by Grey Bard
Email: fitzrose at email.msn.com
Fandom: Vorkosigan books
Written for: Mary Crawford in the Yuletide 2004 Challenge
Admiral Miles Naismith was on the the fast cruiser Ariel , on detached duty while the rest of the Dendarii fleet was cleaning up a leftover mess near Dagoola. The Ariel had been hired to deal with a rather nasty Cetagandan "pirate" plaguing one of the more obscure backwater colonies on the Betan frontier, and the admiral preferred not to visit Dagoola again any time soon, after the naked prison camp experience.
Instead, he had spent the last month going over the fleet's accounts, and making comments from the peanut gallery on the privateer-fighting ability of one Bel Thorne, exceedingly competant captain of the Ariel . The privateer hadn't had a chance, and now were being held pending extradition to Beta Colony. Whether the poor bastards would be lovingly reprogrammed for their own good or returned home remained to be seen. Miles didn't know which was worse. Cetagandans could be very creative, and their government did not take well to failure.
In any event, mission completed, the Ariel had made a rather pathetic R&R stop at the remote planet of New Cambridge, known for a number of research outposts, tapped out mines, moderately large mountains and not much else. Aside from Kingston, the capital, New Cambridge was the techie equivalent of Kyril Island. The unvarying climate with constant temperate weather and a consistent humidity level all year round made it an ideal place to store things, but that wasn't much of a tourist draw.
Naismith was currently going over the next quarter's uniform budget. Surely they could find a little extra for upgrading the materials. A well dressed mercenary is usually a more respectable mercenary...
"Admiral!" Bel's carefully androgynous head poked around the door. "We have a possible contract on line two. Hear him out?"
It was a ridiculous mission. Also, ridiculously profitable... A researcher for the Midisoft Digital corporation had found some items of great importance in their backup archives housed in the tiny research town of Corpus Christi, and needed to transport it to the labs in Kingston with a maximum of security and a minimum of fuss. Did they have two men to do it? Bel, being a member of that exotic population known as the Betan hermaphrodites, smirked and said maybe.
"Jones can cover for me," Captain Thorne said. " Ariel is just sitting in orbit, and she could use the easy command experience. You're here as an observer, there's nothing left to observe. Come on, what could be better than a little adventure of a managable size? We make a little something for the Dendarii cashbox at the same time. Here, look at the offer again."
Miles looked at it again. It was ridiculously profitable. It could upgrade the quality of boots for the entire crew of the Ariel , and possibly for half the fleet.
"They say Lewisco is dangerously interested."
"Dammit, Bel, you're trying to tempt me with danger?" he snarled.
Thorne shrugged. "If you want, I can take Danio along instead. He's almost as handsome even if he isn't very bright..."
Miles grumbled. He knew he would give in. He would be risking his life and that of one of his fleet's commanders on a job that their subordinates could have done better, not to mention probably leading Bel on, on the herm's hopeless crush. (Naismith was, unfortunately for the lovely Captain Thorne, ridiculously monosexual.) But he would do it. After all, you can only spend so many hours on expense reports before death and danger begin to look good.
After a discreet evening landing in the disgustingly quaint village of Maudlin, they were assaulted by cheerfully beery locals in the midst of some kind of communal party. Surrounded by partiers enthusiatically profferring truly awful homebrew, a quiet exit seemed unlikely. Eventually, though, the soulful traditional drinking songs began, and Miles and Bel slipped out of town as their erstwhile hosts were crying into their beer.
The forest was beautiful as they hiked off into the night, and the two Dendarii made it to Corpus Christi just before daybreak.
Hieronymous Campbell, their guide, met them at the Midisoft service entrance, and showed them in to the meeting hall through the janitorial stairs. He was obviously in a state of high dudgeon, and perversely, he seemed to rather enjoy it.
"We have a leak," the old man pronounced, waving the mercenaries to the guest seats at the table. "And the consequences are too terrible to contemplate!"
John Roland, the current head of Midisoft, shrugged from his place on the meeting room's vidscreen. "We have a little problem, and we'd like your help."
"That's what we're here for," said Admiral Naismith.
Roland went on on the vidscreen. "When Midisoft created the first edition of the Front Porch operating system two hundred years ago, a backdoor was built into the program. One of the early programmers thought it might be good to have, as a possible way of fixing the operating system in situ without ever bothering the customer, whenever we created a new patch. All Midisoft needed to do was load the correct key file, and walk right in.
"The only problem was, that it allowed us total access to all files on any Front Porch using computer that was linked up and turned on. Eventually, someone informed a woman in middle management, who had enough sense to consider the whole thing a ridiculous security risk, and shut the back door initiative down.
"She erased the key file, and deleted the back up chips, but she was too self serving to admit the whole fiasco had happened on her watch, so she never reported the security glitch, thinking it was safe because the key files were gone.
"Eventually, the story got out, as they do, but it was always half legendary. A programmer's boogeyman."
"Let me guess," said Miles. "They weren't all destroyed?"
The head of Midisoft nodded. "Versions of all of our programs, from all of our stages of development are stored here, along with all of our archives in flexi form. A few weeks ago, William Hill, one of our researchers found a copy of the keyfile along with positive proof that the back door to Front Porch had existed and was functional. Sadly, there wasn't enough to tell us how to patch the thing. We have no way of knowing if there are any other copies of the key file, or even if someone can find another way into the back door, so we need to find out how to fix this, and soon.
" The chip format is too old for anything on site in Corpus Christi to read it, not to mention that the archives were never built to be secure enough for something of this magnitude. So it needs to go to our New Cambridge headquarters in Kingston for analysis and safekeeping.
"Unfortunately, someone tipped off our neighbors at Charles Lewis and Company about the chip, and they're waiting for a pickup. We're afraid they might try to hijack the chip if we use regular couriers, and using our own security people would be far too obvious, so we hired you to sneak the chip out of here and into Kingston while they're still watching the archives here, expecting a lightflyer or a party of armed guards any day now. Upon the delivery in Kingston there will be a significant award for assistance in rectifying the back door problem."
"Hieronymous, here, will be Midisoft's representative on this endeavor."
Hieronymous took this as his signal to hold forth. "The fates of planets are at stake! The governments of Beta Colony, Kline Station and who knows where else all run on the Front Porch system. If anyone should use the back door, disaster! If anyone should find out our program has this flaw, ruin!" Campbell spread out a heavily inked map of the New Cambridge countryside on the meeting room table. "I have plotted a course for us which shall take give us the greatest secrecy and fastest travel time. It will, of course, be dangerous, but we can get to Kingston on foot in three days. We can take a shortcut through the Mines of..."
"Or," said Miles, "We could pretend to be hikers."
Bel dug in a pack and came out brandishing a camera and some garish synthasilk shirts. On the screen, Mr. Roland nodded enthusiastically. Campbell looked positively ill.
They didn't go through the mine shafts too terrible to contemplate, and they didn't take a short cut through the Lewisco compound under cover of darkness. They didn't cross the raging river in tiny rickety boats, and they didn't take the aging bridge over the gorge. They just took the long way around, and stayed in the woods and the foothills. Frankly, Campbell's original itinerary read as though he had seen one too many adventure soaps.
They were nearly through the mountains, almost to Kingston, when the employees of Charles Lewis and Company finally caught up with them. There weren't very many of them, but then, there didn't need to be. The pass was very small, and the goons were, uniformly rather enormous. As were their plasma arcs.
"The chip, and no one gets hurt."
"You shall not pass!" Campbell thundered, shaking his cane.
Miles looked at the threatening group of very large men before him, and straightened his tunic. "One moment," he said, confusing both the goons and Campbell. "Oh, Bel..." Miles caroled, and waved his hand.
Hieronymous Campbell dropped like a log. Thorne holstered a stunner with a smile of savage satisfaction. The goons looked even more confused.
"We are mercenaries, gentlemen," Admiral Naismith said with a shrug. "Now, let's make a deal."
"Traitors! How dare you betray the trust of the civilised worlds to those, those.... Jacksonians!"
"They never learn, do they?" Bel asked, head shaking.
"No," sighed Miles, "They never do. Look, Campbell. You hire a professional, you trust the professional. Otherwise you're wasting your money."
"What are you talking about! You gave away the chip!" The old man fumed.
Thorne nodded. "Like he said. We're mercenaries. What neither of you figured was that even if we have a new employer every mission, no one's going to hire us if we don't stay with one employer at a time."
The admiral coughed.
Thorne amended that thought. "Well, one side at a time. Still, it's the thought that counts."
Light began to dawn. "The chip! Where is it!"
"Right here," said Miles. "They have the Ariel 's laundry list, translated into Aramaic and triple encoded. What. You didn't think we had a decoy?"
"So the chip is..."
"Absolutely and totally useless. The back door was accidently fixed when the operating system was modified about fifty years ago to increase processing speeds to keep up with multiplayer vid games." The tech shrugged. "Sorry gentlemen, but what you saved is merely a very historic chip of silicon. Not unless you have a time machine. I'm afraid there can be no reward for staving off a nonexistant threat. We will, of course, cover your expenses, but no more."
Two very dejected mercenaries left the Midisoft building. Miles groaned. "There goes the boot upgrade."
"Well," said Bel, "I got to stun Campbell."
"True," Naismith admitted. "It wasn't a total loss"
"Also," Thorne said, with a certain gleam in the eye, "We still have three days of leave left. I've heard there's a very good spa over on the next continent. Can I interest you in a..."
"Can't blame a herm for trying."