“I don’t know.” Thompson, the newly arrived trade attaché, quivered in fear before our boss. He waved a hand towards the wild mishmash of alien architecture outside the window – woven skyscrapers, nesting mounds, levitating shops. To a newcomer, however well prepared, Herrje was equal parts dazzling and bewildering. “I’m new on planet. I’ve never met policemen with six legs before, and I…”
His mouth kept flapping like a landed fish. I was tempted to leave him floundering. He was exactly the sort of private school idiot they gave the best embassy jobs to – daddy probably bought him his posting along with a yacht for his twenty-first birthday. Probably thought himself better than a lowly public relations officer like me.
But I respected the ambassador too much to waste her time.
Plus her anger made me nervous.
“It was a data theft.” I placed the tablet on Canning’s desk, glowing screen open to a page showing recent activity. “Clumsy but effective. They must have got hold of a human manufactured memory stick loaded with hacking software. Slid it in the back while they were frisking him.”
“This idiot was carrying the briefs for the asteroid mining negotiations.” Canning rubbed her temples. “Billions of pounds are at stake. This was meant to be a safer option than transmitting anything. Can they decrypt it?”
“You’ll have to ask security,” I said. “Shall I fetch Warren?”
“Wait.” Canning’s eyes glazed over as she read a message on her contact lenses. She blinked, focus returning and with it her frown. “They’ve decrypted it. Sent a few lines as sample along with a ransom demand.”
“What do they want?” I’d translated enough k’kiri to know that they had some strange political factions, not to mention philosophical extremists.
“Just money,” Canning said with relief. “A lot of it, but less then we’d lose if these negotiations go sideways. They’ve set up a meeting.”
“I’ll fetch Warren.” I reached for the door again.
“No, Atticus.” Canning fixed me with her firmest stare. “Warren doesn’t speak k’kiri, and time’s short. This one’s on you.”
“This isn’t fair,” I said into the microphone on my lapel. “Thompson messes up, and now I have to wade through slime.”
The hive was a temporary one, the walls still oozing construction fluids that looked like honey but smelled like rotten eggs. I was trudging through the stuff up to my ankles, and my suit was stained all over.
“Life isn’t fair,” Canning replied through the bud in my ear. “Cope.”
A door-sized valve opened ahead of me and I stepped into a storage chamber. Immediately a gun was pressed into my side. The valve sealed shut behind me.
“Take a seat,” my captor said in k’kiri.
I settled onto one of the lumps protruding from the floor and looked around at my captors. There were three of them, their antennae twitching, mandibles opening and closing beneath bulbous eyes. The one with the gun wore combat fatigues, the other two labourers’ outfits. Their chitinous plates had the wrong caste markings for professional thugs. That made them wannabes, and all the more unpredictable for it.
“You bring the money?” the leader asked.
I pulled a data crystal from my pocket and let one of them scan it with his tablet.
“All there,” he confirmed.
I put the crystal away in my left-hand pocket. “As soon as I’ve seen the data, and confirmed that it hasn’t been copied, I’ll transfer the funds to wherever you want.”
“Why not just kill you and take it?” The lead k’kiri brandished his gun.
I swallowed. His finger was as twitchy as his antennae. Clearly an amateur at this business, nerves were getting on top of him. As an amateur myself, I knew just how tense he must be.
“Authorised transfer,” I said. “The money’s locked until I approve release.”
“Fine.” The k’kiri pulled a thumb drive from his pocket and handed it to me. “Your data.”
I pulled a metal box from my right pocket and inserted the drive.
“What’s that?” the k’kiri raised the gun.
“Yes, Atticus,” Canning whispered in my ear. “What the hell is that?”
“For checking if it’s been copied.” I held the simple box out for the k’kiri to see, then flipped a switch on its side. “You’re the one who knows human tech, right? You’ve seen these?”
The k’kiri glanced nervously at his colleagues, then nodded his head a little too firmly.
“Yes, know this,” he said. “Only copy, as promised. Device tell you this, yes?”
I took out the drive and handed it back.
“I need to check the results.” I stood, made sure to switch the device off, and slid it into my right-hand pocket, away from the valuable data crystal. “Send the ambassador details for the final meeting.”
“Final…” The k’kiri raised his mandibles in something akin to a frown. “But money now!”
I shook my head and tapped the device in my pocket. “Not until I’ve checked this. And before you try to take the crystal, remember, secured funds.”
The valve opened and I stepped through, leaving the k’kiri to be berated by his co-conspirators.
“That’s an electromagnet in your pocket, isn’t it?” Canning said in my ear. She almost sounded impressed. “What if they’d realised you were wiping the drive?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “But I doubt they’ve ever met a con-man with two legs before.”
* * *
There’s more of Julian Atticus, cynical diplomat and professional liar, in my collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves and my previous flash story ‘Divided by a Shared Language‘. This time, his adventure was inspired by a far more creative real life crime that my friend Dan pointed out to me. I didn’t have space in a flash story to do justice to the fake interrogation chamber scam, but I daresay I’ll find a use for it in future.
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