‘Terminal City’, Zoë Blade

It’s three in the morning when I find Spark’s body. I’ve come into the store early to perform some extra work while my boss is asleep. I know there’s something wrong when the door isn’t locked and the fan’s on. I smell it before I see it, a putrid smell I can’t put into words. I walk behind the counter, and that’s when I see him, on his back, staring up at the ceiling, a pool of congealed blood surrounding his body, soaking into the dusty wooden planks that serve as the floor. He must have been like that for a good few hours, because the rats are already there, licking at the sticky red puddle. If you’re not actively working in K block, the entropy envelops you, devours you. Food, as in meat, as in anyone not strong enough to fend them off, is eaten by the rats. Between the planks, I can just about make out the cable and light store below ours, a dark red puddle staining their counter. Mr. Wu won’t be happy tomorrow morning.

The cops say it was a robbery gone wrong. The till’s empty, but it doesn’t add up. Not that they see it that way. As far as they’re concerned, everything adds up just fine, all neat and tidy like columns in a spreadsheet, and they move on to their next case, save for a single cop guarding Spark’s door for a few hours. All they’re good for is targets. While I answer their mundane questions—Did I see anyone looking suspicious? Did I know anyone who might have a grudge against Spark?—my transponder’s wirelessly interfacing with theirs, silently cloning their badges, copying their private keys to my personal stash. It’s a dangerous move, sure, but worth it for the access it grants me.

I’m not saying I know better than them. Maybe I just care about Spark a whole lot more than they do. It just doesn’t sit right with me. There are plenty of stores in the area, most more profitable than ours. Bright, loud arcades, full of electromechanical gambling machines that must have a good few hundred coins in each of them. Off-licenses. Hell, even the dentist next door probably has more in his cash register than we did.

So I decide to do a little research of my own. My boss, David, calls it denial. Trying to get my dead co-worker back. But it’s not like that. We were friends, sure. That’s why he talked to me. Why he told me he was onto something. And those crazy eyes of his, back when they had been alive and animated, had told me he believed what he was saying. He was building something. Something he believed was important. David, being the sentimental type, gives me the day off—without pay, natch—and I pay Spark’s place a little visit.

Although we both work—worked—topside, where the rain’s thick and during the day you can occasionally even glimpse sunlight, we don’t—didn’t—make anywhere near enough money to live there. Spark’s apartment’s deep in the bowels of K block, like mine, beneath all the stores you feel reasonably safe in without a weapon. Where the constant onslaught of rain is replaced by drips running down walls made of decaying wood, rusting iron, and concrete. Where the only light is provided by fluoros hanging limply from the thick braids of cables that people use to syphon electricity off of one another, swaying as people walk hurriedly along the planks of wood that serve as the floor above.

Back when it was built, K block was all concrete, high ceilings. But such luxury soon gave way to economy. Nothing so wasteful could last very long in a microcosm of pure supply and demand, and space was so very much in demand. The first squatters retrofitted iron skeletons like climbing frames on every floor, filling them with wooden planks. Now the whole thing’s layered like a rotting cake. Twice as many floors, each half the height. Then they went out onto the roof, and they built up.

The bowels live up to their name. Maintenance pipes scattered throughout seep raw sewage into thoughtfully placed buckets or, worse, puddles with the optional plank of wood providing a handy gangway. There’s so much steam coming out of the tiny factories and kitchens that in some parts, you can’t see further ahead than two or three people. You have to rely on your memory to guide you. It would be enough to make you faint, but you wouldn’t find a clean surface to faint on.

It doesn’t really have an outside so much as endless corridors, and if you want to get home, you have to hope the stores between these corridors and your apartment are all open, although of course they always are, workers pairing up to alternate twelve hour shifts. If you’re lucky, you can afford to fortify your ceiling with tarpaulin, somewhere between your neighbor’s floor above you and your light. Spark was into tech enough to concentrate the little money he had into buying whatever he needed to keep his workbench going, so at least it’ll be reasonably dry there.

There’s a cop guarding Spark’s door, trying his best not to show how uncomfortable he is in his uniform. The door to Spark’s place isn’t in a corridor so much as the back of a noodle bar, just a meter or so away from the open fire of the kitchen stove, but the graying, weathered looking chef dutifully ignores us as he fries his product. My stomach grumbles, awakened by the aroma of fresh food, but I can’t eat right now.

I get into character, putting on my well-practiced look of routine boredom. The cop’s transponder makes a friendly electronic chirp, signifying that someone with the correct privileges is in proximity. As far as it’s concerned, I’m Lieutenant Emily Long. It flashes up her badge number on its miniature Nixie tubes. I hope he doesn’t look down at it. He presumably works with the real Emily Long. It’s a hell of a risk, trying to pass for a cop without a uniform. I stay calm, focus on my breathing, and walk up to the door as if I have every right to be there. But already his eyes are on me, looking me up and down, studying my giveaway K block native clothes. He looks down at his transponder, at his co-worker’s badge number.

“Listen,” he says, reading the number, “I don’t know who you are, lady—” but by the time he looks back up, I’m already gone.

From behind, I reach around his neck with my arm, trying not to let his flailing arms unnerve me, squeezing just enough to make him pass out for a few minutes. It’s over quickly. “And you never will.”

The chef focuses intently on his craft as I slip into Spark’s apartment, leaving the cop in a heap on the floor, too heavy to drag inside.

Spark’s apartment stinks more than most I’ve visited. I tug on the piece of string hanging from the bare bulb in the center of the ceiling, and the place lights up. The few dishes he owned are all piled up in the washing up bowl, waiting to be taken to the nearest public tap and scrubbed clean. I half expect a rat to crawl out of the pile of circuit boards and cables lining the floor. Even by K block standards, Spark didn’t really seem to believe in furniture. Not a second chair or coffee table at any rate. He wasn’t the social type. Didn’t entertain houseguests much. He was a worker, like me. Driven by this sick compulsion to always make things, to always take things apart, to fix them, to make them more efficient, or simply to understand how they work, until you fall asleep at your workbench at sunrise. Sunrise. You’d be hard pressed to remember what that was after a few days down here.

His place isn’t really an apartment, it’s a workshop which happens to have a microwave, kettle and washing up bowl. A lone shelf holds a cassette deck, but no actual tapes. There’s a dustless gap where presumably tapes were until recently. Odd, I never had him pegged for much of a music fan.

A wooden ladder leads up to the top bunk of what must have once been a bunk bed, although now it’s little more than a few planks of wood with a mattress, pillow and faded cotton duvet on it, looming over what would have been the bottom bunk, the centerpiece of the tiny room, his workbench. A door the other side of the room unfolds to reveal a toilet. On those rare occasions when he took a shower, he must have ventured out into the city proper. It’s the kind of place your mother—not to mention your amygdala—warns you to stay away from.

Most of the workbench is buried under a mess of wires, and the whole thing is stained by dozens of blobs of congealed solder, scarred by a thousand tiny scratches. It tells a story, a story of single minded obsession. It’s clearly the place where he carried out his passion in life. KT seventy-twos, your standard issue catties, lay strewn about the place in various stages of disembowelment. For tech, this place looks like a rogue doctor’s makeshift emergency room and morgue all rolled into one, only without the sterility.

But I’m not interested in what’s on the operating table, so much as in what isn’t there. There’s a gap. A clearly defined area of no clutter, where there should be... something. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so did Spark’s own personal chaos. At any given time, something would have been the center of focus, but right now, the desk lamps, the magnifying glasses, the clips, everything that snakes out from the frame at the back of the workbench points to an empty space. Something was on his workbench until recently. Where is it? What is it?

I head back out into the noodle bar, carefully walking around the cop’s gently breathing body. I try to nod respectfully to the chef, but he refuses to make eye contact with me. In K block, you live to be his age by minding your own business.

Next stop’s my place. I have some money and water in my backpack, plus a hacked transponder, ratty receiver, some spare batteries and my keys, but not much else. I need to eat. I need to sleep. I make my way through the labyrinthine narrow hallways that pass for the streets of K block, letting years of memories guide me while I concentrate on more pressing matters, until suddenly I’m at my front door.

Immediately, I can tell something’s wrong. My transponder’s vibrating. I glance at its tiny screen. My silent alarm’s been tripped. Every inch of my body suddenly screams at me to get out. I try to hide it, to just carry on walking past as if I never intended to go in there. Suddenly breaking into a jog would be too obvious. I walk past, as casually as I can, hoping no one’s worked out exactly where I was when I looked at my pocket and is putting the pieces together to work out it wasn’t a coincidence. But it’s too late.

Just as I’m about to turn a corner, there’s a loud burst right by my head. I turn around to find the chipboard sheet that serves as a wall has a new hole in it, right where my ear was. I’m suddenly aware of a sting of pain. I put my finger up to my earlobe and then look at it, at the small streak of blood. There’s screaming the other side of the wall, where presumably someone wasn’t as lucky as I was, while the people this side who can see the shooter have enough sense to dive out of the way, more or less silently, giving this shadowy figure a clearer shot at me.

I give up any pretense, and I run. I never see who’s behind me. I don’t turn back to look. I just keep going forwards, guided by years of experience, avoiding all the dead ends and flooded rooms as I dive left into a belt maker’s place, straight past a teenaged boy, maybe Brazilian, clanging away at a counterfeit big brand buckle so intently that he barely seems to notice me, then right into a noodle factory, past huge sacks of wheat, a bunch of rats and two elderly Chinese women shouting at me in their native tongue, up a ladder onto the wooden floor above, along more stores, down another ladder, and along the solid concrete ground floor again, running towards the bright light at the end, until I finally manage to burst free into the real world, running and squinting in the golden sunrise, the cool breeze on my skin at last. If I’ve just been reborn, maybe it’s time to become someone else.

After a few more blocks, I slow to a gentle jog, then finally just a brisk walk. I reach into my backpack and pull out my sunglasses, presumably a cheap imitation of some famous brand I haven’t heard of. My assailant’s probably long gone, deep in the bowels of K block, like anyone who wasn’t born there. No one can outrun a native, no matter how fast they are, because it isn’t about speed. It’s about direction.

It’s time to prepare for my next move. I already stick out more than I’d like in the city proper, not having the money needed to look the part. I make my way to the public showers, and spend a small fortune there, washing the congealed blood off my ear and neck, along with the odor of a dozen different eateries and factories. I even buy those little sachets of shampoo, conditioner and hair gel, re-spiking my short, black hair. Looking in the mirror, I’m finally satisfied that I won’t be thrown out of anywhere, even if I could do with a change of clothes.

Sophia’s place is the nicest out of the three of us. She works for a Kao Telecom authorized repair store on J block. The difference between her job and ours, between her apartment and ours, between her life and ours is night and day. Literally. Her place has such extravagant features as windows that overlook the apartment block across the street, even letting in a bit of sunlight; a much larger room, one you could actually call a studio apartment while keeping a straight face; her very own private shower; and elevators, so I’m not out of breath when she tentatively opens her door, pulling its chain taut.

“Rain!” she exclaims, her face lighting up. “Hey, listen, can we do this later? I’m just about to head off to work. How’s this evening for you?”

“Spark’s dead,” I say matter-of-factly. I feel a pang of pain in my head, but manage to hold the tears back.

Sophia drops the smile, her eyes widening ever so slightly, searching my face for a sign I’m playing some sort of trick on her. “For real?”

I nod solemnly.

“You’d better come in.” She closes the door, flicks off its chain and swings it wide open, stepping off to the side as I make my way past her and into that beautiful apartment of hers, bathed in natural sunlight. It smells faintly of potpourri, or perhaps incense, propagated by a small, quiet, battery-operated fan on the coffee table, blowing a gentle breeze around the room.

As much as I try to avoid it, my eyes always wander towards the artwork on the walls. Hand painted by Sophia herself, depicting beautiful women of all shapes and sizes in various types of erotic confinement. All strictly consensual, she always goes to great pains to assure me, making me wonder just how fictitious the encounters depicted actually are. Pain’s something she probably knows a lot about, connoisseur like. The paintings are good, from the vibrant colors that make them seem glossy and hyperreal and the perspectives that seem to reinforce the viewer’s dominance over the subjects, through to the symmetry of the pieces, and other signs of thoughtful balance. She says she sells them for a high three figures each, sometimes even more. Nice side business.

She certainly looks as well off as she is. Her taste is refined. Even dressing for technical back office work like I do, she’s wearing a fine wool sweater and designer jeans, not cheap knock-offs like everyone on K block. Golden colored bracelets adorn her wrists, making a pleasant jangling sound whenever she gestures with her hands, and subtle make-up emphasizes the beautiful contours of her eyes. Her curly, black hair falls gracefully down to her shoulders. When she hugs me, I can smell perfume, much fancier than the simple deodorant at the public showers. I want to say something comforting to cheer her up, but I can’t think of anything.

She makes us both a coffee, fresh from her own machine and as dark as her soft skin. I tell her everything. Well, almost everything. Finding Spark’s body. Searching his apartment. My plan.

Standing on the rooftop above my target’s apartment, waiting for Sophia’s signal, I can see the whole decaying city. Phone cables tether the buildings together like mooring lines, as if without them they might simply drift away. I let my gaze follow one of these cables from a neighboring building all the way to this one, raindrops dripping down from it onto the concrete floor beneath my feet. It’s peaceful up here. Just the groaning of the turbines, the clatter of the air conditioning, the rain on old concrete and metal.

In my line of work, repairing KT equipment, if you’re the curious type, you learn a lot of tricks. You learn how to make a logger board you splice between the catty—the cathode ray tube terminal—and the modem. This board intercepts and stores all the keystrokes going out and all the display characters coming in. Of course, with only a few K to play with, you can’t store them locally. You have to ship them out to another account on the net. We have a lot of customers. On the days you’re bored, you rack up a lot of usernames and passwords. A lot of accounts. A lot of secrets. And a lot of places to stash them.

You start trading them with acquaintances—“friends” wouldn’t really be the right term, people like Spark and Sophia and me don’t really have friends. It can become an obsession, like collecting schematics for boards you’re not supposed to know about, let alone access, or phone numbers for people who aren’t supposed to exist, and certainly aren’t supposed to be on the grid. Spies. Assassins. Ghosts in the machine. In my circles, we collect all of these.

The three of us know—knew—more about KT’s networks than KT themselves do, so whatever Spark was up to, they were probably the first people to object to it. Even if it wasn’t them who killed him, they’re likely spying on us all, so I can always see if they have any useful information. I already have the accounts of various people at KT. The only problem is that KT actually cares about its employees. Each person has certain designated places they like to log in from, and anywhere else is flagged up as suspicious. The target’s apartment is generally your best bet. Luxurious, forty meter squared apartments like Sophia’s, personal to just you and your optional spouse. It gets better. If you’re a city proper hacker like Sophia, you can afford your own KT seventy-two terminal, black market, serial number etched off. And if you’re a K block hacker like me, you know how to splice a line. Plug yourself right into the junction box, crocodile clips over his apartment number’s regular jack. You set up an umbrella on a tripod, you plug your catty into the juice the box has along with the spliced line. Now, as far as the grid’s concerned, you’re in his apartment. You have to wait for him to leave, so you know he’s not going to be logged in at the same time, from home or anywhere else, then, then you can log in as your target. It’s time consuming. It’s risky as hell being up there looking like some demented, high tech gargoyle squatting under the wind turbines. But it works.

My ratty receiver hooked into the back of the catty, tuned in to a disused frequency, I patiently watch the steady pulse of the bright phosphorous green cursor. Finally, a sliver of text appears, nudging the blinking cursor out of its way. Just a jumble of characters. A glitch in the system, as far as anyone else is concerned, if they happen to hear it. Just noise. But it’s my signal. It means Sophia’s seen the target, one Mr. Eugene Langford, leave his office building for lunch. I flick the switch on the back of the catty, switching it from the receiver back to the spliced line, and I’m greeted by the login prompt for Eugene’s apartment. I enter his details, my fingers flying along the keyboard with professional precision. Sure, it’s a risk, but some things are worth it. Some things, you just have to know.

And now, for the first time, I have everything. Access to the whole of KT. Something I’d never dared to see before, it being too risky. Hoards upon hoards of data, of raw information. Salaries. Bills. Patents. And real secrets. Information about potential rival companies. Things they aren’t supposed to know about. Things they wouldn’t know about if they weren’t spying on their customers, and a monopoly to boot. Other people’s inventions. Spark’s invention.

Once I see Spark’s files, I make my move. The idea is to copy them across to someone else’s account, then from there to the next person’s, hopping across to five different people. People I’ve never heard of. People I’ve never hacked before. People I can’t be traced to.

I switch the terminal back to the receiver, the ghosts of countless alphanumerics fading into the abyss, replaced with Sophia’s message comprised of only a handful of random looking characters. Nothing else accompanying it yet. Good. I switch it back to the spliced line, and the text reappears. My fingers moving deftly over the board, I log into the first stranger’s account and make a hidden dot-directory to stash the files in, then switch back to Eugene’s account and perform a remote copy. One down, four more to go.

I switch, and for a split second I freeze. Staring me in the face is Sophia’s second signal, signifying that Eugene’s just walked back into the building. Shit. I make a mental note not to panic. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and open them again. I work quickly but methodically, careful not to make any spelling mistakes. I delete all my activity from Eugene’s shell history log, then log off. It can’t have taken me longer than twenty seconds after I first noticed the signal, and it can’t have been more than a minute since I last checked for it. So a minute and a half from getting the signal to logging out, tops. That’s cutting it uncomfortably close. I hope he took the stairs.

Then I’m back on the street, bulky machine under my arm, and no one’s any the wiser. I perform the other four hops from a public terminal where I feel slightly safer, but only once I’m back in Sophia’s apartment, the rain and police sirens a mere background noise, can I do something remotely approaching relaxing.

I’ve always felt that Sophia’s apartment is the perfect place for relaxing. There’s something comforting about someone who’s so open about her sexuality.

“It worked then?” Sophia looks down at my boots, and the trail of wet footprints behind me. Whoops.

I look around for somewhere to put down the heavy machine.

“Anywhere’s fine,” she suggests.

I put the catty down on an empty chair. “Yeah, it worked. I got out a minute and a half after your second signal, max.” I look Sophia in the eyes. “I saw things there, things they shouldn’t have had. Spark’s things.”

Sophia’s expression softens. “You look exhausted.”

“It’s been a rough day.” I still can’t bring myself to tell her about the shooting. I don’t want her to worry about me unnecessarily.

“No kidding.” Sophia gestures towards her bed, at the other end of the room. “You want to lie down for a bit, take a little nap?”

“Can’t. I have to work out what to do next.”

“Well you can’t do that if you’re tired. Trust me, you’ll be able to think better once you’re rested. Then you can strategize.”

“It does look kinda tempting... are you sure you don’t mind?”

“I insist.”

I take off my army boots and curl up on Sophia’s bed. That soft, cozy, luxurious bed. “Thanks. Maybe I’ll just have a little nap, just for five minutes.”

When I wake up, there’s a thin blanket over me. I open my eyes, glancing out the window at a ninety degree angle. It’s twilight, and the rain’s stopped. Inside, the soft wall lights are on, and the place is starting to look almost like home, only more spacious and opulent.

I blink a few times, eyes adjusting, and tentatively sit up on the bed. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

Sophia’s the other side of the room, behind a canvas, brush in one hand and palette in the other. Her black, curly hair’s tied back in a cute high-up ponytail. She talks to me, her voice softer than usual, but keeps her eyes focused on the canvas. “Sorry hon, you just looked so peaceful and calm like that. I didn’t have the heart to wake you up. You’ve been through a lot today, you earned some rest.”

I awkwardly amble towards her, unsure what to say. What comes out of my mouth is: “Thanks.”

She smiles at me briefly, finally looking away from the canvas. Her eyes are slightly puffy, her cheeks still drying. She misses Spark, just as I do, and she’s better at expressing it than I am. She searches my face for answers. She looks like she wants to know what to do next to fix this, but it can’t be fixed. Spark’s dead, and nothing will bring him back. The best we can do is ensure that whatever he was doing will live on. “So, what now?”

“Now?” I glance back at the bed, and next to it, the rack of jackets and dresses above the piles of neatly folded tops and jeans, at some of the rack’s more exotic outfits. They aren’t exactly proudly on display like the artwork, but they’re still something she simply refuses to be ashamed about. I smile, for the first time since I found Spark that morning, as the next part of my plan solidifies in my mind. “Now I go shopping.”

A short trip to the outer rim of K block later, where it’s cheap enough for me to afford but not overtly illegal enough for the store owners to get hassled by the cops, my purse is lighter but I have a new outfit and matching boots, not at all to my taste but something I can use to blend in, where I plan on going. It’s sticky on the inside and has a bullet hole in the back, lovingly patched with matching black PVC. Shops on K block, you don’t ask questions.

I’m back at Sophia’s apartment by nighttime. “Hi honey, I’m home.”

“I should make you a key,” suggests Sophia, her hair down again. She leads me inside once more, closing the door behind me.

I put my plain white plastic shopping bag down on the impeccably varnished wooden floor—stores on K block don’t exactly go out of their way to advertise themselves—and make my way to the canvas. Now that she’s finished, I can’t help but sneak a peek at what she was painting. When I see it, it catches me a little off guard. It’s just like her other artwork, and just as with the others, I can’t imagine who the freckled redhead depicted in this one might be. Maybe she really does make all these muses up out of thin air.

“You look disappointed.” Sophia pouts, mocking me. “Thought it would be you?”

“I know you better than to think you’d take advantage of a sleeping friend.”

Sophia grins playfully. “You’re awake now.”

“So there’s a chance yet.” I grin right back. “Is it OK if I change?”

Sophia raises an eyebrow. “Sure, go ahead.” Now it’s her turn to act nonchalant. She sits down on her couch and flicks through a glossy fashion magazine.

I take off my backpack and my regular clothes, little more than a sports bra, combat trousers and army boots, all plain black. They’re revealing in their own way, showing off my midriff, but not particularly sexy, merely functional in K block’s climate of constant heat, rain and sweat. Then I take out my new outfit and try it on. I’m sweating before I’ve even finished zipping it up.

Sophia glances up from her magazine. “Want a hand?”

“No, I got it.” It takes me a good few seconds of waving my hands behind my back, but eventually I manage to finish zipping up the outfit at the back of my neck. The boots are next, going almost all the way up to my knees, and they have impossibly high heels. I have to sit on the floor for a good five minutes while lacing them up, then I walk to the bed and back a few times, practicing walking without falling over.

“You come into my apartment unannounced, several times in one day, you get me to call in sick so I can tell you when some guy’s having his lunch break, and now you’re performing a little strip tease and dressing up game in front of me. What do you think this is, my reward? I mean, I know you must be feeling pretty shocked and all, but is there anything you’d like to tell me?”

“Not yet.” I walk up to Sophia’s fan. The trickle of cool air is nice, but nowhere near as strong as I need right now.

“Alrighty then.” Sophia goes back to her magazine.

“May I?” I crank Sophia’s fan up to full tilt, its drone now drowning out the sirens outside.

“You might even get it to do something, you got some new batteries.” Sophia doesn’t even glance up from her magazine this time.

I swap out the fan’s batteries with the ones in my backpack, freshly charged ones I’d bought from Stu, a neighbor of mine with a cluster of solar cells perched on a little spot he rents on a K-block roof, where the top layer of iron and wood is sprouting up like so many trees.

I put the fan back on the coffee table, then get the bottle of water from my backpack and carefully pour a dribble of it into my hand. I rub the water into my face, make my way back over to the table, and bend over, hands on boots, my wet face taking the full brunt of the cool air. I close my eyes. The sensation of a cool breeze flying right into my wet skin is sheer bliss.

When I open my eyes again, Sophia’s standing over me, looking down at me. “Can I keep them?”

“Sure,” I say, looking back up at her, “you give me one of your paintings.”

She smiles. “I didn’t think they were to your taste.”

“They’re not,” I admit. “Not really. But fencing one of those, I could get us a few years’ worth of electricity.”

“You know,” says Sophia as she walks over to the kitchen part of the room and takes a bottled drink from the fridge, “it’s not really called fencing if it’s legal.”

“Ever the intellect.” I straighten back up and spread my arms, posing for her. “How do I look?”

Sophia takes a long swig from her cool drink, then looks me up and down. Her lips are wet. “Inspiring. But...”

I raise an eyebrow. “But..?”

“The look’s incomplete.” She walks over to her bed and sits down, picking up some dark eyeshadow and a brush from the bedside table. “May I?”

I think about this for a second. Growing up on K block, I hardly ever indulged in such luxuries as make-up. It felt almost odd to wear it, and letting someone else apply it would have felt stranger still. But this is my friend, and I trust her. I walk over to her and sit down on the bed beside her. “Sure, if you think it’ll help.”

Sophia smiles, and unscrews the small round container of eyeshadow.

What seems like maybe twenty minutes of foundation, eyeshadow, eyeliner and lipstick later, she adds one last artistic flourish, then just sits there scrutinizing me for a few seconds, looking for flaws and apparently not finding any. Finally, she relaxes, her look turning into one of appreciation, admiration of her own work. “There, perfect. Go ahead, have a look.” She gestures towards the full length mirror beside the bed.

I look at my reflection with fascination. The catsuit shows off my curves in a way I’d never feel comfortable doing, but with Sophia’s impeccable make-up artistry, I really look the part. The reflection’s mine, same brown eyes, same epicanthic folds, same short, spiky black hair, but she actually looks like someone else, some twisted sister of mine. Not a character I’m playing, but a whole other person with her own inimitable sense of style. She grins with me. “It’s perfect, thank you!”

“You’re not going to go out dressed like that, are you? You’ll get mobbed.”

I hadn’t even thought of that. “What do you suggest?”

Sophia riffles through her rack of jackets and outfits, then pulls off an old trenchcoat and hands it to me. It’s a little big, but still serviceable. You can hardly tell what I’m wearing underneath now, at least. I transform yet again into someone else, someone less sexual and more simply... stylish. I smile, and my reflection smiles back at me, beaming with confidence. I take a swig of warm water from my bottle, half in disbelief at the more attractive woman in the mirror copying my every move and making it look better, purposeful. Suddenly I see a strange mark on my bottle, then relax a little when I realize it’s just lipstick. I make a mental note to refill it from a public tap on my way home, then remember that Sophia has running water in her kitchen. Such luxury. It’s the little things.

“Hey, can I use some of your water?” I ask.

“Go ahead.” Sophia gestures towards her gleaming metal sink, complete with both hot and cold taps.

I walk over to the sink, and empty out the warm water from my bottle. Then I fill it back up again, with fresh, clear, cold water, until it’s overflowing like a beautiful statue that serves as the centerpiece of an ornate fountain. I take another swig from it, of deliciously cold water, then fill it up again.

Sophia watches me, apparently amused at how something so simple can be so important to me.

I smile back. She wouldn’t last a week in K block. It would eat her alive. I nod at one of her paintings. “You ever been to Cravache?”

“Not my style.” Sophia’s curiosity sounds piqued.

“Really?” I grin, unable to hide my dubiousness.

“There’s more to a sexuality than your partner’s sex, or what you do with them. For my sexual encounters, like my artwork, everything has to be just right. The lighting. The outfits. The devices. The predicaments. There’s a certain class to what I do, and frankly, that place is just too trashy. No offense.”

“What do you mean, no offense? I don’t go there either!”

Sophia frowns. “So why are we talking about it?”

“Because right now, I really need to go somewhere that’s not me. Somewhere that doesn’t fit my profile. You wanna come with me?”

“That doesn't even begin to make sense.”

“You coming or not?”

Queueing outside the cloakroom, our hands freshly stamped, double doors protect us from the onslaught of noise deafening the crowd on the dancefloor. That is, aside from the brief moments when those doors swing open to let someone through, swallowing them whole, and ear splitting screeches threaten to give me a headache. The rest of the time, we’re protected from all but a dull murmur of throbbing basslines. Still dangerously loud, but more like physical movement, a vibration in my stomach, than noise. The place smells of stale sweat.

I hand Sophia my coat—her coat, technically—and she passes it along to the woman behind the counter, who’s sporting black and purple ponytails and decked out in an impressive latex corset of her own, but looks utterly bored. Sophia then takes off her own jacket, revealing her outfit: a low-cut latex minidress that shows off her cleavage, putting my cheap PVC catsuit to shame. Heads turn. Sophia smiles, radiating a cool, nonchalant confidence. I’d consider feeling jealous if I wasn’t trying to blend in. Her boots are like mine, only they look almost new, they taper off to dangerous looking stiletto heels, and she knows how to walk in them. Together, we certainly look the part, our outfits so shiny you can almost count the lights on the ceiling just by looking at their stretched, warped reflections on our bodies. She must live for clubs like these, where she can have any woman she wants. If I look like I fit in here, I can’t imagine the upscale equivalent where Sophia fits in, a whole subculture of impeccably dressed playthings eager to do her bidding.

The doors swing open again, and I ignore the sudden onslaught of noise to peek past them, scanning the room, looking for those glowing screens, and wow do I find them. I can’t even work out why such a place even has a seventy-two, but there they are, a whole row of tables with them, up against the far wall. A moment later and they’re gone again, obscured by the doors.

“Let’s go over—” Before I can finish the sentence, I feel a tight grip around my neck. I turn around to see Sophia grinning at me, her arms stretched out, her hands fiddling around behind my neck. I must have a puzzled look on my face, as she grins at me, an evil, condescending grin, and pulls her hands away again, holding a key.

I tentatively feel around my neck. Sure enough, she’s fastened a collar around it, with a metal D-shaped ring at the front and a padlock at the back. Even the woman behind the counter looks amused.

“Very funny,” I say. “Are you going to give me the key?”

“Sure.” Sophia is positively beaming. It seems to be all she can do not to laugh. The next thing I know, she’s reaching into her handbag and pulling out a dog leash, snapping the end onto my collar’s metal ring. Her voice has changed, and not just to speak up over the muffled music, if you can call it that. I’ve only heard her talk like this once before, when I paid her a visit while she had company. It feels weird suddenly having this tone of voice directed at me this time. “Once we leave, and not a second earlier.”

I sigh. This isn’t exactly how I’d planned it, but I figure I can’t really fault her for blending in. It’s the perfect cover. “Fine. Let’s go over to a terminal at the far—”

“Shh,” soothes Sophia, stroking my hair. She’s enjoying this more than I’m strictly comfortable with. Wanting her to notice me is one thing, but this is taking it a bit far. I make a mental note to get her back one day, assuming I make it that long. At any rate, I can’t entertain a revenge fantasy right now. I have to keep my mind focused on the task ahead.

But Sophia has already gone. I feel a curious tugging sensation on my neck, pulling me sideways. I suddenly realize what’s happening, turning around in time to see the chain stretching taut all the way to her hand. She’s leading me—literally—through the double doors, across the dancefloor, to the far wall. The cacophony of noise, smells and sights envelops me. The dancefloor reeks of fresh sweat, latex, and even precum. People dance and lead each other astray in roughly equal measures. I try to play along, glancing at some of the other patrons and emulating the submissive ones. I keep my head down, trying not to focus on Sophia’s swinging hips as she takes me on a long tour of the place—too long—parading me around the dancefloor like a beloved pet she’s showing off to her peers.

As masters and mistresses lead their slaves off the dancefloor and into the bathroom to perform sordid services for them, Sophia leads me off the dancefloor to an empty table, where she corners me in, and I finally got a chance to see what was worth killing a man over. Spark’s files. Schematics and machine code. Timestamped just after his death.

“So that’s what this is about?” shouts Sophia, still affecting her dominant’s voice, looking over my shoulder at the terminal’s display.

“May I speak?” My own voice has only the merest hint of sarcasm. Mentally, I’m still in the world of raw data, not experiencing my immediate surroundings enough to work out whether I’m even joking or not.

“You may,” decides Sophia.

“I know they did it. I can’t prove it, but I know they got his files after his death, and the only way they would do that is if they were the ones who killed him.”

“So that’s why we’re here? To prove it?”

“No,” I said reflexively. “I just told you, I can’t prove it.” With a slight sigh, I mentally detach myself from the terminal and reattach myself to reality, the questionable smells, the intermittently blinding lights, the piercing music, my aching neck, and my friend.

“But that is why we’re here, these files?”

“Yes. What, did you think I was trying to seduce you in a moment of vulnerability?”

“Honey, I still think you’re trying to seduce me.”

“So, what, you’re happy to just go along with that and take advantage of me?”

Now Sophia looks downright offended. Angry. She yanks on the leash, pulling it uncomfortably taut, forcing my face closer to hers. “Maybe I’m keeping an eye on you to make sure you won’t do anything you’ll later regret. You’re not the only one who’s emotionally vulnerable right now, you know. I lost a good friend too. And on top of that, in the last fourteen hours, I’ve sheltered you, I’ve engaged in industrial espionage with you, and I’ve even indulged your little fantasy or whatever the hell this is, even though it hurts to be teased like this, knowing nothing will ever come of it, and I didn’t want to round the day off by having you running back to my apartment again, this time with tears streaming down those pretty little cheeks of yours while you tell me all about how you went to a place like this without someone who cared about you watching over you, and how someone here took advantage of you. So yes, I’m playing with you, but no, I don’t take our friendship lightly, at least not as lightly as you seem to. If I must look after you like a pet, I’m going to keep you leashed like one, and not let you out of my sight. OK?”

I swallow hard, looking up at her impassioned eyes, and nod solemnly. When I next speak, it’s barely more than a squeak. “Sorry.”

“Apology accepted.” She nods at the terminal. “Now do what you do.”

I nod compliantly, and Sophia gives the metal chain some slack. I face the terminal again, and begin to focus once more.

Compared to getting the files, copying them from one compromised account to another is easy. Personal accounts have lax security. No one cares if someone logs in twice at once. I copy the files from one of the accounts to another, log in as that person, and copy them from there to another, and so on, from Steve to Jane to Sarah to Michael to Paul. Eventually, I settle on Evelyn Chung, and from there e-mail them to a printing service. I copy Chung’s private key to someone else, and repeat the five-hop ritual.

“How much do you want to be a part of this?” I ask Sophia.

“Do you have to ask?”

“It’s risky. I’d like to store someone’s private key on your account.”


“No one in particular. Just a random person on my list of compromised accounts.”

“Why not store it on your account?”

“That’s what I was going to do, and physically grab it from work. But I can’t, it’s not safe.” I sigh, deflating slightly. It’s time to come clean and tell Sophia the whole truth. “I’ve already been shot at today.”

For the second time today, Sophia searches my face for any kind of indication that I’m joking. When she doesn’t see one, she closes her eyes and takes in a deep breath, coinciding with a momentary lapse of the music’s caustic, heavy rhythm, a calm little moment of bass, chatter, and the occasional distant slapping and cheering. She lets the breath of air out again, slowly, finally opening her eyes once more. “Well, that explains the ear.”

I lean in slightly, loosening the chain a bit. “You knew about that?”

Sophia frowns again, although not as severely this time. She gestures wildly with her hands, almost accidentally snapping my neck off in the process. “Who do you think put the blanket over you? You have any other watchful guardians I should know about?”

I look down at the chain, taut again, unable to meet her gaze. She’s right to be angry at me. I didn’t realize how much she had to be angry about until now. “I’m sorry. They traced him to me, but you’re clean. You’re my safehaven.”

Sophia stares down at me, and this time I can’t escape her gaze. She looks right through my body and into my soul. I must have looked pitiful in that moment. Finally, she gives me her decree. “I’m in. Store her key on my account.”

“Thank you.” I’m not sure if I look appropriately apologetic or merely grovelling. I face the terminal again, Sophia giving the leash a bit more slack, and I copy Evelyn Chung’s private key one last time.

“You want to explain your plan now?” asks Sophia.

“Sure.” I log out of the terminal.

“You done?”

I nod. “I figure KT killed Spark, and tried to kill me, because of these files. I don’t know what they are yet, but clearly they’re important. Can’t read them here, though. The schematics are vector files. Can’t view them on a catty. I have to print them out to know what they are. The rest are machine code, M sixty-four by the looks of it. I’ve just run them through a disassembler but it’ll take me a good few weeks to reverse engineer this much undocumented source code. I’d rather do that in private, with a pen and paper, so I’m gonna print those too. There’s a printer’s not too far from here, over on the other side of J block, so I’m sending the job there. Given how today’s turned out so far, however, I’m not just going to waltz in there using my real name. So I figure we go back to your place, change back into our regular clothes, I use your interface to rig up my transponder with Evelyn Chung’s private key, then I head off to the print store posing as her and collect the printouts.”

Sophia stands up, looming far above me, and tugs on the leash. “Isn’t that dangerous? Can’t they trace what you’re doing and just wait for you at the store?”

“Theoretically, yes.” I take the cue and shuffle along to the edge of the seat, then stand up, only wobbling slightly. “But they don’t know about Chung. And they don’t seem to know about you yet.”

“Yet?” Sophia turns around and walks back onto the dancefloor, with me in tow.

I stumble after her. “It’s just a matter of time until they mine our social network, regardless of whether I store anything on your account or not. I’m not going to lie to you. They’re probably going to come after you regardless of what I do. But if we do this first, it should give us just enough of an edge to outmaneuver them.”

Sophia leads me straight through the middle of the dancefloor, pushing the doors on the other side wide open. “So... some assassin’s probably going to turn up at my door, but don’t worry about it, we should have a printout by then?”

I follow her lead as best I can, trying not to fall over in the combination of impossibly high heels and being led by my neck. Once we’re past the doors, at least I can think properly once more. “In essence, yes. Look, I’m sorry about this, but I’m not bringing it on you any more than Spark brought it on me. Just by knowing each other, we’re already involved regardless of what we do.”

Sophia unclips the leash and throws a key at me. It bounces off my clumsy hands and onto the suspiciously sticky floor. She gives two tickets to the woman behind the counter. “So how’s this printout going to make everything better?”

I pick up the key without thinking, getting a few appreciative stares from passers-by before I realize I should have bent my knees more. “I don’t know yet. Leverage, maybe. I’ll figure that out later. Right now, we just need to get it and see what it is, because until we do that, we don’t have anything. Even someone of your status, a citizen of the city proper, they can still just get rid of us all and make it look like a series of unconnected robberies and muggings.” Finally, I manage to unlock the padlock and give it back to Sophia, along with the collar. I rub my sore neck. “Still with me?”

Sophia puts on her jacket, then throws her old trenchcoat at me. “It doesn’t look like I have much of a choice, does it?”

In the dimly lit hallway outside Sophia’s apartment, my ears are still ringing. I can barely hear what she’s saying.

“OK, now I’m going to teach you how to use a welcome mat,” she teases as she gets her keyring out of her handbag, finds the right key, and unlocks the door.

It swings wide open to reveal a man in a suit, older than us, maybe in his late thirties, looking like a ghost white salaryman, pointing a silver colored pistol right at Sophia’s face, standing right there next to us. The man glances at us both and smirks. He probably wasn’t expecting to get both of us at once. We made it easy for him.

Before I can think what to do, Sophia has kicked him in the crotch with the full force of a stiletto heel and is grabbing my wrist, pulling me back down the corridor, down the stairs, away from the echoes of the concrete walls exploding with bullets and into the relative safety of the bustling crowd outside. It’s all I can do not to stumble in my block heels. I suddenly have a newfound respect for femmes.

“I think,” says Sophia as she pulls me through the crowd, “that we just ran out of time. New plan?”

“One second.” I struggle to think of something. The crowd’s a blur, and I just ignore the sea of faces, letting them wash over me as Sophia leads me as far away from her apartment block as she can, as unpredictably as she can. “You’re right, we’re out of time.”

“So what’s your plan?” Sophia sounds serious and urgent.

Running out of options, I suggest the impossible. “We’ve got nothing to lose. I say we be ourselves for a little while.”

Sophia leads me into a deserted back alleyway, steam rising from vents in the ground, then out the other side, to another crowded street, parallel to the first. “Elaborate.”

We keep running. Miraculously, I don’t fall over. “We still go to a printer’s, but without a private terminal, I can’t copy someone’s private key to my transponder. Even if we somehow found a public terminal with the right interface, it wouldn’t work. It takes time. It’s suspicious. So we don’t. We go to a printer’s as ourselves. I set up a new print job, in my real name or your real name, and we walk in and pick it up.”

Sophia talks in short bursts, between breaths. “That’s your plan? To just waltz right into a printer’s using our real names? Forgive me, but I thought that’s exactly what you told us not to do, back in Cravache.”

Struggling to keep up, I barely manage to say a whole sentence in between panting. “If we move quickly enough, we might be able to make it in time.”

Sophia slows down to a brisk walk, catching her breath. She looks back at me. “Might?”

Once I catch up with her, I follow suit, grateful to finally have a chance to get my breath back. “Hear me out. We find the four or five closest printers, we queue up the job in all of them, then we go to just one of them and pick up the printouts. He’ll have to guess which one we’re at, so we’ll have a good chance of not running into him.”

“Unless they have more than one person after us,” points out Sophia, her face lit up by the neon lights, alternating between the primary and secondary colors of a twenty-four hour café’s animated sign. “Did you get a good look at your tail last time? Was it the same guy?”

I let out a grunt of frustration. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Sophia sighs. “Any other options?”

“None come to mind.”

Sophia opens the café door, her voice resigned. “Come on. Just remember to keep your coat on.”

An old guy sitting at the table next to ours scowls at us until he leaves a few minutes later, but no one says anything. We have a cup of coffee and a sandwich each—the first thing I’ve eaten all day, I suddenly realize—and I set up five print jobs, two as Sophia, two as myself, and one as Spark. All the while, Sophia is drumming her fingers, nervous like. It distracts me, but I don’t say anything. The way I figure it, she’s more than entitled to feel nervous. Then we pay our bill and head off to the closest print store, one of the two I used my own name for.

The print store turns out to be a regular convenience store that happens to have a cheap laser printer on the counter. My heart’s beating hard in my chest as Sophia and I walk up to the counter.

“I believe you have a printout waiting for me,” I tell the guy behind the counter.

“Name?” he asks.


He smiles in a way that seems slightly creepy. “Pretty name.”

“Thanks.” At least he’s not complaining about how short my hair is. Maybe that’s the magic of Sophia’s make-up skills. Maybe I blend in with polite society a little more now. I glance down briefly at the trenchcoat, making sure it’s buttoned up. It is.

“Pre-paid, all accounted for.” The old man hands me a thick stack of papers. “Happy reading.”

“Thanks.” I open the door, Sophia the other side, and that’s when he walks in. The salaryman. Mr. Ghost white. He spots her first. I see him grab his gun, as if watching it in slow motion. I look around for something, anything I can use. I grab a glass wine bottle off the shelf and swing it into his hand. I picture the glass smashing everywhere, the floor suddenly washed with liquid red, wine with a little blood mixed in, but the bottle doesn’t break. It must have hit him pretty hard though, as he screams in pain. The guy behind the counter starts shouting at us, but words don’t register.

I get ready to swing it again, but there’s no need. Sophia kicks him with her heel again, this time in his stomach, and he doubles over. I shove the bottle back onto the shelf, and we run out of there, back into the street. The shouting is replaced by human traffic, and we’re back to running through the crowd again, only this time I’m carrying the printouts at last.

Sophia takes the lead. “Follow me.”

“Where are we going?” I gasp.

“Somewhere close. Somewhere we can blend in. Somewhere we haven’t been shot at yet.” She holds up her hand. First I think it’s so I can keep track of where she is, but then I realize she’s showing me the ink stamped on the back of it. Cravache.

“You have to be kidding me.”

“It’s just around the corner from here, and you seemed so keen to go the last time. Didn’t you have fun?”

The pounding so-called music actually gives me a headache this time, but at least no one’s staring at us here—aside from the occasional look of approval—and at least Sophia doesn’t leash me this time. Finally, I can go over the schematics, colored spotlights and the occasional strobe lights providing a suitable ambience, giving them the splendor they deserve, something that black ink on white paper alone just doesn’t do justice to.

They’re beautiful, both in purpose and in elegance. A computer small enough to fit in your home. Instead of renting a seventy-two and buying cycles on a frame, you can solder together one of these babies and have a whole computer to yourself, right there in your room. A CPU, a text chip, a modem chip, all things that video terminals have, but in addition, a ludicrous amount of memory. Dozens of K. Enough to fit in whole programs. A modified modem that lets you frequency-shift key your data right onto your own personal stash of audio cassette tapes. Then it’s no longer a dumb terminal. It’s a tiny computer in its own right, capable of running whatever software you want, and no one can spy on you. It’s privacy. It’s beautiful.

My first thought’s to build it, natch, but that wouldn’t be enough. KT had already killed Spark, and taken a pop at Sophia and me. I mean, we’re good, but we’re not that good. We can’t outmaneuver them forever. Maybe they hadn’t caught up with us yet, but they would eventually. Information spreads pretty quickly on the net, no matter what kind. With enough dedication, everything can be traced.

That’s when I hatch the final stage of my plan. This invention was by Spark, but it’s not his. It’s not mine or Sophia’s, either. It’s everyone’s. That’s who I have to give it to. Everyone.

I log in as the illustrious five once more, one at a time. From each of their accounts, I can e-mail one point seven million people, using a glitch in the ubiquitous mail server that I learned to exploit a while back. There are eight million, seven hundred thousand people in this city with their own private—whatever that means—account on the KT frame net. In the morning, they’ll all wake up. Maybe a few dozen thousand know how to solder. Each of them will be able to make their own private, personal computer, and each of them can make them for their friends, too.

I set up the first batch of e-mails, my finger hovering over the enter key, and that’s when I feel it, something hard pressed against the side of my waist. I turn around, refamiliarizing myself with my surroundings. Sophia has gone, not that I really blame her. In her place is the salaryman, that stupid grin back on his face.

“No one around to kick me this time,” he says. He’s so close, I can smell the mint on his breath. I look down at his bloodied hand, wrapped around the grip of his pistol, the barrel pressing against my waist.

I nod at his hand. “You should get that looked at.”

He sneers. “Move your hands away from the keyboard. Slowly. Now.”

I look him in the eyes. “I suppose if I press this key, and e-mail all these people, your client or employer or whoever will just go in and delete them all anyway.”

He nods.

“You know what?”

He looks ever so slightly unnerved, but too cocky to really feel threatened. “What?”

“I don’t care.” I look past my assailant to the crowd behind him. The slaves. The masters and mistresses. One particular woman with curly hair, who I’m increasingly proud to call my friend. The salaryman turns around to see who I’m looking at, but it’s too late. Sophia punches him in the cheek at the exact same time I try to prise the gun from his hand, pointing the barrel up at the ceiling, away from me. He fires it, destroying a light in the process, small shards of glass flying towards the crowd. There’s a burning smell. Screams. Running. The place empties out, and I take the gun safely off the man as Sophia pats him down, making sure he hasn’t got any other tricks up his sleeve.

She looks down at me, a warm smile greeting me. “Doesn’t he know you’re spoken for?”

The few people left in the room have no shortage of restraints, and are polite enough to help us out. With our would-be dispatcher safely apprehended, I finish sending the e-mails, all of them.

I look down at the salaryman, disheveled, cuffed and bleeding. “A word of advice: try datsusara.”

“I think we’d better leave,” suggests Sophia. I nod, and she offers me a hand, pulling me out of the seat.

“Your place?” I ask.

“Depends. Can I paint you?”

I look up at her, grinning. “Maybe.”

Sure, this man will be back on the streets soon enough. Maybe he’ll come after us again, maybe even with some co-workers. At least now I can follow the first rule of a gunfight: bring a gun.

KT will see what we’ve done before morning, I’m sure. Try to stop it. Over eight million e-mails from just five accounts has to get noticed somewhere. Maybe they’ll delete almost all of them. Almost all. Nothing stays hidden in these streets. And now, with a little luck, KT might not be a monopoly forever. Maybe people can finally start to make their own machines, their own languages, their own protocols. A chaotic, haphazard, organic mess, just like home. And maybe that would be a beautiful thing.

© 2013 Zoë Blade

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