‘Passcodes’, Melinda Brasher

Illustrations © 2014 Laura-Anca Adascalitei



 [ May I come in, © 2014 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] “Am I interrupting?” Peter asked, angling his shoulder in to her. Now if she wanted to close the door on him, she’d have to push him out of the way of the sensor. But of course she would never dare close the door in his face.

Once she would have blushed like a schoolgirl, flattered and frightened by this attention. Now she was just frightened.

“May I come in?”

Greta clenched her teeth and smiled. The question was rhetorical, of course, and he strode past her into the bare living room of the module she and Sam had shared for nearly nine months.

“Sam’s at the mine today, I hear,” Peter said.

“Yes.” Had it become a matter of gossip, then, the number of days Sam had stayed home since the accident? His burns were fine, his lungs recovered. But he dragged his feet in the mornings, when he’d once been so chipper. He feigned the flu three days in a row to claim sick time. She didn’t tell him it was stealing from the company, like he’d told her once when she did the same thing back on Earth. She just made him soup and hung blankets on the windows to block out the murky golden light of this perennial late afternoon they lived in, and let him sleep.

“I’m not one to interfere in other people’s lives,” Peter said.

Sanctimonious tyrant.

“But the whole community has noticed. It’s not good for morale.”

He held out a hand in supplication, a gesture she recognized from all the interviews they’d broadcast back on Earth regarding the colonization program. She’d fallen half in love with Peter then: this grave dignified gentleman who seemed to suffer from the strength of his compassion for the human race.

Then she’d met him.

Wrenched out of assisted hibernation, she’d known from the smell of rot that something was wrong on the ship. She floated into Sam’s arms, while around her others retched and whispered their fears. When Peter spoke, everyone quieted, glad to rely on the reassuring weight of his authority. The rest of the passengers were dead, he said. The other ships out of contact. Possibly destroyed. Then Peter, this man who cared so much for the people under his protection, gave them all an hour for “grief and tears.”

An hour?

Maybe he did care about the future of humanity, but she wasn’t at all sure his compassion stretched to any actual humans.

“Here’s what I need,” he said now, standing in her living room. “Sam’s mine passcodes.”

“Why?”

“The mine’s important. If he proves unable to perform his duties, I’ll need his passcodes.”

“What do you mean, ‘unable?’ Things have been a little difficult since his accident, but he’ll get over it in a few days.”

“He’d better. For everyone’s sake. But if he doesn’t, I need the codes. Get them.”

He turned, pushed the door switch.

“Or what?” Greta asked.

“Or I ask him directly.” It sounded so logical coming from his lips, so calm.

“He won’t give them. It’s against company policy.”

“Then he’ll have to resign. The farms could use another worker.”

“You can’t do that.”

He merely raised an eyebrow. Of course he could.

Back on the ship, some of the group had wanted to turn back to Earth. But no, Peter insisted they press on. The two who openly opposed the decision now worked the worst jobs of the colony. They lived in the smallest modules. They weren’t included in community meetings. Peter even uninvited them to the company picnic Greta organized.

Peter could certainly take Sam’s job away from him. It didn’t matter that Peter, as governor, had no legal right to intervene in the affairs of the private companies the governments had hired. He’d do it anyway. Who would stop him?

Greta couldn’t let that happen, because despite the accident, despite Sam’s shaken faith in the company, Greta feared that Sam’s job was still the only thing holding him together.

#

That night Sam came home late.

“Working hard?” Greta asked. If he returned to his old way, and gave Peter no reason to doubt him, maybe Peter wouldn’t insist on the codes.

“No. Took a long walk.”

“But aren’t you behind in production?”

“What do you expect? There are two of us.”

That had never bothered him before. He’d set rigorous schedules for himself and Edwin, the only other surviving employee of the company. They’d done well, producing their first steel only two months after landing. The stream of production continued, small but steady, until the six month mark, when the second wave of colonists was supposed to have arrived.

The only thing that made it to New Eden was a message probe. The second wave had returned to Earth because of mechanical problems. Several of the colonists, despite Peter’s speeches about hope and courage, believed the third wave was never coming. Greta suspected that Edwin, the mine engineer, was one of the cynics. He’d started slacking off at work. If you asked Sam, he’d always been a slacker, but now Greta agreed with the assessment. The colony gossiped about how much ale Edwin bought, and how they saw him out hunting sometimes when he should have been working. Production had dipped dramatically.

Sam took the news of the second wave so well, with a boy-like eagerness to show what he was made of. He worked harder to make up for Edwin’s malaise. But the number of disciplinary reports he wrote for Edwin’s file became worrisome. Even at home he began quoting regulations at her. She didn’t dare speak about the company at all, for fear he’d take her slightest word as criticism.

United Ironworks had taken Sam under its wing fresh out of school, showered on him the praise he’d lacked in his own home, given him purpose.

Then the mining accident shattered that loyalty. The chemical fire in the Yegen reductor didn’t respond to the regulation extinguisher. The manual let him down. The safety protocols failed. Edwin’s off-the-books solution was the only thing that saved them. Edwin put out the blaze by burying the whole machine in sand. But what he buried was Sam’s faith.

At the infirmary, Elizabeth warned Greta of Sam’s delirium. She assumed the burns had brought it on, or the painkillers, or the toxic fumes. But no. The accident had destroyed Sam’s faith, and now he was just as lost as the rest of them, lying on the infirmary bed raving about extinguishers and company handbooks and safety tests and broken promises.

She could still see the ghosts of his burns, but what disturbed her most was his frown. When they first married, his enthusiasm for everything had exhausted her. Now he was listless.

“Love,” Greta said, “Maybe you should do a little overtime this week. You can approve it since there was sick time involved.” The possibility of overtime used to make him smile.

Sam shrugged.

Greta fretted about the codes. If she gave them to Peter, would it really hurt anything? He probably wouldn’t do anything sinister with the access, but what if one day things turned ugly? Did she really want to give him more power than he already held?

A few days later Peter dropped by the food processing plant where Greta worked, doing all the intermediary tasks the machines weren’t built for. She rather liked the ordered monotony of it. It gave her mind space to roam. Yet the last few days her thoughts had all been circling uselessly around Sam, and she wished for once that the work demanded more of her attention.

“Passcodes?” Peter said in greeting. He had no time for common courtesies. He never really ended his conversations. When the information ran out he simply turned and left. But somehow he left her wishing she’d been able to make herself useful to him a bit longer.

“I don’t know Sam’s codes.”

“You’re clever. Get them.”

“But if he finds out, he’ll think he let down the company. Betrayed it almost. It’ll destroy him.”

“Nonsense.”

“And he’ll hate me.”

“He’ll get over it.”

“Please, Peter.”

“One week. Otherwise I’ll have to go to him myself. We need the mine in the hands of those we trust.”

“I trust him.”

“It’s for the good of the community. Surely I can count on you to understand that. A colony divided is a colony doomed.”

And who’s doing the dividing? Greta wanted to ask. But she only nodded.

The mill overflowed twice that afternoon because she wasn’t paying attention. The fruit, left too long in the dehydrator, shriveled and hardened. What would the old Sam say about such shoddy work?

If she told him what Peter had threatened, they could work together to get around it. But he would lose faith in Peter. No. She’d get the codes. She’d give them to Peter. Then she’d pull Sam out of this mood of his and Peter would never find justification to use the codes.

If she visited Sam at the mine, maybe she could catch him while he was logged onto his main account. Then she could distract him, get onto the computer herself, and find the file where he recorded all his passcodes. He was always so organized about such things. The file would be labeled something innocuous, and he would have disguised the text so the search patterns would skim over it, but it would be there. It always was.

On her day off she made a big lunch: protein loaf, fresh bread, fruit salad. She packed it all tight in one of the community’s shared tractor carts. Made for rough terrain, and hardly bigger than she was, the cart constantly felt about to tip over. The engine choked half a dozen times as she panicked with the gas and the clutch on the dirt and the hills, and by the time she arrived at the edge of the mine, her arms and legs smarted from banging against the roll bars. When the third wave came, they’d have to work on some actual roads.

She found Sam alone in the office, working at his terminal as he usually did before lunch, squaring away paperwork. Edwin was in the caverns today. Sam had mentioned it that morning, and how Edwin would probably spend the day reading down there, surrounded by the cool mineral quiet he seemed to like so much, instead of running stability checks on the new shaft.

“I didn’t expect you,” Sam said. “What’s wrong?”

She let herself look just as rattled as she felt. “The cart. I think there’s something broken. Can you go look at it? I’m afraid to drive home. It kept dying at bad times.”

Sam sighed. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Then we can eat. I baked bread fresh this morning.”

“New wheat or the real stuff?”

“New. But it’s good.”

“I guess we’d better get used to it.” He grabbed a toolbox and ambled out to where she’d parked the cart, a distance away.

 [ The unfamiliar interface, © 2014 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] She jumped over to the computer. On the unfamiliar interface, it took precious minutes to find his files. She began reading through the titles. Hundreds of them. She half stood to look out the window. He hadn’t even arrived at the cart yet. She had to calm down. She had plenty of time.

File upon file of reports, reprimands, production plans, survey results, staff meeting minutes. A letter home, labeled “Memo September 23 Tardiness.” He would never have written a personal letter on company time. Not before.

At home, Sam’s passcodes consisted of several words and number sequences he put together in different combinations. She searched the documents for them one by one. Her heart thudded with each hit, but none produced the passcode list. She peeked out the window again. Sam stood at the cart now, still and ponderous. Had he already figured out that nothing was wrong?

Search after search came back fruitless. She began opening documents starting from the top. But that would take too long. Reading them randomly was too much of a lottery. She had to be more clever than Sam. “Anaconda,” she typed into the search box. He liked exotic creatures as passcodes. She widened the parameters so it included variations of the word. An open search took longer. She must have looked at her watch five times before the computer beeped cheerfully. No hits. It would have been looking for misspellings, odd spacing, random mid-word punctuation. But what it wouldn’t look for was this: “adnocana.” Greta’s fingers shook with excitement as she typed the word backwards. No hits. “Xnyl.” “Arbez.” And suddenly Greta was staring at the list. Two dozen passcodes, all backwards. Even the code for his main account. She fumbled for her data card, forced it into the sync port, transferred the file.

She pushed away from the terminal and gave another quick glance out the window. Still at her vehicle. Plenty of time. She turned to the table where she’d hastily arranged the food.

The scream escaped her before she could clamp shut her mouth. Edwin stood in the doorway, deep-set eyes trained on her like a hawk.

“How long have you been there?”

“Long enough. What do you want with Sam’s passcodes?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’re not a good liar.” He held out his hand. “Give me the card.”

She shook her head.

He took a step toward her, but Greta flung herself sideways so the table lay between them. He was stronger than she was. But that didn’t really matter. Whatever happened, he’d tell Sam. Then Sam would lose trust in her too. She couldn’t bear that. Neither, she feared, could he.

“Please, Edwin. Help me.”

He frowned.

“Peter wants them. He threatened to remove Sam from his position. He—”

“Peter has no rights here.”

People never said things like that, so boldly. Not about Peter.

“Then help me.”

She spilled out the whole story, as Edwin shook his head slowly to himself.

“Sam will be back any minute. Please don’t tell him.”

Edwin stared down at her fruit salad in its clear glass bowl, the violet berries smearing their juice all over the gray flesh of the brainfruit.

“Let’s give Peter what he wants,” Edwin said.

“What?”

“Access to all the mining systems.”

“But—”

Footsteps on the gravel outside made her shut her mouth, but her eyes pleaded with him.

“Can’t see anything wrong with the cart,” Sam said, sticking his hands into the sanitizer. “Must be the heat. We’ll see how it works after lunch. Hungry, Edwin?”

They sat down.

“Hey, Sam,” Edwin said after a few bites, “I remember a training simulation—really realistic—had the control panels of each of the major components. Do you have access to that?”

“Of course.”

“I think I’d like to go through it a little. Brush up on some things.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I have a little down time later while the computer’s processing the stability data. I thought I’d make use of the time.”

“Instead of reading a novel?”

“Yeah. Can you set me up with an account and give me the passcodes?”

“Sure,” Sam replied, but Greta thought she heard suspicion in that one word.

“Looking for ways to increase production?” she asked, trying to sound as enthusiastic as Sam used to be.

Edwin shrugged.

“The simulation does have an efficiency analyzer,” Sam said. “It just might find something we’ve missed.”

Edwin sighed, but a faint smile belied his annoyance. “I was thinking. What if we put the re-compilers on a shorter cycle and rig a second conveyor—hopper-style—from the leftover tracks?”

“Might help.” Sam jumped up, right in the middle of a bite, and went over to the terminal. “The simulation they specialized for this trip isn’t exactly right, what with our staff size and modified production goals and all that. But I could update it.”

“Great.” Edwin winked at Greta. “So when you get me in, it’ll look real?”

“Of course. They don’t pay the programmers for nothing.”

Greta smiled. So Peter would get his access after all. Greta could picture how smug he would look when she handed over the simulation codes. She almost hoped he’d figure out what they’d done, just so he would realize not everyone was still in love with him. Then she looked at Sam, at the old intensity taking over his muscles, creeping into his eyes. She hoped Peter would discover their little defiance, but not for a long time.

“That figure’s really off,” Sam said, his indignation music to her ears. “We could work on the new conveyor tonight.”

Sam’s back was to them, and Edwin rolled his eyes. “Tonight?” But he looked straight at Greta. “Why not?”

Greta moved only her lips, but Edwin understood.

“You’re welcome,” he whispered back, while Sam’s fingers flew across the keyboard.


© 2014, Melinda Brasher

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