Author Topic: Chapter 10  (Read 7106 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Daen

  • Administrator
  • We Don't Care
  • *****
  • Posts: 525
  • Karma: +1/-0
Chapter 10
« on: June 10, 2022, 04:59:21 AM »
Chapter 10

"You know how I said I like road trips?" Beb said to the side, her head lolling against the top of the passenger seat. "Well, I'm over that now."

Margo spared her a glance. Just a moment, though. They were driving into Jersey City during rush hour, and the highway was packed. "At least this one was a lot shorter than going all the way to Michigan."

"There is that."

Margo had spent most of the last day reaching out to her contacts in Philly's... technological underground. Some of them had skills like Beb's, but usually with an accompanying criminal past and a lot of emotional baggage. They operated in a legal grey zone, much like the marijuana industry situation still was in many states. Governments had cracked down pretty quickly on large-scale uses of the exciters, but individuals voiding the warranty and cracking the things open was still commonplace. But as with most laws, this was subject to interpretation and possible unfair enforcement.

One of her associates had given her the name Eddie Terener, finally, along with an address in Jersey City. Margo had looked it up and found it was some kind of paper factory. Eddie was expecting them there shortly.

All of them, in fact. Tin was driving right behind them, in another probably-stolen car. He'd only shrugged when asked why he didn't want to be in the car with them. Margo suspected he wanted an out, in case this was some kind of trap. Despite his blatant disregard for the laws, surpassing even her own casual attitudes, she did understand his desire to always have an escape route. He was on the run, after all.

Margo rationalized her association with him fairly easily. If caught, she would claim she was zeroing in on his location, having been hunting him for over a week now. If he was caught following her, she could claim he wanted to eliminate his pursuer before running again. And Beb's technical skills could be useful in explaining why she was here. She was tracking his phone or something.

In truth, the risk of being near Tin was starting to feel normal. As crazy as that sounded. Margo had been attacked, and Tin had probably saved her life the other day. If anything, he mitigated risk by being nearby.

Now that she'd had a while to think about it, Margo was less and less sure the man had actually been there to kill her. More likely he'd been sent to gather information. He'd snuck into the house while they were busy in Beb's workshop, searched the place for any clues as to what they knew, and then tried to grab her. If he could have knocked Margo out quietly, he probably would have removed her from the house before Beb or Tin could react. Margo shivered slightly.

Of course the police had been no help. The actually gave his name as John Smith, which she found to be a bit on the nose. There was no sign of him in any criminal database, just as predicted. Smith had been sprung on bail almost immediately after being booked. Margo had tried to trace the money trail, but it was a corporate nesting doll. The company that paid his bail was owned by another, which was owned by another, on and on, etc.

She'd never actually been to Jersey City or New York before, despite growing up in Pennsylvania. Well, she'd been driven through it as a kid, being brought down from Maine. That didn't count. They had to stop several times on the toll road, but it was worth it to get a sight of the Raritan Bay. Eventually, the Statue of Liberty as well, followed by Ellis Island. They couldn't see much of the latter, but Lady Liberty stood tall, surrounded by mist despite the rising sun.

Margo had never considered herself to be that patriotic, and she knew Beb felt about the same. Vaguely she wondered how Tin felt. He was a military man, or so she assumed. He'd probably felt some sort of fervor at some point.

They heard the noise from the paper factory before they came in sight of it. It was a constant hiss, from steam being released apparently. It rose and fell rhythmically, although Margo was sure her hearing would be damaged if they stayed here too long. Beb certainly looked pained.

A man was actually waiting at the squat, 1-story building, and ran out from the entrance. As Tin pulled up behind Margo in the parking lot, the man held out sets of earplugs. Grateful, Margo grabbed one and handed the other to Beb. Then the man walked over to Tin's car to offer the same.

They were remarkably effective. It must have been noise-cancelling technology: Beb had described it to Margo once. It was pricey, too. Beb gave her a surprised look, and then smiled with relief. The noise itself had to be driving down property values in this area.

The three of them stepped out, and the man pulled a handheld exciter from his pocket. He changed some settings on it, causing it to focus on his face, and then turned it on. He mouthed some words, and then the exciter projected letters into the air in front of him. "I'm Eddie Terener. Are you Margo?"

Margo had read about the lipreading aspects of the exciters before, but had never had any reason to use it that way. Of course, all exciters could record sounds, but not with any of the same tools. Each one just had an audio recorder as part of it- the particle field they excited simply didn't include sounds, so sometimes exciter recordings had poor audio quality. She nodded to him, and then pulled out her own exciter. It was programmed to include Beb's name on the list of words it recognized. Tin was not on the list, but his name was also a metal, so it should be fine.

"This is Beb, and Tin," she gestured to them respectively, after setting up her exciter. Her own words sprang up in front of her just as his had. It was actually a little miraculous by comparison to previous technology meant to help deaf people. The particles excited by her handheld device could be analyzed much more effectively than just a 2D video. As such, lipreading was much easier, even for an automatic program. Exciters basically allowed deaf people to interact almost normally with anyone, regardless of their ability to read lips or to sign. They'd been used as translators as well, though only with the most commonly spoken languages so far.

In fact, the exciters also had a speech-to-text function. If the speaker was out of range of the field, it was no better than any run-of-the-mill program. Still, if they were close, the exciter could interpret exactly what they said and project it into the air for deaf people to read. That way a deaf person could 'hear' things said from out of line of sight!

Eddie shook their hands and gestured them inside, and Margo followed. Tin hesitated for just a moment, but Beb tapped him on the arm and he eventually went with her. She obviously didn't know about his desire for an escape route.

The factory itself was massive; spread out over a wide area despite its lack of a second floor. Margo had seen a loading dock at the back, presumably where the paper was dispatched for delivery. There were no trucks present right now, but that didn't mean much. In her experience, truckers could show up at any hour of the day. In fact, some would probably like waiting until after dark, when the factory was less noisy or crowded. That way they wouldn't have to wait as long to get their containers loaded up.

Come to think of it, this place wasn't that crowded. Margo could see a handful of workers down the way, but it was nothing compared to the sheer glut of cars crowding the parking lot outside. Where was everybody? It was too early for lunch, even if this place had some kind of communal cafeteria.

Eddie led the way downstairs one level, and then opened a door. The earplugs were still effective in keeping her sane, but Margo could feel the vibration now, through her boots on the ground. She felt it in her hand when she closed the door behind them.

Whatever was in here... was not what she expected. It looked like some kind of storage bay, originally, but there was a second room inside the first. Filling a full 3/4 of the larger room, the smaller one was wooden, and suspended just above the floor. A mouse could have brushed its back against the suspended floor, if it had tried to go under.

Margo looked up, and could see reinforced cross-braces above the room, holding it in place with strong cables. It must have been an expensive conversion, given the bare-bones utility of the rest of this factory. As far as soundproofing went, this was top-of-the-line. The only way to completely block sound waves was to put a pocket of air around an entire room, like this.

The door to the internal room was open, as Eddie showed them from one side. He stepped inside, mouthing something and his exciter translated. "Just don't touch anything in here." It was dark inside, but there was a light switch on the wall. One of the wires suspending this room must have included a power line.

With obvious effort, Eddie hauled the door shut and sealed it. The vibration ceased immediately. When he flipped the switch, Margo could see that they were in a bedroom. Not just any bedroom, either. Despite them being both underground and inside a closed room, there were windows on two walls, with an exciter mounted underneath one. The bed was pushed up against the third wall, and there was some kind of clothing rack near the fourth one. The windows included images from various vistas, and Margo could see a slight roller next to them. This place had been built to give the impression that it was just any hotel room or residential space.

Beb was examining the clothing rack curiously, and then it came to Margo. She shook her head, belatedly taking out her earplugs and turning off her exciter. "My friend said you were an artist, Eddie. He failed to mention that you were an erotic artist. This place is obviously a studio, and that exciter is your camera."

Tin leaned back away from the window frame, his face suddenly etched with concern and distaste. "You were right to tell us not to touch anything. Why did you even bring us in here at all? We're certainly not interested in working for you in... this way. Or at least I'm not," he added, glancing over at Beb. She seemed preoccupied with the jet-black suits hanging on the rack.

Eddie had also removed his earplugs. "I'm a businessman," he said simply. "And trust me, it's a lot easier to talk in here than it is out there. Don't worry, our next shoot won't start for at least an hour."

"You mean your, uh, actors are here? Now?" Tin looked even more rattled.

"Yeah, they're in the next room, getting something to eat. We still have dozens of shows to put on, this week alone."

Despite her upbringing, Margo had developed something of a tolerance for the adult film industry. It was probably because of the multiple cheating spouses she'd recorded during her career. She was inured to this kind of scandal by now. Tin was obviously offended by what he was seeing here, and Beb seemed lost in her own mind. Margo knew from a slightly embarrassing past experience that Beb had her own collection, so she probably didn't mind being here.

"I think I understand why my friend didn't just give me your number," Margo said wryly, and Eddie gave a small smile. "You don't have one, do you? Not a public one anyway."

"Nah, they're too much hassle," Eddie admitted. "Besides, this isn't exactly illegal, but that won't stop closed-minded idiots from shutting me down if they find out. I have to be careful, at least until the law catches up with the exciter technology. Probably even after that." His expression darkened at that last bit, obviously with how long the process was taking.

She knew what he meant. As far as Margo was concerned, Eddie could film just about every consenting act in existence. As long as there were no kids involved, it didn't really matter that much. Besides, she didn't have the luxury of judging him, even if she'd wanted to. She still needed his help. "My friend tells me you've modded the exciter successfully. For your film business I assume. We need your help breaking through the encryption on the device, so we can bypass the little self-destruct these things have," she hefted her own exciter for emphasis.

"Oh, bypassing the self-destruct is easy," Eddie assured her. "But if you're after that coded message, you'll have to get in line. People have been trying to crack it for months now."

Margo blinked. He knew about Jia's message? Unless he'd been to her cabin in Michigan, which was by now swarming with cops, he shouldn't have any idea! "Uh, it's one of the things we want," she admitted.

Eddie opened his mouth, but Beb let out a noise from the other side of the room. "This is the Spider's Embrace!" She said excitedly, turning to face him. "Isn't it?"

Now it was Eddie's turn to look surprised, but also a little proud. "Good eye; yes it is. Not that I expected any of you to recognize it. You're not like my usual customers." He looked Beb up and down appraisingly. Beb blushed a little and looked back at the clothing rack.

"What is the Spider's Embrace?" Tin asked from the side. "And I ask that... not entirely sure I want to know." Margo added a noise of agreement to his words.

"It's a kind of transmitter/receiver pairing, stitched into this suit. It's made of something called memory cloth," Beb explained. She reached out to the black clothing, but hesitated, looking back to Eddie.

He nodded at her. "It's been cleaned. Go ahead."

She lifted it up, and then moved over to the exciter on the wall. Even from her own position, Margo could see the little black box attached to it. Beb smiled at it, and then at the rest of them. "I heard about these Embraces showing up on the market about a year ago. They're for telesex. Basically for if you're in one city, and your hubby is in another. If you both have exciters, and you each have one of these, you can be together, even if you're not together. One person wearing the suit can be felt by the other person wearing the oth—"

"I get it," Margo said sharply, but she was impressed despite that. There was an unwritten rule concerning new inventions: that they all had pornographic origins. It went all the way back to the invention of writing: even ancient cave drawings had often been sexually explicit. The same for graffiti in ancient Rome. She doubted that this was what Jia'd had in mind when she'd invented the exciters, but Eddie was certainly ahead of his time on this. Somehow he'd beaten all the others in his industry when it came to altering the exciters safely.

Whatever else people might say about his profession, he certainly was brilliant.

Beb seemed to think so as well. "What kind of data compression do you use to stream the exciter feeds?" She asked in that same tone of voice. "Transmitting normal exciter data is tough enough, but this has to include tactile sensations as well. You must gobble up bandwidth like nothing else!"

Eddie chuckled. "Most people focus on what the Embrace does, not how it works. It's refreshing to meet someone who understands the inside of an invention as well as the outside. And I had a leg up on the compression. I invented the Spider's Kiss about a year after I got my first exciter. Most of the compression algorithms are the same, but the Embrace has a lot more of them."

"It's like the Embrace," Beb said distractedly, running her hand over the memory cloth, "but for kissing and the like."

"Yeah, we got that too," Tin said wryly, sharing a patient look with Margo. "How about we focus on why we came here? How did you know about the message in the exciters?"

Eddie looked a little chagrined. "Right. So, people have been trying to get through the exciter lockouts for most of a year, but it's only fringe people like me. Most people are content using the exciters like you do: for casual recording and playback. About four months ago, one of my friends online announced that he'd found an audio file buried under the encryption in the device. No one has been able to crack it since then, though it's not for lack of trying. Obviously we can't ask for help from any official code-breakers or computer software companies. We're not even supposed to be opening up the exciters in the first place."

Briefly, Margo wondered if her own skills would help. No, that was doubtful. There was a vast difference between word ciphers and machine language encryption. "Do you know how long the message is, or who recorded it?" As far as Margo was aware, Jia's involvement in the exciters was still a secret.

Eddie shook his head. "So far no one has been able to tell, but in a few days it won't matter. From what my friend showed me, when that AFI CEO's birthday rolls around, the lockouts will end automatically. The message will be played on almost every exciter worldwide, and that will be that. Why do you care so much, anyway? It's probably just another CEO being all self-important and unaware."

"We have reason to believe the message might not actually be from Theo Farrow," Margo said a little evasively. "Are you sure you can't break through the encryption before Thursday night? That's when we were told it would trigger."

"Yeah, that sounds right, but you're asking the wrong genius. Believe me, I've tried. I even tried to fake the exciter into thinking the deadline already arrived, but that was a no go." He sounded genuinely disappointed.

"Can you at least show Beb how to bypass the self-destruct on the device?" Margo went on. "So that we can try to break it on our own."

Looking back at Beb with a wide grin, Eddie nodded. "I'd be happy to. First, you should build a signal dampener. A Faraday cage works best, just to be sure. If you don't, it sends off a signal to AFI, and they get really upset."

"I know," Beb assured him. "I'm not an amateur here. I just didn't think they'd put a damn thermite charge inside each one."

Eddie raised his eyebrows at her, and then nodded respectfully. "Not your first rodeo. Got it." He checked his watch. "I've got to get out to my actors soon. Keep those earplugs for your trip out. Here's my card. If you come by my office later, I can show you how to open up... the exciters," he said with a smile to Beb.

Margo rolled her eyes. As far as pickup lines went, it was predictable and lazy, but she couldn't really blame him for trying. Beb was something special all right.

Tin seemed to have something else on his mind. "Why did you set up a porn studio inside a paper factory?" He asked, tilting his head slightly. "And during business hours no less. How is the management all right with this?"

"Ah, see that's a whole different mystery," Eddie said mischievously. "This isn't really a paper factory. They don't pulp bark here, or shape it or send it out. It's all one big cover. My actors aren't the only ones here."

What? Margo had been in and out of industrial areas in cities for years as a part of her job, and she knew them pretty well. She hadn't seen any indication of wrongdoing here. Although... she hadn't seen many people here when they'd been walking in. "A cover for what, exactly?"

"I'm not sure. They pay top dollar to keep the show going, though. I only found out about it by accident, when one of their actors bought one of my Embraces and its signal got fouled up. I blackmailed the 'plant manager' into letting me use this place for shoots. They made me pay for setting up this soundproof room, but otherwise it works out well. I even hired some of their own actors for my shoots. It's not like they have anything else to do."

"What do you mean?" Tin asked curiously.

Eddie gestured around him. "To make a plant like this look legit, you need to have truck drivers coming and going at all hours, and you need to have a packed parking lot. Most of the actors pretending to be factory workers are paid to show up and pretend they're in here working. If OSHA or some other group does an inspection, they have to follow their lines and actions, but otherwise they have no requirements. Most of them just read or something during the day, using their earplugs. It surprised me too at first, but in retrospect it makes sense. If you're willing to slave away in a hot, noisy factory all day for twelve bucks an hour at the most, you'll probably jump at the chance to make thirteen just to be in the same place doing nothing all day."

Margo supposed she could see the appeal. Given the recession in this area, a lot of these people were probably just happy to have a regular paycheck. Pretending to be a plant worker would be a small price to pay in exchange. "How long has this been going on?"

"At least three years now from what I can tell. It gives me cover too, so I don't really want to poke around asking questions. I do know that most of the actors live in the area around the plant, though. They're already used to the noise."

Margo thought back over the information she'd dug up on this 'paper plant'. It had been owned by a Dylan Murad, who had a checkered business history. Apparently at least two of his previous companies had failed, and this was his latest attempt. Most likely he was doing something criminal here. "All right. Thanks for your time, Eddie. We have your card, so we'll drop by your office at what... four pm?"

He nodded at that, but Beb put out a hand. "Actually, I'd like to stay. It would be great to see the Embrace in use, and to study the compression stream."

Margo shared an amused look with Tin, at the oblivious wording there. "Are you sure, Beb? Knowing what the Embrace is used for?"

She just shrugged. "It doesn't bother me. That is, if it doesn't bother you," she said to Eddie with some concern.

"Not at all," he said easily. "I'll just edit you out of the room along with myself in the finalized version. Unless you'd like to participate, of course," he said with the same sleazy tone as before.

"I'll pass on that, thanks," Beb said sarcastically, and he laughed.

Margo rolled her eyes again, as she put the earplugs back in. When they were in place on everyone, Eddie pushed the door open again, and the vibration made its way through the air and into the room. Eddie escorted Beb into the other room, probably to meet the 'actors' there. Margo and Tin were practically forgotten. Tin frowned. "Is she safe here?" He mouthed, and his exciter translated for him.

"She'll be fine," Margo responded. "Besides, if Eddie's busy here, it'll give us a chance to look around. He might not care about what's going on here, but I do."
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 05:06:04 AM by Daen »