says, pointing over Sara's shoulder. "You can tell by
all the khaki."
The two of them are sitting
at a sidewalk café, looking at the doors of the big
mall that feed a never-ending rush of people onto the main
street of the city's shopping district. Zan takes a sip of
his coffee. "Those guys, they're our marks."
"Pop-up blocker. They
cost ten bucks a shot at Radio Shack, but I'm thinking these
guys'll take one off my hands for fifty."
The tourists step out onto
the sidewalk and it happens. Holographic ads spring to life
around them. Loans, porn sites, drugs. They freeze, terrified.
Mouths open. The man jumps into action and swats at the porn
ad. His hand slices right through the huge, censored breasts
of a woman who licks her finger seductively.
Zan looks at Sara, raises
The man takes his wife by
the arm and presses forward, trailed by the ads. As they walk,
the ads for the legit businesses they pass pop up, letting
them in on the latest sales, and then disappear as they reach
the next store's territory.
The pair passes a McDonald's
and the golden arches flare up. Today's deal is the Chicken
McNugget Meal. The ad for mortgage refinancing, which has
followed them for half a block now, pounces on the McDonald's
ad, knocking it aside.
Sara shakes her head. Spam.
It's getting nasty.
As soon as the tourists are
confronted by a Starbucks ad, showcasing the latest line of
iced mochaccinos, Zan is on his feet, blocking their path.
"Need a little help?"
The man smiles gratefully.
"You hit the projector,"
Zan says. "Behind the ad."
Zan makes a grab for one of
the bee-sized chrome spheres. It darts away from him, sending
the porn model into a dizzying spiral. Sara, still sitting,
catches it and throws it to the ground, crunching it underfoot.
Within seconds, a new porn ad has taken its place.
"Your first time in town?"
The pair of them nod, cautiously.
"You'll need pop-up blocking
software. It retails for about fifty bucks," he says.
"If you want, though, I've got a spare. Let you have
it for sixty? Small fee for the convenience, of course."
The expression on the woman's
face sours, but the man retrieves his phone from his pocket,
ports it to Zan's, and keys over the sixty bucks. Zan installs
the program on the guy's phone and the ads disappear. The
projectors hover away slowly, looking like scolded children.
Zan smiles. "Right as
rain. You folks have a nice day now."
* * *
Sara was sitting in the park,
a nice seat by the fountain, when Zan walked up. He didn't
look like much, all swagger and baggy pants, but his blogroll
spoke pretty highly of him.
"Yo," he said. "You
She raised an eyebrow at that
and thought briefly of saying no. Despite all the recommendations,
he was still just a kid. Maybe eighteen. An unreliable age.
An irritating one, too.
She nodded and he broke into
a big grin. "Cool, cool. So, are you H's girl?"
Sara sighed. It was a common
mistake people made. "I'm his employee. His girl is a
custom order from one of those colonies in Russia."
Zan looked genuinely surprised.
"Vat-grown, huh? Wouldn't've figured H as the type."
"Well, H is all sorts
There was a short pause, the
break between chat and business. "So
"H says he'll take the
job, but not for a flat fee," Sara said. "He wants
a ten percent cut on your deals tonight and, afterwards, some
recommendations and an outgoing link on your blog."
Zan mulled this over for a
minute. A percentage cut meant that he'd be paying H a lot
of money, but it also meant that H was going to be sending
lots of buyers to the party. The link, that would probably
be reciprocated, but H's blog rating wasn't the greatest,
so it was basically a free throw-in. Still, it was a good
deal, for both. Sara hoped he was smart enough to realize
that. He took his time thinking, though Sara wasn't really
sure whether this was genuine, or simply an effort to appear
"Sounds good," he
said, finally. "But there's another condition, right?
Otherwise he wouldn't have sent you."
"I'm just a facilitator.
Just to make sure no one gets screwed."
"So, what then? You're
Sara nodded. Zan smiled. They
* * *
Sara says, as he settles back into his chair. "I had
you figured for strictly larger-scale stuff."
Zan shrugs. "It's a public
service. No one else wants to see pop-up ads on the street,
"Maybe I'd buy that if
you were the least bit charitable about it."
Zan lets out a long, exaggerated
sigh. "A monthly competition with friends. We pool the
money and the person who makes the most wins the pot. Plus
a share to whoever gets the most for one blocker. Didn't you
check out my blog before coming down here?"
"Not well enough, evidently."
Zan finishes his coffee and
gets up. "You seen the speakers?"
She hasn't, but she'd heard
the tests earlier in the morning. The ground had vibrated
beneath her feet and she hadn't been anywhere near the square.
She shakes her head.
"So," he says, as
they walk. "How'd you get hooked up with H?"
"Job placement program."
Zan laughs, his head thrown
"I'm serious. When I
graduated, he was on the list. The school took one look at
his blogroll and from all his contacts I guess they assumed
he was running some sort of consulting firm. By the time the
Feds blew the lid off his operation down in the States, I'd
already been working there a year." Sara says. "He
came up here after that to get away from all the heat and
I ended up his assistant."
"It bother you?"
Sara shrugs. "He doesn't
exactly run security for the most upstanding citizens, but
everyone wears a suit and tie these days, anyway. A job's
Zan nods. She takes notice
of the way he's walking now. The cocky swagger of a kid who's
making more money than he knows what to do with is gone. Now
his walk is careful, measured. He never seems to step on any
of the cracks in the sidewalk.
The street widens as it feeds
into the square. She'd known this guy a couple years back
who always called the square a place full of corners, and
she hasn't been able to see it any other way since.
In the northeast corner, by
the train station platform, there are clusters of school kids
playing dice games, throwing one-time use credit chips into
the pot. These games go for twenty-four hours a day, seven
days a week. The party won't stop them.
In the middle of the square
is the old clock, which hasn't worked in nearly ten years.
It's just a concrete canvas now, covered in graffiti. The
speakers flank the clock, one on either side, monoliths rising
out of the ground. Zan turns to face them, hands on his hips.
He looks satisfied.
A kid who's setting up the
DJ booth flashes Zan a toothy grin and a thumbs up. "Way
zealous speakers, man. Way."
Zan just smiles.
* * *
By eight, there's already
a significant crowd in the square, though the party hasn't
started. The speakers are silent and the people in the crowd,
mostly teenagers, are just milling around, talking in small
knots of three or four. The dice game in the corner is thriving,
undisturbed by H's security detail. H's guys showed up an
hour before and started making the rounds, checking people
for weapons and malware. So far, it'd been clean.
Zan is circulating through
the crowd, too, his handshakes and hellos leaving quiet conversations
in his wake. Sara, following a few steps behind, catches snippets
of these, mostly revolving around how they'd met Zan, how
long they'd known him, stuff he'd done for them. Zan is the
center of gravity here.
Every so often, she catches
a glimpse of a silver projector. They're attracted to large
gatherings and already they have begun to hover on the fringes
of the crowd. They'll stick around until people start to leave,
then pounce on those without blocking software.
The party kicks off at ten.
By this time, the crowd has swelled beyond the confines of
the square, onto the adjoining streets. Zan's speakers emit
a single thunderous note, the bass causing the ground to tremble.
The crowd cheers in response. After a minute, there's another
note and another cheer. This sequence picks up speed until
the beats are coming twice a second and the crowd has worked
itself into a frenzy. The DJ blends the beat into the first
song and the party begins in earnest.
Zan has proven nearly impossible
to follow, so Sara is standing at the southern end of the
square, on the steps up to a cigar shop with one of H's guys.
From her vantage point, she can see Zan in the crowd among
the dancers. He's been dealing for quite some time now. Every
few minutes he'll be flagged down. He'll fish something out
of his pockets and then check his phone, smile, and move on.
A lot of the buyers look like they're from H's crowd, sent
here to fatten up his cut. These are the guys who aren't really
into the party. They make a beeline for Zan, then zone out
in front of the speakers.
Sara's phone vibrates. A text
from H. Everything ready? Sara texts back a Y. She
gives a nod to the security guy she's standing beside, whose
name she can't remember, and he nods back, looking very grave.
She logs onto the web with
her phone and keys in the password for the Standard Mobile
database. It'd taken her a lot of risky jobs and even more
cash to get her hands on that password, which would let her
access the airwaves for all the mobile phones in the area.
She uploads H's program. Hits send.
The projectors move in immediately,
blitzing the dancers with ads. More projectors are flowing
in, drawn towards the massive gathering of people with disabled
pop-up blockers. The square becomes one immense, pulsing light
show. The air is thick with projectors now, their ads melding
together, forming incoherent images. The dancers, who at first
seemed shocked, are now cheering. The rising energy of the
dancers is infectious and Sara finds herself nodding her head
to the music.
This isn't quite how H had
intended for things to go, but this probably would have worked
better for him, anyway. Of course, H hasn't clued into her.
He doesn't think that way, which is probably why he got busted
down in the States.
It doesn't take Zan long to
emerge from the crowd. "This H's idea of good security?"
Sara points him towards the
crowd after he's climbed up the cigar shop steps. "Wouldn't
say it's hurting your party much."
Zan gazes out over the crowd
impassively. "Was supposed to, though."
Sara nods. A moment of silence
passes between them.
"What's H's game?"
"Street cred, mostly.
Thought it'd give his blog hits a bounce. Get him some more
Zan snorts. "He wants
to get more customers by fucking over the ones he already
"H has never been able
to see more than one variable at a time."
"What's your take on
"Ten percent of H's next
three jobs. That's assuming I decide to stay on with him."
Zan looks over at her. She
doesn't meet his gaze. Wants to let him observe.
"H is a good guy. I like
him," she says. "But he's not very good at what
he does. Gotten by mostly on luck and the ability to surround
himself with smart people.
"So, I could stay on
with him. Make my ten percent. Maybe enough to buy a nice
house. But, sooner or later, someone's going to bring H down,
simply because he doesn't know how to play the angles. And
then what? Legit biz wouldn't be likely to hire me because
of my involvement with him and I'm not the type to get any
deeper into the other end of the spectrum. Who knows, I might
end up getting pinched right along with H.
"Way I see it, the best
option is to strike out on my own while I can. Do something
really big, then disappear. All I need is someone with the
contacts to put the last few pieces of the puzzle into place."
They look out at the square.
"What's your game?"
Zan asks. The light
from hundreds of holo ads plays across his face.
* * *
Zan's place is a little ways
back from the square, on the other side of the train platform.
A bachelor apartment on the sixth floor of one of those nano-constructed
buildings. The inside is filled with nice electronics and
bad furniture. Rows of plants on the balcony. An experiment,
he says, when he sees her eyeing them.
Zan slumps onto the couch,
legs splayed. Eighteen year-old's posture. "What kind
of contacts you need?"
"Someone with access
to the city's mobile grid, a source for an A-list newsblogger,
and a worm."
Zan laughs. "You serious?"
"It has to look like
part of H's little party-crashing. If he doesn't take the
fall for this, the cops'll be after whoever was behind it.
They'd find us, eventually."
Zan considers this. "Payment?"
"Fifty percent. Of millions."
This is enough to make even
Zan's eyes widen. He sits up straight. Sara fills him in.
Sara's plan goes like this:
"H has got this program to disable the pop-up blockers
on phones, right? And what's he using it for? Low-level street
cred games in the hope of getting a little more cash flow
into his security business. He's missing the big picture entirely.
Any minute now, H is going to update his blog, take credit
for the giant light show above your party. Relatively speaking,
his hits'll go through the roof. But not enough for anyone
big to take notice. So, if we manage to hook up with someone
who's earned the trust of one of the A-levels, tell them that
maybe this thing's going bigger, that their boss might appreciate
knowing about it, then there's a big newsblogger out there
who's at least gone on record that H took credit for it. (Zan
asking how it is she plans to go bigger). Took him
took me a long time to get access to the mobile grid for just
this area. But that was with his contacts. With yours, we
should be able to go city-wide. A city like this one, entirely
without blockers? Can you imagine? Ads from neighboring cities
would probably be able to sense the lack of filters. Ads everywhere.
Everything would pretty much shut down. Now, look out there.
(They look out over the square, where both the ads and the
people are still dancing). See how many ads there are? They're
so close together that you can't really tell one from the
other. So, what if, when we go city-wide, one of these ads
is a worm? With all those ads running into each other, getting
their images mixed up, do you think anyone will be able to
remember one single little ad? (Zan shakes his head). Me neither.
So, we fire out a fleet of these things. Every time they flash
on a phone, they download the worm, drain bank accounts by
ten, twenty dollars. What's the population of this city, ten
million? So, let's sayconservative
manage to flash on five hundred thousand phones before the
authorities manage to shut everything down. What's that? Five
million. Maybe ten. Split two ways. And at the end of the
night, someone else has already, very publicly, taken the
This from Zan, dry-mouthed:
"Yeah. Yeah, I can get those contacts for you."
Eighteen year-old posture, sure, but she can see those wheels
inside turning. Turning in ways far beyond his age. In ways
she can't quite get a handle on.
Sara nods. "Remember,
this is not our job. We don't know anything about it. You're
not going to promise percentages of this cut to them. Too
much of a risk. You can call in favors, bribe them with drugs.
Whatever. But don't let on that something bigger is going
Zan is nodding back, answering
in affirmatives. He's already on his way out the door, threading
his way back into the pulsing mass of light and flesh.
It's thirty minutes later
when Zan rises out of the crowd. Climbing out of the ocean
of dancers up the steps to the cigar shop, where they'd agreed
to meet, dripping with sweat from hundreds of other bodies.
"Done?" Sara asks.
Zan, staring out at the dancers:
* * *
It looks almost like an explosion,
like pouring lighter fluid on a fire that's having trouble
getting started. They've climbed up onto the roof of the clock
tower to get a decent look at the downtown core. There's a
few sparks of light, at first, but not much beyond that. Sara's
worried and, hoping he won't notice, sneaks looks over at
Zan's face to see if his expression betrays any disappointment.
It doesn't. Then, without warning, the sky is shimmering with
Zan gestures at his phone,
shows her the screen. H's blog. A picture of the party flooded
with ads. A simple note at the bottom, saying: "All me."
Playing right into their hands. No doubt his security team
at the party are talking to him now, letting him know of the
lightshow in the distance. Sara wonders what's going through
his mind right now, but discovers that she doesn't really
Zan smiles. "Not gonna
know what hit him."
But it's just a few minutes
later when a pair of H's security boys rush up into the clock
tower, put them at the end of their guns. So it looks like
H knows exactly what's hit him. And when she looks over at
Zan, all she sees are those wheels turning.
* * *
H's place is a two-story warehouse
in the rough end of town. He rents there solely for the street
cred and because, with his retinue of thugs, the locals bypass
him in favour of easier targets. When Zan and Sara are shown
into his office, he is affecting his most thoughtful posehis
elbows on the desk, hands forming a steeple on which he rests
his chin. If it weren't for his brutish looks, he'd remind
her of a university professor. He brings his eyes up to meet
them, but fails to move any other part of his body. After
a few moments of silence, he leans back and wearily gestures
at them to sit, as if this kind of betrayal was something
he dealt with everyday.
"Fancy little game you've
been playing, Sara."
"Till you showed up."
H smiles. "So, what is
it? Not making enough money? You could've asked for a raise."
"Would you have given
"I would've," says
Zan. "If I were you."
"And why's that?"
"Big picture," answers
Zan. "Like the lady says."
H chuckles. "And what
is it that you're seeing that I don't?"
Zan, with slow, exaggerated
movements, reaches into one of his pockets. When he takes
it out, he's holding a police badge.
* * *
Three hours in an interrogation
not really your typical interrogation room. As far as Sara
can tell, she's not even in a police station, just a safehouse
or something like that. There's not even a two-way mirror
in the room. She rests her head on the table, waiting.
The raid was quick, efficient.
Zan must have thumbed something in his pocket when he brought
out that badge, because the troops were inside in a couple
of seconds. Zan didn't slap any cuffs on her, didn't read
her her rights. "You're not being arrested," he'd
said. "Just detained."
Sara's about to fall asleep
when Zan comes into the room. She lifts her head up, scratches
at the indentation the table has made on her cheek. He looks
even younger in this incongruous setting, the teenaged street
hood carrying a file folder into the interrogation room, all
business. "You sure you're a cop?"
he says. "Regular force can't get everywhere they need
"But you're a drug dealer."
"Sure, but they're gonna
flow either way. The money's good and it's the best way to
get contacts. It's a win-win," he says. He opens the
file folder, which contains a thick sheaf of papers and her
phone. He gestures to the phone. "This is the kind of
thing we're after. H's program could've caused some real damage
in the wrong hands."
"Exactly. So you've got
a choice here. Go down for a few years in a VR lockup, come
out all spaced the way they do, or you can join my team."
"You're good at what
you do. Could be a help. And you said you wanted out,"
Zan says. He slides the pile of papers across to her. It's
an employment contract. "Well, here's your exit."