Meeting with Mr. Heartless was not something that SurfKing was looking forward to. Data brokers existed in a world beyond the simple life of petty crime and violence where Surf was comfortable operating. That world did hold wealth though and any king, even a SurfKing had to appreciate that.
“How come you never meet with us in person?” Surf asked. “You embarrassed to be seen here?”
“Yes, that’s exactly it,” Heartless said, a faint mechanical tinge to his overly proper accent.
“Oh man, you don’t got to say that even if it’s true,” Surf said.
“Perhaps I am only embarrassed by the comparison,” Heartless said. “Not all of us can have such well customized modifications after all.”
SurfKing’s head spun around 180 degrees taking in the compliment. It was true that he and his boys were packing some serious hardware.
Fresh off the truck military mods.
There were bigger crews in the city – with as big as Gamma City was, there was always someone bigger out there – but, pound for pound, Surf thought his guys could stand up to any of them. The neon cables running down his arms shifted from blue to green. Happiness achieved.
“So what can we help you with?” Surf asked. It was weird talking to a robot. Heartless was piloting one that looked bland and unobtrusive. It had few facial expression settings and looked completely artificial.
Celebrities who put in remote appearances via TouristBot went for much flashier and more lifelife models. For the truly elite, there were models that were almost indistinguishable from a human being.
Surf would have written Heartless off as a cheap pretender is he wasn’t familiar with the model that Heartless was piloting. Combat capable remote operation drones were not, by any stretch of the imagination, the same thing as TouristBots. They had no reason to appear as human, no reason to include perks like a full sensory package, and no reason to display obvious weaponry when they could have things like maser cannons hidden within their torso or cranium.
Whoever Heartless was, he was not someone that Surf felt like offending, especially not in light of the rates he paid for simple jobs.
“I’d like you to kill someone for me,” Heartless said, his robot exterior as calm as the tone of his voice.
“Kill someone?” Surf lowered his voice to a whisper. His crew was jacked up for violence but murder for hire wasn’t something you talked about openly. Not when there were too many ears ready to collect too many bounties for that sort of information.
“I acquired a company recently, and a few of the managers aren’t worth keeping on the payroll,” Heartless said.
“So why not fire them?” Surf asked.
“They have rather large termination clauses written into their contracts,” Heartless said. “Paying those would make it hard for the company to turn a profit this quarter, which would diminish the benefit of purchasing it in the first place.”
“And they don’t get the money if they get killed?” Surf asked.
“So long as it’s not on the job,” Heartless said. “So long as they die on their own time, it becomes a breach of contract on their side. Failure to report for their assigned office hours. We’ll be able to sue their estate for an asset garnishment until a replacement for their role can be found. Or until the estate runs out.”
“The job we did for you before was just property damage,” Surf said. “What makes you think we handle wetwork like this?”
“Theodore Matherson,” Heartless said.
Ice water replaced blood in Surf’s veins.
“What about him?” he asked and then added. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“Let me jog your memory,” Heartless said and a file transfer appeared on Surf’s heads up display. Inside it were several files including the unredacted version of the coroner’s report which listed the true cause of death as cranial trauma from being tossed down a long flight of stairs.
“Steve Matherson hired you, and he was clumsy as hell about how he paid you. He needed his brother out of the picture before he could propose a full takeover of their shared business to their board.”
“There’s no proof that was us though,” Surf added, thinking back to the night in question and double checking that he and his crew hadn’t left any telltale evidence behind.
Another file appeared in his delivery box.
It was filled with proof. Crime scene analysis linked with external accounts and video footage from the city’s Eyegrid.
“These are fake,” Surf said. “The Eyegrid is on the fritz in that area. The video’s can’t be real.”
“It would take at least a Diamond tier AI to falsify all of the different optical inputs we see here. That’s possible, such things do exist, but I believe it’s much more likely that you simply missed a few of the live camera feeds,” Heartless said. “Understand me though. I’m not here to judge you for your actions, apart from critiquing their sloppiness that is. What’s important to me is that you got the job done, and done well enough that Mr. Matheson wasn’t implicated in his brother’s death. Even more importantly, your hack to make it look like an accident held up to the automated case review. That required skill, so you have access to decent talent.”
“So what does that mean?” Surf asked.
“It means that, with a little coaching, you can serve my needs as well,” Heartless said.
“And if I say no?” Surf asked.
“Then you can go back to working for Mr. Matheson,” Heartless said as another post arrived on Surf’s data feed.
It was living video of the police pulling a car out of the East Bay. Notable elements of the video were the banner that identified the car as having been driven by Steve Matheson, CEO of Matheson Dynamics, and the fact that, despite having been completely submerged, the car was still on fire.
Curt Kelton had thought the buyout of Palmdale Pharmaceuticals was going to be the worst part of his week. Companies changed hands all the times and it was rarely a good thing for the employees when they did.
Curt had imagined himself beyond any direct effects of the acquisition. He was managing one of the company’s most critical projects and the secret projects it fed into. Anyone who bought out a small operation like Palmdale had to be aware of the value the work he was doing, and how easily he could set the project behind by months or years if he wanted to.
Official corporate policy was that all lab work and findings were to be stored on the company’s servers. That edict was followed rigorously only by those who lacked the ambition to survival office politics. Kelton knew better than that. He stored all the “accepted” research on the company servers, but kept the vital breakthroughs safely scattered on servers that were online only long enough for a nanosecond long backup to be performed.
No one was going to get access to his files.
No one except police officers with a warrant.
“I’m sorry sir, but we have verified intercepts from a known murderer named SurfKing that a contract has been taken out on your like,” Officer Greensmith said.
“Well then arrest him, why are you bothering me,” Curt said.
“We’re taking you into protective custody,” Officer Greensmith said. “We’re also going to do a sweep of your home. There’s a lot of methods SurfKing could use to strike at you, but don’t worry, once we’ve got him and his crew locked down, you’ll be perfectly safe.”
She escorted Curt out of his home to where his family was already waiting beside a secure police wagon.
“I don’t understand why would anyone want to kill me?” Curt asked, climbing into the van and sitting beside his wife.
“We’re going to turn that up as part of the investigation too sir,” Greensmith said.
She waved to a series of drones marked “GCPD Forensics” and gestured them to enter Curt’s empty home.
“They’re not going to disturb anything in there, are they?” Curt asked.
“They’ll be very careful sir,” Greensmith said. “We have to make sure that there’s no malicious code in any of your automated devices or any tracking software on your computers.”
“But wait, they can’t turn on my systems,” Curt said. “I have private stuff on those.”
“We’ve reviewed your company’s security agreements sir, anything covered by a corporate security lock will be untouched. They couldn’t have gotten into that stuff anyways.”
Curt’s mind raced. The important information wasn’t covered by Palmdale security because Palmdale could have secured it against him if they chose to fire him.
“Initiate Pre-Firing Protocol, Class Two,” he subvocalized, try not to look like he was communicating with his Cognitive Partner.
“Access Denied, Connection to Network impeded,” his Cognitive Partner scrolled across his heads up display. “To search for a ‘Solutions Online’(™) please click authorize payment from any of your supported accounts!”
Curt suppressed a growl. “Solutions Online” was the biggest rip off in the world and everyone knew it. It was particularly galling though to be pinged with the ad when the problem was that the there was no online connection available.
“I need to call out, to let me boss know I can’t take any calls,” Curt said, hoping he could get the police to lower the network interdiction field even for a moment. All he would need would be a microsecond to initiate the failsafe lockdown on the special projects data. Once that was in place they could either play ball with him or watch two years worth of competitive research be mailed to their nearest competitor. Or go up in flames. Or both.
“No worries there sir, we’ve already contacted Palmdale for you. We knew there could be some fallout from this and investigating them is a crucial line of inquiry for us.”
“You’re investigating Palmdale? Why?” Curt asked.
“Most companies don’t have employees targeted for execution days after they change ownership. We’re going to be digging into all of Palmdale’s records to make sure the sale was clean and that the assets that were transferred were all properly specified.”
Curt swallowed without meaning to.
Palmdale’s assets were most definitely not all properly specified. Not when those assets included cutting edge research notes that had been driven forward with unlicensed human testing.
More than ever, Curt knew he needed to get the lockdown code out. All of the flatly illegal research had been done off the books, so there was no chance the cops knew about it, but if they were looking for that sort of thing and they ripped open his personal data, there was a good chance they could piece it together even through the various levels of obfuscation he had in place.
Beads of sweat began to roll down his temples as an even worse possibility occurred to him. He had more than the research results, he had the contact info for the traffickers in the Cleanwalk block, aka the people who were providing him with the subjects he needed. They were encoded, but if the cops broke the code and made the connection, then Curt was a deadman.
Palmdale would fire him, as in cease to employ him. The traffickers from Cleanwalk would fire him as in place him in a kiln and reduce him to ash.
“I really can’t go like this,” Curt said, as he started to climb out of the van. “I have to get my secure comm at least, my team is counting on me!”
He took several steps away from the van, heading towards the house, before Officer Greensmith stopped him again.
“Sir, you’re house is the most likely weapon the assassins will use against you. I cannot allow you to go back in there. We’ll turn over your secure comm as soon as we have verified that it’s clean.”
Curt looked down at the message queue in his heads up display and saw it was clean and empty.
“Ok, I understand officer, I’m just rattled by all this.”
The message had been sent. The critical files were in lockdown mode and would disintegrate before they could get him killed.
“You got that broadcast right?” she asked.
“Is it a broadcast if it never reached any of its intended recipients?” Zai asked.
“So long as he stays ignorant of that fact, it is to one Mr. Curt Kelton,” Ai said. “The important question though is did we get his key? Can we impersonate him well enough to fool his secure archives?”
“In answer to that, allow me to offer this,” Zai said as she began to stream all of the data Curt Kelton had been trying to hide.