Here is your preview of the story.
What has gone before . . .
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 . . . .
The Company Mole (Part I)
Somewhere inside the company, there was a mole.
Or was it a groundhog? Maybe a prairie dog. I’m a rock man, born and bred. Good luck to any rodent trying to tunnel its way through an asteroid.
But I digress. The mole I needed to ferret out (see what I did there?) was human—if only a sorry example of the species.
I admit it: my mind was wandering. My mind always wandered during a workout. Exercise sucked under the best of circumstances. But on Earth? The gravitational hellhole of the inhabited Solar System? Sucked did not begin to describe the experience. But you know what sucked worse? Having been held captive—pinned by my own weight—simply by having the fuel cell plucked from my exoskeleton.
But that’s not why, huffing and puffing, I put in two hours in the company gym every workday. By cranking down the exo’s muscle amplification, any movement I attempted, anywhere, could be exercise. So why come at all? Because the gym was a place to interact casually with local company employees. And because my erstwhile interrogator had let slip facts only someone well-placed in the company should have known.
It was that knowledgeable someone I needed to identify. Although I’d succeeded in sneaking a Mayday message past my captors and getting myself rescued—but lest I seem smug, also gotten myself shot—myriads of people, most unaware, remained in mortal danger. Not least among them, within the distant rock I called home, my wife.
With amplification on my exo arms dialed down, grunting, I once more, ever so sloooowly, bench-pressed a bare barbell: ten pathetic kilos. Merely extending my arms with assist tweaked a tad further would have afforded the same exercise—without risk of dropping ten kilos on my face! Except that lying here, empty hands raised in the air like some flailing beetle trapped on its back, would have rendered me even more pitiable . . . .
But one way or another, when next I got into trouble, I meant to be less helpless than the last time. Well, truly, as long as I was wishing, I wished not to have trouble, period. Though judging by my recent history, it’d be foolish to count on that.
Two women in clean, dry shorts, Tees, and matching rainbow hair bands, strolled from the locker room into the gym. I recognized both from their personnel files, while, so far, having met neither. Then again, it was only my third day on the (ersatz) job.
“Hey,” I said. “How are things?”
The blonde waggled a hand: so-so. The brunette, arguably, gave a hint of a shrug.
“Yeah, I’ve had days like that,” I persisted.
Because I had a job to do. Because I, too, was a mole ….
“Go home,” Andy had responded to my plan. “The pros have this now.”
Andrew Singh was many things. Senior partner of the company’s lead, white-shoe, Earther law firm. Sub rosa, also a managing partner of the company itself. Stinking rich, obviously. Well-connected with the Earther power elite, for any or all the foregoing reasons. Bollywood handsome, if also, by my Belter standards, a fireplug person. One of exactly two people on the planet I had cause to trust. And at that moment, his most overt aspect: skeptical.
I couldn’t have gone home just then had I wanted to. Not before nanites finished knitting bone in my shattered shoulder. Not until I endured a shitload more PT. Of course, all that be damned, I wanted more than anything to be home. To reunite with my wife. See my friends, my family. To not jolt awake, night after night, with my heart pounding, as my mind’s eye pictured them gasping for breath, bloating in hard vacuum, dying or dead.
All the reasons my wants were immaterial.
“Go home,” Andy repeated. He must have misinterpreted my tongue-tied speechlessness as wavering. “Forget this crazy notion of playing spy. Get the hell off Earth the moment you’re healed enough to cope with the liftoff. And until then, lie low. Be safe. Go play tourist somewhere at least several thousand klicks away. On the company dime. You’ve earned it.”
In other words, as far from Washington, capital of the USNA—and home to the company’s terrestrial-branch headquarters—as my recuperation allowed.
As much as I needed to pace, to burn off adrenaline, I managed to remain seated, legs crossed, the suspended foot jiggling. Parked in facing wingchairs in Andy’s eerily spacious, fifty-shades-of-beige, looking-unlived-in, living room, I already towered over him.
I said, “The pros don’t have it.”
The pros: actual spies and intel analysts. Because among Andy’s connections were executives atop the USNA counterterrorism center. On Andy’s say-so, the CTC spooks had heard me out. Even taken my words to heart. And so what? The pros had since tracked down exactly one terrorist—who had avoided capture by spacing herself. Leaving unknown, still, whether or where she had deployed a device like the one I’d seen on the Rock into the L5 habitat.
And since the “pros” had not captured her? Every cop, firefighter, and sanitation worker aboard L5 continued (surreptitiously, lest colonists by the thousands panic) to tear apart that habitat hunting for the device, or devices, we all dreaded she had printed and hidden before being spotted. Whoever she might be: those same pros had yet to get past her quality alias.
It sure as hell looked to me as though some among the Bad Guys were pros, too.
“The pros don’t have it,” I repeated.
Andy shook his head. “You can’t know that.”
“Maybe not. I do know that their lone, partial success came from a lead I provided.”
“Gotten by way of nearly getting yourself killed,” Andy snapped. “Suppose you’re right. Suppose your abductors do have a source within the company. If you go inside”—at last addressing what I had proposed: a posting at Earth district headquarters—“you have to expect that person to know who you are.”
“Suppose? Who but a mole would’ve known that the men and women evacced from the Rock had been quarantined in the Belt? The company moved them directly into isolation, without any public announcement. Not even word to family members.”
“Not addressing that the mole will know who you are. As will any of your abductors who stayed behind. You have to assume they remain in contact with the mole.”
I took the easy objection first. “You didn’t see these people.” Nor had I, excepting two. The one was shot dead in the course of my rescue; the other had chosen breathing vacuum over capture. “You didn’t hear them.” Which I had, from next door to the storeroom in which they had held me prisoner. Arguing. Shouting. Ranting at 3V news. “They’re fanatics. They’re fighting a plague, with people being the pandemic. You couldn’t have paid them to stay behind when there was mayhem to be wrought.”
“Doesn’t mean some weren’t ordered to stay behind.”
Hmm. He had me there. That said, it was my own unartful sleuthing that had gotten me into trouble: a clarification which would neither advance my argument nor was anything I cared to dwell upon. “They didn’t know who I was other than”—I indicated my rather lanky frame—“a Belter. My interrogator would have been given every scrap of information they had on me. Yeah, in the course of my interrogation, I had to concede I was with the company. But that’s it. I don’t see that it matters if any of them stayed on, or returned to, Earth, as long as they aren’t inside the company offices.”
Andy leaned forward and slugged my jiggling foot. “Quit that, or I’ll snap it off. Okay, I’ll grant you this much. You might approach the situation with a unique perspective. You might discover something the pros won’t, or at least uncover it earlier. Emphasis, both times, on might. It doesn’t change the problem you continue to ignore, that you can’t go near a company office using any of your bogus Belter IDs. I’m no computer genius, and I identified the real you in the company directory using nothing but a bad candid picture.”
“Not a problem. I need to go into the office as myself.”
And that would be my first use since landing of authentic ID. If I hoped to learn anything from inside the company, I’d need serious network access. As a longtime forensic accountant, I’d often held sysadmin privileges. Except as a sysadmin, I had no hope of spotting the digital fingerprints left by miners trying to obscure their precious-metal thefts. Extending these privileges to encompass a new assignment, even at a different sort of company facility, should be pretty much automagical.
As anyone but myself, though? Forget it. Beyond, through Andy’s behind-the-scenes intervention, having the local managing partner as my executive sponsor, my alter ego would have to show a record of several exemplary years with the company and pass review by three randomly chosen, mutually suspicious, people from Security. The company hadn’t cornered the Solar System market in a half-dozen precious metals through carelessness.
But the atom-thin silver lining? That same institutional paranoia probably meant the mole wouldn’t have high-level access. I could reasonably hope to have better success data-mining my way to that bastard than he or she might have at finding anything suspicious about me.
“You’d still be taking an insane chance.”
“Yes, I would.” I took a deep breath. “Are you going to help?”
Andy fell silent for the longest time. “I’d have conditions.”
And with that, we segued from no to negotiation . . . .
I stood, my gaze sweeping across the crowded lunchroom, and not only because “You will not wander away from the office building by yourself,” had been first among Andy’s conditions. Like the in-house gym, the next-door coffee shop, and the round-the-corner tavern, the company cafeteria was a way to casually interact with my fellow workers. At this, the peak of the lunch rush, there was not an empty table to be had. Here and there among the diners, like so many mushrooms in a lawn after a rainstorm, the occasional head stuck far above the rest. Loonies and Martians, not one of them approaching Belter height.
Reflexively I wondered, who here is the mole?
Broadcasting my approach through the occasional stomp/clank, having just that morning tweaked my exo-legs to a new, reduced level of assistance, I made my way from the condiment station to a table with an unoccupied seat. “May I join you?”
That drew a ragged and unenthusiastic chorus of “Sure” and “Uh-huh.”
“Thanks.” As I set down my tray, conversations resumed. I slid back a chair and, with a faint electric-motor hum, sat. Two bites into a cheeseburger, I added, again to no one in particular, “This hits the spot.”
“Cafeteria swill?” said the woman to my left. (Sally Wu, an intern in Finance. I recognized her from her personnel file. I recognized most everyone around the table from such study. No matter the name, Wu looked Swedish.) With an eye roll, she added, “Surely you jest.”
Not letting up my grip on the burger, I introduced myself.
“Hi,” she responded. “You’re kidding, right? This is fuel, not food.”
I gave the burger a waggle. “This is actual beef, once upon a time on the hoof. Where I come from, that’s an imported delicacy.”
“Actual Grade Z beef,” chimed in the woman seated to my right. Anna Burnham. Public Relations (or, as everyone in-house knew it, the Ministry of Propaganda). She was willowy, as Earthers go, with long, flowing, dark hair. Enough hair for a small village. Anna gestured dismissively with her fork at some kind of green salad. “This place has nothing going for it but convenience.”
“And then there’s the”—air quotes—“beef stew,” contributed the guy seated across from me. Henri Broussard seemed as Gallic as the name sounded, if you could trust a Belter’s sense of such things. “Off-brand dog food.”
“So, seriously,” Anna said to me. “Was that a draw for you? Real food?”
“Call it a perk.” Setting my burger on its plate, I blotted meat juice off an exo-hand with a paper napkin. I made a show of working a napkin corner beneath metal rods to scrub at the fingers beneath. “Make that the only perk.”
And heads from both ends of the table swiveled toward me. As desired.
From three seats down, a dark-skinned woman with startling blue eyes leaned forward to make eye contact. Ayesha Greene. An up-and-comer in Marketing. “Isn’t this a plum assignment?”
Ayesha laughed. “It means good, if for no obvious reason.”
“Got it,” I said. “From accountant out among the rocks—I assume the jungle vine has shared that much about me—to a stint in Finance, in one of the company’s biggest markets, exposed to some of the super-secret futures-trading algorithms. Got to be a big career move for me.” I retrieved my burger. “Yep. Sounds great.”
“Grapevine, not jungle vine,” Ayesha said. “But yes, that’s what I meant.”
“And then there’s actual steak,” I said.
“Which you should never get here,” someone, though I couldn’t see who, offered from far down the table.
We talked food until people began drifting away, whether to their offices or early-afternoon meetings. And I wondered: had anyone taken the bait?
What did I know about the mole? That he or she had info only a senior or managing partner should have known. And that logically he or she wasn’t such a person, given things my abductors hadn’t known.
My abductors . . .
Yes, they remained a nameless bunch. But there was an exception, and he had done his best, there at the end, to kill me. My only regret when Darin Hodges died was for losing the opportunity to turn the tables and question him. But I had known and liked his father. I had watched Les Hodges die, unnecessarily, back there on the Rock.
Focus! I commanded myself, tamping down the misplaced pangs of guilt.