by Cavan Terrill

In the future, unsolicited bulk advertising becomes even more pervasive.

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"Tourists," Zan 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."

"What for?"

"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 his eyebrows.

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?" Zan asks.

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 Sara?"

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 of types."

There was a short pause, the break between chat and business. "So…" Zan started.

"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 prudent.

"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 playing shadow?"

Sara nodded. Zan smiled. They shook hands.

* * *

"Awfully small-time," 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, either."

"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 back.

"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 a job."

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?" Zan asks.

"Street cred, mostly. Thought it'd give his blog hits a bounce. Get him some more jobs."

Zan snorts. "He wants to get more customers by fucking over the ones he already has?"

"H has never been able to see more than one variable at a time."

"What's your take on this?"

"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. Overflowing.

"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."

"How long?"

"One hour."

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…well, 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 estimatethey 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 fall."

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 down."

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: "Done."

* * *

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 silver.

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 care.

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 me one?"

H shrugs.

"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 roomit's 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?"

"Freelance consultant," he says. "Regular force can't get everywhere they need to be."

"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."

"Like mine?"

"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."




Copyright © 2009 Cavan Terrill

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Cavan Terrill: My work has previously appeared in Byzarium,, and Atomjack. Additionally, I'm the editor of Fusion Fragment.

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