Akuba needs to get rid of her client’s face if she plans on living past the week.
She sees herself from above, the image floating in front of her eyes. She’s in a gondola, high above the canal. Isaac is with her.
He tweaks something on his phone. “Getting it?”
She nods. Her new airhud keeps the video in the same spot, in the upper left of her field of vision. She slides down the bench to get a look at the city’s dark skyline, making the gondola sway. They’re too far away from downtown to see any people, but the haze of drones is just visible in the fading light. The airhud puts bubbles above the buildings, recommending places she can spend her daily.
“Can’t believe you bought that thing,” Isaac says with a petty grin. He told Akuba once that his teeth are so very white from sucking on sugar cane as a boy back in Gulu. He tells her lots of things. “What’s wrong with your phone?”
“I got a bunch of kiz from the last job. And it’ll be useful.” It won’t really be all that useful, but that’s the kind of thing people say about money. Responsible people. And airhuds are getting so popular now. They’re not as expensive as they used to be.
Isaac sniffs. “Tell that to Shaky. He’d rather you paid him than bought yourself pretty toys.” He takes her hand, pushes up the sleeve of her very flash technical jacket, and locks an unadorned black plastic bracelet around her wrist. It looks like a fitness tracker.
The video of two very stylish people sitting in a gondola shivers as a red light pops to life on the bracelet. The angle changes immediately as the passive security drone watching them moves on to other things.
“When’s he expect your next payment?” Isaac asks.
“Tomorrow. I’ll have it.”
“If tonight goes okay.”
“It’ll be fine,” Akuba says. “See? Your drone trick is working great. It’s like I’m not even here.”
The video cuts out as the drone gets too far away for Isaac’s signal. “Gonna take more than just confusing a few drones. I can’t even be sure I’ll be able to pull this off. Depends on what they’re running. Do we know where we’re going yet?”
“I’ll hear soon.” He knows the drill. They’ve done this a dozen times. He’s just being nervous.
The city installed the gondolas a decade ago to show off all the new build. The clickbaiters say it’s one of the Top Twenty Urban Day-Trips You Can Make For Under Fifty Bucks, You Won’t Believe #7. They don’t say it’s one of the top twenty spots in the city to plan some crime. No sec cams up here, and the drone cover is light.
Isaac leans back and crosses his feet on Akuba’s bench. His sneaks are too old for her taste, but his pants fit well and he looks good in a track jacket. “So what happens if you’re late on a payment?”
A text comes in, sparing her from having to think too long about that. The client.
“Corner of Gwaldam and Elm,” she says. “Eleven o’clock.”
Isaac flicks at his phone for a few seconds. “Corp sec. Drones should be okay. Don’t know how we’re gonna get in, though.”
She doesn’t know either. But she’s damn sure she has to figure it out real fast.
Sneaking around isn’t Akuba’s style. One look at her hair, cropped close to the skull and dyed a luscious lime-green, is enough to tell anyone that. But if that’s what it takes to do the job, that’s what she’ll do.
Isaac stands with his back against a concrete wall, just out of the stark pool of LED streetlamp light. This skulking shit doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He motions to the single door on this side of the building, maybe thirty feet from where they’re standing. “Figure it out yet?”
“Sure did,” Akuba says. She holds up her phone and smiles. “It’s an RFID lock. And I just happen to have bought a very clever app that spoofs RFID tags.”
“Nice. One problem. Can’t spoof without an active ID. Gotta have a number, right?”
“And you just happen to have a badge for this place?”
She ignores the question and checks in on the image search she’s left running. A stack of jpegs is waiting for her to leaf through. Turns out this company is real proud of their employee morale program. At the last hot-dog-and-t-shirt handout event, they had the bright idea of encouraging the worker bees to take selfies and tag them with why they love their jobs. All she had to do was search for any photo location tagged around here to come up with hundreds of smiling faces. And all of those faces are wearing their corp-mandated badges. After a few minutes, she finds one that’s been flipped around. She’s done this enough to know that RFID badges usually have the number typed on the back.
“You ready?” she asks.
Isaac shrugs. “Hey, this part’s up to you.”
She spoofs the door open and walks inside. The party is in full effect, people dancing and lights flashing. The oily smell of nanonarc tubes trickles up into her sinuses. All she has to do now is find her client and make sure his face is handled appropriately.
Akuba relishes the mix of anticipation and desperation as she waits for the startlingly-pale mixologist to finish making her drink. The woman’s surgical-steel tongs make the merest contact with the edges of the ice cube as she plucks it from her machine. Of course, to call the triumph of topology and thermodynamics that had just been downloaded and 3D milled for Akuba as she waited a “cube” is an insult at best.
When Akuba ordered, the pale mixo had insisted in very hushed tones that the ice designer was some ex-NASA materials chick living in Xichang who makes a little kiz on the side by drawing up custom cube shapes for parties. This little frozen lozenge was ginned up just now based on the current humidity and dew point in this place as well as the temp and viscosity of the particular brand of brandy, then popped into to the mixo’s cloud storage for her to snag and pass to her machine for production.
Akuba hates drinking slowly, but to toss back this diminutive meditation on mutability seems uncouth.
She’s had a few already, naturally. The job runs itself for the most part, and after the host put so much effort into packing as much pleasure as possible into this underused back hallway it’d be shame to waste it. Even with whatever palms the host has no doubt greased, the police will be showing up at some point to clear the city’s drunk elite from this place.
No noise complaints, though. Everyone who shows at one of these deals is their own DJ, running their personal mix from their cells to their massive headphones. It’s as quiet as a church. Or at least as quiet as Akuba assumes a church to be.
Isaac smiles as Akuba hands him his drink, a non-descript white wine in street-sign-green mug which still bears a few burrs from the printer. Any time Isaac smiles it’s a sure sign he thinks he’s the smartest person in the room.
“Tell me you didn’t believe that crap about the genius hermit ice sculptor.” He keeps smiling as he sips.
She twists her glass in her hand — a real glass, oddly enough — and waits for the ice to turn. “I had to check it out at least.”
“And? Does it make a difference?”
“I’ll tell you after a couple more. What’s this place again?” Akuba asks, trying to guess from the shit on the cinder block walls. Chemical safety sign from easily the seventies. Rusted bracket for a fire extinguisher. “Medical center?”
Isaac’s smile collapses, hiding his impossibly white teeth for a moment. A single precious moment before he lectures her again. “Technology incubator. Science lab. Didn’t you listen to my….”
She waves him off and slides her free hand into the pocket of her Gore-Tex tech pants to get her phone. It hasn’t buzzed, so she has nothing to worry about, but she feels she should at least pretend she’s working. And it’ll shut Isaac up.
A flick of her finger brings up her airhud, and the personal hologram shows her what kind of trouble her phone is getting to. She watches her fixer app as the little bastard does its work. Pictures of the party drizzle down the screen, each taken just now and Instagrammed. The mini-StingRay weighing down her other pocket is grabbing all the cell traffic around here and passing it through her phone before sending it off to wherever it’s meant to go. But not until her little app has a peek at it.
Most of this crowd is wearing knock-off blurred style. The kind of clothes that look like they should block facial recognition and drone tracking like the good stuff, but are much cheaper and don’t do a damn thing. Repeating patterns made from the pics of the lips and chins of celebrities. A funky make-up design clearly modified from the cover of last June’s Prevalence. A running jacket that shines like it’s cut from a signal-blocking fabric, but isn’t. Akuba’s waterfall of pictures is all bobbing headphones colored to match high-end mall clothes, and her recog app is having no trouble snagging facial IDs.
She’ll sell the attendee list later, based on those recogs. That sort of data is valuable to a certain set. And Isaac doesn’t need to know about it.
Her client isn’t here. He better not have bailed. She needs payment in full. Shaky doesn’t have a late-fee policy.
A chick in a vastly oversized black t-shirt and a Tiffany-blue headscarf upnods at Akuba and holds up her phone, offering to dance. So far only three guys and two girls have offered tonight, which is bullshit. This one’s freestyling with a very expensive turntable app, her fingertip rubbing the touchscreen as she graces Akuba with a crooked smile which promises a long weekend of delights. Her fingernails are short and perfect.
Akuba unhooks her ear goggles from her belt and teases the girl with a skeptical look. Akuba’s ear goggles are very, very nice. None of this candy-color nonsense. Audiophile-quality sound, buttery bass response, pads like a lover’s whisper. Black as a burnt iPad. Some might call it an indulgence, but she’s never gone in for the puritanical self-denial thing. You try growing up digging for screws in a mountain of e-waste, then you can tell her whether or not she deserves the finer.
She flicks to share mode and takes a step in as the girl’s mix erupts around her in dizzying binaural. Forget the job for a second and dance, damn it.
The girl changes the tempo as Akuba’s moves, shifting the tone to match her litheness as their bodies brush. She’s mixing her right into to the music, part of the performance. People around them are starting to watch, tuning in to this one-off exhibition. Akuba hopes this girl can hold her liquor.
An insistent buzz pounds her out of the delicious trance. Her fixer app. She ignores it.
A hand on her arm. Isaac tries pulls her away, out of the range of the girl’s music. She resists, but the girl gives her a smirk-smile and melts into the crowd.
Isaac waits until her headphones are off before bugging her. Ever efficient. “How’s everything going?”
He knows damn well how things are going. He got the buzz same as she did. But cams and drones are his job, faces and IDs hers. Heaven forbid he let her enjoy herself for once.
She looks — the recog spotted her client’s scruffy mug in one of the images. His mouth is open, jabbering about something Akuba presumes to be ridiculous. She approves the change, then watches as his pretentious face is scrubbed out of the photo before the image is sent on its way.
This is how she makes her daily. Cleaning the metadata to erase any evidence her clients were in a particular place at a particular time. Popular with philanderers, nanonarc buyers, and people rich enough to think everyone gives a shit where they party.
“Going fine.” Akuba barely saves her drink from a #nofilter chica elbowing her way past, desperate to check the pic her friend just took before he posts it. The girl’s wearing a conservative black dress, sensible headphones, and necklace made from old first-gen Apple watches, each cycling a different porn gif over and over. A bit on the obvious side in Akuba’s opinion, but definitely memorable.
Isaac pulls a long sip of what must be fairly warm wine this point and frowns. “Good. Hope this gets busted up soon. I hate these things.”
He does hate these things. After tonight, he’ll hole up in his cargo container home for a few days until he feels like himself again. Prolly best if Akuba rented a kapu for a while. Sleeping in those things feels like getting an MRI, but they’re cheap.
“Maybe you should call the cops yourself,” Akuba says, kicking a discarded cup out of her way. “Flat fee. I’m done with that hourly shit.”
“Maybe. Unless we can convince this guy to leave. He’s only paying us to make sure his meta never shows him being here. Any other location’s his own problem.”
“Whatever. Just get me another drink.”
The mood’s spoiled now, at least until Isaac returns with another infusion. She hugs a wall and narrows her vision into her airhud. Might as well scope the images a bit. See what the rich and mighty are up to. What versions of their lives they want to share. Smiling girls side-hugging. Drinks held like Olympic torches. Good sides and flattering angles.
And one Gray Man.
Her phone vibrates just as she sees him in the background of a fish-face shot. A text.
She looks up, trying to triangulate where this bastard is based on the pic. Khakis, white sneakers, basic polo. Short haircut over blue eyes and a muscled jaw. He’s looking back at her when she spots him.
Everywhere Akuba’s ever been, a Gray Man means calamity. These pricks look like they belong anywhere. High-powered office? Kid’s soccer game? Truck stop diner? Military base? Airport security? Anywhere. Hell, even a dance party. Prolly running the electric. Gray Men wear the most unassuming version of business casual male, which makes them nearly invisible. And what kind of person wants to be invisible? The kind with a concealed gun and a serious power structure behind them to justify their actions. It takes a trained eye to even notice them.
Her phone buzzes again. It’s Shaky. He never contacts her directly unless he wants something, usually to be a prick to her.
Akuba How are you
Long time no text. What do you want?
You know what I want
Yeah and youre getting it.
Not all of it
Not fast enough
Her palm sweats against the back of her phone case. She’s made every payment on time. A quick panic attack, and she forces herself to remember that she sent the most recent one last month. The stories of what happened to people who played fast and loose with Shaky’s loan policies were a matter of urban legend. At least she hoped they were legends.
What do you want Shaky?
The remaining balance of your loan
paid in full
Please. He must be high, and looking for a dog to kick.
Not going to work for me Shaky.
Might be able to double up on next pay tho. Maybe next after that too.
Should I do that?
Three frustrating dots as she waits for response. The Gray Man is still looking at her.
All of it One week
Don’t try to contact me.
The Gray Man smiles like an old friend and walks away.
A glass is in front of her, Isaac’s hand closer than she wants it to be. Than she wants anything to be.
“Your drink.” That smile again. “Cube’s different. Must be getting warmer in here.”
Akuba snatches the glass and downs the contents in a single burning gulp. “Let’s go.”
She drops her glass and takes off, leaving Isaac to make confused noises as the glass shatters on the worn linoleum. The Gray Man headed for the exit, and so is she.
The blood has almost stopped rushing in her ears by the time she makes it out the door and into the still night. She’s breathing. Thinking. Isaac is saying something about what’s going on, the job, whatever. There’s a sign that says “Loading Dock”, an over-full dumpster, and a few steel doors. A dozen cars rest in an approximate line, their solar panel hoods sipping whatever ambient light they can out of the black.
She can’t see anyone. Did he leave on foot? Did he have a car waiting?
“Akuba. Enough. Let me help.”
She spins to face Isaac, not caring if her eyes are wild. She’s feeling more than a little crazy anyway. “There was a Gray Man.”
“Yes. He was here for me.”
His eyes disappear as he rubs the bridge of his nose. “Okay.”
Well, at least he didn’t yell at her. “He left. We need to find him.”
“Follow a Gray Man? Why?”
She doesn’t answer. He’d try to talk her out of it. Her old pal Shaky isn’t supposed to have any presence in this city. Did he hire this bastard just to scare her? Is he getting involved in the industry around here? She has to know. She needs to talk to Shaky, and he never allows anyone to initiate contact. She’s tried text harassment dozens of times with no luck. If she can get to his thug, she might be able to get a message to him. The Gray Man is the only lead she has.
The bored whirr of a hospital security drone creeps by overhead. She’s not worried. A light passes nearby by without touching them. Isaac’s in the local wifi, and the tags he and Akuba have on them are telling any drones and security cams to avert their eyes. His trick worked.
“Akuba?” Isaac presses. “What’s happening here?”
She looks up. The buzzard is painted the same rust-orange as the loading dock sign. “Can you hack that drone?”
“Of course. You know this.”
“I want to see what it sees. And tell it where to fly.”
“Oh,” Isaac says. “That’s not… can’t do that without more tech.”
She’s moving before she realizes she wants to. Toward the road. “Well, why the hell are you here, then?”
A single car pulls out of the hospital’s ramp. A black Ford sedan, just washed. No bumper stickers or shit in the back window. Could be a cop, a limo, or no one at all.
“That’s him,” Akuba hisses. “Get a car.”
She tears off the tag bracelet and wings it at the windshield. It makes a satisfying clack as it hits, and the Gray Man notices Akuba for the first time. He smiles and waves, benign as a cargo-shorts dad. The tag slides down the windshield and catches in the wipers.
The car turns, and the tag clatters to the pavement. An engine murmurs to life behind her. She swears loudly.
Isaac has chosen a mid-range coupe which smells of quinine and weed. The only one he could get open, he says. Akuba knocks a 3D-printed bong the shape of an Atari controller off the passenger seat and tells him to get after the Ford.
“Trouble is the maintenance,” he stammers, cranking the steering wheel. Isaac gets chatty when he’s nervous. “All these self-driving machines require firmware updates on a regular basis. They say it’s to speed up the Bluetooth or keep the iOS interfaces up to date, but really it’s to protect against the latest exploits. In the old days you could just walk through a parking lot with your phone out and have your choice, but now you have to look for someone who hasn’t kept their firmware….”
A console politely blinks ‘Please speak destination.’ Akuba stabs a finger at it. “What does that mean?”
“It wants to know where it’s driving us. Me too.”
“We’re following that guy to wherever he’s going. After that… well, I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Isaac’s shoulders tense and he eases off the gas a little. “That will be a problem.”
“Self-driving, Akuba. Can’t just yell ‘follow that car.’ It needs a destination.”
“Isn’t there, like, an override or something? For emergencies?”
He points at a blinking red button. “Used that to get this far. It’s governed to just a few minutes to keep people from going rogue. These things are all talking to one big traffic-preventing AI, Akuba, like ants or bees. They pass along….”
Akuba screams at him to shut up and holds out her phone, recording whatever video she can of the Ford as it barrels down the road, blowing vestigial red lights. Whoever this guy is, his car’s running outside the hivemind. Just the kind of Venn diagram of expensive and illegal that means real trouble to small-timers like Isaac and herself.
A klaxon, and the car slows and parks in the next available legal spot, the parking lot of an old church. As Akuba stews, Isaac gives a mini TED talk on how these things are rigged to stop when they get too far away from their owners. To prevent theft.