Contact Binary

08 - Encryption

Deeper in the depths, Rozenn follows Aze as they glide down a corridor. Piles of old electronic and mechanical components take up more and more space as they go, until they barely have room to walk. They reach a door of translucent glass. A screen above the door, refurbished, with exposed circuitry around its broken plastic case, displays the sign: >>> Velocity’s Varieties

The door slides open, revealing shelves on every wall overstuffed with old PCBs, LEDs, sensors, motors, monitors, and wires that stretch between all the shelves and practically envelop the space in a web of rubber and plastic.

A girl about Rozenn’s age, with light brown skin and silver-highlighted black hair tied behind her head in a short braid, looks through a magnifier at a circuit board on the counter. One of her eyes is natural brown, the other is an implant, glowing green. She reaches her index finger, with its metallic tip, down to the PCB, and her long, pointed fingernail lights up with a bright white light. With her other hand she brings a coil of solder to join it.

Halfway hiding behind Aze, Rozenn sends it a message:

2259-3-1185 016:27 Rozenn > You didn’t tell me antique shop girl was cute!

2259-3-1185 016:32 Aze > didn’t I? well don’t worry, they’re harmless

“Vee!” Aze says.

She pulls her hands away from the device with an exasperated sigh. “Hazel, how many times have we told you not to disturb us when we are superheated?” She speaks with very precise enunciation.

“But y’all also said, ‘come and bother us at any time, sweet Hazel,’” it says, imitating her manner of speaking.

Vee points to Aze with her metal fingernail still glowing hot and says to Rozenn, “You be careful with this girl, Earthling.”

“Hey, I haven’t said one word to you, how do you know where I’m from?” Rozenn says.

Vee sighs. “A shuttle arrived several days ago from Mars. Only low-rank corpo-sycophants come visit Ida, your implant models suggest you work for some corpo based in the Earth-Moon system, L4 if we are not out of date on the standing contracts. In any case, the first thing most corpo-types do when landing in A-town is message our precarious Hazel.”

“Don’t you mean precious?” Aze says, drifting itself over to the counter.

“Maybe I should have hired antique shop girl,” Rozenn says, following.

“Hazel, do you not even mention us by name anymore?” Vee says.

“Y’all’s name’s just too fast for me,” Aze says.

She sighs and turns to Rozenn. “Delta, she/her, of the Velocity System, she/it, or plural they.”

“I’m Rozenn of Nevez Breizh Colony, she/her.”

“I knew it, Earth-Moon L4,” she says.

“See? Vee knows everything. They can help you,” Aze says.

“I need to know about the Dactyl Institute,” Rozenn says.

“It figures. A girl comes all the way to Ida, and she is only interested in the moon,” Vee says. “And even I do not know much about what happens on Dactyl. That station is very secretive, and its inhabitants keep to themselves. Rarely do they venture down to Ida outside of recruitment season. But that is the strange thing now, is it not?”

“Yeah?” Aze says.

“Recruitment time came and went this year. There are a few girls of age, but nobody ever came down to test them...” Delta stares sharply into Rozenn’s eyes, forcing her to turn them away. “Earth girl’s little emotion-waves say that you know why.”

“If I knew I wouldn’t be here...” Rozenn says. “But we aim to find out.”

“Have you ever been in their server?” Aze says.

“It is a private server. Hacking into it is far more effort than I will do for free,” she says.

“I don’t recommend going, we were ætherlocked on arrival,” Aze says.

“Curious,” she says. “One would typically expect server defenses to try to keep us out, not trap us in.”

“Well, there ain’t nothing normal about that place,” Aze says.

“I cannot tell you what you want to know,” says Delta Vee, “but I can get you where you need to go.”

“A lead is good,” Rozenn says.

The Vee system crosses their arms. “However, on Ida information is worth even more than what Hazel sells you.”

“I--I hired it as a technopath!” Rozenn says.

“Oh my, rest in peace, then,” Vee says.

“Okay, okay, what’s your price Vee?” Aze says.

Vee leans over the counter, floating balanced on her hands. “Tell me whatever it is you learn about this peculiar moon of ours.”

“Agreed,” Rozenn says.

“Dear Hazel promises?” Vee says.

“On my honor as a princess,” Aze says.

“Okay. Story time,” Vee says. “A few hundred days ago it was, when after a long day at work, Alpha Vee went up to Star One’s to æthertrip and play mahjong. At such a table we met an expended shell of a girl. A technopath, and a professional too, sure to be a good opponent thought Alpha. But such a prosperous one fallen down our well and reduced to withering away in a bar? She felt like she had a story to tell. I got her a drink. I got her much harder things. But all I got out of her was that she was recently fired from her job and that she’d recently landed here on Ida. Nobody would come to Ida on purpose unless it was the only place they could reach, so it is highly likely she came from Dactyl. And there is only one active station on the moon.

“Many nights I returned to visit withering girl, never did she give me so much as a name. Many games we played--Alpha, Sigma, myself and mystery girl. Not one hand did she win, but never did she deal in. Uncanny. Impossible even, to do on accident. Clearly an expert player. Systers tired of her, annoyed she would not play seriously, but I could not resist a mystery. One day, at last, she had had enough. Once more, I implored. No, said she, ‘I have told you all you need to know.’ Next day, no girl.

“Just a few days ago it was. Had you come sooner, perhaps more direct help I could give. No such luck, she’s been relocated downstairs.”

“Shit,” Aze says.

“Huh?” Rozenn says.

“That’s the morgue. Right below Vee’s shop,” Aze says.

“Damn it...if I only got here a day earlier,” Rozenn says.

“Despair not, Earth girl,” Delta says. “Ruminating on her cryptic words, Gamma reviewed our memories with autistic precision. A pattern emerged, one no autistic could resist. The first hand of each of our games, she made a call. Three tiles made visible. No more calls she would make. A seemingly random time she quit on us and died. Not random, though. An auspicious number to our memory keeper Gamma, of course for it was divisible by three.

“Then naturally I thought back on the tiles of all her calls. Lined up, it was a prime number, and that caught my eye, I rather like primes, I definitely mentioned this to her during our first game.”

“Special interests aside, what is all this getting at Delta?” Aze says.

“Why would a technopath at the end of her rope go out of her way to feed me a number only a technopath would ever notice, and then immediately go and die?” Delta says.

“An encryption key!” Rozenn says. “Not a very good one, all digits, but if she meant for something to be opened...her memory vault!”

“This is a smart one, Hazel, you should keep it,” Delta says. “Yes, my thoughts exactly. And why would she do such a thing?”

“She wanted to tell you something, but she couldn’t. Physically,” Rozenn says. “It’s common in technopath employment contracts. Non-disclosure agreements, to be embedded deep in our minds by a CommSpec. Can’t reveal corporate secrets even if we want to. Usually only when it’s something serious, technopaths wouldn’t just tolerate having our minds fucked with lightly. After we die, though, there’s nothing left but our memory vault, our encrypted personal log. That’s something every technopath has, and never lets anyone touch while we still breathe.”

“Exactly,” Delta says.

“Then it might be the encryption key to her memory vault, but it’s useless without the hardware,” Rozenn says.

“ not as much of a problem as you might think,” Aze says.

Delta pushes herself away from the counter to the back wall, opening the door behind her technopathically, and drifts through it. “Follow Vee, pretty girls.”

Aze shrugs and jumps over the counter to follow.

“Hey wait for me.” Rozenn follows after it, climbing over the counter trying not to disturb anything.

Vee leads them through the backroom, piled even more chaotically with fragments and parts of devices. A corridor in the back leads to the square metal frame of a sealed pressure hatch, with Vee holding the large circular handle.

“Like Hazel said, my shop is quite conveniently positioned,” Delta says. “What you need is...” it points down.

“Oh, you want me to graverob for you again,” Aze says. “Should’ve known.”

“...What?” Rozenn says.

“You know we hate to get our hands dirty, dear Hazel,” Delta says. “But two technopaths should have no problem getting in there and finding a little memory vault.”

Aze looks back to Rozenn. “Well, what do you--”

“Let’s do it,” she says. “If there’s a chance we find some answers, I’ll do anything.”