Three strong, slow knocks rang from the metallic door of Hobbar’s hideaway. The youth-like alien looked up from the table where he’d been evenly dividing his attention between a light dinner and two screens, one showing the latest news reports for the area and the other a game where teams competed to organize the fruits mixed in their fruit baskets in surprisigly violent ways. Hobbar’s people were skilled at multitasking, but the knocks on the door came with a resounding gravity that suggested someone who would want undivided attention.
Hobbar hopped from the table and opened the door expecting to see one of, perhaps, three people who knew about this location. Instead he was hit with a wave of heat and greeted with the sight of Igneous, the Pyrhian rock woman. She was leaning against the door frame, apparently exhausted, and covered with so many glowing cracks that it was hard to discern her usual facial features. She looked at Hobbar and pushed her way past, entering the marginally cooler room. Hobbar worried that it wouldn’t be cooler much longer.
“Igneous? How did you find this place. Maybe five people know about it.”
“More than that,” she said. She took a few deep breaths, the shade of light issuing from the cracks in her skin changing with the airflow. Hobbar almost thought she was done talking, but she coughed and continued. “I’ve made a point of keeping tabs on you ever since our working relationship began. Hope you don’t mind… occupational habit.”
Hobbar felt comfortable enough to scowl while Igneous had her back to him.
“I… suppose that’s fine,” said Hobbar. “How did you find me, though? It’s important.”
“No it’s not,” said Igneous. “No time. Where’s Zack. And who else knows about him?”
“I’ve lost track of Gamma,” said Hobbar. “He and that Shift lady got caught in a tractor beam before they left. There was an accident, but I’m pretty sure they were fine after the fact. I’ve not been able to find him since then.”
Igneous turned to look at Hobbar. Her rocky face became, if possible, less expressive.
“I’m not happy to hear that, Hobbar.”
“Hang on,” said Hobbar, taking a step back and holding up a hand. He didn’t think that Igneous would be the sort to take things out on him, but he’d seen her get violent once and wanted to stay as far away from that as possible. “If it helps, I know that the only person in town who’d know how to activate the city’s defense systems like that would be Creep.”
“Yeah, Chip Creep. It’s a fake name, I’m not sure what he used to call himself, but everyone in town who knows about him calls him that. He’s some kind of specialized hacker. Every system that Helix’s government abandons or forgets about, he swoops in and figures out how to make it work again. Some people say that he keeps the city running; I think that he just likes to keep old stuff running as a kind of hobby.”
Igneous took a firm step toward Igneous, putting one of her hands on his shoulders before he even realized that she wasn’t leaning against the wall anymore. The heat was on the verge of painful, but not nearly as worrying as Igneous leaning down to look into his eyes.
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know!” said Hobbar. “But he’s got little places all over town. A lot of the maintenance shafts and tunnels have side rooms, and he uses those as easy access terminals for his own systems.”
“Do you know where some of those terminals are?”
“Yeah, but they’re secured. Lots of trouble to get into one or access them if you do get in, and there’s no knowing if it’ll be one that he’s at.”
“Let me worry about that,” said Igneous, leaning back and finally releasing his shoulder. “Now, how about the question you…”
Igneous paused before coughing and wheezing for a moment. She shook her head and continued.
“How about the question you didn’t answer earlier? Who else knows?”
Hobbar had hoped that the rock woman wouldn’t have caught him giving more information about one question to distract from a lack of information about the second. As it was, he already felt like he’d given away too much about Chip.
“Hard to say for sure,” said Hobbar. “A lot of people are talking about Zack, though not many know much about him. There was a tall, skinny guy from the DMA who showed up, though. Looked a bit like a bug, wearing some sort of robe thing.”
“Might be Vox. Anyone else?”
“Probably. I didn’t keep a list of the names of people who’ve been talking about it. Mostly people like me, probably keeping tabs on it for people like you. I’d heard, though, that there was a lot of damage done to a medical office earlier today. Zack might’ve been involved, but I couldn’t say for sure.”
“I see. You’re sure that there’s no one else, then?”
Hobbar thought about the Phantom Matador. But technically he’d only told the Matador about Carmen Shift, not Zack Gamma.
“No one I know about, at least,” said Hobbar. “I’m not the only eyes and ears in town, you know.”
“Right,” said Igneous. “But you’re good at it. I also had a partner in town before you called me, checking a lead. Means she’s doing her job well to stay off the radar. This Chip Creep person sounds like he’d have eyes in a lot of places. That’d be a lot of informtion for sale, yes?”
“As far as I know, that’s his primary means of income.”
“Typical. Now be honest, crinlian: do you know if he works with Murk?”
“You know about Murk?”
“We’ve met,” she said. The glow in her eyes flashed. “As one of the most notable fellow Pyrhians on the planet, I’ve taken an interest. Plus I work at the DMA. About half of us are evenly divided between helping people like him and eliminating people like him. Since he’s based out of Helix, that puts him right on our doorstep.”
“Well, you’re right. Chip sells data to any buyer, but from what I can tell the primary customer is always Murk.”
“So even if Murk isn’t involved in Zack going missing, he’d have been told about Zack’s presence. Grab your things, Crinlian. You’re taking me to Murk, and don’t even pretend for a moment that someone like you doesn’t know the places that someone like him would call home.”
“Okay,” said Hobbar. “But I stay out of sight. If someone sees me showing you one of Murk’s major stations, that’s the end for me. It’ll be the end for you, too.”
“Don’t bet on it,” said Igneous.