VZ Goliath [Sci-Fi Novel]

10

The market had changed, yet was still the same. The same vendors behind the same shops, selling the same stuff. He saw the same faces he had seen many months ago, but also new ones. It still felt like a dream. The weeks of chaos and curfew had passed, and everything was back to how it always had been. Only the black marks on the ground and burned-out buildings reminded of the fires and bodies in the streets. Some buildings had already been renovated, others had turned into trash dumps. The burned-out apartment complex had not been renovated and looked like a skeleton in the sky. Nobody could tell how many people died on the day or the weeks after, but bodies were still found every other day. A website had tracked every single body on CCTV, social media, and police reports, but it did not account for all unreported deaths in the slums. But by now, for most people, life had moved on. People were back on the grind, making ends meet and surviving another day, week, month.

His life had turned upside down in just the first day. An ambulance had received his signal shortly after he had found his parents. They picked up the bodies and used a large laser screener on the floor and walls that dissolved the blood into water and vaporized it under heat. The steam mixed into the air of the room and escaped through the windows. They left behind a clean kitchen and a devastated young man. It felt like his parents had just gone out for a walk after cleaning the kitchen.

After several hours of sitting and crying in the darkness of the night, filled with sirens and screams, his eyes fell on the small implant lying in the corner of the room. He became curious and wanted to know why it had not exploded like the others. He quickly found his answer online. Only ELIM implants were affected. He looked over the hotfix that ELIM had distributed a few hours ago and understood. None of the other implants had the issue. The room brightened up as the flames of a container complex nearby spewed fire into the night sky. It was close to him, but he did not bother. He moved across the room and picked up the implant. He received a message the moment he went online.

“Hey Julio, you still fixing implants? Can you put a new system on mine? It is updated, but I’d rather swap completely. Please let me know. I’ll pay.”

He ignored the message and turned off the overlay. He was tired and exhausted and cried silently on the couch until he fell asleep.

It was still the middle of the night when he woke up again. He was fully awake within a second. It took a few more to make him remember what happened just a few hours ago and his mood took a downwards turn. His implants activated automatically after he woke up, and messages spammed his overlay. It was the same guy who was now begging for help. He had collected all the implants of his family and wanted them fixed badly. When Julio came online, he instantly received another message. The guy was on his way to his place. Julio had barely enough time to collect his gear before he heard the banging at the door. Behind the pale and short human specimen, a few fires were still burning in the distance, and a bunch of new ones seemed to have started. He let the nervous one in, skipped the small talk, and installed a different OS on the implants. It only took a few minutes, but the guy had brought a handful of implants. Once he was done, he received the equivalent of two weeks of pay. The guy left without asking about him or his parents. Sadness overcame him being alone again, and he fell back asleep.

He stayed offline during the morning and finished cooking the meal his mother had prepared the day before. He teared up several times while eating. The food was delicious, but they never had the chance to taste it. After the meal, he was trying to think clearly and made himself a plan. He had no other family and no government support. His income was not enough to cover the rent for the small container, so he had to move out and trash or sell most of his parent’s belongings. The rent was paid for another three weeks, which gave him some time. The government already knew about the death of his parents, so he did not have to take care of canceling contracts. It was a lot of work and a rough future ahead of him, but he knew where to start. He looked outside the window. Most fires had stopped and left behind black landmarks in the skyline. He looked over to the apartment complex. The middle floors were completely burned out and only a few on the top still had a red glow to them.

He turned on his implant, and within a moment it hit him. His job tonight had not gone unnoticed, and his social media accounts were flooded with messages. They all wanted to swap their OS. His mind was not clear enough to grasp it earlier; this was an opportunity for him. His mind started racing as he looked frantically around the room. He cleared the large kitchen table and moved it into the middle of the room. He got out his gear while making a sheet on his implant with all the people who had contacted him, the number of implants they would bring, and what they were willing to pay. Tablets and cables were carefully arranged on the table and connected to the power outlets around the room. As he moved the furniture in the container, he sent out appointments and was already fully booked for the day. The first client was knocking at the door before he finished moving chairs and cabinet. He had not been this energetic in a long time. It helped him to move on, even if only for the moment.

Word spread around that someone was living in the neighborhood that was swapping Operating Systems. It only took a few hours till his address was leaked, and he had to find a solution for the swarm of people around his container. He projected a QR code below the sign on the door, redirecting visitors to an appointment sheet with information about his service. At the end of the day, his sheet already had a few thousand visitors, and he was booked for another three days.

He knew he had to expand, and so he did. He ordered new tablets and found a few people that would sort the container and move the old stuff out. They threw out all the furniture of his parents that he did not need. It hurt to watch, but the sooner, the better. He would have sold it, but within a few hours of fixing implants, he already had made more money than he would get from waiting many days or weeks to sell it.

Empty fast food packaging filled the kitchen, and he started sleeping on the couch next to the tablets. The other rooms were messy with boxes and furniture all over the place, but that was not his concern at the moment.

The weeks went by, and the work took his mind away from the pain of being alone. He was barely outside but saw the news frequently. The first few days seemed like a war zone. Fires were breaking out, and people were vandalizing streets and apartments. On the third day, the military moved in and created order, mostly through force. Gunshots broke the silence throughout day and night, as well as one of his windows. His container was checked several times in search of criminals or looted goods. Luckily, the top of his container complex had a drone landing spot, so he did not have to go into the streets at all. Food and supplies came in by air, while he watched soldiers moving below and military trucks standing on the roads. Drones were flying over the neighborhood all day round and were sometimes accompanied by helicopters.

Several of the people visiting him died in the chaos. Small gangs tried to take over the district and left a trail of blood in the streets, which resulted in Julio ordering himself a basic security setup. Neither the news nor the government did present an official death count from the people killed by military and gangs, but it was in the thousands. There were still gunshots close to him every once in a while, but it became less day by day. Normality returned. People needed money and food. More and more people showed up on the streets, and the vendors returned with them. Eventually, the small gangs ran out of members and disappeared.

Julio woke up one day while the sun was creeping over the horizon, several hours before his first appointments. He decided to get some proper food and walk over the market. Not all vendors had returned, but it almost seemed like a typical day. Only the soldiers walking among them made him think otherwise. He wanted to visit the shop he had worked at, after indulging himself in some street food he had craved for a while now. The store was entirely burned out, and all the equipment that had survived was stolen. He walked into the back of the room towards the workbench he had sat on so many times. The room was picked clean but still covered in a small film of black ash. As he was reminiscing old memories, a woman on a cone approached him. He had seen her a few times in the shop but did not know who she was.

“You were working for Daun, weren’t you?”

“Is he ok? I haven’t heard from him since…”

“He died in here when it happened. I don’t know if it was from his implant or the fire. I only got the notification from the police.”

“I see.”

The shop had been everything to Daun, and it seemed like fate that he had died in here as well.

“I’ll make it short. I am moving and need money. I can’t make any use of this building nor renovate it, so I am making you an offer. I knew you’ve been fixing implants, so you might as well do it in here. I know you need to clean up first, but it is way better than the container you live in. Plus, you won’t have to deal with the rent anymore. Upstairs is enough room for your stuff; only the walls have some stains on them. I know that cleaning and renovating this mess will cost a bit, so I will go down in price.”

She sent him a direct message with an open offer through the local bank broker. She was selling him the property rights and all items in the building. He was baffled but intrigued by the idea.

“Can I have a few days to think it over?”

She smiled.

“Sure. Just don’t take too long.”

She turned around and limped out of the shop. As he looked after her, he saw the scars of burned skin on her neck.

Julio did not need time to think it over; he needed time to prepare. She was offering the house way below any reasonable price. Even burned out, a basic renovation was cheap. His work over the past weeks had made him a small fortune that he could live on for at least a year, although the rent of his container would consume most of it.

But this was not a purchase; this was an investment into his future. He knew the shop inside out and also knew about the small planter tool Daun had stored upstairs. It could cut out and insert implants skin within a few seconds and without leaving scars. Until now, people needed to do it themselves, and he had seen too many who had cut themselves open without any professional tools.

He bought the building a day later. He had a crew clean the shop, do the renovations, and move his stuff. They worked through the nights, and after three days, the store was ready. Once he made use of the planter tool, people started pouring in. He knew a girl his age working as a nurse. She was the daughter of her parent’s friends, and they had kept loose contact over the years. After calculating the income from the first days, he hired her. She was removing, labeling, and returning implants. He showed her exactly how to, and she learned quickly.

The weeks passed, he got rid of his container, and the shop slowly returned to its former glory. He invested in new equipment and could soon offer more than just OS swaps. He could finally fix and experiment on the implants again, what he loved the most. He spent some time digging into the new ELIM codebase and found many more flaws that gave him an edge for his business. Usually, all major ELIM updates had to be purchased, as they added new functionalities or updated and improved old ones, but he managed to bypass the server check and install updates on the device without anyone noticing that the registration key was missing. Even the implant fooled itself when checking for it.

The government had taken control of all ELIM servers, and all profits were flowing into the government’s pockets. But they either did not seem to care too much, or ELIM always had these issues. Julio did not officially sell the updates, as it would be illegal, but he added them as a standard service for all implant services. It was highly appreciated and brought him more customers, who just wanted him to reinstall the OS to get the updates.

The room in the back of the shop started to resemble a server room. Multiple racks were packed with tablets and magnets on which the implants were laying. As most of the updates and OS swaps were done within less than an hour, one rack was reserved for slow implants. They were either partially broken or just absurdly old. Some needed days to fully update, and others needed several parts replaced throughout the process. He had to hire someone else to focus on the older implants, or they would clog up the racks and slow down business.

The five monitors attached to the front of the room showed him the progress of all implants. From here, he could look towards the entrance and see everything that was going in the shop. He employed an old bouncer as his clerk. He was taking and returning implants while also covering as security. It was one of the guys that had moved his stuff and renovated the shop. He was smart, reliable, and the right choice. All three of them got their routine in place and started working like clockwork.

After a few months, Julio had paid off his loan. In celebration, a large neon sign was attached above the entrance. Its blinking could be seen from almost anywhere across the market; “J-Implants.” It wasn’t an original name, but people who looked for someone fixing, selling, or buying implants would know where to go. He was only fixing implants at the moment but had already made contact with local manufacturers.

Nobody wanted to buy ELIM implants, even if he had swapped their OS. DELPHI’s were already cheap and him selling them was not worth the 5% cut he could make. There were no-name brand implants that were running the same hardware but had a custom OS. They had the profit cut Julio was looking for, but the OS was partially botched or copied from ELIM or DELPHI, which was not good for him or his customers in the long term. The necessary components for implants were cheap to get, but assembling them took too much time, and buying pre-made implants was too expensive. Even if he had a proper OS for them, he would need a way bigger setup than he currently had. He took his thoughts aside for now.

Julio had never expected that something positive could have come out of the horrible night months ago. He was sitting on the small table upstairs in his partially sorted new home. He had dinner with both of his employees. The direct but shy Shana, and the bulky but sensitive Lap. Whenever they worked longer than the opening hours, he made sure to order food and have it with them before they left. He knew that both of them rather stayed here, and he enjoyed their company. Thanks to the job he had given them, Lap was able to pay off debts that had bothered him for years and could afford a proper space for himself. Instead of sharing a room with three others, he now had a place for himself. It was a big step up that showed emotionally. He was still the bulky, tall guy responsible for security, but he learned how to calm down customers before having to throw them out.

Shana was a year older than him and they had not met in many years. He did not follow what she posted on social media, and neither did she. During dinner, they had discussed ordering a new planter. The model they were using was outdated by several years. It was still doing its job, but it was better to have it around as a backup than the primary tool.

Shana wasn’t talking about her family. Lap was all by himself, and Julio had shared what happened to his parents, but Shana kept quiet. They knew she had parents and a younger sister, but she refused to talk about it. In private, she was timid, but when she was working downstairs and cut people’s heads open, she was straightforward and focused. Her workspace was tidy and ordered. You might mistake it for a doctor’s office if you would not know otherwise. She even insisted on having proper medical equipment for injuries that could occur, just in case. Julio was skeptical at first but then liked the idea. Customers knew that they were in good hands if someone so professional would take care of them.

As they both left after dinner, Julio locked the doors, activated the security system, and took a shower. Tonight, he had given them a bonus pay, thanks to the record-breaking month they had. Their contracts had a base pay with additional pay-outs depending on the monthly performance of the shop. Lap used most of the money to pay his government debt, while Shana paid the rent and utilities for her family. He knew because the transactions were linked to a pay-out script that divided the payment into several transactions to the government and housing company.

As they were employed to him, he had access to parts of their government profile. Lap was almost ten years older than him, so it made sense that his debt had ballooned. But as long as he was paying the government with monthly rates, they left him alone. The problems occur when you stop paying for longer periods. The government will notify and warn you until their penalty program strips your ID from access to public places and services. If your behavior continues, they take the money from your landlord, who then has to throw you out. Julio had received warnings before, but he always managed to push through. Thanks to the past months, the government was pleased with his pace. He was given access to more subway lines and was even allowed to visit the inner city. He did not plan to, but it made him feel weirdly included in a part of society he had never experienced and, at the same time, was disgusted by.

As he was getting out of the shower, something seemed off. He did not know what exactly had startled him, but it felt like something had been moved in the room, or someone was with him. He knew Lap was still close by and sent out a quick message just before his connection dropped. The same thing had happened during the nights after 1B. Back then, the military was jamming everyone’s signal during curfew, but now it was inside his apartment. He had no weapon, and he never learned any self-defense. He slowly walked away from the kitchen back into the bathroom. If there were someone here, he would need to gain time until Lap would arrive. He could just stand here and not move. A slow minute passed till the person had understood his strategy and made himself known.

The middle-aged man with a short beard and tight biker jacket walked up from behind the wall. He had waited just a few steps away from where Julio had been standing. He was angry that Julio had noticed him so easily.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

The man covered the distance to Julio within a second and punched him in the stomach. Julio cramped together and dropped on the cold bathroom floor. It felt like a truck had hit him. The man took Julio by his head, pulled him up, and smacked him against the wall, face forward. He saw the blood on the wall before feeling it running down his head and onto his shoulders. Julio was losing consciousness, and the man noticed. The man slapped him several times to keep him awake while pressing him against the wall. Julio had dropped his towel and hung naked on the wall.

“Where is the data from the wallet?”

“Wha.. wa..?”

Julio could not speak properly. He tried to get the words out, but his jaw was turning in weird directions.

“I know you have an implant with some encrypted data on it. The data was stored in a wallet, and you…”

He stopped mid-sentence and looked at the small implant Julio had on his temple. He pulled it out forcefully, giving Julio four small cuts where the edges were stuck to his skin. He took his hand off Julio, making him fall to the ground. The white towel started to collect the blood flowing from his head. The man connected the implant to a small tablet while Julio was gasping for air. The cut on his head was dripping blood over his face into nose and mouth. He could not see anything with his left eye. The man looked down on him for a second.

“Jesus, are you a bleeder or something?”

Julio tried to crawl away from him, but he could not gather his strength. The man stood there for a while, looking at the data from the implant.

“Tell me where it is. I can see in the logs that you moved it. It is no longer on this implant, so where is it?”

The man picked him up and pressed his back against the wall. His eyes were closing in, and he frowned his forehead.

“You tell me now and I’ll let you live.”

Julio was opening his mouth and a wave of blood poured over the man’s arm. Then the alarm started blaring from below. The police would call him any moment to inform him about the alert. If he did not pick up or use a custom passphrase to stop them, they would be here in a few minutes. The man knew. Both turned their heads around as they heard Lap running up the stairs. The man dropped Julio and ran towards the door.

“I won’t be as patient next time.”

He busted through the door and tried to push away whoever was coming up the stairs but did not expect the life-sized cabinet Lap to be racing towards him. Instead of him pushing Lap out of the way, Lap catapulted him straight over his shoulder, and he bounced down the stairs. His left leg had turned into a weird angle; either it was broken or the muscle torn. He screamed up and limped out of the store with a painful look on his face.

Instead of calling the ambulance, Lap called Shana. Julio answered the police a moment later. He would have to pay for them to come out here, and they could do nothing now. His implant had been disabled by the jammer, and they had no images of the intruder. And even if, the police would not make an effort in catching the guy. Low-level-crime always went under the radar.

A few minutes later, Shana arrived and fixed Julio up. She had to make a few stitches on his forehead and re-adjust his jaw. She gave him some pills and stayed with him. Lap spent the evening figuring out how the intruder had gotten access and fixed the security issues he found. He felt responsible for the slip-up, yet he had not anticipated that someone would beat Julio half dead.

Julio stayed in bed for the next days. Only a few times he would go downstairs and check on the implants. Lap and Shana were able to handle most of the work themselves, but implants still piled up at the end of the day. Shana checked on him every few hours and chatted with him. Over the days, she opened up about her younger sister and her parents. Her sister had a rare genetic disorder not covered by their insurance. They did not get additional help from the government either, so her parents cared for her most of the day. Her mother worked part-time and her father stayed at home. Without Shana’s income, they would have already moved out, probably ending up in a group tent for the homeless with their hopes crushed. The doctors had given her sister five years to live when she was born, but now she was already nine. She was defying the odds every day, and it gave her family hope and inspired them to push on.

Julio listened to everything she had to say and was thankful that she took care of him. Lap was checking in on him as well, but he still seemed uncomfortable and blamed himself for what happened.

“We can’t change the past. Important is that you learned from it.”

The words stuck with Lap. He decided to work harder than before, for the people around him and himself. His mindset infected Shana and Julio, and soon after, they were back at it.

He was sitting behind his large, dark-brown wood desk, browsing the logs again. An account had distributed an update a few minutes after the teams had taken over DELPHI HQ. The servers showed no information when the update had been uploaded, but the creation time was shortly before the incident. Had this been someone’s failsafe? Had someone found out about the implants and silently made an update? Was there a mole in his team?

The questions kept popping up in his head, even now, several months later. It was a loose end that kept him on alert. The two unidentified civilians captured in the server room had died a few weeks ago. He did not know their involvement either, but his plan had worked regardless. DELPHI had taken over the market, and they could barely keep up with the demand. All loose ends were taken care of, and the government was standing behind DELPHI. There were fewer deaths than he had planned for, but it turned out to be enough.

Still, there must be someone silently working against him. He could not get his mind to rest, so he stripped down to his underwear and jumped onto the elliptical bike that was standing in his private gym next to the office. He put it on the highest setting and sweat started to pour down his body.