Here is a story I had a lot of fun writing. Ultimately, it’s not a successful story. I think the idea isn’t strong enough to carry the action — and I think the writing is clunky. And then there’s the ending. Other than that, though…
Its about 3200 words long. I will be interested in your comments.
I automatically calculated the trajectory of the pastry crumbs that sprayed across the table as I set down my fork. “Sorry. I used too much force.” The crust of Angela’s apple, sage and onion pie was drier than usual today.
Sebastian shook his head. “Don’t you always? It’s practically your trademark, Delilah.”
“No, it’s not,” I said, a little hurt. Echo was the brute-force girl, not me. I looked around. Across the room, six gray-haired women with fancy purple hats –red ribbons, feathers, faux gems — nibbled on Angela’s scones.
I didn’t know why Sebastian had chosen Mrs. Frothingay’s Tea Shoppe for facetime. I didn’t know why we needed to facetime at all. I looked behind me. “Where’s Krissy?”
“She won’t be joining us.”
I sat up straight, cold blooming in my belly. “Why not? What’s wrong?”
Seb held up a hand. “Nothing. I gave her another assignment, that’s all.”
“‘Assignment?’ What are you, the substitute teacher?”
I didn’t like facetiming without Krissy. She wasn’t one of us, the seventeen, but she was genetically engineered and could probably kill you with a bendy straw. I felt safe when she was around.
Seb turned sideways in his chair and chomped on his ever-present cigar. A chrome lighter gleamed in his hand as he lifted it.
“Hey,” I said. He paused. After a moment he set the lighter down on the table top.
“I thought maybe you wouldn’t want Krissy here while I reprimanded you,” he said.
“Reprimand? For what?”
“Destabilizing an entire currency. And embezzlement,” he said.
“I did exactly what you tasked me with,” I said. “I can’t help it if things mutate after they’re released into the wild.”
“I think you could help it. I think you planned it.”
I shrugged, implying that he was giving me too much credit. The thing was, viruses do mutate, infoviruses as well as biological ones. “Freehold’s not even a real country,” I said. “It’s a joke that got out of hand.”
“The joke that got out of hand is preparing to sue the United States, demanding the return of its money and punitive damages,” he said.
“Oh.” I hadn’t seen that coming.
“Do I have to tell you that it brings the Center into the spotlight in a way we’d rather not deal with?”
I turned the pink flowered teacup on its saucer. The Center wasn’t the center of anything. It was more of an offshoot, an appendage of a multinational called Nimbus. The Center provided law enforcement and security support to the Court of Nations, the Global Intellectual Properties Protection Unit, INTERPOL, INTERSEC and the United States government pro bono, in return for the member nations allowing Nimbus certain… leeway. Seb probably didn’t know that I knew all that. They weren’t as good at monitoring what we did between our tasks as they thought they were.
My virus had been perfectly designed for the Freehold task. It planted a sticky marker on Freehold’s currency and tracked each transaction, like the nanotrackers they’d used to chart snowmelt streams during the water wars, when I’d been a little girl. My virus tracked the transactions in two directions; downstream, to the offshore it was stashed in, and upstream, back to the initiating transaction.
It also siphoned off 0.001% of each transaction and offshored it in a Confidential Financial Entity in Nebraska.
In our defense; Freehold? They called themselves “the democracy without borders,” and “the virtual country.” They had their own currency. It was a virtual currency but it could buy actual things; potato chips, airplanes, shoes. The “citizens” of Freehold didn’t mind that other people found their currency useful; in fact, they liked it.
The “country” of Freehold touted its security measures. Its census was stored on an impregnable server; one that Abel and I had cracked like a walnut in fifteen seconds. Thirty percent of Freeholders called themselves Galtians and tax-warriors. The rest were who you would expect; fronts for groups with names like Manos de Luz, Grupo Ticotin, the Fleecing and Royal Investment Bank, Staymor Brothers Brokerage and dozens of cartels and terrorist units. The Court of Nations and the US had already used information provided by the Center — by my virus – to shred Grupo Ticotin, proving their ties to terrorists, arresting their leaders and more importantly, seizing their assets.
Angela bustled past our table, her floral sprigged apron rustling. The sugary 1960s pop music that usually filled the place – “I’m Enery the Ache I am, Enery the Ache I am I am” – stopped in mid-word, and Sibelius’s Concerto for Violins in D Minor started. Angela, a working-class Liverpudlian who had traveled half the world before washing up in San Jose, California, had never struck me as a big classical music fan, but what did I know? I didn’t get out that much.
“The easiest way to get out of the spotlight,” Seb said, placing his cigar on the table and fixing me with his Stern Professor look, “would be to return the skimmed money. Now.”
“I don’t know where it is,” I said.
“That’s highly unlikely,” Seb said. The late morning sunlight, filtered through the tall buildings in the business district, made a silver halo of his short hair, and cast pale bars on his blue Oxford shirt. I couldn’t see his jeans but I knew they were pressed and creased, and his shoes were dark, gleaming brown. Professorial Casual.
We hated Freehold, the seventeen did, but we loved the concept. We could make it work, a country for us, us and the grandmas, those original five first-gen relics, locked into their exo-skels with nanos to help control the drooling. They were part of us.
I shrugged. “Things mutate,” I said.
He snapped his head from side to side. It looked as if it hurt. “It’s an info-virus. You created it and you’re the best. Stop jerking me around.”
“Jerking you around? What is wrong with you?”
The violin concerto ended. A plummy-voiced announcer said, “Next, J.F. Edelmann’s Sonata for Piano in D.” The opening minor key chords started at a stately march, then picked up the pace.
Seb took a deep breath, held it, and sighed it out. I had seen him do that before, but not for a long time. “I’m under some personal scrutiny here, Delilah,” he said. “And some stress. Perhaps I’m not reacting well to it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I almost reached across to touch his hand. Almost. He had been in my life as long as I could remember, a jailer, a teacher, a father, but I rarely touched him. We rarely touched solos, any of us.
Solo humans thought of us binary; that standard, boring Western worldview. On those rare occasions when I was among solos, I tried to use their conventions, and talk about data-me versus phys-me, but it wasn’t like at all. A solo eating a scone doesn’t think of salivary-glands-me and taste-buds-me and digestive-tract-me, and I don’t think data-me and phys-me. There’s just a me. And we, we touch almost all the time.
Edelmann ended and the music segued into J.S. Bach, clean and pure. I checked the time. That Edelmann sonata was over eight minutes long. Had that much time passed?
“I don’t have complete control of the virus,” I said. “I don’t know where it offshored the skim.” Abel always snickered at the word “offshore.”
“I don’t believe you,” Seb said.
“Well, it’s probably Nebraska,” I said. It was the current trendy asset-and-data haven, and Seb knew I knew that.“Why not just have Echo brute-force the banks until we find it?”
“And create an international incident?”
“You said it already was one.”
“Too many powerful entities offshore in Nebraska,” he said, with a shift of a shoulder that was almost a shrug. “We don’t want to upset them.”
He didn’t want to use Echo. Although she was the most powerful of us, she wasn’t always stable. Three years ago, the Russian President moved a bunch of troops to the Russian-Estonian border, for military exercises. He brought airplanes and tanks. Four days later he moved them back to Moscow without a word of explanation. That was Echo. But remember sixteen months ago, when the Mexico City Airport shut down for three days, stranding people, diverting flights, causing riots in the airport? That was Echo too.
I wasn’t brute-force, and I wasn’t a dark-knight like Abel. I was the smooth rounded stone that diverted the data-stream slightly, so that the council voted against war, or for trade expansion. I was the sprouted dandelion seed that split the crack in the sidewalk open wider. Unlike Echo, with her profound agoraphobia, or Abel, who looked like a first-gen in the exo-skel he needed to maintain his bulk, I was a walk-around. I could function just fine around solos, although I felt better when Krissy was with me.
Bach ended before I even thought to identify the piece. Debussy followed it, some lush, cloying piano prelude. What the hell?
Nimbus never measured success by volume, and that was a good thing. Of one-thousand-plus fetuses originally augmented in utero, nine had made it to adulthood, and five were still alive. We called them the grandmas. Through trial and error, Nimbus learned that introducing machine intelligence in utero was too soon. It took another failed generation for them to get it right, but eventually they built us. Our heritages, our ethnicities, our families didn’t matter. We assumed, with my brown skin and mass of curly black hair, that I was of Haitian or Dominican descent. Echo clearly came from one of the Chinese ethnic minorities, and Abel looked like a European-American mutt.
From what we could glean, my generation started with about three hundred babies. Nimbus started the treatments when we were four. Seventeen of us were functional, viable assets. Fifteen of us were female. Eight of us could walk around and interact with solos without drawing attention. I was one of the eight.
We all assumed that Nimbus had other Centers out there, with people like us, and that was how they had found the skim. China and Namibia, for instance, probably had their own. I wondered if that was what was making Sebastian so agitated.
“It’s your virus,” he said. “You can track it.”
“We were tracking it,” I said. “That was the point.”
Debussy sacharined to a close, thank goodness, and perfect tenor voices began a kantate. I didn’t recognize the composer, so I checked. Philip Heinrich Ehrlebach. Not common for a commercial station, even a classical one. The voices swept up, swooping and interweaving like the flight patterns of a group of swallows I’d seen once, under a bridge.
“So you can track the skim. Right, Delilah?”
“You’re leaning on this pretty heavily,” I said. “Can’t you just pay Freehold back out of the Center’s contingency funding? No harm, no foul?”
“Do you know how much it is?”
I shrugged, although I did, to the last virtual cent. “How much could it be? It was one one-hundredth of one percent.”
“Of every transaction,” he said. “Every drug deal, every arms deal, every wash-and-spin cycle. I don’t think our contingency fund is that big, even if I did agree that we should shoulder the burden of your bad behavior.”
“Bad behavior, Seb? Really? Inventiveness. Initiative. That’s what you use me for.”
“Your initiative is problematic in this case.”
Your initiative is problematic. I imagined imitating that to Abel, later. Seb was definitely not having a good day.
Thinking of Abel brought something else to mind. “Dark-knight the banks,” I said. Nobody did clandestine audit functions like Abel. “They’ll never even notice.”
“No. No,” Sebastian sighed again. “That’s not a good choice.”
I just looked at him.
“You won’t be able to reach anyone right now,” he said, as I tried to contact Abel.
The Ehrlebach ended. Really? That had been a fast ten minutes. Voices swirled again, pure, clean, singing in Latin. Misere Mei… misere mei… carrying it out, over again, ending with, Deus. Gregorio Allegri.
Cold flooded my body and I barely grabbed hold of my panic before it showed. I slowed all the automatic, autonomic reflexes that pounded at me, the bolting heart, the raging pulse, the surging security subroutines. I looked down at the table. Control mattered now, more than anything. I knew my life was at risk, just as I knew the next composer up would be Dvorak.
I’d been hijacked.
“I told you,” Sebastian said. “We’re under a lot of scrutiny. We’ve locked things down.”
Antonin Dvorak’s From the New World Symphony No 9 started, the sweet, dark swell of strings filling the tea shop.
I nodded. “Sure,” I said. “That’s why you chose to facetime here, instead of at the mall.”
He nodded. I knew he would, even though there wasn’t any mall. I had just made it up.
“I didn’t realize anyone would get so upset,” I said. “I’ll show you where we offshored it, Sebastian, but not here. There are too many people. It isn’t secure.”
I watched him take a breath, ready to argue. Then I watched him reconsider. I was cooperating. To argue that the place was secure might make me suspicious. He swiped his autocard over the sensor and pushed back in his chair.
I stood up. My discipline was good. I wasn’t shaking. That was good, because I going to need all my discipline to make this work, and I was probably going to die anyway. My only hope was that there was a friendly out there, ready to catch me… the same person who had programmed the music.
“Let me recalculate the tip,” Sebastian said. He was stalling, probably while somewhere people were spackling in swathes of code like crazy to fill in the street and sidewalk, sectors they hadn’t planned for.
Clearly I was unconscious somewhere. I was hoping – gambling – that I was now in the hands of a friendly. Those were pretty long odds, almost as long as the odds that someone would notice a hundredth of a percent getting siphoned off of a financial transaction, when there were three hundred fifty six thousand transactions per second on a slow day. Whoever had snagged me still had access, but they didn’t have my physicality. That was why the entity playing Seb was pushing so hard.
I would have to do a right turn.
There was a good chance I would expire before I could restart myself. But it wasn’t just about me. It was us, the seventeen. I couldn’t lose our seed money.
I followed Seb out the door and turned right. “Let’s talk in the parking structure,” I said, walking ahead of him. The hardy rosemary plants looked solid, but I couldn’t smell them. So many tiny things. A pastry crust. Sebastian starting to light his cigar. “Assignment.” Why hadn’t I noticed sooner?
“Let’s talk here,” he said, stopping right outside the door. They’d used sat-footage and probably sec-cam footage, and here looked real. The street didn’t though. It looked… stylized, like a construct of a city street, which was what it was.
I turned right and walked away from him, slipping into the rivulets of data and shaping them into a parking structure.
“Delilah! Stop!” I heard the scuff of his shoes on pavement and broke into a run, charging up the gray concrete vehicle entrance into the empty structure. I ran for the exit, where a yellow bar blocked the path of vehicles, a yellow sign with black letters and a pointing arrow gave direction. RIGHT TURN ONLY.
RIGHT TURN ONLY RIGHT TURN ONLY RIGHT TURN ONLY RIGHT TURN ONLY
I turned right.
//Switch activated Y/N Y
//<hmi>// Registry Y/N N
//<hmi>//Redundancy Activate Y/N N
//<hmi>// Upstream handshake Y/N N
//<hmi> Confirm hardright Y/N Y
I noticed when my lungs stopped inflating.
I knew when my heart stopped beating. Blood moved through veins, blood slowed, blood stilled.
I acknowledged the depletion of oxygen to my brain.
It didn’t hurt.
I registered Echo. Abel. Someone else. Sector after sector of the thriving city of information, the sparks and flow of data that occupied part of my brain, closed down. The suburbs went dark. The city center flickered, dimmed, went dark, taking down into the dark anything else still in there when the hard right completed. It didn’t hurt.
Except for that crushing pain in my chest.
And that steady stinging in my arm.
Crushing pain in my chest. I fought, struggled, pulled in air that seared my nasal passages and throat with a bitter antiseptic taste. My eyes burned. “What the hell?” I opened my eyes and looked up at Krissy, who sat back on her haunches and pulled a wired patch off my chest, taking skin with it. She shoved aside the palm sized defibrillator that had pressed against my ribs.
She stared back, her brown eyes solemn, her brown hair swinging like a nun’s veil. “Delilah?”
I coughed and gagged. The world yawed and spun. I threw out one hand to steady myself until I attained equilibrium. I watched Krissy, and then I knew that it wasn’t just me. She was listing from side to side too. We were in a moving vehicle.
“Don’t try to sit up yet. You were in full cardiac arrest,” she said. Her hair looked clean as always, but her face and battle-suit were smeared with blood and something that looked like carbon. She pulled a monitor off my forehead. It didn’t sting as bad as the contact points on my chest had.
This looked right, smelled right and felt right, but I wasn’t completely sure. I reached out again, pinged Echo, and she responded. Pinged Abel. Pinged Krissy and watched the small smile appear.
“Yeah, it’s me, and you’re here,” she said.
“Seb’s really dead?” I said.
She nodded. Even though she had spelled it out for me, I felt numb.
“Ambush,” she said. “They had three snipers and new hardware that cuts right through reinforced plexi. It was a professional extraction. I couldn’t get to you in time.”
I nodded. My eyes burned, and not from the antiseptic fumes.
After a moment I propped myself up on one elbow. I lay on a gurney in the mostly empty space of a container truck. “Where are we?”
“We’re just outside Raleigh.”
“Weren’t Seb and I in…” I thought back. It was hazy. “Boston?”
She nodded. “They were committed to hiding you. We got lucky, though. You weren’t an easy hack. That gave us time.”
“How much time?”
“Why didn’t you just have Echo tackle their construct?”
“They entangled you too well. We’d have lost you. And they were good. We only got in because someone was lazy and tapped a real music wellspring. Abel found the tributary and down-streamed in.”
I thought back to the tea shop. They had probably spent too much time designing the gray-haired women’s hats. “How did you find me? Get me out?”
“I have my ways,” Krissy said. “It wasn’t easy.” She smiled. It comforted me. “Can you sit up?”
With her help I managed to. “They’ll come after me,” I said. “They’ve got someone good.”
Someone like us, Echo said.
Krissy brought me a bulb of water and changed the IV bag attached to my arm. I thought back to Seb’s gestures, the deep sigh. The clothes, the cigar, those were easy, but… “Could it have been someone who worked with Sebastian?” I said. “Who used to be at the Center?”
That’s what we think, Echo said.
“Or still is,” Krissy said.
I chewed on my lower lip, thinking about Seb. I knew that soon I would feel hot, shaky, sobbing grief, but right now I still felt numb.
“I’ll need to report the virus,” I said. “I’ll say it mutated. We’ll have to let them recover some of the money, though.”
Abel chimed in. I downstreamed the funds already. Act like you found out about the skim when they were interrogating you.
“This was someone whose currency-stream is threatened,” I said.
Fleecing and Royal, Echo said.
The missing money tracks right back to them, Able said. Or it will in about… now.
“Good,” I said. That would create a distraction among the citizens of Freehold. The Center would protect us, because we were valuable. We were assets.
I hated losing the money, though.
Freehold was a joke, but it worked as proof of concept. We’d already purchased an island in Puget Sound, and we would do it right.
It wouldn’t be soon, not now. There were logistics to work out, and money to be managed, and right now, too much attention. But we would be free.
Seb. Dead. He would have thought of me as a traitor, if he’d known. Still, I missed him.
I pushed away that thought. “Kirssy,” I said. “No more classical music. Ever.”