Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
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Insider's Report

by Roderick D. Turner

"You've entered the proximal quadrant. Should be able to see it by now." Rick's voice sounded distant and hollow over the Qlink. There was a strange scraping noise, like an anvil being dragged over cement. Maybe he was clearing his throat. "Watch yourself, Bel. You're close."

Belinda continued to gaze dreamily at the vibrant holographic paradise advertised in the travel agent's window. She adjusted her sunglasses, casually, tuning the dual filters further into the infrared and turning up the amplification. They didn't know what to expect, exactly, but there would be infrared scanning beams for sure. "Don't sweat it," she said softly. "You've been working too hard, Rick. Voice sounds a bit strained."

"Yeah, and you've been sitting on your fat ass doing nothing the past two months, right?"

She allowed herself a slight grin. This had been the most intensive mission prep she had ever undergone, both physically and mentally, and her body was at the peak of conditioning. No fat anywhere, or both the mirrors and the scales were lying. Sixty kilos was light even for her, and it was spread judiciously over her one-seventy centimeter frame. The image that looked back at her from the shop window appeared harmless enough, but the baggy knee-length culottes and loose Hawaiian shirt concealed a tight body suit and four slim line pouches. She was not what she seemed.

Satisfied, she turned and set off slowly down the street, gazing innocently about her like the tourist she was meant to be. The sidewalk was busy with look-alike sightseers, and she blended in easily.

"Nothing yet," she said. "Those filters need some tweaking. Sun's screwing with the IR view."

"Quit complaining. Next, check on frequency six in ten minutes. Good luck."

"Hey Rick," she said. "Jan and Tara in position?"

There was a short pause. "No reports yet," he said at last. "I'll let you know next contact."

"You do that."

She forced herself to be satisfied. At least, her reasoning side took it all in stride, but there was a part of her that heard alarm bells as soon as she caught Rick's slight hesitation. Something was wrong.

The district was a tourist haven, a thousand trinket vendors selling anything from candies to clocks, cheap plastic models to glass ornaments, the latter hand-made in full public view. There was no mistaking the landmark, Milan cathedral squatting like a massive stone alligator dozing in the bright morning sun. Its tall spiny spires stretched skyward, poised high above the vast open piazza, watching quietly as the throngs of tiny ant-like visitors swarmed about its feet.

It was a distracting image, ideal for diverting attention away from other activities occurring right under its very nose. Belinda scanned the street, both sides, her head moving slowly as if to take in the sights. Behind the glasses her eyes made rapid searching sweeps. In this sunshine, the infrared sensors would only just pick up a signal from across the street, and even that very faintly. Several times, she was fooled by light reflected off car bumpers, and once by the polished brass sign over a shop entrance. CASA D'HUOMO VECCHIO, it read, 'house of the old man': an interesting name for a business, well-suited to Milan's Old World atmosphere.

She reached the end of the street, stood for a moment frowning up at the great gates of the cathedral. There was a soft beep from the Qlink in her ear and she fumbled with her necklace, twisting the appropriate bead to connect on channel six.

"...you been, Belinda?" Despite the distortion of the link, she could sense the tension in Rick's voice. "You should have checked in five minutes ago."

"I figured you'd call me. Besides, I had nothing to report."

"Knowing you were still around would have been nice," Rick said. "The other controllers have hit dead air. We can't raise Jan or Tara."

"Doesn't mean anything. They could have walked into a low signal area. You know how easily the Qlink signals can be shielded out by metal structures. Hard to detect but easy to block, right?"

"I don't believe it, and neither do you. There's nothing in that whole area that would block our signals for long if the transmitter kept moving. They've been off line for over half an hour. They'd at least have sent a status chirp over regular COM bands."

"So what's the story? Are you telling me to abort?"

"We don't have official word yet, but the three of us figure you should--"

"I'm going looking for them," Belinda replied. "Where was your last contact?"

"Belinda, it's--"

"Just give me the damned positions."

She saw them then, cruising along the edge of the square, cool and relaxed. Professionals, of course. The woman tall and slender, with a Disneyland sun visor and Mickey Mouse spread-eagled across her tight T-shirt. Her companion slightly shorter, a brick of a man wearing a Baltimore Orioles tank top and matching cap.

"...streets east of you, about half a block south. You get that, Bel?"

"Give me it again. The closest one only."


"I got company. It's OK, just make it quick."

"Jan was closest. Last location five blocks east of you, half a block south."

They were about sixty meters away now, straight east. Walking hand-in-hand, chatting happily, occasionally glancing about them as if taking in the sights. Not the only couple doing the same, but the only couple with the poise and gait of extensive training. They never once looked at her, but Belinda knew instinctively that they had her targeted.

"I'm on it," she said. "Watch my trail, and be ready for quick entry on channel eleven. I'm counting on you Rick."

She checked her watch and feigned surprise. Then she turned and headed back the way she'd come, moving fast. As soon as they reached the corner behind her, the nice American couple suddenly put on speed and took up the chase.

Belinda's mind raced. Where there were two, there would be more. Simply heading east to the site of Jan's disappearance would likely be disastrous. She decided her best bet was to keep scanning as she went, looking for any sign of a guarded or protected entry. The complex was vast, so there would have to be multiple entrances.

She crossed the street at a trot, her pursuit keeping pace about fifty meters behind. Several heads turned as she passed--nobody in their right mind jogged in the blazing heat of the noonday Italian sun. About half way down the block, she saw it, this time unmistakable. The CASA D'HUOMO VECCHIO's sign was not just glinting in the sun. This close, the entire entry glowed feebly, and the sign's lower edge shone a dull orange.

She mounted the steps in two quick leaps, touching channel eleven on her necklace as she did so. "Give me a tone, Rick," she said. "I've got maybe ten seconds."

She stood facing the doorway and waited, rigid. Out of the corner of her eye, she followed the movements of John and Jane Brick as they elbowed their way through the crowd towards her. Five more seconds and they'd....

"I'm in, Bel," Rick said. "Forward through the entry arch and turn right."

The infrared signature of the sign was gone. She strode under the arch and, ignoring the beautifully carved wooden door in front of her, turned right into a small alcove ending in a solid stone wall. "Rick?"

"Walk through. It's open."

She closed her eyes and stepped forward tentatively. A moment later, she was in a vestibule with a sliding metal doorway ahead of her. "My pursuit?" she asked.

"Already taken care of," Rick replied. "The IR scanner is back on, and they'll be locked out for at least a minute. You got metal ahead of you, so I'm only accessible through the complex computers, but for this moment, nobody can see you." There was a pause. "You sure this is wise? The alarm'll be raised the second your pursuers get inside. Maybe before."

"As if I have a choice," Belinda said. She stripped off her tourist garb and stowed it in one of her pouches. Activated the holographic generator at her collar. An entirely new person now stood in the vestibule. Thirty seconds.

"Seal this chamber when they break through, Rick. See if there's an intruder arrest system, and use it. I'm going to need time." She pulled an embossed plastic card from a pouch under her arm and strode forward to the doorway. "Is my pass card valid?"

"Cleared. Security check on the other side of the door, Bel. They're offline, but move fast. I’m in chat room 77. See you in Virtual."

Belinda pressed the card against the logo to the right of the door and it slid open silently. She stepped through, heard it close instantly behind her.

Two uniformed men stood a few meters ahead in front of an open metal arch alive with infrared. Beyond the arch, an empty corridor stretched as far as she could see. The guards raised their pistols and one of them touched a COM panel on the wall beside him. He turned to look at it, puzzled by its lack of response. It was her cue.

"Deanna Maravo, Internal Affairs," she said. Belinda’s heavy French accent concealed her poor Italian. She strode forward, both men recoiling under her withering glare. "Put the guns away. I don't take kindly to being threatened by idiots."

Her body suit was restricted government issue, rank insignia of Marshall prominent on the left breast. She flashed her card across the scanner, giving the nearest guard a grim smile.

"My apologies, Marshall," he spluttered. "I was--only following standard procedure."

"I suggest you learn the rank symbols before your next shift." She pocketed the card, waited while the archway barrier faded. Then she moved confidently forward into the corridor and found, as she had expected, that it was not as it had seemed from the other side. She stood in a richly appointed waiting room, reception desk on the far wall. The rugs were Persian, the paintings high quality copies of Italian Renaissance masters. A man and a woman, neither in uniform, eyed her curiously from a couch beside the entryway. The receptionist didn't even look up.

There were short hallways to left and right of the reception desk, each leading to elevator banks. Belinda took a guess and headed for the left elevator group, hardly breaking stride. The receptionist, she noted, was painting his nails a curious green. He remained engrossed in this meticulous task as she passed him.

She chose an empty elevator, stepped inside, inserted her card. The doors closed. She took off her glasses and stowed them in a pouch.

"Automatic elevator forty three at your service. Please state your destination." The computerized voice generator was an old model, slow and spastic in its word formulation. Belinda winced.

"Cafeteria," she said. Always a safe bet. The elevator began moving down. She gave it a second before she ordered it to stop.

"Network voice link," she told it. "Interactive bulletin board." It was the agreed upon connection. The bulletin board allowed voice message posting for verified users, along with secure Virtual Reality chat for multiple groups. She accessed chatroom 77.

"Bel. You're on the wrong elevator. Should have taken the other bank."

"So I guessed wrong. Shoot me."

"That might be easier than you think. I've plotted your course to the Records vault, then to Artificial Intelligence. Put your storage card into the readout slot and it'll download."

Belinda obliged. The card had a miniature display and when she'd completed the download, it showed a map-like maze of corridors, her location marked by a winking blue dot.

"Where from here?"

"What's the elevator's destination?"

"Cafeteria. I was hungry."

There was a muffled chuckle, then a pause. "You're in luck. The cafeteria is common to both wings. When you arrive, get to the other bank and ask for Public Relations--that'll be down. The card's map will guide you from there. Once you're on track, I'll have the surveillance cameras blink for ten seconds just before they go into loop mode. That should set your pace. I don't want to divert them for more than thirty seconds each or a good security witch'll get suspicious, so your window’s going to be tight."

"What about alarms and interlocks?"

"I've got the matrix downloaded, but I'll have to deactivate things manually as you go. It's too complicated to program in the time we have. Doesn't look too bad, though. I'm up to it."

"You better be. I'm out."

She disconnected, re-started the elevator, and requested security.

"Security central. What's the problem?" The controller was narrow-eyed and thin-lipped, giving his nose the appearance of a small beak. His voice and bearing suggested utter contempt. Belinda was pleased to note a slight widening of his eyes as he saw her across the link.

"This is Deanna Maravo, Internal Affairs. Get a crew to work on elevator forty-three immediately. I placed an outside call and got jammed here for a good minute. This piece of crap should be replaced. Make sure you tell the maintenance department I said so."

Beak-face nodded obediently. If he could have crawled on the floor and groveled, Belinda thought, he would have. "It will be done, Marshall. Is there anything else I can do for you?" He grinned at her, the movement contorting his face into an unnatural mask.

"Smirk at me again like that and I'll have your balls," she said. "Maravo out."

The elevator service screen indicated arrival at the fifteenth sub-level, the cafeteria. Belinda stood directly in front of the doors. When they opened, she drove her way forcefully through the small throng of employees crowded around the elevator entrance. They gave way as she passed. It was an essential part of the image.

There was a distinctly nauseating stench like a blend of sweet incense and rancid grease. Belinda ignored the stares that followed her as she entered the cafeteria. She bought bottled water and exited to the second elevator hallway. There were again several people waiting, but most got into the next elevator going up. She had only one companion on the downward trip, an older woman with a rank of senior technocrat. She eyed Belinda with distaste, but remained silent. Yet it was not the woman's appearance or scrutiny that unsettled Belinda--it was her destination. She got off at the twenty-fourth sub-level: Internal Affairs. Belinda hesitated momentarily, then followed.

The woman turned to face her the instant she realized Belinda was at her heels.

"You needn't bother checking," she said coldly. "I took a standard lunch break."

"I'm sure. Where can I find the Marshall?"

"In conference, probably for the rest of the day. What do you want with him?"

"It's none of your business. Where is he holding this conference?"

The woman gestured toward a receptionist's desk. "She'll tell you. When she gets back from lunch."

Belinda gave her a contemptuous glare. "I don't have time for bull. Nor am I in the mood to be lenient with technocratic insubordination. If you don't know where your Marshall is, show me someone who does. Now!"

The woman sniffed and looked down her nose at Belinda. Then she spun abruptly and moved off through the maze of office dividers, arriving at last in front of a door marked 'Invigilator'. She nodded her head towards the door, and then strode back into the maze.

Belinda could see the Invigilator through the window beside the door. She was hard-linked to the network, lost in full VR. Belinda opened the door quietly and slipped into the room, silently closing and locking the door behind her. She ran her hand gently across the control for the blinds covering the window, screening the office from outside view. Then she withdrew her only weapon from its long thin pouch on the inside of her right thigh, adjusted the projectile selector, aimed it at the Invigilator's back--and fired.

There was a soft hiss. The targeted woman grunted as the dart struck her in the neck. She raised a hand to the injury, and then slowly dropped it again.

Belinda moved forward and knelt beside her. "An urgent call has just come in," she said softly. "You have to disconnect."

The Invigilator nodded and terminated the interface. She made no effort to remove the Virtual Reality headgear.

"Take off the VR unit and turn around."

The Invigilator was a shrewish woman of about forty with a permanent frown etched into her forehead, a frozen pout on her lips. She had a solid build, with firm shoulders and arms--a lifter, Belinda thought. Now under the influence of the dart she sat calmly in her seat, staring straight ahead. Belinda plucked the dart free of her victim's neck, smiled down at her. This one was perfect.

"We will have a short conversation, after which you will decide it is time for a good workout at the gym. We will leave together and you will go straight to the weight room. You will tell nobody where you are going. Stay there for at least two hours. After your workout, you will feel refreshed and renewed. You will return to work and remember nothing other than the workout."

The Invigilator showed no indication of having heard her. "Confirm," Belinda said.

The Invigilator repeated her instructions, word for word.

"Good," Belinda said. She removed her data storage card from its place at her belt and activated the holographic scanner. Aiming it at the Invigilator, she walked slowly around her, holding the card about fifty centimeters from the woman's head. The scanner beeped, indicating a successful scan.

Belinda took her spare holographic field generator from its hip pouch, transferred the new image into it. She clipped the generator to the other woman's collar and turned it on. Instantly there was a blur, a brief wavering of the air about her head. Then the Invigilator sat as she had done before--but the generator could no longer be seen.

Satisfied, Belinda reached through the holographic field and shut off the generator. She returned it to her belt, took the Invigilator's ID card from its pouch, and helped the woman to her feet.

"We are ready to leave. Behave as you normally would. You are in a hurry to get to the gym. You must have forgotten your ID card in your office."

Belinda led the way to the door, unlocked it, and held it for the Invigilator. The other woman nodded as she passed, waited for Belinda to close the door, then locked it with her key.

"Thanks for your help," Belinda said. "I'll see you later."

They each went their separate ways. Belinda traced her route back to the elevators and took an empty one. She requested Public Relations again. This time, she went there.

She followed her storage card map along several hallways, moving slowly to wait for Rick's signals. He deactivated the security cameras just ahead of her, adjusting their normal cycle only slightly to leave her a clear unmonitored passage. It took her five minutes to get to the Records vault. She gave Rick twenty seconds to work on the access lock codes, then inserted her card. There was a sharp beep and the door swung slowly inwards.

She walked forward into a small Plexiglas chamber, the airlock. Through a small window she could see that the room beyond was about ten meters square-- encased, she knew, in meter-thick steel. There was a woman in the room, her attention fully focused on a small computer display. The airlock door behind Belinda sealed and the inner vault door swung aside. She scanned the walls quickly for security cameras. All inactive--Rick had promised her two minutes. A glance at her watch, then she moved inside.

The woman at the terminal looked up briefly as Belinda entered. Belinda acknowledged her, walked quickly around the perimeter of the room studying ID markers on the storage sub vaults. Each sub vault would be individually security coded and contain upwards of two thousand high-density storage keys. Within seconds, she’d located the one she wanted, almost directly behind the woman. She inserted her access card, took under thirty seconds to decipher the security code before the sub vault sprang open. Her trainers would have been proud.

Belinda slid out the inner drawer, scanned the neat rows for the target keys. There were two, each three centimeters in diameter. She continued an apparent search as she fitted them into her thigh pouch.

Belinda checked her watch again as she closed the sub vault door. She had another fifty seconds--it would have to be fast. Deftly she drew her dart pistol from its pouch, adjusted for knockout payload, and fired at the other woman's back. The target slumped forward almost immediately. Belinda put her gun away and reached up to her collar. She shut off her holo generator, removed it, and attached it to the collar of the woman at the desk. She did the same with the removable Marshall's insignia, transferring it to sit over top of the technocrat symbol already there. Deanna Maravo's ID card went at the woman's belt, and Belinda pocketed hers. Then she hauled the woman to her feet and lay her in an awkward position on the floor, one arm outstretched. She pulled one of the storage keys from her pouch, dropped it beside the outstretched hand. Finally she fished out the spare holo generator with the newly-acquired Invigilator's image, hooked it to her own collar, activated it, and stepped back from the sprawled body.

The cameras came alive five seconds later. The security squad arrived within another minute.

"She came into my office with a request to interview some of my junior staff. I was suspicious, so--I followed her here." The voice sounded good, she thought. So far, the security sergeant seemed convinced.

"She passed through the west gate about an hour ago," he said. "Our scan indicates she held a conversation on the IBB from an elevator. Outside line. I'll have it traced." He looked sidelong at her. "We're checking her ID now. What made you suspicious when she was in your office?"

"Nobody ever tells Internal Affairs the truth. We have to be able to read people pretty well."

"I suppose you're right. Listen, we'll follow up and let you know when we find out more. We'll need you to come down later for a full report." He glanced at the storage key in his hand, then up at her. "You wouldn't happen to know what's on this, would you?"

"Sorry. I'm not an IS expert. I guess the code will tell them quickly enough, but it doesn't mean anything to me."

"Information Systems are always too busy fixing problems to check things like this. I'll get our Marshall onto it." He held out his hand. "Thanks for your help. We'll be in touch."

Belinda nodded and left. With any luck they would be hours discovering that the storage key contained the schematics for their VR field generator, and even longer figuring out they'd had two copies on file, not just one. If the Deanna Maravo holo generator stayed in place long enough, she would have plenty of time. If.

Belinda followed the course laid out on her storage card. She descended another four floors and at the security door produced the Invigilator's ID. They waved her through into AI division without a second glance. Now all she needed was one look at exactly what this thing could do--once recorded, it should help her tech team construct an equivalent instrument.

Belinda's map indicated her arrival. She was in a large laboratory dominated by what looked like a cylindrical water tank about three meters high and a meter in diameter. On closer inspection, she could see racks of circuit cards radiating outwards from a central column inside the tank. The VR generator. It had to be. Several lab-coated technicians prowled the room, checking monitor readouts and making verbal entries into control interfaces. She headed for the nearest VR hookup. This was her chance to see what the thing was really capable of.

None of the technicians seemed even to notice her as she sat down. She inserted her stolen ID and plugged a blank data key into the headset to record the online session. Then she hooked up, put on the headphones, and settled the Virtual Reality headset down over her eyes.

A wave of vertigo swept over her as the blackness closed in. She became gradually aware of a faint background noise as of someone shouting in the distance. Then suddenly she was standing on a brightly-lit street, looking into the window of a travel agent's shop. There was an incredible holographic display, a tropical paradise with sparkling sandy beach and aquamarine water. Waves ran in foaming crests up onto the sand, coconut palms lending a dreamy shade to the scene.

"You've entered the proximal quadrant," Rick’s voice said. "Should be able to see it by now." The words sounded distant and hollow. There was a strange scraping noise, like an anvil being dragged over cement. Maybe he was clearing his throat. "Watch yourself, Bel. You're close."


2015 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: In his own words, "I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Breach in November 2014. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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