As another high-voltage electro dart shot past his head, Tanner Griffen reflected on the fact that he wasn't a very nice man.
The Wichita data centre sat concrete and anonymous; a malignant growth on the landscape. Getting in was easy. His employer had kindly furnished him with a temporary scrambler, which handily transformed him into a fuzzy grey blob on a hundred computer screens throughout the ground-floor security offices.
These computer screens were constantly scrutinised by a team of highly trained, well-armed security staff, paid just above minimum wage to stop exactly the type of crime he was currently committing.
A plastic holster sat snugly around his waist, packed with thirty slim metal cards. Still warm from being rudely wrenched from their housing only minutes before, these unassuming black slivers were the most valuable commodity known to man. He'd stolen them, and as far as the security team was concerned, his life was a small price to pay to get them back.
Ducking behind a huge steel rack that was stuffed to capacity with thick wiring and countless flashing lights, Griffen paused to run a hand through his greasy mohawk. He grinned crookedly as he pulled back his sleeve to check the progress of his pursuers. His wrist-mounted TalkRight3000 wasn't exactly cutting edge, but who would bring their best Xenius on a job where they were likely to be killed? Its sleek lightweight aluminium housing was robust enough and the holographic screen was hi-res enough to spot that two of the security detail were attempting a crude flanking manoeuvre.
With a deft finger gesture just above the curved screen of the device, he expanded the profiles of his foes. Cyril Defresne - 42, two kids, jazz aficionado. Griffen absent-mindedly flicked through Defresne's holiday snaps, looking for bikini shots of his wife Jill (35). The other guard had only started his internship the previous month. Griffen noted that Andy Baker, (19, epileptic, keen mountain biker) was on the organ donor register, which would become relevant in approximately thirty seconds.
Tanner Griffen was a pretty bad person. Bad enough to wait until just the right moment to arm and throw a Coruscantt-40 fragmentation device around the corner, where it bounced twice before erupting with a scream of tearing steel - eviscerating both Cyril and Andy.
A good person would perhaps consider the instantaneous widowing of Jill (35) and the unfathering of little Ben and Jessica. Griffen, however, wiped his nose on his sleeve, chuckled and stepped over the bodies.
Glancing once again at the TalkRight, Griffen noted that Cyril and Andy's avatars remained still. It would be some minutes before their own arm pieces synced with the company mainframe and triggered further alarms. Both men smiled casually in their civilian clothes as if they didn't even know they were dead yet. Which they didn't. Technically.
Griffen zoomed out of the screen and called up an overlay. A map dropped in front of his eyes as he sidled his way around the building, keeping close to the walls of the data centre cubicles. It was standard practice to smoke and strobe places like this when they were under attack, and the assault on his senses began with boring predictability. An automatic anti-strobe built into his sleek, wasp-like sunglasses rendered the visual weapon useless, and the map overlay gave a better view than his own eyes anyway.
Rounding a corner, he realised that reinforcements were on their way. It amused him to think that huge and rapid advancements in data encryption had forced hackers like him back to the old school method - smash and grab. The only way to steal information was to seize the physical storage in order to brute-force the encryption at leisure later. It was almost quaint.
Data had long been the biggest prize in the game. Whoever owned the data owned the world. Even with just a few hundred million rows of personal information, the power granted to advertisers, governments, corporations and the military was almost too vast to contemplate.
The stakes were high. Many of Griffen's contemporaries (and rivals) had been shot to pieces by security forces simply on the word of a respected blogger or on the strength of a careless social network update. The person who pulled the trigger was more often than not publicly lauded, given awards, and invited to appear on talk shows to soak up the gratitude of the masses. The story was always the same: this every day Joe saved us all from having our profiles compromised. Applaud him and thank him for shooting first and not even bothering to ask questions later.
Many years ago, back when he was a still a full time digital hacker, Griffen had made a vow. He wouldn't give any minimum-wage sucker the pleasure of taking him out. His first big payday financed an internal explosive implant. It was now permanently rigged to detonate in spectacular fashion the second he was cornered, critically injured or just having a really bad day.
Today was not that day, however. Today he was going to leave this building with six million credits worth of data zipped to his chest, and there wasn't a damn thing OraCorp could do about it.
Darting up a staircase, keeping a close eye on the glowing green trail superimposed on the ground by his overlay, Griffen checked his wrist again. The map layers separated to show him the floors of the building - the disembodied heads of the rest of the security avatars milled around like drunken bees. He was amazed that OraCorp, the largest company on the planet, could run such poor security. True, the Wichita facility wasn't exactly their biggest data centre but still, if their sheep-like subscribers knew that a 22-year-old punk like him could gain access to their private information simply by walking through an electronic pass door, they might not be so keen to pay their annual subscription fee.
A counter at the top left of his modded TalkRight told him that he had one hour and thirty minutes of scrambled activity left before his identity would swim hazily into his pursuers view. Until then, multiple echoes of an empty profile would continue to baffle them, flickering in and out of existence like an old radio broadcast. Bumping into an employee was still a possibility, but it didn't represent too much of a threat - Griffen's skills with a knife had been honed in a thousand filthy back alley brawls. Their electro darts, should they hit, would instantly kill him but he would subsequently explode and decimate the shooter, the facility, and most of the surrounding industrial complex. They didn't know this, and there were no scans they could run to reveal it, but the knowledge alone kept the lop-sided smirk safely plastered on Griffen's face.
Moving up level by level towards the roof, Griffen was alerted to a new communication. The TalkRight flashed orange and he jabbed it to receive. An electronic voice chirped in his ears.
"Mr Griffen, are you in possession?"
"Yup." Griffen grunted, peering around a blind corner to check for swivelling automatic cameras.
"Damage report?" The voice was cold, disinterested.
"Damage to me? Nah, I'm peachy thanks babe," snarled Griffen in an affected Cockney rasp. A silence prompted a sigh from Griffen. "Yeah, two guards destroyed, probably killed a few servers and a firewall nest. The goods are fine, no damage."
"Excellent. Upon reaching the roof, extraction has been arranged. Payment will be forthcoming when the goods are verified."
"Thanks mom!" quipped Griffen. The orange light faded.
No cameras. Griffen ran around the corner and kicked open a fire door. Another voice joined the chorus of screaming sirens, a deafening sonic attack, as if the facility itself was in agonising pain.
Griffen found himself on the roof of the data centre. He narrowed his eyes against the wind and scanned the black horizon. It was a clear night but he was still taken by surprise when the sleek white drone whispered over the lip of the building and padded down next to him. It was pearlescent and flawless, like a healthy tooth.
The door of the drone hissed open and without looking, Griffen dived inside. Footsteps hammered up the stairs behind him. He might be invisible but his actions were not and his path of destruction left a clear trail for the security team.
It didn't matter if Griffen was seen - as long as his profile remained scrambled, even a visual would be useless to the OraCorp Security forces. Only a digital check-in was admissible in a court of law, so if he could stay alive and get out of the vicinity, he was home free.
Griffen whooped to himself as the drone shot vertically into the inky darkness, electro darts ricocheting impotently off the polished bodywork.
His grey smudge vacillated on the security monitors, dispersed and vanished.
Tanner Griffen was gone.
Sitting back and putting his real leather boots on the dashboard, Griffen stretched and yawned. The drone's display winked into life. A realistic simulation of a woman's face appeared, speaking with the same clipped electronic tones as his TalkRight just minutes before.
"Do you have the product Mr Griffen?"
"Yes ma'am. Piece of cake."
The female face remained impassive. Talking to computers irritated the hell out of Griffen. He liked picking them to pieces, exploiting them and using them to earn money by any means necessary, but it irked him when they pretended to be people. It irked him when people pretended to be people, come to that.
"Place the goods on the tray before you."
Griffen unzipped his jacket and pulled out the card clip. He placed it on the conductive rubber pad of the tray, where it was silently scanned.
"This all appears to be in order Mr Griffen. As per our agreement, you have been paid one credit per database row to a total of 50,000 credits."
Griffen shot up from his seat. "Wait one fucking minute doll face, 50,000 creds? Are you shitting me? That was 20 cards - I counted 'em! 50,000 credits ain't worth my time nearly getting my ass fried. What bullshit are you trying to pull?"
The face on the screen showed no emotion. "Mr Griffen, kindly review the card contents."
The face disappeared and was replaced with a checksum and a window in which the obfuscated records were scrolling in a constant stream.
"Fuck - what? Shit! That was all they had, what gives?"
"I'm sorry Mr Griffen. However this amount of data is in line with the expectations of your employer. Your work is satisfactory. Your account has been credited and the cards have now been wiped. Have a nice day."
The screen went blank. The cards were now just pieces of plastic and metal. Somewhere, another database row had been updated - Griffen's bank balance.
Griffen kicked the tray shut and spat on the carpet. Folding his arms like a truculent teenager, he settled down and watched the city stream below him as the drone cruised silently towards the drop off location.