Mad Crab Mojave: Chapter 13

In which Jones witnesses intimidation

Jones launched himself off the wall and after the cyborg. She ducked into an unmarked side entrance. Tucking in his shirt, he tried to look like any other customer of Virtual Vegas caught up in a dream: busy, oblivious and wealthy. This building was different from the others. Doors lined the hallway. They opened into crowded, cramped offices stuffed with coffee mugs and postcards displaying the glitter of Virtual Vegas as it had once been. Jones spotted the cyborg at the end of a far hallway and made his way towards her through the cubicles.

Jones thought about his game plan. The cyborg knew he was there, but didn’t seem to care. Was she trying to lead him to the military grade quantum supercomputer? Jones shook his head at himself. If the cyborg wanted to help him, she would have walked up to him and made an introduction. Jones wondered if BeyondMelinda was here too. The cyborg might have a copy of his former wife in his backpack. Jones shuddered with the thought, but pressed on.  

He’d gotten within shouting distance of the augmented woman when she halted mid-stride. Pausing and tucking her head, the cyborg muttered into a bluetooth headset perched next to her ear. Jones ducked next to a water fountain, staying out of sight as she paced in short, sharp circles. Her voice drifted down the hall towards Jones.

“I'm on an extracurricular mission. They’ve got some tech here that would be good for Mad Crab.”

She stopped to listen, bouncing on the balls of her feet in her exoskeleton. 

“I don’t need to talk to BeyondMelinda. The security system would pick up her signal. She knows I’m here and she approved it.”

The cyborg waited, then frowned, slamming one fist into another.

“She approved in the general sense by making me the CTO. That means she trusts my technical judgement. My judgement says this is an important technical acquisition opportunity.”

The cyborg rubbed her front teeth with the thumb of her organic hand. “I get it, the quantum part sounds scary. It’s not going to bite you. Its just a large box. Pretend it’s a fridge or something.”

The person on the other end of the line did not seem convinced. The cyborg jutted out her bottom teeth, biting her top lip in impatience. 

“You shouldn’t need to tell them anything, except for my instructions.”

Another impatient pause.

“Tell them to get it in position, and that Fran will be there in a few days to help them program it. They don’t need to wait for me. It’s not rocket science.”

Fran clicked her tongue and leaned against the wall. Jones tried to wedge himself further behind the drinking fountain.

“I’d beg to differ. They teach quantum mechanics to freshmen in college. Look, I need to focus on Vegas. I’m turning off notifications. I’ll be there in a few days.”

Fran scratched at her back near the waist of her exoskeleton, mumbling to herself. Then, finding the spot, she turned down the hall. Jones fought down a wave of disappointment. Fran had clearly been discussing the quantum supercomputer with a wary subordinate who was with the computer, and also not in Virtual Vegas. If Fran was not leading him to the military-grade machine now, where were they going instead?  

Ignoring the gurgle of fear in his stomach, Jones followed. The cyborg now seemed as oblivious to him as everyone else in Virtual Vegas. She seemed to have a lot on her mind. 

Fran stopped in front of a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” She jiggled the doorknob. Locked. She flexed her mechanical fingers, pressing a few buttons on the wrist of her augmented arm. Grabbing the doorknob again, she ripped it out of its casing. She punched through the door around the deadbolt, removing the wood in fistfuls. Then she pulled the entire lock mechanism from the wall. Now freed, the door opened. Jones glimpsed a group of men and women sitting in front of rows of computer monitors. Their faces slacked with astonishment. The door swung shut behind her.

Jones sprawled flat on his belly and shimmied up to the doorway. Sound drifted through the gaping holes where the lock had been. Inside the room, Fran’s heavy, augmented steps walked a few paces and stopped. 

"I'm here to audit your data collection practices,” she said. Jones heard the squeak of a rolling chair as it scuttled across the floor.

“Audit? Who sent you?” The man’s voice was thick and congested. 

“The Nevada gaming commission. Who else?”

“I didn’t know the gaming commission hired cyborgs now. They must be pretty hard up.” 

Another muffled voice broke in. “She’s being sarcastic. Look at the door.”

“Huh?”

“This is what I keep telling you. You keep the volume on your headphones too loud. Look at the door.”

A short pause, and then the rolling chair toppled to the floor. Jones heard footsteps retreating to the far corner of the room.

“What do you want?” The congested voice was now thickened with fear.

Fran’s heavy footsteps moved a few paces. “Like I said, I’m here to audit your data collection practices. By law, you should protect the fears, wants, and desires of your users using the the most advanced cryptographic processes possible. I’m here to find out if that’s true.”

The man in the corner let out a short, barking laugh. "Sure, yeah, of course. Its simple - we store each user’s data in a vault with no key. Data goes in, never comes out. Impossible to retrieve, I can’t read it, my boss can’t read it, no one can read it.” He laughed again. No one else joined him.

“No one can access behavioral data?” asked Fran? “Not even advertisers?”

“I’m here to keep the lights on,” said the tech. He sounded angry now. “I run scripts. I couldn’t tell you a thing about our data collection practices. Some other engineers do that. At the main office.”

“This is the main office,” said Fran. “I need to access your machine. I want you to login to the servers so I can verify that you are following the correct protocols."

“I can’t let you on the servers,” said the tech. “I can show you the code, the audit logs. It’s the same thing.” 

"You misunderstand me," said Fran. “It’s hardly the same thing. I need to access your machine.” 

Muffled shouts seeped through the hole in the door. Pressing his face closer to the carpet, Jones saw a rolling chair tip over. He heard thumping sounds as a tech hit the floor and tried to stand up. Jones saw a metal arm reach down and snap plastic cuffs on her, stretching tape over her mouth. The exoskeleton clumped over to the other side of the room. More scuffling and shouting. A smartphone, crumpled into a croissant by the cyborg’s fist, dropped to the floor. 

As both techs lay kicking and thrashing, Fran’s legs approached the desks where they had been sitting.

“Good OPSEC practice is to screen lock after two minutes of inactivity,” she said. “Let’s see how much entropy your database password has.” Her fingers clattered at a keyboard. “Oh, here it is, in plaintext embedded in your scripts.” The cyborg sounded amused. The two technicians breathed heavily on the floor, inching their bodies towards the door.

“ Its for the best,” she said. “If you had better habits, I’d have to ask you for the password directly. This is more pleasant.”

The techs had grown still, finally grasping their danger.

A USB stick dropped next to Fran’s boot. Fran sighed, and leaned down to pick it up. She'd cut the nails on her human hand short and neat. “Better back this up,” she said, inserting the stick into the wrist of her metal arm as she straightened. “Thank you for your cooperation, friends. I’m going to audit every line of source code personally. If we find any violations of the correct procedures, my organization will contact you.” 

Jones realized she was about to leave the room. He leapt to his feet and jogged down the hall, keeping his steps light. He now wanted to be as far away from Fran as possible. Jones ran out the first exit door and burst into the blazing desert sun. His shirt was drenched in sweat. His fingers tingled. While he had been following Fran, he’d allowed himself hope that he was about to get this case over with. Now, fear gripped him. Mad Crab was here, but based on what he’d heard, the military grade quantum super computer wasn’t. He had no idea what they might be up to in Virtual Vegas, but he knew he didn’t want to be involved. With regret, Jones remembered the bank. It was as banal as Fran was fearsome, but at least he hadn’t had to worry about getting killed.