Liminality #4

Zach rode his bike into an alley in Little Seoul, where he found Cindy’s bike already locked up. The bike rack was overcrowded, so he locked his to hers, removed his helmet, clipped it onto the strap for his bag, and tried to make his hair dignified. Once in front of the alley, he spent ten seconds checking that he hadn’t been followed (FCC-EAD pre-mission field rule #7.a), confirmed that he had reception on no less than three devices (#7.b), and then proceeded into the doorway marked by a sun-scorched plastic sign that said “The Liquid Ambassador” and featured a drawing of something resembling a martini glass.

He rounded a corner and went down the stairs. Once belowground, he confirmed that he had no reception on any devices except for the emergency beacons (rule #7.b said nothing about reception once a mission started), and he entered the establishment proper. Passing by the bar, he ordered his usual, an Upper Illinois IPA, and joined Cindy, with her usual accompaniment of something-clear-on-the-rocks, at their usual booth in the corner.

The television sets on the walls played Ajeossi, a Korean revenge drama from the golden age of their cinema that Zach remembered seeing a few years back. The original title meant ‘Uncle’, and had been curiously translated into English as ‘The Man from Nowhere’. There was a particularly memorable standoff happening on the screens right now, by an empty swimming pool in a mansion-turned-slum. It would soon be followed by a bloodbath. It held Zach’s attention for a moment, and he mouthed a note, picked up by his earpiece, reminding him to watch it again some time.

Nearby, a half-dozen occupied karaoke booths leaked what amounted to a resounding wall of white and pink noise that obscured their conversation better than any auditory countermeasures they could have brought. The haze of cigarette and pot smoke emanating from the barstools formed a surprisingly effective barrier to lip-reading or even seeing very far, and the stateside variant of cash-stakes Pai-Gow taking place throughout the room would serve to distract any lesser law enforcement that might wander in.

These were, of course, rationalizations—a meeting room at the FCC-EAD would offer better protections. But, you see, The Liquid Ambassado had beer.

Zach sipped his. Too cold and flavorless. He took a glass from the stack on the table and poured it in, then tried again. Better.

“So, Zimmerman,” Zach said, “thoughts?”

“Well.” Cindy pulled her FCC-EAD tablet out of her bag and laid it open on the table. “There is one thing that does stand make this one stand out from a lot of the others.”

She tapped her finger on the text and highlighted a phrase. “Forty thousand requests per second? I think a few minutes of that would be enough to crash one of our servers.”

Zach sipped and thought. “Can’t they just close the port?”

Cindy, halfway through a sip of her own, shook her head. “I think Healthwire would have to reprogram all of the other hardware in their little experiment to go somewhere else, and this is a Defense grant, so who knows what kind of numbers they’re dealing with.”

“Hell, with that kind of money flying around, I’d be surprised if Healthwire knows what kind of numbers they’re dealing with.”

They shared a sad chuckle at that.

“This request rate has me a little worried, Zach. I think this one might actually be credible.”

Zach thought for a moment and realized he’d been holding the beer the whole time. He shook the moisture off his hands and rubbed them together to recover feeling. “I guss it explains the Deputy Director’s level of concern. Probably not the usual cover-your-ass job… Where the hell do we start?” He opened his tablet and scrolled through the file. “I mean, you can’t just waltz into a Comcast node. They might as well have armed guards.”

“They do,” Cindy said.

“Sure, but, like, they might as well have dogs and stuff too, I dunno. Any other avenues of inquiry we can try first, try to get a warrant? What about…” Zach trailed off.

For a while, they just read and drank, Cindy her something-on-the-rocks, Zach his IPA.

A waitress brought kim-chi pretzels. Zach tried a few and found them… flavorful. He tried to give them a chance every time he was at the Ambassador, always to no avail.

Cindy, for her part, almost always finished the bowl.

“Mm!” Zach said, and then failed to stealthily spit a half-chewed pretzel into a napkin.

Cindy looked up. Zach wiped his mouth and the table, stashed the balled-up napkin in the corner, and took a drink of beer. “We should look up what happened in town at 5:06 last night that might’ve triggered this anomaly. Power surge, fire, uh, rabbit attack…”

“Rabbit attack?”

“Quiet, I’m brainstorming. …accidental nanobot release, uh, escaped augmented horse?”

Cindy tapped her glass. “Disgruntled employees, I’ll check for firings or disciplinary violations… building demolitions, openings…”

“Remodelings…” Zach tried another pretzel. Nope.

Cindy swallowed some pretzels she’d been working on and washed them down with something-on-the-rocks. “I think we’ve got enough to go on here, Graves. Been a pleasure. Let’s regroup when we’ve got—”

“—at least three credible possibilities that all point to the same ISP node,” they said in unison, grinning stupidly, “pursuant with the 2025 DISA amendments, § 302.b.iv, regarding the warrant authority extended to the Department of External Anomalies, Federal Communications Commission Charter 15.255!” They clinked their glasses together and finished their traditional avant-mission beverages, then left at least four minutes apart as a deterrence against tails (pursuant FCC-EAD at-all-times field rule #2.d, waiveable in case of emergency without explicit permission of a supervisor).

* * *

Zach and Cindy entered one of the glass-walled conference rooms that lined the third story’s main corridor, affectionately known as the fishtanks. The transparent walls went smoky as soon as they entered, and mounted panels were populated with the relevant documents, which in this case was just the initial report, plus the standard map and timeline of the investigating agents’ locations and actions.

Zack stopped, surprised. He’d read about these upgrades, but he hadn’t been listed as active on an eyes-only, priority one anomaly for, what, a year? The fishtanks really gave you the royal treatment on these. He whistled appreciatively. “Snazzy,” he said. “Wonder where we got the money?”

Cindy had already sat down and started connecting her laptop to one of the wall panels.

She shrugged. “You know how it goes, gotta spend the money or it won’t be in next year’s budget.”

“Fair enough.” He sat down and tried to connect his own laptop. “Uh, how does this even work?”

Cindy looked up. “You should be authorized to bluetooth onto any of these screens.”

“Yeah, it’s not discovering anything.”

“It’s working for me.” Cindy indicated the reflection of desktop up on the wall. “Do we need to call IT?”

Zach shook his head. “It’s fine, we’ll survive. I’ll just switch one of these to whiteboard mode…” He walked towards an unused panel. “Which is, uh—“

“Button in the bottom middle brings up the menu, touchscreen from there,” Cindy said with a sigh.

“…Got it. Cool. So.” He wrote Healthwire on the screen with his finger, underlined it, and then wrote 5:06pm? below. “I can start with the incident reports—fire, police, animal control—“

Cindy laughed. “Seriously, Graves, it’s not going to be a rabbit attack.”

“A good investigator never rules anything out,” Zach said, an index finger raised.

“That is so not true. For instance, I can rule out ghosts right now.”

“OK, fine, we can rule out ghosts. But as Holmes said—“

“Do you have to treat every case like it’s your first, and your only experience is from watching crime procedurals?”

“Can’t argue with results, Zimmerman. My office has a window.”

“Technically.”

Zach sat back down and started pulling up the municipal search engines. “Hey, if you throw a rock at it, it’ll break just like any other.”

“Well, I guess I’ll just have to test that some time. Anyway. You search incident reports, I’ll look for construction activity and see if anybody interesting has some new bad reviews on LinkedIn.”

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