Man in the Middle by C.J. Heckman

Man in the Middle
C.J. Heckman

Azumi was working late one night when Ben came knocking on her office door. His hair was a mess, more so than usual, and the redness in his eyes betrayed recent sobbing. Another nervous breakdown. It was his third in six months at Transolar Technologies. The guy couldn’t say no to an assignment and the company was happy to pile them on, leaving engineering managers like Azumi to clean up the inevitable mess. She let him in and poured a glass of whiskey from a bottle reserved for employee breakdowns. When she found out he’d been fired, she poured one for herself as well.

Ben slumped down into the trendy red chair Azumi kept around for visitors. He accepted the glass of whiskey from her gingerly, cradling it like a mug of hot chocolate. “I was afraid you wouldn’t be here, seems like everyone else has gone home to pack for the company retreat.”

“Yeah,” Azumi settled onto the chair behind her desk. “Call me a workaholic, but I can’t see myself wasting two weeks golfing on the moon. But that’s beside the point. Let’s hear it, what did you do?”

Ben shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “I was porting into work… from a private node.”

Azumi froze. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, deciding to down her drink first. She thought a little burning in her throat would stop her from saying something cruel. It didn’t. “Well, that was stupid. You should be glad all they did was fire you.”

“I know…”

“I really don’t think you do.” Azumi refilled her glass. She stifled the urge to down it immediately, taking a sip instead. “How’d you even get your hands on a commercial node?”

“I refurbished one. It was a few years old but-”

“A few years old?”

“I know, I know,” Ben muttered, swallowing his whiskey as though in penance.

Azumi refreshed his drink if only to keep herself from smashing the bottle over his head. “So, all it takes is for someone to crack the password on your little pet project, and then they have their own private entrance into the biggest teleportation firm in the solar system?”

Ben winced, then cleared his throat and sat up a bit straighter. “Listen, I didn’t come here to complain about getting fired. I just want my updated resume, it’s saved on my work terminal, but they already locked up my office. I was hoping you’d let me remote in from your machine?”

Azumi shrugged, then set about logging in to her terminal. “Sure, you’re going to need it.”

Ben rose from his seat and walked to the other side of Azumi’s desk, waiting quietly while her monitor scanned his face and assigned him temporary access to her machine.

When it was done, Azumi offered him her chair and then stood fuming in silence while he rifled through a cluttered desktop in search of the right document. What a waste. He could have been somebody here. She finished the rest of her drink while she waited.

Once he had emailed the resume to himself, he stood up from Azumi’s desk and looked at her awkwardly, maybe realizing just then that they’d never see each other again. “Thanks for the drink,” he muttered as he turned to leave.

Azumi grimaced, suddenly feeling like a jerk for no good reason. “Hold up, Ben. Sit down.”

Ben looked at her quizzically but returned to his seat, apparently still in the habit of her being the boss.

“Have another,” she said, refilling both of their glasses. “I know a story that’ll cheer you up.”

Ben started to lift the glass to his lips, then stopped and peered at her instead. “A story?”

“Well… a rumor really, just a rumor, but it’ll cheer you up. At least it would cheer me up if I were you.” She chuckled, then took a sip of her whiskey. “Whenever I screw up, I like to know that someone else has screwed up worse, but maybe that’s just me.”

He cracked a weak smile. “No, that’s not just you.”

Azumi grinned and looked down at her drink, she hesitated only a moment before downing it all at once, then leaned back in her chair. “Did you know I used to work for Synaptic Solutions? That place was awful. Too big, too old; being crushed under its own weight. It had some contracts that kept it alive longer than it deserved, mostly government stuff.” She was a little surprised to find herself telling this story. It was probably the alcohol going to her head, but now that she had started talking the words kept flowing.

“Their security was terrible, but porting tech was brand new back then and nobody was giving security a second thought. Everyone was more concerned about stream of consciousness preservation. See back then, there was always this nagging doubt in the minds of the public that they might de-materialize inside a departure node just to have a copy of themselves step out of the arrival node. There was plenty of effort made by Synaptic to teach people that this wasn’t the case, but there was a large portion of the population that could not be convinced.”

Azumi noticed some light had come back into Ben’s eyes. This was probably the first time he’d been spoken to without being scolded all day.

“So Synaptic put a spotlight on stream of consciousness preservation. They wanted people to be fully consciousness and aware throughout the porting process. That way someone could walk into a departure node and experience themselves being teleported to the arrival node, no scary in-between part. SOC preservation became the focus of the company, and to their credit, Synaptic perfected it. I worked for them as a reliability engineer. My whole job was ensuring consistent SOC preservation, and I can ensure you it was a boring job.

“But then there was – or at least there might have been – an incident that changed things.”

Azumi swirled the whiskey in her glass, suddenly unsure if she should continue. The instinctive hesitation gave her a little thrill. She downed the rest of her drink. “Have you ever heard of OMEN?”

Ben shook his head.

“It stands for ‘Olympus Mons Emancipation Network’. Back before the Mars colony was independent, OMEN was in the business of planting bombs on shuttles and other such ‘freedom fighter’ activities.”

Ben’s eyes widened. He would have been in high school when OMEN was making headlines on Earth. Too young to remember the specifics, but from the look on his face, Azumi bet he could still recall the juiciest bits of the Martian terrorists’ greatest hits.

“Synaptic Solutions always suspected OMEN had some inside men working the Martian teleportation relays. It had even been suggested by the authorities that the company take special care which relays they used when porting… notable persons. They did, and nothing came of the OMEN bogeyman for a while, at least not until the most notable person was ported through the Martian relays.”

“He was campaigning for a second term when it happened. Synaptic Solutions was hired to port him to Titan for a rally. There was never any hard evidence of foul play, but some of us couldn’t help noticing how… differently this person acted after his little jaunt to Titan. He was re-elected on a platform of ‘United we Stand’ and then at the start of his second term he suddenly seemed surprisingly open to the prospect of Martian independence.

“Of course, at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. The Martian Separatist movement died on the Senate floor, so we never got the chance to see if he would’ve followed through with the veto that was promised on the campaign trail. Still, everyone at Synaptic thought the sudden personality shift was suspicious to say the least.

“The group consensus was that if anything did happen, it was almost certainly a man-in-the-middle situation. The relay we used on Mars was trusted, but one guy on our team thought it would be possible to intercept our authentication tight beam before it ever reached Mars. Just park a small vessel fitted with porting tech in between the relays and modify the stream of consciousness as it passed on its way.”

Ben set his glass down and clasped his hands together for a moment, lost in thought. “You know,” he said slowly. “You probably wouldn’t have enough time to modify someone’s stream of consciousness mid-transit. It would be easier to just re-direct the original stream of consciousness off into space, and then insert your own SOC alongside the target’s re-construction codes. That way you’re effectively dumping someone else’s mind into the target’s body.”

The thought gave Azumi pause. She imagined a stream of consciousness tight beam hurtling off into space with no receiver node to catch it. Just a lone ray of thought tumbling through the endless dark. She shivered involuntarily, then laughed at herself. “You would have gotten along well with the conspiracy theorists on my old team.”

Ben grinned and raised his glass. “Cheers to that.”

The two clinked glasses and drank the last of their whiskey.

“Alright, kid,” said Azumi, noticing the time. “It’s getting late, let’s get out of here.”

#

Earlier that morning, Ben Reyes was running late to work.

He pulled on a pair of slacks in dire need of a lint roller and grabbed a button-up shirt that was hanging off the edge of the laundry hamper. I shouldn’t use it, he thought, hastily buttoning up his shirt, I won’t use it.

Rushing to the bathroom, he skidded to a halt at the sink and made a poor effort at brushing his teeth. If I keep using it, eventually someone at security is going to catch me. The deodorant stick he kept on the bathroom counter was empty, a quick spritz of cologne would have to do the job instead. It was already 8:30 and there was a client meeting at 9. If he was late for another one of those, Azumi would have him out on the street. I can make it, he thought, walking briskly to the front door, 18 minutes to get to work, 5 to get through security, 2 to walk to the conference room – where are my keys?

He checked his pockets, nothing, looking over at the key rack, also nothing.

“Ok,” he said aloud, pressing his back against the front door and slowly sliding down it into a sitting position. “Ok… but this is the last time.”

Ben made his way to the garage and flicked on the switch that powered his porting node. As it whirred to life, he felt a subdued sense of pride. It wasn’t easy to get one of these old nodes working with the modern stuff. He had had to do a hatchet job on his office node’s security protocols to make it compatible with the one sitting in the garage.

Approaching the node’s user terminal, he quickly punched in an alpha-numeric password. Most nodes used biometric authentication, but that equipment had so far eluded him. He typed in the coordinate codes for his office in the destination field, and then entered the node’s transfer chamber. This will be the last time, he thought as he waited in the closet sized transfer chamber. A link light positioned above his head bathed the tiny room in red light, then yellow as a connection was formed with the destination node. I’ll take it apart when I get home tonight. That way I won’t be tempted to use it again. The transfer chamber flooded with green light. This is the last time.

Ben felt nothing as he was de-materialized inside the transfer chamber. As his mind was encoded into a beam of energy, he remained conscious in a sort of senseless void. It was like sitting in a quiet room with his eyes closed. Except there was no feeling of a chair underneath him, no touch of cool air on his skin, no rhythmic heartbeat in his chest. Some people found the sensation unsettling. He found it relaxing. Besides, it would only last a few moments as his mind was transmitted to his destination in intermittent bursts of light.

He was confused when those moments stretched on into seconds. Weird, I must have punched in the coordinates for the Luna office by mistake.

When the seconds turned to minutes, panic started to creep into Ben’s thoughts. It’s nothing, I must have input coordinates to the Titan office. Deep down, he knew he couldn’t recall a single digit of the coordinate codes for the office on Titan, but he kept calm by entertaining the possibility.

When the minutes turned to hours, there were no more possibilities to entertain.

Help! Is there anyone there? Can anyone hear me? Someone, please help! Just let me out of here. Please, just let me out!

There was nothing. There was no one. Only thoughts in a senseless void.

#

Ben’s body had materialized at his Transolar Technologies office node that morning, but it had not been his mind inside of it. Later that night, the stranger in his body walked with Azumi to the atrium. “I’m going to hit the bathroom,” he said, “have a good night.”

“You too,” said Azumi as she strode out the main entrance.

‘Ben’ smiled as he watched her leave, then returned to her office. The door scanned his face and opened with a soft chime, recognizing him as an authorized guest-user, at least for the next four hours and thirty-seven minutes.

There was a long list of tempting targets on Azumi’s terminal. She had been at Transolar Technologies nearly a decade and had access to the itineraries of all their top clients. Everything was laid out in the itineraries: departure nodes, arrival nodes, intermediary relays, authentication codes. It would be so easy to pick the best target of the bunch and set up an interception, but ‘Ben’ resisted the temptation. OMEN had gone for a big fish before and been burned when it didn’t pan out. Now they were playing the long game.

After a few minutes of searching, he found what he was looking for. The itinerary for Transolar Technologies’ chief engineer, listed among those headed to the Luna colony for the company retreat tomorrow. With a few swift keystrokes, a pitstop was added to the planned route; a brief sojourn at a decommissioned satellite OMEN had refitted with porting tech.

The stranger smiled to himself. With an inside man at the top of the biggest teleportation firm in the solar system, there would be virtually no one OMEN couldn’t touch. They would be more careful this time and try not to reveal their hand too early. It wouldn’t take long to populate a majority of Congress with minds more sympathetic to the cause of Martian Independence, but those minds didn’t necessarily have to make their new sympathies known until it was time to cast votes. If any of OMEN’s inside men were kicked out of office, they could afford to take the loss gracefully and retire from public life without making a fuss. After all, any possible successor would need to make their rounds campaigning in the colonies…

The stranger fished around in Azumi’s desk and found the bottle she’d poured drinks from earlier. Leaning back in her chair and kicking his feet up on her desk, he helped himself to another glass. This is good stuff, he thought, sipping idly at the drink.

He had never been quite as passionate about Martian independence as his compatriots. It was never really about politics or patriotism; it was this feeling he was after. The feeling that he was about to change history without anyone ever knowing his name. It was an addiction, this feeling, it was a high. He wouldn’t stop once Mars was free, he couldn’t, not when there was even bigger game to chase. It would never end, this little game.

The stranger sighed contently to himself, sated, if only for the moment. There was something special about it, this feeling of anonymous power. There was something special about being the man in the middle.

END

Man in the Middle by C.J. Heckman 1

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