This one came about purely as a result of a chance conversation with a friend. We were walking down the street and throwing around titles, and I came up with “Swallowed by the Subdirectory”.
“That’d make a great piece of speculative fiction!” he exclaimed.
And it did. Charlie, this one is for you.
(BEAUTIFUL image credit Sheharzad-Ashad)
Error. User not found.
I swiped angrily at the red blinking message. Maybe if I–
Error. User not found.
Nothing! I slumped back against the cold smooth steel, thin hands pale in the glow of the screen. Why wasn’t Hess there?
Outside, the sound of endlessly patrolling footsteps continued as security’s pre-planned routes carried them breathlessly close to my makeshift hideout. While SecCorp’s security set-up at a low-level datahub like this one was nothing extravagant, it was none too shabby, either; the twitching heap beside me was testament to that. The guard I’d knocked out was a nobody–just some corporate dupe on a paycheck–and I couldn’t help feeling bad for the high-volt blast from my buzzbar that had sent him spasming to the floor. Nonetheless, I hadn’t had a choice in the matter – he’d stumbled on me snooping around the backup databank and I couldn’t risk him raising the alarm. Not with Hess still missing.
“Alright. Let’s do this. I’m coming, Hess!”
I swiped confidently at the screen. The green glow deepened as the terminal contemplated my command and my pulse quickened. This was it! It was working!
Error. User not found.
Well, shit. I needed to think. Maybe I was approaching this problem the wrong way. Okay.
This machine was just a backup databank, one of a dozen identical slave systems scattered around the facility for ease-of-access purposes. Generally, each of these slave systems would be wired up to the central mainframe computer and should be able to access all the information stored on there. Hess’s file had been here three months ago when we’d toured the facility with Dad on a routine inspection, and my gut told me that it was still in here, somewhere.
If only I could remember! But when we’d looked up our files it had been nothing but idle curiosity that’d driven us, wondering if they even existed; when they’d turned out to be disturbingly detailed, we’d just laughed the whole thing off, uneasily, confident that it would never matter. Nevertheless, I could still remember how spooked I’d been and how little Hess had clung tightly to Dad for the rest of the tour.
A chirrup from the terminal interrupted my thoughts.
Failure threshold reached. Assistance requested. Please remain calm! Help is on its way.
Well, shit. Time to move. I knew exactly what kind of ‘help’ was coming–friendly SecCorp representatives with wide smiles and holsters stuffed with company policy.
The Section 11 Corporation appreciates your patience and encourages you to share and enjoy our wide range of entertainment options while you wait. SecCorp–sharing is caring.
The message on-screen faded, to be replaced by a garish rotating SecCorp logo. The crumpled guard beside me moaned as I rifled through his pockets and liberated a couple of credchips–an act I viewed not so much as petty thievery as the corporation compensating me for my troubles. I dumped the chips and my juiced-out buzzbar into my beat-up satchel and dashed for the door, prying it open a crack so I could peek out into the sleek hallway beyond. Empty, for the moment. It wouldn’t stay that way for long, though, from the heavy sound of rapidly approaching footfalls–SecCorp security was on to me! I sprinted out into the open, but lamentably the hallway was as empty of cover as it was of people: corporate efficiency at its finest without an inch of wasted space, quite unlike the cluttered corridors of my residential block. Well, former residential block, I guess.
“This way! They cracked number eight!”
“Damn it–hurry up, you lunkheads! Exec will be after blood if we screw this one up like last time.”
“But we caught the bastard, captain!”
“Doesn’t matter–he wiped company data. Move it!”
Who are they talking about? A stray thought banished by impending crisis.
At any moment the guards would round the corner and spot me armed with little more than an invalid immunity card and a foolish grin. Desperately, I pressed myself up against a stretch of wall that had been scuffed and scratched at some point in the past and dug out the battered holobox from my pocket, depressing the central button. Based off third-century metamaterial technology, holoboxes were designed to bend light around you, rendering you invisible save for a hard-to-notice fuzz around the edges. At least when they worked–for like everything else I owned, mine was running dangerously low on juice and could give out at any minute. The last time I’d been able to collect my power ration like a normal person felt like a lifetime ago–Dad’s lifetime. Just over two weeks, now.
The holobox began to whir quietly to itself right as the first of the guards rounded the corner, and I held my breath. While the holobox would conceal me from sight, it did nothing for sound and any noise I made would echo freely in the bare hallway. As it happened, sound was the least of my worries: the platoon of soldiers coming towards me were clad in the black-and-purple uniforms of SecCorp’s elite and laden with loudly clanking tech.
I gulped. What were SecCorp’s best and brightest doing here in a low-level datahub? These kinds of facilities ordinarily didn’t warrant much more than basic guard patrols and a camera or two at the entrance–the presence of the heavily-armed and armored goons suggested a number of unpleasant things. First, it meant I was in a great deal more trouble than I’d anticipated. This whole venture had been driven by a sense of fatalistic optimism that, if the likely happened and my infiltration failed, I’d at least be re-united with Hess. Now? While I wasn’t sure exactly what would happen if I were captured by these meatheads, I severely doubted that the platoon of pumped-up professionals charging down the hallway would see the funny side and let me go with a slap on the wrist. Their punishment was likely to involve a lot more screaming and crying than gentle lectures. Instead, I chose to focus on the second and slightly less grim thought I’d had–if SecCorp had deployed their elite soldiers here, then there must be something worth protecting.
As the guards passed by, mere inches away from my flattened form, my abortive attempts to locate Hess’s file took on a new significance. If her file had been encrypted–raised to confidential status–then finding it would require direct access through the mainframe terminal itself, since the slave systems lacked the requisite privileges. Racking my brain, I summoned up a hazy mental map of the facility from our visit and sketched a rough route to the mainframe server room in my head. If I could reach the room and get inside, I might at last be able to accomplish what I came here for. Was it risky? Well, yeah. It was extremely risky, especially given my current predicament. But it was the best chance I had to find Hess and liberate her from SecCorp’s grasping clutches, and I had to take it not just for myself but for Dad, too.
The troopers filed past me, taking up positions around the room I’d vacated.
“Preparing to breach!”
The majority of the purple-clad soldiers arrayed themselves around the door, energy weapons primed and ready, while two remained a short distance away, apparently satisfied to merely observe. The captain–her rank clearly delineated by stark white chevrons at the shoulders–and her attendant officer stood by as the soldiers breached. The professionalism of the group was obvious in the smooth manner of their entry–the trooper at the door held up three gloved fingers, signaling the countdown: two, one; the door flew open, several troopers rushing through in tight formation while their comrades provided cover.
“Hey! Are you okay?”
The voices from the backup server room sounded concerned–they’d found my hapless victim. I took this opportunity to start sidling along the wall, hoping that the sound of my exertions would go unnoticed amidst the general uproar. The captain’s eyes flickered briefly towards my position as I shifted and I froze immediately, sweat beading my brow. I was stuck, for the moment. Painstakingly, I angled the holobox’s surface so that I could check its battery read-out–hoping that it was somehow higher–but the entire situation was looking more dire by the second.
“Guard down! I repeat, guard down!”
This was good news–the guard was still unconscious and wouldn’t be able to tell security that the invading force was just a girl. Still, they knew now for certain that there was at least one intruder in the building. The captain barked commands at her troops.
“Split up into pairs and search the area! They can’t have gotten far!”
The group dissolved instantly into a half-dozen pairs that scurried off down the hallway in both directions, leaving only the captain, her officer, and a soldier that vanished into the backup databank room, presumably to look after the guard I’d downed. The captain seemed unhurried, chatting to her attendant officer as her gaze slid casually along the stretch of wall I was pressed against. I started praying that the hallway would clear before my poor holobox died completely. I could already detect the faint staccato creeping into its gentle whir that indicated imminent failure.
“The executives won’t be pleased with another break-in so soon after Doctor Haverston’s, Gant.”
Doctor Haverston? Dad! The captain began to move down the hallway, Gant in tow, and I followed, throwing caution to the wind. I had to know more. Luckily, it seemed like they were heading in the general direction of the mainframe, at least according to the rather sketchy map in my head. I willed my footsteps into silence beneath the sharp clack of the captain’s boot heels.
“It seems that the good doctor’s treachery led to a sharp decline in this quarter’s profits, Gant.”
“Indeed, captain. Yields dipped by twelve and a half percent.”
“Who would have thought that he would pull a stunt like that? Still, you have to admire his fortitude in committing such a brazen act of industrial espionage against his employer.”
“It’s a shame about his children. They’re the ones who will have to suffer the real consequences of his actions. A right here, I should think.”
“The prisoner, captain?”
“Yes, Gant. Our adorable little hostage.”
“Do you think the intruders will target her?”
He sounded surprised.
“Who can say, Gant? It never hurts to check.”
A hostage–could it be Hess? I’d never even considered that she’d be kept in a low-security facility like this one, but with a detachment of SecCorp’s elite here… why not?
The captain and Gant traversed the hall, starting down the right-hand branch. This presented a serious problem–the holobox would only work while I was pressed right up against the wall. If I tried to cross the intersection after them, I would become visible and the next corridor was every bit as devoid of cover as the one left behind.
I deliberated as the captain and Gant got further and further away, then dashed the short distance across to the other wall and relative safety, propelled by the need to know if Hess was indeed here. Besides, I reasoned, it was no more dangerous than huddling against a wall until the holobox failed completely. Just as I broke from cover, the captain turned her head to address Gant and must have caught my furtive motion out of the corner of her eye because she swiveled her head entirely around towards me as I slammed into the opposite wall.
I was sunk. She couldn’t have failed to see me. I closed my eyes and braced myself for the inevitable cry of alarm and the pain that would follow.
Sorry, Hess. I tried.