AI told Ned he was being followed again.
But this time there was no weapon, and no apparent means to threaten except bare hands. He had just about reached the corner of the block where Tim’s office was when some big guy caught up to him from behind. Ned steeled himself, but the guy spoked from a relatively safe distance and called his name.
Ned stopped and turned, not sure what to expect. The man was carefully avoiding anything that might seem threatening. With a sort of faint smile, the fellow acted quite professionally. “I hope you don’t mind. I just wanted to give you something that you might find useful.” He held out a small memory chip in the palm of his hand. Ned stepped over to take it, still being a little careful.
After handing it over, the man stepped back again. “The senator is deeply grateful for your assistance in that recent matter. She found some interesting data on one of the computers in her home office and felt you would be the best person to give it the attention it deserves. She offers the caution that this isn’t over yet. Have a nice day.”
The man turned and walked away, leaving Ned speechless. He wasn’t worried about any electronic traps. AI could read the binary code through the field sensor, but it was probably the slowest way to do so. Since AI had written all the code on all of his devices, he was pretty sure nothing could infect his systems. He watched the man receding into the distance, then turned and went on to the entrance of the office building.
Once upstairs in the office, he poked the chip into a slot on the side of his desktop computer. In just a few seconds AI reported it clean, the began sucking up the data. Tim came in the door from somewhere else in the building. Before he could say anything, Ned told him, “That senator we saved paid us back.”
Tim came over to see what Ned was doing. “That’s a blessing. Any idea what it is, yet?”
“Looks like a raw dump of someone’s system disk. Lots of useless trash from that Swiss cheese operating system they all use… Whoa. This must have been the fake whistleblower’s system. Most of the files were deleted, but they’re all recoverable.”
Tim turned to his own desk. “Let me know if anything useful comes up.” He started reorganizing the papers and notebooks in front of him.
Ned’s eyes went wide. There was banking data, showing the system user was making money from what was presented as dividend checks from stocks. However, the amounts weren’t consistent with that sort of payout. Furthermore, they came from some kind of brokerage, not from the companies themselves. Not unheard of, but atypical for someone who was a small investor, as the payments suggested. He asked AI to try correlating those amounts with the stock market records. It was more out of personal curiosity, though, and he started looking at other things AI was finding. He wanted to know more about that brokerage.
Another hit: the brokerage was part of the conglomeration he had seen before. The senator had some dealings with it in the past, but at some point cut them off. Here it looked like that conglomerate was paying a spy in the senator’s office not long after breaking with them. So there was an ax to grind. AI suggested that the conglomerate had been making illegal contributions to the senator’s election campaign, and at some point began asking too much in return. It likely had something to do with legislation that protected the contracting corporations from being bought out while they were servicing a military contract. That kind of turnover had happened during the early stages of the pipeline and there was a move to stop the cycle of predatory takeovers. The conglomerate wanted to preserve the option of such takeovers. The senator voted to for the bill to stop it shortly after cutting ties with the conglomerate.
But for now, this speculation was based on probabilities and extrapolation. AI would be unable to lock it down without some kind of inside data from the contracting company itself. It seems the predatory conglomerate was using stock leverage in the contractor to enable a takeover.
“Tim, let’s take a moment to pray for a miracle. We need someone who works close to the Dalmer’s company headquarters where the pipeline is going into the ground. We need to find someone to carry one of our cell phones.” Tim stopped what he was doing and turned around to face Ned. They clutched a single hand with each other and closed their eyes.
Meanwhile, half-way across the planet, Barry had nearly finished a hard day’s ride. This was easily the single longest and most punishing ride he had taken yet since coming onto contract. The sun was setting over the ridgeline as climbed up to a wide shelf above the valley floor. The hottest crawler team in theater was up there under camouflage and only his secure GPS data knew it was there for sure. These guys moved pretty often, so it was just possible what his eyes saw from below were just rocks. Still, there was no better choice and he had felt driven all day. Something about that weird old guy who gave him the disks was still tingling in his soul.
Sure enough he passed a barely visible crawler heading downslope just a few meters away. They made just enough noise that he could hear it above the near silence of his bike. The bike’s computer kept the satellites and drones abreast of his location using a coded beacon with a signature that matched the unified military and contract targeting system. Anything with a weapon was supposed to see him as a non-target. To his eyes, as he came up on one end of the ledge, there was an open layer in the rock, a wide gap that sheltered something vaguely familiar. The camouflage was even better when shadowed by the ridge from the setting sun.
As he rolled to a stop under the outer edge of the covering, he was greeted by someone with a pulse rifle. This had to be the famous sniper. He looked old and pretty ordinary. Barry had never met even a quarter of the people who worked on the contracts, and this strange string of deliveries seemed oddly hit-and-miss to him. He had no idea what it was and knew better than to ask, but this one time the pattern was puzzling. So was seeing someone who seemed rather ordinary to him, but regarded by the company as a hero.
The man walked up and something inside of Barry just knew: This was his brother. Not in the sense of literal sibling, but a part of the Shepherd family. Barry had joined just last year and was still getting used to some parts of it. But he had long been that kind of mystic, having been a friend with nature his whole life. The Shepherd family had been a good fit from day one. This man was one of them.
For his part, Franklin was just meeting another courier. But as soon as he got close, the rider opened the face of his helmet and spoke quietly, “Are you part of the Shepherd’s Household?”
Franklin froze, his eyes wide. “Now that’s one whale of a greeting.” He walked closer and extended a hand and a grin. “Welcome, Brother. I don’t know what to say.”