Under Northern Skies

Content warning: This story contains strong language and violence.

A calm swept the eroded tundra, an exhalation after a blizzard had rolled through with its howling swirls. The distant mountains were cloaked, hooded by their icy caps of silent fear, framed by waning light as the sun hid behind frozen peaks. The sound of nothing was almost as crushing as the cacophony of the storm, broken up only by the soft crunch of boots on snow as Sundog made his way slowly to the edge of the ridge before him.

The runner had weathered the day’s storm in a hastily dug foxhole, drinking self-heating coffee and quietly praying for it to be a short one. With the dark of night approaching by the time the blizzard had passed, he’d had to hustle hard to make it up to the ridge line before conditions became too bleak to scale the slope. Over the crest the environment changed drastically, the soft white of fresh snow giving way to an enormous steaming crater. The strip mine stretched to the horizon, ending near the tributary far to the north. Usually frozen at this time of year, the river instead oozed slowly into the Laptev Sea, carrying with it countless tonnes of contaminant and mining byproducts. The once crystalline blue waters now glinted with a pallor in the fleeting sun—corrupted veins of Sakha.

This was why he was here. The mine site operations base lay at the foot of the gentle slope below, over a kilometer away, but well within range for a drone hub to roll down and provide Net access. It was just a matter of plotting the right path down before the twilight left entirely, and then settling in for a run through the night. Sundog fumbled around in his side pack, finding both drone and binoculars, before lowering himself onto the snow with a soft sigh. Thick clothes and gloves be damned, it was still fucking cold up here. The mirrorfiber of the auto-cloak kicked in, detecting his prone position, and projected a rough approximation of the surrounding tundra over his outerwear.

It was going to be a long night.

True darkness followed the serenity but a mere hour later, and by then Sundog had piloted the drone most of the way down the ridge below. No snow or ice dislodged, no security net triggered, and no break in connection. The white orb rolled into a thick pile of snow near the boundary of the physical shock-fence deployed around the site HQ, and the runner set about probing the network infrastructure nearby. 

The local Weyland facilities weren’t known for having water-tight network access, preferring to deal with runners after the point of intrusion via stiff ice or cutthroat sysop teams. Finding an open port at an HB facility was impossible, requiring much more legwork to even initiate a run. NBN hubs would be full of distractions and red herrings before you could even begin an intrusion. And Jinteki servers… well, Sundog left those alone for good reason.

He jacked in. For a brief moment the cold air around him felt electric, the heightened senses of Netspace blurring into the meat. The blazing energy of the Net coalesced around him, suffusing his vision with a light so bright it obliterated the very memory of night. A gateway appeared before his avatar, propped open by the faint representation of the drone’s Net presence, and he strode in without hesitation.

A multitude of pathways filled his senses, each containing their own secrets and dangers. Sundog knew which one was his target, though: the rapid tempo of energy pulsing from within one route was a tell-tale sign of the operations hub. He glided down the halls of green light, summoning programs in preparation for the inevitable countermeasures, cutting through the maze with well-prepared bypass tools.

A lattice of code swept up from the floor ahead of him, twisting and churning into a net to catch and reject. A flick of his wrist to click open a decoder was the only action needed to slice through the knotted fibre of algorithms. As the lattice evaporated in a shower of pixelated sparks, Netspace swelled and bloated in the hall beyond. From outside his senses, heavy bars pierced the soap-bubble illusion of the boundaries. Etched lines of code burst into expanding edges of fire, rapidly filling the path ahead. 

This is unique, Sundog mused. It was like an ice had rezzed itself by overloading the local Net’s infrastructure. Powerful, but vulnerable nonetheless. A swift command injected a packet concealing a hostile payload. It required a few hundred cycles of Net-time, but the payload ate through the core of the ice, corroding it from within. There was a brief hum in the air as a hole opened up in the fiery barrier, before it too collapsed.

Sundog hesitated before pushing forward. The collapse of the ice seemed too sudden, too convenient. This was something new to him, after all, and a moment of caution never went amiss in such a situation. 

Anxiety built up quickly, adrenaline filling the body and expanding the senses of his Netspace avatar. His fingers crept to the holster on his belt, like a gunslinger at the ready. Something was seriously amiss here, and Sundog was determined not to be caught off guard. The code shifted, dying embers swelling with new life and purpose. A tip of gleaming steel, sharper than even the finest icebreakers, burst forth from the fierce heat, set onto a shaft of billowing energy. The Archer had a runner in its sights, and its aim was ever true.

BANGBANGBANGBANG

Each bullet fired with a clarion of precision and speed, finding its mark before the arrow even left the bow. Sundog lowered his Revolver, surveying the perfect hole in the forehead of the figure that had emerged from the crumbling ruins. He exhaled, letting the anxiety leave with the motion. That was a close call, but Sundog had always been a quick-draw with this icebreaker: no sentry construct would ever be left standing.

The environment lighting blinked from green to red, his console indicating the alarms had finally kicked into full gear. A door sat quietly at the end of the corridor, just visible through the pulsating lights. This would only take a moment.

Like a bullet shot from his own gun, Sundog propelled himself at the door with as much force as he could muster. Digital foot struck digital door, shattering the faux barrier and revealing the hub root beyond. He didn’t care what was inside, approaching this core was as far as he needed to get to launch his final payload and light this fire. 

Sundog swung one arm in a long arc, the packet in his fist drawing momentum as he aimed at the heart of the root. This was it, the moment he had come all this way for. This facility would come crashing down in a burst of furious flame. 

He released, and the payload shot into the root’s manifestation like a bullet. Sundog felt no heat as it ignited, just his own grim satisfaction—

JOLT

Searing pain was all he could feel for a single moment of eternity, the harbinger of an uncontrolled jack out. The warm light of Netspace vanished in a blink, replaced with the dark of the night and the smell of cold steel.

“Did you really think we’d just let you in without so much as a greeting?” A woman’s voice, the final voice he’d ever hear. Sundog craned his neck back on the bed of snow, his eyes seeking the sky above. It was too late to engage his Steelskin layer. Not even that legacy of a dozen generations of revolutionaries would save him now.

Brilliant green filled the moonless void with beauty and wonder. Under northern skies Sundog had lived all his life, and under them he would die.

A click, and eternity swept in.

Credits

Aurora photo by Tobias Bjørkli

Author

  • Morgan is a game designer and narrative designer from Perth, Australia, who has their fingers in as many relevant facets of NISEI set production as time and need will permit. Aside from freelancing in a bunch of different roles in the gamedev industry, they are also the near-full time Chief of Staff to Daeg Waedos, the cat and "official" mascot of NISEI playtest.