Collin Todd waited in line with other employees leaving for the evening from Republican Shipworks. He worked in the corporate office located in San Saba, Diego.
He stood five foot ten, or 178 centimeters, with non-descript dark hair and a medium-light complexion. He carried a lot of Pacific Islander blood from Old Earth. Indeed, he could trace ancestors from American Samoa as well as Hawaii. But he also had the typical melting pot mix of ethnicity most everyone else in the galaxy had, too.
He moved forward a step, closing in on his appointment with the cranial scanner every employee underwent before leaving the premises. Security at Republican Shipworks was very tight, especially now during the war.
Todd had not had an opportunity to share many secrets stolen from his employer in the last several months. Things had been so much easier before the war.
His life changed on a vacation to Italia three and a half years ago. There on the beach one night he met the girl of his dreams. Her name was Natasha Krizinski. She had the look, the strong Asian features that Todd especially liked to see in women. She was thin, had light brown skin and eyes, and a wonderful sultry expression that could turn him on with a single glance. In other ways she reminded him of an anime character: big, expressive eyes and a cute little nose. It was a match made in heaven, and best of all she seemed just as enamored of him.
Their third night together, she broached the possibility of sharing Republican Shipworks’ secrets with her company, one that happened to be incorporated in League territory. It was just industrial espionage, she said. He would be richly compensated for anything he could share.
At first the idea shocked him. But over an evening of drinks, Natasha brought him over to her way of thinking. They weren’t asking for much, she said. They just wanted a competitive edge. If he were willing to share details on any projects, he would be handsomely rewarded.
When he finally agreed, Natasha rewarded him on the spot, several times in a row.
At the end of his vacation, Todd returned to work in the Republic and Natasha returned to her home in the League. Each night they met in the game called Off World, on the quantum network.
In those prewar days, the AIs did not pay as close attention to the sprawling online game worlds, accessible to anyone with a connection. Communications and gameplay could take place in real time despite the vast distances between habitable planets thanks to the quantum matrix. The AIs’ neglect spelled an opportunity for spy networks and other clandestine activities.
For his part, Todd preferred physical contact. The neural connections that made Off World feel authentic never seemed to deliver the same emotional and physical results that he enjoyed when holding Natasha in real life. When he returned to reality each evening, he was still in his own apartment. Alone.
Besides, Natasha looked distracted online. She never seemed to be giving Todd her full attention like she used to in those early days of the relationship back on Italia.
But, Natasha greatly appreciated the data Todd sent. They met in private online “rooms” where he handed over the latest infosets, then they progressed to other things. Following that, she would tell him where to pick up certain private quests. They were playing in Medieval Realm, and Todd was leveling up there as a knight.
The quests Natasha’s employers offered Todd in the game were easy and mostly harmless but very lucrative. They ranged from tasks like escorting a nobleman from one city to another. Usually an escort quest met trouble of some kind, like bandits on the road or monsters ambushing the party. But Todd’s quests were always very easy, and he rarely had trouble with them. Once completed, he collected the reward money, usually equivalent to 1,000 credits or so.
Todd regularly cashed out his winnings from Off World, reported the gaming income on his taxes, and enjoyed a considerably enhanced lifestyle both online and in real life.
Then a dispute over a little planet named Gotha Mu disrupted everything. Suddenly, the League and the Republic were at war.
Natasha asked him to meet her on Italia one more time. He managed to cash in some unused vacation time, and left for a bit in the early months of the conflict.
Their last time together in the flesh was intense. She spent a good deal of it crying. Off World was no longer a safe place to communicate, she said. Both AIs monitored it closely now. Besides, PLAIR and StarCen were disallowing cross-territory communications of all sorts. Even if they were in the game simultaneously, they would be unable to see one another. From this point on, he would have to gather and transmit information without using electronic communications. She wanted him to transmit it in person. Somewhere safe.
Surveillance was about to be greatly ramped up, Natasha said. As a senior-level programmer for Republican Shipworks, he would be watched very closely. Therefore, they needed a way to extract him when he had critical information to offer . . .
When she first outlined the plan, he balked. There was no way he was involving his mother in anything like this, he said. Natasha made a compelling argument, though. His mother would be perfectly safe, but they needed a good reason for him to travel to a fringe planet where PLAIR had a weaker presence. Or, even better, no presence at all. And Lute, where his mother lived, fit the bill nicely. They would contrive some sort of emergency to provide him an excuse to visit her.
Natasha’s people could not communicate with Todd directly anymore, thanks to wartime restrictions. But they could still monitor his communications. He spoke with his mother on Lute every Wednesday night. When he had some critical data, truly life-changing, important data, he should use a code word during that holocall. Natasha and her team would take care of everything else.
Todd stopped reminiscing and stepped forward to proceed through the cranial scanning process. As usual, he passed. He carried nothing with him, other than his own dark thoughts. He had no memory chips implanted to spirit data out of the facility. Out on the street he caught the skybus, and headed for home.
That night on his weekly holocall he asked his mother about an old friend.
“Hey Mom, have you heard from Mikey Pelton lately?”
“You know. Mikey Pelton, my grade school buddy. Have you heard anything about him or his parents?”
“Oh, the Pelton boy. No, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since your father and I moved off Diego . . .”
Inside the Petra Roe embassy in Port Ryan, a virtual diplomatic pouch appeared on the corner of Ambassador Huntington’s desk.
He sighed, and absently pulled a curled up corner of his mustache. It popped back into place when he let it go.
Diplomatic pouches were sent from Petra Roe using the highest level of encryption. Supposedly it would take years for the AIs to decipher their contents. However, even so, diplomats preferred using additional codes within the encrypted messages. Just in case.
He waved at the hologram and looked at the set of numbers. He would need a onetime-use grid to decipher the message. He placed his hand inside the hologram, where the code grids had been imprinted inside skin cells on his thumb.
The numbers turned into legible text. Even then, the words remained cryptic: “Redesignate Asset 431B.”
He frowned. Asset 431B was a new one to him. And why B and not A? Or, why not both?
A few minutes later, after rifling through his virtual folders on Lutean resources, he had his answer. Asset 431A had passed away from old age some time ago. He frowned again, and made a neural connection to his assistant, asking her to set up an appointment with the janissary calling himself Cool Hand.
Huntington regretted deeply he did not have the resources the League’s SSI had. They were able to recruit their own people. He was stuck on this primitive backwater and had to hire out the help.
Within half an hour Cool Hand made an appearance in person. Huntington knew the non-descript man before him had taken a circuitous route to the embassy, finally using one of their secret entrances to get inside.
He flashed an address to Cool Hand on the holoscreen. Once memorized, the man nodded and the address disappeared.
“One target inside,” Huntington said. “An older lady. Five thousand now, five when it’s done. Make it look natural.”
“I always do,” Cool Hand said.
Later that night, Cool Hand walked out of a stairwell in a middle-income apartment complex in Port Ryan. The lack of monitors in the city made his job much easier. He wore a smartsuit which covered him head to toe in a thin layer of material that looked like vinyl. It did not quite make him invisible, but it helped. In low light, especially, the suit made him very hard to see.
His face was covered with a visor. If he did make it onto a recording somehow, no biomarkers would be readily apparent. Nor would he leave behind any hair or fibers, thanks to the suit.
He approached the door to the address he had memorized and brought out an electronic lock pick. One of the latest models, it could open most doors without leaving an access log. It was also a restricted item, one of several tools Cool Hand used in his chosen profession.
Within seconds, the door swished open. He stepped inside the darkened apartment and noiselessly walked back to the bedroom.
There, he found the target asleep in bed. Why an old lady needed to be taken out, he could not say. Somebody’s grandma must have ticked off the wrong people, he thought.
He swapped the lock pick out on his tool belt for another device resembling a defibrillator pad. It was round and fit in the palm of his hand, with a ring on back to hold it in place with his middle finger. He slipped it on, walked up and covered the woman’s mouth with his other hand.
She woke up and tried to scream. She reached for his arm to pull him off, grabbing his hand and tugging, scratching against the skin of his suit. But he was too strong, and no matter how hard she struggled, the weight of his body and his hands kept her pressed down in the bed.
He pressed the defibrillating device against her, holding his hand between her breasts, and activated it. A forceful sonic blast thumped through her chest, rupturing her aorta.
He waited as her struggles grew weaker while she bled out on the inside, keeping his hand over her mouth so she could not cry out for help.
A few moments later, her arms fell to her side and her struggles ceased.
Cool Hand stood, and gave his victim a final look. Then he turned and left, locking the door behind him.