Fifteen

Daniel had equipped the vase with a small microchip that detected particular motion. In turn, it would send a wireless signal to unlock a trap door. Replacing the vase on the mantle, he turned and threw back the rug to reveal a varnished floorboard sticking up like a handle. He reached down and heaved open the trap door. Slowly, he walked down a set of painted concrete steps into the darkness.
As he descended, dim artificial light came up to greet him. Monitors started to light up as he entered the room, awakened from a long sleep. In the windowless room below, a bank of computer screens provided the primary illumination. Many rifles and other war material hung on the walls, amid masses of computer cables and dense thickets of wiring. Nestled in a corner was a highly illegal 3D printer, capable of printing custom metal weaponry. The only sounds were the quiet hum of the machines and a hiss of the air flowing out of the ductwork.
At an oversized monitor, Daniel seated himself in his chair customized to his proportions by sophisticated measuring instruments. The finished output had come from a multi-material 3-D printer.
The mercenary entered a few keyboard commands and watched as the image of Gideon slowly came to life before him. Gideon's voice was slightly fuzzy, and his image continually broke up into squares and then resolved. They were using the Ducat transmission network, the only way they could be secure that no one was spying on their communications. For the right to use the system securely, Daniel would pay a nominal fee. That small fee would go to all the interconnected nodes along the network, incentivizing them to allow connections to pass through. Although ubiquitous, there was still danger from the CPC from using the Ducat network. Daniel could see that his friend sat against a background of brick.
The Ducat network had come to prominence during the economic collapse. The governments of the world had instigated a period of hyperinflation unparalleled on earth. Prices for food, clothing and energy skyrocketed and would change by the hour. In less than a week, the price of bread went from three dollars to three-hundred. Billion-dollar fortunes were decimated overnight.
But there was a refuge from the hyperinflation, found in the Ducat network. The cryptocurrency could not be manipulated by government, so its value remained relatively stable. Vital staples, like food and energy, maintained a constant price denominated in Ducats. Hundreds of thousands of euros, Renminbi and US dollars poured into the network, making a single Ducat worth nearly US $35,000. Soon most of the world's economy was running efficiently on the Ducat network, outside of the control the world’s governments. Due to millions of disenfranchised who had not bought into the Ducat network, the world’s governments rushed to implement the Essential Development Collective, which introduced its new currency, the CPC dollar. The Ducat network was ruled illegal, but its widespread use made that threat and law nearly impossible to enforce.
Daniel had been lucky. A friend of his had told him to invest in Ducats. He wagered a small amount, just $5000. That had quickly come to be worth millions of inflation adjusted dollars and allowed him to buy all the toys in this secret basement.
The Ducat network was adaptive, and it had to be to stay ahead of the CPC’s Internet scanners. The system had been created, supposedly by one man: Debyan Radchenko. The Ducat network was not only a crypto-currency that allowed payments from one entity to another. It also allowed for smart contracts and marketplaces.
There were marketplaces of every sort on the network. For most people, the way they interacted with the marketplaces was purchasing property, intellectual and physical. There were blueprints and models for physical objects that could be outputted by 3-D printers. Musicians could post their songs on the network with different characteristics specifying the royalty rate or the amount that they would accept for a song play. Creators could either sell the property or the right to play or use a artwork. Even breaking out and selling shares of intellectual property was a common practice. A whole new investor class that invested solely in art and creative work of all kinds had arisen. Novelists could post the written word. Decentralized curated marketplaces added value, and chose to amalgamate artists, while others chose a more general approach. The Ducati network allowed anyone with any kind of intellectual property to monetize it.
Everything on the Ducat network provided value and the system was highly decentralized. This day and age everything had a microchip. Nearly every device had some level of computing power. Even small devices, such as a refrigerator or blender had spare processing power which they could use to at least communicate with other appliances, which made them necessary cogs in the Ducati network. Additional computer resources such as processing power and storage space could be rented out on the network and could allow the user to at least recoup a few Ducats.
For Daniel, most significant market was Panther, where mercenaries came together to form teams and employers posted contacts.
All of this was deeply illegal. The CPC had seen to that, but the reality was that everyone used it. In addition to the threat of hyperinflation, the CPC had gotten into the habit of going into people’s bank accounts and taking 10 or 20%. They called it a haircut, and said that it was for “essential services.” This was in addition to inflation, effectively a yearly 5% haircut without the intrusion into a bank account.
"Daniel. I'm sorry. I meant to wait. I know we just got back," began Gideon tentatively and apologetically.
"Gid, I told you. I'm done."
"I know, I know. How many times have I wanted to walk away myself? I know you can afford to. But look, I'm desperate. The less you know the better, but the truth is I had to take out a loan to make ends meet a few months back."
Daniel shook his head. "And you can't entirely pay."
"It’s more than that.” Gideon paused, somewhat ashamed. “I…kind of took matters into my own hands. They've threatened my family."
Daniel said nothing, and his friend took a breath and began to speak again.
"This job should be easy money. No politics and money up front."
Daniel's smile held no real humor. "There's always politics," he said.
"Not this time. It's quick, in and out."
"Like that time in Odessa?" joked Daniel.
"No.” Gideon laughed as he remembered. “It's a good man setting it up this time. I know him and I know we can trust him. At least, as far as the logistics goes." His voice trailed off, then picked up again. "So there's good money, and a reliable agent. The client promises a bonus too."
Daniel sighed in resignation. "Tell me the story."
"His name is Markus Gallery, and he is representing a group of investors…”
Daniel sat bolt upright in the computer chair. The wheels squeaked and the back of the chair made a loud noise as the seat rebounded too fast. He was breathing intensely and remembered the last time he had heard the name Markus Gallery.
"Markus Gallery?" Daniel asked.
“You know him?” Queried Gideon.
“Yes.” murmured Daniel. After his release from incarceration, Daniel had searched around for information on the enigmatic Markus Gallery. The trail went cold, frigid, sometime in 2017. Prior to that had been in the U.S. Army, an officer who reached the rank of Major, and a Ranger at that. When the trail went that cold, it meant the man had gone deep into some very black project.
"You know him! Great!" Gideon was always overly enthusiastic when he started a job. “Anyway, he has put together a team to find Radchenko. That guy has been loose too long, and I know you think so too. This way, we might get him, and we get a payday for getting him. Or even if we don't," Gideon continued with the hard-sell. “Markus has a reputation as an excellent commander. Super-super-smart, although he is a bit...ambitious. We start in Hong Kong. It's a simple escort job, Daniel. Just pick up a guy with the codename Loki.”
Daniel leaned to his left and tapped an auxiliary screen awake. Working fast but fully encrypted, he started a deep search on Loki. Panther had a catalog that included information brokers, ex-special forces operators, computer hackers and honeypots for hire. He added Loki and Markus Gallery, trying to see what the intersection was and to explore any connection.
Gideon continued with what he knew. "Loki's Polish, short, compact, super smart. He's apparently been concentrating on locating some information, working his contacts, you know. Markus won't give specifics."
"No. Of course, he wouldn't give any details." Information was too valuable to just give away. Even on the Ducat network there was a nominal fee for this kind of deep search, with several advanced providers all hawking their own algorithm. For the right price, Daniel could sic some pretty serious information brokers on the problem, but the fee was a little high for him, and there were risks with this kind of search. Even asking an information broker for information became a valuable piece of information to the right people.
Glancing at the rundown on the secondary screen, he saw that Loki would be an unusual prize. Born on the Polish resort island of Jastarnia, he'd grown up right next to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. From old social media pictures, it appeared the young man had partied hard as a young man and learned to dance well. His profile on the Ducat network listed his technical qualifications under his callsign. He also seemed to have made his way to South China, and he listed some jobs that he had done in Vietnam and Thailand. That was all well and good, but nothing stood out. Just another run of the mill hacker, a dime a dozen these days.
"What's so special about this Loki guy?" Daniel asked. He leaned forward in his chair again to look closely at the big computer screen in front of him on the wall.
"Loki's been working on locating some information," Gideon said. "Markus won't give specifics. Need to know, but it has something to do with Radchenko."
"I guess Markus’ investors are after the bounty," Gideon said. "400 million from the CPC... In any condition." The Central Planning Committee for the Equitable Distribution of Wealth paid a high price for many things, including returned computer terrorists.
"Yeah, but that also means that every two-bit soldier of fortune is looking for him too. The pay better be good..." Daniel started to say.
"Trust me, it is," Gideon interrupted. "Ducats. Enough to get us out of the US and get to an CPC special development zone. Are you in?"
"I'm doing this for you and your family, especially Fontaine,” Daniel said. He was fond of Gideon’s wife Fontaine, as she had provided a stabilizing influence on the brash young Navy SEAL. "Don't you forget it."
"I won't, old buddy," Gideon said. He was smiling, Daniel knew, because Gideon always enjoyed the jobs they had done. "See you at these coordinates tomorrow, 1200 hrs."
Daniel nodded and switched off the display. Daniel was still startled at hearing Markus Gallery’s name and, he wondered what it would be like to work with him. It was sure that Daniel owed him a favor. How much of a favor? What did the man want from him? He slumped in his chair, aware again of his bone-deep exhaustion borne from life.

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