Authors: Simon Cheshire
“We’re tracking,” said Simon Turing.
“Has anyone else got her? Police? MI5?” said Queen Bee.
“No, we’re using the GPS systems Alfred reprogrammed himself. We’re the only ones who can follow such a small target at low altitude.”
In the SWARM laboratory, Simon was staring at a 3D display that floated above the workbench. A tiny dot was racing across a map of London,
while detailed information ticked along below.
“Once again, Firestorm is confident of success,” said Queen Bee. “They don’t realize that an organization like SWARM even exists, let alone that we can follow their movements. They’ll have assumed they could lose this woman somewhere in the city.”
“Two attacks in less than two hours,” said Alfred Berners, tapping at his laptop. “They’re certainly confident.”
“Any update on what was taken?” said Queen Bee.
“Working on it,” said Simon. “Obviously, MI6 don’t want to let on. Every last byte of it will be top secret. Many of their own staff don’t even have access to those computers. Alfred’s hacking into their network now. They’ve got a whole series of firewalls, but we should be able to find out what was taken before long.”
“Can we launch the SWARM?” said Queen Bee.
Professor Miller checked the tank containing the robots. The purple liquid was draining away. “Three minutes,” he said. “The repair systems will return them to launch positions automatically.”
The synthesized voices of the robots all chimed from the speaker built into the workbench. “Rebooting. Full program and subroutine check underway.”
“We may not have three minutes,” muttered Queen Bee. “Where’s the woman now?”
Simon’s gaze was firmly on the 3D display. “She’s weaving around just above roof level, keeping out of sight as far as possible… Still travelling at speed… Wait, she’s slowing down… Altitude decreasing… She’s entered the top floor of a multi-storey car park, bearing 314.5.”
“Have we got anyone in that area?” said Queen Bee.
“Checking… Agent K isn’t close, but I can divert Agent J. He’s on his way to collect Sirena.”
The young woman fired down her jetpack and landed in a dark corner on the empty upper level
of a multi-storey car park. A cold breeze whipped round the stairwells and, beside her, water dripped through a crack in the low ceiling.
Suddenly, a large white hatchback sped into view. Its engine growled as it drove up a nearby ramp and approached the woman. The brakes of the car squealed as it came to a halt less than a metre in front of her. Leaving the engine running, a man in a tatty denim jacket and a black woollen beanie got out of the rusting vehicle. He had piercing pale blue eyes, and his mouth was set into a permanent line of disapproval.
He held out his hand. “Code Name Firestorm, Part Two,” he said.
The woman reached into her pocket, took out the cube she’d used in the MI6 building and handed it over. Then she took off her gadget-filled coat and glasses, and handed them over too.
“Confirm timed memory wipe,” he said.
“Confirmed,” she said flatly.
He looked at his watch. “Less than a minute until it wears off,” he muttered. “Perfect.”
He got back into his car and sped away down the exit ramp. Almost as soon as the sound of
the vehicle faded away, the woman blinked and shook her head.
Within seconds, another car appeared, this one dark and sleek. The man who got out was dressed in a smart suit. It was Agent J. He tapped at his smartphone as he hurried over to the woman.
“Target acquired,” he said. “Looks like she’s either ditched the tech or it’s been taken from her.”
“What’s going on?” cried the woman, rubbing her head. “Where am I?”
“It’s OK,” said Agent J. “Don’t worry, you’re safe. What’s your name?”
“Sally,” she said. “Sally Burns. What’s the time? I’m going to be late for work, my shift at SuperSave starts at eleven. How did I get here? Who are you?”
“You’re in safe hands now. I’m sorry, but I need to ask you: what’s the last thing you remember?”
“What? Er, I was just leaving my flat. And then… It’s a blank.” Her voice rose in alarm. “What’s going on here?”
Agent J quietly scanned her with his smartphone, which was filled with electronics
specially adapted by Professor Miller and Alfred Berners.
He contacted HQ again. “It’s gone. The data has gone.”
“Acknowledged, Agent J,” said Queen Bee, back at SWARM HQ. “Get whatever information you can from this woman, hand her over to the police, then return to base.”
She stabbed at her phone in frustration, then turned to Professor Miller. “Time to step up our investigation,” she said. “Launch the SWARM.”
A series of intricate metal cages, about the size of a shoebox, rose up from the surface of the lab workbench. Inside each was a fully repaired micro-robot.
Red and green lights pulsed inside the cages. A glow flickered across nests of circuits and activation chimes sounded. The robots began to move.
“Online,” they said as one.
Two black sports cars came to a stop in two ordinary residential streets in London. One parked close to the home of Tim Jones, the teacher who’d carried out the bank raid. Several miles away, the other car was outside the block of flats where Sally Burns lived.
The first car was driven by SWARM’s Agent J, the second by Agent K. Both of them reached across and entered a code into a touchscreen on their car’s dashboard.
Beneath the cars, small hatches slid open. Inside were plastic blocks, moulded to fit individual SWARM robots. The robots detached themselves and dropped to the ground. Their mission: to search the homes of the two Firestorm “attackers” and unearth whatever they could. As soon as the robots were clear, the cars sped away, back to SWARM HQ.
Assigned to Tim Jones’s house were Chopper, Hercules and Sirena. Widow, Nero, Sabre and Morph scuttled, flew and spun their way up to Sally Burns’s flat.
“Flow sensor data through our communications network,” signalled Chopper. “We can cross-check information as we go, and Simon Turing will monitor back at HQ.”
“Logged,” replied the others.
“Scans show no humans in the flat,” transmitted Nero. “We are proceeding to the second floor. Entry through letter box.”
“Nobody home here either,” said Sirena. “Point of entry, dog flap at the rear of the house.”
The robots’s sensors were programmed to read, record and analyze everything around them.
Data streamed through their electronic brains: infra-red and X-ray scans, airborne particle sampling, chemical probes and high-res imaging.
Carbon-fibre legs tipped with micro-grips enabled them to skitter along any surface. Tiny sections of their metallic bodies housed specialized circuits and detectors. Chopper’s compound eyes glittered as the mechanisms behind them whirred. Morph’s gelatinous exoskeleton flattened as he squeezed into the tightest spaces.
Simon Turing’s voice dropped into the network. “HQ to Hive 1 and Hive 2. We’re getting a steady data feed. Keep looking.”
“Why haven’t the police searched here for clues already?” signalled Sabre.
“Queen Bee has control of the investigation,” said Chopper. “The secret services are able to take over from the police at times like this, as Agent K did at the bank. My communications data says the human expression ‘pulling rank’ applies here.”
“Besides,” said Nero, “we can do the job with greater speed and efficiency than any human.”
“Checking Tim Jones’s laptop,” said Sirena. “Hard drive is six terabytes. Scanning… Completed. Language analysis of documents shows nothing unusual.”
“Scanning through mixed pile of papers and address books in Sally Burns’s kitchen drawer,” said Morph. “Some overdue bills, but nothing significant. Records of a charity walk… A camera containing twenty-three photos from a birthday party, dated four weeks ago…”
“Analyze,” signalled Chopper. “Now that we’ve made a first set of basic scans, we can compare results and find out if anything connects Jones and Burns. There must be a reason why Firestorm used these two people to carry out attacks, rather than anyone else.”
“Logged,” replied the others.
“Tapping into government, police and local authority records,” said Nero. His advanced programs hacked quickly and stealthily into a dozen official databases. “No links between them established. Different backgrounds, different jobs. It’s highly unlikely that they’ve ever even passed each other on the street.”
“Gathering inventories,” said Sirena.
The micro-robots scurried and buzzed quietly around rooms, under doors and up stairs. Even if Tim Jones and Sally Burns had been at home, instead of in police custody, it was unlikely they would have noticed that the insects were there. They certainly wouldn’t have realized that every object, piece of furniture and speck of dust in their homes was being counted and listed at lightning speed.
“Interesting,” said Hercules. “Most people have certain things in common. Toothbrushes, socks, family photos, and so on. Once we eliminate all that, these two specific people have three factors that might link them. First: they both like the colour blue. Clothes, decoration, soft furnishings…”
“That’s unlikely to be relevant,” said Nero. “Humans can’t see the full electromagnetic spectrum, like us. They only have a limited number of colours to choose from.”
“A colour doesn’t seem a likely link to crime, either,” said Sirena.
“True,” said Hercules. “Second: they’ve both
travelled to France, America and Spain within the last five years.”
“Calculations of probability show that’s a coincidence, but not a significant one,” said Nero.
“Agreed,” said Sirena. “Lots of people travel abroad. Checking online tourism data… France is the most visited country in the world, the United States is second, and Spain is fourth. It’s a coincidence that both Jones and Burns like travelling, but those destinations are very likely ones. Many regular tourists will probably have been to all three.”
“What’s the third possible link?” said Nero.
“That’s the most interesting of all,” said Hercules. “I think this one shows a definite connection…”
Back at SWARM’s underground HQ, Queen Bee was at her desk. She was about to leave her office when the large screen in front of her announced
that a call was coming through. She tapped at the screen, and a scowling face appeared.
“I asked to be put through to whoever had taken over this operation,” sneered the caller. “I might have known it would be you.”
Queen Bee felt like dropping her head into her hands, but she stayed calm and confident.
It was Agent Morris Drake, MI5’s Inland Containment Officer. He was a short, round man, with a scornful expression and a moustache that hid his upper lip. He didn’t approve of any secret service activity that, like SWARM, was kept hidden even from MI5 and MI6.
“Still hiding behind your ‘Top Secret’ classification, are you?” he said. “Or are you prepared to tell me your name now? Or the name of your section?”
“You know I can’t do that,” replied Queen Bee. “Rest assured, this operation is—”
“Forgive me if I find your assurances rather hollow,” said Drake icily. “My section should be handling this!”
“Why, exactly?” said Queen Bee calmly.
“Because, unlike you, I don’t hide in the
shadows,” sneered Drake. “Because, unlike you, I must be seen to operate within the law. Because, unlike you, I can reassure the public that I’m working on their behalf. Need I go on? I assume you’re aware that this Firestorm thing is all over the media?”
“I am,” said Queen Bee. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I was about to brief my team and—”
“Oh, ‘brief your team’, eh? Well, that’ll get the job done, I’m sure.”
“Unlike some, we find teamwork very effective,” smiled Queen Bee.
Agent Drake leaned forward. “This is a mainland UK matter, and that means MI5 should handle it. Is that clear?”
“While Firestorm remains a mystery,” said Queen Bee, “my agents are in a better position to investigate. Whatever Firestorm may be, it uses technology that’s way beyond the experience of the police, or MI6. Or even, believe it or not, you.”
“But not these mysterious agents of yours,” said Drake. “Or so you claim. How do we know that anything you say can be trusted?”
“All I know, Agent Drake,” said Queen Bee
patiently, “is that every moment we sit here arguing is a moment lost in our hunt for Firestorm.”
“I’m going to be putting my own people on this,” said Drake, “no matter what you say. You know I will. I’ve done it before.”
“You don’t even have access to the data that was stolen from MI6,” said Queen Bee. “You have no idea what you’re looking for.”
“And neither do you!” snapped Drake. “MI6 keep that stuff wrapped up tighter than a mouse in the coils of a boa constrictor. Nobody knows what was nicked – don’t try to bluff me!”
The screen went black. Queen Bee shut her eyes for a second to control her temper, then headed for the laboratory. When she arrived, Simon Turing was at the 3D display, monitoring the progress of the robots.
“Why would Drake want to get involved in this?” Alfred asked, when Queen Bee finished telling them about the phone call. “His section can’t have any clue what’s going on. That’s why the home secretary has put SWARM in charge, isn’t it?”
“Surely Drake’s just setting himself up to look
foolish. Again,” added Professor Miller.
“I agree,” said Queen Bee. “However, we must take his threats seriously. The only reason we’ve been given the go-ahead to control this case is our success on past missions. We can’t afford any slip-ups. The government is very twitchy about Firestorm and might easily hand the case over to someone else if we don’t make rapid progress. The prime minister and the home secretary are concerned about the media coverage.”
“It’s all over the web and the TV news channels,” said Alfred. “One minute they’re playing up the bank-robbery angle, the next they’re claiming that Firestorm is some sort of terrorist organization, because of the attack on MI6. All the coverage is making the public very nervous indeed.”
“Which is exactly what Firestorm wants,” said Queen Bee. “Everything’s been done to create as much havoc as possible. If only we knew why!”
“I’m puzzled by their choice of targets so far,” said Professor Miller. “Why steal gold, and then steal data? What are they after, precisely?”
“Ah!” said Alfred with a smile. “Nero worked that one out while the robots were being
transported to their current locations. He said he’d been observing humans long enough to calculate the most likely probabilities. Firestorm’s main objective must be connected to the theft of the data. You don’t break into a secret-service building filled with highly trained spies just for fun, even if you do want to make a splash. There are many ways to get attention that don’t involve making MI6 your target. So the data must be Firestorm’s number one priority. The gold is secondary. They could have raided any bank, if they needed funds. Firestorm attacked that particular one simply because it would draw maximum publicity.”
“We’ve already established that those weapons will have cost a small fortune,” said Queen Bee. “What’s the assessment on that?”
“Nero’s calculations suggest that an attempted bank robbery marks Firestorm out as a small organization,” said Alfred. “A large group, or a hostile foreign government, would have more resources.”
“Could it be an individual acting alone?” said Queen Bee.
Alfred wrinkled his nose. “I suppose it’s
possible. Whoever they are, Firestorm must be extremely serious about their objectives.”
“Which brings us back to the data,” said the Professor. “Did you manage to hack into MI6?”
“Oh yes, no problem,” said Alfred brightly. “It took a little longer than expected, but my reprogrammed computer virus has been burrowing through their network for an hour now. In fact, the results should be accessible in a moment or two.”
He tapped at a screen beside him. Information began to flow across it.
“At least we now know what the stolen data is,” said Queen Bee. She remembered the end of her conversation with Drake and smiled to herself.
Alfred looked thoughtful. “It’s not good news. Firestorm knew exactly what they were doing. The data they took could only be retrieved in that one room. It was totally separate from the mainframe. That cube of theirs targeted the exact servers it needed.”
“It seems Firestorm are remarkably well informed,” said Queen Bee. “You know, I think we may have to consider the possibility that they
have a mole inside the secret service. What was the extent of the theft?”
Alfred looked up from the screen. He chose his words carefully. “They took the names and addresses of every MI6 agent currently operating abroad. Plus, the names of everyone MI6 suspects of being an agent for a foreign government. Tagged to the names were details of every mission they’ve been sent on, every fake ID they’ve used, and every contact they have in the world’s security services.”
“Good grief,” muttered Professor Miller.
“If they put information like that online,” said Queen Bee. “It would destroy our entire spy network, worldwide. Every agent’s life would be in danger. Every government around the world, friend or enemy, would know the details of MI6’s activities.”