The Company Mole, Part 2

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In “The Company Man” (May 2017 issue), our eponymous hero, a Belter forensic accountant, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A mysterious something (chemical? bacterial? nanite infestation?) is about to be released into the underground habitat at a platinum mine on a remote company asteroid (“the Rock”). The crew is evacuated before the device triggers, but within the habitat the “stuff” dissolves everything made of rubber, plastic, or synthetic fibers—including gaskets and spacesuits. If the same substance were ever to be released into a major Spacer settlement, the death toll would be in the hundreds, if not thousands.

It appears someone has found a way to extort payoffs from the famously paranoid, notoriously devious, fabulously wealthy company. And the lone, vague clue points to Earth. . . .

Suitably incentivized, Our Hero pursues that lead in “The Company Dick” (September 2017 issue). When his amateur sleuthing draws the wrong attention, he is abducted and questioned. The interrogation hints that the attack on the Rock was a field trial, the company habitat a mere target of convenience. Those behind the test are extremists, determined to reverse a growing human “plague” by stanching the flow of off-world resources to Earth.

Of course, the kidnappers don’t intend their victim to live to tell what he has discovered.

By hacking software within his powered exoskeleton, Our Hero manages to summon rescue—but not without getting shot, and not before an uncertain number of unidentified terrorists have dispersed, with recipes for the “stuff,” toward unknown Spacer settlements. . . .

In “The Company Mole, Part 1” (November 2018 issue), Our Hero, acting the part of a disgruntled employee, hunts for a traitor at the company’s Earth regional headquarters. He’s interrupted to help investigate an explosion aboard an Earth-orbiting space station, where more of the “stuff” has been unleashed.

 

The Company Mole, Part 2

 

Golden sunlight and balmy ocean breezes. (We’ll set aside the clockwork-like afternoon downpours.) Swaying palm trees. Crystalline water in a beautiful lagoon, with porpoises leaping and cavorting. Sunrises and sunsets beyond gorgeous, the sky gaudy with colors I could not begin to describe, that no Belter could. Our pick of houses and hotels, with airy canvas tents for anyone distrustful of the years-abandoned buildings. We also had, tapping the resources of grounded ships and supply drones, more than ample electrical power and broadband access. A case could be made this island was a tropical paradise—

But at least till a cure could be found for the terrorist crud, this was also a prison. For me, doubly so. However diligently I applied sunscreen, inevitably, here and there beneath the metallic latticework of the exo, I overlooked, or failed to reach, some areas. Photons are tinier and far more insidious than my fingers, and on our first morning here I had burnt to a crisp. Since then, by daylight, anyway, I had remained indoors.

And thereafter, to anyone who would listen, a grinning Jaime reported that I rocked the harlequin look.

Jaime was enjoying the sun-drenched beach. Rubber gaskets notwithstanding, our printers worked just fine; seaside, not a few of our fellow refugees admired my sidekick in any of her several newly made bikinis. She, in turn, mingled with, well, everyone, far better at casually sounding out our fellow castaways than ever I could be. She had yet to deem anyone on the island suspicious. Anxious or annoyed, yes, but not suspicious.

And so, alone but for Jaime’s favorite handgun, I was indoors, taxing my jigsaw-puzzle skills with recovered EG3 debris, when a priority vid downloaded from Bea. My wife’s grin was as broad and sassy as ever, her hair arrayed into its customary pixie-ish, low-grav halo. But the usual twinkle in her eye was impossible to feign, and the faux version made my heart sink.

After a few anecdotes about her workplace, and a hope-your-shoulder-is-better, and a when-the-hell/just-kidding/no-not-really-kidding/when-are-you-coming-home-already, looking more apprehensive by the word, my wife leaned close to the camera. Lowered her voice. And confided, almost plaintively, “Something is going on here. And I know what you’re thinking, wise guy. Something and here are less than precise. I can’t be any more exact. But in the tunnels, in stores, at work, I see the expression on people’s faces, more and more by the day. They’re nervous. Ordinary people, sure, but company bigwigs, too. Whatever the latter are keeping to themselves is scary enough they can’t hide it all inside. And now there’s some horrible new communicable disease loose on Earth? So as soon as you’re able to travel. . . .”

First, I’d lied about why I had to come to Earth at all. Then, I’d blamed my prolonged stay Dirtside on a vehicle mishap, not on getting shot! My undisclosed living arrangements weighed on my conscience, too, not that Jaime and I had done, or even considered, anything to apologize for. But despite the accumulating guilt, I wasn’t about to come clean now. I wasn’t about to burden Bea with foreknowledge of a civilization-destroying epidemic, or reveal that the pestilence was far more dangerous to her, and to everyone around her, than to me on Earth. I wasn’t about to share that no one had a clue how to fight this plague.

Leaving me to report that I had, in fact, been exposed to the new, earthly contagion: the rationale for quarantine given to the EG3 refugees and the media. (What the hell kind of terrorists didn’t claim responsibility after their bomb went off? Their ongoing silence was an enigma. As if we needed another of those.) Leaving me to relay that which Bea would least care to hear: that I would be tarrying yet longer Dirtside. Yes, I could, without fear of contradiction, record just such a message. And I would.

Just as soon as I could spare the time to rehearse my new lies.

 ****

Sunburn be damned, the ocean’s buoyancy was so tempting. In my mind’s eye, I pictured myself strolling down the glistening white sand into rolling surf. My exo was waterproof, of course; without an exo, I couldn’t have stood in a shower. But in the limpid, languid, turquoise waters of the sheltered lagoon, I could shed the damned thing.

Alas, that was not to be. . . .

Trey, Kowalski, and I stood at the end of a long stone quay. (Or was it a wharf, a dock, a pier, or maybe a jetty? Matters nautical were foreign to me.) A huge vessel—a veritable city!—floated a few klicks to windward, newly arrived. Epidemiologists, nanotech experts, and intel analysts, flown in from who knew where to the Mark Warner, awaited us onboard. An aircraft carrier, Kowalski called the ship—but rather than an aircraft, it was a small boat, bouncing maniacally over light chop, that sped toward us.

With a throaty electric drone, the boat, at best seven meters long, swooped up and broadside to the quay. I took one good look, and said, “You have got to be kidding.”

“It’s a Zodiac. Watercraft don’t come more reliable.” Grinning, Kowalski flashed her Bureau badge at the three uniformed sailors aboard. One hopped out to tie up the boat. “Or, more fun.”

Astrology did nothing to recommend this inflated toy, but no mere name gave me heartburn. I glanced around, confirming no one out of the loop loitered within earshot. “It’s rubber. Bacteria chow. Do you want to drown?”

“Relax,” Trey advised. “It’s thick rubber. We’ll be fine for a quick trip. Unless you’d rather risk a chopper?”

And indeed, after three days on the island, we had yet to experience a problem. On orbit, the tastiest plastic bits had begun to exhibit pitting in little over an hour. Now, even aboard the contaminated and grounded courier, the deterioration appeared to have stopped.

And cold comfort that was. If no one knew why the bacteria had ceased their munching and reproducing, they likewise had no idea what might rev up the little beasties again.

Crates of salvage were piled nearby, most filled with EG3 detritus that had landed with us on the courier. A far smaller second collection (as with each passing day, the remaining bits dispersed yet farther from the station), the entirety of that morning’s botcraft delivery, fit handily within two boxes. Needless to say, I had toted none of these boxes.

While sailors laded crates and our scant personal luggage, I squirmed into and fastened a lifejacket. (Cork and canvas! It ought not to get eaten.) Grasping the calloused hand of a grinning sailor, I stumbled into the rubber boat as, in the rolling swells, it rose and fell. Rose and fell. Rose and fell. With far more grace than I, Trey and Kowalski stepped down. From the popular beach, Jaime (who was remaining ashore in her minimal mufti, there to continue her quest for suspicious behavior), sent us off with a jaunty wave. Once I’d been summoned to the nearby naval vessel, personal bodyguard services seemed redundant.

All too soon, we cast off.

I would have simply gritted my teeth for the short, choppy ride, except for the whole hanging-over-the-side, puking aspect of the transfer. After spending a healthy chunk of my life in micro-gee, with never a touch of space sickness, I found it ironic that I got seasick. And doubly ironic that the adjective to have come to mind had been healthy.

****

An aircraft carrier was large enough, or dynamically stabilized enough, or maybe both, to be untroubled by the ocean’s ceaseless undulations. Cabins and corridors were, by spacecraft standards—aside from the Belter-hostile low ceilings—more than spacious. Meals were delicious and available in unending supply. The cavernous shipboard gym put the company exercise room to shame and, once the Sun went down, the flight deck offered a vast expanse on which to pace. Several thousand military men and women surrounded me. I had not been this comfortable, coddled, or safe since arriving on Earth.

Nor so maddeningly idle.

Nor felt so useless.

While the carrier had sailed (with what sails, exactly? But what can you do?) to Vanuatu, its nonessential personnel had been air-ferried to Australia. That left plenty of un- and under-used space aboard. What scant thought I gave to being offered one of the many wardrooms for my personal use was of an appreciated but unnecessary gesture. A cabin for sleeping more than satisfied any privacy needs. Why had I been brought aboard, if not to consult with the elite intel team flown to the ship?

To separate me from the hostiles, if any, among the evacuees. Andy pulling over-protective strings. That’s why.

So. I was alone in my personal space, abandoned yet again to my own devices, when Trey dropped by. My erstwhile pilot exhibited far more charisma in person than as a disembodied voice. Beyond a deep tan and a luxuriant Van Dyke, a broad forehead and expressive green eyes, by far his most distinctive attribute was the languorous poise with which he carried himself. And after days of Trey deflecting my questions as to which three-letter agency he represented, at least my curiosity about him no longer went entirely unsatisfied. “Trey,” I had been informed by Danielle Kowalski, was Southern-speak for The Third.

Were I born Archibald Junior Junior, I’d also have gone with Trey.

With a meaty hand, he swiveled one of the many wardroom chairs. Legs straddling the seatback, arms folded across the top, he settled across the table from me. My debris collection rated, and only briefly at that, a raised eyebrow. More of that understated poise.

I shrugged. “The forensic team keeps the interesting stuff. They only pass along to me some bits and pieces they have no further use for.”

Never mind that most of the puzzle pieces had once been in my hands. To the extent anyone acknowledged that prior custody, it was to express their disapproval. Because who knew what cooties I might, in my amateurness and oafitude, have imparted to it.

And still, I sifted and sorted and studied the regifted bits. What more did I have to do until quarantine was lifted—if it were lifted—letting me get back behind the company firewall?

“Bored, eh? Then permit me to pass along some news.”

“Good news?” I asked.

“You decide.” With a flourish—graceful, of course—Trey produced, and snapped open, a pocket comp.

The holo it projected showed a ruddy, blond man, somewhere in his late twenties (standard years). An Earther-chunky body build, along with a space-newbie sickly expression. The tightly curved background suggested the central hub of an orbital gateway. “Who is this?”

“Pity. I’d hoped you would recognize him. One of your abductors, perhaps.”

“I wouldn’t know. I only ever saw two of them, and both are accounted for.” In the debit column of some eternal ledger.

“How about now?” Trey poked at his comp. And amid the departure-lounge clamor, synched to the man’s lips, an ordinary snippet leapt out at me: “. . . do we board already?”

Petulant. Nasal. Familiar. I’d heard that voice bitching about . . . about . . . zoning approval. (For a new, high-rise complex. Who gets worked up about that?) From the room next to my impromptu cell. “Yeah, he was there. I’d recognize that whine anywhere. Who is he?”

“We’ll call this good news, then. He arrived at EG3 as Keith Smithson. North American. From Kansas, if that helps.” (It did not.) “Who is Smithson really? We’re working on that. Knowing he was in the building where you were being held? The Bureau can focus some of their resources in that neighborhood.”

Good luck with that. After my rescue, the Chicago PD reviewed public-safety and business-security cameras near my erstwhile prison. For city blocks in every direction, those vids—looking back weeks before my capture—had somehow been corrupted.

“What made anyone suspect this guy? The caliber of his fake ID?”

Which had to be damned good to have gotten him aboard a ship outbound from Earth. I knew how much my forged Cerian IDs were said to have cost, and those hadn’t required matching records to be insinuated into some Earther citizenry database. Darin had been a college dropout, but someone in on this scheme had deep pockets or very good connections. I guessed both. But even the best forger would be hard-pressed to inject fake-ID references into years-deep, offline archives that a suspicious intel agency would now have been motivated to sift and search.

“Nah. That detail was more in the way of confirmation.” Trey unfolded himself from his chair, to amble across the empty wardroom to the capacious coffee urn. One thing I’d learned about the Navy, and about which I wholly approved: people were assigned to make sure such urns never ran dry. “Something for you?”

“I’m good.” I tried again. “What had you looking at this guy?”

Trey set a brimming mug on our table, then again straddled his chair. “A random tourist’s selfie caught Smithson using a particular EG3 luggage locker. And that locker, charged to Smithson, remained rented after he left.”

That seemed incriminating enough. “And did someone check what ‘Smithson’ printed while aboard EG3?”

“Please.” Trey managed to look both insulted and amused. “Computer forensics checked the downloads from every printer on the station. And you know what? No record could be found of anything he printed. Not as much as a snack.”

Meaning no bacteria-synthing recipe. And that, more than anything, was what we needed. The recovered genome (and you’d have to ask a biologist why) wasn’t enough. It had to do with gene expression, or epigenetics, or something.

Progress? Perhaps so, but in baby steps.

Sensing some cosmic shoe about to plummet with Earther gravity, I asked, “And the particular image you showed me?”

“Was cropped from another tourist selfie, in this instance taken in the EG3 debarkation lounge. Just before Smithson boarded a transfer ship to Armstrong City. There’s no sign of him on the station’s security cameras.”

I was again reminded of Darin’s and Vegan Woman’s absence from Chicago-area security footage. Our adversaries were too damned good. But not even the best hacker could dependably outwit selfies . . .

“When?” I asked.

“Two weeks ago.” Trey paused for a while behind the coffee mug. “And facial rec hasn’t spotted him, by any name, since debarking. By now, he could be anywhere on the Moon.”

“Or have moved on from there with the recipe.”

“Or that,” Trey agreed. He didn’t bother to say this was bad news.

****

Another interminable morning of too much coffee and nothing of significance discovered in my debris collection. Another mind-numbing, short-of-breath workout in the carrier’s ginormous gym, belatedly followed with a detour to the infirmary to have my fake-corpuscle supply topped off. Unlike natural blood cells, which also wear out, the synthetic kind cannot replace themselves. Another late, over-indulgent lunch, which, by rights, should have sent me back to the gym. In short: yet more hours of utter uselessness.

Shaking off the food coma, I forced myself to take a virtual step backward. I needed something productive to do. And after much caffeine-fueled tabletop drumming, perhaps I found it.

The intel types had turned up nothing untoward in the printer data from EG3. Their failure didn’t prove, I surmised, that nothing remained to be discovered. Oh, I didn’t doubt that the spooks knew their jobs. It was more the confidence that I was good at mine. And unlike my hand-me-down rejects from the station debris, in the case of EG3 printer data—because I’d kept a digital copy of everything Kowalski had collected at my request—I had the complete dataset. With no need first to play Mother May I.

Was there a company miner who hadn’t, at least once, tried smuggling precious metal in the form of rings, pens, or whatnot? If so, I’d be shocked. But those were obvious dodges, and easily caught. A few such detections—and docked pay—hadn’t ended the attempts, only made them more subtle. And that made unmasking games played with onsite printers a big part of auditing mining sites. Of—until this terrorist nightmare had begun—my job.

As petty as such theft might seem, the company did not want miners returning home with “toothpaste,” “shampoo,” or “snacks” replete with platinum compounds. And yet, to analyze with a mass spectrometer every returning miner’s personal toiletries and munchies was a bridge too far even for the company. Which left people like me, of necessity, practiced at sussing out anomalies from within the digital bowels of printers.

And so it was that, after much experience-guided peeking and poking into one of EG3’s printers, I spotted an incongruity in a consumables-usage log. The details would be of no possible interest to anyone not into the minutiae of blockchain technology. (But if you are a blockchain aficionado? And also an accountant? Then my accomplishment was a feat of ledger de main.) But the discrepancy was telling. As subtle as were its digital traces, this was the first step beyond inference and deduction that something(s) illicit had been printed aboard the station.

“Okay, then,” I declaimed to the empty wardroom. “We have a lead.”

With all the time I spent traveling between rocks, of course I sometimes talked to myself. Myself had been known to answer. The echoey wardroom still freaked me out a bit.

“A lead,” I repeated, far more softly.

There are three essential things to understand about blockchain technology. First, each transaction generates a record, aka a block. Second, each record is related, in a computationally-intensive manner, to every record that precedes it—hence, the term blockchain. Third and final, blockchain, in the singular, is a misnomer. For security, the data are quickly and routinely replicated to other computers, and those copies to more computers. Yet more basically: in any well-networked, computer-rich environment, to undetectably excise one block, representing a specific transaction, from the ever-growing (and replicated) chain was, for all practical purposes, impossible.

But in the isolated environment of an asteroid mine? Or, as in the current case, aboard a small orbital way station? The impossible became merely the time-consuming. Aboard EG3, that process had not quite been complete when Kowalski dumped data from the station printers.

This discovery, even more than no one having yet claimed responsibility for the attack, struck me as more than a little odd. Why hadn’t they waited to set off the bomb till digital cleanup was complete?

But while much about the EG3 attack remained mysterious, I might have solved two earlier puzzles. The first: why on the Rock I’d found no trace of printer tampering or unusual syntheses. The second: why the bomb there had been built long before it was meant to go off.

Ain’t hindsight grand?

Blockchain-editing malware had erased every last trace of whatever poor, coerced Les Hodges had printed. But given the limited computational resources on the Rock, and the blockchain’s growth as miners continued to synth food and print things, those calculations might have restarted and re-restarted and ground on for weeks. But after finally cutting and splicing the blockchain, and its safety copies—all local to the Rock, of course—the malware’s final step would have been to erase any traces of itself.

Not so, EG3. In logs related to its printer data, that telltale anomaly remained. Aboard EG3, ergo, at least as of a few days earlier, the malware hadn’t finished. A copy might remain. It hadn’t resided on any of the printers themselves, or I’d have found it by now in my downloaded snapshots. Likely the malware resided in a main server on EG3. If that program hadn’t finished in the intervening days, and so erased itself, it might yet offer some clues ….

I had to get remote access to those servers.

Limbs stiff from hours folded into a too-short chair, torso bent over and legs splayed under a too-low table, I lumbered to my feet. Never mind that the intel folks were three decks and half a very long ship distant. It’s harder to say no face to face than through comms. I made my way through labyrinthine passageways, hunched beneath two-meter overheads, and up steep ladders. (Which looked to me to be stairs. What is it with sailors and their lingo?) And, as I tromped/clanked/stumbled, more than once I whacked some part of myself or my exo against a wall. When the clunked thing was the control panel of the exo, I glanced down at that forearm. Had my repair held up? Had any more glass of the display cracked? Not that I noticed.

At the back of my brain, something whispered. I froze. Arm. Control panel. Panel display. Repair.

Repair?

Something, I intuited, about the repair. Repair. Patch. Fix. Seal. Sealant. Glue. Mucilage. Paste. Epoxy …. Epoxy was …? Epoxy came in two tubes. Neither chemical, alone, would seal anything. But mix them, and voilà.

Uh-huh. Voilà . . . what, exactly? Like the dust in the bottle on the Rock, I hadn’t a clue.

Something taunted me. Something important. But meanwhile, the clock was ticking. I clanked onward to demand access to the EG3 main computers.

Before the Bad Guy malware there, too, finished its work and erased itself ….

****

            I emerged onto the hangar deck, across much of which intel teams had set up shop. As tall as I am by Earther standards, airplanes are taller; reveling in the luxury of standing straight, and even reaching high overhead, for an instant I did not register the aura of exhilaration.

But an excited buzz had displaced the usual low, purposeful murmurs. Analysts most often found clustered around sorting tables, or staring into holo displays, or consulting in small teams, were on their feet, milling about en masse. A good dozen people in white coats, having appeared from somewhere, formed the heart of the throng.

A spook analyst on the fringes of the unwonted assembly, spotting me, loped my way. Delilah, her name was. No matter her rumpled clothing and the puffy bags below her eyes, she seemed . . . happy.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Breakthrough.” With splayed fingers, she brushed limp, wispy bangs off her forehead. “Thank the squints and boffins.”

“Umm, who?”

“Biologists from the CDC. Nanotechnologists from NIST.”

If Delilah’s acronyms explained nothing, the specialties maybe did. “Progress with the bug, then.”

She nodded. “You know the bacteria from EG3 have all been dormant. Right? Don’t do anything. Don’t grow on or in any kind of culture medium, not even pure latex.”

“Uh-huh. And also that no one knows why, or what might reactivate them.”


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About Edward M. Lerner

 

Author and technologist Edward M. Lerner worked in computer engineering and aerospace for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as his hobby. Since 2004 he has written full-time.

 

His novels range from near-future technothrillers, like Small Miracles and Energized, to traditional SF, like Dark Secret and his InterstellarNet series, to (collaborating with Larry Niven) the space-opera epic Fleet of Worlds series of Ringworld companion novels. Lerner’s 2015 novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma, won the inaugural Canopus Award “honoring excellence in interstellar writing.” His fiction has also been nominated for Locus, Prometheus, and Hugo awards.

 

Lerner’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies, collections, and many of the usual SF magazines. He also writes about science and technology, most recently Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction.

 

His website is edwardmlerner.com.