Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Value of Records

by Frederick Rustam



The chameleonic killer known to his associates in the Guild of Assassins as "The Disposer" drove onto the manicured grounds of the Palace of Mirrors with his customary self-confidence. As the driveway required of all visitors, he semicircled the ornamental pool which was stocked with exotic water birds whose wings had been clipped to prevent their escape. The superstitious assassin viewed this as a bad omen.

He turned onto the service road to the tradesman's entrance. He was disguised as a grocery deliveryman, and he expected to penetrate the palace, overpower his security escort, quietly kill Emperor Nerang, then escape unscathed.

Instead, he was rudely yanked from his vehicle, bound, and frog-marched to the palace's sub-basement, where he was placed in the custody of the Emperor's chief interrogator, a man widely and accurately known as "Dr. Pain." Pain was a homely hunchback with dirty fingernails, bad teeth, and yellowing gray hair. His anticipatory smile was enough to coagulate the blood of an ordinary man. He regarded the assassin as if he were a side of beef.

"We've been expecting you, Disposer. I've already diagnosed your problem. You need immediate surgery.... Do you agree, Your Majesty?"

The elderly, corpulent Emperor, resplendent in his powder-blue palace uniform, stepped from behind a visitor's partition and held up a hand. "I want to question him, first."

Visitor

When the annunciator chimed, the Archivist switched his monitor screen to the video camera outside his room. The ordinary-looking visitor seeking entry flourished a file folder. The Archivist keyed the door intercom. "Yes?"

"A file for the archives, sir."

"Enter." A button push opened the heavy sliding door to the sanctum sanctorum. The visitor quickly stepped inside.

Archives was a large room filled mostly with shelves for storing boxed paper records which had been scanned and indexed for computer manipulation of their texts. Additional space was occupied by the computer equipment which digitized the records. The room was located in the palace basement near a stairway that led to the sub-basement dungeons.

The Archivist was a wrinkled, elderly man with a Father Time beard and rheumy eyes. Garbed in a quasi-monastic robe of office, he sat supremely at his console and peered over his reading spectacles.

The door closed with a thunk, and the visitor approached him. "Sir, this file is..."

"...What Dr. Pain wanted to know about you, Disposer. Master torturers like to research their victims. You escaped his clutches pretty quickly, though. In what condition did you leave him, if I may ask?"

The assassin smirked. "Sprawled on the floor in his bloody white lab coat, his throat slashed from ear to ear with one of his own 'implements.'" He added, "Nerang was there too, but he left before I could dispose of him."

"Amazing."

"How did you people know I was coming to the palace?"

"A tip, plus some research, for which the Emperor paid plenty. I sent that file copy you're holding to Pain a week ago. I was reviewing it again to refresh my memory when you buzzed my door. I guessed you might show up here if you escaped from the sub-basement."

"Have you sounded an alarm, Archivist?"

"Nooo. You'll be safe here for awhile."

"Oh... why?"

"Because I propose a slight change in your mission parameters. You're still going to dispose of Nerang. But you're also going to kill his minions hereabouts, all in an instant of holy fire."

"Interesting. But aren't you one of Nerang's 'minions'?"

"Of course I am. Have a seat, my boy." He gestured to his visitor chair.

The assassin sat, uneasily. Can I trust this old fool?

"Relax and put on your thinking cap. You're going to nuke this place, and I'm going to show you how to do it."

Plan

"You've got yourself a nice little cubbyhole here, Archivist. It'd be a shame to destroy it."

"I don't care. I'm old and tired. Tired of serving Nerang's information whims. Tired of seeing him grow more secure by murdering his enemies, real and imagined. I'm ready to go, and I want to take him with me."

"Okay. So where's the nuke I'm supposed to use?"

"Nerang's a stickler for record keeping. I have to index and store every little piece of paper he sends down here. But that's how I know he keeps a doomsday bomb in a secret chamber on this floor."

"He sent you that info?"

"Not exactly. Records he doesn't want me to peruse, he encrypts. But most of the stuff he sends down here is routine and unencrypted."

"Stuff like...?"

"Contractor paper." The Archivist brought up a record on his monitor. "Like this bill for unusual work done in a janitorial closet." The Disposer arose and moved around the desk beside the Archivist to view the record.

"You're certain that's where the nuke is?"

"This contractor's bill shows that special radiation shielding material was added to the walls, ceiling, and floor of an unspecified 'storage room.' That's the bomb chamber, secreted behind the movable rear wall of the closet."

"How am I supposed to access and arm the bomb? I'll need codes."

"The codes you'll need are here, straight from Nerang's office." The Archivist's blue-veined hands crept slowly over his keyboard. Another record appeared on the monitor, and a copy was printed for The Disposer.

"The Emperor sent me an encrypted backup copy of the bomb's arming codes. But what he encrypts, I decrypt. The encryption program I gave him has a 'master-key' backdoor he doesn't know about. When I press a certain keyboard combination, his almighty secrets appear as if by magic."

"Before I accept this mission, I'd like to know more about why you're so fatalistic."

"I didn't shed a tear when a youthful Nerang swept into our village with the old Emperor's thugs and hanged my father from our Meeting Tree. I quietly marched off with the other captives. He evaluates his slaves, and he learned that I was self-disciplined and had good language skills. His former Archivist had learned too many of his secrets by then, so the Emperor apprenticed me to the old boy. When I'd learned enough archival tech, Nerang garroted him and put me in charge."

"Then, I guess your neck's in danger now."

"My replacement is training at Capital University. Nerang thinks I don't know that, but I managed to get a copy of the kid's academic record. It's not exactly outstanding."

"You've been planning the death of your master for a long time, haven't you?"

"Since the day he killed my father and slaved-out the rest of my family to his vicious supporters."

The Disposer's smirk returned. "Well then, I guess that's all we need to know."

"'We'?" The Archivist's eyes narrowed.

Surprise

The assassin reached to the console and keyed the hallway door. Emperor Nerang stood in the open doorway. Clipped to his collar was the receiver for the bug that he'd planted in Archives. He'd used an earphone so that his two bodyguards couldn't hear the nasty things his Archivist was saying about him.

The tyrant was elated by the successful outcome of his clever operation. "You did what I wanted you to do, and you did it well, Disposer. You've earned your freedom. Go forth and sin no more... as if I care."

"I should have guessed." mumbled the Archivist.

"You're too intellectual for your own good, Waldo. I've always suspected you of harboring revenge. You've become as superfluous as your predecessor. I don't want you showing your replacement how to learn my secrets."

The Emperor ordered his bodyguards to remove the Archivist to the sub-basement. "But sir..." They hesitated to leave him alone with The Disposer.

"It's alright. Take him downstairs. We mustn't keep Dr. Pain waiting."

The Disposer stood aside as they pulled the Archivist to his feet and pushed him out into the hallway. They didn't bother to bind him; he was a weak old man. As they moved toward the sub-basement stairway, one of his captors sneered, "This is the end for you... Waldo."

"Actually, it's the end for your boss." The Archivist nodded backward. "That's my guess."

The bodyguards turned at the sound of The Disposer running back down the hallway in his ninja sneakers. They released the Archivist and raced back to the room where Emperor Nerang was now archived with his records. They found the tyrant draped over the visitor chair, his neck broken and his head at a very odd angle. They wasted time checking to see if he was still alive. When they returned to the hallway, neither The Disposer nor the Archivist was in sight.

Escapes

Behind the weak beam of his penlight, the old man moved as fast as his arthritic knees could bear him through the cramped tunnel that led well-away from the palace. He was in an unused waste conduit about which a record still existed in Archives. No one but the Archivist knew about it. Nerang had killed one too many of his knowledgeable personnel.

"Records never forget," the Archivist proclaimed to the welcoming darkness. "Never."

####

In the secret chamber behind the janitorial closet, The Disposer slid open the cover of the doomsday bomb's control pad.

I can do this.

After he keyed in the code for a slightly-delayed detonation, he lay supine on the floor to savor the last seconds of his existence. He knew that escape from the palace was now impossible. As he relaxed beside the device of his impending destruction, a troubling thought occurred to him.

Will there be any record of what I've accomplished? There should be. I've done something that's--

THE END


© 2011 Frederick Rustam

Bio: Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant who formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of Defense. Now, he informally studies information science. He so appreciates the value of records that he archives and indexes his own. He has yet to write the ultimate information science short story, but one of his most recent attempts, Where Dreams Die, appeared in the March 2011 issue of Aphelion.

E-mail: Frederick Rustam

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