Troubleshooter – Four

by Andrea Speed

By the time she reached her apartment, her knee had started to hurt.

Well, hurt wasn’t really the term – get stiff was more accurate. The old injury in that knee decided to flare up at the worst times, although it did occur to her that maybe if she didn’t use it to break people’s faces so much, it wouldn’t flare up at all.

ViewHer apartment was in a building that used to be an old hotel, converted on the outside to look like just another anonymous, crumbling brick apartment block, while on the inside it still looked like a hotel circa 1950. The halls were long and narrow, red carpeted, the doors oak painted white, the ghosts of old room numbers still visible where the whitewash wasn’t that thick. It was quaint, and for some reason it amused her.

Her apartment was at the end of the hall on the sixth floor, and while a three and a half room flat would be considered small in anyone’s estimation, it was really all she needed.

She took a quick shower, just staying in long enough to wash off the blood, then got dressed in an old t-shirt and silk boxer shorts, not ready to go back out into the world just yet. She had some work to do.

She went to her “kitchenette”, not a room but a small, tiled adjunct of her living room, and got a bottle of iced tea, as well as a pack of blue ice from her freezer. On her way out she stopped to give the calico cat (ha) dozing on her windowsill a quick pet. Its fur was warmed by the sun, and it purred contentedly, showing her its mostly white stomach for a little scratch. People that knew her were always shocked to learn she had a pet – and she suspected she should be offended by that – but weren’t surprised when they learned her cat’s name was Satan. Well, ever since she read there were some odd Evangelicals who thought calicos – not black cats – were a sign of the devil, it just seemed obvious.

Her flat was sparsely furnished. It had a little more stuff – and character – than her office, but only because she couldn’t stand looking at the pale pastel striped wallpaper. Everything but a few specialty items – her computer, her stereo, her bamboo sword and flak jacket – were thrift store items. Not only because she didn’t have the money for new, but also because she’d be the first to admit she wasn’t stylish or trendy or really much of anything. She was always sure she made a bad woman, as culture dictated it anyways.

She stretched out on her worn, tawny velvet sofa as her computer booted up, and rested the blue ice pack on her knee. It was just a little red right now, but she didn’t think it would bruise. The old scar under her kneecap was a vivid slash of purple, dead skin on top of living flesh. She had no idea why it was purple, or why it had remained raised, never fading away like her other scars. Perhaps it was trying to be a metaphor.

She picked up her remote off the heavy rectangular coffee table and turned on her stereo, letting the smooth sonic wash of The Meeting Places fill in the silence. It was stuffy in here – the sun was especially brutal to the sixth floor denizens – but she had no desire to get up and turn on her rickety air conditioner. She could live with stuffy for now. Sunlight, gauzy and oddly yellow tinged, poured in through the windows, and spilled over her ugly mustard colored carpet like a stain.

Along with her remotes and a World Press Review magazine, her flat screen computer monitor rested on the coffee table. The keyboard and the mouse were both infrared, the hard drive stack taking up space on the floor beside the table. There wasn’t really room in here for a desk, and besides, it wasn’t like she had lots of company. Or any company, for that matter. She liked keeping her space private.

As soon as she was logged on, she sent an IM to Sajeet – or, as he was known to his many usenet groups, cypherpunk101 – even though he lived on the first floor of her building. As far as she could tell, Saj never actually answered his phone, and rarely his door, unless he was expecting take out. Otherwise, he was always on line. He lived his life through an internet filter.

He was a “cyber-commuter”, working for a local telecommunications company, a technogeek whose idea of heaven was a cursor he could move in his sleep by utilizing rapid eye movements. The living room of his apartment was taken up by a “homemade” server, and two different computers, cabled together. Although he lived most of his life through his computers, he used to go out occasionally. About three months ago, things changed, and he had rarely been out of his apartment since.

Mrs. Fernandez, the building’s resident gossip, told her that she heard Sajeet had been mugged one night, returning from the convenience store on the next block. He wasn’t physically hurt, and only lost ten dollars and a six pack, but since then he’d never left the building. He only ventured out occasionally to go to the communal laundry room on the first floor. He’d stopped talking to her when she called him “agoraphobic” : he objected to that strenuously, as he apparently equated that with mental illness and insanity. She could still hear him shouting, “I am not crazy!“ Talk about overreaction. He didn’t like having it pointed out; it was okay, just as long as his problem remained nameless.

She almost wanted to ask him what was wrong with mental illness anyways. She was diagnosed depressive and borderline schizoid, yet she was still accepted into the program. They actually saw her borderline schizoid diagnosis as a boon to the unique training process she under went.

Since he lived his life exclusively on-line now, she knew he always had his IM programs going, but since he was usually chatting to about a half dozen people, she knew she’d be lucky if he even noticed her within the hour. So she added to her bland message – which had simply been ‘Sajeet’ – ‘What do you know about Osiris?’ As long as she didn’t divulge she was working on a case involving one of its supposed employees, she wasn’t violating the privacy clause of the case.

It was while she was waiting for his response, and surfing the web, scanning all the information she could dig up on Ward and Girani through public sites, when her internet phone software alerted her of an incoming call. She only used the phone program for overseas calls, as it was cheaper overall than selecting some goddamn long distance landline program (and by filtering it through a computer, she could change her voice if necessary), but no one ever called her at that number.

Except one person.

She had no desire to talk to Aftermath, now or ever, but sometimes ‘Math had genuine information of worth. Most of the time it was shit, but the little she had gotten was enough to make her acknowledge the call. She also started the “trace” program Sajeet had custom made for her in happier times, although she knew it probably wouldn’t work; Aftermath seemed to have some kind of counter program.

“Do you know long how long I’ve been waiting for you to get on line?” Aftermath said. ‘Math was using a filter that made their voice sound like Barry White speaking into a vo-coder, with just a touch of space alien.

“Are you that lonely?”

There was a brief noise of static that she took for a scoff. “People like us, we don’t get lonely.”

“Don’t compare us.” She opened her bottle of iced tea and drank it quickly, thirsty enough that she downed it in three gulps. It didn’t taste anything like tea, in reality – it was too sweet, and artificially flavored with a substance that could charitably called fruit like. It bothered her that she actually liked it, even though she knew it was crap.

“Why not? Deny it all you wish, but we’re cut from the same cloth, sprung from the same bloody ground -”

“Flushed down the same toilet?”

“You’ve been in America too long. You’re becoming crude.”

“I was crude before, remember?” On screen, her messenger program jumped to the forefront, as Sajeet replied: ‘Egyptian god or software company?’ “So where are you, ‘Math? Still in the Czech Republic?”

“What makes you think I was ever there, Zero?”

She scowled at the screen as she typed to Sajeet: ‘Company. Were they working on a big interface project?’ But she knew, even as she typed it, that that had been only the first of Ward’s lies. Life may have been cheap to some, and doubly so to Girani, but to kill for an experimental program? No fucking way. That was neither his business or his style. “I told you not to call me that, Six.”

Aftermath – Six – chuckled. It sounded like a synthesized steam train starting up: chuff-chuff-chuff. “Still hiding behind a pseudonym, Zero? After all this time? You worked for MI-6, dear. You should put that on your business cards. It would impress the hell out of the peons. If they know what it is in the States.”

Sajeet, being the techno-geek that he was, usually had reliable – if mysterious – contacts everywhere a computer could reach. So she easily believed it when his new message popped up on screen. ‘No. Court’s lock down after their last code theft has them out of that business. Why?’

Perhaps Six took her silence for brooding, because Six added, with a phony, dramatic gasp, “Oh, that’s right – they won’t acknowledge you, will they? Not after what you did …”

“And they still want your ass, Six. I intend to give it to them too.”

“Aw, and you think kissing their rosy red rumps will get you back in, do you?”

“No, I just want you to shut the fuck up.” She typed to Sajeet: ‘Some asshole trying to impress me, I suppose. Can you get into the Osiris employee files and upload all the locals in the W’s to me?’ That was a tall order, and one that could break whatever fragile truce they had going here. She could do it without him, but Sajeet was very good – he probably dreamed in code. He never left a footprint, no matter where he roamed.

Another bit of vo-coder fuzz through her admittedly sub-par computer speakers. Six scoffing once more. “I’ve outgrown MI-5. They have no hope of catching up to me now. But you? You always had promise, Zero -”

“Is that why you’ve chosen me to bug the shit out of?” Finally, Sajeet responded: ‘Is this for a case?’

‘You know I can’t say, Saj’, she typed.

Hardly a pause. “I’ll pretend that’s not a yes. 1 sec.’

“Bug? You wound me. I know where you are. I could sell you out any time. Do I?”

“You don’t know where I am. All you have is some numbers I can easily dump. And to sell me out would be to sell you out. You can’t send me down the river without drowning yourself. Must be a real pisser, huh?” Her knee was beyond numb; it was corpse cold. She took off the ice pack and tossed it at the end of the couch, figuring she’d put it away later.

The silence coming from Six was thick, and she could just imagine the hate bleeding down the phone lines and fiber optics, trying to reach through the speakers and throttle her. It made her smile. Tomahawk kicked in on the stereo, the raging noise an intriguing counterpoint to Six’s deliberate silence.

Her primary e-mail started to receive dozens of files, all from Sajeet, and all employee files from Osiris. There weren’t that many Wa – names on the list, so she quickly messaged him to stop. ‘Remember, MWSDI5M. And I have no idea who you are.’

‘Got it.’ She typed in return. MWSDI5M was Sajeet speak, meaning ‘message will self destruct in five minutes’ – it was a needless reminder for her to delete and “clean” the files as soon as she was done with them. None of this was perfectly legal. ‘I have a cell phone I need info pulled off of. Can I bring it down?’

Sajeet lived down on the fourth floor. He didn’t have much in the way of company either, or friends who weren’t online, who existed only as a distance presence. She was one of the most tangible ones he had, and it made her feel kind of bad for him, as she wasn’t really a very good friend – to him or to anyone. She couldn’t be. It was the nature of her beast.

“One of these days, Zero, we’ll end this,” Six growled, an angry android invading her computer.

“I’m waiting.” Ward’s file was such an interesting bit of reading, she almost lost her train of thought. What the fuck..?

Sajeet’s message window popped up, surprising her. There was just too much shit happening at once. ‘Sure. Can I keep the phone once you’re done with it?’

Probably to cannibalize for parts, or rework for another purpose. If he wasn’t American, and currently agoraphobic, he’d have made a great tech operative. Which was why she was probably friends with him. It was a natural instinct now to surround herself with a team that could help her the most.

And it was terribly refreshing that he was one of those men who, rather than deal with a messy, emotional scene, would simply prefer to pretend nothing had ever happened in the first place. She would never have to apologize, as long as she didn’t call him the “A” word again.

‘All yours’ she typed, and said aloud, “What does it take for you to go away, Six?”

“You’re dead, Zero. You know that, don’t you?”

“We’re all dead, Six. The only difference is, some of us know it.” She closed down the IM program, and was going to close her browser, but Ward’s employee file seemed to taunt her. “Ineffectually taunt me another time, Aftermath – I’m busy.” With that, she shut down her phone program, the closest thing to slamming down the receiver.

Everything about the Ward file was correct: address, age, contact info. He was a good employee, anonymous, not stellar but not awful. The sole discrepancy was in his employee photo.

Now, he certainly could have put on weight, dyed his hair, gotten color contacts; there was a thousand easy ways to alter your appearance. But you could not alter the shape of your face easily or realistically, not without the help of a surgeon or a special effects crew. The Ward in her office had a round, pudgy face; the one in the photo had a narrow face, high cheekbones making him look almost vulpine. They were not the same man – not even close.

So who the hell had hired her? And why were they pretending to be Andrew Ward.

She had the sinking feeling that this had just turned out to be the longest day of her life.

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