THE TRILISK AI
“What do you need me to find?”
The man glanced around the dingy office before answering Cilreth’s question. No doubt he was not impressed. Who would be? The office was small, with modest furnishings and little or no decor. Cilreth didn’t even like being there herself.
She knew his name was Leonard. He had alerted her to his visit, but he had been short on details. He’d asked to talk in person. More and more, it seemed like the kinds of jobs Cilreth got involved in had clients who wanted to talk incarnate to avoid the government snoopers. It was the only reason Cilreth even had an office.
Admit it, old girl. You like it that way.
“I’m looking for someone. I have a lot of solid data on her, but she’s since gone missing, and she wants to stay missing,” he said. Leonard sat before her on a ceramic chair. He looked athletic, though a bit past his prime, with short, gray hair and brown eyes. His skin was clear and clean-shaven. His nose was slightly bent.
He looks like a hardass. Ex-military, Cilreth thought. She decided she liked him. “Runaway?”
“Yeah. A Space Force officer’s brat daughter. She’s been to the frontier for sure. Most likely she’s still there.”
“What’s her overall temperament? Is she prone to violence? Involved with drugs?”
“She’s intelligent and stable. Used to be, anyway,” he said. “But she fell in with a mean crowd. Smugglers. The assignment I’m offering requires moving around a lot, which of course is included in the pay offer.”
“Then what happens when we find her? Is it going to get ugly? What are we supposed to do with the guys she’s shacked...the people she’s working with?”
“Nothing personal, see? I need to understand what’s expected before I sign the dotted line.”
“If she’s gotten in over her head, we’re there to give her a quick out. If the smugglers get in the way, I’m going to put them down. I’ve got a man for it. It won’t be just you and me.”
“And if she doesn’t want to come home?”
“If she’s not under any kind of mind control, and wants to stay, then she stays. If she really thinks everything is great, being hunted by the Space Force and hiding out on the frontier, then we leave her alone. I’ll be disappointed, but if she wants to stay, then we’re done.”
Sounds like he has a personal stake in this. Maybe he’s getting paid a lot more to bring her back.
“She’s wanted by the Space Force? Her father must be a high-ranking officer.”
“No, actually it has to do with the smugglers. They’re wanted by the Space Force. If we can extricate her from that mess, too, then all the better.”
Leonard opened his mouth to continue, but hesitated again.
I don’t like it when he does that.
“Please just tell me everything,” Cilreth prompted. “It’s going to help me do this job, if I take it.”
He nodded. “I understated it. Those smugglers are really wanted by the Space Force. They met with an unprecedented level of success, and they have some heavy duty alien tech in their possession.”
Cilreth looked the client in the eyes. “How did you hear about me?”
“You did some work for the family of a friend of mine, Lieutenant Commander Barnes. Joseph Kane Barnes.”
“Okay. Assuming you check out, I can find her for you,” Cilreth said. “If you can accept I’m not signing on for kidnapping, then we’re good.”
Cilreth’s left hand jumped a bit on the table.
“You use twitch,” he noted.
“Yes. It enhances my performance. As for the down side, what do I have to look forward to? A long retirement in a tropical paradise? Let me tell you something: it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
She referred to an inevitable cost of long term twitch usage: about ten years off the human lifespan. She was forty now, and she could expect another fifty years on the twitch. Leonard appeared to accept her attitude.
“I’ll send you what I’ve got right now. It’s a lot to sift through.”
“The more the better,” Cilreth said, standing. She had finally remembered to stand. The clients didn’t like it when she just sat there and waited for them to leave.
The client walked out. At the same time, Cilreth’s link saw the data package he’d sent her. His footsteps echoed down the worn hall.
Cilreth prepared a mental workspace for the target: Telisa Relachik. Something familiar about that name. She reviewed the ID on the payment information.“Oh,” she said to herself.
Telisa sat in a small, domed shelter on the planet Averian. Her eyes were closed, allowing her to concentrate on information retrieved from humanity’s vast network. She moved thousands of Earth Standard Credits around, shuffling a bit more money into her new accounts from illicit ones through a complicated network of people and services offering help to individuals seeking to avoid the attention of the world government. She lost some of the funds in the process. That was part of the arrangement.
Telisa and Magnus, the two survivors of the last expedition of Parker Interstellar Travels, had managed to make a shady deal to use a proxy service for their net connections. The service disguised their activity by creating an aggregate of data queries from many other people like themselves, mixed in with a bunch of fake queries, all wrapped up and accessed via a fake corporation set up on Averian. The planet was far out on the sphere of human expansion, filled with frontier types who had a more practical approach to life than the typical core world citizen who followed every rule of the world government. It was simply too expensive to police everyone, everywhere, all the time, even with the help of machines.
She tapped her fingers impatiently. Part of the obfuscation often introduced time delays so her actions could be mixed together with other real and fake queries, sent out as queries for larger blocks of data, or split up into smaller actions in a giant blender of electronic communications.
Making the first connections to create new accounts after the incident at the Trilisk ruins had been nerve-wracking. They tested the waters with the UNSF. If the Space Force was actively hunting for them, they’d be waiting, ready to track Telisa and Magnus whenever they accessed data caches, bank accounts, and business contacts in order to find their physical location.
On the other hand, if the government hadn’t identified them as the culprits, avoiding access of their old accounts could just as easily raise a red flag. If the government was looking for smugglers, and everyone from a certain travel agency suddenly dropped off the grid, it could be a sign of their involvement. Luckily, given the size of human-controlled space and the number of people who wanted to conceal their activities from the prying eyes of the Earth government, it would be a red flag in a sea of red flags. Telisa took on the responsibility, getting a crash course in illicit dealings.
The bottom line, Magnus had asserted, was one of priority. If the UNSF knew who they were, and wanted them badly enough, then they’d eventually be brought in. Otherwise, they might be able to take some middle road, keep a low profile, and avoid some of the most basic (and cheap) methods the government might use to catch them. If they were really lucky, then the UNSF wasn’t after them at all. Telisa thought he was probably right, and tried to accept her fate. She couldn’t live her life on the constant knife’s edge of fear.
Magnus cycled through the door. He wore his favorite military skinsuit and a light helmet equipped with an air filter. He took the helmet off and put it on a small plastic side table. The main room was just about the right size for two people to hang out in, with little space to spare. It struck Telisa again how they lived like poor hermits even though they commanded substantial financial resources.
“How’s the Iridar?” Telisa asked.
“Pretty good. She’s ready for action if it comes to that.”
Telisa nodded. Her eyes remained closed. Magnus hesitated.
“I got death packages from Jack and Thomas,” he said. “Now we have access to their accounts. Medical records. And of course, everything for Parker Interstellar Travels.”
Telisa opened her eyes. “Wow. We should tell their family they’re gone.”
Magnus was quiet for a moment, then shook his head. “I think we can skip it. They didn’t have much family. And they weren’t close. After all, they were often gone from Earth for months at a time. The messages they’ve gotten aren’t very urgent.”
“Still, we should tell them. It’s the right thing to do.”
“If the family was close, then I’d agree. But these folks don’t really have close ties to either Jack or Thomas. Better to keep a low profile. If it was so important, they probably sent packages to their family, too.”
“How could you dream of not telling them? It’s not right.”
“We aren’t exactly angels ourselves. Our whole operation is unethical.”
Telisa bristled. “Unethical?”
“Well, we illegally steal artifacts and sell them on the black market. Our whole business is a secret, PIT is just a front...you know all this.”
“We’re the ones in the right! The UN doesn’t have any business keeping us from learning from alien civilizations!”
“It’s against the law.”
“It shouldn’t be! The government is just interested in preserving their own power and you know it!” Telisa’s voice was rising.
Magnus replied with more fire himself. “Yeah, they do want to stay in power. Everyone with any power always wants to keep it. That’s just smart. But another part of the reason they keep artifacts from people is because they can be dangerous. An alien machine can destroy a whole city. We’re not completely in the right ourselves, to be selling dangerous things.”
“That’s why we evaluate them in the field, and again before selling them,” Telisa said.
Magnus started to answer. He stopped to take a deep breath before continuing. “Let’s wait, cool down a bit, and have this conversation later. We can wait a few days, right?”
Telisa nodded. She was still angry.
“I’m going to contact Jason, the guy we have babysitting the agency while we’re on expeditions,” Magnus said. “There’s a fair chance the UNSF will be listening in, if we were identified, but I’m going to take that risk. I won’t tell Jason where we are.”
A high priority news item tripped an alert in Telisa’s link. Magnus looked away and became still at the same time.
Emergency announcement going out of the office of the United Nations Secretary General in one minute.
They stood in uncomfortable silence. Though the argument had ended, Telisa stood with arms crossed, her mouth compressed and downturned. She fought inside, unable to concentrate fully on either the possible meaning of the announcement or the argument. Finally the secretary general came on. Telisa focused on the man in her mind’s eye.
The secretary general stood straight at a podium as the archaic tradition demanded. He had graying hair above a long, narrow face, and the wan complexion and thin build of a man kept fit by a toning pill now and then rather than real exercise.
“Citizens, this evening I bear grave news for humanity. There has been an incident involving unknown, and presumed alien, forces that resulted in the deaths of men and women in our Space Force.”
“Five Holy Entities,” Telisa whispered. Are they going public about the incident at the alien base?
“The UNSF scout ship Seeker was investigating a possible ruined planet at this location approximately 115 parsecs from Sol,” said the secretary general. He paused for a three dimensional map to appear in their links for reference.
“The Seeker!” Telisa said aloud.
Magnus put his hand on her shoulder.
“The ship sent us detailed scans of six constructs of unknown origin. These ships, or whatever they were, reacted to the presence of the Seeker by altering course. Objects were launched from the unknown vessels. Our scout was tracking those objects and scanning the other vessels. When the objects approached dangerously close, on collision courses with no signs of slowing, the Seeker responded with a drone and laser countermeasure suite, destroying the incoming objects, presumed to be missiles.
“The scout ship was destroyed shortly thereafter by means unknown,” the secretary general said. “We do know it was destroyed because of other probes that survived its destruction for a matter of minutes before they, too, were destroyed. I would like to make it absolutely clear that the Seeker took no offensive action against the mysterious vessels.”
The secretary general paused. “As a result of this unprovoked attack, I’m declaring a state of martial law across the commonwealth. We are assembling a grand fleet to defend ourselves. I assure you that we will protect each and every settlement with our full capability. No outpost is too small to receive our full support. Whenever, wherever these unknown forces appear next, we will be ready to deliver a strong counter to their aggression.”
At that point, the secretary general started to discuss the names of new ship classes being assembled, the types of local defenses being prepared by UNSF forces across the known worlds, and the things civilians were being asked to do to help the cause. But Telisa wasn’t ready to listen just yet. She was trying to absorb the news about her father.
“He’s dead. We’ll never be reconciled,” she said.
“I’m okay. It’s not like I really knew him anymore, anyway,” she said. But she felt a nebulous loss that threatened to break her surface calm.
“You know, he died doing what he wanted to do. From everything you’ve said, it sounds like the Space Force was his life.”
“Well, this time it was his death. And it sounds like aliens did it, too.”
A male, Asian face appeared in Magnus’s PV. The man smiled. He had short black hair, except on the crest of his head, where longer hair stood straight up then turned out at ninety degrees to form a T shape. Magnus didn’t own a hairbender himself but he was vaguely aware this was the new trend.
“Jason. Good to see you.”
“Magnus? I was beginning to wonder.”
“How’s the agency?”
“Everything’s good. We’ve been contacted by several clients,” Jason said. “I thought the news of the alien attack would make everyone scared to leave, but it just caused a shift of clients. Everyone who gets ahold of the agency now is asking to be taken out to look for the live aliens.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I put them on a waiting list.”
“Okay. I have good news and bad news. Good news is, you’re promoted. I’m doubling your salary. We have a few tasks for you.”
“That bad news is, we’re not coming back for a while. I’m sending you some money. Get two androids. Model them after Jack and Thomas. I’ll send you their bio data.”
“Here’s the deal. Someone may be snooping around. We want them to see the androids and think Jack and Thomas are back, see? So don’t let the androids go outside. Just have them clean the agency and hang out, and leave some of the windows unpolarized. If someone’s determined to spy on the agency, they’ll think Jack and Thomas are back. Got it?”
“Sure thing! Could be fun,” Jason said.
“Set up a bit to flip if the Space Force shows up there. It’s officially the status of the second waste receptacle in Jack’s office for our trash service. I’ll monitor it from here so I’ll know if they show up.”
“The Space Force?”
“You didn’t think I was doubling your salary for nothing, did you?”