Pastel’s ride was not what Jovin had expected.
“I thought you’d have a limo,” he said, climbing into the automated rental car after her — the daily sort that clogged up half the traffic at any one time. They, like this one, were about as clean as anyone could expect after having ten thousand different ponies use it after a few years, for whatever purpose they desired. Some too distasteful to spare a thought for. “Maybe a driver to chauffeur you around to boot.” He glanced through the rear window to the beat-up diner they were leaving before shutting the door, and then everything was quieter — the growl of the city muffled.
Strange how easily it could be forgotten, drowned out like white noise. Without the constant drone, the silence felt almost ominous. Almost.
“Nah.” Pastel waved a hoof in good-natured dismissal. “I like to keep a low profile. The fewer ponies who know my business, the better.”
Jovin returned to her. “That secretive, huh?”
“Cautious, rather.” She smirked. “Besides, between you and me, I prefer drivers without cybernetics. Meaning no offence, of course.”
“None taken,” he coolly replied, though he couldn’t help snatching a quick glance at his foreleg still on the backrest, the faint reflection of green light on the metal surfaces catching his eye. He brought it down and sat facing forward, but kept his head turned just enough that he could watch Pastel. “Not really one for driving, personally, or being driven, so I can’t comment.”
“Well, ever since that idiot a few years ago just… stood in the middle of the road, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anypony licenced who doesn’t have their head in the literal cloud.”
He huffed a laugh. “They stood there, huh? Like, what, they were having a really bad day?”
“Something like that, I imagine.” She shrugged. “Ruined life for the rest of us, that’s for sure.” And then she turned for what would’ve been the driver’s section, if it weren’t completely empty save for some stickers, graffiti and torn lining — a few hotshots taking their anger at society out on a defenceless machine. “Navigation; Horizon Corp, parking garage.”
Silence settled between them as the car hummed to life, moving on its own. Pastel pulled out her mobile and idly began tapping away on it.
Jovin drummed his claws on his lap, scanning the vehicle a little more and finding an ever-growing list of damages it didn’t deserve, and the owning company had yet to clean up or fix. The city passed by quickly, the unfamiliar suburbs and districts giving way to familiar ones, and then unfamiliar ones all over again, each turn perfect, every speed limit maintained. No swerving, and no hesitation.
He occasionally glanced Pastel’s way when he thought she wasn’t looking — not that she seemed all that eager to get off her phone — taking in what few details about her there was left to mention. Her fetlocks were longer than normal, for instance, and almost completely white compared to the rest of her coat. Doing his best to not seem too obvious about it, he tried spying for some kind of neural implant somewhere along her nape, but her mane was too long and flowing; she appeared to be completely unaltered.
But then again, a pony of her projected calibre might have been hiding it. That, or she really was all natural. Rare in this day and age.
“Like what you see?”
Jovin jumped. He hadn’t noticed her watching him from the corner of her eye. He choked on words he hadn’t yet gathered, those soft, perceptive eyes of hers reading into him. She just had to be a tease, didn't she?
“W-well, I mean, uh… I was just wondering what this thing that you’re having me do is, which may or may not but probably will involve breaking the law, and that you haven’t said anything about it yet.” He barely managed to formulate that sensibly. Come to think of it, he really should be more worried about that than stare at her.
Pastel’s smirk lingered a moment before she motioned to her phone. “Just making sure I have all the details right before I fill you in. If it’s my mane you’re interested in, though, you should wear yours down too. You’ve got a lot of it tied up back there and I bet it looks lovely when combed.”
Jovin felt a blush on his cheeks. He always did tie up his mane in a ponytail. At least the mane behind his ears, the rest spiked up around his head or hung loose around the sides of his face. He liked to imagine it was a simple stylish look, but he honestly just didn’t want to bother cutting it short.
“I like how it is,” he said, scrunching up his nose at her then glanced away and shook his head. “So, anyway, what am I getting into? What's the job?”
Pastel continued smiling for a few seconds more before returning to her phone. “We’re heading to the Horizon tower, if you haven’t guessed already. I need some inside information on some internal affairs, you see.”
Jovin’s brows rose. “Really? Corporate espionage? This is the line of work you’re a part of, not some… drug dealing ring, or whatever?“
She snorted. “Not intimidated, are you?”
“Intimidated? No. Intrigued? Heck yes. Like, is this some kind of revenge plot, sticking it to the big guy situation, or are you a freelancer — a mercenary hiring mercenaries — or do you work for a rival company, or—”
Pastel gave him a pointed look, tipped with a painful, but not deadly poison. She didn’t seem angry, or sad. Merely… cautionary. And the passing lights of the city through the window behind her certainly didn’t make her seem all that friendly.
It took a moment to understand what the problem was, but when he did, or thought he did, his eyes went wide and he slowly nodded, pursing his lips. “Oh, yeah, don’t ask, don’t tell; keep as many ponies out of the loop as possible.”
She stared a little while longer, no doubt making sure the point stuck, then went back to the mobile. Considering how lighthearted all their prior conversation went, it was a bit of a surprise to see her showing some edge. And to look damn serious while doing it.
He was beginning to see why Buck liked her so much. Or didn’t like her. Whatever their relationship really was.
“We’re looking for dirt on a branch director.” She pointed out the window to a building towering above most others in their immediate vicinity. “Standard blackmail affair, really: apparently she’s having inappropriate personal relations with a colleague, the details of which are probably best left to the imagination. Do with that what you will. But they’re a smaller company, so we didn’t expect our last hacker to get roasted by a counter-hack.”
Jovin quirked an eyebrow. “Roasted how?”
“Dead.” She returned to him. “Brain fried like he stuck a knife in a toaster. Wasn’t pretty.”
“Oh.” He paused, and then he shrugged. “Well, that sucks.”
“It doesn’t bother you, knowing this?”
“A little, maybe, but… I’ve played with fire before.”
“You’ve done a job like this?”
“On occasion.” Jovin smirked. He could play secret too.
Pastel gave him an unamused look before returning to her mobile. “Anyhow, our guy tried getting into the director’s personal files and emails before the zap. I don’t know the computer jargon, so I’ll just forward you the technical details.”
As she gestured with her phone, the file image floating off the side of her screen toward Jovin to prompt the download, the car slowed, easing into a parking spot inside a large garage. A small speck in his eyes lit up, and his vision filled with floating images of the documents given.
“…Huh. They got another firewall for the upper management. Seems they care about internal security some.”
“Not unique in their line of work, but troublesome all the same.” She opened the door and stepped out of the car, turning around to peer inside at him. “Anyway, let me show you where you’ll be working from.”
Jovin followed, exiting from his own side. Not too many paces away sat a mildly beat-up service van. He’d seen enough movies to know where this was going; even if everything in them was fake, there still had to be some element of truth behind it.all.
“Paperweight, open up,” Pastel called with a gentle knock on the sliding door.
There was a light scuffle heard inside before an anxious female voice responded. “P-password?”
“Pineapples.” Pastel sighed. “Come on, Paperweight, dear, you knew I was coming.”
The door slid open, revealing much of what Jovin had expected; the interior was aglow with the light of several computer screens, electronic equipment, and sitting on the rolling chair at the door was… a nervous wreck of a pony.
Even with her large glasses on, it wasn’t hard to see the mare hadn’t slept for days. That, or she’d been rather stressed out recently. Probably both, one feeding into the other in an endless cycle.
“I was just making sure!” she squeaked, forcing a smile before nervously chewing on a hoof.
Jovin took one look at her, the messy bun that tied up her mane and the bags under her eyes. Yep. She was a total wreck.
“Paperweight, this is Jovin. He’s our new computer nerd.”
“I resent that statement.”
Paperweight looked from Pastel to Jovin, twitching a bit to herself before looking back to her boss and whispered, leaning in, “He looks like a homeless assassin.”
“Uh, I can hear you.”
Pastel had to bite her lip and take a breath to keep herself from smirking. “Paperweight, he’s fine. He’s one of my friends’ friends. You can trust him. Anyhow,” she turned around to face Jovin, “this here van has a lot of the equipment you need to work. We have a hard line plugged in here so you can—"
“Really?” He pointed at the van. “From here?”
“Well, as hard a line as you can get for being on a public, legal connection.”
Jovin sighed and facepalmed, claws and all. “Yeah, no. You got a laptop or micro tower I can take?”
Pastel raised a carefully groomed eyebrow. “Pardon?”
“I’m not working in there.” He leaned his head in through the door, Paperweight inching away from him. “Give me a computer and I’ll get myself an access point inside their network.”
Pastel furrowed her brows. “You’re just going to walk in and hook up?”
Jovin reached past a rather uncomfortable-looking Paperweight, grabbing a laptop that looked less important than the others and pulling it free of a few cables, much to the mare’s distress. “Nah. But buildings like that are just saturated with all sorts of basic network topology. Horizon Corp only occupies a few floors, and there are dozens of other businesses in there. You need a network for the building to connect the networks of the other businesses, and not to mention you need to connect the building to the rest of the city, soooo… I’m going to hook up to that and work my way down. Locally.”
“And you can’t do that from the van because…?”
“Because internal network security tends to suck. Can’t be meaningfully traced if I’m literally in the building network. And I doubt the counter-hack would wanna kill someone who might be in their own company.” He turned, heading away from the van to look for open sky from the parking garage.
“Jovin.” Pastel waited for him to turn around, a mild smirk on her. “This sounds like a terrible idea. You don’t have to impress me on your first job. Don’t do anything stupid, or I’m leaving you to die. And get on coms with Paperweight. She can help be your eye in the sky. Isn’t that right, Paperweight?”
“He’s gonna die,” she whimpered to herself, returning to her computers.
“I heard that. And thanks for caring so much, but I always aim high,” Jovin said with a grin, then vaulted over the railing and took flight, heading for the tower.
Pastel stared at the empty sky where Jovin was moments ago. “…Buck is going to hate me.”
Jovin powered his way through the sky, gaining what altitude he could while he scanned the building in question for its junction boxes and communications equipment. He reminded himself to shut off his passive lights on his cybernetics, the yellow glow that accented him going dark. Even his eyes lost their shine as his form became harder to spot against the darker backdrops; there were plenty of other light sources to focus on. The city itself made hiding in plain sight far easier, unless security here was more state-of-the-art than he’d been led to believe.
Unlikely, though. No need to worry.
Circling the skyscraper as he ascended, it took him a few minutes before he neared the top. Massive towers surrounded him, pylons of metal and glass and the ever-present green ambience of the city below, but despite them all, and his size in comparison, the world outside felt so small. The lights in the city were oppressive, and beyond it, nothing but darkness. The world became a near black abyss, and the city an island floating perilously atop it. Even though Jovin knew there was a whole world of landscape out there it all felt as empty as it looked.
A flicker appeared in Jovin’s vision and a gentle hum of vibration came from the piercings in his ears, breaking his trance; the call handle was one he didn’t recognise, and for a brief moment he froze, wondering if it could be that brutish mare from a few weeks ago. Taking in a deep breath, he answered.
“Oh, its, uh… its Paperweight.”
“Oh, I don’t remember giving you—"
“Boss says she had to call her friend and ask for your number, and she’s still giving me looks ‘cause he won’t stop asking about you and—"
“Oh, yeah,” he rolled his eyes, “Buck tends to worry a lot… Well, a little, relatively.”
“…Anyway, where are you? I can pull up building blueprints or something for you.”
“Uh… yeah, I guess have those ready.” He shrugged, blowing a sigh soft enough that it shouldn’t have been picked up by the call.
How in the world did she land a job like this?
“Okay, just… be careful, because there might be drones.”
“They… might also have a pacification droneship on standby.”
“Oh,” he said, then let out a groan.
Typical quad-copter drones were one thing, but droneships were another issue entirely. With automation technology nowadays, it was inevitable that someone would get the idea to scale up a flying robot to several times larger than a pony. Modular designs meant they could fulfill most roles pegasi used to have a monopoly over — he’d lost a job or two because of them, and saw some in the military before his discharge. A droneship with pacification gear were bad news: they didn’t hesitate or make mistakes.
“Should’ve brought my own drone,” he grumbled to himself, figuring a second pair of eyes would be best in this situation, but sighed again and he scanned the airspace. Nothing else in the sky that he could see — a few couriers zipping by in the distance, but none of them had seen him, and likely wouldn’t have cared. Returning to the skyscraper, he caught sight of what he was looking for and drove toward it.
The junction box for the building’s network was small; attached to one of the dish towers on the roof, but easily out of reach for someone who lacked a ladder. Jovin deployed his claws and comfortably latched onto it, the I-beams giving him plenty of grip. “Lets see what you got inside you,” he mumbled, then pried the lid open with enough effort, breaking the lock in the process. If this was a simple job, he’d be out of there in no time, and what security there was would put the damage down to a wannabe hacker trying their luck.
Inside, he was met with a lot of wires, routers, and switches.
“Well, this is a mess,” he murmured, then perused the faded labels for something resembling a network cable. Considering this was a shared building with lots of different branches living under the same roof, it was a safe bet to say the tower and its infrastructure wasn’t built by any of those companies; the construction business didn’t want to spend the money to train their staff, so they hired the cheapest third party they could find.
This, of course, would lead to some logistical frustration down the line, and quite possibly a few office fires, but who cared? The short-term profit was all that mattered. “Bastards,” Jovin muttered, then spied a label that might have been the right one and saw that the port matched. So, bringing up the laptop and flipping open the screen, he plugged the loose end of the network cable into the box and waited. Sure enough, a few seconds later, the screen glitched out and went dark, and the motor inside the machine whined uncomfortably loud, and he smelled burning ozone.
“Yeah, no thanks.” He tossed the laptop over his shoulder. “Looks like someone’s losing their internet.”
Taking a cable, he yanked it free and reached behind to plug it into the back of his neck. Flooded with a hail of pings, he ignored them all and waited until he got what he was probing for on his hud.
“Just need that MAC address. Bingo.” He pulled his retractable cable from his head and plugged it into the switch. It only took moments before the system fell for the spoof and saw him as the connection that was previously in place. Heck, he could’ve had a sip from something and still have enough time before it became the wiser. From there on, it was easy enough to identify and record the network map. Finding the Horizon lan was easy. Now it was just a matter of how subtle he could be.
“Hey, Buttweight. Is this supposed to be a totally covert kinda op or can I break some things and leave a mess so long as they don’t find us?”
He would hear a groan and whine in response before he finally got a legible response. “It’s Paperweight! And be sneaky as much as possible or you’ll die!”
“So… total sneaky?”
“…Boss says you can make a mess if you need to. Just don’t get caught or lead them back to us or she will, uh… kill you herself.”
“Tell her I love her too.” Jovin rolled his eyes before refocusing on his hud.
“This shouldn’t be too hard.” He delved into the company network. Servers were clearly out of the question with what equipment he had, but end user computers? He already had their IP, all he needed was to guess their credentials. The director’s machine was easy enough to find with the name of it being visible on the network. But logging in…
Of course, there was a camera system in place in the office network. He took a few prods at it, guessing a couple of password login combinations before a quick reference to the brand default login got him access. Smirking, he paged through the available views, looking for the director's office, which he eventually found, and pulled up a video feed. Sure enough, along with a rather bored-looking mare slumped over at her desk, he spied a sticky note on her computer.
“Jackpot.” In moments, he connected to the device and immediately started pulling all the email files he could. There was a lot, but fortunately, it was a fast connection and his prior job convinced him to get a temporary storage drive in his head to handle something like this.
Seeing the director watch everything happen on the monitor with absolute bewilderment and confusion put quite a smile on his face, and Jovin couldn’t help getting some ideas.
He checked the recordings, but soon realized there was no way he could store any significant amount of data in his head like this. However, he was connected to the leynet, and everything he needed to store it elsewhere.
It may have landed him in trouble when he worked in data recovery, but at heart, Jovin loved to snoop. It was what got him into this kind of work in the first place. So, naturally, he had his own offsite storage ready to go, with proxies in place to throw off anything tracking it. All he needed to do was to pipe the data out of the building and to his storage, with a copy of the emails he ripped while he was at it.
Gripping with is hind leg claw firmly, he leaned back and hung upside down, crossing his wings over his chest and his forelegs behind his head. All he had to do now was wait for the data to finish pulling. He shut down his hud stared out at the dark horizon and relaxed, knowing it wouldn’t take long.
“When this is over, I’m going to buy me some much needed TLC and save up for that—"
“Debt?” said a familiar, chilling voice.
Jovin froze, turning his head to look into the eyes a mare he really didn’t need to be seeing right now, a toothy, sinister smile plastered on her face like she’d won the lottery, and knew exactly whose life she was going to ruin with it.