Light in the Storm, Interlude: Chasing Echoes

((From => Rogan's Sharo Hotel))
----------

From his car, Rogan watched the small spots of moving lights within the perimeter of the compound hidden in the depths of the mountainous Sharo woodland. The dirt track he'd followed had been hard to keep to, between the untamed woodland and the driving snow. It let further west, from this small lay by, and around to a secluded ice fishing lake. A newer road had been placed in, coming from the other direction, a few years ago, and now this old track was gradually returning to nature; it had long since been stricken from Sharo's official transit-way listings.

He manually clicked the wipers on the wind shield to clear them of snow and looked between the trees; the compound was at least a mile away, and it certainly wasn't listed on any map, but that in itself wasn't too unusual. There were dozens of unlisted properties dotted through the wilderness in this country, and only 'most' of them were government run. This one was not. There was a proper road to the place, but only one, and there would be no point in approaching from that direction.

The dull moan of the wind between the trees continued to rise and fall in patterns for several more minutes while Rogan made a final checking pass over his equipment. The shoulder bag in the seat beside him held several select pieces of clothing and accessories, just in case, as well as a few of his more interesting toys, and a laptop bag that contained its own surprises. On the outside it looked like a tool kit, more than anything else. He already had the important information for the work memorised, and nothing in his vehicle today could create any kind of paper trail.

His eyes drifted towards the alcove in the dashboard where a small yellow-clad figure was curled up with her arms around her knees, watching him. Almost nothing. But, as he was finding out more and more often, the things he could do with Lyntael working alongside him amounted to activities that would otherwise take many months longer, or else be impossible entirely without bringing in another person, and even working with Lyntael's difficulties was preferable to that.

“It's 1:45, sir.” Her voice was soft and quiet, and it sounded nervous... frightened. He fixed her with a more direct look. After a few more seconds he swallowed his pride and principles. Safety was more important than clinging to how things 'should' be.

“Lyntael, are you certain you will be able to do as I need? I can hear your voice. If I get caught tonight, I will not likely go to prison. I need to be sure of you.” At another time, he'd have expected a flinch or a wince from the girl, at the mention of just how dangerous their mission stood to be, but there had been a change in her, over the past few days. She seemed much more at peace, and less fragile than any time her could recall since before SciLab. It was partly that which had spurred him to take this opportunity rather than waiting. Lyntael remained still for a moment or two, looking down at her feet, then closed her eyes and drew along breath in, releasing it slowly. she nodded softly, then stood up and squared her shoulders, meeting his gaze once more. the second nod was firmer.

“I am, sir. I know what I have to do to keep you safe. I know what to expect when you send me in. There might be viruses, beyond the air gap, but if any, there shouldn't be many, and they won't be of any dangerous grades. I know where in the internal network map you will need me to be, and I know how to get quickly between those places.” She paused and swallowed, then continued. “There might be other navigators on the network, but none that are there for any official reason. If I am seen or engaged in conversation, I am 'StarburstLexi.exe', navigator of Geraldine Armine, an incumbent transfer from the 2C villa, in Yumland. My terminal was moved across border separately and delivered here ahead of her plane, and I'm just taking a look around on my own before before she arrives in country tomorrow. Ideally I will not be seen.” It still sounded like she was reciting a rote line of text, but he had to trust that she'd be able to give the information more smoothly if she actually needed to. He nodded and glanced in his mirror one more time.

Grey-blue eyes looked back from behind a fine-rimmed set of glasses, under a curly mop of brown hair. The false collar of a polo shirt that didn't actually exist was folded neatly over the top of a green sweater. Good enough. He slipped the glasses off and tucked them into the front of the sweater, then leaned over to pull the strap of the shoulder bag onto his shoulder. Without further words, Lyntael returned to her PET and Rogan scooped it up as well.

Outside, in the dark of night, the wind and the snow bit fiercely, but Rogan didn't really notice it. The door closed behind him and he moved to the boot of the car to pull out the last pieces of his set up. A few seconds out in the blizzard would lend some more credibility to the under layer anyway, and it didn't take him long to slip into the workman's coverall, black fabric and a snap front, just like the maintenance workers in these particular places wore. He shouldered the bag once more, settling it, then began to trudge through the woods towards the distant lights.
The walk through the woods didn't take long, but as he drew closer to the outskirts of the compound, Rogan slowed his pace. There were no blind spots in the outer line, naturally, but his point of entry had turned out to be simple enough. They were confident on their home turf, and as much as the security and defence measures of the compound were steep, they weren't as overwhelming as they could easily have been. He began to circle northward through the trees, cutting a wide arc around until he was able to take his bearing off a distant building on the inside of the tall fence. After another minute of careful walking, he began searching for the camouflaged camera points. There.... and there. Perfect. There were visible cameras on the tops of each of the main poles along the fence line, but they were decoys.

The real camera perimeter was a rig that made a circle about twenty metres out from the fence itself, carefully hidden in the trees themselves. Hard to see by accident and easy to miss even so, unless you knew what you were looking for in advance. Rogan lined himself up between the two concealed devices, still outside their scan range and watched them. The tiny lenses swivelled slowly, covering wide arcs which, he presumed, sufficiently overlapped with each other. Time to fix that. He pulled out his PET and extended the probe.

After a few moments of searching and modulating the device, he began to patch an emulated link through to the closed perimeter net. It was just an isolated loop that fed back to an outer control room for viewing, but he wasn't game enough to try creating a loop, let alone knocking anything out; both would be too visible on way or the other. He tapped on the screen and brought up the terminal's other controls.

“Time to work, Lyntael.” He paused just long enough to hear her short response, then pressed the button to send her in.

==

Lyntael had spent the last few minutes pacing, sitting on the carpet in the living area, and trying not to fidget through her anxious nerves. However firm and cool she'd managed to sell herself to Rogan, it didn't help that she felt terrified underneath. If she messed up here, Rogan could die. He was actually relying on her for that. It was enough to give her a heart attack. She moved up and down the length of the room, clasping and unclasping her hands and taking long breaths. Nervous energy was stopping her from focusing on any one thing for too long. The whole thing had to be seamless. Why was he trusting her for something this dangerous? A moment later, Rogan's voice came through to her and her steps stopped. The spiky, jagged nerves and fidgets flattened into something more still. Not calm exactly, but a determined sense of the inevitable, now that he was calling her. She stepped up to the exit pad, and breathed out, bracing herself, before the beam of light took hold and tore her through its unstable, torturous link.

On the far end, Lyntael stumbled briefly, gasping in and clamping her teeth shut to prevent any extra sound escaping. On instinct, her arms wrapped about her body, clutching at the all-over pain that lingered for several seconds. It had been bad, this time. Even with Rogan actively controlling the link, it had been terrible. As she looked up and opened her eyes, a sense of darkness met her, only, it wasn't exactly dark, so much as a lack of.. anything, really.

Space yawned in every direction, lacking any kind of internally designed structure made to support a program like her. She was standing on something that felt like panels, but it looked like a green strip of light that ended about a foot beyond and behind her. Ahead, after a gap of about two feet, another green strip started. Her first reaction was that it felt cold beneath her bare feet, but that wasn't right, she realised. She expected it to feel cold, but it didn't feel like anything. It was barely a sense that she was standing, with weight, at all, beyond that, her own brain was struggling to fill in expected tactile responses that weren't really present.

Gradually, as she peering into the expanse, more green strips of light began to identify themselves to her sight. A path progressed in sections ahead of her, curving slightly in one direction, and far off, she could make out the impression of other similar paths moving in different directions. How was she supposed to work with this?

“Lyntael. Status.” Rogan's voice felt like it was filling her; it came, as usual, from a place just above and behind her, but in the void of sensation and the deafening silence, it felt like it was everywhere.

“I'm...” Her voice sounded thin and muted, and the sound died almost as soon as it left her mouth. “I'm in. I think. There's... nothing here. It's not meant for a navigator at all.” She swallowed and looked around again for some sign of something she cold interact with properly. Nothing but emptiness and the thin green pathways, which, she supposed, weren't really pathways at all. Instead, she closed her eyes, trying to ground herself to her connection back to Rogan, and work out from here. Her heart was already beating too quickly. Whatever sense she used to detect Rogan's activity – Lyntael had never really understood it precisely – that, at least, was stable. She cold feel the intermittent maintenance pulse of the emulated link, and where it touched down, she could feel it trace lines before fading out. Maybe that was something she could follow properly.

“Good.” Rogan's voice was quiet and firm, flat and without any hint of emotion. His working voice. It still managed to be a comfort to her. “The only thing that could detect you there would be the maintenance programs. They run an integrity check once every hour, and they will have just finished now, so you will not see any. If you do encounter one, do not interfere with it. It should not notice or detect you as long as you stay out of its way.” She nodded, then swallowed and answered.

“Yes, sir. I'm going to try to find the first camera now, sir.”
“Good. Hurry. I do not have a broad window for some parts of this venture.”

With another silent nod, Lyntael took a step forward, then jumped across the emptiness to the next strip of green light. A momentary feeling of being nowhere at all crossed her senses in a blur of static, before her toes touched down on the far side once more and she bit back a short gasp. It was okay. She just had to find the camera and recalibrate it, somehow. Lyntael set her shoulders and started moving again, taking the next jump with more confidence. It had to be somewhere along one of these lines.
Travelling through the unformed void space, cut with the brief dissonance of being every time she skipped from one light line to the next, made all of Lyntael's senses ring. Every part of her strained for some kind of sensation or feedback as she moved on, and found nothing, except the faint impression of her feet touching something solid, and the sight of the faint green lines. Every few jumps, she stopped and closed her eyes, taking a breath and focusing on the things she actually could feel.

Behind her, the sensation of Rogan's link, tracing back to the place she had appeared. She'd never been sure how to describe this sensation; it didn't tie in with any of her other senses, so much as it was a feeling, but it was a comfort in this place. the faint lines of sense crept out from that point, spreading along to where she stood and branching away from her in every direction. It was barely notable, most of the time, but here in this unformed data space, it was nearly the only thing she had to focus on and she pushed the feeling, stretching the sense further and further from her. Rogan was still waiting; there was nothing to mask, save herself and her own presence, but focused as she was she could feel it settled across her like a thin blanket against the void.

She opened her eyes and moved forward again. It wouldn't be far, said her rational thoughts, but what was distance or space in a place that wasn't made to map them in away she could feel? The only measure here was time itself – how long a signal took to get from one point to another. Three more stops later, she began to feel something at the edge of her sense as she pushed the delta of thin feelers out from her body. It was strange to feel like she was seeing more with her eyes closed. It was definitely something, though. A tick; a heartbeat that was shifting back and forth. The closer she got the more it seemed to shift off to the side of the line of thin green lights. A few jumps later, she found herself stopped. The lines continued forward, but the sense was... in a different direction entirely now.

The girl's eyes travelled to one side and upward, where she could feel the source of energy. Peering harder, she thought she could make out a cluster of dim light. Closing her eyes and reaching towards it confirmed. That was what she needed. There were no light trails leading to it, but the edges of her other sense filtered along a rising connection. Cautiously, she felt past the edge of the narrow light line she was on. the sense of nothingness crept over hr as her hand explored the lack of anything beyond the light, but sure enough, towards the end, she found something solid. A thin connection, barely there at all, but as her fingers slid across it, her other sense answered back; there was a flow of data, coming down to the main line. Okay... she could probably manage that...

Moving up the new path proved harder. It felt... tenuous. Like it wasn't enough to support her weight, as slight as she was. A thought occurred to her that her 'weight' in this situation wasn't physical... and she'd seen read-outs from Eric's screen in the early days to know that her 'code weight', however that translated, was criminally dense and heavy. the 'path' was more like a slim, invisible tightrope that she found herself struggling to climb with her hands as much as walking on with her toes. Every step, the feeling of being nowhere and nothing gnawed at her; her eyes were useless, her touch and balance had barely anything to work on, and there was certainly nothing for for her ears to pick up, beyond the deafening emptiness. It would be easy to forget she had a body at all, in a space like this.

Hand over hand, Lyntael eventually managed to pull herself towards the cluster of energy that the thin connection was sending data from. there was no ledge or platform for her to rest on, though – the tether simply ended in the centre of a bundle that lit up to her other sense. she blinked a few time,s trying to work out if she was seeing something or not, and reached out to touch what she could feel. A moment later, she was looking at a snow-clad forest. The view wasn't her own, and it slowly panned one way, then back again. For the first time that day, a small smile of relief crossed her features. Carefully, she focused again and began working to re-calibrate the camera, bit by bit each pan, coaxing it gradually out of alignment.

====

Rogan waited, watching the fence line ahead of him in the distance. The wind brushed through the trees and the snow still fell, but he didn't feel them. He was far enough back that even someone who looked out from the fence wouldn't see his silhouette, but by the same token there wasn't a lot he could really see from here either. He had enough to go on, though. The security that walked the perimeter carried torches that doubled as contact tazers. Naturally, they were armed as well, but the torch light let him keep count of their patrol easily enough.

A minute passed, and then another, but Rogan waited, heartbeat slow and breathing steady. As he watched the lights pass a second time, he pulled a pair of gloves out of the interior pocket of his outfit and pulled them on. They were made of a black mesh, with three broad strips of dull black metal across the palms. The lights passed away further.

“Lyntael—”
“It's done! Ready, sir!!” Just as he started to speak, the girl's voice came to his ear, out of breath and sounding taxed. He had been about to hurry her, but she'd managed just in time.
“Good.” He walked forward with a long, fast stride, making a direct line for the fence between the two surveillance cameras. Lyntael's tinkering would have slipped their scanning path enough to open a passage about one metre across directly between them, and Rogan walked through the new blind spot up to the fence at a brisk pace.

He didn't stop when he reached the fence. Instead, his last step grew longer and faster and when his foot left the ground it turned into a jump that let him catch his toe in a link of the fence about halfway up. One hand gripped the fence and his other foot caught on just shy of the top, which fanned outward in a wide barbed 'v', netted with spiralling circles of razor wire. His other hand reached up,grabbing and gripping two on the circles and clutching them together tight against the metal support as he gripped on. With the rest of his momentum, Rogan kicked outward, twisting his body up and over until his feet braced against the v-shaped support bar. The coils of razor wire were pressed flat between either his boots or his gloves, and the bar they were affixed to. He glanced down and around for a brief moment to ensure that none of his clothing had snagged and that he hadn't damaged the wire, then kicked off again and jumped down to land in a crouch on the inside. The wire sprang back and wobbled as he released it, but a cursory back-glance told him it was only bent very mildly from his intrusion.

As he stood, Rogan turned and began to walk along the fence line, pressing buttons on his PET's probe as he did. By the time he moved between two smaller buildings near the perimeter, Lyntael had been reclaimed from the external line. He waited a five count for the muffled sound of her sharp gasps to stop, then sought the next task, tweaking the settings on the probe as he came to a nonchalant stop outside a snow-battered stainless steel door.

“You have one minute, Lyntael. I need at least a thirty second cut, clean.”
“Yes sir.” There was discomfort in the girl's voice, but she sounded firm enough. He patched her in to the isolated camera of the smaller storage building and then immediately began working on the door's lock. It was just a shed, basically, and had a simple camera in one corner on the inside. The door lock was a simple physical one, without any electronic trips.

His mind kept count of the seconds as he pulled the needed tools from his shoulder bag. Guard patrol would be passing back again in two minutes and about thirty seconds. About forty-eight seconds in, the lock clipped open under his tools and Rogan put them away again in a smooth motion, sliding the bolt back. He paused, hand on the door, and glanced at the hinges. They looked well maintained. Plan 'A' for this part would probably be fine.

“Lyntael...”
“Almost, sir, almost! Ah... there, done! Go!” As Rogan pulled the door open and stepped inside, he found himself aware of the stress and tension in her voice. He banished the thought.

Inside the shed, the space was only a few metres across in either direction, filled with shelves and stacks of rolled up wire, or reels of blue and yellow cable. On the bottom shelve of one stand, several well-ordered tool kits for maintenance crew were stored next to spare hard hats. The tool kits were large and a bit bulky, but that served his needs well enough. He pulled one out and opened it up, seconds counting by in his mind.
Lyntael lifted her hands from where she has been working at the small, plain terminal in front of her. As far as she knew, this was the inner network of linked security systems for the compound. The space wasn't as unformed as the outer net; this place was meant for actual program maintenance and occasional navigator inspections, though it was still very bare bones. There was a humming sound in the background all around her, and the occasional magnetic reverb of a signal zipping across one linked pathway or another.

It had taken longer than she'd wanted to reach the control node for the storage shed camera, from the actual input point that Rogan had sent her to – the sprint up the narrow green walkway, edged with signal paths, hadn't been too bad, but even as she'd arrived, a patrolling prog had hummed by on the main circuit. Five seconds of tense crouching behind the terminal bank as its blank, smiling expression moved along had been enough to send her heart rate hammering, and it still hadn't calmed down now, almost a minute later. Rogan has said they wouldn't notice her as long as she didn't get in their way, but she wasn't entirely sure how accurate that was... Rogan's ideas about programs weren't always... well informed... She winced at the uncharitable thought. Normally, progs like that were so friendly and helpful, but she understood that these ones would helpfully inform everyone of her presence and trespass as soon as they knew something was wrong, and they'd mean so well by it.

There wasn't any time for getting hung up on thoughts like that anyway. She tried to calm herself and looked around. No more patrolling programs in sight for now. The network space was comprised of panelled hallways and walkways, but very little was obscured; most of the surfaces, walls and floor, resembled a glass wire-frame, traced through with light lines that carried underlying network signals. A black absence of light stretched out beyond the formed spaces, but from where she was standing, Lyntael could see the transparent structure of most of the isolated network, rising and falling, curving back on itself and looping around in different directions. Each hallway or open walk bore a thick data line alongside the space intended for navigators and other programs to move through, and bright pulses of light darted back and forth through them. Whenever one passed close by, Lyntael felt a sense of the data it contained, but only briefly before it passed her by.

It was kind of pretty, in its complexity, but there wasn't any time to appreciate it. Rogan would be getting ready and she needed to get the grounds he meant to cover under control, and quickly. For a moment she closed her eyes and focused on the emulation link. Back the way she had already come, of course, but beyond that it gave her nothing; she had no way to check on Rogan out in the physical world, like this, but there was no fixing that.

Instead, she ran. Rogan had found some layout designs for her to study, earlier. They wouldn't be exact, but they denoted principles and practices that a network like this would most likely follow, and as her bare feet made the panels hum each contact, she went through the rules in her mind, trying to apply them to the twisting corridors ahead of her. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty... Seconds counted in her mind as her eyes darted. Main circuit, terminating branches, dependant nodes. That way. She turned off and found herself running down a much narrower strip of panels with no enclosing hallway and just void space below. Far down, she could see other passages and light lines crossing past, but they were a long way down, and falling through would not be good for her health. The path was easily broad enough to run without worry, of course, but she still found herself raising a small updraught of wind around herself and to either side, without caring about how it made her skirt flare. There was no-one here, and it felt safer.

Two thirds of the way down the diversion, Lyntael pulled back hard, almost stumbling as she stopped. A prog was moving up the path from the other direction, two panels ahead of it lighting up beneath a scanning light as it hovered along the centre of the path at a steady pace. She glanced back as it approached; running back was an option, finding somewhere to turn off, but the margin was in seconds and there wasn't really enough time to waste... but if it detected her... her eyes canned about, but the surrounding void offered no help. The prog's blankly smiling face drew near and Lyntael stepped back. Her eye fell on the panels lighting up as it moved; three, two, one... In a desperate moment, her eyes fell on the data conduit alongside the pathway and she jumped passing her body over the line of light and grabbing onto it with both hands. An immediate static charge crackled through her, and past where her hands grippe,d the light dimmed and shrank down to a thin, barely visible glow.

Lyntael hung on, clenching her teeth teeth against the increasing buzzing feeling. She wasn't touching the walkway at all, though, at least for the moment. The prog passed by, less than a foot from her with its green light scanning the panels. Her heart lurched and her breath stilled in her throat as it stopped, bobbing in place. It turned in a slow circle, though there was no indication that it could see her as it rotated. Lyntael could feel her hands going numb; the static pressure on the line was diverting down her arms and she was losing sensation. A bolt of light appeared from the far end, racing down the line from the direction she had come, and as it slammed across her hand,s Lyntael's senses blurred out momentarily. A file transfer. the details from and to raced across her mind as a large flood of data diverted. Her other senses caught up a second later as she blinked; a sense of shunted movement. One hand slipping as her arms lost all feeling.

Without thinking any further, Lyntael swung herself back onto the walkway before she fell. She had to redirect the file as well, otherwise... a swift movement from one hand as she released them both saw the light burst settle back onto the line and shoot off. As soon a she took her hands away, the glow returned to a healthy, stable state as well. In a panic, the girl looked around, but the Prog was further behind her now. No, it was still scanning, she realised; the obstruction had moved her instead. As she looked, the prog turned its scanning beam towards the data line.

“MINOR SIGNAL DELAY. NO ANOMALIES FOUND. ADDING ENTRY 4-6-2-1 TO DAILY LOG.” It sounded as bright and jovial as any prog ever did, before turning forward again and continuing on its path. Lyntael rolled over and picked herself up, rubbing her arms. It didn't sound like it thought there was a real problem. She swallowed and put a hand to her chest, willing her heart to slow down, then kept running.

====

Rogan closed the tool kit and stood up again, hefting it in one hand as she resettled his other bag on the opposite shoulder. A tool belt and several other pieces of appropriate paraphernalia had been added to his black coverall and he stepped towards the door, resting a hand on it. Everything else in the room had been put back where it belongs and as he'd found it. He picked up a tightly bound roll of fence wire and slung it over his shoulder, then hoisted a short step ladder with the free hand as he opened the door.

The snow and frigid winds met him again as he stepped out, but Rogan didn't notice it. Instead he glanced left and right, then closed and re-locked the shed door behind him.
“Are we ready, Lyntael? Cross the open and to the planned entrance.”
“Hahh... almost, Sir. just getting it in place... Have to wait for the guard to move so I can take a clean cut... almost...” She sounded out of breath and... worried about something. She often sounded like she'd been running while doing these jobs. It was strange. He shrugged off the thoughts. “Okay, go!” Lyntael's confirmation sent Rogan striding out into the snow, emerging from behind the maintenance shed with an unhurried trudge. His fence-hopping gloves were safely hidden with his other gear in his shoulder bag, for now, and had been replaced with heavier workman's gloves, which he balled together and rubbed as his breath misted.

He kept to the outskirts of the compound, not far from the fence as he worked his way around towards the entrance he'd chosen. He'd need to cross back across broad open space to get there but it wasn't going to be an issue. Part way along, he caught sight of one of the security patrols coming towards him in the other direction and he stopped in his pacing to straighten up and rest the step ladder so he could knuckle his back with one hand. He waved, flagging the pair of guards.

“Aie, there a tear in the damn fence somewhere around here?” He called out to them as they approached, in a comfortable, colloquial Sharroan. “Guys said some animal had mangled itself in the wire.” He spat on the ground and scuffed a foot over it in the snow. “Can't see anything. Your way?” He glanced at each of the guards once properly but didn't hold eye contact too long, instead looking up and down the undamaged fence line. The pair looked at each other and shrugged.

“Have called it in if there was.” One of them offered in a bored tone. Rogan spat again and swore at the ground, mumbling a handful of colourful Sharo curses under his breath.

“My turn to check my arse, in this bloody weather... ” He hefted the step ladder again, then turned and began to walk inwards, towards the main complex, still muttering as he gave a back-handed wave of thanks to the guards. After a few moments he reached the steps leading up to the side doorway. Inside the complex itself the doors weren't locked or barred, but they had other security measures in place. As he climbed the steps, he set the roll of fencing wire down.

“At the door, Lyntael. Status.”
“I'm almost there, sir.... at the controls now. I can't deceive the scanner here, sir, it does body heat, and it's too... er, that is, I can shut it off for a few seconds, if I just...”
“Don't talk, Lyntael. Act.”
“Yes, sir.” There was that note of hurt again. He shoved the thought away. Rogan stamped his boots and pulled off his working gloves as a means of stretching a few seconds, before Lyntael's voice came back to his ear.
“Ok, go in now, sir, it's off for seven seconds.” Without waiting, Rogan pushed on the door bar and let himself inside. About a foot inside the doorway, a slim metal plate connected to a frame set neatly into the wall, but he walked through without giving it a second glance.

The entry way led into a small junction and Rogan turned left, then continued towards the first doorway on his left again. No-one was in the hall for now, but Rogan maintained his posture and stance regardless. It wasn't until he turned into the doorway and pushed it closed behind him that he stood straight again and began to move more quickly.

One hand pulled a cloth out of his pocket, covering his fingertips as he input a new message to the keypad inside the door; the placard on the outside began to show text marking the room as closed for technical maintenance.

The room itself was a meeting office, one long table in the middle with an assortment of beige folding chairs spread around it. Cabinets on one wall looked like they were used mostly for something to rest the coffee machine and cups on, than actual storage. Rogan set the step ladder up underneath the ceiling projector, then put his tool bag on the desk and opened it up. His hands went to the snaps on his coverall as he started to change.

It occurred to him that he was trusting Lyntael with a lot, but somehow, the way she'd responded, he was less hesitant about it than he had been in the past. She had seemed more sure of herself this time, though he had no real idea what could have spurred the change. She hadn't actually done much training like they'd intended, after all.

With two fingers, her slipped the coloured contacts out of his eyes and clipped the case for them closed, then pulled the glasses from the neck of his sweater and put them on instead.

“Rogan, sir. There's... there are a lot of very large data files being moved around here, sir. I saw them when I was trying to move between the system layers. Going back and forth, all over the terminal network. Most of it looks like it's about money though... what do they do here?” Lyntael's voice was quiet in his ear. She should know better than to get distracted while they were working. The case went into his shoulder bag as he slipped a long white coat over his sweater instead and began roughly folding the stripped coverall.

“Laundering. It's most of what they do. Focus, Lyntael.” He expected a short answer, but a couple of seconds of silence instead tugged at him unexpectedly. He sighed as he pulled other effects out of the bag.

“Nothing of use to me, Lyntael. I only need what I'm here for and nothing else. The less trace that is left, the better.”
“Yes, sir...” Without thinking, he nodded to himself at her response.

Thirty seconds after the grouchy maintenance worker had shuffled into the side office, a white-coated research technician nervously adjusted his glasses as he glanced at himself in the reflection of the white board. His green-covered clipboard was tucked under one arm, and his laptop bag was more comfortably supported with the strap crossing over his body from the opposite shoulder. The toolkit was open on the desk near the ladder, but it had only the tools it was meant to have in it. His outermost layer of clothes and other affectations were roughly folded and hidden away in the shoulder bag he still carried.

“Second hallway in seven, six, five...” Rogan cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders, then moved to the far door, opposite the one he'd entered from.
“Ready, sir. You're clean.” She still sounded nervous, he noted, but at least she was meeting her marks. He stepped out into the hall.
Lyntael stepped back from the inner terminal she'd just finished with. Small, nervous snaps cracked in her hair and her hands trembled as she continued to hold them out in front of her. She was okay. It was close, but she was making it, and Rogan was covered. Any slip up and he'd be exposed in the middle of an illegal compound surrounded by people with more guns than qualms using them, but as long as she kept it together, he'd be fin. Her heart was making her chest ache with its beat.

Rogan would be moving out into the hall now. He was making for one of the general computer workstation rooms. She had covered the cameras on the halls he'd need to pass through to get there. It was okay. She looked at the terminal in front of her again, happily running its loop through the select cameras, and clenched her fists, flexing them a few times and willing her leg to move. She had to keep going. After a moment more, she turned and jumped down the steps that had led to this point, rejoining the primary security line.

There hadn't been any other navigators yet, and Rogan had promised her that there shouldn't be any, but he'd still provided her with a cover story just in case... which meant it was still a possibility. She had all the details memorised, but... with a shake of her head, Lyntael tried to shove the thought away and ran swiftly instead, the balls of her feet lighting up panels as she crossed them and leaving a fading glow trail behind.

The lighting was better in this section of the network; it was more intended to have actual traffic than other places. There were proper hallways and corridors, though they still looked out over unformed void beyond in many cases. The main security system only had a couple of connection points between its different sub-systems, and she had a lot of ground to cover to get to where Rogan needed her next... Her path took her around in a broad, curving circle, ignoring several other branches and small rises identical to the one she'd just been working at before. Eventually, however, the marker she'd been seeking came into sight. A pair of inward facing arrows above a transit pad on the inner side of the main line. As she jumped on, and the transit took her, the sensation of direction and the feeling of the emulated link flickered out and away.

A brief feeling of panic took hold as she felt it go, and her vision cleared on the far side of the transit, but Rogan had warned her it would happen, if she made a grid switch while he wasn't able to actively maintain the emulation. It was okay. She just had to get to where he would be, and he would be patching through anew emulation before his own dive. Reassuring herself only quelled the panic a little bit, but she shoved the rest down and looked around.

This area looked positively civilised. The transit pad was at the back of a small room, with decoration to give it the feeling of an office environment; plaster walls and ceilings, and a thin carpeted floor, all in white. A sense of quiet filled the area – not silence, of the deafening sort she'd encountered before, but quiet. There was a background sensation of quiet office sounds, just at the edge of hearing. It was probably there to make the place feel more alive, but it mostly set Lyntael on edge as she moved forward.

The transit room led immediately out into a larger space, open and circular, with a descending ramp that spiralled down and inwards. Each level was slightly smaller than the one above, but she could look down and see it dropping away for dozens of floors even so. Doorways branched off the outer walls all around every floor and Lyntael wallowed, putting a hand to her chest. It was okay. She knew where she was going, and Rogan would be there.

Running quickly, she counted the branches in her head as she spiralled down three levels. every few moments, her eyes darted out across the yawning space in the centre, to the other layers and levels, and the occasional automated prog drifting along from one area to another. It was unnerving seeing them moving about, and knowing that any of them might have seen her... that recording that was simply not a part of their job, and so they didn't... and that she and Rogan both were relying on that. She still found herself ducking for cover and hiding whenever one of them was close. Almost there.

====

Rogan adjusted his glasses again as she strode through the hallways. His posture was upright and alert, his step measured, quick and precise, moving with a sense of academic purpose. The white coat hid most of what he was wearing underneath, at least at a glance, but so far he'd been lucky enough not to run into anyone in the halls.

His path took him through a few runs and down a flight of stairs, leading from disposable-made building flats, down into a more reinforced stone level of the compound. The shift from aluminium-bracketed plywood frames to dressed cinder blocks didn't do much to change the aesthetic overall, but there was always a sense of heightened danger once you were below ground. Getting out in a hurry was usually harder. unconsciously, he resisted the urge to slip a hand into his lab coat's pocket and touch his PET.

It was an amusing consideration. Once, it would have been a stand alone probe that he kept hidden, able to perform a variety of needful functions in a situation like this... but very identifiable as espionage technology if discovered. Now everything it could do was safely concealed inside the PET and was mostly invisible unless he was using a particular tool, or it was taken apart and examined. And no-one questioned him having it because everyone had one, more or less. Even from a practical stand point, he had to admit, he really ought to have had one already, and it was pure pride that had held him back. Rogan set the thoughts aside as he approached the lab he was aiming for. It was a long room, full of square cubicle work stations that weren't reserved for any particular family member. They were just used for the plethora of generic tasks that nay number of personnel might need to carry out at any time, which made them perfect for his needs now.

A few glances looked up towards him as he entered the room; other technicians in various states of overworked and overtired. Rogan scanned the room without making eye contact, more focused on selecting a workstation for himself. He moved through the room towards one that was part way along one row and was roughly equidistant from everyone else in the room. It wasn't even suspicious – it was just what everyone always did. It was almost enough to make him laugh. No-one paid him any further attention as he settled down and put his shoulder back on the desk beside the keyboard. Just in case anyone was listening, he briefly tapped on the keyboard, mimicing keystrokes, a pause, and then more keystrokes. The sound of someone logging in was almost conditioned into the ear as a universal thing, these days. He didn't have a log in, of course, but that was easily solved.

Rogan pulled out his PET and glanced at the screen. The emulation had been broken due to a network shift. A moment of fear spiked into his chest as he read the warning, but he smoothed it away a moment later without concern. This was understood already. He just had to trust that Lyntael would be where she needed to be so he could reestablish, and more importantly so she could mask what he was actually doing. He began working with another of the PET's tools.

==
The office-facade corridors gave way to gradually more esoteric designs as Lyntael's bare feet dashed through the quiet network. The halls started to look less like corporate offices and more mechanical. off-white became military grey, and seconds of the panelling gave way to deliberately ancient-looking aesthetics – gears and cogs, brass tubing and iron grates. She skidded to a halt in one junction and looked around, turning in a circle on herself as she searched for a sign or symbol that she recognised. Her heart rate picked up. Where was it? Which way?

Hisses of steam and the occasional heavy clank of metal on metal had begun to fill up the quiet space. At last, her eyes found the string of numbers she was looking for, almost hidden in amongst the meaningless technobabble scattered between the faux machinery. She turned and followed the right passage, trying to regain the count of time in her head. Rogan would be almost there now. She was going to be slow. The awareness that she had of her disconnect – unable to even feel an emulation tether, was gnawing at her. She'd promised herself that she'd be strong, and sure, but it was hard to ignore where she was, and the danger of the situation. At any moment, someone might catch her, and Rogan was nowhere at all to save her.

((Branch, Lyntael in => Sharo Rogue Network))
((Branch Back => Sharo Rogue Network))
--------

Rogan probed carefully, but with as much haste as he dared, using what partial passkeys he'd been able to crib from other sources to cut down the time he needed to derive a proper authentication. His features remained impassive and serious, matching the calm, scholarly appearance and good computing posture the rest of his current image displayed, but his mind raced, flitting between one option and the next until he found the way forward.

For a moment his eye darted down to see a warning light light up on his PET, but he only let it distract him for a moment. Seconds counted in his mind as he worked. At last, after what felt like far too long – his watch told him it had only been thirty-eight seconds – he found what he needed. It took precious extra seconds to record and store the log details on the PET, and more to undo each step of his incursion, but it was necessary.

Lyntael's voice in his ear made his eyes dart down to the PET screen again, but everything looked to be fine. She'd said she was hurt, though the screen only showed extremely minimal damage. Was that going to impact her ability? Rogan tried to banish the thought from his mind. He needed to trust her if any of this was to work. He quickly worked to back-track his efforts and set a handful of self-clearing markers to automatically purge the remaining traces of the previous log in on this terminal, the next time anyone else logged into it. It was the best he could arrange in this situation.

With a small contented exhalation of breath, Rogan stood from his position and smoothly slipped the chair back in, pausing to adjust his lab coat with small, precise gestures. With an extra small button press, he signalled to Lyntael that he was clear and ready to move to the next step. It wasn't that he didn't trust Lyntael. Not her intention, anyway. Just her capability. He was past scolding himself for using that sort of mental language for the program; the facts of how she functioned were as they were. Rogan blinked and pushed the thoughts aside again, pulling his focus back on track as he shouldered his bag and strode from the computer lab with a purposeful step. If the PET didn't really report any damage at all, what way was she actually hurt? She would have said if she was simply scared or frightened. Would she now, though, tonight? She was trying to prove she could do as he needed. Maybe she'd rather report injury than fear, at this point? A crease of irritation flashed across his brow as he left the room and resumed his mental count. Now was not the time for invasive thoughts.

His deliberate stride took him deeper into the complex and down another flight of stairs. He maintained an expression that was alert and sharp, if somewhat lost in thought as he walked. she's mentioned a virus incursion, not simply errant glitches in the system itself. That might be a worry if it raised any kind of alarm. Anything that put people more on alert at this early stage was a danger.

Before long he was walking through seconds of the facility's underground that general technicians likely had no business being. A few more turns brought him past a sealed door that was marked as one of what he knew to be four record rooms. Exactly what was where was only properly recorded in full by a select few per installation. There would be guesswork involved here, and the more he had to check, the higher the risk. One technician code accessing a single record room would not be noticed. The same code accessing three or four in quick succession would almost certainly raise flags. There was no solution, though. He paused briefly, rifling in his shoulder bag for a clip board while he stood in front of the door, counting.

“I'm here, sir! Just... a couple of seconds! Okay, first record room is safe!” Lyntael's voice reached his ear after several more painful seconds of loitering in the hallway, before Rogan finished fussing with his bag and calmly entered his newly purloined ident with a gloved hand. The door unlocked and he slipped inside.

Inside, Rogan immediately began to search the physical records for the information he needed. The first few cabinets were disappointing, the next, frustrating. Wrong room, almost certainly. His checks through the remaining stores grew more hurried, but they contained similar and related documents, very far from the matter he was seeking.

“Sir, I don't know how long we have now. I... I lost track, in the fight before. But I know that the maintenance programs will find the damage soon. I'm sorry sir, I tried, I really did, but the viruses—”

“Hush, Lyntael. Do not focus on your mistakes now. Focus on making no more. How long is this room secure?” There was a pause after his low murmur.
“On mark, fourteen seconds, sir.... Mark.”
“Move to the next. I do not require any further cover here.”
“Yes, sir.” Rogan checked the last cabinet quickly, casting his eyes over more simple accounting papers, then closed the drawer and stepped from the room.

The next document room proved equally frustrating, containing mostly records of the most recent past projects for the nearest related family branches, each with their due date for destruction. Rogan's exterior persona didn't change as he moved between the halls in the underground complex, but he was aware that this was becoming increasingly risky. If someone decided the key pass was suspicious, there was no way it could be linked to him, but just the suspicion alone might lead to caution and questions. He didn't know how many other independents they were currently employing the services of, and that was a dangerous knowledge gap that he simply couldn't fill in.

At Lyntael's hurried word, he let himself into the third document room, internally forcing himself not to grit his teeth. The first cabinet was promising, if not what he needed. The next was similar. Despite himself, Rogan allowed a small sigh of relief to escape his lips as he scanned through the next. This was it. Intelligence on the same group they'd had him looking into, and notes on how to prevent it impacting their interests in the short term. Rogan slipped his bag down and flipped it open, pulling out a his document camera.

“Lyntael. Another thirty seconds here.” With practiced, methodical motions, Rogan swiftly began to slip out pages of documents, snapping each in turn with the aligning strut keeping it legible for the frame. His hands worked independently to get the task done, scanning through and capturing two or three pages a second until he reached the end of the documents that were related. There would be time to look at them later.

When it was done, the pages were all back in their files in the order he'd found them and the drawer clicked shut. The camera dropped back into its place in his bag, and Rogan lifted it back to his shoulder again, making for the door.

“One more task. Hallway?” He paused with his hand on the handle.
“Clear, sir.” Lyntael sounded short of breath again, but the strains of fear and worry didn't sound like anything more than her own nerves. She'd tell him if there were any deeper problems. He pushed the handle and strode out. The last task was the most precarious, naturally. There was no-one he could pass as that wold have the proper right to be where he was going, but he'd taken every other measure he could. End of this hall, left, second right, then down again. Three test labs, and his was the one on the left. He moved with purpose, flipping open the clip board he was holding in one hand and scanning the notes within as he went. It saved having to really give any kind of notice to any of the other occasional bodies he passed on his way. Even at this level of physical espionage, it was miraculous what a sense of belonging could let you get away with.

“Sir, one lady is still in the test lab, according to the camera.” Lyntael's voice had an edge of panic to it now. Rogan didn't slow his pace yet. Instead, he creased his brow and flicked one page of the notes over, then back again, and mumbled to himself in mock confusion. Under his breath he spoke.

“Understood. Find out who. Check the entry log. Then try for a page error.”
“O-Okay.” He had to trust her for now. Other options would be more dangerous and harder to cover up. For now, he had to just give the girl a chance. He slowed his pace slightly, but walked on towards his destination.

====

Lyntael stepped back from the terminal she was examining, sparks cracking in her hair as she tried to stop herself from fidgeting. Where did she need to go to do this? She knew that. With another breath she turned and looked about the network space. Rogan's emulation felt distant and faint, but at least it hadn't broken altogether. It was something. She swallowed and started to run.

The space was an efficient network, but that only meant that it was full of short-hop transits and blind links, for a navigator. This layer had been build looking like someone's best impression of sci-fi, if it had been build entirely out of brass clockwork, and the constant whirr and click of gears moving and shifting provided a sense of background noise that muffled the gentle harmonic chimes of her feet hitting the panels as she passed through different halls. The door security system for the three deepest test labs was... Her ind raced through the bits and pieces of network architecture she'd learned in advance. She ran past one transit, then stopped and returned to it, jumping through in a rush of light.

Her vision cleared in a tiny room with three narrow chutes splitting off in different directions, almost like slides, except that instead of walls and floors, they were each a mass of churning gears and cogs, liable to grind anything that fell into them. Why!? Each one had a thin brass rail fitted to the ceiling, a few inches proud of the ceiling plates themselves. They stood out, so, probably part of the system? She guessed? No time, especially if she'd have to climb down one of them by hand. Her eyes darted and found the passageway designates, eventually lighting on the one that matched the lab door she needed to access. She took a step and jumped out to the rail, grabbing on with both hands tightly and trying not to look at the grinding gears below and all around her.

For a moment, it felt like her hands passed through, and her heart shuddered, before an odd sense of drifting caught up with her and a tingling sensation came over her fingertips. It was accompanied by a feeling of rapid movement. When she opened her eyes, Lyntael found herself moving down and forward at speed, through the chute of spinning cogs. The brass bar shimmered above her, and it felt like the rest of her body had no real weight while it drew her along. Moments later, it brought her out to a terminal platform, surrounded on all asides by more of the inter-meshing mechanisms. She hung just a foot above the floor of the slim platform, and deliberately trying to pull her hand from the bar let her drop with sudden gravity to the panels. The sound of mechanism was no longer comforting when it churned all around her, but Lyntael tried to shut it out and focus on the terminal in front of her.

Actually accessing it was no difficulty for her, though she had to focus hard to keep sparks from escaping her skin and interfering with the system. The logs for the door were straight forward when she reached them, and she let out a short sigh as she read through. After a few more moments, she had a name and identity profile for the only person who had entered but not yet left. Good. She memorised it and turned back to the chute that rose up from her platform. Hopefully it would carry her up with the same speed it had taken her down. She could only wonder who had decided this was a good design.

When she jumped and caught the bar again, the same tingling sensation flooded her fingers and sure enough, it whisked her upward through the gears. By the time Lyntael reached the transit back, she was glad to be clear of that particular door system. The ones on the outside of the complex had been much less intimidating.

Back in the over-arching security system network, Lyntael started to run once more. She'd seen several more maintenance progs moving back and forth in the recent minutes, but there would be no getting used to the idea that they simply wouldn't see her if she wasn't interfering with their work. Before long, the faint chimes of her footfalls became the only sound again. One short hop transit, then another, and she was running on crystalline glass, tinted and shaded in various hues that refracted on themselves into opacity. It was disorienting if she didn't keep her eyes clearly on the actual path. Branches would be easy to miss, in this sort of architecture, she supposed. It was like a hall of mirrors. There was no other sound up here either, save her own foot falls which sent their echoes reverberating through the glass again and again.

Once or twice she missed the turn she needed to take, grit teeth and desperate frustration growing she she searched for the access room she was looking for. To many seconds, when Rogan needed this done now. He couldn't wait and loiter in the halls waiting on her; it was too risky. Eventually, she found it: a large chamber with a set of access stations forming a semi-circle opposite the mostly disguised passage in. Empty. Good. She dashed to the nearest one and began working at the keys quickly. It sparked, then went blank and the girl jumped back, wincing. Static crackled in her hair and shone in small ripples under her skin. Calm down. She had to calm down.

One breath, then another, as Lyntael focused on pushing the nervous charge away. One second. One more. Try again. This time, she moved to a different station and began searching for what she needed. There. First set up the battery error warning, then set up the false call, then send it. Her fingers worked quickly as she counted the seconds in her head.

===
Rogan slowed his pace further as he approached the corner that would lead to the stairs down to the test labs he needed. No word form Lyntael yet. He let his feet drift to a stop and pushed a concerned look across his feature, flicking through the various paper on his clip board again. The expression turned to one of mild irritation and he half turned as though to head back the way he had come. There were only so many seconds he could stretch. He had not intention of going down the stairs until he knew there was no-one else down there. Lyntael was on her own for now, though, and unless he came through in the next few seconds, he'd have to create a different diversion of his own. That would be difficult to cover without raising more suspicion. Rogan went over his options, assessing which of his back up plans would work best in the present situation.

“It's done, sir! She's received the page. It won't show up in error until she checks it upstairs. She's leaving now.” Lyntael's voice came to his ear sounding hurried and desperate, and Rogan let the lifted pages on his clip board fall down again, the expression of relief on his face only partially feigned for the role.

As he began to walk forward again, a woman in a long grey coat rounded the corner with an agitated look on her face, her steps quick and short. Rogan glanced up from his notes as he passed her, nodding his head, though the gesture was perfunctory and didn't raise his eyes enough to actually make eye contact. The woman made an equally shallow gesture of acknowledgement, and Rogan felt confident that her attention was elsewhere enough that she hadn't even really seen him at all.

Down the stairs, he found the three lab entrances, just as he'd expected, and quickly moved to the left hand one. Good fortune this time; the woman hadn't actually signed out of the lab for what she likely supposed was a quick distraction. He let himself in and got to work.

===

Lyntael stood back towards the centre of the room, taking long breaths and holding her hands in front of her as she forced her heart rate to slow down again. It was all done. She just had to hold position here for another thirty seconds or so, while Rogan got what he needed, and then they could both leave.

“Privet! Ya ne uznayu tebya... Eta laboratoriya ogranichena.” A voice made Lyntael start and her breath caught. She turned to face a female navi, taller than her and with a much more enviously adult build, dressed in a black bodysuit with grey navi armour. Her mind darted quickly for the words she'd heard as she tried to pick the meaning out of them. She new a few words, just in case, but she couldn't actually speak Sharoan at all, unlike Rogan. They'd picked her cover identity with that in mind... she just had to work with it.

“Ah, what's it to you?” She tilted her head and put her hands on her hips, leaning forward with as much of an impetuous sneer as she could. “I'm a new transfer, or didn't you get the memo? StarburstLexi. No?” In her chest, her heart felt like it was going to tear itself free, and she could feel energy beginning to spark and dance beneath her skin. She couldn't stay calm like this. What could she do? Threaten, maybe? The other navi was watching her, unimpressed, but seemed to be checking something else as her eyes flickered and scanned back and forth.

“My Op's flying over tomorrow, to start fixing up the mess you saps have left here. I shipped in express, ahead of her. Just checking out the place ahead of time. Just don't get in my way or you'll wish you hadn't.” She rolled her shoulders once as her hair sparked and her skin crackled. It was terribly heavy-handed, she knew. Surely there was no way the other navi would buy it, or be intimidated. To her surprise, though, the other navi grimaced and took a step back, raising one hand in a palm out gesture.

“As you wish.” She sounded more put out than afraid, but there was definitely caution all the same, and was actually speaking in a langugae Lyntael could understand. “A word of warning to you, yes? Do not expect to get much respect here until you are speaking the mother tongue properly.” She let out a disparaging snort and folded her arms. “Udalit'sya, suka. Enjoy your 'inspection'.”

Lyntael just shrugged – it was the most nonchalant gesture she could force herself to make, then turned to wander about the chamber in a distracted manner. She tried to force her charge down and get herself under control, but it was a gradual process. The other woman waited for a moment, then sighed and walking into the crystal-floor chamber properly, doing some work of her own on one of the side consoles, before casting another dirty look towards Lyntael and striding out again with a distinctly haughty air. Lyntael let out a breath and then quietly gasped a few more while her hands trembled. A handful of tense moments later, Rogan's voice came to her ear.

“Time to go, Lyntael.”
“Yes, sir. There was another navi, sir. I used the story you gave me, and she seemed to accept it.”
“Good. Back to cameras now, Lyntael.” Her body still hadn't calmed down, but there was no time to wait for it. She needed to get out of this area, where other navis could find her, and back to the automated circuits, and quickly. She took a long breath and let it out slowly with her fists clenched to stop them shaking, then ran from the room.
The seconds ticked by as Rogan worked, one hand darting across the keys of the active terminal while the other worked some of the more questionable upgrades on his PET, his eyes flicking between the two displays. He had what he was after now, it was just a matter of finishing the clean up. A few more seconds... done. At last, he stood back, tapping off the last commands and letting the terminal reset itself as he dropped his own device into his lab coat pocket.

“Time to go, Lyntael.” He was already moving to the door as her voice came back to his ear in a panic. She was trying to keep it calm, but it was clear her encounter had her badly shaken. Still, it sounded like she'd managed to do as was necessary. He slipped from the lab and let the door re-pressurise behind him. “Good. Back to cameras now, Lyntael.” The misled researcher wouldn't be away long, and it would be better for him if they didn't pass again; he moved as quickly as he dared, maintaining a brisk, over-worked pace.

As he turned into the corridor at the top of the stairs, Rogan caught sight of the woman rounding the far corner, just from the corner of his eye. He didn't allow himself to look in her direction properly, and kept walking, but the feeling of being scrutinised bored its way into the back of his neck and made his hackles rise as he moved away. Not good. There was time yet; he just needed to get out cleanly. A man dressed in darker clothes stepped into the hallway behind him; armed, a security person. Nothing about Rogan's pace or behaviour changed, but again he felt himself being looked at from behind. As he turned right, towards the stairs up to ground level, he caught sight of the black-clad man moving down the corridor in the same direction as him. When he turned the corner he lightened his step and listened carefully; sure enough, the pace of footfalls quickened as they got closer to the corner.

His eyes scanned the hall he was in, and his thoughts raced across as much of the floor plan as he knew. There was a break room close by. Not optimal, but it would do. He made his way in that direction, careful not to speed up as he felt the eyes of his tail marking him every corner. Just past one turn off, Rogan ducked into the expected break room and became a flurry of movement the moment he confirmed it was empty. One hand pulled his glasses off and dragged the curly brown hair piece off while he lifted his shoulder bag to shrug swiftly out of his lab coat as well. Moving steadily across the room towards the far exit, he pulled the false collar out of his shirt top and dusted the contacts out of his eyes with a wince. The excess garments were wrapped into a bundle and slipped into his bag, along with his gloves, before he turned the front flap over and shortened the strap to grip it by the handle instead; with the flap turned over it was a pale green instead of grey, and looked far scruffier carried at his waist in one hand. He grabbed a coffee mug off the side board of the room's sink and tousled his hair as he stepped out of the far door.

The quick change had taken about nine seconds and as he stepped back in the hall, Rogan's posture slouched to a tired, lazy discomfort and his expression dropped to that of someone very much done with the late shifts. He took a few steps back from the door, then began to amble forward again, just as the security guard stepped out, looking around swiftly.

“Aie, there some kind of midnight snack rush I missed? What's with all the running?” Rogan affected an exhausted tone, and looked towards the guard while barely keeping his eyes open. They were a little red from the quick contact removal, so that probably helped. The guard just glared back at him.

“Which way?” It came out snapped and hurried and Rogan waved down the hallway with his coffee mug.

“Curly-mop just rushed out like he was late for something. Nearly spilled my drink.” He shook his head and sipped from the mug with a shrug. It was 'enhanced' with something alcoholic, but he swallowed the cold coffee anyway, then let a thoughtful expression dawn on him. “Funny. Didn't recognise the guy... must be late. Or early...” He murmured with another uncaring shrug and the guard cursed, then began to jog down the hall. Rogan watched him go for a moment, then continued his pretended path, back into the break room he'd just exited. He pulled a second pair of gloves from another pocket and swiftly wiped down the mug, leaving it where he found it on the side board.

“Second Southern exit. Check for any additional recording devices in the bathroom nearest it.”
“They wouldn't—”
“Just check.”
“Yes, sir. You're clear from here to there.”

Rogan let himself move quickly as he retraced his steps part way and made for the stairs up. His current appearance might suggest a more work-worn posture, but he didn't want to delay, and 'eager to go home' wasn't too unbelievable. If the guard found nothing, he might be lucky. Many would be too proud to make a formal report about something that had all the hallmarks of late-night false alarm. He couldn't rely on that, but at the very least, it wouldn't go anywhere or lead them anywhere if they did search into it.

He didn't encounter anyone else as he made his way out, getting a mildly indignant all clear form Lyntael before he ducked into the bathroom nearest his exit point. A few moments later, he was doing up his maintenance worker coverall once more and his soft cotton gloves were replaced with heavier, wire-handling work gloves. He fixed the strap on his bag and lengthened it again, settling it on one shoulder, rather than across his chest, then moved back to the door.

“Working on the door sensor, sir. Almost... Okay, it's down for seven seconds, go!” He moved without taking the time to acknowledge Lyntael, making long, efficient strides to the exit and passing through complicated weight and heat sensor before letting himself back out into the snowy air outside.
The freezing wind had an icy bite to it as it whipped at his coveralls and pressed the fabric against his body as he stepped out and descended the handful of steps to the hard-packed snow of the exterior compound, but Rogan didn't feel it. His eyes scanned the area with a quick glance that only slightly turned his head and he took his bearings. Lyntael would be transferring back to the outer security net now. There would be another disconnect, and he paused at the base of the steps to make a show of puffing into his gloved hands at the cold. After a few seconds he shrugged and pulled out his PET, flicked across its screens as though looking up his next maintenance job. A slow count in his head ticked through, before he extended the probe and started the emulation again.

“I'm, here, sir!” Lyntael's voice met his ear immediately, out of breath and hurried. He nodded absently at his supposed job-list, then pulled the probe in again. “I've got a clear section coming up, sir. Just... Okay! Ready!” Rogan slipped the device back into his pocket then began to trudge across the courtyard, letting his posture reflect the signs of fatigue and a long night. He passed a pair of patrolling security enforcers on his way to the outer fence, but his instincts prickled as he could the sound of a heavier boot crunch on the ice and a scuff of steps turning. turning to look was fine, as long as they shrugged it off...

“Aie, have you been called out to that section? It was all clear.” Rogan suppressed the urge to wince and stopped to half turn and look back over his shoulder.

“Indeed. Something about the camera in 5G. Just going to check it. Then home at last.” He shrugged and turned to continue, but his ears caught the sound of both footsteps moving to follow him. A problem. He'd picked a storage shed that was more or less where he had been heading, just in case, but he'd have to go all the way through with it now, and the longer he spent around the guards, the more likely they'd remember his features. He'd already removed most elements of his disguise as well, so anything they remembered was likely to be his actual features. Not good.

“We just finished a round, friend, let us come with you. Might be a clever intruder.” The two guards fell into step behind Rogan as he shrugged and trudged on. There was a good chance this was just hazing, maybe a bit of bullying. The only sensible thing to do for now was play his part until they got bored and left him alone.

“Suit yourselves. It is boring work.” What details had he seen when he looked at them? The two were large, bulky figures, most likely given the job detail as much because they looked intimidating, as for their actual skill. Each was armed with a small side arm, openly worn, though they probably had secondary weapons hidden as well. On the opposite hip, they each had a contact taser – the type that fired a piercing dart with a tether. The things weren't meant to be lethal, but in the wrong hands they could very easily be used to kill just as effectively, or more so, than any hand gun. What else. One of them, the smaller one, had a long knife strapped to his boot. It didn't match anything else – probably a permitted personal effect. The one on his left was a little shorter, not quite as heavy-seeming. Letting the other one speak, but watching just as close. What else. Their vests covered neck to waist, under their clothes, but he could see the outline of the fit – a bit short on the bigger guy, and open arm gaps, broad enough not to restrict. What else. Hip flasks, tucked away almost out of sight, on both of them. The larger guy had a fairly large one. What else. The smaller one looked like he'd had a broken nose in the past, and the old remains of a scar on his right cheek. The big guy hadn't taken his left hand off his belt the entire time they walked.

Rogan planned rapidly in his mind as he drew close to the supply shed he'd mentioned. Hopefully Lyntael had listened to what he had said to them and was doing what he needed of her. When he reached the door, her lifted the lock in one hand, then shuffled about in his pockets for a few seconds. The guards stood back, but he could feel them watching him. Not finding his 'keys', Rogan pulled his shoulder bag around and opened a side pocket to rummage, turning so his body obscured the lock. He was quick with his tools; quick enough that a quick curse about the lock being stuck was enough to cover the work. Hopefully.

“You are new to the family, aren't you, techy? Forget your insurance policy back in your crib, huh?” As Rogan opened the door and stepped in, he scanned the room, finding the camera and moving between the shelves toward it. The space was small that there wouldn't be a lot of room once they were all inside, and the guards seemed intent upon entering behind him.

“I do my job. It doesn't need weapons. If you do your jobs, I don't need weapons either. I should have a weapon, you say? You say you are not doing your jobs properly?” Rogan didn't look at either of them as he answered, instead pulling a small step ladder off the bottom shelf of one rack and setting it up underneath the camera. He was rewarded by a rough pair of laughs that sounded deeply sinister. It was hard to guess whether they were trying it on to be intimidating, or if they just meant it. This definitely felt like some kind of deliberate hazing so far.

“Huh. He has a clever mouth, this one. All his techy smarts make him think he's wittier than us knuckle bruisers.” There came a creak as one of them leaned on a shelf and it complained beneath him.

“Fix your camera, techy, then we will see where your smarts get you.” The other one didn't sound like he was laughing now, and had just closed the door. Well then. He made a small effort at appearing to check the camera. He had to hope that Lyntael had already had the whole room covered by the time he entered. Knocking them both out would be okay, as long as they started the poor behaviour first. They wouldn't report it, certainly.

“So... Should I expect old college rules here? A tanned hide and a run through the snow? Or are you both so desperately without women that you wanted a private room at the end of a shift, hmm?” Rogan kept his voice light and tired; he was being a good sport about this, but with a decent helping of insult. He began to climb down, putting tools back into his bag. No immediate angry reply or laughing joke. His hackles rose again. He was less than two feet from either of them in the small, crowded shed, but there had been a shift in the feeling of their bodies.

“You speak very good Sharoan for a Netopian spy, you know.” Rogan moved on instinct. He thrust the ladder under his arm and back unto the mid section of the one behind him, but released it as soon as he felt it impact. Instead his feet were already moving to the side, ducking under the grabbing fist of the second guard. Time passed in slim fractions of seconds as he twisted, hands loose and ready for their reactions. They were well trained enough; the one he'd hit first was pulling his taser even in the same motion as his body curled around the gut impact. Rogan slipped back alongside him, his left hand gripping the guard's wrist and guiding the weapon as it lifted up. he moved it away from his body, under his other arm and gripped harder, holding it still as the device discharged. The dart struck the shelves behind the second guard before he had come to his feet properly, and he let out a disjointed cry. Rogan pulled the man's wrist forward, dragging his upper body with him for just long enough to drive the heel of his other palm up against his chin. The man staggered back, dazed, and half toppled a second shelf. The dropped taser continued to crackle as the dart discharged itself on the shelf, but the shocked guard had staggered free, pulling his side arm with a curse. Rogan lunged back across the small space again, low down. The gun was out, beginning to train to him, but not fast enough. He was in close enough to get his hand to the weapon and twist it upwards until the man's fingers were pulled free of the trigger. A sharp pull back let him knock one of his opponent's legs from under him, and press his face and neck back against the still sparking shelf. A few moments of inarticulate sounds later, Rogan pulled him back again and the man slumped, mostly unconscious.

This was a mess. He looked at the two downed figures and the disordered room, calculating.

“Rogan! Rogan, are you alright!? They... they knew! Rogan, what are we going to do!? I... the room, Rogan, it's... I couldn't get it done fast enough!” Lyntael's voice was a panicked jumble in his ear, but he shut it out for the moment. Nothing else for it. Damn it.

Both of them would be out cold for at least a few minutes. He moved with the same cold efficiency he'd responded with before; meticulous and precise. While Lyntael gasped and panicked in his ear, Rogan quickly and carefully slipped each guards' gloves off and bundled them neatly into the belt on one and on a shelf by the other. Next, he relieved each guard of their flasks, and with some coaxing, carefully drained the majority of both down their unresponsive throats. Lyntael was asking him what to do. He moved back to the camera and jumped up to push the lens towards the ceiling.

“Fix this room, Lyntael. Some footage is lost. Damaged. Arrange that. No-one was recorded coming in at all, and it only recovers after the camera is upturned. Do it quickly.”

He moved back to the guards and retrieved the dropped taser, coiling back the tethered dart and resetting it. Despite himself, he grimaced. He had been on the receiving end of one of these a couple of times. The sensation was one of the most horrid he could recall, and not something he'd wish on another person. He took the device and pulled the smaller guard into an upright position, leaning his back against the wall, then lifted one arm and pressed it in under his armpit. A quick check to make sure he wasn't touching anything conductive and held the guard only by one insulated glove, then he pushed the button.

The man's eyes flew open as the dart buried through the soft, thin armpit flesh and stuck directly into his rib-cage near the heart. Rogan held the button down as he convulsed in uneven spasms. Lyntael shrieked in his ear, but he didn't relent. After a few more moment, the uncontrolled limb twitches stilled again, and only small involuntary muscle twitches continued. Rogan checked for a heart beat, and once he was sure there wasn't one, he stood and drew the tether back across the room, discarding the device roughly near the other guard's hands.

To complete the picture, he retrieved the fire arm from the smaller guard and returned to the larger one. The first shot, her put into the upper left side of his chest, where it was stopped by his vest. The next was lower and more on the guard's side, but still being absorbed by the protective garment. The final two shots went into the gap under the arm, deliberate heart shots that would be cushioned and stopped by the bullet vest before they could pass through or out of the body properly.

“What are you doing!? How... Rogan— you... they're dead, Rogan, you killed them!! How could you... why... why did you do that!? Rogan! How could you? Why did you do that!?” He didn't need to see Lyntael to hear that she was in shocked, horrified tears as she shouted at him.

“I need to fix this scene, Lyntael. How long until the room is clear on your end?” His voice was the same hard, cold tone that it usually was when he worked. Unlike the girl in his ear, his own heart beat had barely climbed at all in the past two minutes. Lyntael didn't answer, but instead shouted and cried more of the same horror-filled questions and demands. Rogan cut her off.

“Lyntael. Listen to me. We are in danger. Do as I say.”
“Those men are dead now, Rogan! They're dead!! Why did you do that!?”
“If I had not stopped them, I would be dead instead, Lyntael. This is not a game.”
“You didn't have to kill them! They were unconscious! They... they're dead. I can't... I don't know how you... I... you didn't have to do that...”
“Yes, Lyntael, I did. You heard what was said. The marked me. If that information gets passed on, I am as good as dead. I had no choice.”
“You hate those words!! You've always hated those words!! You hate people who use them as an excuse!!” This time she screamed back at him with more force and volume than he'd ever heard from her, but that wasn't what made Rogan stop and blink. Part way through organising the room to match with the story he was constructing, he paused still and frowned. He did hate those words. Everything he did revolved around never being faced with them again. When had she learned that?

“Lyntael... Please listen to me. I made a mistake. I don't know what mistake I made, but I made one. They knew, somehow, because I got something wrong. I did have a choice; I chose to continue living, and these two other lives is the price I have to pay for my mistake and that choice today.” He drew a long breath and let it out again, then got back to arranging the scene. “Hate me for that in whatever way you need to for now, but please do as I say. We have maybe two minutes before I need to be over that fence. I don't have time for you to judge me right now. Do it later.”

Lyntael didn't answer, but her tearful raving stopped as well. The line was silent while he finished the room. when it was done, he stood at the door and read the scene with a clear eye. They had come in to slack off. Averted the camera, broke it a bit by mistake. They were resting. They'd removed their gloves to have a drink. They'd gotten drunk, and stupid. They'd started to alpha male at each other. Stupid dares with the tasers. One stuck the other badly, then wouldn't stop. Too drunk to realise he was killing his mate. The other had pulled on him, hand unsteady, fighting through the shock because his life depended on it. Stopped him with a few shots, but was already in the late stages of a a heart attack. Stupid, avoidable... believable. Only prints on the weapons were theirs. Time to go.

He paused at the door, but just as he was bout to speak, a quiet voice reached him.
“Wait. It's... It's almost ready. Just wait.” There were still tears in the words, and it sounded like she was speaking through clenched teeth, and struggling to breathe. His ear caught the edge of a wet sniffle as she spoke.

“Go. Now. To your left, two sections down. Halfway between, then straight out. Go.” Rogan slipped out of the door and began moving. She sounded angry and hurt at the same time. He could picture her face in his mind as he listened to the words, even without looking. Tear-streaked and red, with her eyes glaring at him so green it almost hurt, her jaw hard as she tried to keep her voice even. She would be keeping it together, but her hands would be shaking, or perhaps, she'd have her fists clenched tight just to try to keep them still. She was never going to forgive him for this. He shoved the last thought away hard and forced his mind back to his work. They were almost out.

By the time he reached the point Lyntael had mentioned, Rogan had already switched his gloves to the ones her needed for the fence. The process was easy, almost thoughtless, as he lined up and stepped back, then made the vault with the same neat precision he'd come over the fence with the first time. She had to understand, surely. She had known, going in; if he was caught, he would likely be killed. She knew that. He hadn't let anyone down; he had only done what was necessary. The thoughts wouldn't stop, even as he moved away from the compound, and out through the trees. At the edge of the outer net, he stopped to recall Lyntael properly, bringing her back to the PET at last through the emulation. A cursory check of her statistics showed the girl to be unharmed and well. He was beginning to hate how meaningless the base statistic report for his navi was. The normal rush that came with completing a difficult infiltration was absent as he made his way back through the trees in silence.