Episode 15: A Murky Report

Zack took the woman’s extended hand, easily skittering into the office with her help. The room was small and only sparsely decorated. Zack spun to the window and closed it quickly while the woman stared in disbelief.

“What’s happening up there?” she asked. “Those sounded like explosions. But… muffled.”

“Gunfire, actually,” said Zack, examining the control panel by the window. “I see how you make it opaque, is there a way to make it opaque from the outside, but will let us see out?”

“No, the building’s too old for that.” She said. “Who are you? What’s going on up there?”

Zack shrugged.

“I guess the doctor up there does work with the Asteroid Racing league while it’s in town, and someone showed up who really doesn’t like how the races are going this year as soon as my appointment was over. It got crazy.”

“So crazy you had to leave through the window?”

Zack thought about his story for a fraction of a second longer than it would take to avoid suspicion.

“Yes,” he said.

The woman raised her eyebrow.

“I think I should call the police,” she said.

“Good idea, but I think the people in the office above that one probably beat you to it,” he said. “I’ve gotta run, thanks for letting me in.”

“Wait, you can’t just leave.”

“Why not?” asked Zack.

“What if the police want to question you?”

“They can,” he said. “But I’m in a big hurry, just ask them to catch up with me to ask questions about it.”

“What’s your name?” she said. “How do they find you?”

“My name is Vox,” he said. “I work with the DMA. My supervisor is Sharl Teth. I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions they might have, but for now I’ve really gotta go.”

The woman looked skeptical. Zack saw another question forming on the her face, but he rushed for the door before it could be asked. She shouted for him to wait, but Zack didn’t pause on his way back to the elevator.

***

The right piece of information learned at the right time with the right context can change everything, and Helix was a city built with the transmission of information in mind. There were few who monitored the cameras built into the streets and sides of buildings thanks to facial recognition software that sifted through the massive amounts of data for anything might be important.

The software was old, however, and updating the digital infrastructure of the community was not a priority. Basic security measures were in place, of course, but a talented hacker would only find the coding of Helix problematic if they refused to learn older programming languages. It was only a century or two away from its software becoming a piece of obscure lore; as it was in the present, it was still an easily researched curiosity. To the right hacker, Helix would rank among the lowest of challenging government data systems to breach.

Chip Creep wasn’t just the right hacker; he was the only hacker. In some ways, he performed a valuable public service to the city of Helix, and those very few that he trusted enough to tell of his career usually chose to see it that way. He kept a low enough profile that most people in the circles who might know of him didn’t think he was an actual person. The updates and firewalls that he installed in Helix kept the computer systems that ran the Super City from becoming filled with the digital equivalent of graffiti. His security measures were cleverly disguised as coding errors, short circuits and hardware problems (and at times, he took advantage of those problems where they truly existed) meaning that no one else enjoyed the digital freedom he did.

The price Helix paid for Chip Creep’s protection was providing him with its resources and information. He had proclaimed himself the ruler of Helix’s infrastructure, meaning that he could learn anything Helix knew, open any of its mechanically locked doors, and even activate its rudimentary transportation capabilities. Helix paid deeply for its protector, but didn’t ever know that it was being protected.

Chip Creep overlayed a number of programs within Helix’s software to provide the expected information and functional capabilities while its shamefully misused processing power was put to his purposes. With Helix as his personal computer (albeit an incredibly high maintenance one), he had the ability to handle a number of problems for the right buyers. His first use of the system had been to remove himself from databases elsewhere and make it impossible for anyone to discover his true name through the conventional methods.

On this day, his regular schedule was interrupted by Helix’s facial recognition software. The information was not tagged in a way that would send it to the Helix authorities, but his personal tags indicated that it contained information that might be relevant on two fronts. Eager to see what lucrative opportunities might await him, he opened the file for more information. The first tag indicated that it was a DMA Bounty, and one that might be interesting to the right mercenaries.

The second tag made his heart sink. Chip knew that he was the undisputable controller of Helix’s infrastructure, but that did not mean he controlled Helix. The second tag told him that he might need to contact the person who did, Murk.

Sighing, he selected the file and activated his fibrolathe, watching a blank data crystal become carved and radiated in preparation for imprinting with the information. There were so many methods of data storage that Chip could use, but he appreciated the antiquated feel of it and Murk seemed to appreciate the intricately carved patterns on the sapphire blue crystals.

When the fibrolathe finished carving, irradiating, and imprinting the data, Chip snatched the jewel before the auto-eject feature launched it onto the floor. It was sturdy enough to avoid being shattered, but it was still best not to take risks.

Chip stepped out of the palatial apartment near the top of the allegedly abandoned building near the top of Alpha Street. He’d picked it for the imagined prestige, but had managed to clutter it with his equipment to the point that it no longer looked glamorous and was beginning to bore him. The hassle of relocating in secret and the ease with which he could already go anywhere in Helix had prevented him from seeking out a new place in spite of the numerous options in the largely empty city. It had the added benefit and risk of being near Murk’s office, and while it might not be wise to frequently make deals with those who organize criminal activities it was also good to not miss opportunity when it knocked.

“Subway,” Chip said as he stepped into the elevator. “Creep Car Hangar. Passcode: Void Pilgrim Yet Flies.”

The elevator doors closed with an austere chime, quickly dropping him down to a level not indicated by the buttons on the elevator door. All the elevators had been designed with the capability to accept verbal commands, but had never been programmed properly in many of the buildings completed near the end of Helix’s construction. An elevator with buttons for the floors was assumed to lack vocal command capability by anyone who might use the elevator most of the time, and anyone who stumbled on the vocal commands or knew the technological history of the city wouldn’t look for a floor that wasn’t listed.

The ‘Creep Car’ that he kept in the lowest subway landing had been trickier. It was a mag-lev cart with only two seats and a small cargo area that he’d had to import when he realized that no actual cars had been left on that abandoned line of the otherwise functional subway system. The personal train car let him get to most places in Helix by way of its spiraling tracks in a way that Chip tried hard to not compare to an amusement park ride.

When he pulled into the station, he was surprised to see a man in a suit standing at the door leading in to Murk’s building.

“Hello, there,” Chip said. “You’re new.”

“Mister Murk was getting tired of your unannounced arrivals,” said the man. “He was worried you might show up when he was conducting business. Worse, you and he both deal in information, and since you seem to be able to get through any locked door in Helix, he felt it wise to leave a greeter.”

“It’ll be silly to keep me out whenever business is afoot,” said Chip. “I come bearing business. Business he’ll want. Does he have a moment?”

“I’ll see,” said the man.

Fifteen minutes later, the man returned and waved Chip through the door.

“Mister Murk has a few minutes,” he said. “Incidentally, it’s good to see you show up. I’ve been working this job for two weeks now. Boring like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I bet,” said Chip, walking up the stairs beyond the door. He could barely stand the brief time that he’d been down there.

Chip emerged from a side door in Murk’s office, one that didn’t face the desk like the main door. Murk stood on three legs that each appeared to flow like a gentle waterfall, the only structural difference that Murk chose that was different than a human’s. Murk was made of liquid, an iridescent cerulean substance that, nearest its core, churned with an inky blue and purple. He was holding a “computer” that came from his home world, an amoeba-like drop of water that stored data in a lumpy nucleus at its center. Chip had never been able to acquire a device like it, but he imagined that its interface and display were intuitive, allowing Murk to issue commands mentally while results went directly into Murk’s mind.

“It is a pleasure to see you, Chip,” said Murk, the membrane that held him together opening enough to allow his voice to emerge. “I trust that my added security was not too much of an inconvenience. It allowed me to wrap up a delicate matter.”

“It wasn’t any problem at all,” said Chip. “Though my information is time sensitive.”

He held up the data crystal and tossed it to Murk. The liquid creature’s arm whipped through the air and enveloped the item, allowing it to quickly flow through him and into the computer where it began drifting around the nucleus.

“I imagine my standard fee will be acceptable,” said Chip. “Though the information is, I think, worth more to you than that.”

“I took the liberty of transferring the usual amount of funds to you when you were on your way in,” said Murk. “You have a history of pleasant surprises. If it is worth more, then perhaps we should discuss a more regular position within my organization.”

“I appreciate it, but I think our working relationship is fine where it is for now,” said Chip. “Still, I’d love to hear any ideas you have on that front.”

Murk’s liquid computer began to glow, indicating that the interface between the two different types of technology had finished. Murk accessed the information, and suddenly grew quiet and still. Chip recognized it as a look of concentration, and possibly anticipation.

“This is worth far more than your usual fee,” said Murk. “I never expected off-world business to come home to roost, even with the DMA so near. You are aware that there is a bounty on his head, yes?”

“So my computer told me,” said Chip. “But not just from you: the DMA wants him dead too.”

“How unfortunate for him,” said Murk. “DMA agents can be ruthless for the right price. What do you say we arrange for his capture before one of those brutes finds him?”

“I think that sounds like a wonderful idea, Murk,” said Chip, relieved that this was going well.

“We should move quickly, then,” said Murk, looking at the mental image of the man in the green trench coat and hat. “Oh, Zack Gamma… I warned you to never come to Helix. And now it’s my job to make sure that you never leave.”

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