Having always tried to live under the radar, the Merrers’ hadn’t been the kind to invest in the kind of expensive cortex tech that would hook up your brain to the flowband. In general, these things were unusual in Cendar. For the most part they were a community of farmers, and it was only in the cities that people felt the need for it. But if someone hacked a cortex interface there would be no real barriers to breach, and they’d be able to access every bit of information stored in a person’s brain at once.
This was why, when Andera returned home that evening, she had to flick three switches before she was connected to the flowband. The first was to take the computer interface system out of sleep mode. The second activated the sophisticated security encryption that protected her system from being hacked. The third connected the system to the flowband.
It was Andera who had invented the encryption system used by the entire PACMo, and she was, she hoped, the only one who understood how it worked. At this point it was unlikely that even she would be able to hack it, as the programme, once activated, would continue to renew the encryption to infinity and the code was beyond complicated to break.
There came a small ‘ding’, telling her that she was being pinged. It was Laina. Andera accepted, and Laina’s pale face appeared on her screen.
‘I’m patching the list through to you now,’ she said.
‘Thank you, Laina,’ said Andera. She opened the list and skimmed through it, making up her mind. ‘Yes, I see… Now, there are a few things I need you to do for me. Firstly, I need to get to Middletown as soon as possible, I think. I need to speak with some of these people in person. Could you arrange discreet travel for me?’
Laina nodded, looking a bit puzzled. ‘Are you sure you’re ready to go out there and get involved?’ she asked carefully.
‘Yes, I’ve never been more ready in my life,’ replied Andera, dismissively. ‘Secondly there is the matter of the spy.’
‘Spy, mole, whatever you want to call it. Point is, it has to be one of us. With that in mind, it’s very important that we keep a tight lid on everything that’s going on. Finding out who this traitor is should be first priority.’
Laina looked like she wanted to say something, but kept her mouth closed, so Andera went on, ‘You’ve been hopelessly open about everything till now. As far as my trip to Middletown is concerned, only you and Floyd are to have full access to information, and all communications between you about it has to go through me as well.’
‘Aren’t you being a bit paranoid?’ asked Laina with a pained expression.
‘Absolutely not.’ Andera gave her a piercing stare. ‘My parents are dead.’
‘Exactly,’ said Laina. ‘This shouldn’t be your responsibility. And I understand that you want revenge on whomever’s responsible for Lidya and Victor’s deaths, but –‘
‘This isn’t about revenge,’ said Andera simply. ‘This is about this never happening again.’ She waited for a response, but none came. ‘We need to think differently now,’ she pressed on. ‘We’ve been living in our cosy little world here, waiting for the revolution to happen, but it’s not going to. We need to take the initiative now. It’s up to us, and this thing is way bigger than we want to think. We need to be organised, and we absolutely have to make sure that only people we can trust know everything. As far as I’m concerned, that’s you and Floyd at the moment. Your job, while I’m in Middletown, is to investigate everyone. Ask if they’ve seen or heard anything. Figure this out!’
‘Now hang on a moment!’ said Laina with a frown. ‘No one voted for you to take charge, you know!’
‘No one else has volunteered for the job!’
They stared each other down for a few seconds. Laina was the first to look away with an irritated sigh.
‘I’ll arrange your trip.’
‘Thank you, Laina,’ said Andera. Laina disconnected.
Andera thumbed through the list, picked a random name and pinged them.
‘Hello, my name is Andera Merrers. I was wondering if you might be available to meet with me in Middletown in the near future?’
‘I’ve dropped an awful lot in your lap, haven’t I?’ she said, finally.
‘No!’ he said emphatically. Then, ‘Well, yes, but it’s okay…’
‘Laina seems to think I’ve gone on some power-spree to not have to deal with my emotions about my parents, or something. Like my wish to find out who betrayed them is just about revenge.’ She looked up at him. ‘You don’t think so, do you?’ He shook his head. ‘Good, cause it’s not.’ She sighed.
He hesitated, then reached out a hand and touched her arm gently. She looked up at him and smiled. ‘I’m going to Middletown in for dayns,’ she said. ‘I won’t be able to ping you while I’m there, not to talk about things properly, anyway. I’m working on an encryption for the cortex system, but I don’t feel safe with it. It’s untested. Someone might still hack it, so I have to be careful.’
He nodded. Looked away. Swallowed. It was an odd sort of juxtaposition, Andera thought; usually it was she who was tongue-tied and he who was strong.
‘Make sure you come back, yeah?’ he said after a while.
She smiled shakily. ‘Of course I will. I’m just going to Middletown… I’ll be back before you know it.’
‘I’ll do what I can… Look around, keep my eyes and ears open… for the traitor, I mean.’
She nodded briskly. ‘You have any ideas?’
‘No…’ He shook his head and looked away. ‘I can’t imagine who would do such a thing, of all the people we know… But I promise I’ll find them, whomever they are.’
She was leaving the next dayn. Had her papers in order, tickets and hotel booked. And she had meetings scheduled, with VIPs and activists. Hopefully someone, somewhere, would have a contact or some information that she could use to gain access to the Sun Alliance meeting. Perhaps they could turn up as staff. Surely they would need caterers and waiters, even if they wouldn’t be in the actual meeting… Maybe they could plant a bug somehow.
It was useless to speculate, she decided. She put it away in the back of her mind and turned her attention to her new cortex device. It had two pieces. One was oblong and would be fastened to her temple. It was a wireless transmitter and receiver, and contained a microphone. The other was octagonal, with tiny, little spikes on one side. This piece would be fastened to the back of her neck, where the little spikes would dig into her brain stem through her pores. It would get the signals from the receiver and send images, sound and text directly into her brain. It could also, on demand, record what she saw and heard.
She knew it wouldn’t hurt a bit, and yet she was deeply unsettled by the concept. The chip would read her mind, and could transmit her thoughts to someone else, directly. If someone used that to gain access to her mind, everything could be compromised.
But both parts of the device were double encrypted and completely wiped of their original programming and serial numbers. Nobody could contact her if she didn’t first contact them, and no one could listen in if they didn’t already know what they were listening for. As far as she knew, the connection to the flowband would be completely safe. Her own mind would be hidden behind three firewalls and both binary and hexadecimal security encryptions, which renewed themselves every twenty minutes and were distinctly connected to her biological code.
She put the device back in its pouch and placed it in her hand luggage. She wouldn’t wear it until she got to the city. She double checked the rest of her packing. Enough clothes for six dayns, both casual and businesslike. Toiletries, her microbook for something to read while travelling… She supposed that was all she would need. She closed her suitcase and sighed. Tomorrow would be a long dayn.