I was hired for a hacking job. But it wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t just the skills of a hacker that were needed.
For several days we had been in orbit around the planet Microtech, waiting for the signal. Locked in this uncomfortable tin can. The walls were bare, cold, dark. Even the lighting was minimal. Drake typical, the spacecraft was very spartan. The fact that Kjeld had assembled the Corsair himself did not make it any more homelike.
Kjeld and I sat at the lounge area’s dining table. The metal tabletop felt cold. It was quiet. Except for our low voices and the humming ventilation, nothing could be heard on board. Kjeld had hired me to do some hacking. He and Thane McMarshall wanted to track down the whereabouts of Professor Usagi. The professor had something to do with ENOS. I didn’t quite understand the connections. All I knew was that I was supposed to extract tracking data from a certain communications computer. But to do that, we needed an access code. A sensitive item that we had previously taken on board played a crucial role in this.
The heavy sound of a bulkhead sliding aside interrupted the silence. Root came in.
“I’ll wake the rest of the crew.”
A grin flitted across my face. The UEE Navy reserve officer was certainly having fun with that.
I had little fun with the fact that there were so many people on board. The Corsair had single cabins, but two people had to share a cabin and a bed. That was not to my taste at all. I needed my freedom, my privacy.
When the door of the middle cabin opened, all eyes were fixed on it. There she stood, the sensitive item. She was wearing only a longshirt and underpants. Fatigue was written all over her face. Spring was a study assistant to Professor Hyperion. Only she knew where the communications computer was located. We had to rely on her help. But she wouldn’t tell us the location of the computer until we got the access code. Wrinkles formed on my forehead. An inner voice told me that Spring was hiding something from us.
During breakfast, Kjeld’s mobi glass beeped.
Immediately he issued instructions. “There it is the signal. Finally we have the location of the person who has the access code. Get everything ready. Put on your gear. Thane, Spring, Zero. You guys go to the rover in the cargo hold and wait there.”
A short time later, we were sitting in the rover in our protective gear. Lunaria was standing behind the vehicle at the open tailgate. She wished us a good time and pressed a button. With a loud squeak, the ramp closed. We were locked in. Sealed off from the outside world. Just the three of us, in a very confined space. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable. I hated it when I couldn’t see the stars. When I didn’t know what was happening.
Thane was busy. He was constantly fiddling with his mobi glass. Spring had her eyes closed. She seemed to be completely relaxed and waiting for something. What secret was our sensitive item guarding?
With some small talk, I tried to get more out of her. “‘Spring, tell me. What do you do when you’re not locked in a rover?”
“Professor Hyperion does medical research. I take care of the test subjects.”
“Test subjects? Do you do experiments with people?”
“No, they’re test volunteers. I just give them an injection. Nothing bad. Do you want a taste? I’ve got something on me.”
“Ha Ha. With the right stuff, a shot can have ne great effect. If you’re interested, I can get you anything and everything.”
Thane looked past the holo projection of his mobi glass and glared at us. “I guess I’d better cover both ears now.”
After throwing a pointed remark at Thane, I kept trying. “And aside from injections. What are you doing here on board?”
With my casual question, I wanted to get Spring chatting. But it was to no avail. She only told me that she had an instruction from Professor Hyperion. She did not give any details.
Just as I was about to ask more questions, we heard the cargo ramp of the Corsair open. I stood up and went into the cockpit of the rover. Through the windshield, I saw a winter landscape outside the Corsair. Trees covered in snow and mountains as far as I could see. But nothing more could be seen or experienced.
Bored, I turned to the others. Spring was looking at me. Something had caught her attention.
“That’s a nice knife you have hanging from your belt.”
Now I had a starting point. “A knife from the Banu. Very hard to get. Interested? I give it to you. In return for some information from you.”
With a wide grin, my eyes fixed on Spring. But before she could answer, we heard gunshots. Very quietly. Outside the Corsair. We didn’t know what was going on. No one informed us. For what felt like an eternity, we were left with nothing but uncertainty. Then finally a message from Kjeld.
“We have the access code. Navaja is injured. We are coming back on board.”
The Quantum drive hummed. The Corsair was approaching the place I least wanted to be at an insane speed. Hurston. On the planet was the town of Ivory, a junk collector’s settlement ruled by a notorious junk baron. The communications computer was located there. According to the information available, the baron had hired mercenaries to quell rebellious sentiment among the junk collectors. It was unclear whether we could easily use the communications computer, or at what cost.
The crew had manned the Corsair’s gun turrets. Spring sat at the table in the lounge area with her eyes closed. It almost seemed as if she was meditating. I couldn’t figure her out. She was nice, friendly, but still closed off. Did she have a hidden agenda? For a while I stood there looking at her. Without getting any answers, I turned away and went into the cockpit to Root.
It was night when we landed a short distance from the settlement. A bustle of activity was going on at the junkyard. Floodlights illuminated the area. Spaceships came and went. Under cover of darkness, we tried to approach unnoticed. But the darkness gave me no feeling of security. The warrant Hurston Dynamics had issued against me was a weight that rested heavily on my mind. There was no place on Hurston where I could move freely. To make sure no one recognized me, I put on the horror mask that I had actually intended to use to scare the crew.
Spring, Thane and I stayed under cover while the rest of the crew approached the settlement. Slowly, dusk began to draw in. The advantage of darkness melted away like a chunk of ice on the hot moon Arial. Time was running out.
Suddenly, gunfire whipped through the dawn. Over the radio, we heard the desperation of the crew. They were engaged in a firefight. There were casualties, ammunition shortages. Hope for success was fading. Then the order to retreat. We could not get into the settlement, had no contact with the scrap baron or the settlers. The communications computer was unreachable.
There was only one glimmer of hope. Yellowhand Security. Citko’s force was nearby and ready to assist us. But even they were struggling with problems. They were stranded quite a distance from the settlement with broken down vehicles. After a long search, we finally joined them.
Spring and I stayed in the background while the rest planned the next steps. At some point, Kjeld joined us.
“We have contact with the settlement and permission to enter the settlement. But there is a problem. Only three of us are allowed to come. For safety, two mercenaries must be with us. So only one other person can come along. Zero is the only one who can extract the data. Spring, you have to tell us what your mission is and what you have to do on the computer. Zero will then have to do it for you.”
A tense silence prevailed. Spring’s inner struggle was almost palpable. Now she had to reveal the information she had kept from me all this time.
Hesitantly, the words came out of her. “Zero, is the offer still on the table? Banu knife in exchange for information?”
“Bad bargaining position you have”, I thought to myself. If she wanted to fulfill her mission, she had to give me the information. Why should I pay a price for it? But I didn’t want to put her in front of the head. Somehow I liked her.
“We can talk about that later. What do you want me to do on the computer for you?”
Spring held out a data stick to me. “I need you to plug this into the communications computer.”
I reached for the stick, but Spring didn’t let go. “You have to promise me to do this no matter what.”
“I promise.” And I really meant it.
Mountains of scrap metal and old spaceships surrounded us. Among the piles of old metal, a crane towered. Its grappling arm swayed gently in the wind. Citko, Kjeld and I stood in the scrap metal settlement negotiating with one of the mercenaries. He was a giant of a man. Heavy armor covered his body. In keeping with the junkyard, it had a rusty red hue. Another mercenary blocked the way to the computer, which was in a building.
The mercenary in the rusty red armor demanded a high price for access to the communications computer. After Kjeld and Citko paid, I was allowed to go to the terminal. With the access code, I had trouble-free access to the system. In the file storage I found a document. It was a report from a special agent of the MicroTech Bureau of Organized Crime.
In short sentences I gave Kjeld a summary of the contents of the document.
Test subjects immunized against stage 3 with variant X.
Tjarva Ulfur, Mariette Abendroth, Victor Romeo
Stay in Pyro is converted.
Test subjects moved from moon to planet.
Victor Romeo stabilized by Variant Y and considered “alive”.
Communication between Scorpio and Usagi lapsed.
To resolve Herald route, deactivation signal from communications computer in Ivory.
Data Runner to install BD attachment on hard drive. This can eliminate all research data and route tracking. Process takes 6h.
Data Runner must hurry and extract data from current depot.
New communication base will be determined in next few weeks.
There was a data salad in the attachment. Obviously it was encrypted tracking data. With a few hacker tricks I was able to extract the following names:
IVORY HURSTON, RUIN STATION, PYRO
Kjeld’s response was short and to the point. “Download it and then get out of here.”
For a second I paused. There was still a promise I had made. Spring’s stick fit perfectly into the computer slot. It rattled briefly. The screen flickered and went black. One last message was visible.
Error…. Error… File system corrupted….
0011000 xxx 001110
Shit, the stick had roasted the system. What the hell kind of mission did Spring have?
“Okay, let’s get out of here.” A little head movement was all it took to make the urgency clear to Citko and Kjeld.
I just hoped none of the junkyard mercenaries noticed that I had wrecked the computer.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)