Chapter 5: Flushed

Two days passed on the Axel’s tug. Jane’s world was still an invisible black dot in a sea of black, too small to be seen even if it had been white.

Joan and Roger seemed to mostly avoid each other, but overall the main topic of conversation in the ship was what to do when they got to Jane’s world.
Roger poked his head out of the cramped storage compartment he now considered to be his room. He saw Joan wasn’t in the cabin and he slid out in a by now well-rehearsed swinging maneuver. He performed a three-point landing on the wall opposite and smiled wildly for a moment.
“We should just find roles in Jane’s World and try to disappear.” Suggested Tracy.
“I think we should try to get help.” Said Roland.
“From whom? Jane’s world’s Security Force?” Asked Axel, astonished. “You can’t be serious.”
“Well… Yea, maybe not.” Roland conceded.
Nobody can help us.” Said Tracy.
“I don’t believe that.” Said Roger.
“Why would anybody help us?” Tracy said, but hir hero’s voice insisted, “
One person did.”
“Someone out here can help us.” Roger said.
“Why do you believe that?” Asked Tracy.
“Because we didn’t kill Edwardo.” Said Roger.
“Everyone thinks we did.” Said Tracy.
“Not everyone.” Roger insisted.
“Who doesn’t?” Tracy asked.
“Well, I don’t believe you killed anyone.” Said Axel.
“Well, ok. You’re life-long friends with Roland. Who else?” Tracy asked.
“My friends. If I tell them you didn’t, they’ll believe me.” Axel said.
“That’s a start!” Said Roger.
Tracy gave them a withering look and rolled her eyes. “We’re so screwed.” S/he said.
“Jane’s world is big. You might be able to start over there.” Said Axel.

“So, then. They must still be in disk four.” Louis Mellon was the chief inspector in Rose World. He had a small but dedicated team of officers who managed the security crews in Rose World.
“I heard they tripped sensors on their way into disc three.” Came a voice from a speaker on his desk.
“No. All of those were fake.” Louis insisted.
“All of them?”
All of them. The sensors were tripped in every single disc at the same time, at every elevator and every tunnel. Not only that, they somehow invalidated the old Security Com channel key. We’re going to have to rekey all the transceivers before we have secure communications again. We’re using goddamned wrist dots to talk to each other now.” Louis said.
“They musta had help then. Makes me wonder if these kids had nothing to do with it.” The voice said.
“I’m wondering the same thing: who would hire a bunch of Generation One kids to commit a murder? And how else could you explain such a coordinated security attack like that?” Louis said.
“OK, so, if not the kids, then who?” The voice asked.
“I don’t know. But it doesn’t quite add up. Anyway, if they didn’t make it out of disc four, then we’ll find them soon.” Louis said.
“The teams are still out looking for them.” The voice said.

Louis Mellon thought his conversation was private. But, after his voice was transformed into electronic information, that information travelled through a network of devices to find its way seamlessly to the wrist dot of the man with whom he’d been speaking. Every one of those devices had access to their unencrypted audio call.

But, all of those devices were just machines. Some bordered on intelligence within the domain of knowledge for which they were programmed, but all of them were automatons. They had no will of their own. The devices in the network were connected either via electromagnetic waves or via data pipes, multi-optic cabling that could move a hundred huffcubes per second. Given that a huffcube could itself contain many copies of a person’s entire digital life, it was more than fast enough for the light use to which it was usually put in Rose World. Like many aspects of life in the belt, there was either far too much of a thing, or not nearly enough.

The network was secure. The devices were secure too, mostly. Some devices, like those on the network platforms, were directly connected to other devices that worked in groups. The groups were secure, but the network traffic within them wasn’t. It was between two such devices in a group that Roland had seen the extra connector that should not have been present. That tiny connector, barely larger than the diameter of the data pipe itself and only a couple centimeters long was copying unencrypted data from the network trickle and sending it someplace else.

If the network were being used to capacity the small tap device would not have been able to keep up. But, it had no problem keeping up with network traffic into and out of disc 4. And the similar network taps installed in the other discs also kept up, but there were more of them because there was more traffic in the other discs. They worked together to copy all of the non-encrypted communications in Rose World.

For a while all of the information was routed to the public compute core in a water treatment plant in disc two. Then a bit later it was all being routed to a public compute core in a Public Service station in disc one. It changed every few hours. Nobody in Rose World knew any of this, but one night all that traffic was all routed to the data center in 4.27 and Roland had noticed it and wondered what it was.

Right now the information stream for all of Rose World was again being routed to 4.27. If someone had been inside the data center they would have noticed that the cooling system was running at capacity and the power supplies were ramped up to
safemax. But, the wouldn’t have been able to get in without a cutting laser, because all the door access scanners were offline. Even so, you couldn’t get to the 4.27 data center unless you were on the Security Force, because the entire station was cordoned off as a crime scene. And, since none of the security team members were programmers, they left the data center alone when they found they could not get in. They had assumed nobody else could either.

The data center was running at full capacity, and yet there were only a few discernable changes that a person could sense. It was perhaps warmer and noisier inside than usual, to someone who knew what usual was for that data center.

Later that day Louis’ wrist-dot flashed -- there was an urgent call waiting. He tapped it.
“Lou here.”
“We’re doing that full sweep you requested and we’re going to need more people. Are we authorized to deputize in Platinum?” The voice said.
“What full sweep?” Lou asked, alarmed.
“The one you authorized after our last call.” The voice said.
“I didn’t authorize a full sweep.” Lou insisted.
“Well, I don’t mean to argue sir, but I…” He was cut off.
“I sent no such order!” Lou said loudly.
“I have the order on my console right now. It has your digital signature and everything, sir.” The voice protested.
“Then it’s a fraud!” Louis shouted.
“Well, uh, see the spinward sweep crews are already out. We’re working on filling the antispinward crews now. We shut down the elevators and the tunnels. We’ve turned the daylights on in disc four. It’s not the middle of the night anymore!” He said.
I am going to catch so much shit for this from EcoMan.” Louis thought to himself. He said nothing.
“It seems like a good idea, sir. This way we’ll find them.” The man on the other end continued.
“Unless they aren’t in disc four.” Louis replied suddenly, annoyed.
“Do you want us to pull back the crew’s sir? They’ve got infrared. They’ll find every single person in disc four, I promise you.”
Louis thought for a moment. He knew he hadn’t sent the order for a full sweep. “
Maybe I should have sent that order.” He thought to himself. “If I didn’t, who did?” He worried. “Probably someone out there in the field. Shit.” He thought to himself.
“It’s OK. Run the sweep. Maybe one of my guys jumped the gun. I’ll find out. Lou out.” Louis said and terminated the call.

He walked down the hall to the office of his duty manager. “Hey, did you authorize a sweep of disc four over this homicide yesterday?” Louis asked.
“No. Doesn’t that need your signature anyway?” His lieutenant asked.
“Yea… but, it might have been forged. I didn’t send one, but one got received -- with my signature. They’re running the sweep right now!” Louis said.
“You didn’t…”
“No! This could have waited until the morning. EcoMan is going to chew me out for disrupting the daylight cycles! Anyway, is there an update on rekeying the Secure Com network?”
“Yea, it’s not up yet. The new keys should be distributed by the end of tomorrow.”
“It takes that long?” Louis asked.
“Yes, if we follow the protocol: no unencrypted transmission of the new key. Since we don’t have a Secure Com network anymore, we have to hand-transfer them.”
“So, what, they fly out to each security base in a skimmer with a code printed on a piece of plastic?”
“No, it’s downloaded onto a sub-dermal memory node of a few people on the key distribution team. They transfer it to all the other secure devices in Rose World.”
“Sounds like a boring job.”
“You get to see a lot of Rose World. I was on that team a few years ago. We ran a practice exercise. It took us three days.”
“Runs better now that you’re gone eh?” Louis quipped.
“Ha. Ha. No, now they can fly over the speed limit to deliver them.”
“We’re not civilians anymore when rules don’t apply to us.” Louis said.
“I don’t think law enforcement can be any other way.”
“I certainly hope you’re wrong.” Louis said and left.

Louis walked down the hallway brooding, “
Someone is hacking us. They hacked all the elevators and tunnels. They hacked a message from me. It doesn’t make sense? Why would they first help those kids escape and then help us find them? I don’t know if those kids killed anyone, but they’ve been set up to be found.”
Louis tapped his wrist dot a few times and then spoke. “Erika?”
“Errrrrrrmmmmm….. hello? It’s the middle of the night… who is this?”
“This is Louis, Erika.”
She shook her head to clear the sleep from her head. Her mind returned in a moment. “Yes. Louis. I’m… here. What? Is it? I mean what is it? I mean, what is it I can do for you, Louis?”
“I’ve got some concerns about this homicide investigation going on in disc four. I’d like you to audit what’s going on there. Check the evidence. It doesn’t add up.”
“Right now?” She asked.
“I’m sorry, but yes. I need my best and most trusted investigator on this one.” Louis said.
“OK.” She yawned. “Then if it isn’t a normal case, what do you think it is?”
“I’m not sure, but I think these kids were set up.” Louis said.
“By whom?” Erika asked.
“Whoever forged my signature and ordered a middle-of-the-night full sweep of disc four.”
“I’m on my way.” Said Erika, but in reality she just sat there a moment and stared at her husband, sleeping next to her, oblivious to the whole conversation.
“OK. Lou out.”
She pushed her husband and he woke up saying “…not before the blue one falls! Hmm. What?”
“I’ve got to go. Louis called. It’s urgent.” She was already off the bed putting on some clothes, pants first.”
“I like you like that.” He said to her.
“I might be gone for a day or two, but I’ll call your dot later when I can.” She said.
“You should eat something, honey.” He said.
“I’m not hungry… I’ll eat some rations from the skimmer later.” She put on a shirt.”
He knew better than to ask what she was being sent to investigate. Instead, he’d learned to ask for subtle clues. “Which disc are you off to?”
“Four.” She said.
“I heard there was a crime there yesterday.” He said casually and yawned.
“You know I can’t talk about it, honey.” She said.
“Be safe.” He said.
“I’ll do my best.” She said. She finished dressing and checked that her jacket had its laser pistol in it. She took it out and saw the charge was low. She made sure the safety was on and put it back in her jacket. She walked over to the bed and kissed him goodbye as slowly as she dared. Then she straightened up and left.

An hour later she was in a fast skimmer a hundred meters up streaking across the floor of disc four. It was half past three in the morning and it was as bright as noon in disc four. It was like having jet-lag without the bother of traveling.

She made her way out to 4.27 and met the Security Force team on duty. They showed her the room where Edwardo had been killed. Then they showed her the evidence that had been collected including the video logs, printer logs and Edwardo’s personnel files. Erika pored over the personnel files and read all about the four.
The lead investigator, a short, red-haired man said, “So, what do you think?” when Erika finally put down the console she’d been reading.
“You certainly have collected some compelling evidence.” She said.
“Seems like a lock to me.” He said.
“It doesn’t to me.” Erika said.
“Why not?” he asked, surprised.
“Why would these kids kill their manager out here? What’s their motive?” She asked.
“Well, I don’t know, maybe they got into an argument.” He said reasonably.
“They’re kids! They’re… what? Twenty-two years old? Three of them volunteered to be here. Two of them turned down reassignment to more interesting positions at other stations. This one, Tracy, turned down two promotions just to stay here.” Erika said.
“One of them was on probation.” He said.
“Which was
over in about a week. After three months of being there I think she could probably manage to wait that last week without, you know, killing someone and becoming a fugitive.” Erika said perhaps with more sarcasm than was helpful.
“Well… you said, it. They’re kids. Who knows what they’d do?” He said defensively.
“Well, I don’t think they murdered anyone.” She said.
“Then why did they run then?” The man asked.
“Because they were afraid, I’d imagine. What would you do if you were twenty-two?” She asked him.
“I wouldn’t
kill someone.” He said.
“Neither would they.” She said as reasonably as possible.
“Then who killed him?” The man asked.
“I’d say whoever was able to create the illusion that these kids did.” She replied.
“And who is that?” He asked.
“I don’t know yet. But, not knowing doesn’t make these kids killers.” She said.
“Well, we’re going to find out soon enough.” Said the officer and he crossed his arms to show he was willing to wait and find out.
“Why’s that? Because of this sweep?” She asked. “And what if you don’t find them?”
“If they’re in disc four, we’ll find them. You can bet on that.” He said.
“I don’t question your ability. I question whether they are in disc four. Why is it you think they couldn’t have escaped to one of the other discs?” She asked.
“We have crews at all the elevators and the inter-disc tunnels in the hub and at the floor. To get into one of the other discs they’d have to cut a new tunnel!”
“So, nobody saw anything at any of those tunnels, and therefore the kids could not be in the other discs?” She tracked his thinking out loud.
“Well… yes. Those are the only ways into the other discs and we were watching the whole time.
They never came through.” He insisted.
“What about this false proximity alert that happened at all of them at the same time? What about the coincidental deprecation of the Secure Com key pair code?” Erika asked.
“We think it was just a glitch in the Secure Com network.” He answered dismissively.
“A glitch?” She asked.
“Yea, a glitch.” He confirmed.
“What kind of a glitch?” She asked.
“I don’t really know. Computers aren’t really my specialty.” He admitted.
“But, you don’t think its related to the kids?” She asked.
“We have no evidence that it is related. But, once we went into interdisc lockdown and set up checkpoints we activated some systems we don’t usually use, like the Secure Com incident manager. We think maybe it caused the glitch.”
“It’s plausible. It’s plausible.” She said thinking. “But you’ve assumed it isn’t related to the kids. If I assume that it is related, then I’d assume they caused it to distract your crews from where they were actually going – as a diversion.” She said.
“Then they’d have tripped the sensors in the same tunnels they were trying to use. That would seem to be a bad idea if you’re trying to sneak through them.”
“They tripped the sensors in all the tunnels.” She said.
“Yes, all of them. And in the hub too.” He confirmed.
“And the Security Force checked every tripped sensor and found nobody, right?” She asked.
“That’s right. Since they were checking them all at the same time, they couldn’t have been in any of the tunnels or the hub So, we think they must still be in disc four.” He concluded.
“If they didn’t use those tunnels, where else could they be?” She said.
“Well, they might have made it to disc five – those weren’t tripped. But… no air. So they’d need a ship and none of them owned a ship.” He said.
“How many ships left from disc five yesterday?” Erika asked.
“We checked that. About fifty if you include the terraforming ships, but only a three ships that carry passengers. For those we checked both their entry/exit manifests and video logs. None of those kids were on those ships. Period.” He said.
“And those terraforming ships?” She asked.
“They haul out debris then they go right back in to collect more.” He said.
“So, who would notice if one didn’t go right back in?” She asked.
“Well…I suppose whoever they were working for... The terraforming project has managers. They might know.” He said.
“So, have you checked for any missing terraforming ships? Erika asked.
“Well, no.”
“Seems like a good idea.” She said.
He tapped his dot and spoke to his lieutenant to request that they find out if any terraforming ships had failed to return to work as expected.
Erika thought some more.
“They stole the mineral print heads?”
“Show me.” She said.
They walked through the facility to one of the large printer rooms and over to the mineral printer. Erika opened it up. “That looks like a print head to me.” She said.
“Well I’ll be dipped.” He said, dismayed.
“How did its theft end up on the report if it’s still here?” She asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll ask my lieutenant.” He tapped his wrist dot.
“Norris? Hey, what about the mineral print head on the report?”
“Yea, they stole it.” Norris said.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, I didn’t check it myself, it was part of the site team’s initial report.” Norris said.
“It doesn’t appear to have been stolen.”
“What? You mean it’s still there?!” Norris said.
“Oh. That’s not good.” Norris said.
“No, that’s not good.” He tapped his dot and ended the conversation. He turned back to Erika. “OK, so, you’re saying that they didn’t kill the old guy. They just got scared and ran. And somehow they hacked our secure network to distract us from where they were really going.” He said.
“The thing that worries me is that someone forged a request for this sweep. Someone wants to find those kids and believes that they are still in disc four.” Erika said.
“The sweep wasn’t officially requested?” The man said, alarmed.
“No.” She said.
“Are you sure?” He asked.
“Louis Mellon just told me he didn’t authorize it, and it was his digital signature on the order.” She said.
That’s not good.” He said.
“Ya think?” She said.
“So, you don’t think they are in disc four anymore?” He asked.
“No. I don’t think they’re even in Rose World anymore.” She said.
“Shit. Where do you think they are then?”
“I don’t know, but its time to stop looking for our keys under the streetlight.”

The sweep finished without turning up anyone unexpected. As predicted Louis took hell for authorizing the full sweep in the middle of the night. The disc five cutting team foreman reported that all ships were accounted for.
Erika tapped her wrist dot and a moment later she heard Louis’ voice.
“Lou here.”
“I need a computer forensics specialist out here in disc four.” She said.
“What did you find?” Louis asked.
“I think you were right. I don’t think these kids killed anyone. But, something is going on. The records aren’t right. Even the incident report is full of falsehoods. I don’t trust the electronic evidence at all. The mineral print heads that they were supposed to have stolen are still installed in the printers. I checked the one they supposedly printed the laser pistol from? It’s been making shoes, not weapons.” She said.
“They didn’t print laser pistols?” He confirmed.
“Not on any of the printers at the station. The whole thing’s a set up, I think.”
“By whom?” Louis asked.
There was no reply.
“Erika, can you hear me?” He asked again. He looked at his dot. It had disconnected. He tried to connect to her again. Nothing. He tried to connect to one of his managers, and that worked fine. He sat there puzzled and tried to reconnect. He couldn’t.
Meanwhile, Erika continued her conversation. She never heard Louis ask ‘By whom’ and she continued speaking as she walked through the building, unaware that he could not hear her. “I’m going on the assumption that someone wants these kids found and they want our help. I’m going to the last place I know they were at: the network platform near here. I’ll check in after I’ve had a look up there.” She said. “Sound OK?” She asked.
She heard nothing. She looked at her dot. It was still connected. Then she heard “OK, Lou out.”

That was weird.” She thought. She got into her skimmer and flew straight up to the network platform.

She arrived at the platform, landed her skimmer and got out. She walked around and looked at the equipment. It was all blinking and silently doing its job. She heard someone swear behind a bank of switch cores.
“Hello?” She called out.
“What? Who is that?” The voice called back.
“It’s Erika.” She said, conveniently leaving out that she was an officer investigating a crime.
“We don’t need any help. We’ve got it here.”
“Yea? OK, I’ll just watch then.”
The skin or Erika’s neck tingled and she kicked off the side of some equipment and launched out of the way a moment before a laser ionized the air where she had been standing. “Hey, that’s not nice.” She called out. “I’m just here to help!”
Two more shots came and then another from another direction.
Shit, there’s more than one of them.” She thought. She tapped an emergency code into her wrist dot, but her message was somehow followed immediately by a cancellation. Her dot showed it had been cancelled. “Hey! I didn’t cancel it!” She said out loud, exasperated but as quiet as possible. She triggered the alert again and again it was again immediately cancelled. “Oh shit.” She said to herself. “I’m in this alone.” She looked around and suppressed a feeling of panic.

Several more shots fired above her head and to each side. She looked down. Then she used her laser pistol to cut a hole in the metal grid floor panel under her. She dropped through it and hung by her fingers. She swung back and forth to get some momentum toward the wall.
“I’ve got a question for you guys.” She shouted out loud.
“Yea, what’s that?” Came a voice nearby.
She let go and flew toward the cliff wall and what looked like a cave about a hundred or so meters below her. She fell toward it. She turned around to face where she had come so she could fire back if needed. She flew head-first, back-side down toward the wall aiming between her feet back toward the platform.
“Yea? What?” She could hear the voice say.
Her momentum continued to carry her toward the cave. She quickly looked behind her to gauge the remaining distance.
“What?” She could hear them shout, but their voices were far away by now. She could see several more shots fired on the platform.
At the last minute Erika flipped over and stopped her momentum on the wall just above the cave. She started to fall but managed to grab a rock at the last moment. She scaled down and dropped into the front of the cave. Then she disappeared inside.
It was dark and her eyes hadn’t adjusted. She hit her head on a rock and then she let herself fall to the floor on her knees. She stared out of the cave and aimed her laser in case they appeared.
When her eyes adjusted she realized her head was bleeding. It wasn’t too bad but her head hurt. She looked around and saw some wrappers from some cereal bars and some food packs.

Above on the platform two men in one-piece overalls waving laser pistols snuck around to the place Erika had been. She was gone.
“Where’d she go?” Said one.
“Down.” Said the other.
They looked through the hole. “We’d see her if she went through here, wouldn’t we?”
“If she went straight down, yea.” He looked through the hole at wall under the platform. “She’s not on the wall. Maybe she’s still up here.”
They searched the platform again but she wasn’t there.
One of the men tapped their wrist dot. “We lost her.”
“Did she jump?” Came a voice through the dot.
“We didn’t see her, but she must have. She’s not on the platform anymore. We checked twice.”
“We have people on the ground looking. They didn’t find her either.”
“Those kids escaped from here too. I wonder if there’s some kind of secret tunnel or something.”
“Search the wall.”
“OK.” He turned to the other. “You take our skimmer and I’ll take hers. We’ll check the wall. Move it!”
They ran towards the two skimmers. Erika’s skimmer was modern and fast. It was the first one off the platform and its pilot took it right under the platform and started searching the wall on one side. A moment later the other skimmer followed and began searching the other side.

Erika heard her own skimmer approaching. “
They won’t be able to see inside.” She reasoned. She positioned herself in a shadow and pressed herself against wall. She withdrew her laser pistol. She remembered it was low and chided herself silently it. It was enough for a few more shots at best. She braced herself and then she waited.

In a few minutes she saw the left fin of her skimmer pass by the left side of the cave. It slid to the right and the skimmer appeared in front of the cave a dozen meters away.

She ran forward, jumping off the rough floor and leaped out into the bright light directly at the skimmer. The startled man at the controls just stared at her as she flew out of the cave. She landed in the back side of her skimmer. It lurched from her momentum. The skimmer stabilized itself and he fumbled for his gun. She whipped around and put hers right in front of his head. He stopped moving.
“Dot.” She demanded.
He removed his dot and handed it to her. She promptly threw it over her shoulder and out of the skimmer.
“Out.” She said, standing over him.
He looked over the edge and then at the gun and then at her.
“The fall won’t kill you.” She said, “But I will if you stay.”
He nodded and jumped over the edge. She looked around and saw the other skimmer still searching the wall. She decided to mimic the same kind of search pattern for a minute until she could think of what else to do. She tried again but was unable to contact Louis Mellon. “
Someone has control of our the public network. Someone is listening to everything we say!” She was horrified. “No, not everything we say, just what we say into these dots.” Her expert inner voice said. “I’ve got to talk to the central dispatch center, but how can I reach them securely? Do I have to fly all the way there?” She wondered.
She looked down and she could see people on the ground searching for her. She thought, “
They’ll find the guy in overalls and if he’s conscious. He’ll tell them I’m up here. I’ve got to get to disc one... The hub is the only way.” She flew the craft up and set a straight-line course for the hub about twenty-nine kilometers away. She switched the thrusters to their maximum. The skimmer zipped forward and it didn’t take more than ten minutes for her to reach the core.

The core was a straight cylinder about one thousand meters across. It connected all the discs, but there was a pressure door at each one that kept the environments separate.

She flew up to the first one and then she thought. “
If I use my dot or my ship’s radio it could be intercepted. I’ll make them think my radio is dead.” She said to herself.

She flew the skimmer towards the control center window and hovered out side it.
Inside startled clerks were obviously looking out the window at her. They pointed and brought other people over. She hovered sideways so they could see the official insignia on the side of the skimmer. She pointed to her wrist dot and shook her head. She pointed toward her control panel and shook her head.

They seemed to understand and they opened an access door through which she maneuvered. It was practically zero G inside. There were armed security people waiting for her. She remained sitting in her skimmer, looking as casual as she could. “I’m Deputy Inspector Erika Bach. I am in pursuit of fugitives and I require assistance. Will you comply?”
They stood there and looked at her, then each other.
“Do you refuse?” She asked insisting on an answer.
“No, Ma’am. No Sir, Ma’am.” The head of the security team stumbled over his words.
“My dot’s broken. I need a replacement. How about letting me borrow yours.” She suggested matter-of-factly to him.
“Not mine. His.” Said the man and pointed to one of his team.
She took the dot from him and tapped it a few times. “Thanks, uh…” she asked the man who handed her the dot.
“Andre”. He replied, and smiled.
“Thanks, Andre.” She said and smiled back as warmly as she could, given that someone had tried to kill her less than half an hour ago.
She switched off her own dot. Then she throttled up her skimmer and flew past the security team out into the open core.
Flying in the core was easy, but there were pressure doors every few thousand meters. At each one she’d tap through using the borrowed dot.
I’ll bet I could call Louis on this, but just calling him might cause this dot to be watched.” She reasoned. “I’ll just go directly to him. No electronic communication at all.” She decided.

She passed through the core in about an hour and a half. She emerged into the predawn light of disc one. Her navigation system indicated the way to the central security complex and she set a course for it. From where she started everything in disc one was nearly the same distance away. She flew straight down to it.

As she approached she could see that there was something very wrong. A stream of dark smoke was rising and she could see flames. As she approached within a kilometer she could see people actively fighting a fire. She landed out of the way and ran toward the nearest Security Force team member.
He recognized her. “Inspector Bach! It sure is good to see you!” He said.
“Where’s Louis?” She asked, aghast at the conflagration before her.
The man looked over at the fire.
“Is he fighting the fire?” She asked
“Louis is missing. There was an explosion.” He said.
“Who’s in charge?”
“Uh… you are, Inspector. According to protocol. What are your orders, Ma’am?” He said.
“I want you to spread the word that our electronic communications are bugged. Tell everyone to stop using dots. Do you understand?”
“You’re putting us back into the stone ages, right now when we need to fight!” He said, shocked.
“That’s right. Get on it, man!” She said loudly.
“Alright, Ma’am.” He said shaking his head.
“Now!” She shouted at him and he jerked to attention and said, “Yes, Ma’am.”
She looked around and saw a group of emergency workers. She ran over to them. “I’m Erika Bach, acting Chief Inspector. Who’s in charge of the response?” She asked.
“I am. I’m Raman Chandra. The fire is under control.” He said. “It should be put down in about ten minutes now.”
“Where is Louis Mellon?” She asked.
“Unaccounted for.” Said another man.
“Anyone else missing?”
“One of his deputies.”
“What happened?” Erika asked, still somewhat in shock at the scene.
“We’re not sure yet, but our current best guess is that the power substation on the roof above them blew.” Said one of the firefighters standing by.
“An accident?” Erika asked.
“Yea, their office was right under it. We think it overloaded.”
“How long ago?” She asked.
“About fifteen minutes ago.”
If I could have called through and opened all those core gates I could have been here before it happened. Or when…” She thought to herself.
“Listen to me.” She said and called their attention with her hands. “Don’t use the Secure Com channels right now. I don’t care if you respond to emergencies on dots, but for everything related to security, dots are off-limits. Do you understand?”
They nodded.
“I’m going to the Security Force Command Center to find out what I can. If you see someone with one of these on their shoulder…” She pointed to the Rose World Security Force insignia on her shoulder, which now had dried blood from when she had hit her head earlier. “You tell them not to use their dots and send them to me there. Do you understand? They’ll know to spread the word the same way.” She said.
They nodded again and looked at each other.
She turned around and ran to the command center. It was dark inside and she turned on the exterior lights. They went off again on their own. She thought about not going in for a moment. Then she drew her laser pistol and crouched low and ran quickly to the security pad and tried to enter. The door would not open. “
Shit.” She thought to herself. Then she caught herself. “Who cares if I’m inside or not? This is where people will come. All I have to do is wait.

She didn’t have to wait long before a young man in a uniform ran up, panting.
“Reporting as ordered, Ma’am.” He spluttered.
“Breathe.” She said, calmly.
He relaxed and caught his breath.
“What’s your name?” She asked.
“Alexander, Ma’am.” He said.
“Well Alexander Ma’am we have a problem.” She said.
“No, I’m Alexander Liebenov.” He corrected her.
“Well, Mr. Liebenov, we have a problem.” She smiled and said.
Alexander finally caught his breath. “Yes, I gathered… or it would be OK to use our dots.”
“Well done. You’re the first to get here. But people will be cycling through here from now on.”
“Shouldn’t we meet in there?” He pointed to the command center.
“The locks have a mind of their own.” She replied.
“Ohhh.” He said and his heart sank.
“Everything we’ve built to make our lives easier and faster might now be a risk or a threat.”
“Who? How?” He asked.
“I don’t know. Right now I’m just trying to get the word out that we’ve lost control of our own communication network and someone is using it against us.”
“What can we do?” He said.
“We need help. We don’t have the skills in our department to investigate this kind of network security breach. I’m not sure who does, yet. Until then we have to to replace that network with ourselves.”
“How?” He asked.
“I’m not sure. But, everything we do is being watched. We have to stop that first.”
She thought to herself for a minute, and then another man ran up, puffing and sweating.
“Second assistant to the 13.2 section chief Watson Orange reporting as ordered, Ma’am.” He announced and stood at attention.
“Just breathe, please.” She said again, unexpectedly enjoying the moment.
When he recovered she asked “Mr. Orange. Who do we know that is an expert on network security?”
“We have our security incident manager, Gaelle Adriano.”
“Do you know where she lives?”
“Um no. But, I can find out.”
“Go bring her here. OK?”
“Yes Ma’am’” He turned around and ran off.
“Mr. Liebenov.”
“Yes Ma’am.”
“Find chairs, tables. Set up a field office here. We’re not going inside the buildings until further notice, except you may break in to collect the things you need. Just don’t use any devices connected to the common network. Treat the premises as under the control of an unknown enemy. Understand?”
“Yes Ma’am.” He ran off.
She stood there and listened to the morning. The daylights were ramping up and the morning air was still cool from the night. A long spiral trail of smoke worked its way antispinward. It stretched around the hub and appeared again on the other side at a still higher altitude. She could hear emergency sirens and hoped to see Louis run around the corner any moment, but she didn’t believe for a moment he had survived this. Somehow, someone either planted a bomb or caused that explosion. I… can’t believe an explosion on the roof would destroy the building like that… I think he was bombed.
Just then a squad of security officers flew up in a skimmer and landed nearby. They hopped out and ran up. They all started to shout their names and she held up her hand. They stopped.
“It’s OK. I want you to each find a skimmer and among you efficiently visit each security station and personally make sure they stop using their dots for Secure Communications. Do you understand?”
They uttered various versions of “Yes Ma’am” and “Yes sir.”
“They turned to go back to their skimmer. He could hear one saying to the others, “Lets go to the skimport first…”

By the time the daylights were full, around 9 am, Erika realized she was famished. By now there were desks outside with paper and pencils and clipboards. There were no consoles to be seen. It was like a quaint history show about the time before computers, except for the skimmers parked on the lawn nearby. There were already two people working on a code dictionary. Another was recruiting interior pilots to set up a regular network of personal handoffs for material and information.

She looked around and wondered where she could find food. She saw Alexander Liebenov unloading boxes on the other side of the grassy area they had made their office. She walked over to ask him, but she could see he was unloading food onto the table. She just about cried. There was hot coffee too. She immediately thought of her husband who was probably just now making his way through his morning news threads, drinking coffee in his underwear, because today was usually a day off. She was tempted to call him, but she dared not break the radio-free protocol, even to let him know she was all right. “
It’s enough that I actually am alright, for now, and he would understand.” She thought and she ate the emergency rations hungrily.
“I didn’t want to use the food dispensers…” He said. They’re connected to the network. Just about everything is connected around here.”
She nodded and ate.
Just then Mr. Orange returned in a skimmer with Gaelle Adriano. They got out and Erika watched Mr. Orange point over to where she was sitting. They jogged over.
“Gaelle Adriano, Security Incident Response Team Leader.” Gaelle said.
“Erika Bach, acting Chief Inspector.” She said wearily. “Are you hungry?”
“Well, yes, actually.” She looked at the rations and selected a couple small packages.
“Watson? Please help yourself.” She pointed to the food.
“He smiled widely and ate hungrily.”

Axel flew the small tug ship with precision. He’d learned how to fly from his father, but he’d always practiced alone. Now what would be a harrowing experience for most was easy for him. He flew easily around the rocks on their antispinward course to Jane’s world. Tracy watched intently as Axel maneuvered the ship.
“There is no up.” Said Axel.
“Well, yea, but at any one time, don’t you think of up and sideways?” Tracy asked.
“You don’t think ‘go left or go right’ and then do it?” S/he persisted.
“Well, kind of, but I think of it more as exploring caves.”
“Yea. Pretend that we’re inside the ground climbing around in caves.”
“Caves. We can only go where the rock isn’t, see?”
“Caves in space?” Tracy said again.
“Well, we want to fly in the space between rocks, so we want to fly in the caves.”
“What caves?” S/he asked.
He flipped a switch on his control panel and a display showed colored regions. “See those clear areas? There’ll be no rocks in those places when we reach them. They’re empty. Like caves.”
Tracy looked at the screen. Then she got it. She could see how the clear regions were like chambers, connected sometimes by thinner, clear regions
“ OK, I get it. So, how do you choose an orientation?”
“This ship has unithrusters. It’s a tugboat. My dad gave it to me. It can fly in any direction any time.”
“So, you could really be in any orientation you want.” Tracy said.
“Exactly, unless you have passengers who will barf. Then you’d better take the helical interference course so that thrustgravity from maneuvers tends to keep their stomach pulled in only one direction. That’s where it gets tricky.”
“You have to fly in a helical course?”
“Yes, except that the helix is modified as you go to avoid rocks.”
“Why not just go straight?” S/he asked.
“You’d find everyone bouncing off the walls every time you changed course. And, you’d end up going too fast – you couldn’t avoid the rocks.”
“So, the helical course keeps the thrust gravity continues for the passengers. Down stays mostly ‘down’. Brilliant. Will you show me how to do it?” Tracy asked.
“Sure. Grab the other controls and just feel how I move mine – yours will automatically follow. Just feel what I do. That’s how my dad taught me.” Axel said.
Tracy sat there and learned how to fly the tug. S/he liked it. It was interesting and not what she expected, but she figured it out quickly. Within a few days she was taking shifts for Axel and he was able to spend time with the others and get some rest.

Joan and Roger continued to mostly avoid each other, which wasn’t easy on the tiny sh. But they seemed to have found some balance in their avoidance each other. One might even call it a loose form of cooperation.

They were two days out from Jane’s world and it still could not be seen. But, Axel assured them it was there and only 47 hours away.

As it happened Roger and Joan were in the cabin at the same time and neither of them had run off yet. Perhaps it was a subtle battle of wills, but they both remained in the cabin and just ignored each other.
“Have you guys been following any of the news threads lately?” Asked Joan.
“Yea, something’s going on back at Rose World.”
“They’re saying it’s a coup.” Said Joan.
“Haiku?” Asked Roger.
“No, you thickhead, a
coup: c-o-u-p. It means someone is trying to take over the civilian government.” She punished him with an answer.
“He’s not a thick-head!” Tracy shouted suddenly.
Joan was surprised and looked at Tracy, who was glaring back from hir pilot’s chair.
“Yea. Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it, really.” She said to Roger.
“I’m not a thickhead!” Roger practically shouted at her. He stood up and he was big, but his stance was defensive.
Are you thinking I’m going to hit you?” Joan wondered and she looked worried.
Roger backed away from her and disappeared into the tiny cargo hold.
“Well, I
said I was sorry.” She said looking at everyone else in turn. They all shook their head.
“Why do you hate Roger?” Asked Tracy. “He helped save your ass back there in disc four!”
“He watched me get undressed!”
“We know about that. He
said he was sorry.” Tracy said, mocking her.
“And he walked in again when I was half-dressed after he
threw his drink at me.”
“I don’t think he threw it.” Said Roland. “It was just an accident. Why don’t you let it go?”
“You didn’t lock the door, you just expected him to know you would be half-dressed?” Tracy said.
“If he’d have thought a little about it he’d have realized that once I was wearing his drink on my shirt I might take it off.” Joan said defensively.
“He was trying to apologize to you. His timing was bad. That’s all.” Said Roland.
“You think I’m too hard on him?” Joan asked.
“You’re too hard on
everyone.” Said Tracy. “Why do you hate Roger?” S/he asked again.
“Because, he’s… he’s… he’s just like all the rest. He’s just aching get with me.” Joan said.
Roland was silent because he was also aching to be with her and he couldn’t think of anything useful to say. Then he blurted out, “No, you’re wrong!”
“What?” Said Joan, surprised.
not aching to be with you.” Roland said.
“How would you know?” Joan asked.
“He told me. I believe him.” Roland said.
“I’m supposed to believe you?”
“Yes. And, for the record: he’s seen you naked twice and he still avoids you like the plague.”
Joan opened her mouth to speak, closed it. “OK, maybe I’ve been hard on him. Maybe it isn’t all his fault.”
“Why are you telling us?” Said Tracy.
Then Tracy looked over at Roland and s/he pondered what he might have meant about Roger. “
What had Roger told Roland?” S/he wondered.
Joan looked down. “
God, I’m an asshole sometimes.” She said to herself.

Then she walked toward the back of the cabin toward the cargo hold door.
She knocked on it. ”Hey! Roger. Look, I’m really sorry about calling you a… name. I’m sorry. I haven’t been very fair to you. I’m sorry for that too.” She said.
There was no reply from inside. She looked over at the others then she knocked on the door again. “Roger? Will you open up? Can we talk?” She looked over at the others again and shrugged, she went back to the cabin to sit with them.
“I don’t think he wants to talk.” She announced.
They were all silent for a while.
“I’m sorry for causing this problem.” Joan said at last.
“That’s not your worst problem.” Tracy said.
“Oh yea?” Joan said, annoyed.
“Yea. It’s not. You’re not on probation anymore!” Said Tracy. “You’re a fugitive! Wanted for
murder.” Tracy said. “And so are we.”
“Yea.” Joan agreed and put her head in her hands. “What are we going to do?”
Roland wondered if she was going to cry. Her voice seemed very thin. “What’s happening in Rose World? Are we all over the news threads by now?” Roland asked.
“No, not a peep. It’s all about the coup and someone tapping into the network.”
“What happened? Asked Tracy.
“I don’t know, but the entire Rose World Security Force is mobilized and they’re recruiting more people to help.”
“With what?” Asked Roland.
“To retake control of the network, but I’m not sure from whom. I don’t think they know who it is.” Joan said.
“But no mention of us?” Roland asked.
“Not directly, but there was a thread about a full sweep search of disc four later on the night we left.” She said. “Good thing we weren’t there!”
“You can thank Roger for that when you see him. Remember the elevator ride?” Tracy said.
“Yea. Yea. I remember.” Joan said.
Just then Axel came out of the shower closet and dried himself with a towel. Joan looked over at just the wrong moment and she closed her eyes while Axel hastily covered himself. “Sorry.” He said and managed to dress just out of her line of sight.
“Can you take over here?” Tracy asked Axel.
“Sure thing: two minutes.” Said Axel.
“So, there’s a coup, but they don’t know who’s taking power?” Said Roland.
“Yes, but whoever it is has the whole Security Force running around. They’ve lost control of the situation. According to the thread the current security chief thinks the public network is being watched by someone who is using it against them.” Joan said seriously.
“What do they want?” Roland asked.
“It doesn’t say. It looks like there’s been some unexplained fires, forged commands to Security Force members and some of the leaders have received death threats. I read some threads about people’s machines going crazy and attacking them.”
“You think they forgot about us?” Asked Roland.
“No, I’m sure they haven’t. This coup seems to have happened the day after we left. So, they would have already sent our pictures and everything else about us to every single security station. You can bet they already know about us in Jane’s World too.” Said Joan.
“And the security force at Jane’s World won’t be distracted by a coup. I think they’ll be looking for us.”
“Why do you think that?” Asked Roland, alarmed.
“Because we weren’t found by the sweep and they’ll know we didn’t make it into the third disc, so they’ll deduce that we left via the spaceport. It won’t take them that long to figure out we we left Rose World. But, they don’t know where we’re going.” She said.
“There aren’t that many places we might run to, but Jane’s World is one they know we’d think of.” Tracy said.
“You think they’re waiting for us too?” Roland asked Tracy.
“Well, looking for us, at least.” S/he replied.
“What’s the Jane’s World spaceport like, Axel?” Asked Tracy.
“It’s a typical Zero G spaceport on the surface.”
“There’s only one?” S/he asked.
“No, there’s actually three. Why?” Axel answered.
“What are the others like?” S/he pressed.
“One’s for passenger liners. One’s for freight, and one for public users.” Axel said.
“Which would they expect us to use?” Joan asked.
“Well, the public spaceport. For sure.” Axel answered.
“Let’s at least go to one of the others.” Tracy suggested.
“Well, they’d come yell at us in person if we landed at the passenger spaceport. But, we could land at the freight port. In this tug they wouldn’t think twice.”
“You think they’re watching it?”
“No way to know.” Said Axel.
“Joan, did the thread you read say the public network was being used against the Security Force in Rose World?”
“Yes.” Said Joan.
“That’s what it was.” Said Roland. “The tap. We were looking right at it. Damn.” Roland said.
“What, up on the platform? That little thing!” Joan said.
“Yea. That is how they were able to read all the network traffic that wasn’t encrypted.” Roland said.
“But, the security people – they use Secure Communications, don’t they?” Joan asked.
“Well… um.” Said Roland. “They
would have, if I hadn’t tricked them into revoking their own secure certificate.” He looked embarrassed but he was more worried than anything else.
“What are you saying?” Asked Joan.
“I… when we were running… remember I hacked their secure communications?”
“Yessss…” She said with a worried look on her face.
Tracy turned hirself around in hir pilot’s seat to listen to Roland’s response.
“Well… we needed some time and I was worried they’d spot the sensors too soon, so I tricked them into cancelling their own secure certificate. I guess it took them a while to figure it out. We were probably on this ship by the time they figured out their Secure Com channel wasn’t going to work without being re-keyed.”
“So what?” Said Joan. “Seems brilliant to me.”
“Me too.” Said Tracy.
“Yea. You’re a core, Rolo.” Said Axel.
“Yea. Well… I’m not so sure that was a good idea now that I’ve had some time to think about it.” He said in a serious tone.
“What? What do you think you did?” Asked Tracy.
“What do you think they did when they found out?” Roland asked.
They all shrugged. “They used their dots, I’d imagine.” Said Joan.
“And everything they said went through that tap.” Said Roland.
“Oh.” Said Joan.
“Oh.” Said Tracy.
“So?” Said Axel. “What difference does it make?”
“Whoever was watching the network had the inside line on everything that the Security Force was doing to find us.”
“And, pretty much everything else going on in Rose World.” Said Joan. “Everyone uses dots.”
“So, wait. What?” Asked Axel. “What is it you did wrong, Rolo?”
“I took away the only way the Security Force had of keeping their activities secret. That let someone else take advantage.”
“So, that’s good for you guys, isn’t it? Now they won’t be looking for you if they’re fighting… who are they fighting again?” Axel asked.
“It didn’t say. Lots of people are guessing, but nobody seems to know.”
“Isn’t that good?” Axel asked.
“I hope my parents are alright.” Said Joan.
Nobody else spoke.
“What do you think this person wants? The one controlling the network?” Joan asked.
“Us.” Said Roland. “And all the people who might have been able to help fight this guy are now using with pencils and paper instead of dots. In essence, I’ve made it easier for him to find us. And, by now, he knows where we’re not.”
“Nice one, Rolo.“ Axel said, but he was smiling.
“I didn’t know that would be the effect!” Rolo said.
“Well, in any case, that was clever and you did escape. You gotta admit: that was a clutch move.” Axel saluted Rolo.

Everyone was quiet for a while. Then Rolo got up and went into the room he shared with Tracy. Axel was flying the ship leaving only Tracy and Joan in the cabin.

“I don’t get you, Tracy.” Said Joan.
“Don’t guys hassle you all the time?”
“And women.” Said Tracy.
“OK, and I get that. I accept you just the way you are. I don’t care whether you’re a guy or a girl. You’re just Tracy to me.” Joan said.
“Thank you.” Tracy said.
“But, you defend Roger. You really think he’s different?”
“He is.” Tracy said and she softened her tone.
“Do you… do you
like himthat way?” Joan asked and she was amazed to see Tracy blush and look away. “You do.” Joan said quietly and a bit of wonder in her voice.
“I never liked
anyone that way.” Tracy said. “You… wouldn’t understand.”
“I wouldn’t?” Joan said.
“No. You wouldn’t. You don’t like Roger. Have you ever liked anyone?” Tracy asked.
“Yes.” Said Joan. “Plenty of guys. But, most of them… they were just playing with me. They didn’t care about me at all. They just wanted to…” Joan stopped.
“I only tried once.” Tracy said.
“Didn’t you like it?” Joan asked.
“No. The guy screamed at me and called me… names. I ran away.” Tracy said.
“Wait… what? Why? What happened?” Joan was astonished.
Tracy looked down. “I told you. You wouldn’t understand.” Tracy said.
“Well, that’s only because you haven’t told me what happened!” Joan said.
“Yea. But, it’s enough. You might be what half the men in Rose World were looking for, but I never was, and if…” S/he stopped. “If you decided to let someone into your life, they came willingly, right?”
“Too willingly.” Joan said.
“I wonder what’s that’s like…” Tracy said.
Joan finally understood that Tracy was even more frustrated about the way men felt about hir than Joan was. “I get it.”
“Get what?” Said Tracy.
“I get that men. That sex is a problem for you. It is for me too.” Joan said.
“But, you’ll get over yourself, eventually.” Said Tracy, and s/he smiled painfully. “I can’t ever get away from what I am. How I was born.”
“You were born great, Tracy. Everyone admires you. I do too.”
“It’s how I cope. Nobody hassles me if I do good work. It’s about the only way I’ve ever found to more or less fit in.
“Now, are you going to lay off Roger or am I going to have to kick your cute little ass?” Tracy said.

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