“Our boss wouldn’t say that.”
Stoughton smiled at the man from Redco. “Of course not, sir.”
“We’re a family business. If someone came across those words…”
Stoughton raised a hand, silencing the man. “There is no need to explain. We make no judgement.”
“Of course.” The Redco man’s face reddened. It always surprised me how many of our clients were embarrassed, as if the service we offered was somehow immoral.
“So that just leaves the formalities,” Stoughton said, sliding the tablet along the desk. “If you could thumbprint here…and here…and check the financial details here…that is all in order? Yes? Then consider the matter dealt with.”
The man hesitated, rubbing his hands. They looked sore, and I reminded myself to take a bath when I returned to my room. Unless Stoughton had used all the hot water, of course.
“And you can really get every single copy?” Many of our clients asked the same question.
“That is what we state in our literature, sir, and we would not permit something like that to exist if it were erroneous.”
“Even on private systems?”
Stoughton smiled again. “In my experience, no system is totally private, sir. Not even personal crypto-encoded ones.”
The man swallowed. “Good. That’s…er…is that everything? Do you need anything else from me…from Redco?”
“No. We have everything.” Stoughton nodded to the single sheet of paper on the desk, upon which we had observed the man from Redco painstakingly write out the words that his boss had never uttered.
Stoughton extended a gloved hand—he always wore gloves when dealing with clients—and grabbed the man’s hand, giving it a firm shake that jolted the man’s arm. “A pleasure, sir. And if you have any other matters that never happened, business or otherwise, we are always glad to be of service.”
The man left quickly, eyes to the floor.
“He’ll be back,” Stoughton said, fingers tapping his console. “One only has to browse his LifeMirror to get a measure of the man. Comments like that will easily offend.” He tilted the console so that I could read the words. “Especially if they reach a susceptible reader.”
“Which might happen sooner than he imagines,” I said, because after three months working and living with the man, I knew how Stoughton operated. The business was on the level, of course, but there are so many levels, and Stoughton rode the elevator between them all.
“But for now, we will correct matters for his master. If you could take care of the firebugs?” He slid the sheet of paper across the desk to me.
“Of course.” Such a task was second-nature now, and one that I had grown to greatly enjoy. I loved the idea that, from this single physical location, I could touch the world through the firebugs. I loved the thought of such clandestine caresses. I’d never been one for the physical anyway, and having a job that kept me separated from others was a joy in itself.
I summoned the fire-farm on my console and primed the bugs, running my eye over the variables to ensure nothing was amiss, and that my new code was behaving. The search box dropped, and I copied the words from the paper, exactly as they appeared. Then I reached into my desk drawer for the flamer. It was important to remove all copies of the words, both digital and physical.
When the paper was nothing but ash at the bottom of the flamer’s tray, I tapped the ‘release’ icon on my console. The firebugs flew off, burrowing their way through networks and systems, searching for copies of the error to incinerate.
“Instant results,” Stoughton said, looking up from his console, where he was monitoring my work. “It appears that these words never happened a great many times.” He rubbed his hands. “This should earn us a fair credit-rate, my young colleague. I believe the tweak you made last time is already playing dividends.”
I smiled. Praise was rare round here.
“And with that, there remains only one more matter before your training is officially completed.” He tore a fresh sheet of paper from the pad and wrote on it. “More words that never existed.”
He slid the paper across the table, face down. I turned it over and read.
I read it a second time, sure there must be some mistake.
“But…I don’t understand.”
He sighed, and his smile faded. “I hoped you would see the necessity of this without explanation, but maybe a quick refresher is called for. Tell me, what is our function?”
Stoughton had drilled this into me, and I knew his words by heart. “To ensure that certain sequences of words, erroneously recorded, are erased.”
“Because the truth cannot be hindered by slander, lies and misunderstandings.” Another quote from Stoughton himself.
“Good to know you’ve been paying attention. Yes, we remove things that never existed, for the general good. But there are those who would abuse a service such as ours. There are those who would put pressure on us, personally, to learn of the errors we erase. That is one of the reasons why we have our secure accommodation upstairs, and why it is so important that we remain totally loyal to our work. We cannot allow ourselves to be open to outside influence.
“We must remain invisible, my young friend. The work we do must never be apparent. The firebugs do not officially exits and so, clearly, neither can those who wrangle them.”
He paused, raising one bushy eyebrow. “You understand?”
I nodded, because I did. And the words on the piece of paper made perfect sense.
“So if you can run the bugs after that particular error, we can get to lunch.”
I looked at the paper one more time, called up the fire-farm and, when prompted, entered my own name.
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Pushing The Limits