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Chapter 8

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Ger dumped all of his credits at the Babbit front desk. He tried to speak to a real human being about the condition of his Mom but no one was available or willing to talk to him. The admin 'bot did allow him to change the med protocol from Jolt to a generic pain medicine but it cost him all of the cash he had swiped from The Emporium.

< You have upgraded this account for five days,> the 'bot trilled as Ger snatched back his hacked debit card.  “I’ll be back and bring some more cash. Okay? No more Jolt. Right?” Ger’s stomach clenched at the thought of his mother still strapped to the bed, nbeing force feed and doped up on that garbage.

<Affirmative. Jolt reconditioning will resume in 120 hours from MARK. Now MARKING.>

 

Ger stormed out of the Rehab facility into the never-ending rain. Purple thunderheads gathered overtop of MegaCity One as he splashed his way into the now-crowded streets. All around him, citizens of the ugly sprawling metropolis went about their business. Nobody looked at anyone else and everyone ignored the immigrants from the outer reaches clogging the alleys and back streets as shadowed wet shelters sagged under the rain and the cries of hungry children echoed. This place sucks.

The lunch hour at Bristol Place was the in-place for most of the salarymen and women who still had a day job. As 'bots had replaced nearly all civil service jobs and menial labor, only the upper echelons and the repair people flocked into the Atrium. Automat service dispensers flanked the walls for the both the lower and upper eating stations. In the basement, the pleebs had a full supply of food designed to enhance workflow and minimize waste. High in corn sugar and low in nutrients, the workers filled up on big belly burgers, super shakes and fries.

Upstairs, in the glassed-in management area, better quality foods were available for those with discriminating tastes. Fake meat, fish and chicken products were for sale — but all were processed from the same industrial tofu used to feed the workers below.

Ger watched both groups fill in their tables and start checking their comm-links for news and entertainment. Sipping from a found cup of half-drunk Buzz soda, he flipped open his own comm-unit and pretended to read the news. He’d purposely found a spot next to the bathrooms in the basement level as it was the least favorite spot for most. Sour bathroom stink mixed with the aroma of tofu reprocessing adding a tang to the area that only the desperate for space used.

<Initiating sweep>

Having no choice in supporting his mother while she was still locked up, Ger had decided as he slogged to the eatery that he would skim the lunchtime crowd for credits as he looked for a high-paying, fast turnaround dark web gig. It’s not like I have a choice. I need credits to live and Mom needs it to get better. She’d understand.

Targets checking their bank accounts, buying train tickets online and those eyeballing their bank balance from an unencrypted comm-link were all fair game for Ger. Bristol employed Hacker-Prevention 'bots to sweep the area on a regular basis — but Ger knew that the hype advertising campaigns and regular broadcasts about the cyber-security of the food palace were mostly bull. He’d run a diagnostic once he landed and no HP 'bots showed. Didn’t mean they weren’t there, though.

As Ger skimmed credits, he ran his anonymous VPN browser to check the work available for Coders like himself. The dark web was always advertising for covert computer ops but most of them were from Axiomm themselves looking to track online criminals or force employ them into working for the corporation. Ger could think of nothing worse than working for the megacorp. He skipped over the usual advertisements for off-world work and the phony soldier of fortune promotions that were the backbone of the illegal work activity. There was no shortage of paid mercenaries being sought but that was not anywhere near what he wanted to do. He was desperate — but he had a code of conduct he’d tried to live by. Even when he was at his worst, buying and selling code snippets and hacks, he never took on a cyberjob that threatened the lives of anyone.

Ger chewed his lip scrolling through the endless leads not finding anything that he might make some serious credit from. Flipping back to his skimmer, he could see that the lunchtime crowd had already provided — but nowhere near the amount of hard credit he would need to keep his mom of the insidious Jolt and keep some kind of roof over his head. His stomach rolled in waves as she slurped down the rest of the discarded drink. I gotta get something to eat.

The lower food court was thrumming with activity as the shift change was signaled and the worker drones shuffled back up towards the escalators. He slipped through the crowds gulping down the soy taco he’d snagged from the vending machine. He would have to watch his credits carefully. Ger’s comm-link pinged softly as stolen credits continued to gather as he slipped through the crowd joining them on the moving platform.

Glancing at the tally of his mobile screen, he sighed. This is taking too long.

From above, the sound of an Axiomm Uber-Ass punched through the drone of the food court. “Get out of the way, I have to get back. Move it!”

Ger tracked an older executive — grey-haired, over-weight with a florrid face pushing his way through the crowds lined up outside the elevators leading to the floors above. He grinned as he noticed that the man had a late-model comm-link in action as he shouldered his way through the throng. That is a whale.

He took the escalator steps two at a time snaking through the crowd as he slipped quietly in behind the impatient bully. Ger flipped his comm-link over and tapped a quick command into the keypad terminal command window as he slid the unit down next to his thigh. Gotcha.

‘Just do it. I don’t have time for this,’ the executive snapped as he slid his comm-link down. Glaring at the workers and other office workers around him, Ger slid up next to him pushing his own comm-unit next to the man’s device.

<Cloning Commencing>

These were the types of fish that Ger loved to hack. Older arrogant bullies that moved through life taking advantage of everyone they met. By cloning the man’s comm-link, he would be able to go through it at his leisure off-site and take advantage of all of his bank data and other personal information. His credit score and personal identity information would sell at a premium of the dark web — and he couldn’t think of a nicer a-hole to send out to the spiders.

<WARNING! ILLEGAL DOWNLOAD DETECTED>

Klaxon bells sounded yanking Ger out of his daydream and directly into the reality of a HP 'bot pointing at him and the furious executive who staggered away from him. Busted.

<Cloning Incomplete>

The crowd separated as the man scurried to the 'bot clasping his comm-link. All eyes were on Ger as he backed up trying to look innocent in a field of grey jackets and labor jumpsuits.

He stood out like the hacker that he was.

< SCANNING OFFENDER>

As the Hacker-Prevention 'bot started its scanning protocol and a bright green LED laser began tracing Ger, he sprinted towards the escalators leading down to the foodcourt and the tube links beyond. Time to book.

Ger leaped up into the air and over the edge of the escalator rail and into space.

Free-falling —

No, no, no — definitely not…

Isla spent hours digging through her wardrobe and her music playlist planning the night out. While it wasn’t a solo meetup, she was glad that she’d get a chance to meet the crazy mysterious Jericho. I wish Mom understood why he’s important. It’s not just what he does, it’s what he stands for. After building a small pile of outfits on the floor of her once clean room, she decided on the tried and true torn jeans, t-shirt and leather jacker combo that was the most comfortable — and the best statement on who she was. Thank you again, Dad.

Isla looked herself over in the floor-length mirror as she modeled her original Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers that had been this year’s Xmas gift from space. Somehow, even thousands of miles away, he got her in a way Marta never did. Lacing up the Chucks, her heart beat double-time as she planned her night out. Mom will be cool for sure as she’ll be working the 'bots overtime for Dad. I’ll tell her that I’m going out to get him a present as a welcome home gift. No way she’d have a problem with that.

 

Downstairs, Marta was on a mission having all of the service 'bots clean and prepare the house for her husband’s arrival. Isla sighed as she watched her mother consumed with the tasks. He wants to see us. I bet he wouldn’t care if the place was totally thrashed.

‘Hey, Mom, I’m going to head downtown and get Dad something nice for the old vinyl store, okay? I’m sure he missed his record player in space.’

Marta, focusing on the 'bots work didn’t even look at her daughter as she pointed out into the garden admonishing a worker.

‘I want to be able to see all the way to the back garden. Make sure you put up all of the patio lights and hang flowers across the windowsills.

‘Mom, I’m going now,’ said Isla as she edged out the front door leaving her mother to obsess about the details.

‘Okay, honey. See you later. Make sure you’re back in time for dinner. We’re having BBQ tonight. I found the best recipe online for brisket. It’s going to be great.’

Isla let out a groan as she stomped out. ‘I’m vegetarian, Mom! I don’t eat meat, remember?’ Not waiting for a reply, she slammed the door behind her and stared out into the quiet Homewood estates. Picture perfect houses and lawns sparkled in the bright sun.

A lone security 'bot patrolled their cul-de-sac droning by her having ID’d her the moment she stepped outside. Isla decided to leave her e-scooter at home today as it would be easier to get to the meetup with Jericho if she took the Tube.

Flipping open her comm-link, she scanned the QRC coded evite bustling off into towards the subway tubes. Lots of kids out here used the Tube day and night and the local train station was only five blocks away. More than enough time to rock out. Plugging in her wireless earbuds, Isla head-bopped her way off her block towards the transit.

Ger landed on the partition between the escalators sliding downwards past the shocked workers and executives. Racing headfirst through the crowd, he tucked and rolled off the end of the escalator and raced out towards the Bristol place tube stop. He leapt over the automated turnstiles, bumping past the 'bots and passengers as he studied the incoming train schedule as he raced by. A local train was heading uptown towards the suburbs. Wrong way — but it’ll do. I can transfer off at the next stop.

The local subway car pulled in on the antigrav tracks as the riders bustled for position. Ger checked the platform for authority 'bots and considered his next steps. Merge with the crowd, grab a seat and see what I did get from the whale. He had to check how many credits he’d skimmed as well during lunch and the train at least offered a level of anonymity.

The doors opened with a pneumatic hiss as the incoming and outgoing riders jostled together. Keeping his head down, Ger took a calming breath as he stepped inside the car.

He settled down in a corner seat and watched as the Megacity citizens all settled into their spaces and their comm-links. Everyone kept to themselves on the tubes and Ger rubbernecked the platform checking for any surveillance or pursuit. His eyes closed in relief as the door hissed shut and the train lifted up and out of the station.

 

Ger’s eyes tore open. Asleep. I was asleep. Where am I? He scrambled out of his seat and peered out through the dim, scratched window of the train. Outside the rain had tapered off and a dull yellow light fell over the shadowed city block. He pulled his comm-link from his jacket and brought up the Megacity map. Onscreen, he could see a blinking blue dot moving out of the city towards the adjoining cuburbs. Looking up at the stop indicator, he saw that HOMEWOOD was listed as the next stop on the line for him.

He pulled up his sleeve and looked at Isla’s goodbye message on his arm. Maybe it’s a sign?

Ger laughed at the coincidence and punched in Isla’s DM coordinates as he fell back into a nearby seat. Might as well check and see if she got home okay. 

The train was late.

Isla stood at the HOMEWOOD above-ground station and sighed in frustration. It’s not like I don’t have enough time. She bounced in place, her Chucks tapping out the beat as she listened to more garage-band music. Not like I have anything else to do. She tried to channel how bored she was already into enjoying the music — but she was tense about meeting up with Jericho after all.

<Ping!>

Onscreen, a DM lit up her comm-link as she snapped a peek at the tiny screen. Probably Mom, anyway. She shrugged, putting on her best agitated teenage face and tried not to get worked up with her Mother. I just wish she would listen. She gets so worked up about the stupidest things —  you wouldn’t see me getting strung out about flowers in the garden or whatev.

< Hey GNGR. U get home OK?>

Isla smiled. It’s Ger.

< Yeah, No Probs. Where RU?>

The DM icon window whirled as Ger typed his reply. Isla waited patiently for the response.

< LOL. I’m on the way to Homewood. Took the wrong train>

Isla paled at the response. Great, stalker much.

She clucked her tongue as she figured out a response. She had written her name and DM exchange on his arm figuring that maybe she might her from him in a couple days or a week.

Not the next day.

<Sucks 2 B U. I’m not there. I’m out.>

She shivered in her jacket hoping to avoid the letdown she was probably going to have to deliver to the gamer guy. She had had a terrifying — and terrific time with Ger — but it was too soon and too awkward to explain to him what she was doing.

She didn’t owe him anything.

Isla’d let him down hard if she had too. The last thing she wanted was some guy trying to be her friend — or something. Take the hint, DD4EVR.

< Ok,> came back the reply from Ger. < Just wanted to make sure you got home safe. Thanks for your tag.>

Across from her, the downtown Tube roared into the station as Isla started to pace. It’s sweet that he was worried about me — but this isn’t going anywhere anyway so I might as well just end it now.

< I have a boyfriend> Isla typed. <FYI.>

Isla sighed. She didn’t want Ger to carry a torch or be mooning over her. This is the right thing to do. Her comm-link DM panel stood silent.

No response from Ger.

Isla decided that she’d done the right thing — even though he’d been great to her. She didn’t have time for regrets. I’m going to go see Jericho, anyway.

The train across the platform pulled out after spilling the late afternoon riders.

This time of the day, there wasn’t be many on the train and the platform across from her was almost deserted.

Except for Ger.

Staring at her from across the platform. Her DM window pinged.

< I C U>.

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