — no secretary.

I took a very quick look around to confirm there was no one nearby and walked over to the door. It would be entirely too simple for it to be unlocked and open and, I was right — it wasn’t. However, that’s what lock picks were made to get through and this was not exactly a complex one. Barely thirty seconds later and I was opening the door, stepping into his office and shutting the door behind me.

“OK, Lucas. I’m in the office, and it’s all clear.”

“Great, boss. We agreed it would be a bad idea to use the network connection over by his desk unless we have to. What about the one on the side wall?”

I looked over there and smiled. “You mean the one that’s completely hidden by the couch he’s got in here? Yeah, I think that’ll work nicely. Let me move the couch to get to it.” I was able to easily slide the couch out a few inches and then climb on top of it, looking along the wall behind it. The small connection panel was quite obvious, almost in the middle of where the couch had been.

“And … I’ve got it.” The virus pod was sitting in my pocket, so I pulled that out and reached out to plug it in.

“Wait a second, boss! Don’t plug it in just yet. Let me start watching their alarm systems.” There was a short pause. “All good. I’m not really going to be able to modify anything — or even listen in for very long — but at least I’m listening in for now. Go for it.”

I plugged the pod in and knew that it was time to get out of here as quickly and smoothly as I could. The couch moved right back into place after I was off it, hiding the connection and virus pod. I turned to head for the door … and that was when things began to go wrong.

# # #

“Boss! That pod must have lit up alarms all throughout the security network! I’m keeping them from seeing where it’s connected, but, at best, I can only do that for another couple of seconds and then it’s probably going to lock me out. You need to get out of there and get out of there NOW!”

Damn it! I knew this was going to blow up — I just hadn’t known exactly when. I dashed to the door, opening it up and taking a quick look out. I couldn’t hear anything, yet. But I’ve learned that when Lucas says he’s being locked out, it means the bowl is full and someone’s already pulled the lever to flush, so it was about to get very, very bad. Who knew how fast this was going to start swirling? I had to think fast. “I’m out of his office. While you still have access, I need clear stairs!”

“Head right. Stairs are fifty feet, on your left side. I’m triggering additional alarms through the building maintenance network to be distracting, but that’s not going to last very long before the security system starts ignoring the maintenance network!”

This is why it’s useful to have Lucas on constant contact. I don’t need to memorize the floor plans since I can rely on him to keep me updated on whatever I need to do, pretty much instantly.

I did a very brisk walk over to the door to the stairs. Until they found me, no sense in running and possibly drawing too much attention to myself. Pushing the door open, I was on the landing — on the forty-third floor. Now for the question of which way to go. “We didn’t make plans for me needing to get out of here going off the roof, did we?”

“No, boss. This was supposed to be an easy in and out. Now that they know there’s someone breaking in, it’s going to Hell quickly.”

“Yeah, that does seem to be where we’re going right now. Ok, I’m heading down. Which floor should I get down to so it’ll be clear?”

A pause for a couple of seconds, as he processed alarm data. “I’d recommend the low thirties.” Hearing that, I started running down the stairs. “Boss, I’ve been completely pushed out of the security network, even just listening in, with no way to reconnect. I’m still in the maintenance network, so I can see what’s going on with the elevators and the building as a whole.” I made it to the thirty-eighth floor, still running. “They’re heading to forty-three. They’ve figured out where the network intrusion happened. Faster, boss!”

“Right! Easy enough for you to say!” I was starting to puff. I hate when jobs fall apart like this. Aside from needing to run around just trying to get out, it was pretty clear that I was unlikely to make any money on this one. My clients sacrificed their initial retainer as soon as I accepted a job, but the other eighty percent gets paid only when I report that it’s “mission complete” and this one clearly wasn’t going to be that.

“I’m down to thirty-two now! I’m going to stop here and see if I can just get out regularly.” I stood on the landing, catching my breath so I wouldn’t look like I’d just been running down ten flights of stairs. I still had to be able to look like I belonged here.

“Right, boss. I’ve still got that maintenance network link.” I pulled open the door and stepped into the hallway. “Ok. Regular exit — you need to get over to the other elevators. Turn left and then right at the second hallway.” I started to walk and then Lucas updated me. “Stop! That won’t work any more, boss. They must have caught that door to the stairs opening and figured out that it might be the intruder. I’m reading that they’ve locked the doors on all the stairwells, all levels. And now they’re also locking the elevators from opening on the thirty-second floor!”

Lovely … this just kept getting worse and worse. I needed to get out of here, so I thought for a moment. “Hey, what about the atrium on this side of the building? It’s not sealed off, right? The building design plans showed that it’s just got a low wall there. I could use that to get down one … or maybe two … floors. Then I could catch an elevator from there, since I won’t be triggering any doors or anything else.”

A few seconds passed while Lucas analyzed that, running my idea against what little information he could still access about the status of everything in the building. “Looks good, boss. Try for two floors, though, if you can. I’m starting to get pushed out of the maintenance network, too! I can’t tell if the floors above and below you have also been completely shut down and secured or not.”

“Oh, great. Get me to the atrium, Lucas!”

“Yes, boss. Three more hallways in the same direction you were going, then turn right and straight there.” I started walking, moving faster now. As I made the turn, I could see the wall at the side of the atrium about fifty feet away. Still no one nearby, so this was starting to look like this would work and I would be getting out of here very soon. Also — rather than a low wall against the atrium, it was a nice decorative rail, complete with additional lower bars, so I should be able to hop over it and then climb down.

I got to the rail and did just that — lowering myself and swinging my feet in so I dropped onto the thirty-first floor, rolling away from the rail and standing up, getting ready to go back and do it again. As I got ready to climb over this rail, I looked across the atrium … and right at the guards who were on the other side … pointing at me … and then starting to pull out their guns.

Jarrod!

“Huh? What?”

Jarrod Fletcher! Are you listening to me? Dinner is in twenty minutes! You still need to set the table! Did you even finish your homework yet?

# # #

Ah, hell! It was this close to dinner-time? Had I really spent two hours in this game again? And I still hadn’t managed to get through this blasted mission.

I turned off the neural connection from the helmet, letting me, effectively, return to my own body. I started to blink rapidly as my eyes adjusted to being used again. As I pulled off the helmet, I shouted back, “Yes, mom! I finished my homework right after I got home! I’ll be down in a minute to set the table!”

All right — I was really getting seriously annoyed. I’d now been through this mission four times, each time trying a different approach. And I’d failed every single time. It was pretty clear that this mission was designed as a guaranteed failure and the storyline job was to get out of the building. Maybe I should just go ahead and spend the extra money during the preparation stage to set up for escaping by going up and getting out from the roof? I’d have to give it just one more shot after dinner. If that didn’t work … I might need to start asking around and see what anyone else had done to get through this one …

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