‘So, what did we get?’ Milo asked when they arrived at the collective.
‘A lot of info we could link to certain people. And events that were not always reported in the general media.’ Theresa said, handing him a tablet. ‘Not all are listed as persons of interest. Which probably means they’re protected.’
Milo scrolled through the list. ‘I recognise most. And some I had a feeling they knew more than they let on.’
‘The data from the garage that your stick pulled into its hidden storage gave us vehicle registrations, company names, contacts. We’ve been able to expand our search thanks to that.’
‘What about the laptop?’
‘The cluster has gone through seventeen percent of possible keys to decrypt the data.’ Ahmin said. ‘There’s a mathematical flaw in what we suspect she used for encryption so we’re trying to exploit that.’
‘So, for now we just wait to see what our current targets give us?’ Terri asked.
‘Yes.’ Theresa said. ‘We don’t want to target too many of their fronts and contacts at the same time. That would certainly raise suspicion.’
‘Boredom and waiting is a large part of stealthy penetration.’ Milo said. ‘I’ve got to leave a few breadcrumbs leading to another city anyway for the department to follow up, then we can keep them off our backs for a while.’
Terri went over the decryption with Ahmin, providing a few tweaks, then went to check on Milo.
‘I left a log entry for my old phone in a cell tower, and a broken transaction of my regular cash card, then a complete one after it from someone living in the next city.’ Milo said and closed the portable. ‘If Rolf does his job as usual he’ll find it soon enough and they’ll look the other way for a while.’
Terri sat down next to him on the couch. ‘I miss Roberto’s pasta already.’
Milo chuckled. ‘Is it that good?’
She smiled. ‘It’s no high class food, but he makes it himself instead of using instant stuff, and you can just taste the homemade feeling he puts into it.’
‘I’ll have to try it then.’
‘Unfortunately there’s no way to get there without running into cameras.’ she sighed.
‘Reminds me of the time I hid in an old container to check out a restaurant a suspect often visited. Great food you could smell in the entire neighbourhood. And I only had instant noodles to eat for days.’
She snickered and ruffled his hair. ‘Poor guy.’
‘Oh,’ he said, ducking away. ‘I do know a place we can easily get to.’
After a drive with several detours avoiding traffic cameras Milo parked the car at a place called Soup Kitchen. Ahmin and Terri looked at the narrow restaurant on the ground floor of an apartment building.
‘This it?’ she asked.
‘Yep.’ Milo said. ‘Quiet and also homemade food.’
He led them inside and a young woman came to greet them.
‘Table for three?’ he asked.
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘front or back?’
The woman led them to a table at the back and they sat down taking a quick look at a couple in the front.
‘Quiet indeed.’ Ahmin said.
‘Usually is at this time.’ Milo said. ‘Most people had dinner already and for the rest of the evening it’s a few guests and take-away.’
‘It’s really a soup kitchen.’ Terri said, looking at the menu.
‘It’s the main ingredient. But you get bread, meats, cheeses and salad with it. I never left hungry. You only need to wait a little while because all soup is made fresh.’
‘Smells good anyway.’ she said, sniffing the scents.
After their order was taken and they started on their bottle of wine Milo’s expression turned serious.
‘You took us here to discuss something?’ Terri asked.
He nodded. ‘I don’t know if this mess we’re in can get resolved, especially because my department’s involved. And even if it’s resolved, I don’t know if we’re safe the rest of our lives.’
‘I never imagined to get into this kind of trouble.’ Ahmin said, looking at the wine in his glass.
‘I expected trouble, but not this kind.’ Terri said.
‘I’ve been thinking on ways out, but with the attention we get I can’t erase our identities or swap them for another. They would find out right away.’ Milo said.
‘The only way would be to totally stay off the grid.’ Ahmin said.
‘Yeah, so I’d like to ask you to think about any way that’s possible for you.’
The side dishes were served and distracted them enough with anecdotes until the large soup bowls arrived. They enjoyed their meal and by the time they had finished they were the only ones in the restaurant.
‘I’ve got an uncle on the other side of the country.’ Ahmin said. ‘He often tells me the small villages over there could use someone smart for support on their equipment, but smart young people move to the big cities. Perhaps that’s my option.’
‘At least the air is cleaner there.’ Terri said.
Ahmin leaned back. ‘True.’
‘I have no idea what to do.’ Terri said, tracing the edge of her glass with a claw. ‘I have no family, the few friends I have are all involved into the same kind of work I do.’ She looked up at Milo. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m fucked. They know me too well so I doubt if I can stay undercover for a long time. Best chance would be going deep into the wilderness.’
They drank in silence for a while.
‘Well, we have to see if we can grab a hold on what’s going on first so this is something we can worry about later.’ Milo said and stood up to pay at the counter.
Milo dropped Ahmin off at the collective where they checked up on progress, then he and Terri went back to the hotel for the rest of the evening.
‘Tell me,’ Terri said after Milo got out of the shower. ‘how long did you stay in the wilderness?’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked, sitting down and starting on his glass of wine.
‘The way you said it, the time between the plane thing and when you started working at the department must have been spent somewhere.’
He smiled to himself. ‘I was so scared after I had pulled off that insane stunt that I retreated to a cabin that once belonged to an uncle of mine. I had been there before as a little kid, but he died soon after and it was abandoned.’
‘So, how was it?’
Milo leaned back, sipping his wine in thought. ‘Silent. And not. You don’t hear city sounds, but nature has its own noise. Imagine birds, wind, rain, thunder, trees creaking and rustling, animals going by on occasion.’
She leaned against him. ‘Sounds peaceful.’
‘I didn’t get much sleep the first week until I finally got a little used to it.’
She chuckled. ‘That bad?’
‘You have no idea when you’re used to the city and equipment humming all around you.’ he said and filled up their glasses. ‘It’s such a different world, especially without any connection to the grid.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I spend time learning to hunt, gather edible plants. There were a lot of books on survival so I went through them inbetween trips to a nearby village store. I even cleaned up the glass house attached to the cabin where my uncle grew his own vegetables.’
‘Back to nature.’
He nodded. ‘But curiousity eventually led me to build a satellite connection so I could check out what happened on the grid and if they were onto me. I patiently waited and found out they had no idea who did it. After a while I wanted to get back into what I was doing, and got the idea to hide right into the wolf’s den.’
‘Or in your case, the wolf hiding between the sheep.’ Terri said with a grin.
‘Perhaps. You know a little about me now.’
‘And what do you know about me then? You did check me out, right?’
‘Had to, yes.’ he said and drank while he remebered her info. ‘You lost your mother at the age of sixteen. Father unknown but probably also hybrid canine, like your mother. You had already proven to be good with coding and math at a young age and earned enough with jobs to live on your own by then. Chance of doing shady side jobs but nothing pointed to any evidence while you worked legitimate jobs.’
‘Looks like I did well up until now to keep a clean record.’
‘Yeah. Too bad you’re too good at what you do while accepting special jobs. That attracts the wrong crowd eventually.’
‘I noticed.’ she said and drank her wine for a while. ‘I don’t know if I would have stayed away from that if I had known this could happen though.’
‘I know what you mean. Sometimes the thrill is too interesting.’
They watched the lights along the wall again for a while.
‘If you can’t think of anything, you’re welcome to use the cabin. It’s simple, but that’s what makes it safe.’ he said.
‘What about you?’
‘I’ll just see what happens.’
She turned towards him. ‘Oh no! I’m not going there alone knowing you could have stayed safe there!’
He grinned. ‘I’ll just drive you crazy there.’
‘That’s better than getting caught and end up in jail, or worse, die!’
‘Fine then, if it really comes to that, we’ll both go there.’
‘Good.’ she said and leaned back against him again, holding out her glass. ‘Now fill me up and stop making stupid suggestions.’
He snickered and they finished the bottle before going to sleep.
The next day they found an enthausiastic Theresa greeting them. ‘We’ve got some interesting things!’
They sat down to look at the material.
‘You know the camera we set up at the accountant’s office? She uses the same software for all her clients, but when she works on the organisation we noticed a pattern.’ Theresa said and showed video of the woman logging in at several times during the day.
‘She always gets a login error before getting in.’ Terri said.
‘Indeed. seems she logs in causing an error first, then logs in again to get into the right account.’ Milo said. ‘She’s using a secret knock to get access to the hidden administration.’
‘We checked it.’ Theresa said. ‘Without causing the error we see her legitimate clients and official administrations of the organisation. By making a specific error in the password the first time we get to the real administration the second time we log in.’
‘You got the money trail.’ Milo said.
‘Enough to link more data anyway. They hired Mitsy to create a program to sniff and extrapolate enough key exchanges on the grid to figure out the main encryption key and sell it. And amongst the prospective buyers is your boss, Milo.’
‘Why would he want it?’ Terri asked, after they went through all the rest of the information.
‘Reselling specific information to anyone who’s interested.’ Milo said. ‘Foreign governments, criminal organisatons, corporations. Between all the departments, it’s more than a goldmine of information.’
‘Wouldn’t he already have enough access for that?’
Milo shook his head. ‘Anything leaked officially could be traced back to us and him. The departments are very paranoid so there’s no telling what information we get from others is real or fabricated.’
‘What do we do?’ Theresa asked.
‘No choice.’ he said, tapping on the papers in front of him. ‘Gather all evidence, break the encryption and expose enough to get the departments to shut down communication and get him arrested.’
‘That’s going to be one giant shit storm.’ Ahmin said. ‘They’ll want our heads.’
Milo nodded. ‘I’ll try to keep yours out of it and have them focus on me. Limit the damage.’
‘You can’t do that!’ Terri said. ‘We’re all in this!’
‘It’s easier for one person to dodge them.’
‘He’s right.’ Theresa said. ‘We had to use fall guys before on very tricky projects. None of us liked it, but it was the best security for the collective and we keep them as comfortable as we can while they’re locked up.’
Milo put his hand on Terri’s. ‘Thanks for worrying, but I was prepared for something like this since I started working there.’
She bit her lip. ‘I don’t like it, so you better think hard of a way to avoid this.’
He grinned. ‘Already on it.’ he said, then looked at Theresa. ‘Let’s break this apart.’