It’s Machine Code

By Curtis C. Chen

Illustration by Linda Saboe

Shattered Bits by Linda Saboe

Shattered Bits by Linda Saboe

The display tablet hit Julie’s desk with a clatter, startling her. She almost dropped her phone as she fumbled to lock the screen to hide the gray-market jewelry forum she’d been browsing. She looked up and saw Lieutenant Mitchell, the Central Precinct day-shift supervisor.

What the shit is he doing here? It was usually a uniform who schlepped each week’s batch of hand-carry-only documents upstairs to the Portland Municipal IT department where Julie worked. Why would the lieutenant come up here himself? He had more important things to do than play courier. Unless Julie was in some kind of trouble.

Had the police found out about her technically-illegal gemstone-dealing hobby? But all of Julie’s sales were anonymized. Even if law enforcement seized some product from one of her clients, the goods couldn’t be traced back to her.

“Nickerson.” Mitchell nodded at her phone. “Making personal calls during work hours?”

“Compiling,” Julie said, waving a hand at her desktop screen and relaxing a little. Mitchell wouldn’t know a screensaver from a coredump. She pointed to the tablet. “What’s this, sir?”

“New case. Priority.”

Julie picked up the tablet. It wasn’t one of her normal, local-jurisdiction assignments — those were printed on thin sheets of floppy, multi-use display polymer. This was an EM-insulated one-time pad, the kind you had to incinerate after use. An animated FBI seal glittered on the backlit screen.

Julie did not want to deal with a federal case.

“Come on, Lieutenant,” she said. “Look at my backlog.” Julie pointed to her tall pile of plastic display sheets. Recent budget cuts meant her department had to handle computer-related criminal complaints in addition to their normal workload, and Julie did not like the mandatory overtime.

“What are you working on now?” Mitchell asked.

“Prepping evidence for that paypoint fraud investigation.” Maybe she could scare him off with some jargon. “You know, running parallel forensic accounting algorithms, video post-processing to enhance raw surveillance footage, cross-correlating geo-location markers—”

“That’s a retail case.” Mitchell tapped the FBI tablet. “This is a federal compliance order.”

Julie frowned. “Shouldn’t you send actual police, then?”

“It’s a computer issue,” Mitchell said. “Something to do with robots and data downloads. Your area of expertise.”

“I’m not really an expert in—”

“The feds want a techie. You’re on call. This is not a discussion. Understood?”

Julie bit her tongue. “Yeah, I got it.”

“The good news is, you need police authority to access the federal network. So you’re a deputy now.” Mitchell dropped a badge on the desk. “Have some fun with it. Go.”

Julie was momentarily mesmerized by the intricate surface of the Portland Police Bureau badge. It was genuine die-cast metal, not a fabbed shell. Then Mitchell’s words registered. “Wait, ‘go’? I’m going somewhere?”

“It’s a house call.”

Julie stifled a groan.

usdisk section break

“Okay, watch this next part,” Julie said, pointing at the screen in the video bay.

Her fellow City of Portland technology specialist, Victor, gave her a dubious look. Like Julie, he had been reluctant to get involved with a federal case, but her promise of a free sandwich had won him over. She had been bribing him for favors since their college days.

“I thought Mitchell said this was urgent,” Victor said. “Why are you still here?”

“Shut up and watch.”

On screen, the traffic-bot’s camera showed a beige minivan weaving between lanes and speeding nearly fifty kilometers per hour over the limit. The video stuttered and pixelated horribly as the traffic-bot caught up with the vehicle and directed the driver to pull over.

The minivan stopped on the freeway shoulder and the bot rolled over to the driver’s side door, activating a facial recognition overlay. But before it could find a face, the view abruptly tilted up to a flat blue sky. A shadow blurred across the screen, and the image vibrated briefly before cutting out completely.

An error dialog popped up: PREMATURE END OF FILE.

“So he killed a traffic-bot,” Victor said. “Big deal. We went through a dozen of those every Saturday night in Santa Cruz.”

“But did you see how quickly he did it? And there wasn’t a single clean frame showing the back of the vehicle. All that signal interference isn’t normal.”

“You’re saying he’s hacked bots before?”

“What if he was speeding on purpose?” Julie asked. “You know, to lure the bot to the van. What if he’s part of a chop shop, stripping them for parts? I could be walking into an ambush.”

“Those bots are made with the cheapest hardware in the world,” Victor said. “They’re remote controlled by aerial drone. There’s no onboard storage; there’s not even a battery. You would need like a hundred traffic-bots to build anything useful. Trust me, nobody is lurking along I-5 stealing our crappy tech.”

Julie folded her arms. “Maybe they’re waiting to kidnap the humans who go snooping around their business.”

Victor rubbed his eyes. “Is this your passive-aggressive way of asking me to come with you?”

“No,” Julie lied. “I just want you to make a note of the time, so you can tell the homicide detectives exactly when you last saw me.”

“Oh, Jesus Christ.” Victor stood up and grabbed his jacket. “You’re driving. My tunes. Let’s go.”

usdisk section break

Julie guessed, based on the wrinkled face, that the woman who lived in the house at the end of the dirt road was at least eighty years old. She waved through the screen door as Julie and Victor walked up to the porch.

“Margaret Fisher?” Julie asked.

“Oh, please, call me Margie. How can I help you?”

“Portland Police,” Julie said, holding up her badge. It was kind of fun, actually. “We’re investigating some recent vandalism in this area, and we need to check your UIA broadband router for…” She wasn’t sure how to explain the rest in layman’s terms.

“Uninteresting technical reasons,” Victor said.

“Oh, of course, officers,” Margie said. “That’s fine. Your identification, if you don’t mind?”

She pointed at the NO SOLICITORS sign that hung next to the door. Julie tapped her badge against the sign and waited for hidden sensors to read the NFC chip embedded in the badge.

“Julia Nickerson,” the sign said in a synthetic male voice. “Portland Police Bureau, Deputy, Computer Security Section. Provisional badge number 6331. Authorized for law enforcement activities in Oregon state and Clark County, Washington. Supervisor, Lieutenant Lawrence Mitchell. Contact portland-oregon-dot-gov-slash-police for more information.”

“And your friend, too, please,” Margie said.

Victor shrugged. “I don’t need to come in.”

“Just pretend he’s not even here,” Julie said.

“Most people do,” Victor added.

“Nonsense,” Margie said. “I don’t get visitors nearly often enough. I’m making a pot of tea. And a friend just sent me a very large box of cookies.”

Victor pulled out his wallet and swiped it against the sign. “What kind of cookies?”

“Almond, I think.”

The synthetic voice began droning again. “Victor Wylie. City of Portland, Specialist, Information Technology Department…”

“You’re not a police officer?” Margie asked.

“Hey, neither is she.” Victor jerked a thumb at Julie. “The fuzz only deputized her because—”

Julie elbowed him in the ribs. “It’s a long story.”

“You can tell me inside.” Margie opened the door. “Please, come in.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Victor said, nudging Julie forward.

“You don’t even like tea,” Julie grumbled.

“Free food, man!”

usdisk section break

While Margie served tea and cookies and Victor stuffed his face, Julie walked down a hallway lined with paintings of rural landscapes. She located the government-issued broadband router in the den.

The tiny device was buried under a pile of blank and half-sketched canvases. It looked like someone had used the top of the case to test paint mixes — ridged stripes of dark green and brown covered the star-spangled pattern printed in the plastic. Julie had to scrape off some dried paint to expose the router’s bar code for scanning.

The Universal Internet Access program had started before Julie was born, and the red-white-and-blue boxes had been a familiar sight in all her childhood friends’ homes. UIA routers provided free Internet access for their owners, open wireless hotspots for the whole neighborhood, and a wealth of information for federal agencies to passively monitor for signs of criminal activity — or whatever else they wanted.

Most people were happy to trade their already-minimal online privacy for free broadband, but security-conscious engineers like Julie’s parents opted out and built their own homebrew boxes. Julie had learned how to use military-grade encryption before learning how to ride a bicycle.

Another unadvertised feature of UIA routers was the quantum-encrypted onboard storage, reserved “for official use only.” The routers acted as a nationwide mesh network, syncing government files from sea to shining sea and buffering local emergency services data — like the last few minutes of sensor recordings from a downed traffic-bot. The speeding minivan might have been able to jam the bot’s relay to its aerial drone controller, but cell towers on the ground would have picked up a stronger signal from the bot and copied that raw data into the UIA darknet.

Of course, to maintain data security, accessing the router’s emergency buffer required a hard link — an actual, physical connection. Julie couldn’t remember the last time she’d plugged in an electronic device. Even home power outlets were wireless these days. Jamming the pronged ends of the interface cable into her phone and the back of the router felt a little perverse.


She tapped OK. It was a pretty useless warning. Anything could be stored in the router’s secret cache, and nobody would ever access it except to dump the whole buffer. Any decryption and analysis had to be done in a secure facility. Yet another ridiculous restriction enforced by Big Brother’s spyware.

The download finished, and Julie unplugged the cable and shoved it back into her pocket. Then she returned to the living room to try a cookie before Victor scarfed them all.

usdisk section break

“No,” Victor said when Julie walked into his cubicle.

“Just take a look.” She held up a data card.

“I’m busy.” Victor continued typing. “Mitchell’s been riding my ass—”

“Don’t care about your personal life.” Julie dropped the card onto Victor’s keyboard. “That’s the full traffic-bot download, but the archive got corrupted or something. Need you to do your recovery magic.”

Victor sighed and picked up the card. “Did you checksum the headers?”

“No, because I’m an idiot.” Julie smacked the back of his head. “Of course I checked the headers. There’s no metadata at all, and the hash doesn’t match any standard crypto pattern.”

“That’s impossible.”

“See for yourself.”

Victor slid the card into a reader slot, then leaned forward to study his display. Julie turned and walked out of the cubicle.

“Where are you going?” Victor asked.

“I’m not going to sit around here watching you code,” Julie said. “I got shit to do.”

“You owe me for this!”

Julie blew him a kiss. “Put it on my tab.”

usdisk section break

“Lunch,” Victor said. “You’re buying.”

He stood over Julie’s desk. The expression on his face, and the fact that he’d actually walked over here instead of texting her, told her not to ask any questions. She locked her computer and followed him out of the building.

Victor didn’t say another word until they had sat down at the counter of the Penny Diner and ordered their food. After the waitress left, Victor activated the newsreader touchscreen built into the counter.

“Pretend we’re talking about this,” he said, starting a noisy video feature about local street musicians.

“What’s with all the cloak and dagger?” Julie asked. Victor was never this paranoid, even when stoned. He generally seemed lackadaisical about anything other than food.

“Do you know what was stored on that router?”

“No,” Julie said. “That’s why I gave it to you, genius.”

“Yeah, thanks a lot. I found the sensor logs from the traffic-bot. Nothing special. But there was additional data in the archive. Unauthorized data.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The router was hacked. The OS was forcing file fragmentation, and using the extra sectors—”

“Just skip to the end. What did you find?”

“Fabrication plans for 3-D printed objects.”

Julie folded her hands so Victor wouldn’t see them shake. “What kind of objects?”

“Expensive ones.”

“You’ll have to be more specific.” Were they gemstones? Had she accidentally handed him the wrong data card? Fuck!

“Look, I don’t know that much about fabbing, but from what I can tell, these are very high-end items,” Victor said. “The specs require composite inputs with high-energy fusing. This is way above our pay grade.”

Julie concentrated on breathing slowly and evenly. “Then why didn’t you take it to Mitchell?”

Victor snorted. “I don’t have four hours to explain molecular fabrication using very small words.”

“Just show me what you found.”

“After we eat.”

Julie waved at the waitress. “Can we get that to go?”

usdisk section break

Julie heard footsteps approaching and quickly minimized all the windows on her laptop screen. She took a bite of the sandwich in her open take-out box while waiting for whoever it was to pass by. It would be awkward if she had to explain why she was running fabrication sims on a city-owned portable workstation in the municipal building’s cafeteria.

Her heart leapt into her throat when Lieutenant Mitchell walked into the mostly empty room. Julie nearly slammed her laptop shut, but decided that would look even more suspicious. She settled for slouching against the wall and hoping Mitchell wouldn’t notice her in the back corner.

No such luck. The lieutenant filled his coffee mug and walked right over to Julie’s table.

“Nickerson. Don’t usually see you working so hard.”

“It’s that federal case you assigned me,” she said. Her heart pounded against her ribcage. “We’ve made some progress.”

“So I hear. Nice work getting that traffic-bot traced so quickly. Patrol says you ID’d the perp from a partial plate and a bumper sticker?”

“Multiple bumper stickers,” Julie said. “Unique pattern of colors and shapes. Easy to find in DOT roadside cam footage with an image recognition script, once we had the uncorrupted traffic-bot data to match against.” And it was an interesting challenge. Not like my usual data-grinding. “Any idea why this guy wanted to steal a traffic-bot?”

“He was going to set it on fire at a protest rally. Some anti-surveillance thing at Reed College.” Mitchell shrugged. “Did you check that image recognition code back into our hub?”

I had to do that before running it, you idiot. “Working on it now. Just adding some comments.”

“Good, good. Carry on.”

Julie counted to ten after Mitchell was gone, slowing her panicked breathing, then foregrounded her design app. She couldn’t access the data from Margie Fisher’s router outside the building — it was still tagged as evidence, and decrypting the stream required an on-site hardware key — but she didn’t want anyone else to see this.

She had loaded some basic design software onto the laptop and input the fab plans. The app simulated the actual object to be printed by a 3-D fabricator, and its current rendering looked like some kind of vase. But there was a lot of data here that Julie didn’t expect to see in a fab plan.

For something as simple as a vase, you only needed to describe the shape, which could be abstracted into mathematical vectors. You wouldn’t need the huge amounts of storage this particular plan had taken up; knock-offs of designer items were designed for maximum profit, not full verisimilitude.

And too much of this particular fab plan was not simple shape data. It actually encoded a solid core with a very specific, layer-by-layer composition. Most fab boxes defaulted to produce a honeycombed interior to save on material mass. Not only that, every surface of this object was “custom painted” — described in molecular-resolution pixel data — instead of simply rendered from mathematical formulae.

What the hell am I looking at here?

The design app was pretty rudimentary, and didn’t include graphics routines to produce photorealistic images from a simulated fab run. Julie found and downloaded a freeware texture app, then transferred over the vase plan to get a better picture of the finished object.

She watched as the new app animated the fabbing process in fast forward. First, a blank white shape: a round container with a small mouth on top and two delicate handles looping down from the neck. Then dark blue lines all over the white surface: a large star pattern on the body, and stylized vines and flowers circling the mouth.

The effects of the next several printing passes were harder to see. The surface became less reflective, and some of the blue ornamentation faded or disappeared entirely. Then a hairline crack appeared, traveling down the neck beside one of the handles.

No way.

Julie took a screenshot of the simulated object and fed it into an online image search. The first result was a news article from The Oregonian with a photo of an identical object, and the headline MING DYNASTY VASE SELLS FOR $7.3 MILLION.

Granny’s an art forger.

usdisk section break

“I’m sorry, dear, I can’t recall. Do you take milk or sugar?”

“Neither, thank you.”

Julie watched Margie Fisher pour tea from a porcelain service decorated with roses and wondered if the old lady had fabbed the teapot, cups, and plates herself — and if so, how she had done it.

The county data Julie found for Margie’s house showed nothing close to the power draw needed to create high-quality forgeries. Fabbing something like the Ming vase required specialized raw materials and would produce a lot of waste heat. DEA flyovers regularly imaged the roads around the house, and they had recorded no large deliveries or suspicious infrared sources in the area for years.

Maybe someone else had hijacked Margie’s UIA box and was using it to hide illicit data without her knowledge. But Julie had looked that up, too. Decades of black-hat experimentation and white-hat audits had all but proved that the only way to crack a UIA box was with physical access. You couldn’t overwrite the factory-installed firmware unless you could touch the actual EPROM chip with a hardware programmer. And even then, any interruption of service would set off alarms in the nearest FBI office. You’d need to be an electrical engineering wizard to have any chance of succeeding.

“There you go.” Margie slid the plate and teacup across the coffee table in the living room. “I’m always happy to have visitors, but I don’t know what else I can tell you about that Internet device. The men from the government installed it years ago. I’ve never fiddled with it, myself.”

Except for painting all over it. To hide signs of tampering, maybe?

Julie pulled out her phone. “Margaret Lynn Fisher,” she read off the screen. “Stanford University, class of 2037, co-terminal Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees, double major in Computer Science and Materials Engineering. Worked seven years at Google, three at Apple, and then several decades consulting with manufactories all over Southeast Asia.”

Margie’s mouth twitched. “That was a long time ago, dear.”

“Maybe so,” Julie said, “but the fifteen posts you made to a ceramic fabbing sub-Reddit yesterday weren’t. And neither were the tunnel-encrypted video calls last week between your IP address and three different Internet cafés in Guandong, Tainan, and Singapore. Also, why are you running all your network traffic through multiple offshore VPN proxies?” Cracking Margie’s firewall would have taken a lot longer if Julie hadn’t used a similar setup herself.

Margie put down her teacup. “Am I under arrest?”

“No.” Julie couldn’t help smiling with satisfaction. Gotcha, granny. “China’s a little outside our jurisdiction.”

Margie’s eyes narrowed. “Then what exactly are we discussing here?”

“You’re not stupid,” Julie said, “and you’re not senile. You had plenty of time to remote-wipe that router when we came by on Tuesday. Why the hell did you leave evidence of fifty million dollars in Class B felonies sitting in local storage?”

Margie shook her head. “Fucking time zones.”

Julie blinked. “What?”

“My client was supposed to download his files and then delete everything,” Margie said. “But he’s on the other side of the planet, and apparently I did my math wrong. I thought he had already wiped the cache when I sat down with you and your friend the other day.” She laughed hoarsely. “Rookie mistake. And the worst luck — you were investigating an unrelated crime. The irony is killing me.”

“You’re the designer.” Julie snapped her fingers. “Of course! You don’t fab anything here. You ship the code overseas.”

“Most of my friends and family have passed away or moved on. I needed to expand my horizons—” Margie frowned. “Wait. If this isn’t police business… why are you interested?”

Julie reached into her shirt and pulled out the pendant on her necklace: a clear, faceted crystal that reflected light just as brilliantly as a natural gemstone, but cost a fraction of the price in fabrication inputs. “A girl needs a hobby.”

Margie smiled. “I remember when I printed my first diamond. My husband, God rest his soul, was so upset. He said he wouldn’t know what to buy me for anniversaries anymore.”

“But why forge art?” Julie asked. “It’s labor-intensive and high-risk.”

“And gemstones aren’t?”

“Rocks are largely untraceable. Artwork needs to be appraised and authenticated. And if you get caught, a lot more people are going to be upset.”

“Therein lies the challenge.” Margie’s eyes twinkled. “Perfection is boring. Art is priceless because it’s uniquely imperfect. Decay, aging, material fatigue, other microscopic variations — the faults that would get a product junked off the assembly line are what collectors will pay through the nose to preserve.”

Julie nodded. “Tell me how you hacked the router.”

“Slow down, missy,” Margie said. “I don’t know you.”

“We can help each other,” Julie said. “You’re sending all your work to Asia, which means you don’t have contacts to fence the stuff in North America. I do. I’ve got a network, but I don’t have your product.”

“I don’t need a partner,” Margie said. “Especially not one who works for the police.”

“You don’t agree with Sun Tzu? ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer?'”

Margie scoffed. “Sun Tzu never said that.”

“Fine, Machiavelli or whoever it was—”

“It’s a line from The Godfather, you idiot.” Margie rose from her seat. “I’d like you to leave my home now.”

Julie stood and held out her hands, palms up. “Look. All I’m saying is, you won’t be around forever, and it would be a shame to let someone in Myanmar inherit your business when I could stimulate the local economy.”

Margie folded her arms. “What’s really going on here?”

Julie sighed. “I hate my job.”

That was when the SERT commandos broke down the front door.

The Portland Police Bureau’s Special Emergency Response Team was not known for subtlety. Before Julie could turn around, two commandos had surged around the couch.

“Portland Police! Do not move!”

One of them aimed an assault rifle at Margie’s face while the other yanked the elderly woman’s arms behind her back. He slapped a pair of police shackles down around her wrists so forcefully that Margie stumbled forward and smacked her head on the edge of the coffee table. Blood poured from Margie’s forehead as the two men pulled her back up.

“Jesus Christ!” Julie shouted as more commandos stormed into the house. The first two hustled Margie out the front door. Julie looked around for someone in charge, someone who could call off the raid. This has to be a mistake.

She did a double-take when she saw a familiar face.

Victor?” He cowered behind the kitchen counter. Julie stomped over to him. “What the hell is going on?”

Victor waved his hands and shook his head. “Stop talking. I’ll explain later—”

“Hey, I still owe you a sandwich,” Julie said. “How do you like knuckle?

Victor dodged her swing. Julie chased him around the kitchen until the commandos grabbed her and dragged her away, too.

usdisk section break

Lieutenant Mitchell’s office was dead quiet. Victor studiously avoided Julie’s glare while Mitchell paged through the incident report. When the lieutenant finished, he put down the plastic sheet and nodded at Julie.

“Nice work, Nickerson,” he said. “You set this up while you were still working that vandalism case?”

“Yes, sir,” Julie replied. “It wasn’t easy, but Mister Wylie helped me out.”

“I did some of the grunt work, but the idea was all hers, Lieutenant,” Victor said.

Mitchell nodded. “Well, I can’t argue with results. But don’t make a habit of this. The audio recording off your phone is barely good enough for prosecution. We could have gotten better surveillance, with fewer dropouts, if you had used a department-issued wire.

“The next time one of you nerds has a bright idea for an undercover operation, you talk to me first. You’re city technicians, not police detectives. Got that?”

“Got it,” Julie and Victor replied in unison.

“All right, dismissed,” Mitchell said. “But don’t go too far. The DAs will want to talk to both of you before end of day. Oh, and Nickerson?”

Julie stopped halfway to the door and turned back, her heart racing. “Yes?”

“Don’t forget to return that necklace to Evidence,” Mitchell said. “Nice move, using a fake diamond to gain the perp’s confidence.”

It’s not “fake,” asshole, it’s synthetic. “Yes, sir.”

Victor led the way out of the Lieutenant’s office. Julie closed the door behind her, then caught up with Victor and pinched the underside of his left arm as hard as she could.

“What the fuck!” Victor yelped, trying to get away. Julie held on tight and maneuvered him into the nearest stairwell, where she pinned him against the railing.

“I’m going to murder you,” Julie said, jabbing a finger at his face. “It will be slow and painful.”

“Gimme a break,” Victor said, shoving her back. “I did you a favor. You’ll probably get a promotion out of this.”

“You hacked my phone!” Julie said. “My. Personal. Phone! I’m going to have to junk it and build a new one. I’m going to have to fab my own goddamn circuit board to make sure nobody else can fuck up my shit!”

“You’d be in jail if it wasn’t for me!” Victor threw up his hands. “I’ve been lying my ass off, telling everyone this sting was your idea. I should be getting the credit. I did all the work. Don’t forget who edited that audio stream to garble your self-incriminating remarks.”

“Nobody asked you to do anything,” Julie said. “But I hope you’re happy. When Margie Fisher dies in prison—”

“She won’t,” Victor said. “Come on, that little old felon will turn state’s evidence and give up her international counterfeiting buddies. She’ll be fine. You gotta think big picture, Jules.”

“So the big picture involves putting an eighty-year-old woman in the hospital with a fractured skull, and betraying your best friend?”

“Well,” Victor said, “I wouldn’t call you my best friend.”

“You got that right.” Julie stared at Victor until he blinked. “By the way, all those favors I owe you? You can forget about them.”

“Fine,” Victor said. “And you can feel free to transfer your lazy ass out of this department any time!”

Julie left Victor in the stairwell and slammed the door behind her.

usdisk section break

The message came just after midnight. Every networked device in Julie’s apartment suddenly lit up and made enough noise to wake the dead — even though she always set them to vibrate-only.

Every screen showed the same message: AN OFFER YOU CAN’T REFUSE.

After a few seconds, the lights and noises stopped, and the message vanished from everywhere it had appeared. Julie went into the bathroom, gulped down some cold tap water to calm herself, then went to her computer.

The e-mail wasn’t in Julie’s personal inbox, or her work account, or even the honeypot she used for social networking. It was in the secure, anonymized account Julie used for her fabrication deals. She was very careful to keep this account clear of any personal details which might lead back to her.

Okay, Margie. Your kung fu is the best. But why the theatrics?

The message was just two sentences: “Help wanted. Going out of business sale.”

An encrypted archive file was attached to the e-mail. Julie guessed the decryption passphrase after two tries: the thirty-two-digit bar code from Margie’s UIA router.

The archive contained fab plans for one hundred and twenty-seven different pieces of rare sculpture, a database listing sixty-three contacts all over southeast Asia, and detailed instructions on how to reprogram a UIA router without interrupting its system heartbeat.

Holy shit.

Julie’s on-call work phone began ringing its distinctive vreet-vreet-vreet tone. She locked her computer and walked out to the kitchen before answering.


“This is police dispatch, request video link,” said a female voice.

Julie turned on the phone’s front-facing camera. “Nickerson, badge 6331, online.”

“Verified, thank you.” The young, female dispatcher looked incredibly bored. “Have you had any contact with the suspect apprehended this afternoon, Margaret Lynn Fisher, age eighty-seven?”

“No,” Julie said. “Not since SERT took her away. What’s going on?”

“Suspect has escaped custody and is at large,” the dispatcher said. “Suspect is considered a dangerous fugitive, please advise if you have any information on whereabouts.”

“Understood,” Julie said, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. “Anything else?”

“No, thank you, good night.” The dispatcher hung up.

Girl, we are never going to see Margie Fisher again.

Julie put the phone down next to the microwave oven, threw a packet of popcorn into the oven, and hit the START button. She waited until the phone display popped up an alert, warning of nearby interference with its monitoring sensors, then went back to her computer.

It took two minutes to copy the entire archive file to an encrypted data card. When the operation finished, Julie yanked the card and started a secure-delete utility to overwrite the entire hard drive. Then she got her popcorn out of the microwave.

Julie chewed one piece of popcorn at a time and started making a to-do list in her head. She’d have to burn her current computer — get its MAC address off the Internet permanently, so nobody could trace where Margie’s message had been delivered. Then Julie needed an offline, air-gapped machine to store the fab plans and other data. None of those bits could ever touch any public network.

The setup would be a lot of work, but it would be interesting work. A real challenge. Something to test Julie’s abilities and expand her horizons. That was worth even more than the money she would be making.

Julie took the popcorn and a can of soda back to her bedroom and started dismantling her computer. It would be fun to build an updated rig. New hardware always felt like starting over: a clean desktop, a blank slate, a new life.

cipher disk
It’s Machine Code © 2015 Curtis C. Chen
Shattered Bits © 2015 Linda Saboe