I pushed the Cavallino harder, knowing full well I wasn’t going to make it. That didn’t stop me from taking out my frustration on the airframe. The fusor howled its outrage into the night. Colors flared and streaked around the burning dust at the edges of the incision field. The controls tightened, transmitting the increased turbulence straight up my arms.

Liz appeared on the holographic projector between the seats. Her car also screamed itself hoarse in its efforts to fly faster. “I still can’t get through the lockdown on the police channels. They’ve gone to hardline communications only.”

Kara appeared next to her. “Sure. They’re preventing someone from doing exactly what we’re trying to do, in case they get waved off a genuine threat. No one ever said the Special Neutralization guys were dumb.”

I grunted. “They’ve outsmarted themselves again.”

The topography map scrolled past on the windshield. The snoot squad flashed blue and red on a straight line from the police station to the target residence, which pulsed in gold with the label “The Jim and Janet Show.” My red icon was the closest to the house, but the projected time to intercept was still almost sixty seconds too late. Liz’s blue icon streaked toward the police station. Her communications range intercepted the hardlines a few seconds after I got to the residence.

Titan appeared. “We have been unable to disrupt the false manifesto being broadcast to the police. Their footage is remarkably convincing, including an artificial radiological signature beamed directly at the detector satellites. The attackers have also prevented communication to the residence from the outside world. Given the sophistication of their responses to our efforts, it seems likely that they are aware of our standard protocols and are applying previously crafted countermeasures.”

Kara leaned hard in her cockpit, her green icon adjusting course to intercept the police convoy. “All right, I’m going to drop in and test my powers of persuasion. It may be headline news tonight, but it’ll buy us a minute. Maybe two if we’re lucky.”

Liz shrugged. “Better than nothing. I hope.”

I brought up a feed from “The Jim and Janet Show.” The perky couple continued opening gifts at their virtual baby shower. The husband, presumably Jim, rocked their baby in his arms while his wife picked up another enormous present. The wrapping paper hummed colorfully at her touch, while the elaborate bow on top gasped ecstatically. The box itself thrummed a staccato drum roll.

The wife, presumably Janet, made a real show of her anticipation. “What do we have here? Such a big present for such a big little boy! Yes it is! Such a big and important present from our viewer Becky in Philadelphia!”

The couple sat on a spotless pearl white couch, with a crackling fire to their left and shelves of understated yet exquisite sculptures behind them to their right. The mantelpiece was grown from a sunset diamond seed, likely taking more than a decade to form the shape it was in today. The painting above it was a genuine De Vos, and the trinkets lined up on the mantel showed the handcrafted intricacy of antique artistry. The twinkling of the fire brought out the dusky highlights in the smoky diamond.

Squadding was a relatively recent phenomenon, where hackers had discovered that if they forged convincing bomb threats, the police would respond with overwhelming force on live feeds. I could see why they wanted to squad this show. It was more than just the wealth, which to be fair, was considerable. The couple had a sort of cheerfully oblivious dignity to rob. Watching the cops trashing it would be like mainlining schadenfreude.

“Titan, can you show me the feed they’re sending the police?”

“Of course.”

In the terrorist feed, an old fission warhead had been assembled. Its tall matte black cone barely fit in the room. Shadowy figures in silhouette cloaks stood around it, armed with a ragtag collection of outdated weapons. One of the figures paced before the camera, demanding the release of various black hats that had been locked up since the Marconi era.

I shook my head. “That’s quite the mockup.”

“The simulation is convincing in every detail. Oddly, though, the police have made no detectable effort to locate the homeowners.”

“Strange. Why would that be?”

“I cannot say. The perpetrators may have blocked their inquiries. I remain concerned for the welfare of the child. This is the first time an infant has been involved.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely an escalation.”

I looked back and forth between the two feeds on the dashboard. On “The Jim and Janet Show,” Janet pulled the bow on the enormous gift. It sprang open with climactic fanfare, revealing an organic diaper synthesizer, designed to conform to every nook and cranny of your baby’s very special backside. Jim and Janet oohed and aahed, showcasing the item with the overly choreographed motions of product models.

Janet’s smile twinkled. “We’re so thankful for our record-breaking viewership today. We don’t know how so many of you heard about our humble show, but we have nothing but gratitude that you’re here to share this special moment with us.”

I swore at length. “Somebody give me some good news.”

Kara adjusted her grav suit. “Don’t know if this qualifies as good news, but I’m about to go obstruct some justice. Wish me luck.”

Liz sounded a little crazed. “Good luck!”

Switching to a tactical display, I watched Kara drop from the special hatch in the bottom of her car. She landed on the Special Neutralization squad’s battering van. The enormous bullet-shaped vehicle veered wildly in the air, crackling with electromagnetic pulse discharges to try and knock her off. She held on doggedly, using her field boosters to divert the energy. Four hovercycle cops surrounding the van turned to face her, trying to line up a shot.

Kara fed sound directly into her palms where she clutched the roof of the van. “Stand down! You have been deceived by a clever team of malicious hackers. There is no active threat at the target address. Repeat, there is no active threat at the target address. Stand down your assault!”

In response, a panel slid back on the van’s roof. A turret emerged, swiveling to aim at Kara. She flattened herself completely, the field boosters on her palms glowing with the energy holding her to the van. The plasma repeater on the turret opened fire, blowing fiery holes into her cape swirling behind her.

Baring her teeth, Kara reached into the van’s automated control system, yanking it hard. The squad carrier careened wildly, knocking a pair of hovercycle cops off their rides. The riders on the other side got a bead on her, though, and fired a blistering series of emp bolts at her. She raised an arm, deflecting the shots.

The van took advantage, veering back the other direction. Kara lost her grip and tumbled from the roof. Sleeper Hera expertly guided her car to catch her. Kara climbed in the window, cut an emergency turn, and fled the scene before she took any more fire. The two remaining hovercycles and the van returned to their previous course.

Kara reappeared. “All right, that’s all I’ve got.”

I glanced at the countdown. “I can’t stop the assault but it looks like I’ve got maybe twenty seconds to protect the baby.”

Liz punched her console. “The station chief just hung up on me. I can’t stop them either.”

“Titan, do you have anything?”

Titan’s image wavered. “The attackers have used the distraction to launch an assault on the sleeper network itself. They are using at least three previously undiscovered vulnerabilities. We are unable to provide additional assistance with the operation at this time.”

Kara whistled. “Someone blew through three zero day exploits to prank a baby shower?”

“The extravagance is conspicuous, yes. Sleeper Hera and I would appreciate your assistance.”

“On it.”

Liz gestured. “Nathan. Look at the broadcast.”

I glanced down. The couple had just opened their final gift, a top of the line hovercrib with integrated grav fields, semi-automatic feeder magazines, remote control soundproofing, automatic rocking algorithms, interactive dangling sculptures, and a two-way holographic communicator.

I reached out with my mind. “Looking for an opening.”

“Hurry. I’m not going to hit the station in time.”

I tried to activate the crib remotely, but it was protected from outside intrusion thanks to the baby hijack ransoms a couple years ago. I left some subroutines working on the problem. The communicator, on the other hand, still had the default security credentials fresh from the package.

My boosters glowed as I turned on the communicator. My head appeared over the crib in full grav suit armor, with its hooded cloak over a skull-like face mask. Belatedly, I realized that it would have been smarter to use audio only.

Too late now. I growled through the voice distorter. “Jim. Janet. There’s not much time. A rogue hacker group has convinced the police that you have an active nuclear warhead and intend to detonate. A special neutralization squad will arrive in about fifteen seconds. I need you to put your baby in the crib right now or I can’t guarantee his safety.”

Janet stared at me blankly. “What?”

I ground my teeth. “A snoot squad is about to break down your wall with category five assault gear. I don’t know what that will do to a baby but it’s not good. You need to put him in the crib so I can shield him. Now!”

Jim gave me a theatrically suspicious look. “How do we know you’re not the hacker? We’re not dumb enough to fall for some baby hijack scam on camera.”

I barely thought to mute the string of curses I unleashed before turning back to them. “You have five seconds before your kid grows up blind and deaf. Just do it!”

Jim loosened his grip on his son, but Janet put out her arm to stop him. “Send us your credentials first.”

The loose grip was enough. I channeled all the energy I had into the grav boosters on the hovercrib, using them to seize the baby and toss him inside. I quickly activated the soundproofing and safety fields, maneuvering it into a closet. I slammed the doors behind it.

Abruptly, the wall exploded. The nose of the police van scattered sculptures everywhere. A concussion blast shook the room, shattering the fireplace and blasting gift wrapping in a billowing shock wave. Red and blue lights flared bright enough to temporarily damage vision, accompanied by a deafening siren noise.

Two canister grenades popped out of the bumper, bouncing across the floor toward the dazed couple before exploding. The first splattered the room with gelatinous blobs of skunk stain. It penetrated deep into everything, spreading with a putrid stench that had been compared unfavorably to decomposing flesh. The stain soaked into the couple’s skin and the walls of the house, painting them in a lurid patchwork of violent colors. The smell took months to dissipate using highly regulated chemicals. Apparently, its inventors were concerned that if the formula got out, their horrifying goo would somehow be less effective.

Jim and Janet staggered, gagging and clutching at their faces. Even their eyeballs had been stained. They retched uncontrollably before tripping and falling, somehow managing not to crack their heads open or break any limbs.

The second grenade exploded with a searing purple burst. Its specialized radiation destabilized the unique isotopes required to sustain a weapons-grade fission reaction, although it had the side effect of wrecking all nearby electronics and melting some of the furniture.

A hatch popped open on the battering van. Armored cops poured out, pointing their rifles and yelling. The weapons disposal experts fanned out from their deployment, searching for the active warhead in a well-practiced pattern.

Jim and Janet were dragged to their pathetic feet. After the search team reported the all-clear, the sirens and lights were deactivated, leaving the multicolored melted nightmare of their living room in stark relief. The room was quiet except for their mixture of panting, coughing, and sobbing. A cop stepped on an unbroken figurine with a delicate crunch. He glanced down at it incuriously.

The baby started howling, startling most of the policemen. They approached the cabinet cautiously. I pulled my awareness back to the car.

“Liz, please tell me you’ve got something.”

Liz put a new icon on my tactical display. “I do. One officer in particular was blocking the presence of the family from the police. Her name is Cinden Xiao, and she’s already fled the building.”

I turned the Cavallino hard and floored it, roaring over the mess at the house. Surprised cops pointed their weapons at the sudden noise.

“All right, I’m moving to intercept.”

Kara snorted. “Don’t work too hard. Looks like she’s coming to you.”

She was right. A moment later, Xiao’s police cruiser sent me a command to pull over that in a normal car would have started an automatic shutdown procedure. Without letting on that my car had no intention of following her orders, I dutifully pulled over in a nearby parking lot. I got out of the car and stood next to it, arms crossed.

Her interceptor circled once before landing in front of me. The riot of spotlights and red and blue strobes were meant to be intimidating, but lost most of their meaning through the filter of my grav suit. I belatedly realized that I shouldn’t have been allowed to open the car door, but hoped she wouldn’t notice.

Xiao got out of her cruiser, weapon drawn. Apparently, she’d noticed. “Not taking my cruiser’s orders, are you?”

“Too busy wondering why I shouldn’t blast you on the spot for hiding that baby, now that you mention it.”

She grunted. Her pistol didn’t waver. “Oh yes. The poor baby. Rich and attractive children should be exempt from the trauma we inflict on their less wealthy counterparts.”

I debated knocking her pistol aside with a quick booster pulse, but settled for glowering more fiercely. “If you’ve got something to say, say it.”

“All right. Your interference is just making things worse. Either help me out or stay out of my way.”

“You lost me at the part where you dumped a snoot squad on an insufferable but otherwise innocent family.”

She lowered her pistol. “Look. You’ve been trying to stop these punks from squadding people, right?”

“Uh huh. No thanks to your department. These idiots are using the police as weaponized harassment and I’ve had enough. I’m tired of seeing women painted like clowns crying themselves hoarse, gagging over their own smell, blaming themselves for saying one stupid thing to set the mob off.”

“It’s worse than you think. You’re only paying attention when the hackers turn a squad loose on a live feed. But this kind of thing happens far more often than it should. You think it’s bad dealing with traumatized women? Imagine having to console an innocent family. Not just one baby who doesn’t know any better. Young children who are still growing up. The disgust buries itself deep inside their developing body image. They wonder if their house is ever going to feel safe again. Whether their room will ever smell like it used to. It taints their entire identity. All because of something their parents may or may not have done.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “That’s police business. Unless they’re using the sleepernet, I can’t get involved.”

She put her gun away. “You’re already getting involved. You’re just doing it wrong.”

I stared at her for a long time. “What exactly do you want from me?”

“Like I said, either help or get out of the way. You want to know where those kids got those zero day attacks? I’ve got that. You want to know who and where they are? I’ve got that too. These weapons should be used as a last resort, and only when we absolutely need to track the perpetrators. Did you notice how easy it was for me to block surveillance at the target address? Sometimes we can’t even be bothered to hit the correct house. I'm not convinced we should use it on residences at all.”

“I presume you have a plan.”

“Yeah. Spraying those opulent hypocrites may finally bring some outrage to bear on the problem. No one seems to care when it happens to other people. Maybe if we get this all over the news, we can have a real discussion about it.”

“I get it. You were getting blocked by your department too. So you went over their heads to the media.”

Her voice was iron. “And you almost blew it for me. Thanks a lot. Are you going to help or not?”

I stepped closer until I towered over her. She didn’t flinch from my gaze, despite the combat armor. “I don’t like your methods. There was nothing stopping you from coming to my office to have a civilized conversation like everyone else. Before you got the squad involved.”

“Yeah, what was I thinking? Vigilantes are known for talking through their problems. You’re a wild card. I had no idea what you’d do. So I made sure you did it my way.”

We stared at each other for some time. She burned with a feverish intensity.

Eventually, I turned and walked away. “Yeah. You did. So you know what? I’ll help your cause. But I’m not going to lift a finger to protect you from the consequences of your actions. You’re on your own.”

She laughed bitterly, getting back into her car. “On my own. Right. You say that like it’s news.”

I watched her lift off, stewing in a mixture of feelings.

Kara appeared on the holo. “It’s the strangest thing. From here, it almost looks like you’re letting the suspect get away.”

“She’s got a date with some news aerials.” I fired up the Cavallino, sweeping back into the air. “Something tells me she’s going to be in more than enough trouble after that.”

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