Out of Paris

By Peter Johnson


Eric wiggled his toes.  It was an odd effect.  With the bubbles all around he couldn’t see the them clearly; they just seemed to appear and disappear at random.


At 42 years of age Eric was taking his first Jacuzzi.  Odd place to do it too, on the aging orbtel Paris.  The décor reminded him of the suite in which he spent his wedding night some 15 years ago.  B-movie French he called it – columns and swirls where no sane Frenchmen would think to put them.  Excusable in a honeymoon suite – who cares about the décor – but in an orbiting hotel the visitor had more opportunity to be offended by the tasteless designs.  There had been a Jacuzzi in the honeymoon suite, but he never used it.  Karen didn’t think she’d like it; and on your wedding night, if your wife isn’t going to be there, then neither will you.  It was a great night just the same:  they made love four times.  That’s the same number of times they had sex in the last year of their marriage.


Eric looked at his knees.  Just above and just below jets of air and water cut across his legs, so the kneecaps was all he could see.  Eric’s eyes travelled further up, and that was when he reached the problem area – well, one of them anyway.  What to do about that.  Eric raised and lowered his hips, it didn’t seem to help.  No matter how much or how little water was in the way, little Eric – or that thing as dear Karen came to refer to it – seemed altogether too insignificant.  Eric sighed; it shouldn’t matter anyway, Christine was not likely to … wait, that wasn’t her name.  Crystal, yes, that was it.  Crystal was not likely to comment about it; she was a professional, and was being paid well for the night of entertainment she was about to deliver.  Still, he wished little Eric would expand just a little; surely the hot water should be helping.


Crystal had approached him in the bar.  It was nearly eight and he’d been planning an early night.  He had an important meeting in the morning, the most important of his career.  There had been major problems at his company lately, and Delwood Security needed this sale; but more importantly, he needed it.


He had spotted Crystal as she’d made her way to his table.  Like most men, Eric stole a glance at every pretty girl who came close.  But Crystal was way beyond pretty.  So, instead of stealing a glance, Eric just plain stared as she crossed the room.  She had dark hair and a pale elegant face.  While of average height, there was nothing average about her figure.  He’d known as soon as she’d joined him that she was looking for a professional, not personal relationship.  But that was just fine.


It was Crystal’s idea for the Jacuzzi.  She would join him in a minute, and she’d promised to wear something fun.  He couldn’t believe it, she was going to wear something fun into the Jacuzzi.  Karen never wore anything even remotely fun after the honeymoon.  Even in the hot summers on Atlanta 4 she went to bed in her best passion killer night gown.  He remembered making love to her while she wore one of those beasts.  He never even saw her legs.  Eric always imagined that a decent wife would at least hitch the whole thing up so you could see what you were getting.  Not Karen; with her sex was akin to keyhole surgery.


He decided to think of something else; little Eric seemed to be shrinking with the memory of Karen (pubic enemy number 1).  He wondered if he’d inflicted any psychological damage on the poor little guy.  He hoped not, his little friend would be expected to perform soon.  Eric wondered if Crystal would be expecting him to be ready to perform when she came in.  Should little Eric be standing to attention, or would that look too needy, too unsophisticated.  Eric had always been an avid reader, yet he had never come across the book he needed right now:  penis etiquette.  In the absence of any guidance from the literature, Eric thought he’d let his little friend decide for himself.


Eric looked at his fingertips.  they were wrinkled.  He must have been in here for 20 minutes, and no Crystal.  He briefly wondered if she was out there going through his things, looking for money, but he dismissed that idea.  These girls were well paid.  What they could earn in a night was more than they could take from him.  The possibility that she was looking for the software also crossed his mind, but that he also dismissed, while it was the most valuable thing he had brought with him, it was of no use to the average person.


He decided to call to her.


“Crystal.  Honey, are you out there.”


He hated it as soon as he’d said it.  Honey, what was he thinking?  She wasn’t his girlfriend.  She was a service provider.


Anyway, there was no answer, so maybe she hadn’t heard him.  Only one thing to do he thought.  I’ll go get her and drag her back here.  At this thought little Eric bounced.  Wonderful timing, he thought.  Can’t wait to walk into the room with a towel rapped around my waist and an untidy bulge.  But after the initial excitement the little guy calmed down and Eric was able to enter the room with some dignity.


Trying to sound casual he said, “Crystal, I’ve been waiting for ….,” but he got no further.  There she was, dressed like a dirty dream.  The stockings were black, the bra – also black – was made of a material that shimmered under the white orbtel lights; and the panties:  black with interwoven red threads that seemed to move all by themselves.  The sight of her should have resolved little Eric’s dilemma, but it did not.  She was, as she lay there, the sexiest thing Eric had ever seen.  She was also quite clearly dead.  It was, therefore, somehow appropriate that little Eric assumed the half mast position.




Detective Krenek was a burley police stereotype; a poor caricature of the mid twentieth century police force:  thick set, thick skinned and thick skulled.  Still, he was typical of the law enforcement officers here on the edge of the Union.  It was, in its way, the wild west of its time.  Fortunes were made out here by the men and women strong enough to reach out and take them.  Men like Eric, and there were plenty of these as well, merely flew in, supplied what was needed, and left again.  Usually grateful to be safe and sound back nearer civilization’s centre.


So the Kreneks of this frontier had their role to play:  rough and tumble types who upheld the law and helped dispense a practical kind of justice.  It was this dispensation of justice that had Eric worried.  In this part of space justice needed to be swift and must be seen to be done.  Guilt or innocence were sometimes mere points of interest; dishing out justice was what mattered.


            “So Mr …” Krenek consulted his untidy notes.  “Sanderson.  That was it, wasn’t it?”


Eric nodded.  He was trying to be helpful.  From the moment he was sure Crystal was dead he had been very helpful.  After quickly putting his pants back on he had called the orbtel’s security line and they had summoned Krenek.  As it turned out, the orbtel housed all of the planet’s workforce.  The miners worked on rotation:  two weeks on, two weeks off.  At any one time half the workforce was on the planet, the other half up here on Paris.  The atmosphere on the planet was highly corrosive and toxic:  lots of sulphur and fluorides.  It was hard on equipment, and it was cheaper to keep the off duty miners in orbiting accommodation.  That also meant the planet’s police force were housed in Paris as well.  Eric wasn’t sure if he considered this convenient or not.


“Well Mr Sanderson, can you tell me how Crystal here came to be in your room, and in particular, how she came to be dead in your room?”


The way Krenek used her name showed an element of familiarity, and, worryingly, there seemed even a slight trace of affection there.  He knew her – which was not surprising after all – but perhaps he had more than a passing acquaintance with this working girl.


            “I don’t know how she came to be dead here,” Eric began, “but I can explain why she is here in my room.  How we met.”


Krenek had his part down pat:  he said nothing, just stared at Eric and waited.  Eric knew the drill from a thousand late-night movies.  But still, he was frightened beyond belief.


Eric began his tale.  It was a sordid story, he knew that, but he wasn’t particularly embarrassed; no-one here knew him.


“I was drinking in the bar at about eight.  Just one or two.  I’ve got an important meeting tomorrow, and I couldn’t afford to have too many.”


Krenek didn’t care, and his eyes showed it, but he said nothing and waited for Eric to continue.


“Anyway, she approached me.  I knew straight away what she was – you know, a prostitute.  But I thought, what the hell.  The company gives me expense money, and I don’t have to justify how I spend it.”


Krenek’s stone like face seemed to harden further, and Eric thought it best to avoid any further diversions.


“So, we agreed the price and came up to my room.  She suggested the Jacuzzi, and I went in there and waited for her.  When she didn’t join me I came out to find her, and well, I found her lying on the bed.  You know, dead.”


Eric waited.  Krenek waited.  Eric continued.  “So I called security straight away, and they called you.  I didn’t touch anything, I called straight away.”


Eric waited again.  Krenek said nothing.  Eric was about to say something – he honestly didn’t know what – when Krenek mercifully spoke.


“You telling me you heard nothing from the bathroom.”


Eric was quick to reply – too quick he later thought.  “The bubbles were loud.”


Krenek didn’t need to say anything, one raised eyebrow did the trick.


“From the Jacuzzi.  You know, the bubbles,” Eric explained.  It was clear Krenek did not take to the Jacuzzi regularly.  Eric wondered if he bathed at all.


It quickly became clear to Eric that Krenek’s interviewing skills were somewhat rudimentary.  They consisted of asking simple questions, waiting for an answer, and staring at the suspect until he felt obliged to say some more; followed by more staring and waiting.  After half an hour of this Eric was getting worried – well, he’d been worried all along, but by now he was convinced Krenek thought he was guilty.


“So how long were you in the bathroom?”


“But, I’ve already told you.”


No response, Krenek was staring at him.  Eric waited; he was curious to see how long Krenek would hold out.


It was a dull minute.  Eric waited, and it was Krenek who started to fidget; but he still had an ace up his sleave.


“All right.  Let’s play it your way.” He motioned to a man standing by the bed.  He had been examining the body and the heavy ashtray lying beside it.  It had appeared to Eric that this was the object that had so cruelly ended young Crystal’s life.


“Have you scanned it?” he asked briskly.


“Yeah,” the man answered, but he was in no hurry.  He held a small box.  It had a touch screen on one side and a curved glass surface underneath.  The scanner, Eric thought.


“Lots of prints.  Probably from the cleaners, or the last occupants, and maybe,” he stopped and looked at Eric, “maybe the prints of Mr Sanderson.  Shall we have a look.”


Krenek smiled, but he never got the chance to answer.


“Yes, why don’t we do that?”


Eric turned to see a small grey haired man standing at the door.  He expected Krenek to object to this man’s interruption, but he did not.




Eric’s stomach seemed to fill with ice.  This was the man he had hoped he would never see:  the JJE.  He’d known all along, given the nature of what he had to do here, that he would likely encounter the man, but nonetheless, he had hoped to avoid it.


“Sir, there’s no need to trouble yourself,” Krenek said in a slightly wavering voice.


The small man advanced into the room, smiling pleasantly.  Krenek shuffled his feet, looked at the floor, then back to the advancing Magistrate.  Eric suddenly realised he needed to escape to the bathroom and pass several large ice cubes.  But he decided now was not the time to mention it.


The little grey man held out his hand and Krenek’s deputy handed over the scanner, without, Eric noticed, checking first with Krenek.


            The Magistrate looked at the readout on the screen, then looked at Eric, smiled and offered his hand.


            “Mr Sanderson.  Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Elden Richards.  I am Magistrate of the Vicari system.”


Eric shook the Magistrate’s hand in a purely reflex motion.  The older man’s hand squeezed with surprising strength, and Eric realised that he himself had delivered what his dear old Dad would have referred to as a ‘limp-dick handshake’.  But Mr Richards withdrew before Eric had time to correct the situation.


            “Do you smoke, Mr Sanderson.”


Eric shook his head.  “No, sir.”


            “Then there is no reason for you to have touched the ashtray, is there?” Eric shook his head again, then realised where this little conversation was going.


            “But, I might have touched it before.  Just moved it out the way as I unpacked.”


            “Unlikely,” was the Magistrate’s flat reply.  “We’re going to assume you didn’t.”


            “Hold up your hands please, shoulder height, palms out, fingers straight up.”


Eric began to object, but the Magistrate’s smile began to fade, and Eric’s fear lifted a notch.  This was the JJE, compliance was the only option.


The Magistrate ran the scanner over each fingertip.  He then looked at the screen, pressed one button and waited.  A moment later his smile reappeared.


            “Magistrate?” Krenek began tentatively.  “Are we to arrest Mr Sanderson.”


            Elden Richards’ smile faded again – which unsettled Krenek even more.  “I will inform you of any arrests that need to be made.” He then placed the scanner in his pocket, and nodded to the bemused detective.  “Good night, Mr Krenek.”


Confused as he was, Krenek knew well enough that his work was done.  He and his men were gone within a minute, and glad of it, by the look of them.  As they left, Elden Richards’ smile returned.


Left alone with the Magistrate, Eric was for the second time that night unsure of the applicable rules of etiquette.  How did you entertain a man with the power to sentence you to death?  Especially, when that man had even more power than just to pass the sentence.


“Can I … get you something, … sir?”


The Magistrate’s smile didn’t change:  polite, friendly, terrifying.  He shook his head and motioned for Eric to be seated.  That, at least, was a relief.  Eric was certain his legs would not support him for much longer.  Magistrate Richards took a seat directly opposite.


“We at Justice are very keen for your meeting to go well tomorrow.” He paused, Eric said nothing, the smile remained the same, and the Magistrate continued.


“We believe – I believe – that it is in everybody’s best interests if your company provides the security software to the Vicari mining operations.  As I’m sure you know, the Justice Office is already using your software.”


“Yes sir.  Brian Gould installed your system.”


“That’s right,” the Magistrate replied.  “A good man.  I understand he’s no longer with Delwood Security.  I understand that he left in somewhat unusual circumstances.”


That was something of an understatement Eric thought.  He wondered how much this man new about what really happened.  He wondered as well how to reply.  But he was saved the need.


“I believe it only appropriate that the mining operations are secured by a system compatible with ours.  While it would have been nice for Brian to install that system, I understand you’re quite the expert yourself.”


            “Thank you,” was all Eric could think to say.


            Something in the Magistrate’s expression changed – although he would never be able to say exactly what – and Eric doubted he would have even the strength to sit for much longer.


            “Of course, I wouldn’t say your success tomorrow is a matter of life-and-death,” he paused, “but, then again …”


After the Magistrate had left, Eric made it to the bathroom in time to prevent a major accident on the orange and gold orbtel rug.  Once seated, and relieved of his burden, he was surprised to find that the Jacuzzi was still running.  He doubted he would ever use one again.


Two scotches helped his nerves a little, and seemed to put some strength back into his legs.  This was not how this trip was supposed to go.  Sure, it had had its risks, he had been aware of that.  They had spoken about those frequently, and he had been prepared to accept them; but this was unexpected.  What was the JJE up to?


            Eric shivered.  The JJE.  Who in their right mind had thought ‘Magistrate’ was a suitable title for these guys.  Magistrates, from what Eric new, were minor officials, who heard small cases and made small decisions.  In these outer systems, men like Mr Richards were the entire legal system.  JJE was a far better description:  Judge, Jury, Executioner.


            While he doubted he would sleep at all tonight, Eric still thought it necessary to book a wake-up call for around seven.  His meeting was at nine, and to miss it seemed downright dangerous.




            Eric entered his request into the hotel computer, then he sat there, staring at the terminal.  It was a relatively modern unit, connected to the central system by a cable that plugged in at the back.  Eric was a computer programmer, and a very good one.  He had, on occasions ‘hacked’ into computer systems to check their security.  Not for fun of course, he had considered it ‘professional development’.


            He removed the plug from the rear of the terminal.  It was a standard AA6 male connection.  Good, it would fit.  Reaching behind his right ear Eric found, and removed, the protective cap covering the standard AA6 female socket, then closed his eyes, and brought the connections together – this was, unfortunately, the only male-female coupling he would ‘enjoy’ on this trip.


            At first there was nothing, a blank screen if you like.  Eric engaged a simple program which bombarded the computer with a variety of protocols.  Bingo.  He had a menu.  The orbtel’s software was a Saturn 5 Hotel Security and Management System.  Good, Saturn 5 systems were not hard to crack.  Hotels generally had no great secrets to keep, and so did not invest in high quality software.


            Eric had never ‘hacked’ a Saturn 5 before, but his friend Brian had.  They had discussed it not long before Brian had left Delwood, and Eric remembered the way in.  It took only seven minutes for Eric to gain full access.


            Eric soon found what he was looking for, the layout of the hotel’s security camera network.  It was disappointing to say the least.  No camera’s in any of the accommodation areas.  Except, there were cameras in the elevators.


            Eric entered his search request:  ‘level 73, 20:30 to 21:00 hours, exit only’.  The system responded immediately with 18 hits.  He stored these as ‘File 1’.


            Next, Eric checked the camera locations on the dining and entertainment levels.  These, he found, had reasonable coverage, and he soon located the vision he wanted.


            The recording showed it was 19:54 hours when Crystal approached his table.  He zoomed in to watch the scene.  It was oddly voyeuristic to watch yourself; especially to watch yourself make arrangements with a prostitute.  The arrangements were completed by 19:59 hours.  It had been agreed she would come to his room 15 minutes later.  They left separately.  This, he had believed, would make it look like he had not been engaging a woman for a night of paid sex.  What a fool he was.  The short, balding, middle-aged man he was watching had clearly been doing just that.


            Eric zoomed in on the image of Crystal.  So pretty. So young.  ‘Track’, he instructed the system, and it followed her for the next 15 minutes.  She bought a drink, chatted with a waitress, went to the ladies room, and then headed for the elevator.  She did nothing interesting, and no-one seemed to be following her.  But something was different about the way she acted in these 15 minutes.  From the moment Eric saw her walking across the bar to his table, to the time she left, Crystal had been ‘sex on legs’.  Everything about her, the way she moved, the way she talked, had been sexy and exiting.  But once he had left, and she was killing time till their rendezvous, the sexiness toned down.  Undoubtedly, with that face and figure, she couldn’t help but be attractive, but while she was not ‘on the job’, so to speak, she became more of a person.  Even, Eric thought sadly, more of a girl than a woman.


            ‘Cease Tracking’.  ‘Return to 19:54’.


            A still image of a pretty girl taking a seat opposite an unattractive businessman filled his mind.  This image had embarrassed him before, it now shamed him.  He called up the menu.  ‘Backtrack’.


            For 5 minutes he watched Crystal walk backwards through the entertainment areas.  However, this time she was doing something interesting.  She would scan the room as she entered, look closely at something she was holding, and then look around again.  Of course, watching her do it in reverse, it took him a little while to figure out what was happening.


            ‘Cease tracking’.  ‘Return to 19:52’.  ‘Play’.


            He watched Crystal enter the main lounge.  She repeated her little ritual.  Spotted Eric from across the room, then looked at the piece of paper again.  She smiled, folded the paper, and placed it in her pocket.




Once again Eric felt ice form in the pit of his stomach.  Despite this, a sweat had broken out on his forehead.  It had been a terrible night.  A beautiful young woman was dead, but it was not, as he had hoped, a random act.  She had been looking for him, she had been sent to find him.




It took 18 minutes, but he found it.  A little transaction taking place between Crystal and a young man.  Young, athletic and strong by his looks.  Money and a piece of paper were handed to Crystal, then the man was on his way.




Eric zoomed in, took a good hard look at the man’s face.




            ‘Return to File 1’.




It took no time for the computer to return the result.


‘1 match’.


Let the record show, Eric thought to himself, that at 20:47, this man (the suspect) exited elevator 13 on the 73rd floor.




Four hours sleep.  But it would be enough to get the job done.  He had needed that wake-up call after all.  He showered, shaved and breakfasted in record time.  He didn’t want to be late.


Eric soon realised that winning the contract was a mere formality.  Only two competitors turned up to the meeting; and they weren’t really competitors at all.  Universal Systems sold relatively little security software.  They were mainly a business systems specialist.  Eric was surprised they even at the meeting.  Silhouette Security was only slightly more of a threat.  While they did have the right product profile, their Managing Director had recently been charged with fraud, and this was not likely to fill Vicari Mining with confidence.  The real threat didn’t even turn up.  Chandler Technology were a well respected firm, with previous sales to mining companies in nearby systems.  What worried Eric was that he had seen their rep in the orbtel’s lobby.  Jack O’Shea, large as life (and in Jack’s case that was very large), had been checking in.  Eric wondered what old Jack had found in his room last night.


The awarding of the contract to Delwood Security surprised no-one.  Congratulations were offered by the disgruntled losers, who promptly left.


            “When would you be able to load the software, Mr Sanderson?” The woman asking this question – she had simply introduced herself as Jenny – was young and very pretty.  She was one of the engineers who had installed the security hardware for Vicari Mining.  She would have been mid to late twenties – older than Crystal, and attractive in a different way.  Eric wondered if under other circumstances, with different opportunities, could she have ended up plying a different trade on Paris; and could she have ended up in the bedroom of a portly businessmen being sung to sleep with an ashtray?


            “Let’s get it over and done with shall we.”


Jenny was kind enough to provide him with a comfortable chair – after all, he would be there for six hours.  The connection was made with the socket above his right ear, and Eric began the download and installation.


It was seven o’clock before Eric made it back to his room.  He found no surprises there, for which he was grateful.  He had some food sent up, ate what he could, and slept for as long as he could.




“Wake up, Mr Sanderson.”


What a voice.  Why couldn’t he be dreaming of that sweet young engineer.  Jenny had a lovely voice, and her smile …


            “Now, Mr Sanderson.”


Not a dream after all.  The lights were on in his room, and he squinted as he opened his eyes.  There he was, and he still had that horrible smile.


Eric had know this visit was coming, and he knew it would be sooner rather than latter.  At least, he thought, I’m not about to be executed.  Not yet, anyway.  That small comfort was worth nothing when he noticed that the JJE had brought a friend.




The Justice Office had a very different décor to the rest of the orbtel.  It was still French, mind you, but the sort of French the French would approve of.  The furnishings were elegant, and expensive.  Eric wondered how well the position of Magistrate paid.


            The JJE sat behind his desk.  It was large, mahogany and beautiful, and its owner clearly enjoyed it.

            “Do you know what I want you to do Eric?”


            Eric said nothing.  He had a pretty good idea of what it was, but he didn’t feel like volunteering information.


            “I think you do.  But let’s make it quite clear.  You’re going to help me and …” The JJE stopped, and looked to his companion.


            “How terribly rude of me.  Where are my manners?  Eric, this is James.  James does certain jobs here at Justice.  His most important is that he helps me enact sentence, especially sentences that have a certain finality to them.”


            Eric felt was not surprised.  He had already known of James’s ability to enact sentence, even on someone who was not guilty.


            “Do not forget, Eric, that you are currently awaiting my sentencing.  All I need to do is instruct James, and, quite legally, you will cease to exist.”


            This was a point Eric had never forgotten.  But he knew that the JJE needed him alive right now, and he was about to be told why.


            The JJE leaned forward.  “The time for games is over, Eric.  Vicari Mining have a rather large vault.  They need it so large because they will only deal in cash.  It is the rather charming custom of peoples throughout this region:  they want to see the money.”


            The JJE smiled and leaned further forward.  “I want to see the money too, Eric, and you’re going to help me.”


            No surprises so far.  But still, Eric shook his head and did his best to look shocked.


            “How?  Just because I installed the software doesn’t mean I can help you break through it.  There are systems in place to prevent that.  Sure with a low spec system it would be easy.  But this isn’t a cheap system.  This is our top-of-the-line.  I can’t do it, it’s not possible.”


            The JJE leaned back in his chair – that ever present smile still there.  Slowly he clapped his hands together:  once, twice, three times.


            “Marvellous performance.  Truly believable.  Of course, if I did believe you I would simply have one thing to say:  guilty.  James would then enact sentence and we would all be the losers.”


            He leaned forward again.  “But we all know that isn’t the case, don’t we, Eric.  We all know that there is a common fault in all Delwood systems, don’t we?”


            Eric, of course, did know.  All Delwood software had a dirty little secret.  But for some time now he had wondered whether it was truly a fault.  Recent events had made him wonder if it wasn’t a design feature.


            Eric decided that evasion was no longer a useful tactic.  “Brain wave recognition you mean.”


            The JJE looked pleased.  A new smile appeared on his face.  Eric suspected that this was the real deal.  A smile that maybe his mother would recognise.  A smile that belonged to the man, not the monster.


            “Thank you, Eric.  It is nice that the games are over.  Now let’s get down to business.”




The business was precisely what Eric expected it to be.  The three of them were now partners in crime; although, Eric knew, they were very unequal partners.


            Eric made his way to the eighteenth floor.  Mr Elden Richards – soon to be the former Magistrate of the Vicari System – and James left for the space dock on sub-level seven.  As seemed only proper, Elden and James were in no great danger, Eric, on the other hand …


            At four in the morning Eric should not have been able to exit the elevator into the offices of Vicari Mining.  But, Elden, his new best friend, had been kind enough to use the Justice computer to give him access.  Elden had also done him one more favour:  he had provided him with the encouragement necessary to ensure he completed the task at hand.  This had been easy.  On the charge of murdering one pretty young prostitute, Eric had been found GUILTY.  Sentence, DEATH.  Also on record was that Eric was at large on the orbtel Paris and considered desperate and dangerous.  All officers of the law (Krenek’s boys and girls) were given authority to enact sentence on sight.  Of all the incentive plans Eric had ever worked under, this one seemed the most motivating.


            Eric alighted from the elevator into the darkness of Vicari’s small reception area.  There he stood, hoping that none of Krenek’s people were bright enough to guess he might be here.  Eric held his breath and listened.  Listened for other breathing, any movement, any shuffling of feet.  Nothing.  From his pocket Eric produced a small flashlight.  Turning it on he stood and waited.  The light played on a blank wall, but he wasn’t searching for anything just yet.  He merely waited to see if he died.  He didn’t.  But the night, as they say, was still young.


            Get in, get it done, get the hell out of here.  As a motto, this seemed to be the right one for his circumstances.  He quickly located a terminal at the reception desk, unplugged the socket and made the connection.  What he should have seen when he closed his eyes was a simple warning.








            It was a simple message and the one used on all Delwood systems.  His old friend Brian – formerly of Delwood Security, current whereabouts unknown – had been the author of this snappy little message.  It was simple and to the point.  But Eric did not see it.  Instead, Eric was presented with the main menu.


            It was as if the system was saying ‘welcome home daddy’.  In fact, that was precisely what the system was saying.  Brain wave recognition, the backdoor entry to all Delwood systems.  During any software installation – direct from my brain to you – the installer’s brainwave is imprinted onto the system.  Forever the installer had unrestricted access.  This was Delwood’s dirty little secret, even most of Delwood’s employees didn’t know.  The only way to really find out was to try and break into one of your own systems.  Once you knew though, it was surprising just how many opportunities presented themselves.


            Eric cleared all obstacles between reception and the vault room.  All sensors were disabled, all locks were thrown open.  He would need to connect directly to the vault room computer to complete his task, and some protocols had to be overwritten, but nothing he couldn’t handle.


            With the aid of his flashlight, Eric made his way through the offices of Vicari Mining.  He was vaguely familiar with his surroundings, he and the other suppliers had been given a brief tour by Jenny.  The place had been full of people then – busy and efficient – and it had had a certain energy, the kind you get in an office where people enjoy their work.  They had drawn a few curious looks as he was shown around.  He imagined most people knew they were getting their new software, and gave the suppliers a quick look before getting back to work.  Eric noticed that the men paid the most attention to their passing.  This he did not attribute to their greater interest in security issues, it had more to do with his pretty companion.  It was typical of men, himself included.  Put a man in an office with a view of the Grand Canyon and in a month he will not even glance out his window.  Put a pretty girl in the office and for as long as she remains men will invent reasons to walk past her desk.


Eric cleared the main office and came to the outer security door.  Eight inches thick and with dual magnetic locks, it alone cost more that he would earn in his lifetime.  But it was swung obligingly open, and Eric passed through without even slowing down.


Eric now entered the corridor that would take him to the vault room.  It was narrow, and appeared from this end to be about 60 feet long – more of a tunnel than a corridor.  Half way down he passed a small enclave with a small desk and computer terminal.  On the opposite wall was a second terminal; a backup, he guessed.  Apart from these little distractions the corridor was featureless, with pale blue walls and a low ceiling.


The door to the vault room performed a dual purpose.  Obviously, it kept out intruders such as himself – or at least, it was supposed to – but also, since the vault room doubled as a space port, it provided a seal against the vacuum of space.  Eric had not seen the door on their tour with Jenny, but she had proudly described its features to them.  But what did 22 inches of steel and four magnetic locks mean to a man who had the key?  Quite a lot, actually.


As Eric approached the entrance to the vault room his steps slowed.  He did not like what he saw; it was the Vicari Mining logo.  They put that damn thing on every door in the place.  The logo showed an eagle in flight, framed by the words Vicari and Mining.  It was a silly, macho kind of image, but that wasn’t what bothered him.  The problem was he could see it.  The door was closed.


            In his mind Eric went over what he had done on the system.  The locks to both doors were powered open.  This automatically activates the door opening mechanism – even the smaller outer door is too heavy to be moved by hand.  So why wasn’t it …


            Eric listened.  There was a hum coming from somewhere.  What did that mean?  Offices were full of hums, that low level sound technology gives out when it is in abundance.  What he thought of as office background noise.  But this was different, this was the sound of a motor trying to move an object that didn’t want to go.


            Something was blocking the door, that was it.  Just a simple problem.  A chair was in the way, perhaps.  Eric played the flashlight about in front of the door.  Nothing.  No chair, no box of files, nothing at all.


            Eric shone the light on the door itself.  He saw the dull gray paint, the silly logo, and nothing else.  Except …


            Eric hadn’t seen one of those for thirty years.  His father had used one on the tool shed in the back garden.  Even then it was old, no, ancient technology.  For a moment Eric couldn’t even think what the damn thing was called.  Then it came to him.  It was a padlock.  There was a padlock on a door that was 22 inches thick.  There was a padlock on the door that could withstand an explosion that would rip the rest of the orbtel in two.  But worst of all, most horrifying, was that there was a padlock on a door protected by his security system.


In all of his professional life, Eric had never been so insulted.  Never mind the hardware that Vicari Mining had installed to protect their vault.  That was not why they had the padlock.  Oh no; it was not there because they doubted the hardware.  Anyone planning to steal their money by breaking through the security doors would go straight through that lock without even knowing it was there.  No, the lock was there to frustrate someone breaking past the software, and, as hurt as he was, he could see that it was very effective.  Eric told himself that the lock was probably put there because the previous software – that which he had overwritten just yesterday – was of such poor quality (compared to his system at least).  But this was little comfort.  The fact remained that they used the lock again, and right now it was proving to be amazingly effective.


            It wouldn’t take much to cut through the thing.  But if you think you can get through the software, why would you bring tools to get through an old fashioned padlock.  This was a problem.  Hunting for him throughout the orbtel was his old friend Krenek and his assorted uniformed thugs.  They probably had a bet on who would ‘bag’ him first.  Not a handsome trophy, but how often do you get permission to kill a man on sight – oh the fun of it all.


            Outside the orbtel, floating amongst the myriad of transport vessels of all shapes and sizes, was that grinning nightmare, the JJE, and his best pal James.  And here stood Eric, ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’.


Eric made his way to the terminal and hooked in again.  Someone must have a key.  He just hoped he found them before Krenek found him.




Theatre, Eric believed, was at its best when it was about life and death.  This then, was grand theatre, and Eric needed to make sure he got the script right.  After all, the female lead was about to enter.  The shame of it was there was no time to write her in as a ‘love interest’.


            The elevator door opened, and Jenny made her entrance.  Eric had laid the scene out as best he could.  All lights in the office had been switched on, this, he hoped, would reassure her.  He had also pushed over some of the furniture in the outer offices, why this would help he wasn’t sure, but since Jenny was under the impression that there had been a break-in he thought there should be some sign of disturbance.


            Like a true professional, she had rushed down to the eighteenth floor as soon as she had been summoned.  She had taken the time to dress, of course, but by the looks of it, she had merely thrown on the first thing that came to hand.  The dress was rather creased, and must have been what she had taken off before going to bed.  Creases or not, it was lovely.  In spite of the circumstances, even little Eric took notice.


            Jenny came past reception and into the main offices.  There she hesitated.


            “Robert.  John.  You guys here?” She was calling out the names of the other engineers who had installed the hardware, and why not, the message she received had said they were all needed.  Time for Eric to make his grand entrance.  This was his acting debut, and he was more than a little nervous.


            “Jenny, hi.  It’s me, Eric.” Eric came sauntering out of one of the offices near the outer security door.


            “What’s going on?  Why are we here?”


            “Not sure I know.  About 10 minutes ago I received an urgent message saying there had been a security breach and I was needed immediately.  So here I am.”


            This clearly did not help Jenny; and nor should it.  Eric was merely repeating the message he’d sent her.  Of course he’d left off one important part of the message she’d received.


            “Are we the only ones here?” Eric didn’t like the tone in her voice.  She was unconvinced.  He didn’t think she suspected him of anything yet, but she knew there was something not quite right.  Eric moved on to act two of the drama.

            “So far we’re the only ones.  But I expect the others will show up soon enough.”


            “Follow me, I want to show you something.  There has clearly been some sort of breach.  But how the hell it happened I can’t figure out.”  Eric walked through the outer security door and down the corridor.  He didn’t look back to see if she followed.  If she didn’t, his future was most likely as a trophy on Krenek’s wall.


            Eric reached the computer terminal.  He turned, and following behind, looking around suspiciously, and wearing a delightfully puzzled expression, was Jenny – thank God.


            “Watch this.” Eric connected directly into the computer, and immediately the door behind them began to close.


            Eric could hear the surprise in Jenny’s voice.  “Now that shouldn’t be.  What’s happened?  Eric, how did they breach your system?”


            “They didn’t,” he replied, “I did.”


            Eric watched for her reaction.  She had such a pretty face.  During his time with her yesterday, he would steal a glance at her when he could.  True, he did check out her below neck assets as well.  But there was something about her face that kept drawing his gaze.  Now he watched as it registered surprise, anger, then, and saddest of all, fear.  She began to move away.


            “It’s not a long corridor, Jenny.”


            She stopped.  Composed herself, and stood to her full five foot six.  “What do you want?”


            The situation reminded Eric of the little pantomime he had played out with the JJE only a few hours ago.  Everybody knew what everybody wanted, and everybody knew they all knew.  But we deny and look surprised and pretend, simply to make ourselves feel like we resisted, put up our best defence.


            “I want the key, Jenny.”


            Jenny opened her mouth to begin the next round of denials.  But Eric broke in.


            “Jenny, I have access to all the Vicari security files.  I know about the lock.  I know you have the key, and Jenny, I’m the one who sent you the message, the one telling you to bring the key.”


            For a while they simply stood and looked at each other.  Eric wondered what she could read in his face.  In hers, he could see resolve.  ‘He won’t get it without a fight’, is what she was thinking.  Time for the ‘final act’ of this little drama.


            Eric spoke calmly.  “On the far wall is the backup terminal.  Logon and check the orbtel’s security page.  Then leave the key on the terminal, and walk away.”


            She stood her ground for a moment, then reluctantly, slowly, she moved.  All the time her eyes never left him.


            “Back off, Eric.  I’m not taking my eyes off you while you’re this close.”


            Eric disconnected from his terminal, and stepped back two paces.


            “Not good enough.  All the way back.” Eric complied.  He figured she had a plan.  She would use the terminal to send a message, and maybe to disable the system.  In her heart she couldn’t really believe he was dangerous.  That changed after she logged into the system.


            Eric wondered if there was a picture of him on file.  Or whether the warning was simply text, reading something like ‘WANTED, ERIC SANDERSON, CONVICTED OF MURDER, UNDER ORDER OF IMMEDIATE EXECUTION’.  Whatever the message, it worked.  With a hand that trembled slightly, Jenny placed the key on the terminal, and began to back away.  Her eyes never left him, but he could not bring himself to return her gaze.




Eric was finally in the vault room.  He should have been here about an hour ago.  His good friends from Justice would be worried; however, he doubted that they had cut and run.  They would be monitoring the security channels and wouldn’t be panicking just yet.


            The vault itself was an impressive piece of engineering.  Around fifty feet in length and thirty wide, it was secured to the floor by four enormous clamps, each one as thick as his waist.  Apart from the cash inside, the vault itself was worth a small fortune, and Vicari Mining owned two such beasts.  The other was away being emptied at some unknown location.  Payments to shareholders in these outer systems were made in cash.


            This vault was nearly full.  In a few short weeks it would be swapped with its twin.  Well, that had been the plan anyway.  Eric got to work.


            The software he had installed contained various safety and security interlocks.  These were there to prevent him doing precisely what he was about to do.  Even with the unlimited access he had to the software, these interlocks remained in force.  He could rewrite subroutines, but that would take hours.  He had a better idea.  Eric placed the software in test mode.  Meaning the system believed it was back in the Delwood Security labs running pretend simulations.  The system was now as compliant as Crystal had promised to be.  Eric secured the vault room door, protecting Jenny from what was about to happen; he then programmed in the test sequence, and opened the door to the vault.




Eric’s part in this drama was almost over.  He was about to move from main character to member of the audience.  But before that could happen he had one more major scene, and it was the one for which he was least prepared.


            The ‘test’ sequence worked as expected.  After a two minute delay – to give himself time to enter the vault – the locks on the space port door retracted, and the door itself began to open.  From inside the vault Eric could hear nothing of the air rushing out of the vault room, but he did feel just the slightest of vibrations through the vault’s thick walls.  The retraction of the clamps occurred next, and Eric was informed that operation was complete via the onboard computer.  Eric was now free to pilot the vault out of Paris and into the waiting arms of the JJE.


            Eric had never piloted anything.  Mind you, he had done simulations of this exact manoeuvre; and two of the three times he had actually been successful.  He tried not to think about the one time he had failed.


            The vault was equipped with small thrusters at each corner – this baby wasn’t built for speed, just for manoeuvrability.  All he had to do was get it out of the orbtel, and into the hold of the JJE’s ship.  Simple enough, if you know what you’re doing.


            The final part of Eric’s test sequence was activated:  gravity was disabled in the vault room.  This Eric did feel.  Strapped into the pilot’s seat he felt suddenly ill as all his internal organs ceased to know which way was up.


            The vault’s onboard systems were simple to say the least, but did include rudimentary sensors.  Through these Eric was able to see what was happening outside the vault.  He could clearly see the opening in the side of the orbtel through which he had to steer this box.  But through the opening he could see no stars.  Waiting just outside was the JJE’s ship, with its hold open wide.  Eric took a deep breath, and piloted the vault the short distance ‘from the frying pan and into the fire’.




It had been nearly three hours since Eric had ‘parked’ the vault in the JJE’s ship.  Getting out of Paris had been relatively easy; however, the hold of the JJE’s ship was not designed for cargo quite this large, and Eric had scraped the corner of the vault along one wall before setting it down in a landing that was, at best, clumsy.


            Since his auspicious piloting debut no-one on board had attempted to make contact, and Eric had not been eager to leave the relative safety of the vault.  But he expected that by now they were approaching the ‘jump point’ and if something didn’t happen soon, he knew that he would eventually have to face James, who was undoubtedly eager to perform his final official act as part of the Vicari System’s Justice Office.


            Eric made contact via the vault’s short range transmitter.  The JJE was in a rather upbeat mood – after all, he was now a very rich man.


            “Eric, we were wondering when you would join us.  Why don’t you come out.  James and I have been celebrating now for the last hour.”


            Eric didn’t feel like celebrating, he hoped he would later, but not right now.


            “Isn’t that a bit premature.  We haven’t jumped yet.  Isn’t Krenek coming after us?”


            The JJE laughed.  An uncomfortably normal sound from such a man.


            “You needn’t worry about Krenek.  As soon as you opened the outer door we downloaded a virus into the Justice computer.  Their whole system is fried, communications are dead, all external sensors are down.  All Justice Office ships are affected too, except this one of course.  We are safe, Eric, the game is won.”


            This was confirmation of what he had long suspected.  But he needed to be sure, he needed the JJE to say the words.  So Eric summoned his best ‘I don’t believe you look’ and played along.


“That’s not possible.  All Delwood Systems have high level virus protection.  You can’t just download a virus, you would need to know all the Delwood code, you …”


The JJE held up his hand to end the performance.


“Poor Eric.  You have not really understood the game you are a part of, have you?  You see, Eric, Delwood Security is in rather poor shape.  Your boss, and my dear old friend, Alan Delwood, has found it necessary to take additional payments over the years in order to maintain the lifestyle he so richly deserves.  Payments the other shareholders are not aware of.  With the recent fraud uncovered in one of your competitors, the heat has been turned up on Alan, and well, he and I decided to cash in on his retirement plan.”


Eric had suspected all of this.  How else could the JJE have known so much?


“So Delwood built you the virus,” and then with genuine anger, “and sent me here to be set up?”


The JJE laughed again.


“Yes, Eric.  We worked it all out together.  He even told us about your divorce.  He said he didn’t think you’d been getting any even before that.  Crystal, was in fact his idea.  And a very good one, don’t you think?”


“Did he also set up Brian.”


“Yes, he took care of that as well.  You see Brian learnt a little too much about what I was up to when he installed our software.  He made the mistake of letting Alan in on it.  But compared to you, he’s a lucky man.  You see, he’s only wanted for theft.  You my dear boy are under sentence of death.  Now you can wait in that vault until your air runs out, or you can come out and take it like a man.  Frankly I’m hoping you’ll come out, otherwise we’ll have to waste time cutting a hole in the vault once we meet up with Alan.  But that’s not my problem right now.  As soon as the freighter in front of us has jumped, we’ll be going.”


Eric hoped that the freighter up ahead was in no great hurry.




Twenty minutes later and Eric still hadn’t felt that nauseating jolt you get from a deep space jump.  It wasn’t always easy to tell what was happening from inside a ship, but Eric suspected they were cruising at low speed, waiting for the freighter to open a wormhole and jump to its destination.  It should have gone by now.  Eric was very pleased it had not.  He made his way back to the pilot’s chair, and strapped in.  A few minutes later he did feel a jolt, but this time it was the one he had hoped for:  ship’s gravity had been lost, and from the vault’s sensors he became aware that the outer door was slowly opening.  It seemed Eric would have a chance to improve on his piloting skills.




Eric inspected the vault.  There were certainly plenty of scratches in its previously perfect paint job, but there were no dents.  All-in-all, he was quite pleased with himself.


            “Lucky we weren’t planning to sell that.” The voice, completely deadpan, came from behind Eric.


“A little bit of paint and she’ll be as good as new.”


            Eric turned to look at the man in charge of the freighter.  He was taller than Eric, and quite thin.  Although only mid-forties, he looked older, and yet somehow naive, but Eric knew he was anything but.


            “Nice to see you could make it, Brian,” Eric said coolly.


            “Now, Eric, don’t be like that.  I know things didn’t go quite as we’d planned, but we got the vault.”


            Eric was not convinced.  “Do you know what’s been happening?  To me?  To others?”


Brian was defensive.  “Yes, of course I did.  Eric, we knew the JJE was going to involve himself, we just didn’t know how.”


            “SENTENCE OF DEATH, Brian.  SENTENCE OF DEATH.  That’s how he involved himself.”


            Brian smiled.  “Would you like to inform Mr Richards that your sentence has been revoked?”


            Eric nodded.  “Show me the way.”


“Did you have any trouble getting the freighter?” Eric asked as he followed Brian to the bridge.


            “One or two tricky moments.  Transworld were surprised to see me.  Said they hadn’t been informed of any follow-up visits from their software supplier.  But when I told them it was a free service they stopped complaining.  I think I was nearly at the jump point before they realised one of their ships was gone.”


            “So how long have you been waiting out here?”


            “Three days.  I kept in deep orbit around Vicari until my sensors picked up the Justice Office ship leaving dock.  I then headed for the jump point.  I knew you’d be joining me shortly.”


            They reached the bridge and Brian led the way to the main console.  There was only one chair on the bridge.  Most of these freighters were run with a crew of two running on 12 hour shifts.


            Eric looked over the console and checked the status of the JJE’s ship.


            “When did you first interface with the Justice Office system?”


            Brian smiled.  “As soon as I arrived.  I’ve known what was happening the whole time.”


            “So why didn’t you take control of the JJE’s ship sooner?” There was real anger in his voice, and Brian took a step back.


            “Eric, please.  What’s the problem?”


            Eric didn’t answer.  He just had a question of his own.  “Can I control the JJE’s ship from here?”


            Brian explained that after taking control of the JJE’s ship, he had routed all of its functions through the freighter’s computer.


            “Good.  It’s time I gave Mr Richards a call.”


Eric could see the JJE come hurriedly to his console.  “Who the hell are you?  I don’t know who you think you’re dealing with, but …” The JJE’s voice trailed off.  He could now see Eric and Brian in his own monitor.


            “The two of you.  You ….”


            For a moment he seemed shaken.  And again Eric had the impression he saw the man’s real face.  No mask, no Magistrate’s persona.  The real Elden Richards.  But it passed quickly enough.


            “Do you really think you can get away with this?  I’ll hunt you two down.  Do you have any idea what I’ll do …”


            Eric interrupted him calmly, even though he was well beyond anger, his voice never betrayed it.  Hatred, in its purest form, had an oddly calming effect.


            “You’ll do nothing.  Like Brian and myself you are now a wanted criminal.  You’ll have enough to do keeping yourself out of the way of the law.”


            Eric saw that horrible smile return to his face:  the JJE smile.  Eric knew why.  Eric knew that Elden Richards had covered his tracks perfectly, that no sensor on Paris would have picked up that it was the JJE’s ship that took possession of the vault.  The JJE didn’t have the money, but he believed he was still in charge.  Eric allowed the JJE to explain all this to him.  He listened impassively, all the time remembering the two women he had met on Paris:  one was young and pretty and dead, the other young and pretty and believed him to be a monster.  Well, if he was going to be labelled a monster …


            Eric interrupted the JJE for the second time.  “Did she really have to die, Magistrate?”


            Elden Richards stopped and thought about the question.  He shrugged his shoulders.  “What does that matter?  It was necessary.”


            Eric shook his head.  “You know Magistrate, I know you won’t understand, but it matters to me.”


            Eric paused, and took a deep breath.  “Mr Elden Richards and James,” Eric stopped, tried to remember if he knew his surname, then went on.  “I find you guilty of murder.”


            Once again something close to real emotion appeared on the face of the JJE.  James, upon hearing his name, came to the monitor to see what was happening.  Eric faltered.  Could he look into their faces as he passed sentence?  Did he need to?  He tapped briefly on the computer, closing down visual and return audio.  They could hear him, but he could not see or hear them.  Eric completed his proclamation, with only the slightest waver in his voice.


            “I sentence you to death.  Sentence to be carried out immediately.” Eric closed off all communication.  If he was going to do this, it had to be now.


            “You don’t really mean that, do you?” Brian asked, his voice unsteady.


            Eric didn’t turn to look at his friend, and partner in crime.


            “The sentence is fair, you know that.  This is the Vicari System, the punishment for murder, shit, even for attempted murder is death.  They did it, now they pay for it.”


            “Eric, I’m a thief, not a murderer.  I don’t want any part of this.”


            Eric turned to face his friend.  “Too late,” he said.  “You’re already part of it.  If the JJE gets back to Paris and identifies you as my accomplice, then my sentence becomes yours, and in every system you, as much as I, will be wanted for murder.  SENTENCE of DEATH, Brian.  That’s something I’ll carry around with me for the rest of my life, do you want it as well?”


            Brian made several attempts to reply.  But never produced more than a few syllables.


            “Brian,” Eric said, “it might be a good idea to check on the vault.  It should be secured before we jump.  Why don’t you take care of that.”


            Brian didn’t argue.


Eric went to work.  The JJE’s onboard computer wasn’t about to just let him kill its passengers without some resistance.  Any good system – and they were using, after all, a Delwood system – has protocols that prevent actions that would do harm.  But Eric new what had to be done.  Subroutines were overwritten, interlocks were deleted, and door by door, the JJE’s ship opened up.  By the time all outer doors rolled up, and the JJE and James were becoming intimate with the icy vacuum of space, Eric was lathered in sweat.  He stopped working, closed down the program, and sat heavily in the captain’s chair.




“The vault’s secure,” Brian said when he returned to the bridge.  “Everything, … finished here?”


            Eric nodded.


            “Where to?”  Brian said, trying to sound upbeat and failing miserably.


            Eric shrugged, and looked at his friend.  “Surprise me,” he said.




© 2003 by Peter Johnson.  Peter Johnson is an engineer, an economist or a student -- it all depends on which day you catch him. In his spare time -- actually it's the time he should be spending on his PhD -- he writes. When his student days are over he intends to spend more time writing; in the meantime, he fits it in when he can.  Peter has previously published in HandHeldCrime.