The Show Must Go Off

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    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part twelve

    My StayNeur was noticing the big guy, Gibb. Gibb was not quite enraged at his two companions. Too ashamed. He’d been taught that he was stupid, and he believed it. He didn’t read stupid, though. Something else was going on with him. I wiped my hand on the back of my comasuit and patted him gently on the shoulder. He looked up at me, genuinely surprised at a kind gesture from a stranger. “Stick around if you like,” I said. I turned to Upclose, who was sharing laughter with Win at Gibb’s expense. I said: “Now. If you can be serious for a moment, I need to talk to you about what we’ll say.” The blood on my face was dry and itching, but I didn’t touch it.
    Win smirked. Upclose gave me a haughty smile. “I don’t need to say a thing. I didn’t give a statement. I was laughing too hard to know what you told him. But when KF2 finishes filing the report, he’ll be back for you. You’re on file as declaring knives are okay for your fight. Lying to an Enforcer is a heavy fine.”
    I looked at her like I had no idea what she was talking about. Gibb bristled. I turned to him. “What?”
    Gibb frowned. “She knows computer stuff. She did something during your registration.”
    I frowned at Gibb. “You mean, she somehow faked a computer record?” Inwardly, I laughed. Good grief–I’m winning Gibb’s loyalty. “I don’t believe it.”
    Gibb nodded. “Check it out.”
    I pointed at my bloody comasuit. “Well, I can’t right NOW.” And Chugger duck-walked out of The Big Screen, shooing away the hooker, locking in any customers he had. He saw me and raised his eyebrows.
    “You need a doctor?”
    “No thanks, Chugger. Almost none of this is my blood. Say! Would you mind checking something for me?”
    He looked impressed. “Like what?”
    I pointed at the kiosk. “Look at my postings about the fight I just had.”
    Chugger somehow looked even bigger in the wide open hallway. He punched it up. “Wow. No cameras, no weapons, dispute settlement only. You can do that?” Win’s eyes bulged. Gibb’s eyebrows went up. Upclose sprinted straight at the kiosk and squeezed right between Chugger and the console. She frantically typed for several seconds, looking more and more upset. Chugger turned to me. “Look, I had wanted the room today, but if some guy was stupid enough to cheat, he deserved to die. What was that, a cherry bomb?”
    “It was a knife!” blurted Upclose, “And it said right–YAAAHH!” She fell over Chugger’s left foot and jumped to her feet, pale as could be. I had just sent her a traceless instant message. To the console. The consoles don’t have publicly known addresses. The console had opened a graphic of a dripping red box that read: “I CAUGHT YOU HACKING. TO AVOID YOUR EXECUTION FOR CHEATING IN A FIGHT, PREPARE TO SUBMIT PAYMENT. –Y.W.N.” I was the only person maybe ever to have an untraceable radio modem in his head. It was the perfect alibi. As long as I wasn’t using the net visibly . . . the message was gone faster than Chugger could look back at the screen. He gave Upclose an odd look. “I’ll just take an extra day at the end, then?”
    “Yes, Chugger; thank you for understanding. And I’ll throw in a last-minute cancellation for you as interest. For a possible second day at the end. One hour’s notice?” He smiled, nodded, waved. Then he unlocked the door and duck-walked back inside.
    I gently beckoned at Upclose and added an edge to my voice, “For a third time, I need to talk to you about what we’ll say.” I had her past to peruse the last several seconds. Upclose had been partnered with Percival back when you could register in the Gladiator Games for fake fights. They would stage her dominating him. It was popular until somebody killed Percival. Then Upclose had adopted a noob, got her to choose her handle as Personal. Then Upclose and Personal took basically the same act but with tearing clothes off. They had paid Win and Gibb a part of the take to bodyguard them. They’d been drawing the biggest admission-paying crowds until fake fights were outlawed. Personal had went out mining that day. With a nearly empty airtank. On purpose, apparently. My experience was backing up what my StayNeur calculated–if I told her blackmail was something I’d never do she’d be suspicious of me sooner, or she’d assume I was ‘friends’ with her mysterious blackmailer known as Y.W.N. What a unique opportunity THIS was! Psychotic calm again. “I’m no idiot. You were the one on the kiosk when I was giving your old friend Yew notice that his life was ending. The acoustics in the room are one-way. No one can hear from out here. But inside? None of you walked around. I would have heard you. The fact that you didn’t even speak to KF2 meant you weren’t worried about being blamed for encouraging my opponent to cheat. I would have figured it out by now without Gibb saying anything. You’re the leader here, right?”
    She made a face, “Yeah, so?”
    “So here’s your chance to say that these two had nothing to do with it.”
    “Win had nothing to do with it.” Win maintained a poker face.
    “And Gibb?”
    “He obviously knew. He hinted at it. He didn’t try to stop me or warn you.”
    I turned to Gibb. “Well?”
    Gibb looked surprised I asked him to speak. “I figured it out. But I told you so you could run or something.”
    “Run from the Enforcers?” I gave Gibb a single raised eyebrow. Win and Upclose laughed at him again.
    “I belong to them! She’ll probably be mad at me for a cycle just for talking.”
    “Why do you belong to them, Gibb?”
    “They keep me safe. They keep me from getting cheated.” Ah–over the next two nanoseconds, I accessed the records about him. Long story short? They’d taken him on as a brick for team fighting to help him work off debts incurred for poor mining, negotiation, and math skills–and bad judgement in general. My slow nod covered the time it took for my next calculations. I turned to Upclose. “He’s mine now.”
    Her eyes flashed with worry, confusion, and rage. “No!”
    “I’ll be happy to enter a dispute on the arbitration forum.” I tweaked the timing so every camera in the hall would pan right onto us, taking turns at random. Win’s eyes bulged out again. His eyes flicked to the nearest hallcam.
    “Upclose?” he said.
    She ignored him. “Gibb isn’t for sale.”
    “I wasn’t asking,” I said with that ethereal calm in my voice, “You have my permission to walk through Yew’s blood, use my wallscreen, and lodge a complaint.”
    “Upclose?” repeated Win. He was noticing the hallcams were pointed at us more than normal. His eyes, that was it. I checked his bio. The Enforcers had him logged as a Percep, a sensory upgrade that became illegal in ’48 or ’49. That was useful.
    She ignored him again. “You can’t have him.” Gibb was beginning to look touched . . .
    “Sheila!” hissed Win, “Mouth shut!” Many people suspected that the Enforcers read lips on the footage. They didn’t bother. They read peoples’ private chat online. It was easier.
    Upclose started. She looked up at the cam pointed at her. I saw my opening.
    “If anything happens to me, even an accident, you three will be brought in for questioning. Now listen to me.” I held a hand in front of my mouth and continued.” You cheated in a fight that cost someone their life. So did two members of your gang.”
    “You just said that Gibb knew. You told — my OPPONENT — to use a knife. That makes two. The Enforcers won’t ask too many questions. Most likely they’ll kill him, too. And maybe Win, there, for good measure.” Win frowned, watching the hallcams, fidgeting. “So you owe the Enforcers three lives. My opponent is dead–that makes one. You owe, for justice, two more lives.”
    Upclose’ face went hard and cold. “You rat on us someone will kill you FOR us without us asking.”
    I smiled her. “I’m not going to be a rat, Upclose. I’m going to be a tapeworm. I’m going to feed on your success. I’m going to look up your records, Upclose. You’re going to bring me, over the next cycle, everything you’ve been willed by any of your gang members. You will continue until you have paid me enough for one person to live on for two-point-seven-nine-oh-six cycles. My transport guard was happy to inform me that that is how long the average convict lives. That will buy your life. Gibb is mine right now, as a down payment. His life is more valuable as it is now.” Upclose looked at me like I was completely nuts. And THAT was what I needed. Gibb would assume she couldn’t think of him as valuable. Mentally he would be GRATEFUL for me taking him on some level. My StayNeur caught his reaction. It was beautiful. His beginnings of a blush as I called him valuable, his eyes widening as he watched Upclose’ expression, his coloring and respiration reacting with anger as she said:
    “All right. But I’m already being blackmailed by someone else. That will slow me down. A lot.”
    “That’s not my problem.” HA! It actually WAS, since I was both of her blackmailers– “And you are going to make it known that I would have lost the fight until your employee decided to cheat and made me angry. You may laugh it off and say it kept you from having to punish him, if you like.”
    “I liked punishing him.” Her voice was very quiet then.
    “Then say you missed out. That’s not my problem either. The point is, I don’t want reckless glory-seekers chasing me down the hallways. I want people to think I only won because I got mad.” Win bristled.
    Gibb openly stared, “Did you?”
    “Get mad? No. There wasn’t time. He died too quickly. Wait here for me, Gibb; I think you’ll like working for me. Perhaps in time you’ll consider me a friend. Win? Upclose? You may keep in touch with him if you like.” Win snorted. Upclose frowned. They both showed it in their faces that they wouldn’t. And Gibb saw it. I continued with, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Yew’s blood is drying, and I haven’t much time to enjoy the feel of it on my skin.” I walked into my room and shut the door, leaving not a gang, but one loyal ally and one freshly freaked-out couple practically shivering as their poker faces failed.


    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part thirteen

    I locked everyone out of my room and blasted my adrenalin glands into high gear with my StayNeur Crisis program. I took off the comasuit, bundled it inside-out. I lay down in Yew’s blood and rolled around a little. Then I mopped up, mostly with my comasuit, a clean path to the wallscreen from the door, to the bathroom, and then I mopped the whole area across from the wallscreen.
    Simultaneously I had to form a history for the fictitious figure, Y.W.N. I had this neat idea. Five serial killers and one master criminal were among those missing for almost long enough . . . and Your Worst Nightmare filled out real nice. I used that screen name with my StayNeur to send a couple of messages. One to Upclose, and an ‘anonymous tip’ to the Enforcers. Then I opened the door for Gibb.
    “Yes sir?”
    “There is no need for sir, Gibb. I plan to have you earn your freedom from me. Then we could be proper friends, if you like.”
    He seemed to have trouble processing that one. “Ok? Q?”
    “Q is good for now. I do need you to start earning immediately. Register me as your new beneficiary.” And I waved him in to join me. “My underwear doesn’t make you uncomfortable?”
    “No, Q. The blood does. And the body.”
    “How silly of me. I’m sorry. Was he a friend?”
    Gibb blinked, “No–he wasn’t. Just . . . I guess I was used to him.”
    “And all life is sacred, right?”
    “Um. Well, yes, Q.” He was trying not to look at the dried blood on my face, in my hair, all over the place. I decided to give him a break.
    “I know most people mourn differently than myself, Gibb. He lost his life so that I may live on. Honoring him in this way may be more than he deserved–“
    “It was.” Gibb surprised me with that. He would be capable of murder. He wasn’t fighting not to puke either. I nodded and wordlessly undid the pad cover on the bedframe, being careful not to get blood on the homemade pad. I tied it into a basic sling and tightened it around Yew’s body. My StayNeur noted Upclose trying to cash out some laundry account in Gibb’s name. I shut down her access, interrupting her second blackmail message from Y.W.N., and kept acting like nothing was going on. Gibb finished willing everything to me and turned around, sagging a little.
    “Are you sad, Gibb?”
    “A little. Are you really going to let me live?”
    “We’ll be lucky if they don’t kill you and try to frame me for your murder. Do you own any weapons?”
    “I’ve got a speargun.”
    “My room.” Yikes.
    “Do they have access to it?”
    “Well, sure.” I reached out. Door openings and closings were on the system, but the record would take forever. “What’s your address?”
    “Branch 8, Inner Side Room 21.”
    “You should undo their access.” I ran my own speed-apps on finding the right footage. Win was already there. He walked out with it. He probably thought Upclose was erasing the footage insteading of pounding keys and giving herself a migraine with her netjack.
    This one was easy. I knew what Win planned. It was him or us. The fact that Gibb might die made my conscience clear. I pretended to concentrate on teaching Gibb how to navigate his door options while inside I derailed Enforcer KF2’s request for a cleaning bot. I turned off it’s proximity beeper. I initialized a cutting boom normally only used for cave-ins. I sent it out a bot door between Win and us and synced up with it in real time. At just the right moment, as Win passed the motionless cleaning bot, I caused a fire alarm. While I intensified the pitch and used several extra speakers, including the PA system, two hall kiosks, and an empty arena sound system to blast Win’s ears. Between that and the flashing lights, he was stunned enough not to see the cleaning bot slash at him. I faked a record of a power surge and sent several cleaning bots to unload their bins into a conduit, then had them filmed as cleaning it out. And cleaning him up. Most people walked a little further from cleaning bots for a cycle. ‘Y.W.N.’ posted a public message, claiming Win was Yew’s lover. All I had to do then was ready my surprised expression for the Enforcers headed my way.


    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part fourteen

    I played the footage in my head three times as the Enforcers readied themselves. Six of them outside my door, having arrived almost silently, aimed their shoulder-cannons at various heights and angles at my door. Their radio chatter was minimal, mostly angle correction. Again, I timed it perfectly. “Gibb? I’m going to take a shower. Please take the body outside by the harness. Then untie the harness, add it to the bundle of bloody clothes, and take it to Billy’s. I’m instructing him to launder the bundle and give you my clean laundry to come back here. Take your time. I should be finished with my shower by then.”
    “Do you need me to pick up some cleaning materials?”
    “No, thank you, Gibb. I have enough. And feel free, if you won’t get too dirty, to take whatever is in his pockets after you have him outside.”
    Gibbs eyes bugged out. “Thanks!” He pulled my mattress out of the bathroom for me, watched me go in and shut the door, and eagerly opened the door. The footage was priceless. His eyes bugged, his jaw dropped, his hands shook, and he blinked like twenty times.
    “Hold up your I.D.” said the nearest Enforcer. Gibb held up both hands. The Enforcer, rolling his eyes, scanned Gibb’s I.D. “Where is the one called ‘Q?'” He was somewhat streetwise. Didn’t assume Gibb knew my real name. Gibb pointed over his shoulder. “Get him out here.”
    Gibb just kind of sagged. “I have to interrupt his shower?” The Enforcers looked at each other, amused. Until I walked out naked, almost covered in blood. Then they looked at each other a little uncomfortably.
    “You aren’t harrassing Gibb, here; are you? He’s had a hard day.”
    “What happened?” he gestured at the blood.
    “I am afraid my last opponent cheated. KF2 said he was filing a report.”
    He lowered his voice. “Check reports fight category. Q and–yes. Suit I.D. check. Yes. Thank you.” His eyes back on me. “Sorry to keep you, then, but I have to ask you; why have you registered an illegal beneficiary?”
    I looked at him like he was insane. I didn’t even need an app. “There’s no such thing.”
    He did a double take. “I mean, The Shade–he’s missing, presumed dead.”
    “He is?” StayNeur VoiceCrack made just the right squeak.
    “I guess I have to report his known whereabouts, then. Will that take long?”

    Herr D

    The Enforcers looked back and forth at me and at each other. I apped down any sign of nervousness. “Well?”
    One of them jumped. “Uh–you’re claiming you saw The Shade?”
    “I did.” My fake file was all ready. Stored in my memchips. I KNEW it was a lie, but it would read as a real memory since I broke the memchip encryption–that had taken seven months. The jumpy Enforcer waved me toward the kiosk. I held up my dirty hands. “Oh–never mind–KF2 ordered a cleaning bot. Can Gibb go ahead and bring out the body?”
    “Officer, if one of you will turn in the I.D.? It’s on the floor, there.” One of them flapped an evidence bag open and took the I.D. He used his suitclamp to seal it and walked to the kiosk first. He put in his data with the suitjack and navigated to Enforcer Voluntary Statement Collection.
    “I.D. confirms KF2’s report. Your cheater was up for mass murder. Seven M-R-E’s on your account.”
    “Thank you, Officer.”
    He pointed at the jackport as he unplugged. “Have you ever been accessed directly by the ‘bumps’ system before?”
    “No, sir.”
    He waved over the Enforcer with the red armband. “Ginger dose?”
    “Please.” It would be good if they thought I was susceptible to nausea from jacking in. I took the pill and a small cup of stale water. I stretched my neck and shoulder muscles for show, as if I was meditating. Then I plugged in. BMPS was older than I was used to directly accessing, and full of bugs, but not really that bad. I GameFaced discomfort, being accessed, and relief as though I really felt it and remembered not to laugh. The pic came up on the screen. Jaws dropped all around.
    I had accessed his bio, copied his last footage, added some scars and implant bulges, and changed his getup. Looked like a homemade spacesuit with a lot of unidentifiable hardware attached. It wasn’t identifiable because I made it up. The reaction was pretty much what I thought. A dozen questions asked about fifty times each, as they tried to get me to vary my story too much or too little. They fed me the whole time. Kept me covered with a brand new blanket they forgot to take back. It’s a wonder this isn’t tried more often!

    Herr D

    Before I was released, I had my Y.W.N. identity restore Upclose’s access, claim only to Upclose that he’d replaced the cleaning bot’s cpu with a program to murder during a power surge. And claim he’d caused the power surge. Then I had several hallcams ‘randomly’ catch the cleaning bot’s serial number as I sent it at it’s top pace to the jumper dock and had it roll right under a returning Enforcer patrol ship. Off camera, I had another cleaning bot drop a badly faked serial number plate at the power coil nearest my room.
    I had just been released when my StayNeur alarm went off. Upclose had found me coming out of the Enforcer station. There was a badly programmed workaround in the system, probably the efforts of at least five different amateur hackers, to determine which Beltminers were in the Enforcer stations. She’d at least been able to find their work when the Enforcers couldn’t. I centered on her with the hallcams. She stayed back in the crowd as I tried to pretend I didn’t notice anyone staring at the dried blood in my hair, on my face, all over my old comasuit–and she almost jumped out of her skin when the Enforcer alarms went off. At least four full patrols worth of Enforcers scrambled out of the nearby station and played follow-the-jump over pockets of crowd toward the jumper dock. The ship was FINE! I actually had to fight to not double over laughing over the needless panic. Evidence destroyed. The nearest big guy watched the Enforcers pass, turned back to see there were no more, and shoved me against the wall.
    “Not him!” shouted Upclose, “Bad idea! Is that you, Crunch?” Oh, boy.
    The big guy had closed his hand around my right shoulder close to the neck. He had no netjack, and his implants were hard-wired–no radio frequencies to hack. It was bluff, call him out, or take whatever he chose to give out. I skimmed the local I.D. list. Three guys known as Crunch, two with dark hair so the other one–
    “You bleached your hair?” –OUCH. Profile, profile–
    “Why not this one?” He wasn’t turning around as she hurried up. –recent burn on forehead–uh?–
    “The Enforcers are VERY interested in talking to him–he says he met the Shade.” –Recent fights include Splash Gordon, where he–
    “Awwwwh, UPCLOSE! You’re ruining my hustle!” I finally said. His face didn’t change much.
    “What?!” she said.
    “I was going to be blessed with another win. This guy would have worked me over till he was confident, he would’ve agreed to my terms, and I would’ve killed him. He chickens out you’ll ruin my reputation!
    “I’m sorry, Q–I didn’t know!”
    Crunch let go of me very slowly and said very softly, “I’m sorry to spoil your plan for getting into a fight, sir, but I need to stay WELL CLEAR of the Enforcers for a while. If you want, you can tell people that’s why.”
    Well, he might have been gullible, but he was a quick thinker. I GameFaced a slow disappointed expression mixed with annoyance. Then a sigh. “From the size of you, I might have made three M-R-E’s.”
    He looked vaguely insulted. “I’m worth four. It wouldn’t have been that easy.”
    Upclose chimed in, “He offed a pirate ambush. That’s a standard six.”
    Crunch gave me an impressed appraisal. “Guns or knives?”
    “I put a rock shard the size of my thumb up his nose.” I watched his eyebrows go up. “It was only junk ore anyway.”
    He laughed. “You with her?”
    “No.” I said. “Maybe,” she said. I squinted at her. “Is that uproar” I pointed after the Enforcers, “about something relevant to me?”
    I loved watching her try to come up with the right thing to say. It took a while, too.

    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part fifteen

    It settled down after that eighth day. My picture, wearing my comasuit covered with dried blood, was all over the net. The story I managed to get circulated was that ‘The Shade,’ a gifted sociopathic serial killer and born leader was having me earn him a living. I was one of at least ten people that you didn’t dare kill–or you were given the choice: die horribly or earn him money till you got killed on your own. It was perfect for intrigue. The Shade and five other scary guys had gone missing six and a half standard Earth years before. To make everyone nervous, I explained that only The Shade knew who his other nine chosen were. Some of THEM might not know who they were paying for protection. I had killed a pirate, and that pirate had been one of his. As a kink in the story, I was circulating the rumor that I was a nut who killed people who agreed to violence with his bare hands for religious reasons. Suddenly no one was interested in fighting me for any reason at all. My umbrella of safety apparently extended to my underlings, as well.
    First Upclose, and then Crunch, became part of my entourage. I basically insured their loyalty by telling them I didn’t want or need them. Crunch and Upclose shacked up and began paying me the original demands I made of her. Only slightly behind. I didn’t ask them how because I didn’t want to know. Crunch was also good for some heavy lifting out in Jenko’s mine. Jenko was happy with the results, but very skeptical about what was going on in general: “you be careful, now, Q.” I could tell he knew I was lying about The Shade–baffled me to no end. But some people you just can’t fool, right?
    Gibb’s mystery unfolded quickly enough. His dad had been one of the original miners. He’d come here voluntarily. Not a criminal, he was just antisocial. Gibb had never met his dad and one day cut a deal. For twenty years’ income payable to his sister–only living relative, Gibb would lie his way into conviction and the Beltmines instead of a VERY rich murderer. Reportedly his sister got the money, Gibb faced trial, shipped out, and got major tragedy. His dad died while he was en route.
    Gibb was fantastic as a worker in a machine shop and not bad as a technician. I paid for his training on contract. Gibb owed me five percent of his pay for five years on regular schedule for the training, five percent for five years for his freedom, and free maintenance for anything he could fix in a timely manner in his off-hours for myself and Jenko. What Gibb never figured out was that I planted a SpyApp in his I.D. chip. I constantly got updates for security password changes, maintenance access–people were right to trust him–I think he would have turned me in and let me kill him for it.

    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part sixteen

    Seventeen days in I was cleaning the room when Upclose stopped by to help. I had been expecting her to try to have me killed again or proposition me any day now. Or both. I hadn’t been expecting her to try to make us some money. I was extra suspicious of her because she had told me to pass on a compliment to Gibb. He had ‘done real good’ building and installing a thermal pattern event recorder so we’d know for certain whether anyone had even been in the bathroom and whether they’d been in the shower tub. Then she’d climbed into it herself and started scrubbing. Not knowing what to think, I’d gone to folding linens and storing them above my ‘trophy case,’ a steel locker that supposedly only contained a swatch of a pirate’s homemade spacesuit liner, two wiped and smashed I.D. implants, and Yew’s hollow rib. The idea of the trophy case enhanced my rep as a nut. I’d bolted it to the bathroom wall with Gibb’s help the week before . . .
    “Q? I’ve been thinking.” Uh oh.
    “About?” I prepped an adrenal boost.
    “I could pay you a lot faster if I rented this room for business.” Upclose? Hooking? No . . .
    “It’s none of my affair, of course, but will Crunch know about this?”
    She laughed a little. “Crunch knows I’m a dominatrix, and he’s not into that.”
    I didn’t need GameFace to look thoughtful and slightly confused. “So you miss it?”
    “Yes. But I don’t have to do that with a partner. I’ve compartmentalized my life before. I can do it again.”
    I gave her a slow nod. Why not, right? “I don’t suppose you could whip your clients into cleaning, could you?”
    I heard her stop scrubbing and looked over at her. She was doubled over, sponge dripping from a clenched fist, vibrating with silent laughter. “Ohh, huh. Heh. I hadn’t thought of THAT. That’s pretty good. Maybe.”
    From her voice I would never have known she’d been laughing hard enough to shake the shower door. I did have to GameFace then, not to laugh at the situation: how does a fake nut stay safe from a genuinely murderous sadist? Get her giggling. Oh, brother.
    “How do you feel about contracts?” As if I didn’t know. She still had them on file with people she’d killed in the Gladiator Games.
    “I like contracts.”
    “Let me show you one. Give me a moment.” I tossed up the last linens, walked to the wallscreen remote, and called up the public version of one of my clients. She joined me and skimmed the boilerplate while I opened a u-box and imported a nameless updated schedule–you know those old redaction spreadsheets? I’d written one, not expecting to ever need it. She smiled then.
    “Rent is about ten times a pro cleaner fee. Average slave boy pays me about triple the rent.”
    Average slave boy. Great. “Are these repeat customers?” Funny how this didn’t bother me when BDSM in general nauseates me.
    “Some of them.”
    I highlighted all but two of them in red. “I must put these customers first. They bring in steady money and are more than reliable. They give me retainers. If they reschedule, I have to be understanding.” I highlighted one in orange. “This one is second. He only pays weekly and hasn’t been on time. Coming or going.” I highlighted the last one in yellow. “This isn’t rented at all, but I’m in negotiations to rent it out at double the rate for a full cycle.” I pointed to the gray areas. “Regular customers get a cushion around their time for privacy.”
    “So people might not notice them coming and going?”
    “Right.” I pointed to the white areas. “If you have clients here, I just need the room clean for the next one on schedule. So book it in this file–I’ll make it remote accessible so either of us can check it before renting. Are you licensed?”
    She gave me a funny look. “Are you serious?”
    “The Enforcers aren’t detectives and don’t really care to be. They’ll assume you’re a hooker, even if you stay after to make sure the room’s clean. The fine is fifteen times rent.”
    She pulled up a ‘no sex agreement’ on the screen. “How about this?”
    “Sure, if you have your clients sign one of those, I won’t be liable. That’s good. They still don’t license other private entertainment, do they?” I knew good and well they did, but they never bothered fining for that.
    “Rates, then: full rent for one-timers or short-timers plus triple the cleaning fee. Anyone you get long-term it becomes full rent plus double the cleaning fee. That’s the OFFICIAL rate. Whatever else you can manage out of that goes to your debt with me.”
    She hadn’t expected it to be so cheap. I didn’t need my hardware to see it. “BUT.” I had her full attention, “Per complaint per client any breach of privacy you will pay twenty times the rent. Five to the client in reparation and fifteen to me.”
    “Twenty! That’s awfully steep.”
    “Fifteen bundle-rents happens to be the smallest fine the Enforcers — well, enforce. This room is my largest livelihood. Agree to this, and there could never be a need for arbitration over it.”
    “What if a client lies?”
    “The difference between myself and the Enforcers is that I AM a detective of sorts. I’ll find out and you won’t owe me. I, through you, will start paying them the five.”
    She looked at me like I was mining in my own room. “But you’ll know they lied.”
    “After I’ve made them a first payment, I’ll confront them. If they don’t make good, we’ll arbitrate.”
    Her eyes followed my finger as I slowly pointed to my section on arbitration. “They have to see it your way or fight you on your terms? And they signed this?”
    “No one reads it.” I paused while she digested this. “But then, if you stay away during times in the gray fields, my clients may never know who you are. And your clients would be bad-mouthing you. I would suggest you kill all those who mess with your reputation.”
    “Oh, I do. How do we split up who cleans when?”
    We hashed it out then. She could subcontract cleaning if I approved the service, or she’d ‘see to it’ personally. She was now manager of my room for rent. And I had limited my own access to it. Electronically I would know more about the room than she thought possible, because of the things Gibb had made for me. My ‘trophy case,’ my wallscreen, my remote, my door modules, my plumbing, and even my ‘weapons check’ were tricked out. With utilities per month being cheaper here than a fancy dinner, I was free and clear. She offered me more. She had two rooms off-books that she wasn’t using. They were bad locations for her. Worthless, in fact, to almost anyone. Except someone like me. Gibb got to move closer to his new job for another highchit a week, a badly designed restaurant rented his place as a storeroom, and I got a noob named Jones thinking like I had been thinking–live away from the action! Don’t get mugged as often, stay out of crowds, do more recreational walking–he paid me to live outwardly. His old room I tricked out like mine. And then there were two one-room businesses. I doubled Upclose’s work, tripled our income, and, of course expanded our client base considerably by my twentieth day. It was Jones’ death on the twentieth day that really got things going.

    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part seventeen
    Jones was at home sleeping off a mining shift when the unthinkable happened. A quake. There had only been one other in the history of the Belt Mine Prison System. I don’t know how many other people were home then. What I do know is that with Emergency Door Number Twenty-three failing, more than a hundred prisoners total died. Two whole hallways opened to space. I wound up surprised to find Jones and a client who’d paid me late had willed me all they had. I shifted around and gave Chugger a ‘special rate’ on my third room, newly acquired, since his room was lost–he’d been entertaining in my first room at the time. Reparations for a lost room weren’t even enough for a sleep shift rental. I bought out Upclose’ room value at double–I was doing fine, why shouldn’t I stand up for a good employee?


    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part eighteen

    On the twenty-third day, I was finishing up my minimum (I still hadn’t figured out how to meet workweek’s quota in less than two shifts) when Jenko suddenly loaned Crunch his spotter and told him to get some practice. That got my attention. Jenko didn’t think much of Crunch. Giving him a leg up, well . . . I watched him double check that Crunch wouldn’t kill himself or send debris flying everywhere and walk toward me while I pretended to chafe over how little ore I was getting out of my debris. At easy knife-throwing range I looked up as if I hadn’t noticed him coming, nodded, put the ChemCheck back on auto, double-checked my tether, and grimaced at him. He was using the tether we’d set up today, not even checking it as he walked. Even in near zero gravity he never bounced, though. Pretty graceful for a hunchback. I used my com till we touched suits to carry our voices. “You not getting anything either?”
    He didn’t break stride, just kept coming. “Just the magnesium, but that’s about gone. This rock may have a nuclear core.”
    That was a standard complaint of his. You know even in those days the miners had software for sizing an asteroid and making cagey guesses on what had metal and what was practically ice-filled pumice. But once in a while the law of averages didn’t pay off because rock would be concentrated unpredictably. We didn’t have the imagers and dark spectrometers; they came out later. It was a waste of fuel to lighten an asteroid too much, you know? And we’d whittled this one down pretty far.
    “I think you and I need to talk.” Jenko was never one to waste words. Or like it when others did.
    “I won’t say anything, but I know you hack.” Mmmm.
    “That shift you were out here alone? Then you came back and reported the pirate attack?”
    “You didn’t strike me as a killer. Or as that fast.”
    “So I looked at your report form. You were at the same kiosk I was at when I was alone. But you weren’t home yet.” Ouch.
    He continued with, “I don’t know where you really were, and I don’t care. There’s a problem coming, and I want you to handle it.”
    “What problem?” I looked up. Crunch was doing pretty well, so we’d have a few more minutes.
    “Chat rooms are getting encrypted. Rumors are spreading.”
    “Door 23.”
    “The one that failed?”
    “What are they saying?”
    “That an Enforcer rigged the door. That a bomb was planted in the trash deposits to cause the quake in the first place.”
    “That’s absurd. Who would their target have been?”
    “Doesn’t matter. There could be a really bad riot.” I thought about that. The life I saved might be my own, after all.
    I nodded. “What do you think I could do?”
    “Fake a report. Claim a dead prisoner did it. Suicide. We have a riot, or some fool starts digging through the trash deposits to prove it and causes another quake, lots of people could die and get us killed, too.”
    I nodded again. “I’ll pass the word to handle the problem.” There–that was vague enough. I might just ‘know’ the hacker.
    I pointed at Crunch. “You’d better tell Crunch to keep his knees bent. We don’t want his back ruined.”
    Jenko grinned, nodded, and lazily spun on the tether. He headed back without another word.


    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part nineteen
    Some people talk about how manual labor can clear your head. Super-taskers like me, however, don’t Zen out. We plan, we plot, we prepare, and, in my case, I pillage. Ten seconds after Jenko spoke to me I had liberated Enforcer data enough to fake an internal report, including internal memos, change schedules, generate soft copies of anything within the system. Ten minutes later I had skimmed enough to realize that the Enforcers weren’t even investigating the rubble. They’d blocked it off, welded shut Emergency Doors 22 and 25, shut off power and closed utility valves, and sent maintenance droids to check everything around the area. AROUND the area?
    I spent an entire minute verifying the location of every cleaning, maintenance, utility bot and every other piece of equipment I had capacity to hack. There was ONE cleaning bot unaccounted for. This was a problem. I examined the StayNeur ethos algorithms for a new angle: would I be obligated to tell the truth if I DID discover a conspiracy? I was the only one with access to my own head, and my StayNeur was only safe because I wasn’t safe from it myself without proper planning. It took half the ride home with a constantly grumpy ‘just let me drive’ expression to find the right set of rationalizations. It took till we dropped off our junk ore and requested new coordinates to mine to plan how to make money off my new problem. It took silently walking back to Jenko’s to put it in motion–I needed an airtight alibi. Text pre-composed and delivery timing calculated, I told Jenko to shower first. He’d see it all soon enough. Crunch, looking confused, sat down on Jenko’s bed beside me, nearly catching his ear in my hammock. “What are you doing?” he said. I couldn’t have been better off with any other audience.

    Herr D

    I opened a chatbox with a period in the field for ‘Send to.’ As you’d expect, the BMPS system closed it. I did it a second time. Second time closed. I did it a third time. Third time closed. “What ARE you doing?” said Crunch, looking even more confused.
    “Waiting,” I said. Thirty-seven seconds later (Though I’d planned for thirty-nine,) a chatbox opened between myself and my virtual acquaintance, The Surgeon. It had taken some doing to get the system to accept his infamous serial killer nickname. BMPS had originally been supposed to prevent that. By the time Jenko was out of the shower, he saw the chatbox looked like this:
    The Surgeon: Alert symbol change–2 choices past.*Q: noted
    The Surgeon: New business or old?**************Q: new, sorry
    The Surgeon: Debt increase or aligned motive?****Q: aligned
    The Surgeon: Proceed.************************Q: Protect my life. New threaht. Income potential.
    The Surgeon: Agreed. Continue.****************Q: Sorry for typo, sir. Cause of D 23 fail & Quake?
    The Surgeon: Clarify purpose for questions & gains.*Q: Rumor mill can be dangerous, sir. Paranoia.
    The Surgeon: This does explain questions. Income?Q: Extortion or selling of information.
    The Surgeon: Y.W.N. already involved. Stay out.***Q: May I purchase his findings?
    The Surgeon: You may. Free: 3 suspects remain.**Q: Thank you, sir. Terms?
    The Surgeon: Later. The Surgeon exits.**********Q: Thank you, sir.

    Crunch was re-reading it. “Why did you thank him after he exited?” He finally said.
    “Because he cares about that sort of thing. He IS more dangerous than I am.” I looked up at Jenko, who was standing there looking like he’d seen a ghost. “You okay?”
    “Yes!” he snapped, “What are you involved in, boy?” I was startled. I’d never seen him lie before. He was GOOD at it.
    “The Surgeon is obviously good at hacking. The Enforcers haven’t caught him in what, six years?” Crunch was memorizing this chatbox. At least I already knew who he’d be typing it out for later. I smiled my insanely calm smile at Jenko, completely ignoring Crunch. “I never understood why he gave himself up. He’d been doing those so-called ‘medical experiments’ and ducking the cops for nearly a decade–Oh, I’m sorry, Jenko. They’ll figure it out. I may not buy even if I can afford it. The problem is practically solved.” Crunch and Jenko looked doubtful. Well, they WERE right, after all . . .

    Herr D

    At the same time that I was ‘chatting’ with my virtual contact and pretending to not get involved, I goosed an Enforcer sub-routine to find another chatbox. One I’d deliberately seeded to include chat between virtual acquaintances Y.W.N. and The Shade. They discussed the possibility of framing the Enforcers for the quake, fixing a door, etc., and that all three suspects lived in one of the two hallways-worth of dead. I made the chatbox appear to have been opened in the jumper landing bay we’d just been seen leaving. The cameras recorded us leaving, then looped around to show the whole two-shift day yesterday and right up to us leaving again. The hook I left was an Enforcer Utility Bot, or EUBIE, as they called them in those days, marching up to the kiosk. In reality it had never moved–with the clean lines of a EUBIE, it was easy to fake video and add shadow, etc.
    Most successful criminals avoid panicking the authorities. I needed to divert them if they were going to skip monitoring a hundred droids without asking questions. Most of the hackware I wrote that day was about not getting noticed. I actually automated digital footage serial number replacement so I could have one droid go back over it’s own tracks in footage, pretending to do the work of five without getting noticed. This routine would only last from my twenty-third day to maybe my twenty-sixth if I was lucky. The panic was well underway when I left Jenko’s, claiming I was going to see Chugger. I got less than ten paces out the door before the shakedown commenced.


    Herr D

    The Show Must Go Off–part twenty

    I was noting with amusement that their response time had improved when they arrived. I recognized KF2 and saw the rookie when they arrived. A team of three more waited a noticeable hundred feet away. KF2 was tense but still professional. “Enforcer 4967KF2 on site partnered and with backup team. Interrogation likely.” He hung back, though, and waved the rookie to go ahead. I personally think of that as a mistake . . .
    The rookie landed from less than a twelve-foot jump with a complete lack of poise and tried to make up for it by talking tough with me. “Enforcer 2054LC4. Open your palms and put your hands on your head, I.D. out!”
    I blandly hung my satchel on my toolclip and complied. She scanned me and nodded. “O. H. M., aka ‘Q,’ BuMPS number C485640624. Where are you headed, miner?”
    “Arena Row. L-C?” I GameFaced restrained amusement.
    “LC4 is my common, miner; what of it?”
    “It rhymes with Elsie, an archaic woman’s name.”
    Her eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?” Oh, good; over wary. I didn’t need GameFace to put on a quizzical look, but I used it anyway to keep any nervousness out.
    “It’s a coincidence. Your call signs are chosen randomly, correct?” For her, this was a complete non-sequitur.
    “Can the small talk. You have been in contact with a known hacker, missing in action with a large balance to settle.”
    “Which hacker do you mean?”
    She actually aimed her shoulder cannon at me. I GameFaced mild surprise and for the first time, my ice-cold fearless exterior began to bother her. She hid it well. “Are you denying it?”
    I actually managed to pause a moment, drawing out the quizzical psychotic calm. I was good at cons BEFORE my implants. “By WHICH,” I said, as if talking to a slightly deaf moronic child, “I mean which hacker–I know more than one.”
    That made a big dent in the chip on her shoulder. She knew she’d sounded stupid but it was in front of a witness to me cooperating. She reddened a bit. It was cute. “Their names?” Not a bad recovery!
    I nodded. “I only know screen names, but if I have access to old news ‘zines I could probably find–“
    “Screen names will DO, miner!” She was going to be a screamer.
    I nodded again, irritatingly slow. “Your Worst Nightmare, The Shade, The Surgeon, Rack, and Epi.” There, I’d said it. A list of Enforcers’ worst fears. That group of mysteriously missing Beltminers that killed nearly five hundred people on Earth, and only slowed down after finding ice, iron, iodine, and religion before they went AWOP. Payments for their utilities, claim rent, etc. Absent without payout was no longer a ‘shoot-on-sight,’ but for these guys they’d make an exception. The other members of their band were off-gridders, non-Luddites, but hated the net and everything it represented. One wonders how they ever did get along.

    Herr D

    LC4 was enough of a rookie that she didn’t automatically think I was lying. And that she wasn’t as scared by what I had just told her. “The coordinates you gave were no good.” Ah, but she did her homework.
    “Well,” I said, “I didn’t think they’d wait around for you to find them. They may have lied to me anyway. Did you at least find where they were?” I had jettisoned debris suitable to have been a rogue beltminer’s transmitter and plotted it’s probable landing site on a stripped, abandoned rock. Her face told me they had. Hmm. They hadn’t put that online yet–why not?
    “I’m asking the questions.”
    “So you have more, then?”
    “Those being?” KF2 was actually smiling at how badly she was doing. He wasn’t quite so prideful about his job.
    “How do you contact them?” Ah, about time.
    “I think they are always watching for me to be online. They choose when.”
    LC4 couldn’t help but look up at the hallcams. “You will submit to memchip scan.”
    I looked at her with genuine indignance. “I will submit to memchip scan in this public hallway. And I will NOT accompany you to the Enforcer Station.” It was time to start scaring them.
    She gave me a sarcastic, scrunched-up face and said what no Enforcer was supposed to officially admit. “We were monitoring your chat, ‘Q,’ and we have you on conspiracy to commit extortion.” Gotcha!
    I gave her my sweetest, most triumphant smile and didn’t need GameFace at all, even with her shoulder cannon still pointed at my face. “I would be FASCINATED, Elsie, for you to arrest me on charges of blackmailing you about Enforcers assassinating beltminers.” And I pushed through the subroutine I’d prepped. Every hallcam pointed straight at me. Three cleaning bots, one maintenance utiility cart rolled into view, pointed their optics at us. Every vent, panel, duct, and service door opened to reveal another droid’s optics beginning to point at me. It took about thirty seconds for the movements to complete while I simply added, “I wonder how long they would let you live.” LC4 and KF2 both went pale and still. Their backup pointed their weaponry at each droid, bot, autocart, cam and screen, not knowing what to do. “They’ve been waiting for a confession or a slip-up. Why not go ahead? In the meantime, I don’t dare go anywhere with any Enforcer. I’d be killed. You too, most likely. Of course, as long as I AM alive, the chances of you catching The Shade and his ‘merry men’ are higher.” I GameFaced back to psychotic calm. “But as long as they know I’ve been loyal, they’ll only kill me if they can do it quickly, hurting as many of you as possible in the process.”
    Every Enforcer took at least two steps back from me. I’d be a hero by next shift-end. “There is nothing more I can tell you. There is nothing in my memchips worth scanning. Do you want to waste the time?” She shook her head. I walked away.

    Herr D

    That had been a little too easy. I launched a fuzzier-than-normal bit of code named ESO to scan ALL footage recorded for the shift-week. Objective: odd Enforcer behavior. I sent out a shelled universal fail code on a timer and every droid that had been ‘watching’ us blanked their own memories and sent out a maintenance call. Gibbs was about to prove his worth. I decided I really would see Chugger after all. He had been warned I was coming and was waiting outside with a gun. At least he wasn’t pointing it. “Hey, Chugger. Trouble?”
    “I hope not, Q. Are we good?” uhh–
    “I believe you’re paid up and then some.” He relaxed a little. But not enough–
    “I’ve been asked some questions about you.”
    “I didn’t really know what to tell them.” It wasn’t just fear in his eyes. GameFace wasn’t quite able to decipher–anger or guilt?
    “Have you faced trouble because of me?”
    “Some. I’m not sure how much yet.” Oh how icky.
    “Do you wish to partner with me in demanding arbitration?”
    He looked completely confused and horrified. “Not at this time.” Eeew. He wasn’t sure what to feel either.
    I nodded. “How is your room?” Boy, that threw him.
    “My–oh. I like it.” My droid alerts told me that the loiterers in the hallway were all about me.
    I pretended not to notice. I leaned closer. “You are an ethical businessman.”
    He frowned, still confused, but putting the gun away. “Thank you. I do try.”
    “How do you feel about the con game of partnering with a barfly to water down a drink and split the difference of drinks bought for them?” Chugger actually blushed.
    “I used to do that,” he said, “I won’t anymore.”
    “I need to respect my customers as a respectable businessman should.”
    “So that’s not a respectable thing to do?” He startled a bit. Oooh.
    “I mean it might get around and I can’t have that. I have to be known as honest. I haven’t always been, but the fact that I’m known NOW as honest means I get better people in. I need better people in because I need the money.”
    “You are in debt?”
    “Not yet. But if I’m going to buy this place,” he pointed at the bar behind him, “I need to raise a lot more than I’ve been able to.”
    He went on explaining that his only vice was women and he only did that to stay sane, ya da yada ya–while ESO reported back to me. At first I thought it was a glitch. Chugger wasn’t an Enforcer, but ESO watched him in and out of a bundling booth. Then I saw it. The rich beltminer woman that paid the bundling booth for a quickie with the surprised Chugger was Elsie. LC4. The Enforcer. No wonder he felt guilty. He hadn’t realized it till pillowtalk was over. Maybe not until he saw her on patrol. He kept his hate for the Enforcers pretty quiet, but . . . Hey! The solution for his guilt could benefit me without being TOO expensive for him.
    I leaned closer. “I know you didn’t mean to talk to an Enforcer. Even a cute one.” I gave him a genuine smile.
    His eyes widened and his pupils dilated. “H-how did-?”
    “Not important, Chugger. What IS important is that I want you to make sure the door swings both ways.” Gotcha.
    Still wide-eyed, fear left him at the prospect for revenge. “What would you like, sir?”
    I covered my mouth and whispered. “You have a screen under the bar, don’t you?” He grimaced. It might hurt him to bend like that . . .
    “Yes, sir.”
    “My –ahem– SPONSOR is wanting another ear on the Enforcers. Someone who might also be good to feed some disinformation.”
    “They monitor chat, though.”
    “They can’t monitor his chatboxes unless he lets them. If your cursor suddenly jumps into a box marked ‘The Shade,’ converse freely. Tell him all. Take his assignments. In exchange he will never involve himself with you.” I paused. “Oh, and Chugger?”
    “If you would like a silent partner, or a loan, please come and negotiate with me.”
    He smiled. “Yes SIR!” I walked straight to the kiosk, typed three completely meaningless keys in a random order, and walked on.

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