-Forty Years Later-
Kat held her breath. Partially because she was hiding behind a dumpster, half full and baking in the summer heat despite most of its rusted metal form lurking in the damp shade of the alleyway.
Mostly, she held her breath to minimize noise as two corporate security officers walked by. She couldn’t tell from her hiding spot whether the cops were chromed up, but it would be just her luck to get caught due to the one patrol officer with cybernetically enhanced hearing.
Honestly? She wasn’t even breaking any major rules. True, she was on a level of the arcology well above what her employee permit allowed, but it wasn’t like she was taking any action against the company. Kat might be reckless, but she wasn’t stupid.
Someone in senior management had bought information from a broker in the Shell, the barely maintained slums that surrounded the Schaumburg Arcology, and the broker had offered Kat a hundred credits to get the thumb drive in her jeans to the drop and return with the money.
Much like the teams of information brokers and armed enforcers squatting in the Shell, couriers were generally ignored as a necessary evil. Technically if Kat was caught she’d have to pay a fine and suffer some social demerits, but pretty much anyone of importance used ‘extra legal contractors’ as they were referred to in polite society. So long as they didn’t act brazenly or in the open, corporate security usually turned a blind eye to their activities.
As for what she carried in her data stick, Kat had no idea what the information was, and she didn’t care. Over the past two years she’d delivered everything from filched earnings reports to truly upsetting blackmail that had gotten employees killed or worse, fired.
What actually mattered were the cold hard credits she’d get at the other end of the run. She had a job with the company as a low level clerk, and ostensibly it paid her, but most employees could go their entire life without seeing a single credit.
The company automatically billed her for everything, birth to grave, and their accountants kept track of every centicred. Housing, school, food, and even the hospital care associated with Kat’s birth showed up when she called up her ledger. Every paycheck was immediately applied to her impossible debt, leaving her nothing but a spartan ‘weekly spending limit’ that could be used in shops owned by the company to buy necessities and small luxuries.
Actual credits were a rarity in the arcology, but if Kat was going to purchase cyberware from a back alley doc, she’d need something more tangible than a mark on her ledger with corporate records. Of course, the company would pay for her chrome if Kat passed an aptitude test and the actuarial department saw a positive return on investment.
Her expression soured. Aptitude. Everyone took the test as they graduated from the corporation’s mandatory school system. It was meant to measure the student’s capabilities and assign them an adult job with the corporation or a course of higher learning. In reality, it was an open secret that the children of managers and executives would be the only ones assigned to one of the prestigious corporate colleges.
Kat would do fine. She had received near top marks in her chemistry and biology classes. That meant work in one of the labs rather than a farm or a factory like her mother. She’d seen how exhausted her mom was every night after working an eleven hour shift in the factory. The worried look on her face as her ledger went further and further into the red no matter how many extra shifts she tried to work to pay for Kat and her sister.
The worst part was that her mom was proud of her grades. That Kat would likely get a job working in one of the research labs with a more generous weekly limit. That over the course of ten to fifteen years, if everything went right, Kat might be able to pay off her ledger.
It burned Kat that her mother’s wildest aspirations consisted of her maybe paying off her debt some day. Even if things weren’t great right now, there needed to be something more from life. Excitement, hopes, plans for a better tomorrow. Something.
That was why she was crouched behind a dumpster, trespassing on an upper floor. Risk meant credits, credits meant wetware, and wetware meant that she could mentally interface with networks and actually put the company’s expansive information network to work for herself.
The cranial jack she had her sights on wasn’t anything special. Really, it wasn’t much more than ugly little circle of metal with a network adapter attached to it, but even the simplest model would let her directly download books and technical manuals into her long term memory. She might not be able to afford a company college, but correspondence classes and independent research weren’t beyond her grasp.
A technical degree or equivalency test earned weren’t given anywhere the weight of an actual college degree, but it was best that the daughter of a factory worker could do. She might never be a vice president or a member of senior management, but with a little bit of luck and hard work, junior management was a possibility.
At that point, if she saved what she earned Kat could put her name in for a Tower of Somnus subscription. The status and power associated with the game were borderline mythical. She’d met a couple players with black market subscriptions in the Shell, and the hype seemed a bit overblown. Still, they moved faster than street samurai with top end chrome, and she swore that Derrik had ended a turf war with a thrown knife made of purple energy that he’d summoned from nowhere.
Once her name was on the junior management list for a Tower subscription, it might take a couple of years for it to be drawn, but then she would be somebody. Even if she never made it off of the first floor, being a player meant instant respect well beyond the increase in the player’s abilities. Maybe then she could pull her mom and sister out of their dingy second floor apartment. Transfer them to someplace with a garden and sunlight.
She exhaled, the cops were past. Kat crept out of the alleyway, immediately slipping into the loose flow of people down the pedestrian walkway, her gait changing to match the other commuters.
Years of experience as a courier allowed her to blend in to the crowd. Despite her obviously cheaper clothing, no one gave Kat a second glance as she made her way to the coffee shop that was her drop point.
The door to the shop opened with a jangle, summoning a scrawling cartoonish image of an anime girl holding a large cup of coffee that was almost the size of her body onto a screen that occupied most of the entryway.
“Welcome to Java Bounty!” She exclaimed cheerfully, cup sloshing slightly as she extended a luridly colored arm to give Kat a peace sign and a wink as upbeat but tinny music played in the background. “My name is Cafe-chan, enjoy your stay and make sure to try a Moe Mocha!”
Kat walked past the screen, entering the coffee shop’s main room. Cafe-chan and other mascots like her had been cooked up by a marketing exec almost twenty years ago to ‘humanize’ the service industry. No one particularly liked them, and the more conspiratorial corporate employees quietly whispered that the mascots were nothing more than an excuse to distribute smart screens to spy on them in their free time.
She didn’t buy it. If the company wanted to spy on them, it would. It didn’t need a thin excuse to put interactive screens into their restaurants and stores.
In all likelihood the company genuinely thought that the over the top visuals and bad pop music would set their employees at ease so they could be drained of their hard earned weekly spending limit. The overplanned and hamfisted marketing strategy sounded exactly like the company. There was no need to look for nefarious plots when simple incompetence would explain the situation.
Kat rounded the corner into the main room of the coffee shop. There were two patrons, a man and a woman both scrolling through social media on their smart panels, transparent squares worn in front of their left eyes that displayed projections from microcomputers housed just above their ears.
She suppressed envy as she recognized the model of their smart panels. Each of them wore a terahertz processor on their face, nearly twice the best computers available to students at the corporate school on the second level of the arcology.
Kat plastered a fake smile on her face and approached the bored looking young man working the counter. He studiously avoided looking at her until she was close enough that he couldn’t purposefully mistake her intention any longer.
“Welcome to Java Bounty,” His voice was flat as he joylessly repeated a script. “My name is Stan. Can I interest you in a Moe Mocha or a Chibi Chai?”
“No thank you,” Kat replied. “I’d like to order a Loli Latte, extra whip. Please put it on Mr. Taylor’s tab.”
Her hands were sweaty and clammy as she clutched the envelope that held the data stick. This was the worst part. She was completely at the mercy of a stranger that may or may not even know what she was talking about. The employees at Java Bounty were supposed to be in on-
“I don’t think that Mr. Taylor has an active tab with us at the moment,” the barista perked up slightly at her order. “Let me check the ledger in the back room.”
Kat coughed, her throat suddenly dry. That wasn’t good. The back of her neck burned as she could feel both of the patrons staring at her.
Her mind went wild as her heart hammered against her ribs. She’d said the code phrase, the worker had recognized it. They should have exchanged the information for money and ended the encounter. Just like every other time.
What was happening? Was this a set up? Kat couldn’t think of anyone that she’d wronged enough to do this to her.
God, maybe the datastick had something awful on it. Something the corporate security would actually care about.
The next she’d know, they’d be slipping a sack over her head while the cold steel of a handgun pressed into her lower back.
Kat could feel her breath coming in short sharp gasps.
“Sorry about that,” the barista called out from the back of the store as he walked toward the front desk once more, his voice unrepentant. “I forgot that we had a tab set up for Mr. Taylor today.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Kat smiled weakly, fooling no one. The kid didn’t forget anything. The prick was just giving her a hard time because he could.
She left the datastick on the counter and accepted her latte, satisfied in the heavy weight of the credits that filled the cup rather than coffee.
Kat walked over to a table covered in sugar, cream, and stirring sticks and pulled the top off of her ‘drink.’ She ripped open a packet of sugar with her teeth as she looked at the neatly stacked one-hundred credit chips. Eleven. Good, they hadn’t shortchanged her.
The plastic cover clicked as she slipped it over the top of her coffee. With a pleasant smile at the other patrons, she walked out of the shop, ignoring Cafe-chan’s entreaties that she have a deliciously caffeinated day.
Once again she joined the flow of foot traffic, making her way toward the Eastern boundary of the arcology. Before long, the throngs of pedestrians faded as she left the commercial and residential hubs of the floor and entered a sector devoted to maintenance.
The few visible employees looked more like her, wearing cheap clothing in bright colors. Even on the higher floors, the managers and executives needed someone to make sure that the lights didn’t go out and their toilets didn’t back up.
An older man nodded to her and Kat held up the coffee cup where he could see it. He squinted briefly before turning and walking away without saying a word.
The information brokers, runners and the maintenance crews had an understanding. Runners got to use the manual accessways reserved for the repair crews, and no one mentioned anything. In exchange, a couple extra credits from each deal made their way to representatives of the janitorial and maintenance workers that were forced to live on the upper levels in the shadows of their betters.
Everyone got something and everyone was happy. She grunted, popping the plastic cover off of a maintenance hatch and revealing a vertical ladder that disappeared into the darkness of the narrow tunnel.
Java Bounty was located on the twentieth floor of the arcology so that the managers buying the information from her broker could pick it up without raising any suspicion. After all, most managers that could afford living on a higher level literally never left.
Of course, even if they were brave enough to go to the Shell themselves, there’s no way they would be able to smuggle anything past the checkpoints at each floor. Corporate security took the threat of espionage very seriously, and sophisticated scanners probed every nook and cranny of anyone passing through.
Kat slipped her body into the tiny opening and closed the hatch behind her, sealing herself into absolute darkness. The ladder was cold under her hand as she poured the credit chips into a pocket inside her jacket. With practiced ease, she began her descent, muscles still sore from her earlier climb up the ladder screaming in protest.
It was a long climb back to the ground floor.