“The Glitter of Gold” Excerpt by J.M. Phillippe

Chapter 3 – The Corporate Spy

She was going to get caught. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. She’d played out every scenario she could as she hunched down below the smooth white counter, and not a single one was going to get her out of this mess. Aderyn Ryder’s original plan was to get in, get a copy of the data, and get out. But none of her research had indicated that the lead tech had a severe case of paranoia and a bio-locked workstation that was impossible to hack into with the genetic material Aderyn had on hand, which did include that of the lead tech, Jareth Ankler.

Just not Jareth’s pet lizard, who Aderyn had found out he’d grown from a Grow Your Own Reptile! kit and kept in a special pouch under his shirt at all times. Said lizard, it turned out, was also the key to every lock Jareth created. Specifically, the lizard’s saliva was the key. The lizard’s saliva was also lethal to anyone who was not Jareth.

And also, it was a lizard, and Aderyn never really liked lizards. So instead of trying to go through the nearly impossible task of getting Jareth alone, getting the lizard safely back to the workstation, and getting the lizard’s spit on the lock without also accidentally poisoning herself, Aderyn did the next best thing: she broke the protective casing of the workstation, yanked the data core out, and ran.

The problem was that said core was tagged with a tracking chip and any attempt to take it out of any exit would immediately set off every alarm in TenDek Corporation. She estimated she had maybe ten minutes until her smash and grab of the data core was discovered, and if she didn’t find a way out of the main building and back to the ship dock—with the core—not only would she be facing serious jail time, her client would very unhappy.

Aderyn had the kind of clients that it wasn’t safe to make unhappy.

Aderyn pulled up her 3D map of the TenDek Research and Development Space Station on her com bracelet, using her other hand to twist the floor map around, tracking different paths with her index finger. The secret to any good escape was to control the information—video feed, sensor information, ID chip logs—any information that told people who what and where other people were. The truth was, most people didn’t look up from their coms anymore, counting on their resident AIs to tell them if the people around them belonged or not. Aderyn had convinced the TenDek AI that she was a visiting shareholder. That would get her to an exit, but not through, not with the core’s chip triggering the alarm. She gestured at her projection until it zoomed in on something interesting: there was a recycling room one floor down that Aderyn was pretty sure she could get to. Maybe she didn’t have to leave with the core, so long as they both made it out.

She walked calmly and with purpose, keeping her pace steady and unhurried, despite her desire to run. Her outfit had been carefully selected to match her persona—a boring, overpriced suit that did little to flatter her curves and that marked her as a mid-level shareholder who was wealthy enough to let do what she wanted, but not wealthy enough to bother sucking up to. Her hair was twisted up in such a way that the bright purple streak was hidden, only showing the dark brown, and her makeup was conservative, with only some sparkle brushed across her cheeks in the way that was all the rage in the Dekken Solar System. She wore brown contacts over her amethyst eyes, as her eye-color would have made her stand out too much. She was shorter than most Dekken women, which was impressive considering she was considered tall for an Osterian, man or woman. Still, she hoped she blended in enough that these little differences didn’t mean as much.

She gained entry to the next floor with another quick scan, trusting her memory of the 3D map to lead her to a doorway about halfway down the hall on the right-hand side. This door didn’t have a lock, and Aderyn slipped inside easily.

The recycling room for this part of the TenDek compound was mostly filled with old coms tech, vid-screens, and empty food packages, but Aderyn could tell at least one workstation had been torn out and sent down here to be stripped into parts. The core would blend in well with those bits, and she hurried over, noticing as she did a small reflective square on each item in the room. Even the food packaging had these squares, and as Aderyn picked one up to look closer, she felt her heart sink.

Of course the TenDek workers tagged their recycling. They wanted to prevent the very thing that Aderyn was trying to do—slipping important tech into the recycling chute to smuggle it out of the compound. After using her com bracelet to get images of a few more of the tags, Aderyn’s computer told her that not only was each item tagged, each tag directed the item to the appropriate recycling center. The good news was that Aderyn could use a tag to send the data core where she wanted it to go. The bad news was that she had no idea how to make the recycling tags. She wandered over to the main workstation in the room and stared at the login screen.

The question now was whose ID should she try to use to log in? She had a handful of worker IDs and passwords with her, which is how she had gotten as far as she did.

Aderyn scrolled through her IDs again, this time looking for anyone marked currently offline. She had two possibilities. One was the head of the bioengineering department, and the other the very same lizard-holding lab tech who had made this job so very complicated. Of course, Jareth probably never logged in his own recycling. She imagined it would be very hard for him to explain why he suddenly had, particularly the day the data core went missing. It gave her no small amount of satisfaction to picture his discomfort as she typed in his ID and password, swiping his replicated DNA sample across the sensor to verify his identity. It was a public workstation—no poisonous lizard spit allowed.

She hoped.

Aderyn exhaled when the computer granted her access and brought up a simple menu. She picked the name of a recycling center in orbit around the same planet as the research and development station and labeled the data core as a broken motherboard. When the computer asked her if she’d like to disable the tracking chip, she grinned. Yes, she selected. Most definitely yes. The computer secured the recycling sticker on the data core at the same time it disabled the tracking chip, replacing one way of keeping tabs on it with another. The only thing left to do was drop the core into the appropriate bin so that a drone could start it on its journey.

Aderyn’s hand hovered over the bin. Once she let go, so much could go wrong. She hadn’t anticipated this path, hadn’t figured out all the variables, all the possible outcomes. If she lost this core….

“Stupid lizard,” she muttered. Then she let the data core go. A scanner at the entrance of the bin beeped once to register that it was tracking the core as it slid down and out of sight. Aderyn just had to trust the AI would get it to its destination safely.

Now, to make sure she did, too.

Aderyn quickly logged out of the workstation, then brought the vid-feed up on her com bracelet to check that the corridor was clear. Moments later, she was outside the nearest lift, trying not to pay too much attention to the time.

Footsteps were approaching, and Aderyn could see the general shape of a man in her peripheral. She kept her head straight, her gaze bored.

“Nice sparkles,” the man said as he settled in next to her. Aderyn let her eyes drift over to him, picking up on a strong profile with a long nose and square chin, before rolling her eyes in a clear gesture of dismissal. But her eyes took in other details: his suit was nicer than hers. His hair was shorn short, only slightly longer on top than on the sides. His blue-green eyes were bright and alert, and his skin was sun-browned with a smattering of dark freckles across his face, proof that he’d spent time planetside in the near past.

And he was staring at her. Blatantly. Obviously. She shifted uncomfortably under his gaze, trying to figure out how her character would handle a situation like this.

“Do you mind?” she asked sharply, turning to look pointedly at him.

“Not at all,” he said, smiling warmly back. “I like the purple in your sparkles,” he added. “But I think they were probably a mistake.”

“A mistake?” Aderyn asked. Her mind raced as she took in other details, like the way his suit jacket puffed out just so, as though it was concealing something hard and probably metal underneath it. She found her eyes searching for his hands: short nails, rough calluses on the knuckles, a few scars nicked along the edges that looked an awful lot like the remnants of old defensive wounds. Her eyes glanced down to notice the width of his stance and how he was carrying his weight. Then her eyes were back up, finally seeing his face and the warm smile. It was a handsome face. The nose didn’t look broken or crooked, but she figured that just meant he had good health care. He was a fighter, and he had good health care, and that meant he was probably very, very good at his job.

“Purple isn’t a Dekken color,” the man said, gesturing to the brush of sparkles at her cheeks.

“Who said I was Dekken?” Aderyn asked, shifting her weight slightly, the hand furthest away from the man slipping into her bag, her fingers searching out her taze-stick. She grasped the stubby handle firmly and slowly started to pull her hand out.

“All the shareholders are,” the man said. “It’s in the bylaws.” He opened his jacket then in one swift move, revealing the gun holstered underneath it. “Stay still, and I won’t have to draw this.”

Aderyn froze. Option one, pull the taze-stick out as quickly as she could and hope she could swing it around at the man before he got his gun pointed at her. Option two, play this out and find a different opportunity to try to escape.

But the core was already on its way. She needed to hurry if she wanted to catch up to it.

She smiled.

“I am not sure who you think I am,” she said as sarcastically sweet as she figured her persona could be, “but if you dare pull that thing on me, I will have your job. Maybe even your head.”

“You really don’t want to do this,” the man said, his hand hovering just over the gun.

“Want so rarely comes into it,” Aderyn said, dropping her persona. “But I do it anyway.” She jerked to her left, slamming her shoulder into the man’s while whipping her taze-stick out of her bag at the same time, pressing the release to make the stubby stick a long thin baton crackling with electricity. The man was more solidly planted than she’d hoped, and he recovered quickly, swinging his gun up toward her just as she slammed her taze-stick down on his arm.

His hand went rigid, and then his arm, and suddenly he was as still as a turned off work-bot in front of her.

The lift arrived and Aderyn backed away from the man, his eyes wide with fear and pain as she retracted her taze-stick back into its dormant and smaller state.

“It won’t last long,” she reassured him. “But the recovery can be a bitch.” She stepped into the lift, turning to keep the man in view, and watched as his eyes swiveled to follow her. “Oh, and thanks. I like the purple too.”