Chip opened the door to his spacious apartment, bearing a sack of supplies in one hand and the finest Haukreen takeout in all of Helix. He tossed both onto the front room’s coffee table, and ran into the monitor room as a formality, but was confused by the actual red warning light on the central monitor. No situation had ever warranted red since he wrote the software. Approaching for a closer look, the screen told him what he knew it would say but what he hoped it would not.
LUSCA HABITAT BREACHED. GAMMA STATUS: ABSENT.
The recreation of the underjungles where Murk kept his pet Lusca vine wasn’t as high a priority, but it was where Zack Gamma had been imprisoned. Murk had made it clear that nothing was more important than keeping Gamma contained. Ordinarily, problems in Murk’s business weren’t Chip’s problems to worry about, but the Underjungles wouldn’t have been possible without Chip’s assistance and knowledge of Helix’s infrastructure.
At the time, a jungle project seemed like it wouldn’t be problematic at all. The hardest part was translating Helix’s biosphere generation capabilities to a portion of its substructure that wasn’t initially compatible with the technology. After that, it had just been a matter of monitoring the system and keeping the legitimate authorities from discovering it. He’d resented it later when he learned that the gardening project would actually make him a warden if Murk ever had an appropriate prisoner, but by then he was too crucial to the process.
“Show me how he escaped.”
Chip watched a feed. A Pyrhian rock woman broke in through the studio facility that doubled as a service entrance, though she was clearly close enough to a metamorphosis that she shouldn’t have been so active. He watched, quickly scanning through the feed until it caught up with the present, causing a deeper probe that led to the unsettling possibility that the data had been altered. He dismissed the invasive thought and began tapping into alternate security cameras outside the office in question, until he caught an image of Zack Gamma entering a van outside the studio.
“Where did they go?”
The next feed followed the van as it left in a hurry. A number of cameras on Alpha and Beta street tracked its movements, but the van did a good job of sticking to the areas that had no cameras, or where the cameras had broken down without being replaced. Fortunately, no easy exits from the city flagged the van or Zack Gamma’s departure. Still, he needed a way to either track Gamma or gain leverage.
“What did Murk do with Carmen Shift?”
Chip saw a few quick video clips and read a report. She had been released back into the city with no real information about what had happened. Ordinarily an idiotic move, but Murk had been more concerned about how much media attention a missing asteroid racer could bring. She was still in the city, last seen leaving a police station. Chip hated acting proactively on Murk’s behalf as it would do more to reduce his autonomy outside of Murk’s operations every time, but he bore the responsibility for locating Zack Gamma and needed bait to lure him out before he left Helix.
“Contact… I don’t know, find someone not currently doing anything, some of Murk’s people. We need to retrieve Carmen Shift right now.”
“Belay that,” said a voice from behind him.
Chip spun and saw Zack Gamma stepping out from the closet. He was holding the basic ray pistol that Chip had bought years ago and hidden in his desk for safety. Chip looked from it to the desk drawer.
“Sorry, I’ve got a bad habit of rifling through drawers, seeing if I can find anything useful. You should really keep something like this in a safe. That makes it harder to get to, of course, so there are a few different opinions on that matter.”
“How did you find me?” asked Chip. “It wouldn’t have been possible to trace my signal from the studio to here, at least not without better hacking skills than I have.”
“Yeah, but your coding’s a little too intuitive,” said Zack. “I saw how you laid out the cameras in the Underjungle. You numbered them pretty consistantly there. You had other cameras up in your different satellite stations, numbered the same way. It wasn’t too hard to set up a grid. Now, I admit I had this whole building to choose from when I got here, so I took a gamble that someone with their eyes on the hardware that runs Helix would want the top floor. I didn’t have time to find what I needed on your computer there before you came in the front door and I had to hide.”
“Right. So… you’re the one with the gun. What do you want?”
“It’s that easy?”
“Absolutely,” said Chip. “I’m in no position to do much. Plus I don’t particularly like Murk. All I ask is that you don’t let him know that I did anything to help you.”
“Deal,” said Zack. “First, I need to know where my stuff is. I could live without my Purcellian Strikers, but my ID and money are kind of important.”
“I assume Murk still has them. I have a direct transport to the basement of his headquarters, but he’s put a guard there recently to keep me from showing up unannounced. No guards immediately outside the front door, but there’s usually a stronger force just inside. Then again, I’ve got no cameras there so I can’t say either way.”
“Good to know,” said Zack. “Next, I’ll need a safe way out of town.”
“There are plenty of safe ways, there just aren’t many unobserved ways. I could always look the other way. The trouble is convincing Murk that I couldn’t notice you in time. I’m usually not obliged to help him out, but you’re a special case.”
“We can work that out on the way,” said Zack. “I think you need to come with me since I’m so special. I’m sure Murk’ll be understanding. Grab your takeout, and let’s go.”
Chip nodded, walked back to the living room, and grabbed his dinner. He wasn’t wild about accompanying Zack for this escapade, but he also knew that he wanted Zack out of the apartment before he noticed the most crucial piece of information.
Zack might have asked the computer to belay the instruction to have Carmen located and captured, but the computer didn’t listen to anyone except him.
Much earlier, on another world…
Azar wore his best suit, though he still felt underdressed. He hadn’t yet spent much on his wardrobe since he became the wealthiest person he had ever heard of, and knew in his mind that he should, but he wasn’t sure how to begin looking for the best outfits that money could buy, or even what he’d look like in an outfit like that. His still-shaggy appearance had been improved, though, and in a suit he gave the impression of a ragged and lovable stuffed animal instead of a slob.
The lawyer on the other side of the table, Sister Barris of the Order of Fierce Mercy, adjusted her WimpHelm as she turned the page. She smiled at the relatively short final lines of the document and looked back at Azar.
“What do you think?”
“I agree with our Baristerbot,” she said, pleasantly stacking the papers into a neat pile. “You dotted every i on the important papers, never missed a day of work, and weren’t ever at fault in any way that would cause you to forfeit your earnings.”
Azar laughed, and fell back into his chair.
“That’s such a relief,” he said. “You’re the first lawyer who would speak to me after an initial meeting. Everyone else said that I probably wouldn’t have a case.”
“Most of the best lawyers on the planet are all members of organizations that are subsidiaries of BristleCorp and couldn’t legally help you anyway, and a lot of the others are easily bullied by them. It’s not a guaranteed loss in court, but some might see it that way. BristleCorp even owns the bank that forged the money for you.”
“So as an unaffiliated religious organization, your lawyers aren’t on the take.”
“The Order of Fierce Mercy isn’t strictly a religious order, but yes. We have no corporate affiliations, and believe in strong representation for those who may not be well equipped to find counsel elsewhere.”
“It’s horrible the way that they’ve tried to keep me from finding help,” said Azar. “I’ve been afraid to spend any of this.”
“Consider it the death throes of a corrupt and horrible system,” said Barris. “You signed on to a high risk engineering program that would be illegal if it was done today, even for someone with your education. The system was meant to be rigged so that no one could ever make much money. But you never paid for things at the company store on credit. You always brought your own lunch, borrowed from friends and family instead of the corporate banks when needed, and invested wisely. The high interest that was meant to make you owe them money worked against them for you. Most of the other people in the program who even came close to getting rich would perish in some of the deep space engineering projects, or at least wind up having to spend all of their payoffs in massive medical bills. In short, you played a game that the casino rigged, but the house lost. And anyone who works in casinos enough knows that the house will do anything not to lose. And in your case, they’ve lost more than anyone would have imagined was possible except as a theoretical thought exercise.”
“So it’s a blatant case of them going back on their word for me?”
“Not as blatant as it could be. They were very careful about when and where they said certain things. But yes, there is a definite promise made to you, and the promise made to you will be broken if they don’t pay you. The other issue is that this is a matter of self survival; they’ve given you more money than they can afford to spare, and it may cause their overarching corporation to collapse. Ordinarily, that would be a case of it merely being their fault, but in the case of this particular corporate collapse, there’s a chance that them paying you could negatively impact the galactic economy.”
“Doesn’t everything done by corporations do that, though?”
“Ha! Yes, yes. But in this case, it’s a bit worse. If they can show that the damage will be bad enough, they may convince the legal system to make it illegal to pay you directly, while only receiving a slap on the wrist for punishment.”
“How could they have made the offer, then?”
“Like I said, it was a rigged game,” she said. “And so is this one. Don’t worry, though, you seem to have a knack for slipping through the cracks when they rig things.”
“That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.”
“I’m not going to lie to you,” she said. “It’ll be an uphill fight. And if they hadn’t already paid you, I wouldn’t expect us to be able to get it out of them. But since you’ve already got it… an admission from them that they both had money to give you and that they, at one time, understood their obligation in the same way that you did… I think we’ve got a great chance. It’ll all work out, sir. Trust me.”