Chapter Three: Daphne

Who knew?

Apparently, the guy in charge of communicating with the humans decided not to communicate. I hadn’t known what to expect when I sat across that Skotan, but I sure as hell hadn’t thought I’d leave the inquiry office in a state of pure annoyance.

He had fed me nothing but bullshit answers, all of them designed to placate me. Sure, I had come out swinging, but that approach had never failed me before. I had even turned up my charm and used my ‘pretty-please’ smile.

“Stupid Skotan,” I grumbled, feeling completely deflated. Annie had teased me with what was one of the biggest scientific mysteries in the planet, and I had met a brick wall the moment I decided to learn more.

Sure, a handsome-as-all-hell brick wall. Even if he was grumpy.

Fantastic.

“Did you just call me stupid?” Bale muttered from his corner of the lab, even though he didn’t look away from his computer screen. Smart and competent, he was a lanky man in his thirties whose dream life seemed to involve nothing but a basket of snacks and a computer screen. That didn’t bother me at all, especially since I needed him in front of a computer whenever he was around.

“No, sorry,” I chuckled nervously. “I was just thinking out loud.”

“Thinking of stupid people?” he continued, the sound of his fingers hitting the keyboard over and over again echoing throughout the lab. Even though he was what some would call socially awkward, I had always gotten along with him. On paper, he was my assistant, but our relationship was one of equals.

“Actually, yeah,” I sighed, looking away from my computer. I had been going through some neurological holoscans for the past couple of hours, but it was hard to concentrate with the Puppet Master firmly occupying all of my thoughts. “I was just at that inquiry office the government set up and—”

“You went there?” He cut me short, finally looking away from his computer. He had his eyebrows arched, almost as if I had just said something terribly stupid. “You know that’s just a PR stunt, don’t you? As if government would ever be transparent.”

“Don’t tell me you’ve been listening to that anti-alien propaganda.”

“Me?” he laughed. “Please, Daphne. I couldn’t care less about the aliens. I just think that it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. Aliens, humans…at the end of the day, it’s all the same.”

“Didn’t know you were so anti-system,” I said.

“How do you think I ended up as your assistant?” He smirked, folding his arms over his chest and swiveling around in his chair so that he could face me. “Because I can tell you, my childhood dream wasn’t to be some glorified IT guy.”

“You’re not an IT guy,” I frowned. “You’re helping me with important neurological research, and your tech savvy is essential. I wouldn’t be able to code all the equipment by myself.”

“And that’s why I’m here,” he nodded. “Your faithful sidekick.”

“But if you don’t like it…what exactly are you doing here?” I had to admit I was confused. I didn’t know much about Bale’s personal life, and had always assumed his studies had led him to a position in the hospital.

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” he shrugged. “I actually do. But when I first started out in here…let’s just say I had no other option. At least, according to the judge.”

“The judge?”

“Yeah,” he smiled sardonically. “Community service, if you can believe it. One entire month of unpaid work here at the hospital. I restructured all the network and updated the IT systems in my first week, and by then nobody really knew what to do with me. And since you needed an assistant, I guess they just decided to send me your way.”

“But you’ve been with me for more than a month,” I said, frowning. “You’ve been here for a lot longer than that.”

“I guess I enjoy working with you,” he said casually, already turning his attention back to the screen. When I realized he wasn’t going to tell me anything else, my curious side immediately came alive.

“Hang on,” I said, pushing my chair back and getting to my feet. “You can’t just hit me with that and then not tell the rest of the story. What’s up with you doing community service?”

“Is it that hard to guess?” He laughed, jutting his chin to point at the computer screen in front of him. “Let’s just say I have a way with computers, and that some people are willing to pay for information…the kind of information I can easily get.”

“You’re a hacker?” I asked him, not sure of what to make of it. I knew he was somewhat reclusive and had a quirky personality, but had never guessed he could be a criminal.

“You make it sound like I’m some super-villain,” he laughed once more. “Mostly I was hired by people that weren’t sure if their spouses were being faithful. They needed to know what their better half was doing whenever they weren’t around. Spoiler: most people didn’t like the information I uncovered. They all paid, though, so I’m not complaining. Well, most of them.”

“You got caught doing that?”

“Eh, well,” he hesitated, scratching his chin. “More or less. It was before the Xathi invasion, and I was working for some guy that thought his wife was cheating on him. She wasn’t, actually, but the guy didn’t believe me…and he went straight to the authorities and told them I was some sort of super-hacker. Just so he wouldn’t have to pay me, if you can believe it. Two Nyheim city guards showed up on my doorstep, and they dragged my ass to the courthouse. One week later and I had a new desk, right in the hospital’s basement. That’s when the Xathi attack happened and I’ve been here ever since.”

“That’s quite a story,” I told him, not knowing what else to say. I didn’t exactly approve of his previous career, but it wasn’t as if he had been a hardened criminal. Besides, it seemed he had a special set of skills that could be very useful…

“Well, maybe one day I’ll write a book,” he smiled, his eyes already focused on the lines of code that littered his computer screen. His fingers flew over his keyboard as he worked, and I started formulating a plan.

“Why hasn’t the government grabbed you to help with the rebuilding process,” I wondered. “Reassigned you somewhere else?”

He shrugged, eyes still on the screen. “It’s possible I removed a bit of my past from my files, when everything was messed up after the attack. It’s possible no one knows I’m here.”

Interesting.

And possibly useful.

All I needed was for Bale to cooperate.

“What if I told you I need some information?” I blurted out, and held my breath as his fingers stopped. With one eyebrow cocked, he swiveled his chair around once more.

“I’m not sure if I feel comfortable snooping on your boyfriend,” he said, and I could tell he was surprised I had made such a request.

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I blushed, wetting my lips with the tip of my tongue. “All I want is some information about the vines.”

“The vines?” he repeated, his expression one of confusion. “Was that why you went to the inquiry office? Did you think anyone there would share their research with you?”

“Well…”

“God, Daphne,” he smiled. “These guys would cut an arm off before they revealed what’s on the menu in the officers’ dining hall. Something like the vines…yeah, that information would be as confidential as it gets.”

“And would confidential be a problem for you?” I asked, biting on the corner of my lip. I didn’t like it that I was asking Bale to break the law on my behalf, but if he was any good…well, this was an opportunity that was simply too good for me to pass up.

If it was possible I could help with this puzzle, I wanted to. But first, I needed to know what they knew.

If I had to be a rebel, then so be it.

“Let’s be clear…are you asking me to hack into the government’s servers?”

“Yeah?”

“Shit,” he laughed, running one hand through his hair. He drummed his fingers against his thigh, an expression that I could only describe as a blend of focus and excitement showing on his face. “I didn’t think you were the kind of person to ignore the rules. I’m impressed.”

“All in the name of science,” I beamed, excited that Bale seemed to be playing along with me. “Only in the name of science, really. So, do you think you can do it? I don’t know if it helps, but they’re calling the vines…the Puppet Master.”

“That’s ominous,” he said. “But it helps me to know what to look for.” He hesitated for a moment, weighing his options, and then gave me a serious nod. “Alright, I’ll do it for you. Just, uh, don’t tell anyone.”

“My lips are sealed,” I told him, my stomach tightening a bit when I remembered I’d promised Annie the same thing. But she was a scientist, too. She’d understand the need to dig into this.

Maybe.

Pushing my chair across the lab, I then sat beside Bale, my heart racing at a hundred miles an hour.

“Alright,” he grunted and started minimizing the windows on his screen and opening a new one. He tapped a few keys, and then hesitated, his lips pursed as he looked at the weird characters that had filled up the screen. “Seems like some of the information is written in Skotan. I might get into the servers, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to translate the information.”

“Most of that should be a direct translation of the reports submitted by the human scientists,” I whispered, thinking feverishly. “What if, instead of grabbing the information the aliens are using…you grab the original reports the scientists have submitted?”

“That might work,” he nodded, his fingers working fast. I don’t think he even blinked as lines of code ran across the screen, his eyes burning with excitement. After almost an hour, he leaned back in his chair and turned to me. “Done. I redirected most of the reports toward us but…”

“But?”

“Well, apparently no one knows that much about this Puppet Master. There are a lot of written reports, but the information there doesn’t seem to be that conclusive. They’re in the dark.”

“That’s odd,” I muttered, even though I grabbed my datapad from my lab coat all the same. “Can you transfer whatever information you got to my ’pad?”

“Done,” he grinned, tapping his keyboard just once.

“And make sure there’s no trace of us in their servers.”

“Please, Daphne,” he laughed. “You didn’t even need to ask.”

“You’re the best.” Jumping up to my feet, I placed my datapad inside my lab coat once more. Wrapping my arms around Bale, I hugged him tightly. “I owe you one.”

“You sure do.”

“I’m going to take the rest of the afternoon off,” I continued, already anxious to dig deeper into the Puppet Master. Even if the information we had stolen wasn’t much, it was a start, all the same.

“There’s someone I need to talk to.”

One Response to Chapter Three: Daphne

  • Nancy says:

    I love your writing!! It fast paced and fun. To bad you didn’t keep the Rogue series.
    It’s gotten a bit ugly. Thanks for keeping this one more interesting and romantic.

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