Sam put on her trans-clothes like she did every day. She switched them into a casual outfit: white t-shirt, blue jeans, and a thin green leather jacket. The preset also loaded sunglasses onto her eyes, which turned the apartment around her completely dark. Her eye implant auto-adjusted to the darkness, but the sunglasses were too much for her taste. She removed them from the preset and they vaporized in front of her eyes. Still felt like magic, even after all these years.
The trans-clothes were the only thing clean in her small one-room apartment. It was filled with boxes of wires, circuits, implants, and other electronics. Drips of dried blood on the kitchen counter where she was maintaining and updating her body implants. She had not made her bed in weeks. It was next to the darkened-out window that was covering the entire wall. The window already had a few cracks in it, which reflected her face in several directions when she looked outside the 84th floor. The fridge was stuffed and overflowing with food, but she was not hungry. She would eat later.
‘Dan, you up?’
‘Already on my way.’
They had another job. Grab and collect. As in, grab the person and collect his data. But it did not matter if the person would stay alive, as long as they would deliver the data. Although they preferred the non-lethal approach, they still had to do the other every once in a while.
She connected to apartment security with her brain implant under the skin of her temple. Security logs and video feed were shown on her retina. Nobody had checked the door, no hacking attempts, no debris in the system. It was clear.
The cold wind slammed the door shut behind her. The 84th floor was the only floor on which all windows were broken. One by one, they shattered over the years until only the skeleton of metal and concrete remained. It did not bother the owner, who still made a fortune from renting this shithole. Despite the deteriorating state of the building, she still had to pay the same rent.
Thanks to the smog covering the building today, she could not see anything through the missing windows. On most days, she could at least see the other grey apartment buildings. They were identical to hers and just as ran down with missing windows and burned-out apartments. Down below, the endless jungle of buildings and streets. She lived in the shabby part of the city with 50 million other souls. From above, it looked like a vast slum stretching up to the gates of the inner city. But it did not just look like it, most of it was. Small apartments packed with people and muddy streets filled with trash. Like millions of ants, people moved through the curvy roads trying to get by and survive another day. The government was providing some support, but it was not enough to survive. Everyone was constantly looking for work, and the more desperate the people, the more they would get exploited.
Past the white gates that required an ID check and toll fee, the true beauty of the city was shining. Clean, majestic, vibrant, colorful, rich. The inner city looked like another universe compared to this neighborhood. White skyscrapers and multilevel streets and buildings, all forming one big circle, one giant nest.
Most of the buttons inside the elevator were missing or broken, but luckily it could be controlled with implants. A window on her retina appeared. 5th floor below ground. As she accelerated downwards, the air inside the elevator was whirling around like a small tornado due to the missing hatch on top. She looked up into the elevator shaft and saw its rotting and rusting walls passing by. It made her want to take the stairs instead.
Dan would pick her up at the usual spot in the garage. She took a small pill out of her jacket while she was speeding towards the ground. A micro; it sharpened her senses, adjusted her implants, and properly woke her up. When she exited the elevator, she was ready and focused.
The garage on the 5th was their usual meeting spot because it was the most broken and run-down floor. Destroyed and burned-out cars were standing in the garage, and the ground was covered in water and filled with trash. Nobody was down here, except a few junkies who once lived in the building.
As Sam walked past the broken exit doors leaning sideways on the ground, the black truck turned on its blue lights. She gave the car a digital handshake, verifying her identity and passphrase. The door opened and Dan was looking at her from the driver seat with the car UI on his retina. She looked at the pile of empty cans that he slowly pushed out into the garage. She stayed expressionless and waited for him to finish while he put on a smirky smile.
Dan had his own shitty apartment just as big as hers. It was cleaner, but only because he slept and worked in his car most of the time. He had built it into a mobile base and could do body modifications and perform small operations in it. The trunk had an arsenal of weapon, and the entire car was bulletproof, including the tires. He was proud of his baby, although it was only one of the projects they had been working on. The car had saved them many times over the years and made their job a lot easier. It had been a good investment.
‘Looks like an easy job.’
‘Too easy if you ask me.’
They were so used to their implants; they rarely used anything else to communicate. Sometimes, she was weirded out when she heard her own voice after days of using implants only.
They drove past burned-out cars towards the exit, leading straight onto the underground highway. After a few kilometers, they made their way up to the surface, the truck blasting heavy electric music through the sound system. They loaded their sunglasses onto their outfits and raced over the glowing asphalt, ready to fuck some shit up. The people in the cars around them felt the same and quickly moved out of their way as they approached.
Their official job description was net-runners, but it would be more fitting to call them cybercriminals specialized in data extraction. They both had implants and modifications all over their bodies. The essential but most crucial implant was in their temple, connecting their brains with the internet and digital grid of the city. Implants in their hands, legs, and around organs and bones improved resistance and durability of their bodies. With digital feedback for noise, vision, smell, and impact, they had the edge for all kinds of situations, from close combat to picking the most exquisite perfume.
They always had a bunch of job offers coming in. While their clients thought themselves as anonymous, they knew who was behind it: pharmaceutical companies, insurances, manufacturers, governments. Everyone wanted someone’s data, from the most legal corporation to the most authoritarian government. They had a VIP list of clients with whom they had worked with for many years. Those were trustworthy, transparent, and paid well. A few corporations, governments, and billionaires.
They both were on the higher end of incomes in the world, yet belonged to the 90 percent of people in debt. Born into debt to their government. Shelter, food, education, implants as a child; it was all “free” until you became an adult and had to pay up. By then, the initially small debt had quadrupled and been sold to the highest bidding companies, who were speculating on how high your debt would rise.
Yes, correct. On how high. Out of all the people in debt, less than 10% were able to pay it off until they were 40, less than 20% before they were dead. Excluding the people living in the inner city, it looked even worse. Everyone lived in a constant cycle of paycheck to paycheck, with most of their income being consumed by debt. Only the rich, born with millions of Eurodollars up their asses, could live without the burden, and the millions in the inner city were doing well enough to not worry about it. They could afford whatever they wanted, and paying off the debt in low rates was no big deal to them. But it was a good enough reason to gate off the inner city from the poor living around it. Imagine the wealthy and privileged having to see the obvious problems in their society outside their windows every day; they might not sleep at night.
Besides the debt eating away at them, they had running costs from all the implants. Experimenting, improving, and maintaining them was drying up a big chunk of their budget. The most unique implant parts were expensive, but would still fry and break like any other. Most of them were not made for the conditions they put them under, which is why they usually ended up destroying most of their equipment. Still, they were turning green numbers every month and slowly chipped away the debt lingering above them.
Today’s job was a small fly. A Chinese businessman who had stolen millions from his company’s accounts. The board of the company only noticed after he was magically able to pay all his debt and then left the company. He was on the run since, and nobody could track him down. The money was more important than the person who stole it, and a dead body did not bother anyone. Collateral damage was the universal standard. Sam would need to access his implants, hack his accounts, and go through his history. She had done it a million times.
Their client was a Chinese multi-billionaire. They had no idea why he had been doing most of the dirty work for his companies over the years. Maybe he enjoyed it? Maybe he wanted to make sure it gets done? He was trustworthy, paid well, and they never had a problem with him, so they did not think about it more than they had to.
The car’s autopilot switched highways. The location of their target had changed. They had traced him through the city with footage from CCTV cameras. Several of Dan’s programs were running on government servers, able to erase people and objects from the official feed. Nobody else should know where the guy was or what would about to happen. Once they entered another underground highway, the programs on the servers started to erase Dan’s car.
They ended up in a rather fancy part of the city. No trash on the streets and people looked and dressed somewhat civilized. Greened areas around and in between buildings. No armed police patrols and no beggars or street stands. The roads felt relaxingly smooth to drive on, and its asphalt still smelled like freshly baked. The design of the neighborhood was made by a bunch of talented artists. The buildings had a unique but conform style. Futuristic edges with bright colors. Creamy and cozy. Clean and clear. This kind of neighborhood was common in the inner city, but they had never seen anything like it outside of it.
They stood out with their large truck among the small electric two-seaters, but nobody seemed to care. The three-lane street turned into one, and the buildings were moving closer to another. Small apartment buildings, shops, restaurants; it was a hip neighborhood for young adults, upper-middle-class. The few that would make it.
They parked over a bunch of small parking spots, and the license plate swapped once they got out. Almost all crime was reported and registered via CCTV, but just in case some upstanding citizens would take photos of the car, they were covered.
They walked into a small side alley towards a long staircase that was leading below ground. The futuristic look from above changed to its former style before the neighborhood had been renovated and rebuilt. Simple brick buildings with pipes and electric lines above ground. Cracked and uneven stairs that zigzagged around them. Once the street above was no longer visible, they became alert. There were no people down here, and the sound from the streets had disappeared. Only the water pipes on the walls around them were silently humming.
A small butcher shop at the end of the stairs. Through the window on the 2nd floor, they could smell the chicken that had been prepared in the morning. It was slowly cooking on low heat alongside herbs, spices, and vegetables. But there was a metallic smell of dried blood in the air that did not seem to be part of the recipe. A tunnel above connected both sides of the building, and at the end of the alley, a small tree was growing, grass and flowers surrounding it. To its sides, more stairs were leading up into other directions of the neighborhood.
Dan had already climbed up the building on one of the emergency ladders. He used his feet implants and jumped the last three meters to the roof. He landed silently on the tiles and took a small box out of his jacket. A drone the size and shape of a bee was lying inside. He looked at it for a second, then it whirred up its wings and he was connected. He was controlling it through his implant and saw its video feed on his retina.
The bee flew through the open window on the 2nd floor and found the slightly overweight chef of the house sitting in the kitchen. His eyes were closed and his back leaned against the counter. His belly was cut open, the tiles around him covered in blood and intestines. His white hat was still resting on his bald head, tiled sideways. He looked like he was taking a nap. The rest of the inhabitants on the floor below were in similar shape. The two women at the front door had deep cuts all over their bodies and were tilted in uncomfortable directions, as if their limbs were more than just broken. The chef’s assistants were stabbed to death near the basement entrance. It looked like a maniac had visited.
‘I thought this was an easy job. His profile was clean. No prior emotional problems. This is the work of an unstable psycho.’
The bee flew through the basement door down the wooden stairs. There he was, sitting on a chair with his back to the door. He had taken off his pants and shirt, sitting in underwear and socks in the dim room. Only a shimmer of sunlight came through a window near the ceiling. There were cuts all over his upper body that were still bleeding.
‘These cuts are clean and precise. They are not fighting wounds.’
Sam jumped from the street towards the kitchen window, squeezed herself through, and landed on her feet without making a single sound. She looked at the sleeping chef with a sense of pity, then smelled the prepared chicken. For a moment she forgot why she was here, took a spoon from the counter, and tasted the chicken soup. It was delicious. Chicken, herbs, spicy peppers, small potato slices, carrots, chili paste; they all were performing an orchestra in her mouth. When she opened her eyes, Dan was standing next to her, looking like an annoyed parent.
‘Don’t look at me like that; taste it!’
After looking at her eating another spoonful, Dan took the big spoon resting in the pot. After finishing half of the meal, they copied the recipe that was written and taped on the counter behind them. They decided to cook it themselves. It was way better than all the takeaway trash they had been eating over the past weeks.
They made their way past the dead bodies and into the basement, till they stood behind their shitless target, still sitting motionless on his chair. Dan walked up to him.
“I don’t know what is going on with you, but your little show here is over. You can either eat the bullet now or wait and see what your bosses will do to you.”
The man with short black hair slowly turned around in his chair. As his face was brightened up by the light, they could see what he had done with the bloody kitchen knife lying in front of him. His eyes were wide open, not because he opened them widely, but because his eyelids were gone. His cheeks were cut open, and the left one was missing alongside a few teeth in his upper jaw. He did not have any expression on his face. He was in a trance while small streams of blood were flowing down his face.
The bullet hit him right between his eyes; the second one went through his heart. He dropped back on his chair as if he was doing a nap. Dan was lowering his gun and exhaled.
‘What did they do to this poor guy?’
‘Glad you ask.’
Sam took out a small tablet and pulled out a cable from its side. Once it was close enough to the guy’s implant, it snapped onto it like a magnet. It took a matter of seconds until she had full access to his accounts and data.
‘Look at this shit.’
She streamed Dan the data. There was a program running over the operating system of the implant. It had altered and overwritten the core functions of all implants in the body. A layer of data above the OS that had full control, a fog covering the entire system. None of what she had seen or coded had ever gotten close to this.
‘Have you seen anything like this before?’
‘You think it’s a failed upgrade? A virus?’
‘This looks way too good to be a street-level upgrade or virus. This is professional, like military-grade professional. This is some really bad shit we got here. Experimental government shit. The stuff people would go to war for.’
Dan took a closer look at the code as it streamed down his retina. His face tightened up. She was right; this was something they could not take lightly.
‘You think this was a set-up?’
‘For whom? Us or him?’
They had the data they needed and made their way out of the house the way they entered, the small bee flying ahead. They sprinted up the empty stairs and got into their car. As they reached the highway, the small butcher shop went up in flames. A tragic cooking accident.
They both looked serious. They had their fair share of difficult jobs over the years, but those were only from clients they had little experience working with. People who were not transparent about the job or tried to use them as guns for hire. If their best client had set them up, they would not have a long day or a few more bodies to dump; they were fucked. If the billionaire had fucked them over, he wanted them to get fucked. He wanted them dead.
They were both quiet, thinking. The car pinged up as it received a message.
“You guys have no idea what you got yourself into.”
The problem was not the message, but the way they had gotten it. All incoming messages were streamed over their server on the other side of the planet. Only with access to the server an attacker could get their real location. If the message was coming from the car, it had been routed through a very different path.
The car had to stay connected to government servers; to the grid. Travel directions, highway fees, insurance coverage; all the vehicles on the highways and the inner city were connected to it. The only exception was the slums and neighborhoods surrounding it. One reason they still lived there. Whoever had sent them the message had now access to their car’s location. Dan accelerated and switched lanes. They had to get off-grid as fast as possible. Sam took out her small tablet and connected it to the car. It took her a few moments browsing through the logs to see what had happened.
‘They uploaded a sniffer through the grid network. The message was sent, but only we as recipients could decrypt it. When we accessed the message, the sniffer sent back the confirmation with our car details and logs.’
Dan sounded sad and nostalgic as he patted the steering wheel with his hand and brushed over the monitors.
“It was nice having you my beauty.”
He pulled out the front tray holding several monitors. They both started to rip out electronics and wires that were connected behind it. Alert sounds beeped up till Dan ripped another cable, and the car abruptly went silent. Sam took out the small hard drives hidden below the driver seat, squeezed them in her augmented hand, then opened the window and threw them onto the highway where they shattered into thousand pieces.
They took the next exit at full speed and drifted over the multi-lane street. A few cars stopped and honked as they raced past them. The truck jumped up a small sidewalk onto an empty parking lot. The tires squealed and they walked around to the trunk. It was folding out before them, with several racks of equipment ready for use. Different pistols and assault rifles, dozens of smaller electronics for jamming, hacking, repairing, and destroying anything that would get in their way. They took the two large backpacks that already had all the necessary equipment and threw some additional tools inside. They holstered the pistols in their jackets and folded the 3D printed assault rifles into their backpacks. Dan took out two small red and white-colored canisters. By themselves, the two charges would not explode or cause damage, but once both were connected and primed, they could blow up an entire building. He made sure they were only charged to a third to not blow up the whole neighborhood. He threw them on the backseat of the car and closed the trunk. Their eyes changed their color and pattern, their fingers moved its skin, and the blood samples swapped their genetic code. Their clothes switched outfits. They had two minutes.
A few pedestrians looked curiously after them as they jogged away. They entered a back alley behind a storage facility, leading down a long set of stairs into the slums and towards an open market. The stairs had fences on both sides that were occupied by plants hanging down from above. Once the walls and plants cleared up, they could see the market in its entirety. The kilometer-long rows of stands, filled with people squeezing through from all sides, buying and eating. The shops in the buildings around the market had crowds of people standing before them. Above the market, a highway made a long turn, covering most of the stands in the shade. The neighborhood was built decades ago, and its decay and half-assed repair jobs clearly visible.
Once they reached the bottom of the market, they split up and walked on opposite rows. Their emergency hideout was ten minutes away. The smell of street food became stronger the deeper they got into the market. A large crowd of families passed Sam. They were happily singing an Arabic song and several people along the market joined in.
It was a busy day, and they had to push through the crowds in front of the stands. The people that were coming to the market were poor, but not extremely poor. They at least kept up hygiene and wore clothes that were not completely torn to pieces. For most of them, it was the only place to buy anything at a price they could afford. Several shirtless Japanese men with tattoos over their bodies stared at Sam as she passed their stand. Not a good sign.
Between the stands, the ground was filled with small puddles of water, oil, and blood, mostly animal blood. Her shoes were getting greasy and developed a thin film on top of them. An old man was chopping off a chicken’s head to the delight of his customers. The blood spilled on the floor and Sam’s pants as she passed by.
Dan had noticed the shirtless men that had now split up and were following Sam. He ran their faces through the database; Street thugs with connections to organized crime. They were on the low end of the crime hierarchy, which was concerning. The only people ever coming after them were headhunters or militia. Whoever wanted them dead had alerted not only the crime lords but their entire community.
The black truck standing in the middle of the empty parking lot exploded. The few people walking nearby started to scream and run. They could still hear the explosion on the market, but nobody seemed to care. Only a few people turned their heads, then got back to whatever they were doing.
Sam made a move. She turned into the street on the left and started to run. The thugs noticed once they were at the corner and went after her, Dan tracking them from behind. Three of them were running after Sam, another two ran through the street parallel and would cut her off once she made a turn. Dan started to tail the two and waited for them to separate. The bigger one with the tattoo of a naked woman on his back fell behind after a few buildings. Dan matched his speed and loaded the script for the implant reader on his index finger. He made a jump on the back of the guy, put his fingers on his temple, and hacked into his implants. They now knew who the guy was, where he lived, his connections in the gang and that he had no idea why he was following Sam. The skinny guy with the augmented arms was the leader of the bunch. He was in the group running after Sam, which was all Dan needed to know. He disconnected and fried the implant. The big guy was unconscious before he hit the ground. Dan had already jumped over him and past the people that now turned around.
Sam changed her path and ran into a dead-end surrounded by buildings. She was waiting for her followers, who arrived out of breath and had to stop for a moment. The augmented arm of the skinny guy opened up and a pistol attached itself to his hand.
“Nothing personal sweetie.”
“Nothing personal either.”
She let herself fall on the ground, and her small automatic pistol jumped from the holster in her jacket to her hand. Her aim-assist adjusted her hand as soon as she got hold of the gun. The first bullet broke the attachment holding the gun in his hand; the next two hit his friends in their heads. She lunged forward once she hit the ground while he was trying to hold and aim the gun with his other arm. She leaned sideways to avoid the bullets that would come at her, then took his arm and pulled it in the direction of her jump. The arm snapped as the skinny body was lifted into the air and smacked against the brick wall.
Dan picked up the pistol that had broken off. It was an old model that was cheap and unreliable. He looked at Sam, exhaling before him.
Blood was dripping from the side of her chest. A sharp part of the attachment had drilled itself into her armpit. She pulled out the metal piece and gasped. It was bloody and painful, but not life-threatening. She walked over to the skinny guy who was still lying on the ground moaning. She connected herself and did not like what she saw.
‘This guy has full eye implants. Somebody was watching us through him.’
She looked through the past few minutes of the recording. She saw through the eyes of the skinny guy how he shouted commands and was running after her. Then the close up of her face as she jumped towards him and the metal piece drilling into her armpit.
She fried his eyes and he screamed up in pain. Dan put one foot on his chest and she continued. They were small gang members and he had received a bounty a few moments after the message appeared in their car. There was a bounty on both of them. Dead or alive with intact implants. Ten million Eurodollars each.
‘What? Who would pay so much to see us dead?’
‘This is an open call. It went out to every criminal and corrupt cop in the city. It’s also online. We are the most wanted people in the city. Maybe the entire world.’
The video-feed of the stream had cut out with a close up of her face. The audio feed continued for a few seconds with loud painful screaming. She was already injured. It was only a matter of time until they would be dealt with. He would get the data just in time before anyone could become suspicious.
He turned off his tablet that was standing on the large polished wooden desk of the conference room. He stood up and looked outside. He was on the 173rd floor and if he zoomed in with his eyes, he could even make out the small flames from the car and the butcher shop in the distance. He smiled, seeing his reflection in the window. Soon this city would change for the better.
“Mister Kaiser, the board is now ready to negotiate.”