Black 3-IV

Push Your Luck.

I walked with Shauna as she strode back through the corridors that led into the main room, Jess trailing behind us. The light from the pad in her hand created a small sphere of illumination in the darkness, picking out a heavy cloud of dust in the air, thick enough that I hesitated for a second before walking through it. By our best estimates, this place had been abandoned for a good twenty or so years, like most of the ones around it. Intended as office/warehouse hybrids, most of them hadn't even been gutted when the work upped and left, and as such, there were still desks, chairs and tables left in about half of the rooms. We'd mostly left them be to give an illusion of emptiness, but if you looked carefully towards the back of the complex, you might be able to spot a few places where the dust wasn't quite as heavy as others.

"It's probably the weirdest thing I've seen," Shauna was saying, waving the pad to emphasize the point. "Look at this."

She handed it to me, and I held it up so Jess could peer over my shoulder. Lines of letters and numbers streamed down the screen, a seemingly-endless waterfall of text that looked like it continued back into the screen forever. The script looked old and blocky, and glowed with an eerie green light.

"What is this, your screensaver?" I asked. "How do I get rid of it?"

She sighed. "That's the UI. It's encrypted; apparently someone was a fan of the Matrix."

"The math thing?"

"No, the movie." She saw our blank stares. "Really? From the eighties, we're all in a simulation, superpowers are glitches in the system?"

I shrugged. "Never heard of it." Jess grunted in assent.

She rolled her eyes and snatched the pad back. "This was a pretty distinct visual from the movie. Seems like they wanted to be stylized with their security."

"So how does it work, then?"

"I have no idea, which is kind of the point. Whoever made this, they wanted to make sure that the only way to even access the files is to be in the know."

"And a password wasn't enough?"

"Apparently not." We passed into the main room, the circle of light up ahead. "If I had to guess, it's probably a defense against mental powers and such. They probably didn't want something that could be read or stolen, so it's a skill, rather than a code or pattern."

"Huh. That seems pretty paranoid, don'tya think?"

She smiled grimly as we passed the table, where George was piling the money back into the bag. He looked up, mouth opened as if to ask something, but Jess peeled off to talk to him as I waved him down with a mouthed "later".

"That's just the thing, Flint. If they're going to go to all this effort, what the bloody hell is on this thing?"

Privately, I'd been thinking along the same lines. "It's probably just corporate secrets or something, Shauna."

"Yes," she said slowly, like she was talking to a child, "and what are the two biggest corporations that have vested interest in securing their secrets?

"Oh." The Watchtower Conglomerate and Blacklight Services would both have very good reasons to want their secrets to stay protected. And considering the massive pile of money, and the fact that it had been stolen by supervillains... Yeah, there was a good chance that we were holding into the classified secrets of one of two of the most powerful superpowered organisations in the country (slash the world, maybe, sort of). "Well, dammit all to hell. Did you at least manage to get a backup of it?"

"You... really don't have much idea how computers work, do you?" she asked as we reached the desk with the computer on it.

“I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment,” I said loftily.

“Believe me, it’s not.” She placed the pad on the connector wired into the main body thing and the desktop up. The monitor flickered on for a second, displaying the default background that we’d settled on after people kept changing it, before being replaced by the same streaming lines of code as on the pad. “Even if I could somehow get past the encryption this thing’s packing, I can’t even connect it to another device without this happening.” She sounded almost… admiring as she said it.

I leant over the shoulder of the chair and picked the pad off the connector. The screen flickered back to normal, before reverting when I placed it down again. “Wow. I’m guessing this is impressive.”

“Very,” she nodded. “I don’t even know how you’d start going about making it do that.” She paused. “Then again, I’m a high school student who only knows about computers because her mother runs a repair shop, so what do I know?”

I stared at the screen, trying to follow a sequence the code for a second. “Eh,” I replied distractedly. “You figured out that we’re probably screwed, so you did fine in my books.” My eyes were starting to water, with no success, so I looked away and back towards the table. “Come on, we need to establish a few things.”

We strode back to the light, pad safely in Shauna’s hand. Jess and George had mostly finished, and were putting the last few bills back in the bag. “Now, I’m not saying I don’t trust you guys,” I said, “but if you took any, please put them back. It could literally be the difference between life and death.”

Jess grumbled for a second before pulling a few crumpled bills out of her pocket and putting them in the bag. George just raised his eyebrow at me, which I ignored.

“Alright,” I said, clapping my hands together. “I’m going to tell the others when they get back, and Sanjay, and Shauna can tell Nat, but I felt I might as well say this to you guys while we’re here. As of right now, we are in stand-down. No costumes, no powers, no more meetings. Until we figure out exactly what is going on, we’re all going back to pretending to be normal. I’m pretty sure we’ve stumbled into something way above our pay-grade, and some not-so-nice people are probably going to be looking for that bag pretty soon. Shauna,” I said, turning to address her, “I’m going to need you to set up some kind of secure messaging system. Is that possible?”

She frowned, pursing her lips. “I can’t create one from scratch, if that’s what you’re asking, but I can probably hack something together.”

“Right. Get on that, then. You two,” I said to Jess and George, “don’t get any special tasks, I’m afraid. Just go home, and try to pretend like you’re not technically-illegal vigilantes, if you could.” They nodded, George with a smirk, Jess’ face considerably flatter. “Good. Go, then, and get some sleep.”

“What will you do?” George asked.

“Me?” I plunked myself down on one of the chairs. “I’m going to wait for the others to get back with the safe, then I’m going to go home and sleep like a baby.”