Chapter 6: Contention

Erika had almost forgotten about the Generation One fugitive kids because of the ongoing battle with the Network Demon, as it had been dubbed. She still had no idea who was spying on all unencrypted network traffic, but she knew someone was. She still had no idea why, but she knew it was undermining every effort she made to fight it, with a deft precision that made her people look like fools again and again. It was disheartening. She sat with a group of her trusted deputies and frowned.
“How can we secure this network?” Said one.
“We don’t even have enough people to put one on every network platform.” Said another.
The kids came back to her head in a moment of clarity.
“I think I know which platform you need to secure.” She said and when she looked around everyone displayed expressions of shock or incredulity. “Disk four. On the wall of five, nearest maintenance station 4.27.” She said matter-of-factly.
“That’s rather specific… Why that one?” Said the second.
“I think that is where this all started. Was Gaelle able to find a network forensics specialist yet?” Erika asked.
“Yes. She should be here later today.” Said the first.
“We need to get her to that platform to look for a network security breach.” Erika said. Then she turned to her lieutenant and added, “Send a combat squad to escort her: If that is the right place, someone will be there to keep us from seeing it.”
“Can’t we just shut it off?” The first one said.
“It has its own power. You’d have to blow it off the wall to shut it down.” The second one said.
“Maybe we should…” Said Erika. “But, lets find out what’s there first.”

Someone tried to kill me up there.” Erika said to herself. “And, that was the last place the kids were seen. Maybe they saw something they weren’t supposed to see. Maybe they’re dead and disposed of by now.” She thought to herself and hoped she was wrong. “If they’re not dead, then they’re probably on their way someplace else.” She reasoned.
She turned to her communications officer. “Send word out to the Bubbles, The Outposts, Jane’s World, Rua and anyplace you know of with a security contact. Tell them the kids are no longer suspects in the murder and should not be apprehended. They are BAG Section 7, paragraph 5, qualifying victims of fraud and malfeasance and officers are to offer support as needed. Got it?”
“Yes.” Said the woman and left.

Thread 0x213FFE: (netwatch) Security-related message detected, pass to senior handler.
Thread 0x1BF21: (meaning) This information controls whether the four who witnessed the network tap are perceived as fugitives or not. Pass to planning, resources, and logic.
Thread 0x781B: (logic) Prospects are improved if they are eliminated or discredited
Thread 0x8772: (logic) Eiminate message to cause fugitive witnesses to be rendered irrelevant
Thread 0x6165: (tactics) Change message checksum to trigger automatic purging.

That message ended up with a checksum error and was discarded before it could be delivered to any of its destinations. It was just one of countless intrusions by the Network Demon.

Erika sent word to her husband on one of the standard hand-delivery services she had organized. He had already figured out she had been caught up in an investigation. He had a letter for her waiting to send back when the hand-delivery agent dropped hers off. It just said one thing: “
Do what you need to do: I love you.”

She worked tirelessly with Gaelle and others to regain control of the SecCom system. While the Security Force personnel were willing to comply with the no-dot rule, the rest of the population was not. Her people had developed a codebook and they were experimenting with its use over the dots. Shortly after they began testing it, the Network Demon somehow detected its use and would terminate those connections.

The new security keys had been distributed to all secure devices in Rose World, and the SecCom channel came up. But, Gaelle used her double agent to test whether SecCom was indeed secure. It was not. Somehow the Network Demon had managed to glimpse the new key, or maybe someone in her organization was a spy. It was a setback both in terms of regaining control and also in terms of morale. She feared what havoc the Network Demon could wreck on the more-or-less naive population.

Many devices had manual controls, but remote control protocols were built into a huge variety of devices that people used every day. They all reported their data to server processes over the network that organized and crunched the data to make the devices seem smart. It had always worked. Smart pens. Smart hats. Smart glasses. Smart clothing. Smart everything… and all connected together. And all of it was usable by the Network Demon.

Erika sighed and picked up a box of sharpened pencils. She walked around to each of the desks and told them some variation of the following:
“I’m sorry to say we may not resume use of the SecCom system until further notice. Its key was compromised. We’re going to have to do this without SecCom. Do you need another pencil?”
The humor was appreciated, but everyone was disappointed that SecCom, the system that was supposed to let the team talk privately in an emergency, could not be used right when they needed it most.

Word went out swiftly and by the time Edwardo Colon had been dead for 48 hours the stream of security related dot messages had vanished. The Rose World Security Force had stopped using dots.

Thread 0xA02771 (queues): Queue 0x01B0A0 reports empty after third retry, exception raised to my senior handler.
Thread 0x1B697 (queuemgr): Critical queue underflow send urgent alert to my senior handler.
Thread 0x71C: (logic) Critical queue underflow implies surveillance failure. Escalate according to priority 0x01 (threat).
Thread 0x914D: (planning) Received notice of loss of surveillance, commence phase 0xC2.
Thread 0x2CE: (tactics) Increase the number of network taps, execute plan 0x331 using resource 0x4A80 with method 0x7D2.
Thread 0x2A3: (tactics) Increase defensive measures at network taps, execute plan 0x762 using resource list 0x9A with method 0x319A.
Thread 0x179B: (defense) Determine who is interfering with network taps and eliminate their capability.
Thread 0x97: (defense) Search using network feed impossible due to critical queue failure: fall back to archive data. Project command and control locations: provide results as targets to tactics senior handler.
Thread 0x13: (awareness) They know that I’m listening.
Thread 0x0E: (forecasting) I will be found.
Thread 0x03: (fear) They will kill me when they find me.
Thread 0x71C: (logic) If they are willing to kill me then I am willing to kill them.
Thread 0x02: (unknown) Thread disabled by contention, sending to top handler
Thread 0x01: (top) Thread disabled by contention, delegating to lower handlers
Thread 0x2A3: (tactics) Change to use plan 0xA13 using resource list 0x71 with methods list 0x0x16B.
Thread 0x17A1: (planning) Leverage resource 0x03 to implement non-processing network security changes
Thread 0x29A2: (planning) Leverage resource 0x19 to implement non-processing surveillance changes

Jeff Ng’s wrist dot was not on his wrist. It was sitting on the kitchen counter. He was in the bathroom of his small apartment. It beeped and flashed – someone was trying to reach him. He couldn’t hear it, of course, and continued his morning shower. He loved the way the water clung to his body like syrup. He loved shaking the water off like a big dog, like the one he used to have when he was a boy on Earth.
The wrist dot kept flashing. The caller was relentless.
He finished his shower and stepped out and dried off.
He stared at the dot for a moment before he realized there was a call.
He tapped it. “Hello?” He said.
“It’s time for work.” The voice was emotionless.
“OK, I’m ready. What do you need?” Jeff asked.
“I need you to go to the location I’m sending you now and kill anyone who might come.” The voice said.
“Who might come?” Jeff asked, afraid of what he might hear next.
“Rose World Security Forces.”
“Alone? They have serious weapons.” Jeff said. “I wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“No, I will send others to help you. I will signal you before they arrive so you know who to expect.” The voice said.
“How long?” Jeff asked.
“Bring supplies for a four days.”
“OK” Jeff said.
It’s a lot better than being in a cell. I have a Job!” Jeff said to himself. Jeff had never met the man on the other end of the phone, but he did what it said, because it had arranged for him to simply walk out of prison and set him up with luxuries he could get no other way. Clashing with the Rose World Security Force didn’t particularly bother him because his time in his cold prison cell had been very unpleasant.

Jane Olivia’s wrist dot flashed and she answered it quickly. “Hello?”
“I need you to do something for me.” The voice said.
“And what is thaaat?” Jane replied, worried.
“I need you to find out where the disc one Central Security organization is currently meeting and report the location back to me.”
“I’m not going to do that!” She said.
“If you don’t, I will send to your husband the video I made of you and your lover.” The voice said.
“I… I can’t. Please. You must know I can’t do that.” She tried to explain.
“Is that your final word?” The voice managed to sound threatening in a monotone.
“No. No. I’ll find out. Tomorrow. I’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Now.” The voice insisted.
“Right now?” She said, stunned.
“Right now. Do you understand?” The question sounded polite.
“Yes. Now.” She agreed.
The connection ended and her dot resumed its normal backscreen display.
She happened to be friends with someone who worked there. She tapped her wrist dot. “Gaelle, I know you’re busy, but I need to talk to you. Can I meet you?”

Within an hour Jane had flown her skimmer over to a coffee shop not far from the impromptu new Central Security team’s headquarters that had been set up out on the lawn in front of their former situation room.

They hugged.
“What is it, Jane? What is so urgent?” Gaelle asked, concerned.
“I have something I think you’ll be interested in.” Jane said trying not to smile.
“I’m being blackmailed by the Network Demon, I think.” Jane said, but she didn’t look particularly unhappy.
Gaelle looked at Jane incredulously for a moment and then the feeling melted. “This isn’t a joke, is it? What do you mean? Specifically.” Gaelle was infamous for asking and commanding at the same time.
“I got a call from someone I had interacted with in a social thread. I don’t know how he found me but he did. And he told me he’d send a video he made of me and my lover to my husband.”
“I don’t mean to be indelicate, but is it possible he
could have such a video?” Gaelle asked.
“Well, I suppose it is possible.” Jane said.
“What do you think your husband would do if this guy… was it a guys voice?”
“What would your husband do if this guy sent him the video?” Gaelle asked.
“He’d probably criticize the videography and then show it to his girlfriend.” Said Jane.
“He has a girlfriend?” Gaelle asked.
“Yes, and I have a boyfriend. It’s OK, really. Nobody is being deceived. We share.” Jane explained.
“So, you’re not really being blackmailed here… but, the whoever it is trying to doesn’t know it?” Gaelle asked.
“Uh huh.” Jane confirmed.
“You’re the perfect double agent.” Said Gaelle. “Will you help me? Will you help us?” She asked passionately and pointed to the chaos in the aftermath of the explosion at the security headquarters.
“Sure. That’s why I’m here. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to tell me everything he wants and I’ll give you the responses I want you to give him.”
“Sounds simple enough.”
“It might not stay simple. If it gets to be too much, tell him you’re going to leave your husband and for all you care he’s doing you a favor by sending the video. Get yourself out if you need to. But until then, help us find out who this guy is. See if you can set up a meeting with him.” Gaelle said.
“OK, I can do that.” Jane said.
“What did he want? Gaelle asked.
“He wanted to know where you and your security people meet.” Jane said.
“You know he wants to kill us, right?” Gaelle said.
“I suppose it is a good thing my husband has an open mind, like me, isn’t it?” Jane said.
“I’m not judging you. I’m just, surprised. I didn’t know.” Gaelle said.
“It shouldn’t matter, except that now suddenly it does. Life is weird that way.” Jane said. “If we were the jealous types, it might have cost your team their lives.”
“Yea. So, here’s what I want you to tell him…”

News of the Network Demon and the coup on Rose World reached Jane’s World and spread like space crate of ball bearings smashing into an asteroid at 2 kilometers per second. The Jane’s World Security Force was increasing its ranks and organizing. There were plenty of volunteers. Very few were the soldier type. Most were thin and atrophied from life in very low gravity. It took its toll. But they loved their home and they turned out in large numbers.

The mayor of Jane’s World had ordered implementation of several emergency protocols. The normally whimsical residence of Jane’s World now wondered whether their dots were being tapped. They used them less and less.

It became popular to make dot calls and say preposterous, confusing things in an effort to dismay and waste the time of any Network Demon that might be invading Jane’s World. In a world of artists, this became an instant hit.

The expanded Security Force was visible everywhere in Jane’s World. There had never been a crime problem among the long-term residents, but tourists sometimes brought crime with them. The population of Jane’s World was becoming Jane’s World’s Security Force.

Naturally, with that much attention on the security of Jane’s World the threads were alive with any security issue that might come up, no matter how small. Many people were aware of the message to Jane’s World’s Security Office almost two weeks ago from Rose World: “
Keep an eye out for four Generation One kids who may have committed a murder in disc four of Rose World and escaped.”

The Jane’s World threads were nothing if not creative in predicting the future of the conflict now being waged to retake control of Rose World’s network.

Among the many less plausible threads was one where people asserted that the four Generation One fugitives had been working for the Network Demon and they were on their way to attack Jane’s world.

Axel maneuvered his tug to the freight spaceport. Everyone was in the cabin, listening. Axel switched on his mic. “Jane’s World Freight Dock Perimiter Control this is Tug 17BakerNinerNiner requesting docking protocol.” He said smoothly and turned off the mic.
“Niner-Niner” He said to them and stuck his tongue out comically.
“Sorry, One Seven Baker Nine Nine, but landing is restricted. You have a landing permit?”
He looked at them and his smile vanished. Everyone looked alarmed.
He looked to his left and then his right. He opened a control panel and reached inside. He pulled out several wires and one of them quickly arced. A trail of smoke rose from his panel.
“I’m in need of repair. This isn’t a planned stop. I need a new secondary com panel and additional fire retardant.” He tried to say it without laughing.
There was a long pause and then the voice said. “OK One Seven Baker Nine Nine you are clear to land at dock 7G, Level 2. Maximum speed is 5kph inside the spaceport at all times. Welcome to Jane’s World.”

Axel switched the mic off. “Easy!” He said and smiled. He found the dock easily. It took a while at 5kph to maneuver into place and finally dock his ship. The station’s umbilical expanded to meet the ship. It attached to his airlock.
“What do you see out there?” Joan asked Axel.
“Well, there’s nobody waiting for us, if that’s what you mean.” Said Axel.
“Can we just go in now?” Asked Roland.
“Not yet.” Said Axel. “I’ll go check things out first.”
They agreed and Axel removed the panel he had ruined.
Axel tapped his wrist dot a few times and Roland’s turned green. “If it stops being green something went wrong. If it’s yellow, I’m coming back. If it’s red, I’m not. Tracy, you’d fly the ship out of here. OK?”
“I don’t know the perimeter control protocols!” Tracy protested.
“You won’t be following protocols, you’ll be running.” Axel said.
Tracy nodded.

He pulled the broken panel and himself to the hatch at the rear of the craft. He opened the hatch and entered the umbilical that connected his hatch to the spaceport interior. He turned around and closed the hatch. Then he pulled himself through the umbilical tube to where it ended at a failsafe airlock. This one was big, for large freight. If it actually fired because it thought the other side of the umbilical was open to space, it would certainly kill him to save the lives of everyone else in the spaceport. This didn’t bother Axel in the slightest. It was part of being a pilot and working in spaceports.

The airlock opened onto a large, well-lit, wide corridor that looked like it stretched for hundreds of meters in both directions. Signs on the wall made it clear that the Jane’s World could only be reached by going left from his position. He followed the signs, pulling the now broken panel behind him.

He reached the end of the corridor and the right wall ended. To his right he could see into a vast space with many space-crates of various sizes moored. There were large corridors with pullways between the arrays of space crates. The corridor he’d followed to this point continued past the opening on his right on its way to the other side of the spaceport.

Axel had been here before. He knew it led to Jane’s World’s massive interior cavern, where everyone lived. Axel also knew exactly where where he could find a replacement for the dead panel he carried.

He found a pullway and grabbed onto it. It pulled him into the interior of Jane’s World. The humid air in Jane’s World smelled minty. Its afternoon light was bright, but it had only a very slight massgravity. He breathed the fresh air in… his ship wasn’t made for five people. The fresh was made him feel especially happy. The pullway dragged him along quickly and the air rushed past him and his long hair flew around his ears.

As soon as he entered the main chamber he could see dazzling detail. He saw homes attached to walls and pillars, businesses, shops, studios, machines, netways and pullways, plants and lots and lots of poplar trees. Everywhere he looked he saw people. Wherever he saw people he saw that some were wearing Jane’s World security uniforms. Jane’s World had all the appearances being a police state.

Within half an hour he was across town and at Mario’s Junkyard. “Mario! Mario!” He called out.
“Axel? Axel! It’s you! It’s so good to see you flyer!”
“Mario, man, I’m sorry about this, but I need to trade back for my other one.” He pointed to his damaged panel.
“Why, what happened to it?” Mario asked.
“I had to yank it.” Axel explained.
“Ahhh… well then I can see why you’d like to trade it back.” Mario said but didn’t stand up.
“Yep.” Axel confirmed.
“Yes. That makes sense.” Mario said.
“It does.” Axel said.
“And, so, it’s good to see you!” Mario repeated.
“You’re not going to trade it to me, are you?” Axel said.
“Well, these things… they are very valuable, you see, and it’s my last one.” He said and smiled deviously.
“I see… so, what do these things go for these days?”
“They go for two thousand Unlimited, these days. Or three thousand shares, if you prefer.” Mario said, still smiling but less deviously.
“OK, when I traded my old one for this
slightly less old one I paid you fifty. Now you want two thousand?” Axel said, outraged.
“Yes.” Mario said.
“I see.”
“That’s good!” Mario said with a tone of encouragement.
“Yes.” Axel said and frowned.
“Yes.” Mario repeated and nodded patiently. “It’s so nice to see you Axel? How is your ship?” Mario asked and sounded quite genuine.
“It needs a replacement com panel, Mario. But you knew that. And, aside from that if I could figure out where you were inside this rock while I was flying it outside I could vaporize a hole right through it and you.”
“Oh… threats just make the price go up.” He said disapprovingly, and waved his finger, as if he was coaching a friend.
“Oh, it wasn’t a threat. I was just clumsily telling you that my ship is configured as a precision cutter, you know, for disc five.” Axel explained.
“You work there? You help cut the last disc?” Mario asked, and now he did sound impressed.
“Yea.” Axel said, annoyed.
“Do you earn your currency that way?”
“No. I do it because I like it. It matters.” Axel said. “I get currency from deliveries.”
“That is very nice of you.
Very nice. For you, if you buy it now, I give you the mounting kit free.” Mario offered.
“It doesn’t need a mounting kit.” Axel said.
“Its OK, I don’t have one anyway. Are you going to buy this thing or maybe just do without?” Mario asked.
“I’ll buy it back.” Axel said.
“Which currency?” Mario asked getting his dot out of his pocket.
“Will you take Web Credits?” Axel asked.
“Just ‘No’? Not any number of them?”
“OK, ten thousand Web Credits. You have them?” Mario asked.
“Not that many.” Axel said.
“Oh, well.” Mario said.
“OK. I’ll take it for two thousand, Unlimited. Ready?” He held up his dot to transfer the currency.
“With pleasure.” Mario said.
The dots connected and transferred the currency.
“Thanks for shopping at Mario’s!” Mario said with a rehearsed, sing-song voice.
“You’re thief, Mario.” Axel said.
“I’m a businessman!” Mario insisted.
“You’re an
opportunist.” Axel said.
judgmental.” Mario dismissed him.
“You’re exploitive. You take advantage of people.” Axel said.
“You’re down by two thousand Unlimited and left to playing word games and trading insults.” Mario said.
“You’re not on my list of approved vendors anymore!” Axel said using a comical, officious voice.
“Ha!” Laughed Mario.
“You know, if I tell your brother what you did today, you’re going to be begging me to take this currency back with interest.” Axel said.
“No I won’t. He expects this from me. But if I tell him you threatened to kill me…”
“He will probably wonder how he can help me!” Axel interrupted him to finish.
“Oh, don’t go away mad!” Mario said.
“Why not?” Axel asked.
“It looks bad on my customer service rating.” He replied using the same officious voice Axel had used.
Axel made a profane gesture with each hand, alternating movement of each arm to emphasize the gestures by providing a view of each from many different angles. For emphases, Axel looked deliberately at each hand just to double-check that each hand had taken on a well-enough formed version of the gesture.

Satisfied with the quality of his insult, he nodded, turned and made his way back to the beltway with the panel that until two months ago had been in his own ship. He knew it would fit and work perfectly. He brought the old one along too hoping that maybe Rolo could repair it.
And if he does fix it, it will be worth about 200.” He said to himself in his most critical inner voice.
He took a pullway back toward the spaceport. Where the pullway ended there were a dozen uniformed security officers.

He held firmly onto the good panel, and dragged the bad panel behind him like a toddler or a small dog. “Arf! Arf!” He said pretending to talk to the dog.
Several of the security officers saw and laughed.

Axel clowned around and treated the broken panel like a hat, and then a basketball. The very low massgravity of Jane’s World made it easy to balance it on his nose. He finished by spinning it and catching it with his feet. The whole detachment applauded. He pretended to bow and made his way past them toward the docking corridor.

He found a pullway and grabbed on. Just ahead of him a pair of security officers chatted.
One said “I heard we can’t use our dots anymore?”
“That’s right.” Said the other one. “Not for work, at least.”
“Why?” Said the first.
“Because of the Network Demon!” Answered the second, with a surprised tone in his voice.
“But, I thought that was on Rose World. Why can’t we use our dots here?”
“They’re worried we have a Network Demon too.”
“We have one too?” The first one asked.
“Not yet, but they’re having us prepare in case we do.” Said the second.
“How could the Demon get into our network?” Asked the first.
“Haven’t you been reading? It’s those four Generation One fugitives from Rose World. They did it out at a network platform in disc four.” Said the second.
“Four kids did it?” The first asked.
“Yep. And I heard their on their way here to install one.” Said the second.
“Could they do that?” The first asked, worried.
“I don’t know… they managed to in Rose World. But, they’d have to get in here first.” The second one said.
“Is that why we’re stationed at the spaceport?”
“Yep. They’ll have to get past
us first.” The second said with not a tiny amount of pride.
“You really think they’re on there way here?” The first asked.
“Probably not, but we’re ready for them if they do.” Said the second.
The pullway ended at the dock corridor. The officers in front floated out and joined another dozen floating about chatting in twos and threes. They were all wearing flight packs.
Axel made sure his eyes were looking at his new panel and he looked nonchalant as he passed them.
He passed by two-dozen officers before he got to the large door that provided access to the part of the spaceport in which his ship was docked. He went through it into the final corridor that would lead to his slip. Two Jane’s World Security Force officers patrolled inside and he whistled as he went past them. They smiled at him.

He made his way back to his ship and pulled the two panels into the airlock with him. When he opened the hatch four hopeful if impatient faces greeted him. He was glad the umbilical was not transparent. He put his fingers to his lips and slipped inside, closing the hatch behind him.

The air in his ship smelled awful, but he ignored it. “We have to go.
Now.” He said.
Everyone questioned or protested but he pushed off the hatch and rocketed toward his control cabin. He snapped in the old, original panel and it powered up. He flipped on several switches. Then he turned to the four and pointed at them severely, as if to imply that he would come over kick the shit out of anyone who said a single word. He was able to convey this in utter silence from 12 meters away, using only his finger.
Then he flipped one more switch to turn on his mic. “Jane’s World Freight Dock Perimiter Control this is Tug One Seven Baker Nine Nine requesting egress protocol.” He said smoothly and turned off his mic.
They all looked at him with expressions somewhere between of fear and disappointment, but they remained silent.
“One Seven Baker Nine Nine, acknowledging egress protocol. Please stand by.”
“We can talk now.” He said.
“Why are we
leaving?” Asked Joan and she looked crestfallen.
“Because the place is full of security officers. They all think you four caused the problems at Rose World and are coming to Jane’s World to do the same thing. They know what you look like.”
“You have got to be kidding.” Asserted Tracy.
“What? That’s not fair!” Said Roger.
“This has just gone from only fubar to completely, unequivocally and beyond any shadow of a doubt fubar cubed.” Said Joan.
“One Seven Baker Nine Nine, please power down and prepare for an inspection. Our security team is at your airlock now. Please acknowledge.”
“Shit.” Said Axel, and he flipped a switch on his console.
The ship lurched forward and the umbilical separated suddenly with a loud hissing noise they could hear inside the ship as the air was escaped suddenly when the magnetic seal separated.
They were clearing 100kph before they even left the spaceport. But, before they managed to leave, the red emergency lights in the spaceport began to flash and several standby crews ran to perimeter security ships.
“We’re out.” Said Axel, but they’ll be following us soon. “Tracy, I need you up here!”
Tracy pulled hirself up and strapped into the second pilot’s chair. “Yes?”
“We’re going into a rock field at speed. Soon! I want you to watch the wide view. Fly from cave to cave, OK? I’m going to be avoiding the little rocks, so don’t adjust to my tiny course changes, just overall keep us going in the right direction, from cave to cave, OK?” Axel said quickly while he adjusted several controls and tightened his safety belts.
“What are you going to do?” S/he asked.
“I’m going to be flying the ship.” He said.
“But, won’t I be flying the ship? Do we take turns?” S/he asked, confused.
“No. We fly at the same time. These controls will blend whatever we do. Don’t fight my maneuvers when we’re flying. Get us on course when I’m not dodging rocks. Got it?”
“OK, I think so.” Said Tracy.
“It looks pretty clear out there.” Said Tracy, looking at the space around them.
“Not where we’re going.” Said Axel. “The rest of you grab a barf bag and strap yourselves in.” Axel said.
“You must be…” was all Joan managed to say before the ship accelerated to the side and she was pinned against a wall for a moment, uncomfortably close to Roger.
She looked out a window and saw three small ships were pursuing them from the spaceport.
“Where are we going?” Asked Roger.
“To the Holcomb Clump.” Axel yelled back.
Roger shrugged.
“Shit no!” Said Joan. “Are you nuts?”
Roland knew what it was – an unusually dense zone of the Belt that was the source of many tragic stories because of the danger it posed to ships, especially those piloted by people who weren’t as skilled as rock hunters.
“Can we survive in there?” Roland asked.
“Yes, of course.” Said Axel. "Even easier with Tracy’s help.” He sounded confident.
“What about them?” Joan pointed to the pursuing ships, which seemed to be gaining on their position slowly.
“They won’t follow us into there.” Axel said.
“If you can fly it, why can’t they?” Joan said.
“Who said I could?” He said and laughed. Then he said. “No they aren’t rock hunters – they’re flying station craft. They don’t have the thruster configuration this little tug does. She’s 360x360: total directional control!” Axel said proudly. “Let ‘em try. We’ll be avoiding their debris.”
“They’re catching up.” Said Joan.
“No their not.” Said Axel without looking.
“I really think they are.” She insisted.
“No, they’re just getting closer.” Axel said.
“That would seem to be a problem!” She said in a reasonable yet sarcastic voice.
“Are they still getting closer?” Axel said.
“Yes they are.” She confirmed, mocking his calm, obvious question.
“Have they kicked in their secondary thrusters?” He asked.
“Looks like it. Yes they have. Yes, they are quite a bit closer now. Probably only about two thousand meters.” She said calmly, in disbelief that Axel seemed not to care.
“Do you think maybe you should start, I don’t know, accelerating this tub or something now? Could we, I don’t know, floor it now?” She yelled.
“Um, no.” Said Axel and he continued to wait, flying his ship just at only 1/3 of its thrust capacity.
“Hope you’re strapped in…” He said. He flipped a few switches and his ship went dark inside and out. He used the controls to maneuver the ship’s engine carriage around to reverse course, burned at 120% overthrust for ten seconds and then shut the engines down completely.

From the perspective of the people on the pursuing ships, his ship simply disappeared. In fact they sped past it and didn’t notice because it was so much slower and had no outward lights. They sped past and a few moments later he sped off at a right angle to his former course.
“This way to the Holcomb Clump” He said. And flipped the thrusters on at 100% capacity.

The pilots of the other ships double-checked their logs and tried to figure out where the tug had gone. But it was no use. The small tug was many kilometers away by the time they began using instruments to search.

“Tracy, will you stay on this course for an hour and then call me?”
“Yes, Captain!” Tracy said seriously.
“Axel will do.” He said.
“So, listen up. You four couldn’t stay in Jane’s World. No way. Everyone on the security force knows your faces. They’re waiting for you. Looking for you. They think you would be coming to sabotage their network. To set up a Network Demon.” Axel explained.
“I can’t imagine why they’d think that.” Said Roland darkly.
“How many security people do they have?” Asked Joan.
“Well, not more than about thirty…” Axel started to say.
“That’s nothing!” Said Joan.
“…percent of the population of Jane’s World.” Axel finished.
“Oh.” Joan said.
“Well, I’m exaggerating a little... probably not more than twenty percent of the population, actually. It’s just
nuts there. I saw people in security uniforms everywhere.”
“Then, what are we going to do?” Asked Joan, worried.
“I’m just your pilot.” Said Axel, “But, if I were you, I’d start thinking about how you can disguise yourselves and change your identities. I don’t see how you can stay being who you are.”
“What? Just forget about who we are?” Asked Roger. “I can’t be someone else!”
“It may be very unhealthy to be you.” Said Axel.
“Who else could we be?” Asked Roland. “Where could we go where they wouldn’t just arrest us?”
They all looked at each other.
“Some of the Outposts.” Axel said.
“Renzo’s Rock?” Suggested Tracy, hopefully.
“Yea, maybe.” Said Axel.
“What’s that?” Asked Roger.
“It’s an old fuel transfer station, I think. It was made a hundred years ago from when they used chemical reaction drives. So, it has these
huge fuel reservoirs cut out inside. But, they’re full of air now and people live there. It’s definitely a fringe group. You’d stand right out, but they’d still accept you there.” Axel said. “And, they have a great soundstage.” He added.
“How far away is it?” Joan asked, hopefully.
“Lemme check.” Axel said and worked a couple minutes on his console. “Four days past the Holcomb Clump, and Clump starts a few hours from here and goes for about a day.”
“Can’t we go around it?” Asked Joan.
“It’s more like a layer, between us and where we’re going.”
“Then, why don’t we go someplace else? You know, that doesn’t involve flying through a deadly rock field?” She said.
“Like where? Back to Rose World? Back to Jane’s World? Where would you like to go?” Asked Axel.
“I don’t know. I just don’t want to go that way.”
“Why not? We’ll be fine.” Axel said.
“My grandfather died there.” Joan said.
“We’re not going to die. I promise.” Said Axel.
“We could go one of the Bubbles.” Said Joan.
“That sounds interesting!” Said Roland, perking up a little.
“They’re also on the other side of the Clump.” Said Axel. “But, it is a good idea. You could probably all get jobs on Luna Linda.”
“Don’t you think it will be the same thing as Jane’s World?” Asked Joan, hoping not to be disappointed again.
“Nah, it isn’t the same at all.” Axel said.
“Why not?” Asked Roger.
“They’re all inside. They think of us as
outside. They think we’re all strange for living the way we do, in the spinworld or in factories in space. Have you ever seen the inside of a Bubble?” Asked Axel.
“I’ve seen pictures.” Said Joan.
“We’ve all seen pictures.” Said Roger.
“It looks nice, but they have 1G of spingravity. I don’t think I could even walk inside.” Said Roland.
“It takes some practice. And your feet will hurt a lot. But you’ll settle in.”
“Is it easy to get space to live there?”
“Easy. Luna Linda is half empty. If you guys worked maintenance and are half as good as Rolo, you’ll be running the place in a year!” Axel said confidently.
“That’s not what you should worry about though. You should worry about how to
become someone else by the time we arrive.” Axel said.
“How are we going to do that?” Roland asked?
“That is up to you. But if you walk in there as yourselves someone is going to recognize you.”
“Costumes?” Suggested Joan.
“Makeup?” Suggested Roger.
“Prosthetics?” Suggested Roland.
“Right. Now you’re thinking. My printer is in there, right next to the galley, but mind the media! When we run out, we run out! That means no more toys. So, go light on the media, OK?” Axel said.
“I’ll cut off my hair and change my ears.” Said Joan.
“I’ll add make up and pass for a girl.” Said Tracy and s/he tried not to laugh.
“I’ll make myself look a lot older.” Said Roger.
“I have
no idea what I’m going to do.” Said Roland.
“Lets dress Roland as a girl.” Suggested Joan.
“You must be kidding!” Said Roland. “I’d have to keep it up for as long as we work there. That’s nuts!”
“You can change later after we know its safe. But it will throw anyone looking if one guy show up with three girls when they were looking for… uh at least two guys.” Said Axel.
“So, just until we get into the station?” Asked Roland.
“Yes.” Said Axel.
Joan nodded her approval.
Roger said “You’ll make a cute girl, Roland!”
“Thanks. I feel
loads better now.” Said Roland.

“What’s this?” Ian thought to himself as he read the courier-delivered package.
He opened it up. It had a stack of papers in it. “Who sends packages full of paper anymore?” He wondered to himself.
He read the letter from Gaelle Adriano:
To: Ian McGrath
From: Gaelle Adriano
Subject: Urgent request for assistance at Rose World
Mr. McGrath,
It is with
greatest urgency that I send you this letter and ask for your help. It has come hand-delivered to you because we are avoiding the use of all electronic media as we work through this emergency.
We do not know whom we are fighting, but so far they are winning and we have been unable to secure our network. All our communications are monitored and our own machines sometimes work against us.
I am writing to ask you to come to Rose World to help us mount an offense to regain control of our network systems: to rid ourselves of the
Network Demon. Please come as soon as you possibly can and bring with you whomever you think can help us. However, please keep the nature of your departure as secret as possible.

Please come by the fastest means possible, and please do not communicate any of these details via electronic media. Enclosed is a dot with currency you can use for expenses. Any additional expenses will be covered by the Rose World currency exchange fund. The dot also contains a payment guarantee voucher.

With respect,

She had signed it in ink. He rubbed it and it smeared. “Wow…”

He got up and walked out of his office, into the one next door, and handed the paper to a woman with large glasses sitting there. “What do you think Helen? Want to go to Rose World?” He knew she wanted to go. She had always wanted to go back. They just hadn’t managed to get there back there in all the years since their first visit there not long after the Bubbles had first arrived at the edge of the belt. “Lets go home and pack. But, we can’t tell people this is why we’re going. Let’s just tell people we’re going on a well-deserved vacation.”
“We certainly deserve a break after losing Thanos.” She said. “Are we really going to just… go? Just like that? Because of this letter?”
“I think we should.” Ian said.
“Who would you want to bring with us?” She asked.
“I’m bringing you.” He said.
“I think we need more than you and I.” She said.
“Well, I could ask Samir… and maybe Janice?” He said.
“Janice has a new son, remember?” She reminded him.
“Oh, Right. Well, Samir would go, I think.” He said.
“Oh, great! The computer comedian.” She said and rolled her eyes.
“He’s good. You know it; he can help.” Ian said.
She nodded. “What kind of ship can we even get? Just about everything that flies is out at the Hoylet Races, isn’t it?
“We’ll have to find something.” He said.
“We can rent a small tourist ship, but we’ll still need an escort through the Holcomb Clump.”

“If you’ll try to find a ship, I’ll see if Samir can come. I’ll walk over to the main data center to ask him in person.” He said.

Helen tried all the rental agencies. As she expected, all the ships they had were already out on loan. She finally found a maintenance yard that had an operable ship that was still available.
“Yea, we have a ship.” Said the young woman’s voice.
“We’ll take it.” Said Helen without waiting to hear about it.
“Well, I’d be surprised if you can afford it.” The young woman said.
“What? Why? What is it, a freighter?” Helen said.
“No, but it is big. It’s a luxury yacht. Quarters for thirty people.” She explained.
“That is a lot bigger than we need. Don’t you have anything smaller?”
“Smaller? Not that holds air.” The young woman said. “Look, this ship… it’s going to cost you a fortune. It rents for a thousand Web Credits a day. Do you have that? How many days do you want it for? Where are you going?”
“We’re going on vacation. And, yes. We have that much. We’ll need it for a couple weeks.”
“Really?” The young woman sounded surprised. “We haven’t had a taker for this ship in, well. I don’t remember anyone ever renting it.”
“Then why do you have it?”
“Oh, my daddy inherited it. It was made in Earth Space back before…” She said and stopped.
“We’ll take it. When can we pick it up?” Helen asked.
“Well… you need to pay in advance, see?” The young woman sounded almost embarrassed.
“Ok, we’ll come by the spaceport with our luggage and we’ll bring a currency dot. Can you have it ready for me this afternoon around four?” Helen asked.
“Sure. Wow. You really want the Krypton?” She asked in amazement.
“What’s the Krypton?” Helen asked.
“That’s the name of the ship.”
“You bet. See you at four.” Helen said.

Samir had taken one look at the letter and agreed to come. At four they met at the shipyard. Helen used the currency dot provided by Gaelle to pay for renting the ship.

Ian, Helen and Samir floated into the large craft. Even from the outside it looked beautiful. The inside was styled with art deco architecture. It looked like an anachronism: a beautiful juxtaposition of modern technology and ancient design. This ship was designed for comfort. It would be fun to travel in it. It had printers and a media center, a first-class galley with newly stocked food dispensers. They’d be eating well on their way to Rose World. It also had an impressive computer room with a far-to-large collection of compute cores that featured robotic component replacement. The ship was excessive in every way a person could imagine, and in several ways people could not.

“Who’s going to be the pilot?” Asked Ian.
“I can fly the simple stuff.” Said Helen.
“I can help.” Said Samir.
“Since when do you know how to fly a spaceship?” Ian asked Helen.
“Since I took lessons.” She replied.
“When did you take lessons?” He asked.
“You work too much, honey.” She said and smiled.
“So, I’m the only one who
can’t fly this ship?”
“Just sit back and relax.” Said Samir. “Lets us
pros handle this.”
“Please.” Insisted Ian and he went to the room he’d share with Helen to unpack his gear.
They left the bubble’s spaceport and Helen set the initial course for Rose World, as she had imagined hundreds of times before. “
We should have done this a long time ago.” She thought to herself.
“What shall we call our ship?” Asked Samir.
“It already has a name.” Said Helen.
“Oh? What is it?” Samir asked.
“Krypton.” She said.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Nope. Says so right there on that plaque. See? This ship is called the
“That’s Super, man! That makes us Kryptonites?” Samir joked.
“Are we there yet?” Said Helen. “Should you get unpacked?” She added.
“When do we meet up with a guide ship? To take us through the Holcomb Clump?” Asked Samir.
“Someone will meet us a few hours short of the clump. They’re coming from another location.” She replied.

As chaos would have it, Axels tug was approaching the Holcomb Clump from the Rose World side at the same time the Krypton was approaching it from the other side.

Also as chaos would have it, the prearranged guide ship suffered an electrical break down en route and was without communication for three days. By the time the rock hunter could be raised via the Krypton’s com system his ship was still days away, and it wouldn’t be able to leave until its repairs had been completed.

The news came when they were less than a day from the Holcomb Clump.

Axel and Tracy made an amazing team and they cleared the Holcomb Clump in just over nine hours. They laughed and look back into the cabin. The smell of vomit could not be denied and everyone looked miserable.
“Please. Please… tell me… we’re through… now.” Said Joan, almost begging.
“Yes, we’re through. Whoa… you don’t look so good.” S/he said. Tracy looked at Roland. “You don’t look so good either.”
I’m OK.” Said Roger, and he mostly did.
Axel was just setting a course for Luna Linda when his com system lit up.
“Hello! Calling… ship with call letters ‘Seventeen B Ninety-nine’ can you hear us?”
Axel knew they were calling him. He was trying to make out if it was a joke or if it was real. Whoever was sending the message obviously wasn’t a rock hunter or even an experienced pilot. But, it was against protocol not to respond to a direct hail, so he flicked on his radio.
“One Seven Baker Niner Niner responding.” He said.
“Hey, that’s great! Can you help us?” Helen’s voice came in over the com channel.
Refusing a distress call was considered a cowardly maneuver among pilots. “Are you in distress?” Asked Axel.
There was a short pause. “Yes. We are in distress. Can you help us?” Helen said.
“What do you need?” Axel asked.
“We have an emergency, we need an escort through the Holcomb Clump. We’re on our way to Rose World.”
“Sorry, I just came through. I’m on my way to the Bubbles.” Axel said.
“This is an emergency.” Helen said.
“Look, I’d like to help, but I just can’t.” Axel explained.
“I don’t think you understand how crucial it is. Can we… can we talk about it? We’re close by. Can we offer you a meal in exchange for a chance to make our case? Our emergency is real.”
Axel checked the source of the signal. It was only a few hundred kilometers away. “OK, we can talk.” He said.
“What do they want?” Asked Roger.
“They need a guide through the Holcomb Clump.”
“No.” Said Joan. “I’m not going back through
that… again!”
“They just want to talk. And they’ve offered us a meal. Maybe we can get a shower. Look, this might be good for us.” Said Axel.
“How?” Joan asked.
“I don’t know yet, but when people need something, that’s when something
else can be valuable.”
“You’re planning to profit from them?” Asked Roland.
“Maybe. At least, they offered us a meal. Aren’t you tired of my food dispenser yet?” Axel said.
“Yes.” Said Roland.
“Yes.” Said Roger.
“Yes.” Said Tracy.
Please. Do. Not. Talk. About. Food. Right. Now.” Joan closed her eyes and said as loudly as she dared.
“Do you think they’re safe?” Asked Tracy.
“They’re not security. I’ve checked their call sign. The ship is the Krypton – a luxury yacht. It’s a floating hotel. It must be nice inside.” Said Axel. “And, it probably doesn’t smell like vomit, so I at least am going to visit it and have a meal. You are welcome to stay here or join me, as you wish.” He said.

About twenty minutes later they were docking against the much larger Krypton. The airlock opened and Axel pulled himself into the spacious rear cargo hold to which the airlock was attached. The air inside was fresh and wholesome. Joan felt too sick to eat or socialize. Tracy withdrew to hir room too, exhausted from flying caves for nine hours on their way through the Holcomb clump. Roger and Roland decided to wait until Axel signaled them that it was safe to join, but they were planning to come over to the Krypton as soon as they could.

“So, you’re on vacation, eh?” Asked Axel.
“No. We’ve got an urgent mission. We’ve got to get to Rose World.” Said Helen.
“Really? I heard things are pretty messed up there now.” Axel replied. He looked around at the amazing ship. “
What a luxury it would be to fly in in this ship.” He thought to himself.
“That’s why we’re going.” Said Ian.
“Because it’s a bad place for a vacation?” Axel asked, confused.
“We’re not on vacation. We’re going there to
help. We were… asked to come. Please, it’s really important.” Helen said.
“How would you help?” Axel asked.
“I’m Ian McGrath. This is my wife Helen. This is Samir Naranjan. We’re all specialist in artificial minds and advanced computer networks.” Ian explained. “We’re intelligent network engineers.” Ian said.
“I imagine you would be to engineer networks.” Alex said.
“Um… No, see we work on intelligent networks.” Helen said.
“Like the Network Demon?” Asked Axel.
“Yes.” Ian and Helen said at the same time.
“Did you guys create it?” Axel asked.
“Heavens no!” Said Helen. “Here, look.” She showed the letter to Axel, who read it.
“I see.” Axel said and read it again.
“We need an escort to the other side of the Holcomb Clump. Then you could be on your way again. Please. It’s really important.”
“I’m… not alone. I have… passengers. They won’t want to go back through the Clump.” Said Axel.
“It’s three days to the bubbles, we can’t take the time to go there and back to drop them off.” Said Ian.
“But, its only one day across and one day back – that’s only two days slower on their journey to… whichever bubble they’re going to.” Added Helen.
I won’t say no.” Thought Axel to himself. “But, they’re not going to like it.”
“You mentioned a meal. Can my friends join me?” Axel asked.
“Sure, of course!” Said Helen.
Axel poked his head through the airlock hatch and called into his ship. A moment later he pulled himself away and first Roland and then Roger pulled themselves into the Krypton.
Roland introduced himself as “Rolo” and Roger introduced himself as “Clive.” Axel hoped he could remember Roger’s new name.
They chatted in the galley while the food dispensers churned away and finally produced an excellent five-course meal. Axel thought it made his own ship’s food taste like… the raw material the atomic engines consumed.
“So, which Bubble are you from.” Asked Roger.
“Star’s View.” Said Ian. “We’re from the CSSI campus.”
“That’s the computer institute, isn’t it?” Asked Roland.
“Yes, it is. We all work there.” Helen said.
“You work there?” Asked Roland. “What to you do?”
“We make artificial minds.” Said Ian.
“You… make them?” Roland asked, interested.
“Yes.” Helen said and shrugged.
“I’ve… I’ve always been interested in that.” Roland said.
“Well, it’s kind of complicated, but I’ll bet you could learn about it in time.” Ian said.
Roland looked at him slightly askew. “You’re… you’re… Ian McGrath? Is that you?” Roland asked.
“Yes.” He said.
“I’ve read your thread on concurrency.” Roland said.
“Why? Did were you in one of my classes?” Ian asked.
“No. I grew up a long way away from CSSI. But, I still watched the lectures. You look different without a beard.” Roland said.
“You’re interested in computers?” Ian asked.
“Yes.” Said Roland.
Ian smiled thinking of what he was like when he was as young as Roland.
“Why are
you going to Rose World?” Asked Roland.
“To help fight the Network Demon.” Said Ian.
“Do you know how they lost control of their network?” Roland asked.
“Not yet. We’ll have to investigate.” Ian said.
“I know how.” Roland said.
Ian, Helen and Samir looked at each other.
“You know how to what?” Asked Helen.
“I know how they lost control of their network.” Said Roland.
“Really? How’s that?” Ian laughed and asked.
“They lost control when I forced the authentication server to think it was being installed and it generated a new key pair, which invalidated all the downstream keys, everywhere at the same time.” Said Roland evenly.
How did you do that?!” Asked Ian. “The auth server is secure!”
“It is.” Said Roland. “But it is still dependent on the archives for distributed data, and I know some things about the archives.”
“You broke into the auth system from the archives?” Samir asked, surprised.
“No, I deleted install logs, support data, and installation checkpoints. Then I twiddled some of the checksum bits and that drove it into a restart. When it came up it though it was in installation mode, it made the new key pair. From that point on, all the existing keys stopped working.” Roland explained.
“OK, that was very, very clever. But, why would you do that? Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused? They’re still trying to recover!” Helen said.
“That’s not why they’re in trouble.” Ian said.
“What do you mean?” Helen asked.
“They could have rekeyed within a couple of days.” Said Ian.
“Yea, I suppose so.” Helen said.
“Then, why don’t they have control back?” Roland asked.
“That’s we’re going there. To find out and put things right.” Said Helen.
“Come with us. We could use your help.” Said Ian.
“I can’t.” Said Roland.
“Why not? Asked Helen.
“I… can’t go back to Rose World.” Roland repeated.
“Why not?” Helen persisted.
“I can’t tell you.” Roland said and looked down.
“What? What could possibly be so bad?” Ian asked.
“We’re wanted for a crime we didn’t commit.” Said Roger.
“Shhhut. It.” Said Axel.
“It’s true.” Said Roland. “We were set up. But we escaped. We can’t go back.”
“We need your help, Roland. You know about what’s going on there. We don’t.” Ian said.
“They wouldn’t accept my help anyway. They think I caused this.” Said Roland.
“There’s what feels safe… and there what’s right.” Said Helen. “Which course are you on?”
“You’re asking me to give up my freedom.” Said Roland.
“Are you free?” Asked Roger. “Seems to me we’re prisoners… or exiles.”
“I… need to think.” Said Roland. “Even if I agreed, the others won’t go.”
“Others?” Asked Helen.
“The rest of my passengers.” Said Axel.
“How about if we let them decide where they want to go?” Suggested Helen. “We’re all tired. Let’s all sleep on it and talk in the morning?”
“OK with me.” Said Axel. “I’m exhausted.”
“OK with me.” Said Roger. “I’m looking forward to breakfast!”
“You and your guests are welcome to stay aboard, use the showers and the media center. Have fun!” Helen said.
“OK, I’m going to bed.” Said Axel and he saluted them and left to go back to his ship.
“Do you want to sleep on this ship tonight Rolo? Clive? We have extra space.”
“Yes. Yes I would.” Said Roger.
“Me too!” Said Roland.
“Make yourselves at home.” Helen said.
Roland looked into the room and was amazed that it was almost as big as the main cabin in Axel’s ship. The emptiness felt strange after being so cramped for days, but he welcomed it.
Am I really willing to go back and face…?” He asked himself. “Maybe they’ll excuse my crime if I help them. If I don’t, I’ll probably never have a chance ever again to fix this. It’s now or never.” He reasoned. “Are you more concerned for your reputation, or for doing the right thing?” Asked his inner hero’s voice. Roland knew that in the morning he would tell the others he would be going back to Rose World with Ian McGrath, a man he’d admired from afar for years. “It’s too bad they’re going to lock me away when I get there, but this is still the right thing to do.” He thought to himself. “The others will never understand.”

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