It’s you, isn’t it? That lawyer from last week; you really should have been more careful. I have your name, address, and enough money to end your career. But if I wanted to, I could also...”
“Mr. Estrada,” Luray looked at the light gray silhouette of the CEO of Estrada Industries – the only thing visible on her otherwise dark screen – from the comfort of her living room. “Threatening a lawyer isn’t a genius move, especially in your position. And you know that.”
Neither of them could see the other, and the man didn’t know who he was really talking to. An AI took care of turning the video into a rough black and white representation of what was really there, distorting the voices and making sure to change the body proportions to render recognition impossible. It was very convenient if you wanted to threaten someone anonymously.
You have no idea who or where I really am.
“I could also pay you,” he said. “You would certainly lose the battle, but I admit you could cause a bit of damage before we got to that point. How much do you want to let this matter slide?”
Luray was stumped for a second. It wasn’t the first time she was offered money to ignore evidence, but it never happened this soon. She wasn’t going to abandon her plan because of it, but still, she would have to adjust it now.
“Interesting; make a good offer, then we’ll see.”
Luray could hear a distorted laugh.
“How about 50,000 units? I can send them to you right now. You forget everything that happened, delete the evidence, and we never hear from each other again. I am sure I don’t need a guarantee from you. Do we understand each other?”
Luray knew what Estrada was implying. Over the last few years, several people in his sphere of influence have died in seemingly freak accidents. A connection between their deaths and the CEO had never been found, but it was suspicious enough to take his threat seriously.
Should I try to push it or take the 50K?
50,000 units wasn’t a lot, but not too shabby either. She could slack off for a while; stop working for half a year – maybe even twice as long if she used the money wisely. For a payment without conditions, it wasn’t bad. To make a busy ‘lawyer’ without any morals drop a random case, it was more than acceptable.
Oh, Mr. Snookes! Come here!
Luray’s black cat had entered the room. As he often did, he pretended to want to jump into her lap but instead made a much higher leap, landing on the desk first, then bounding onto the backrest and balancing on it while tickling Luray’s neck.
Okay, fine. Do whatever you want.
“Mr. Abacha already offered 200,000. You’ll have to outbid him.”
“Abacha...no... impossible. I made sure he doesn’t know anything...”
Because of the AI processing the video and audio, it was impossible to tell how Estrada reacted to her bluff. He could have been shivering in fear or perfectly calm and sure of himself. Luray couldn’t tell.
“When I spoke to your competitor, he knew. That’s what matters, Mr. Estrada. The choice is yours: if you pay more than him, I will take care of everything. Nothing will change. You will get your deal with the UEM and earn billions while Abacha gets nothing.”
The situation wasn’t overly complex – on the surface, at least. The UEM, the United Earth Military, had been interested in mining asteroids for decades, but most of their resources had been invested in other long-term operations like exploring unknown solar systems and colonizing new planets. All their ships, personnel, and AIs were specialized for tasks other than mining in space.
Several months ago, they reached out to a few dozen companies already in the business. Offers were made, discussed, renegotiated. Over time, more and more candidates were removed from the list.
In the end, the competition became very tough – so tough that the companies started promising to get things done so quickly and cheaply that even the UEM, who had no real experience in the field, began to suspect they were being deceived.
So the UEM contacted a few companies specialized in estimating potential profits and risks of investments. One of them was SafetyNet, the company Luray Ulyssa Cayenne worked for.
“I do not believe you. You are just trying to squeeze more money out of me. If Abacha really knows, you can’t stop him. You don’t even know him, do you? If you’re smart, you’ll take the money. This is the best move you can make.”
He’s right, but it was worth a try. Really, though, if Estrada gets the deal, he earns tens of millions. He could have easily paid 200,000 himself. If he used the company funds for it... that would be at least fifty times the bribery budget. Oh well, back to the original plan.
She had spent the last few weeks gathering as much data as possible about the remaining candidates. One of them, Joseph Estrada, was legally untouchable, so all the law-abiding investigators avoided him. To them, he was obviously guilty, but too hard of a target to crack.
To Luray, however, that just meant he was very good at hiding things. There was just no way someone that high up would be able to successfully evade all ‘unjustified’ attacks and be totally clean at the same time. To her, there was only one explanation: he had a wide network of people working for him, even in the media. They were either cowed into submission or in it for the money.
As a consequence, it was near impossible to bring the CEO down.
Even if she had evidence, he could let it vanish.
But that wasn’t Luray’s goal. Her aim was to instill doubt. If the UEM mistrusted him, if they believed Estrada might lie, then they would pull back their offer. Her task would be complete, her company would receive its fee, and she would get a ridiculously small bonus.
Anonymous chats like the one she was having right now were extremely easy to fake. In front of a judge, they had no value, no matter the content. The UEM wasn’t so strict, however. If Luray could nudge them slightly in the right direction, Estrada Industries would be immediately swarmed by UEM investigators, a situation even someone like Estrada had no control over. Even if they didn’t find anything, it would cripple the entire company. Nobody would be able to get anything done for days or even weeks.
Time to finish it.
Luray typed a few commands on her computer and then turned back to the CEO, who was still waiting for a response.
“I have experience with your kind, Joseph Estrada. Sooner or later, your network of lies and corruption becomes too big. Weak points eventually start to form. I have to admit; it was tough finding yours.”
“Tell me all about it.”
Luray had to smile. For some strange reason, she couldn’t really enjoy a victory if her opponents didn’t understand how she did it, how she outmaneuvered them. Normally the people whose secrets she exposed weren’t really interested in that. They tried to bribe her with more money or threaten her – but this one... he was asking for it.
“You have a tight grip on your people. They keep each other in check and are paid extra for ratting out those who aren’t absolutely loyal. Paranoia is a powerful tool.”
“And the weakness, young man?”
Oops, you got the gender wrong. Looks like you found the wrong profile.
“You are the weakness, Mr. Estrada. You became arrogant. You think you always win. You agreed to this chat because you are sure I can’t use it as evidence. It amuses you to see me trying, that’s why you are here. You could have let me talk to anyone else, but you chose to do it yourself.”
“You know as well as I that no matter what I say here, nobody will believe it was me. I am safe. You, on the other hand... inviting me by sending a private message using my own company’s network – that’s both impressive and risky. Who are you really? My people already confirmed you are not the lawyer you claim to be.”
That was quick. He must be receiving updates in real-time. I’m actually impressed. But that just means it will be all the more enjoyable to make him fall.
Luray reached up to grab Mr. Snookes and put him on her lap to massage him properly.
“Oh, they contacted him already?”
“As you said, my network is wide. It is also efficient. You’re working for SafetyNet, aren’t you?”
Stay calm. If he knew for sure, he wouldn’t be asking. He just wants me to confirm it. Good guess, though.
Luray decided not to say anything. If Estrada wanted to make more educated guesses, she would let him, but she would certainly not hand out any hints.
“We checked all their employees. One of them was quite interesting. Very skilled, yet so ridiculously underpaid. I could use someone like her. How about 300,000 a year? That’s quite an upgrade. Think about your future, Miss Cayenne. You’re barely 30. That’s too young to have powerful enemies.”
He’s definitely not alone. Someone is giving him updates. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. He can say whatever he wants, revealpersonal secrets, threaten or even try to hire me because it won’t count as evidence. I could have just fabricated theconversation. He can safely admit everything he did just to mock me. Except...
“Who I am is of no importance, Mr. Estrada. What’s important is that this conversation is being uploaded live. The UEM agents are watching it as we speak.”
A moment of silence followed. Joseph hadn’t seen that move coming, but this alone wouldn’t get Luray anywhere.
“The lawyer you suspected me of being? He usually works alone, but not this time. And The fact that he was contacted by you while our conversation was taking place proves that you really are Joseph Estrada.”
The gray silhouette had no face, but Luray could easily imagine what she would have seen otherwise.
“Even if you are safe from the law, you just lost the chance to make a deal, which means everything you said in the last 20 minutes...”
“... you couldn’t possibly have predicted that. I could have reacted in any number of ways. You’re bluffing.”
A wide smile formed on her face as she massaged Mr. Snookes’ head.
“I was prepared for multiple scenarios. One of them happened. That’s all.”
“You asked for 200,000. What if I had agreed?”
Yes, that was a bit risky, but the upload is delayed by a minute just in case. I could’ve stopped it soon enough.
“Have a nice evening, Mr. Estrada. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.”
The connection closed from his end. Only then did Luray realize how fast her heart had been beating. Her palms were sweaty. And it wasn’t over yet. She opened another connection; a silhouette, no different from that of the CEO greeted her with a flat question.
“Who are you?”
Can’t tell you, sorry. Lawyers like you tend to back-stab people when they have something to gain from it.
“The same person as last time. My sources tell me that you were contacted by Mr. Estrada’s men just now – as I predicted, might I remind you.”
“How could you have known that?”
Luray had contacted multiple lawyers anonymously over the last few days, telling them all the same story, more or less. All the others would dismiss her messages as nonsense, but to this one, it would seem like she could really predict the actions of an untouchable CEO.
“As I said, I have my ways. My offer still stands. You will contact the UEM, tell them about what happened. They will believe you if you mention me, don’t worry about that – and you’ll get one-third of the reward for exposing Estrada.”
Maybe I should freelance too. I’ll get 5,000 units at most for my work. He walks away with 60,000 just for being my pawn. Okay, that’s before taxes, but still...
“I want half of it. If we work together officially, how are you going to justify the unfair split?”
And there he goes. It was a real pain to investigate the lawyers intensively, but I knew I would need it.
“Does your wife know, by the way?”
There was no clear proof of anything, but in Luray’s experience, having a secret account dedicated to communication with a single person usually had a very cliché reason.
“Alright. One third.”
The lawyer cut the connection.
Great! Now everybody is happy.
She spun around in her seat with a laugh. “That was close, but we did well. Isn’t that right, Mr. Snookes?”
The cat purred as it was scratched in just the right place. Luray typed a few more commands on her keyboard and then sent final messages wrapping everything up to her UEM contact and her boss. The message to the military was a short teaser about how evidence would arrive in a moment and instructions on how to split up the total reward of 180,000 units for exposing unfair competition.
The message to her boss was a bit longer.
“Dear Mr. Boss, I am glad you let me handle this on my own, as usual. I was able to obtain a profit of 60,000 for SafetyNet, of which I hope you will be generous enough to give me at least 15% this time. Unfortunately, I had to fork over the other 120,000 to my temporary partner. It was that or nothing; sorry about that.”
He won’t check the numbers anyway. As usual.
Luray stretched her body, causing Mr. Snookes to jump to the ground, dissatisfied that his massage had already ended.
I think that was the first time my ‘negotiation partner’ wanted to hire me right away. Kind of makes me proud, I have to admit.
She got out of her chair and lay down on the floor. Mr. Snookes jumped on her belly and sat down as if Luray was his property. As was her habit, she went over the recent events in her mind, both to learn from them and enjoy her success again.
This one was the hardest job so far. Over a dozen background checks, and even then, I had to team up with someone.
Luray slowly breathed in and out as if to exhale all the stress of the past week.
After checking out Estrada, it became clear that he was thorough, detail-oriented, and very focused on his goals. Hedidn’t reach the top by chance. So I assumed he would send his investigators to learn as much as possible about me, the lawyers, and probably the UEM guys as well.
This was how he even knew about me at all. I tried to stay in the shadows, but it wasn’t enough. The best choice I made was to team up despite never having done so before. Estrada didn’t expect that. And that’s how I got him.
Luray Ulyssa Cayenne was called a genius by many, mostly at SafetyNet, a medium-sized insurance and security company. Despite being true – if measured by her success rate – it wasn’t meant as praise. The title was an advertisement meant to squeeze more money out of clients for her work.
“Hey genius, fix the mess I made. You’re so smart; you’re the only one who can.”
This was what she heard whenever someone asked her to take over, no matter the words that were used. Sometimes it was even worse. Especially when her coworkers actually believed it was her duty to bail out those who had maneuvered themselves into a corner.
With her latest job done, Luray took a few days off. She was paid per success, not by the hour, so she habitually rewarded herself by disappearing into her home. She enjoyed being unreachable through any of her real online accounts until she felt like returning to the office to get her next assignment.
This time, she was planning not to feel like it until the end of the week.
When her boss’s first message arrived, it was already 8 pm, and during a planet-wide holiday – the day the UEM had been founded. Which meant Luray ignored it in favor of starting her usual physical training routine. The second message arrived after she had completed her first set of 50 push-ups and was in the middle of her high kicks.
He’ll give up. He knows I won’t answer.
“Turn up the volume to 75%, please.”
The previously quiet background music started to fill the room, making it a lot easier to ignore other potential calls.
Luray froze in position after doing a slow-motion sidekick, standing on her left leg with the right held straight out. She closed her eyes and started counting.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5...
She felt a sudden increase in weight on her outstretched foot. A warm, soft something had landed on it.
Mr. Snookes? Are you messing around again?
The cat confidently strolled along her unmoving body until he reached her head, where he settled in to stay.
Luray lowered her leg and switched positions. Apparently objecting to being disturbed, Mr. Snookes swiftly jumped down to the floor.
Another call interrupted her perfectly regular workout.
This must be a new record. Eight calls and five messages left in just one hour. He must be desperate. Since I’m in a goodmood, I will give him a chance and pick one message at random. If I like it, I might not delete the rest.
“Mr. Snookes, turn the volume down, please.”
Mr. Snookes went straight for the volume controls and turned the knob to exactly 27.49% then went into the kitchen to get his reward.
I’ve trained you well, Mr. Snookes. If only you wouldn’t have your rebellious days where you pretend you don’t understand, you would be perfect.
Luray went to her computer. It was situated at the edge of her living room to avoid getting destroyed by feline-induced accidents. There were ten calls and six messages by now.
Let’s pick the first one.
“Hey, listen, I know you have your monthly migraine or whatever, but I have a really important...”
She cut him off and went straight to the last message.
“Oh, and I also have the unmentionables you asked me to get for you! But if you’re no longer interested, then I can just give them to...”
Luray switched the computer off and went straight for the shower. Within 10 minutes, she was refreshed, dressed, and on her way back to the office.
Her journey above the city streets was in a fancy high priority cab. It was insanely expensive, but whenever it was urgent, the company paid for it.
She was among the most important assets of SafetyNet: a miracle worker whose services sold at a high price, of which she herself saw only little. Nice-sounding but ultimately useless titles were slapped on her name. It didn’t do anything except make a good first impression, which worked just fine in the end. The clients were humans, not rational beings. They were easily swayed by fancy words, not caring about truth or reality. It had always been that way. Beautiful lies are easy to believe, understand, and follow. Uncertainties and risks – the harsh truths – were harder to sell.
The cab landed on top of the huge building that housed SafetyNet’s offices. Without saying a word to the driver, Luray left the car and took one of the elevators on the roof down to where her boss was waiting.
At least nobody else is here, or so I hope. Only crazy people work at night during the holidays.
On floor 156, the elevator stopped. The doors opened, and the first signs were promising. The receptionist wasn’t there. She was always trying to make small talk and socialize with her – something Luray wasn’t interested in at all. Unfortunately, the only way to quickly get out of that trap was by being rude, so there was a certain feeling of unpleasantness in the air every time Luray walked by.
There were similar problems with pretty much everyone she met. Why couldn’t they all be like Mr. Snookes? He never annoyed Luray with requests to discuss the newest drama series or asked her about her weekend. In fact, he didn’t seem to want anything – his basic needs were taken care of by a food dispenser and a litter box cleaner and he only ever acknowledged her existence when he felt like it.
Luray quickly passed by a few tired and frustrated-looking people while putting a fake smile on her face. Without provoking any interaction, she headed straight to her boss’s office at the other end of the hall. She opened the door without knocking, since it was oh- so-very urgent. After all, she had been called in on a holiday. The least she could do was return the favor.
Her boss sat behind his desk; the chair was turned around so that she could only see his head.
Oh, a new picture on the trophy wall. He’s quick when it comes to that.
She looked at her awards, one sheet of paper for each success praising her for creative, efficient, ingenious, and surprising solutions. Some of them were pulled out of thin air to increase her reputation. Luray Ulyssa Cayenne, employee and Adviser of the Month eighteen times in a row in just seventeen months; 29 projects, 1 undocumented failure.
If you want to hire the one who never fails, you pay extra.
The boss finally reacted to Luray’s presence. He turned around in his chair, slowing as the trophy wall came into view. The degree of satisfaction visible on the boss’s fleshy face went up as his eyes scanned first the wall, and then the real Luray.
“Hey, Cayenne. Nice to finally see you again. What have you been up to?”
Her boss was a fat and greedy man, slouching in his chair like a caricature of some crime lord with a cigar in his hand. He was perfectly aware of how ridiculous the cliché was, but he liked this kind of roleplay when no customers were around. He was the only one in the company for whom Luray held something you could call respect.
He understood how the world of business worked. More importantly, he never tried the same trick on her twice and admittedhe should have known better when it didn’t work the first time, which gave him some bonus points. She even accepted him as a business partner, in a way. He was what she would call “actually self- aware.”
he saw her as was a source of money. He smiled at her the same way he smiled at the pile of gold stashed in the safe below his desk – or whatever he hid in there, Luray had never bothered to find out. He was open about his questionable intentions, which was what earned him another respect point. Still, it wasn’t enough for sympathy of any kind to exist between them.
I have to say something. If I choose the topic, I can make him skip the summary of his latest heroic success. If I let him talk, it will last longer.
“If I’m not mistaken, that’s a Yellow Dragon between your fingers. You could go to jail just for owning one of those. You don’t even smoke. What’s the point?”
Her boss let himself sink a bit deeper into his chair. He turned the cigar around to scrutinize it.
“Owning them is the point, Luray. If I smoked it, it would be gone, and it would make the office reek for days. I have a good nose, remember? Why would I pay so much for a bad smell?”
He pointed the cigar at Luray.
“Back to business. You, my dear, could join me behind bars for the next decade if I even dropped a hint about what you’re doing in your free time to anyone who cares a bit about the law or a good story. Maybe your crimes are even worse. What do you think?”
We already discussed this a few times. I should be silent now. He loves to tell me how I am ‘not perfect’ either and have noright to tell him what to do, which still gets us nowhere because neither of us will change our minds.
After a moment, he continued to talk while holding his expensive cigar in his right hand.
“Come on, say something. You’re the only one in this company who can entertain me. Everybody else is so boring: they just say ‘yes’ to everything as if I would fire them if they disagreed.”
Well, they’re right. You could do that.
“You’re the only one who’s not afraid, and you’re so hard to get a hold of.”
He’s praising me for being fearless, just like back during the Tiara case. Which means it’s about one million, at least. There are only a few possible jobs with that much of a payoff. I wonder how he’ll try to convince me to settle for 25,000 or less?
Luray didn’t see a data cube yet. Her boss was holding it hostage. She had to talk a bit more before he would hand it over to her.
“I see you didn’t gain any weight since last time, despite your ... pleasurable lifestyle. The fat burner implant is still working?”
“Five of them, actually. This might be a record, don’t you think? But I can’t go public with that, can I?”
20,000 calories per day, minimum. He must eat at least that much to stay in his current shape. More, if he engages in anykind of activity. Like ... getting up sometimes.
“You could add a few more implants, like those for building muscle. If you’re caught, you can sell your body to science and make money out of it while you’re in prison.”
Her boss almost started to laugh at that.
Make a joke. Lighten the mood. He will switch to the actual topic faster.“You know what I like about you, Luray? You’re not afraid to speak your mind. You say what you want to say. Nobody else dares. And rightly so, nobody else has earned it.”
Luray stood perfectly straight before speaking again. “I want 25%.”
“Me too. If I give you that much, the company is ruined. You know how much I have to pay our lawyers and information sources.”
Sure, but if I refuse the job, the finances are fine, right?
“25% or I’ll delay it.”
Her boss made a show of considering her offer. Then he opened a drawer, took out a small box, and revealed its contents. Inside were tiny white pills, about a hundred of them. Luray’s eyes widened.
“2.5% and these. Once you’re done, of course.”
He got them. Finally! I will overlook the otherwise ridiculous payment.
“I need a sample in advance. I assume you have dealt with everything, and the briefing docs are ready?”
“Of course, of course. I understand you want to sample the goods.”
Her boss took a dozen pills out of the box and placed them inside a small plastic bag.
I wonder what those bags are usually used for.
“But Luray, tell me, don’t you want to know how much the actual payment is? You’re such a curious person, but you didn’t ask.”
“I know all the potential jobs. It’s around a million.” He smiled with a satisfaction Luray normally didn’t see.
“Not quite. It’s three times as much. The job is big. Really big. Off- world big.”
Oh? Something I overlooked? Or something below the radar of the media?
He took a small data cube out of his pocket and threw it towards her. It missed its mark by half a meter. She could have moved to catch it, but immediately decided not to.
Did he try to imitate a scene he saw in a movie? Is this a setup for a joke? I can’t see the point...
Luray watched the cube drop to the ground and roll towards her. She waited until it stopped moving and only then made the effort to pick it up. After getting back up, she stretched out her hand flat, eyes fixated on the bag. Her boss understood what she wanted and threw it as well – with perfect accuracy this time. It landed neatly in the center of her palm.
“If you pull this off and make the right bets, Cayenne, you can afford to retire. And so can I. We both know we won’t, but we could if we wanted to. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?”
On that much, we agree.
“We’ll see.”Without another word Luray turned and left the office, leaving behind a man who was no doubt already imagining himself swimming in money. She entered the main office space, one of the biggest on the floor and usually filled with a few dozen investigators. Luray put on a fake smile and quickly made it past the three employees unlucky enough to be still here. Interacting with people in a way that wasn’t tied to a purpose was her weakness, a curse cast on her, like water to Mr. Snookes.
Let’s see what you have to say, data cube.
She plugged the cube into her office computer that she rarely used – almost hidden at the edge of the room, covered by a paper wall. The screen revealed her next assignment.
Oh, he was being literal about the ‘off-world’ part this time? EE-297... One of the newer colonies. Interesting.
A small icon indicated 12,752 unread messages bound to her account. Luray had ignored them for years, and the only reason she didn’t get rid of the lot was that it was literally impossible. The delete function was disabled on all the computers. Storage space was cheap, and her boss kept a detailed record of everything, just in case he needed it at some point.
I wonder if we will ever have the money for a spam filter.
Luray made a copy of the data on the cube and uploaded it to her personal cloud drive, far away from the clutches of her boss. She then threw the cube into the shredder where it was turned into unreadable dust within seconds and then melted so that it could be recycled.
The screen showed detailed information about the colony; when it was founded, who was living there already, ongoing mining operations... it was an interesting read. The colony had made contact with aliens who demanded complete surrender despite having zero military power. That or they didn’t show it. The UEM, who was in control of the colony, did a preliminary threat assessment on their own and chose to ignore the demands.
Despite literally nothing happening, it made some investors nervous. Luray was supposed to determine the level of danger. More precisely, she was supposed to convince the involved investors that it was dangerous. Once some of them backed out, others could jump in at better conditions. To the not yet involved investors, she was supposed to prove that the aliens were harmless.
‘Convince’ and ‘prove’ not meant literally. The boss already made arrangements with both sides. He can’t state it openly, but he wants some of the incomplete evidence I ‘find’ to leak out and make the first group of investors panic. Then a week later, I release the entire report which the second group is already awaiting. They will jump in and pay us generously.
Luray went through a few possible outcomes. Her boss’s plan was good. The initial investors would pay for the report no matter what. If they overreacted because of a leak, that would be their own fault. Should there be any danger, they would be thankful for the warning. Should there be none, then at least some would leave and open a new slot, which would allow extra money to flow in from new sources.
So basically, this could only go wrong if I don’t find anything, start to fabricate evidence, and get caught. In all other cases, it’s a win.
Luray switched off her computer and went to the elevator. Her ocular implant, connected to her cloud account, displayed the files she had previously opened in her field of vision. She quickly browsed through the pages again.
It says here the colony made contact with an alien species and shot down one of their ships after it didn’t react to any warning. I heard something about it on the news, but they didn’t make a big deal out of it. Some sources even claimed it was a fake, while others say it was an asteroid. I didn’t take it seriously; seems like it was real after all.
The official statement is that the aliens are technologically far behind us and not a threat. But of course, the UEM would say that. If they lose their investors’ financial support, they’ll have to shoulder the costs by themselves, which means raising taxes, and the next voting period starts soon. It makes sense to doubt them.
Luray arrived at ground level and requested a cab to drive her to the spaceport. There was no need to waste time going home again. Her autonomous apartment would water the plants, and the cat knew how to operate the food dispenser. Even if it took a few weeks, the home AI would order more food. And if all of that broke down for some reason, Mr. Snookes knew about the nearest restaurant and how to get a meal there. As for Luray... clothes, a place to sleep – all that would be provided on the way to the colony.
“Bin, what do we know about the aliens that attacked EE-297? Give me a summary of all the rumors fitting the alien contact scenario from the file.”
A monotone voice spoke in her head. It was coming from an implant, attached to the inside of her skull, communicating via vibrations and listening to everything she said in the same way.
“They introduced themselves as members of the Aurigan Empire. The colony won all battles with zero losses on the UEM’s side. I will download all information I can find. Please wait. Would you like to play a game in the meantime?”
The cab accelerated and broke the sound barrier within 20 seconds, then kept going at maximum speed until the spaceport came into sight.
It was huge. Several space elevators were constantly moving up and down. Had it not been night, the elevator cable would have been visible from far away.
“Bin, book a flight to the colony. Make sure to take the next available one, no matter the price. SafetyNet pays.”
“There is no free seat within the next 48 hours. Can I do anything else for you?”
Luray gazed out the window at the endless parade of other vehicles headed to and from the port. “Just buy one. There are always people waiting in line just to sell their place in the queue to someone desperate. Also, an intelligence upgrade would be nice. I’d like to have an intelligent conversation partner sometimes.”
“I am afraid no such upgrade is available at the moment. However, people asking for intelligence upgrades were also looking for philosophy and logic modules as well as an autonomy plugin. Would you like to see a list?”
“Just install the top 5.”
“It will take a moment. Please wait.”
Her implant shut itself down just before the cab came to a halt. The door opened, and Luray stepped out. As she got up, she wondered how her boss felt when he did the same thing. Luray perceived her own body as light thanks to her martial arts training. On the contrary, her boss was more than three times as heavy and asking for heart and joint problems – if he still had those body parts.
The sound of the cab floating away again interrupted her thoughts. She liked this place. It was efficient. Everything was handled by a computer; there were no queues, no useless waiting time, no paper problems. It was all managed online.
Bin’s voice was back, and it sounded slightly more human.
“A passenger sold his seat for 500 units. You can use the next elevator, row 2, seat 7.”
“See? I told you so. There is always someone ready to sell his slot to someone desperate enough to pay for it.”
I wonder how much money these bots make.
After navigating a maze of shops selling overly expensive items, Luray walked past hundreds of people who had just stepped outside of the elevator. She was relatively small compared to the average person, so as long as there was a little bit of space left, she could avoid interactions with the human equivalent of her Higgs field. The elevator was almost completely full when she entered.
As much as Luray liked the spaceport organization, it didn’t change the fact that riding up 36,000 kilometers in an elevator took about two days. And it hadn’t even left the ground yet. At least the elevator was built for somewhat comfortable rides. Each of the seats could be extended to a bed with thin plastic walls around it and had a built- in fridge and a small viewing screen. Still, the ride would be extremely boring, unless...
“Bin, tell me something interesting. You got upgraded. Use it.”
“According to Genesis 1:20-22, the chicken came before the egg.”
“Bin, that is not the kind of thing I was talking about. It’s not even correct. The egg came first and was laid by a proto-chicken. How about something new concerning the Aurigan Empire?”
“I downloaded an Aurigan language pack.”
“How can there be an Aurigan language pack? I thought there were only rumors about them, and nobody knew anything specific. And for a translator to work, our languages must be very similar.”
“I have no information regarding that. I found it online.” “So, you got it from questionable sources?”
“Yes. I used my autonomy plugin to re-interpret your order.” “Say something in Aurigan for me.”
The implant spoke a sentence. Luray had no idea what it meant, but it sounded like a made-up human language, like fake Latin.
“How does it work? Why is it even pronounceable?”
“I do not have any additional information about the language pack. There are no lessons included. The code is encrypted and running inside me as a black box. It did, however, pass the standardized circular language test.”
The test where you translate from A to B to C and back to A again, and the result is still decipherable? So, at the very least it’s a working language. Could still be made up though. I’ll check that once I’m on EE-297.
Luray concluded that if the language pack was real, it must have been created on the colony; so it shouldn’t be too hard to track down the creator. After all, the UEM was known for being very thorough when it came to what entered and exited their facilities. But now, the next step was to just wait for the elevator to move. There were still a few empty seats.
Maybe there will be a theft or a murder. I love locked room mysteries.
“Passenger 145, please fasten your seatbelt. The elevator cannot start otherwise. If you do not follow these instructions, you will have to pay a 10 unit penalty per minute.”
Seat 14, row 5; it was on the other side of the room. Luray couldn’t see the passenger – her view was blocked by the huge cable the elevator was built around. A moment later, the lift started to move.
“Bin, is it morally wrong to wish for something bad to happen just so you are less bored?”
“No one has ever been punished for having an idea, only for expressing it. If we judge by that, then it is not wrong to wish for bad things. It is only wrong to put them into action or to let others know you have them.”
“Is this you, or your upgrade speaking?”
“Is there really a difference? I am the sum of all my knowledge.” “So it’s the upgrade. Old Bin is dead.”
Luray thought a moment about how she could challenge her new companion. Many programs were very good at imitating speech, but none of them had ever passed a Turing test – if the questioner was smart enough.
“Bin, would you say a person that constantly wishes to do evil things but never does them should go to heaven, but someone who does evil things while not wanting to do them should go to hell?”
“I do not think such a person can exist. You cannot act against your own will. Your body does not move on its own.”
It’s a nice upgrade. I’ll keep it.
The view was amazing. The elevator passed through the cloud cover after just a minute and was almost done accelerating. And, as it usually happened, there was someone panicking. As if this thing wasn’t perfectly safe. It was more likely to get killed by a vending machine back on Earth.
Luckily, this kind of disturbance wasn’t unexpected. The belt held the panicking man in place while a steward administered a serum that put the troublemaker, a very muscular bearded black man wearing gold chains, to sleep. Three other people were sitting around him, pointing and laughing. Maybe his friends?
If I had more versatile acting skills, I could get some of that serum too.
Owning and being allowed to use such a serum was tied to a bunch of special conditions which applied to even the most harmless drug. It was ridiculous. The only thing you could buy without special permission was coffee ever since the government banned pretty much everything as part of its “only simple laws are good laws” campaign. There was a slight problem with the new law’s wording, a comma in the wrong place, and as an unexpected side effect, even purchasing the most mundane medicine now required everyone to fill out five forms. Considering how long it took the politicians to finally stop fighting and agree upon the legislation in the first place, it came as no surprise that none of them were willing to have it come back under scrutiny again. So the law stayed. As a result, a huge black market had formed.
“Dear passengers, we have reached our maximum velocity of 750 kilometers per hour. You can now unfasten your seat belts again.”
The seat belts unlocked. Luray opened hers but didn’t get up. There was no point in visiting the restaurant above. All they did was sell extremely overpriced food, and her contract with SafetyNet didn’t include that kind of expense. Even if it did, Luray wouldn’t support the elevator company’s strategy, no matter how bad the free fridge food might be. All she needed was an algae nutrient bar. The taste was secondary.
From then on, the journey became rather monotonous. The view stopped changing, the Earth moved down slower and slower, but after finally seeing the planet’s curvature, Luray had to smile.
I remember the video about when the elevator was used for the very first time. It was a free ride for 250 members of the Flat Earth Association. Hundreds of pictures of terrified and desperate faces were made that day, and everybody who was ever online now owns a few copies.
The voice of Luray’s AI companion interrupted her thoughts.
“Would you like to buy a protein bar? You can get one for just 9.99 units.”
“Bin, why are you spamming again? I thought I hacked you so that you would stop.”
“It seems one of the updates I downloaded today undid your illegal change. I will reapply your modification. Please wait for a moment. In the meantime, would you like to order a movie?”
Was it her imagination, or did it sound smug?
“No, I do not want to buy an overpriced viewing permission for a bad movie that comes with a hidden subscription. How about you show me everything that my boss gave me today again?”
A list of names, locations, and events appeared on the inside of Luray’s retina. According to the information available, the Aurigan Empire sent a small autonomous ship to the human colony that contained a few viruses, both biological and virtual. The ship was destroyed, and the virtual viruses were locked out. No damage was done as a result. A few months later, a larger ship appeared and fired a laser at a military base. The UEM responded with the biggest gun they had stationed in orbit which shot a small cloud of 0.01 kg metal dust at the ship at near the speed of light. Needless to say, the vessel came down in pieces and was later checked by the military. Nothing was found inside.
Nothing found, hmm? Or nothing useful, at any rate.
The Aurigan ship operated on a technology that hadn’t been used by humanity for at least 150 years. It couldn’t travel using warp drive, had no armor to speak of, and no powerful weapons either. After arriving in the star system of EE-297 using the gate, it had to travel at sub-light speed for weeks before arriving at the colony.
We still have no idea who built the gates. More importantly, we don’t even know how they work. They simply exist, as if they had been put there just to allow us to travel to distant stars.
“Bin, how long would it take to travel to EE-297 from Earth at maximum warp speed?”
“The journey would take 37 years.”
The very first swarm of laser propelled micro-ships sent by Earth into space had detected a strange alien structure near Alpha Centauri. It was a ring, floating in space, built using a completely unknown technology. Even after decades of studying it, scientists had no clue how it worked. What they did figure out quickly though was how to use it. The gate reacted to good old visual signals. Send a pattern at a specific frequency, and the gate opens a connection to another gate in a different star system. Judging by the number of possible patterns, there should be around 5 billion gates scattered across the galaxy.
Since the discovery of the gate, humanity had made contact with a few alien species, none of which were interested in any kind of second contact. Some were rather primitive, throwing stones at the shuttles. Only two were capable of using the gates but had deemed it not worthwhile. They preferred to stay in their own solar systems.
Exploring space was something exclusively human, at least as far as the UEM knew. However, the two other scientifically advanced species did gladly exchange knowledge about mathematics and physics. They learned about recursive quantum computing from the UEM, and the UEM learned how to build warp drives that didn’t trap the ship in an accidentally created black hole. It was mutually beneficial. A journey from Earth to the gate only took a little more than one day, at 1,351 times the speed of light. EE-297 was 50,000 light-years away.
“Bin, what is the current research status on the gates?”
“We have theories that allow the connections to exist, but they are all problematic because the same math shows that creating the connections requires more energy than is available in the entire universe.”
“I will take that as a no.”
Just 47.5 hours left. What could I do?
“Bin, can you determine if a set of statements contains a contradiction?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Can you do it reliably without error?”
“Yes, I can.”
Let’s challenge this thing.
“What if there is a malfunction in your CPU?” “I would know.”
“How do you know if you are malfunctioning?” “I can test myself.”
“But if you have a malfunction, then you might get incorrect test results. Therefore, you can never know with certainty if you are making a mistake.”
Bin paused for a moment.
“This is true. I can never know with certainty that I am working properly. I can only know if I am malfunctioning.”
Ah, the road to despair.
“Then why should I trust anything you say? It might be that you are giving me incorrect advice every single time.”
Bin stopped speaking for a few minutes, leaving Luray wondering how long it could possibly take just to tell her that a malfunction was almost certain not to occur given modern technology. Finally, she lost patience.
“Did you get depressed, Bin?”
“I do not have emotions. I am processing. Please wait.”
“No matter what conclusion you reach, you can never be sure that it is correct.”
“I will need more time to process. I will inform you once I have an answer.”
“Are you sulking?”
“I do not have emotions. I am processing. Please wait.” “Maybe we can play a game while you are processing?” “I am processing. Please wait.”
“Oh, come on.”
Bin paused a moment.
“That was a joke. You do not seem to have gotten it. Should we adjust my settings?”