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Shiny Young Adult

Contents

Title Page

Shakespir Copyright page

Book Description

Free Download

1 – Birthday

2 – Payday

3 – Study

4 – Introductions

The Series Continues

Author’s Note

 

SHINY YOUNG ADULT

SHINY YOUNG ADULT

BY

SIMON CANTAN

First published January 2016

This Shakespir Edition published February 2016

Copyright © 2016 Simon Cantan

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

The moral right of Simon Cantan to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988.

Shiny Young Adult is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously.

Published by Simon Cantan

Hack people’s minds and you can do anything.

 

Chris Noonan wants to be spoke of in the same breath as the top hackers in the world. The trouble is, he’s only starting out, and no one has even heard of him.

 

Meanwhile, a new hacker called Sloom has just cracked the hardwall. The hardwall has been unbeatable for twenty years, protecting everyone’s neural implants from external interference. If Chris could do the same, he’d be unstoppable, a legend in the hacker world. Others have been trying for years, so how did Sloom break through, and how can he recreate it?

 

“Shiny Young Adult” is the first book, a short novelette, in the “Cyberpunk Outlaw” series by Simon Cantan. With fast-paced heists and plenty of action, it’ll have you tearing through the pages to the very last word.

http://simoncantan.com/SYAF

Chapter 1

BIRTHDAY

Outside my little bedroom window, two dogs barked at each other, struggling against their leashes. I could barely see them, though. They were half hidden behind the three windows filling my vision, displayed by my ReadyNet neural implant.

Having the implant had expanded my room in my mother’s tiny house, giving me access to the whole world. Right now, my friend and mentor Felicity was frowning in one window, concentrating on whatever she was working on. The second window showed me an office, where a lone man sat with his feet up on the desk. His gaze was on the ceiling, or rather on whatever his implant was showing him. If I had to guess, it wasn’t anything safe for work.

The last window held my attention. As I watched, biting my lip, my preprogrammed hacks cleared the second level of security. One last firewall remained, protecting Kildare Concrete from my sticky, digital fingers.

The man in the office video sat up, his gaze going to the terminal in front of him. My heart leapt and hammered against my chest as he tapped at his terminal. If he’d spotted something, I was in trouble. He could trace my connection, if he knew how. I opened Felicity’s gift: the big, red button. It would delete all traces of my hack and scramble the route back to me.

After a moment, though, the man leant back again. He hadn’t noticed the hack working its way through his systems right under his nose. I let out a breath and closed the big, red button. I was safe.

The final layer dropped, and I was in. I was inside their network, with administrator access to everything. All Kildare’s systems were laid out for me to play with. I went straight into their accounting section, finding the billing system. I put in a payment for Miscellaneous Depreciation, sending it out to a routing account Felicity had let me know about.

The routing system had been set up by a hacker called Nerman. His whole business was in making money untraceable. For which he took a generous cut of the proceeds. The best hackers had their own systems. For amateurs like me, though, Nerman was costly, but useful.

Backing out of Kildare’s network, I closed down my hacks, bringing their security back up. Once I reached the top level, I removed all trace I’d ever been there. If anyone looked later, they wouldn’t find anything.

I gave the man in the video a last glance. His whole job was preventing people like me from breaking in, and he was still busy staring at the ceiling. I shook my head and winked his window closed.

With both Kildare windows gone, I turned my attention to Felicity. She was still frowning, her gaze elsewhere.

I’d contacted her a year before. Back then, I’d known her by her hacker name of Nyxie, and she’d only known me as Masterwerk. She’d brushed me off as just another male admirer, of which she had dozens. It wasn’t until I’d told her I was gay that she took me seriously. All the women on the online hacker boards we frequented were plagued by male attention.

When she’d realised I wasn’t after her for anything other than her skill, she’d been flattered. Or at least, I hoped she was. She was far above my level, but I’d been learning quickly since she’d agreed to be my mentor. In months, I’d gone from knowing almost nothing to making the hacks I’d just used.

After a moment, she realised I was looking at her and glanced over. She smiled, wrinkling her button nose. “All done?”

“Yep,” I said.

“Nice, Chris. Your first major hack done. You’ll be playing with the rest of us in no time.”

Felicity had progressed from remote, preprogrammed hacks to on-the-fly, in-person hacking. That took a lot more skill, not to mention courage.

“I’m getting there,” I said.

“Just be careful.” Felicity flicked her red hair out of her eyes. “Don’t run before you can walk.”

I nodded. “Don’t worry.”

“You don’t want to end up in prison again.”

“Juvenile detention,” I said. “It wasn’t prison. What were you working on, while I was busy?”

“Nothing special. Just arguing with a troll. They said their name was Sloom and made fun of my hacks.”

“I’ve never heard of a Sloom,” I said, searching for the name.

“It’s someone trying to be clever,” Felicity said. “It means ‘to sleep lightly’.”

“So not a million miles away from your own name,” I said with a wink.

“It’s not the name, it’s what you do with it that counts.”

“So why did this troll get to you? You normally shrug them off.”

“She said she’s recruited Balker and Cognytus. They were top of my list.”

I nodded. Felicity had been talking about the crew she was putting together for months. The kinds of heists she wanted to pull required more than one person. I’d never told her how much I wanted to be on her crew, but she knew. It was obvious in every longing glance I gave her when she mentioned it.

“Balker and Cognytus,” I said. “They’re great, but is it true?”

“I don’t know,” Felicity said. “They’ve been out of circulation for a month. I haven’t seen them on the boards.”

“Send them a message,” I suggested. “Find out if it’s true before you let this Sloom get you worked up.”

“Forget it,” she said. “You still coming out later?”

“Of course.”

“Nineteen is huge,” Felicity said. “Last of your teenage years. A big boy now.”

I shot her a frown. She was a decade older, but far from an old lady.

“Listen, I have to go,” she said. “I’ll talk to you this evening.”

“See you,” I said, closing the connection.

Once she was gone, I couldn’t help myself. I opened a window and called up my bank balance. It had a few thousand, enough to pay for a coffee. Then, while I watched, the total jumped to the hundreds of thousands, stopping at just under a million kroner.

A million kroner would pay for anything I could want for the month. I could go to clubs without calculating how many drinks I could afford. Or restaurants for dinner whenever I wanted. I might even replace my creaky old bed with a whisper-soft new one.

A knock surprised me, and I closed my banking window. Trying not to look guilty, I turned and faced the door. “Come in.”

My mother poked her head in. “Chris, I’ve got a surprise for you downstairs.”

I jumped to my feet. It’d be chocolate ice cream cake. I always got chocolate ice cream cake on my birthday, ever since I was little.

I followed her downstairs and into the dining room.

“Take a seat,” my mother said. “I’ll go get it.”

“Just don’t let it melt,” I said. “Whatever the surprise is.”

My mother smiled and left the room. I sat on my chair and my eyes fell on a small pile of envelopes on my mother’s place. That wasn’t a good sign. No one ever sent good news in a paper envelope anymore. They only sent something when they needed legal proof you’d gotten it.

My gaze on the door to the kitchen, I pulled the envelopes over and glanced inside. The words, Final Warning, were emblazoned across the top of the first one. The others were the same. I put them back before my mother saw me looking.

It wasn’t the first time I’d found warnings like that. Even with how small our house was, my mother barely earned enough to afford it. Despite scraping and saving every kroner she got, she still fell behind.

She walked back in a moment later, a large ice cream cake on a plate in her hands. The candles on it sparkled, just like they always did.

She put it down in front of me and hurried off to fetch two bowls. I counted the candles while I waited. Nineteen. I’d been an adult for a year. I didn’t feel any different, but I guessed you never did.

My mother returned and put the bowls down. “Blow out the candles and make a wish.”

Taking a deep breath, I blew and wished I could get to the next level with my hacking. I wanted to be talked about in the same breath as Felicity, Ast, Balker, and Mannequin. I wanted people to feel as jealous of me as I was of the top hackers.

“Happy birthday,” my mother said, kissing me on the forehead.

She picked up a knife and cut two slices of the cake. One was enormous, the other barely a sliver.

“Take more,” I said. “There’s just the two of us.”

“I have plenty,” she said, sitting and picking at her cake. She never allowed herself anything. She’d go hungry so I could stuff myself.

I knew from experience that trying to force her wouldn’t work. Instead, I pulled my chunk closer and dug in.

“Sorry there isn’t a present,” my mother said. “Things are tight this month, but I’ll make it up to you.”

“The cake is more than enough,” I said. “You know I can help.”

“It’s not something you can help with.”

“Trust me,” I said. “I have money.”

I froze and stared down at my bowl, realising I’d said the wrong thing before I looked at her.

Her eyes narrowed. “How much do you have?”

“I mean, I saved some,” I said. “And I sold a few old books.”

“How much?”

“You’re right, I probably don’t have enough.”

“Let’s see. Send me a screenshot of your bank balance,” she said.

All the trust I’d built up over the last four years was gone in an instant. The suspicion was back.

“Forget it,” I said. “Forget I said anything.”

“Right now, Christopher. Send me the screenshot.”

“It’s private. I’m an adult now.” I tried not to look at her, instead concentrating on the cake.

“I won’t ask again,” my mother said. When I glanced up, I met the cold, steeled eyes I hadn’t seen since I was fifteen.

There was no way I could send it to her. If she saw how much I had, she’d never forgive me. I shook my head, my heart frozen in my chest.

She paused for a moment before speaking. “Do you know what that cake means?”

“It’s my birthday.”

“It’s your birthday,” she said. “You’re an adult. There are no second chances. If you get caught doing whatever you’re doing, it’ll be on your record forever. Your life will be ruined.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” I said. “I haven’t stolen anything.”

My mother nodded, as if I’d admitted what I’d done. She pushed her chair back and got up. “It’s too much, Chris. I can’t do this again. I’m going out for a few hours. Pack your things and get out. I want you gone by the time I get back.”

“W-what?”

She turned and walked to the kitchen door. I heard her take a breath to speak. From the shiver in it, she was crying. She pushed through the door and left without another word.

“It’s my birthday,” I mumbled, but I heard the front door slamming. How could she throw me out on my birthday? I’d been trying to help.

I pushed my bowl away, anger tearing my appetite to rags. What was so great about her life? She’d lived it in the shadow of bills she couldn’t pay. The same bills she refused to let me pay.

I didn’t need her. My account balance said so, in larger numbers than I’d ever seen before. If she didn’t want me, then I didn’t need her. I walked up to my room, found a bag and stuffed my clothes inside.

I hadn’t seen her that angry for years. Not since I’d been caught shoplifting with my friends. Back then, it had been over a candy bar, a childish mistake. She hadn’t believed me when I said my friends talked me into it.

After that, I’d found new friends. Online friends that didn’t risk everything for a hundred kroner’s worth of sugar. They played for higher stakes, things that were worth it. By their twenty-fifth birthday, some of them were richer than most CEOs were by sixty.

A flash of my mother’s hard stare came unwillingly to mind, and I paused. I could give the money away; donate it to charity and show her a screenshot of the balance when it was empty. I could say it had been a joke. Or I’d been angry at her. She’d let me stay, I knew she would. Until the next time she didn’t trust me.

If I stayed, I’d have to give up hacking. I’d lose every bit of progress I’d made. Felicity wouldn’t drop me at once, but the calls would peter out until we didn’t talk anymore. She’d find another newbie to take under her wing. I guessed there’d be a queue.

Was I willing to give all that up? Just to stay in a tiny house, watching my mother struggle to pay for it all? I shook my head and resumed packing. She’d change her mind when I made real money. I’d pay off her mortgage and make her see I was making the right decision. There were risks, but if you were smart they were minimal. And the payoff would be incredible.

I finished packing and zipped up the bag, slinging it over my shoulder. When I took a last look around my room, at the books and mementos on the shelves, I felt myself crumple a little inside. It was the only home I’d ever known. No matter how cramped and small it felt, it was still my sanctuary.

Steeling myself, I took a deep breath and walked out, calling a taxi on my implant as I descended the steps. Dozens of photos of my mother and me watched me leave. The same pictures she’d been so embarrassed to take.

At the door, when I stepped over the mat, I couldn’t stop the tears welling in my eyes. I was a light push from going back inside, emptying my account, and eating my cake. But something inside shoved me forward, and I walked out the door, closing it behind me.

The taxi pulled up to the kerb as I reached it. Once inside, I sent the destination at the AI, trying to ignore the jaunty smile it gave me. I told it to take me to the nearest hotel to the club. After the day I was having, I wanted to get so drunk I had trouble walking. A hotel down the street would help with that.

With a happy pling, the taxi pulled away from the kerb. I made myself face forward, not looking at my house. But as we reached the corner, I couldn’t help a glance back.

 

 

The Gin Mill was an upmarket place. A club for people who liked long lines and pretty clothes. I walked straight for the front of the queue, drawing a frown from the bouncer. I didn’t have to worry; it hadn’t taken me long to add my name to the list from my hotel room.

“Chris Noonan,” I said.

The bouncer checked the list and nodded, waving me past. I took a moment to enjoy the looks of envy from the long queue. A few hopeful glances were mixed in among the jealousy, as if people expected me to take them with me.

Inside, heavy electronic music shook the floorboards. People were trying to dance like they didn’t care who was watching. I already knew that took more effort than it was worth.

I searched the club for Felicity, then spotted her off in the back, behind a velvet rope and a second bouncer. She was in the VIP section, but that should have been obvious, in retrospect. She wouldn’t want to mix with the peasants, when she could rub elbows with a minor celebrity or two.

I walked up to the edge of the section and craned my neck, trying to get her attention. She was talking to an olive-skinned man of Middle Eastern descent.

“Give them some privacy, please,” the bouncer said, gesturing at me.

“That’s my friend,” I said.

“You can see her when she joins you out in the main room,” the bouncer said.

I turned, about to walk away, then heard Felicity squeal behind me. “He’s with me. His name is Chris Noonan. Check the list.”

 

 

If I hadn’t had my special monitoring software on, I wouldn’t have seen her hack. It emanated from her, hitting the tablet in the bouncer’s hands.

When he checked it, he frowned at me. “Why didn’t you tell me you were on the list?”

“I did,” I said, trying not to blush. “I said my friend was in there.”

The bouncer shook his head, looking at me as if I’d said the sky was green. I slipped past him and joined Felicity among the rarefied air of the VIP section. I didn’t recognise the other people there, but I wasn’t that up on popular culture. At least not since I’d found the board and started hacking. Movies weren’t important, when your life was more exciting.

We walked back to the olive-skinned man, and I got a better look at him. He was slight and wearing all white. His shaggy hair framed a wide smile and thick, bushy eyebrows.

“Chris,” Felicity said. “This is Zohar.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking the man’s hand.

“Or I should say…” Felicity paused. “Masterwerk, meet Mar Mahi.”

It was all I could do not to fall on my knees and bow. Mar Mahi was legendary on the boards. He’d hacked his way into a temp agency and given the lowest paid workers jobs as CEOs for the day. Then he’d hacked into a five-star restaurant and had them deliver to the homeless. From what he wrote online, he did it for a laugh, but there was always something greater to his hacks.

“I’m your biggest fan,” I said. “I’ve been following you for years.”

“Thanks,” Zohar/Mar Mahi said. “I don’t get to meet fans often. You mind keeping it down a little?”

“Of course,” I said, realising I was talking loudly about illegal activity. “Sorry.”

“Join us,” Zohar said. “Order a drink.”

“Don’t mind Chris,” Felicity said. “He was the same when he first met me, but he calms down after a while.”

I sat, trying not to crowd Zohar.

“I’ve seen you on the boards,” Zohar said. “You’ve got good ideas. You just need to keep at it and you’ll get there.”

I studied him. He didn’t seem much older than me. How was he so far ahead? And how could I get where he was? “Any tips?”

“Chris,” Felicity scolded, handing me a drink. “Hackers don’t share their secrets.”

“I wish they would,” I said.

I knew why no one shared. If a hack was used too much, it’d get patched out. The security firms worked hard to block every hole they found. If something popped up often enough, it vanished. Or worse, they monitored for it and arrested the next person to try it. Using a popular hack would see you charged with all the crimes associated with it.

“So what brings you to the Gin Mill?” I asked Zohar.

“He’s joining my crew,” Felicity said. “And I’m working on two more.”

“Balker and Cognytus?” I asked, hoping I’d get to meet them.

Felicity shook her head, scowling. “That Sloom woman was right. They’ve joined her. I’m guessing you haven’t checked the boards?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Have a look,” she said. “I can’t even say it.”

I brought up a connection. It might have been old fashioned and difficult to use, but we all prized the board. It was hidden away in the dark recesses of the Internet and almost impossible to trace. Dozens had tried, trying to track down their heroes. As far as I knew, none of them had ever succeeded.

I found the thread without any trouble. It had gotten thousands of comments in the last few hours. Right at the top, a post from Sloom included a video. I opened the video, and it popped up in a second window. It showed a small grocery store, with people moving through the aisles, shopping.

At the front door, a dark-skinned woman with a blurred face walked in. I knew that had to be Sloom. She’d disguised herself in the video. Just inside the entrance, she raised her hand, then brought it sweeping down. As her hand dropped, so did everyone in the store. They all crumpled to the ground. In a moment, Sloom was the only person still standing.

She walked down an aisle, inspecting the people lying there. Turning to the camera, she waved, and the video cut off.

I closed the two windows and let out a breath. “She killed them with a hack?”

Zohar laughed. “No, they’re not dead. They fell asleep.”

“From a hack?” I asked. “How is that possible?”

“It’s not,” Felicity said. “The hardwall would stop anyone trying to interfere with someone’s brain. It must have been gas or something.”

“They all fell at the same time,” Zohar said. “Gas wouldn’t work on everyone at once.”

“Felicity’s right, though,” I said. “It’s impossible.”

We all knew it. The hardwall sat between our ReadyNet implants and our brains. It was a tiny piece of hardware that filtered everything and was impossible to bypass. Or at least it had been for decades.

“Nothing’s impossible,” Zohar said. “Some things are just improbable. And Sloom just made the improbable possible.”

“Even if she did,” Felicity said. “It’ll get patched out at once. They update the hardwall multiple times an hour, and the security companies won’t want a gap in it. People would lose confidence in their ReadyNets overnight.”

“They might not even admit it exists,” I said. “Think about it. If we hack the hardwall, we’ll be superheroes. We can do anything; manipulate people’s brains, so they didn’t even know what’s going on.”

I ran through the possibilities. It was one thing to hack a system, change records, move money around. Hacking someone’s brain could change their perception of reality. It thrilled and scared me at the same time.

We all sat in silence for a minute, each lost in our own thoughts.

“Forget it,” Felicity said. “We’re not here to stew. We’re here to celebrate your birthday.”

My thoughts went to my eviction earlier, and I scowled.

“What’s wrong?” Felicity asked. “I thought you’d be celebrating your first successful hack?”

“Mum threw me out earlier,” I said.

Felicity gaped for a moment. “What?”

“She found out about Kildare Concrete,” I said. “She said I had to turn myself in or get out, so I left.”

I wasn’t sure why I lied. It made me blush, but Felicity didn’t notice.

“That’s terrible,” Felicity said.

“It happens to all of us, sooner or later,” Zohar said. “My parents found out when I was seventeen. My father tried to slap some sense into me, but it didn’t work.”

“Do you have somewhere to stay?” Felicity asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I have money. I checked into a hotel, and I’ll find an apartment tomorrow.”

“Okay, well, I’m here if you need me,” Felicity said.

“Thanks,” I said, smiling. Then I tried to change the subject, to lighten the mood. “So if not Balker and Cognytus, who’s next?”

“Guess,” Felicity said.

“Okay,” I said. “If you have Mar Mahi, then you’re covered for remote infiltration. You’ll want someone good at the face-to-face stuff. Mannequin is the best at that. And someone good with machines – that’s Sternwood.”

“Spot on,” Felicity said.

“Of course, five might be better than four,” I tried.

Felicity reached over and squeezed my arm. “Once you’re up to our level, Chris, you can be the fifth. But we can’t risk any weak links, or we’ll all end up in prison.”

I nodded. “You got any targets in mind yet?”

“A few,” Felicity said. “It’ll take a month or more to plan.”

“I thought this was a birthday party?” Zohar said. “Enough work. Let’s get drunk.”

Zohar raised his glass, and we did the same. While Felicity fetched a new round, however, I couldn’t help playing Sloom’s video again.

Chapter 2

PAYDAY

I woke lying on my stomach, the hotel sheet stuck to my cheek. Prising myself loose, I sat up and felt my stomach roil. My head felt like sharks had chewed on it. I stumbled to the bathroom and drank from the tap.

Thirst quenched, I shambled back to bed and ran my hand through my hair. The alcohol had dulled the heartache the night before, but the hangover only made everything worse. I sat back on the bed and tried not to think about how alone I was. To not think of my mother’s tiny house, and my mother frowning at me.

The curtains were thrown together, leaving a gap at the top. From the sunshine, it was heading toward lunchtime. I’d missed out on my complimentary breakfast. Not that I would have been able to stomach it anyway.

I tried to ignore my stomach and head, forcing myself up and onto my feet again. I had work to do. Stripping off my clothes and throwing them to the ground, I went to the shower and tried to soap consciousness back into my brain.

Once I was dried and dressed, I knew I had to get moving. I might keep late hours, but the rental agents I needed didn’t. I found one on the Internet, while taking the lift down to the lobby, and arranged to meet her downtown. She assured me I could get an apartment by sundown, once I let her know price wasn’t an issue.

Which reminded me I needed references. In the taxi on the way over, I faked up a few, along with a pay stub from a fictional company. All of it wouldn’t stand up to investigation, but they’d do if she didn’t look too closely. And I was paying enough that she wouldn’t look closely.

When I got there and saw her, everything about her screamed rental agent. Her blonde hair was tied back in a tight bun, and she had on a short, grey trench coat. Her business-like smile completed the package.

“Christopher?” she asked.

“That’s me,” I said.

“Perfect,” she said. “I’m Jinnifar, your agent. I have a few extraordinary places for you to look at.”

 

 

I settled on a penthouse apartment on the outskirts of the city centre. It wasn’t as convenient as I’d have liked, but anything closer would have wiped out my account. As it was, with first, last, and a security deposit, the place took a sizeable bite out of my money.

After fetching my things from the hotel, I paced around my echoey, empty apartment, looking at the plain, white walls. I needed furniture to fill it, along with a screen for the living room. I found a place online that could deliver within the hour and ordered the best of everything. The bed promised dreams of cloud-like wonder, the sofa would be perfect for having friends over, and the display would let me share things with those same friends.

That done, I searched for a clothes shop and set about updating my wardrobe. If I was going to be a top-tier hacker, I should look the part. I selected a dozen t-shirts, trousers, jackets, shoes, and everything else I could need. I even threw gloves in at the last minute. But when I went to pay, the checkout flashed red. I tried again, but it was declined. It made no sense. With an account balance like mine, I should get the VIP treatment, not big, red, flashing warnings.

I called up my account in a second window, then gaped at the balance. All my money was gone. I had less than I’d started with. It made no sense. I hadn’t bought that much, surely? But when I double-checked the transactions, I couldn’t find a single one out of place. All that hard-earned money was gone, vanished in two hours of anarchic shopping.

That wouldn’t do at all, but it was easily solvable. Calling up a third window, I opened a connection to Kildare Concrete and set my first hack tunnelling through their outer security wall. It took a minute to crack, much longer than the seconds the day before. The next layer didn’t drop at once, either. Instead, it hung there, burrowing away.

I wondered what could be going wrong, so opened my connection to the internal office video. My breath caught in my throat, making me cough. Instead of the usual slacker, three strangers in sharp suits were tapping at terminals. Behind them, a red-faced man in his fifties was shouting at the usual security engineer.

My thoughts took a moment to rumble into action. My hack was going slowly because they were tracing it. And if they found out where I was, I’d get my first taste of adult prison.

I turned my attention back to my hack window, opened the big, red button and hit it. Felicity’s code flashed the window white and made it disappear.

On the other end, hundreds of fake routing messages would make my location impossible to trace. And then, a few seconds later, it would all erase. If they recovered it, which might take months, there’d be thousands of innocent people with their locations mixed in with mine. It’d be impossible to pin the robbery on anyone.

In the office video, the red-faced man picked up a cup from a nearby desk and threw it against a wall, making the four engineers flinch. I closed the window and tried to slow my heartbeat. Another minute and they’d have had me.

I ran through the next steps, trying to come up with a way they could find me. I could barely think through the panic, but I stepped through it all and figured I was safe. Felicity had saved me. On reflection, I realised she’d known this would happen. She’d given me this piece of code for a reason. She’d known I’d mess up and almost get caught. If I wasn’t so relieved, I’d have been annoyed at her lack of confidence in my abilities.

Once I’d calmed down enough, I found every reference to Kildare Concrete on my ReadyNet and deleted them. If the police ever hauled me in, they wouldn’t find all the research I’d done. When I was sure it was all gone, I put in a call to Felicity.

She answered after a few seconds. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“The ghost of my future,” I said. “I ran out of money, so I tried to break back into Kildare. They were waiting for me.”

“Did you get out in time?”

I nodded. “It was only thanks to your big red button they aren’t kicking down my door.”

“It happens,” Felicity said. “Did you delete everything locally?”

I nodded. “All references to Kildare from my ReadyNet.”

“And your hacks?”

I frowned, my stomach dropping. “My hacks?”

“Of course,” Felicity said. “They have them now. If they don’t patch them out, they’ll set up a trace on them. The next time you use them anywhere on the Internet, someone will be watching.”

I stared at her for a long moment, thinking of all the work I’d put into creating those hacks. Late nights, weekends, every waking minute had been dedicated to creating something to get me inside Kildare. “What am I meant to use?”

“You start again. My hacks are my twentieth version. It’s the only way to stay out of jail: come up with a completely new approach.”

“All that work?”

“The work was in making you better, not creating that particular code. You know the code I used on the bouncer last night? It’s already gone, deleted. I’m working on something amazing, unique, for the big job. My entire crew are. It’s how it works at the next level, Chris.”

Her words barely made sense. I’d had to find a vulnerability in Kildare’s firewalls, then spend weeks writing code that could break through it. All for a single payoff. And now I was flat broke. I didn’t even have enough for a sandwich.

“I’ve got to go,” Felicity said. “Don’t worry, it gets easier each time. Let it go and move on.”

I nodded as she disconnected. Pulling up my coding window, I opened the folder with all my hacks in it. Dozens of versions I’d tried, going back six months.

I selected them all and hovered over the delete command. Was it all going to just turn into nothing? Had I gotten thrown out of my home for no reason?

My thoughts went back to Felicity’s words. She was right. I was a better hacker than I’d been a year before. Heck, I was better than I’d been a month ago. I was learning things all the time. I could make better hacks. I hit the command, turning my code into random bits. The delete command on my ReadyNet overwrote the data several times. It’d be unrecoverable.

Then I went into my practice folder, from before I’d met Felicity. It had some of the ideas I’d worked on back then. They were amateur and never would have worked in real life. I deleted them too.

My entire code folders were back to zero. The only things left were the examples from the Internet. Nothing could tie me to Kildare. The blankness felt terrifying, but liberating. What if I couldn’t come up with any new ideas? Or if I’d deleted something I needed? At the same time, it was down to me and the infinite possibilities out there. I could find something even better than before.

I pulled up a connection to the boards and browsed. Sloom’s video was still at the top, so I played it again and watched everyone in the store fall down. Sloom had looked at the hardwall and seen an opportunity. There was an opening there, a weakness, but would I ever find it? Was I even smart enough to see it?

I loaded the specs on the hardwall in another window. It hadn’t changed in twenty years. The small implant we all had, that our ReadyNets attached to, provided an interface to our brains. It allowed us to connect to the Internet without random viruses making our brains misfire. ReadyNets might have weaknesses, but the hardwall didn’t.

It was underpowered, compared to the different brands of ReadyNet. It only had a CPU, running a fixed routine. A small amount of onboard memory checked the incoming data and made sure it matched the signals our brains needed. There wasn’t anything there to work with, no spare memory and no permanent storage.

The hardwall connected to a central server, receiving updates twice an hour. Every update was made to fit the onboard memory, with no wiggle room for extra code. It was what made the hardwall impossible to hack. You had no way of running anything against it, or of sending anything through it.

Robots were different, they were complicated, so you could find a hole. The hardwall was simple. Complications gave hackers openings. Simplicity removed those opportunities.

I closed both windows, feeling my stomach rumble. Grabbing my coat, I went out and down the street to the nearest store. My feet took me there automatically, and it was only when I reached the front window that I remembered I didn’t have any money. My mouth watered at the food advertised. I needed to do something, or I’d starve.

I could sleep on the floor until I worked up a new hack. But when I tried to cancel my order for furniture, the store declined my request, saying it had already been delivered. I scowled in disbelief. I’d just come from my apartment and it had been empty. No matter how many times I tried, though, they wouldn’t refund my money.

Angry, I walked into the store and down an aisle. There wasn’t anyone else in there, just the automated check-out bot. Finding the point furthest from the bot, I picked up a packet of biscuits and contemplated stuffing them into my jacket pocket.

It had worked before, dozens of times. I had my technique down, so the video pickups and bots wouldn’t notice. Right up until it hadn’t worked, and I’d been caught. I hadn’t felt very smart when they’d caught me the second time, how would I feel when I got arrested a third time?

My mind flashed to what my mother would say if I was caught shoplifting again, and I shoved the biscuits back with a curse. My account had enough to cover the cost of a packet of chewing gum, which I bought and stormed out. The gum didn’t quiet my stomach down, but it gave me something to chew angrily on.

Back in my apartment, I found my furniture sitting in the middle of the living room, wrapped in plastic. A note from my landlord said he’d let them in.

I threw the note aside and sat on top of the plastic-wrapped sofa. I needed to work fast if I wanted to eat. With a programming window, I began work on a new piece of code. This wouldn’t be a remote hack, this would be up-close and personal, like Sloom. It’d give me the bare minimum to get money to eat. Once I had food in my stomach, I’d work on something more permanent.

It was late at night when I finished. The hack opened a key panel by hammering it with random attempts until the door opened. If there were any kind of limit, which was possible, the alarm would sound and I’d get out of there. I knew it wasn’t elegant, but my empty stomach was making me desperate, and it gave me the best chance of a quick result.

There was only one way to test it. Finding my darkest clothes, I changed and left the apartment. It was after two in the morning, only the more stubborn drunks still on the streets, refusing to go home and let the night end.

I avoided them and made my way to a commercial district. I found a road leading to several smaller businesses and walked down it. There, at the end of the road, was an office made of glass that looked like an architect had got pretentious. If they could afford that monstrosity, then they could afford a little petty theft.

The lights were off, other than an emergency light in the reception, so it appeared no one was home. I made my way around to the back and found what I was looking for: an employee keypad. It required a bio scan and code, but my new hack would see to that. Or, at least I hoped it would.

 

 

The keypad whirred for a full minute, and then a green light shone above it and the lock clicked open. With a smile, I reached for the door. Then I shook my head and pulled out gloves from my pocket. Once I had them on, I yanked the door open and walked inside. That had been close, I’d almost made a rookie mistake.

The office was much warmer than the night air outside. I shivered a little at the change in temperature, then scanned the area. A corridor led off to the left and reception was on my right. I walked left and checked the first office. A simple terminal sat on a plain desk, with an ergonomic chair facing it.

When I keyed my ReadyNet to receive local images, the implant filled in pictures of a smiling family on the walls. A few more frames sat on the desk. Whoever worked there was doing it for their family. I guessed they found their job a little dull, to need so many reminders of why they were there.

The next office had motivational posters on the walls and pictures of a tanned man in different exotic locales. A glance into more doors didn’t reveal anything worth taking. I could steal the terminals, but I wasn’t that kind of criminal. I didn’t know any fences for stolen equipment.

Returning to the reception area, I stood and glanced around, thinking the whole thing was a bust. What would an office have that I could turn into money?

The receptionist’s desk beckoned, with its clutter. Walking to it, I checked the drawers. Most of them opened, revealing staplers and hole-punches, along with some visitor cards. The top one, however, was locked. I shook it for a moment, but it wouldn’t budge.

On the desk I found a paper slicer with a long, sharp blade. The blade came free of the slicer with a little wiggling, and I jammed it into the gap above the drawer. Pushing with all my might, the drawer groaned and then sprang open. The lock hadn’t been built to withstand more than a cursory attempt. Inside, I found a handful of memory sticks. I grabbed them and shoved them into my pocket, then froze as two beams of light crossed the front of the office. There was a car outside.

I ran for the back door and hit the button to let me out, then pushed through and dashed away. There was only one way to go: off across the deserted car park to a trench that separated the office grounds from the next business. A glance back revealed a bright light ascending above the office, killing any hopes I had. It wasn’t an enthusiastic employee, it was a security patrol. And they were sending a drone up to find whoever was in the vicinity. Why were they there if the alarm hadn’t sounded?

I jumped down into the ditch and clambered up the other side, sliding a little on the wet mud. The next business was a pallet factory, stacks of the wooden pallets all around. There had to be somewhere to hide, but I already knew it was useless. The drone would have heat-sensitive sensors. If I’d had my old hacks, I might have fooled it, but I didn’t have anything.

I ran through the pallet factory, looking for something, any kind of way out. Two stacks of wood offered a temporary hiding place; and I ducked between them, hunkering down. With a start, I realised I still had the paper cutter in my hand. In my fright, I hadn’t even noticed it. Could I hack the drone to pieces? Only if it landed, and it wouldn’t. It was designed to find me, not fight me. It would track me until the police arrived, showing them where I was.

I had to hack it. Somehow, I had to come up with something quick I could do to disable it. What would work right then, not in a few hours’ time?

I heard the drone above searching for any signs of life. For a moment, I considered calling Felicity, asking for help. She would have something she could send me. But I shook off the thought. If I was going to be one of the best, I couldn’t keep crying to Felicity every time something went wrong. I needed to think for myself. With a little time before the police closed in, what could I use?

I ran through every opening the drone might have and settled on one: the automatic updates from the central server. Could I imitate an update? I’d no choice but to try. A standards document from the boards detailed how the update process worked, and Mar Mahi had included a copy of the update software. With a duplicate of the code, I changed it around. I’d pretend to be an update, but I’d just fill the drone’s head with garbage. I slapped it all together without checking. If it didn’t work right away, I was screwed.

The drone shrieked above me, its alarm going off. If my code worked at all, it’d only be for a few seconds. The central server would overwrite it right away. Crossing my fingers, I dashed from my hiding spot. As I reached an open space, I sent my code and looked up at the spotlight above.

The drone wobbled and plummeted to the ground, crashing down behind me. I didn’t give it a chance to recover, running to it, raising my paper cutter high, and hammering it as the drone struggled to take off again. I sliced through its tentacles and dented the air intake valves. It collapsed back on the ground with a burble, out of action.

“Who’s there!” someone shouted from nearby.

I turned and sprinted away, clambering over the next ditch and the next. By the time I stopped, I could barely breathe from exhaustion. I was out of danger, but I’d almost got caught for the second time in twenty-four hours. I shook from the adrenaline, the fear, and the cold. At least there hadn’t been anyone around to see my stupidity. That’s what it had been, an idiotic plan that had almost landed me in jail. The only consolation was the fact I hadn’t called Felicity. She’d no idea how dumb I’d been.

I took a convoluted route back to my apartment, going over every step in my head as I walked. I still couldn’t see why the alarm hadn’t rung when I broke in. Had it been a standard check, and the guard had gotten lucky? It didn’t seem likely. After half-an-hour, I reached my apartment and hurried inside.

I was too worked up to even think about food anymore. My hunger had vanished under a net of electric emotion. Instead, I paced until my bed called me. I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep, but even that proved me wrong.

Chapter 3

STUDY

The hammering on my door woke me just after noon. I jumped to my feet, terrified the police might be there. I almost wanted to sneak out a back window, but I was four storeys up. Whoever was at the door had to be better than broken legs.

I found the apartment’s front door video feed and saw Felicity and Zohar. Relieved it wasn’t the authorities, I opened the door.

“Hi,” I said.

“What were you thinking?” Felicity asked. “Breaking into some random office?”

“Give him a chance,” Zohar said. “What was in there, Chris? Some kind of password or something?”

I realised I hadn’t even checked the memory sticks yet, but a more important question pressed. “How do you know what I did last night?”

“Because they’re all laughing at you on the boards,” Felicity said. “You got caught on video.”

A video message from Felicity popped up on my implant and I played it. On it, there was a clear recording of me prising open an office drawer with a paper cutter. “Shit!”

“I had to break into the security firm to erase it,” Felicity said. “But it’s all over the boards. They’re calling you the Papercut Bandit.”

“Damn it!” I shouted, turning away. I thought I was on my way up, to be part of the inner circle. Instead, everyone was laughing at me.

“The hack wasn’t bad,” Zohar said. “If the panel hadn’t been hooked to the silent alarm, you might have got away with it. You just needed to do more research before you broke in.”

“Did you do any research at all?” Felicity asked.

I turned back and shook my head, my cheeks flushed. “I had no money and needed food.”

Felicity’s gaze flicked to the furniture, still unwrapped, in my living room.

“I miscalculated,” I said. “I bought all that before the money ran out.”

“All right,” she said, and I could hear the disappointment in her voice. It spiked through me like an icicle. I’d messed up badly enough to embarrass my mentor.

“I’ll do better,” I said.

“It’s okay, Chris. Some people aren’t cut out for this life,” Felicity said. “You could become a programmer or something, get a degree and a steady job.”

“Fuck you.” I glared at her. She knew how important it all was to me. I wasn’t going to end up some drone in an office, barely earning enough to get by.

“I’m telling you as a friend,” she said.

“You should leave,” I said.

Felicity shrugged, turning to go. Her words were still burning at me like acid. They hurt more because they might be true. What if I wasn’t cut out for this life? What if all I’d ever be was some mindless office drone? The rage inside me bubbled and wanted someone to strike out at. As soon as she and Zohar left, I turned and punched through the drywall. My fist stung and left a ragged hole, but it made me feel better somehow.

I opened a window to the boards on my implant, cringing as I did so. My exploits had knocked Sloom’s video off the top, replacing it with a half dozen threads ripping me to shreds. I read through each one, wincing as people I considered friends made fun of me. As I read, though, I realised something. They were all talking about Christopher Noonan, the wannabe hacker. None of them mentioned Masterwerk, my online persona. They hadn’t put the two together.

It wasn’t much of a consolation, as I read memes dedicated to how stupid I was. After twenty minutes, I had to turn it off. Instead, I retrieved the memory sticks from my jacket pocket. There were five of them, all different colours. But I needed something to check them on. I couldn’t plug them into my ReadyNet, it didn’t have connections like that. They were designed to be used by a terminal.

My gaze went to my new display in its packing tube. I dragged it apart from the furniture and over to the biggest wall in the living room. The tube had instructional images, showing how it could only be mounted by two people. Without a single friend left to call, I opened it and pulled the screen out on my own. It wasn’t heavy, just bulky. After some struggling, I got it laid out flat on the floor below the wall. I needed something to rest it on, so went back to my furniture and unpacked my sofa.

Using the edge of the sofa to support one side, I got the display up and mounted, levelling it off after a few attempts. Then I pushed the sofa back to face it and turned the display on. It popped up with an advertising channel, showing a lot of things I couldn’t afford.

“Pause,” I said, and the show stopped.

I plugged in the first memory stick and interfaced with the display on my ReadyNet. It was filled with spreadsheets, none of which seemed very interesting. The next stick had contact information for different suppliers and companies. The third had photos of people sitting in their bland offices, trying to smile for the camera. On the fourth, however, was a folder labelled Petty Cash that had bitcoins in it. It slapped my hands together with glee, counting over a hundred thousand kroner’s worth of bitcoins. It wouldn’t last me more than a month or two, but I had money for food again.

I transferred them all into my ReadyNet, then checked the last memory stick for good measure. It didn’t have anything worthwhile. Taking the sticks over to the waste disposal, I threw them out. They’d be sorted into the right bin in the basement and sent for recycling.

My money taken care of, I ordered a pizza and sat on my sofa to think. Felicity had lost all respect for me. I’d seen it in her eyes. My desperation for a quick kroner had gotten me a breath away from prison. If it hadn’t been for my overload hack on the drone, I’d be sitting in a cell. They’d have put a deal on the table, and I’d have been hard pressed to say no. All of which Felicity knew. She’d trusted me when she’d let me know her real name. Trust I was stomping all over. I had to do better.

My thoughts turned back to Sloom. As far above me as Felicity was, Sloom was above her, even if Felicity would never admit it. Much as I wanted to join Felicity’s gang, I wanted to be at Sloom’s level more. Felicity was incredible, but she was still using hacks on bots and automated systems. Sloom’s hacks changed people. They were almost unlimited. If I could hack people’s brains, I could do whatever I wanted.

So how did she do it? How had she got through the hardwall? It wasn’t like a bot’s system. If anything, it was more like the auto-updating system the drone had…

I tried to calm myself, to prevent my excitement from washing away the emerging idea. Was the hardwall like the drone’s internal update systems? Or was I so misinformed, I was putting the two together? And if it was true, how had no one thought of that before?

I brought up a window to the boards, ignored the threads laughing at me, and delved into every piece of research on the hardwall we had. The pizza I’d ordered broke me from my studies a few minutes later, and I paused just long enough to fetch it. I ate without tasting the food, bringing up every comparison to the hardwall I could find. No one had tried comparing simple drones to the hardwall. People had tried overwhelming it, wiping it, everything but hitting it with a hammer. No one had tried overriding the update system. No one had created their own hardwall software with just a little gap in it. A hole big enough to put software that would do whatever you wanted.

 

 

The next week passed in a blur. I only stopped when my body complained, drinking, eating, or sleeping the bare minimum to keep me going. My muscles ached from sitting still for so long, but it was worth it. By the end of the week, I’d recreated the hardwall software, with a single change to it. I’d optimised the code, taking out the redundancies the developers put in to make it the right size. Which left a small space for me to put my hack, but what would it be?

I knew at once the hack I wanted to include. It was something I’d wished for a dozen times when I’d been shoplifting with my former friends: invisibility. I wanted to walk into a store, take whatever I wanted, and leave with no one the wiser. I could go anywhere, do anything, and no one would see me do it.

It took another two hours to make the invisibility code. From the hardwall systems, I knew it wouldn’t last long. And once it was patched out, I’d need all new code. But it would do for a trial.

I left the apartment in a hurry, taking my jacket with me. The closest store with a human attendant was a few blocks away, giving my thoughts time to spin as I walked. I barely noticed my surroundings until I reached the front of the store. Taking a deep breath, I activated the hack.

 

 

Nothing happened, but then it wasn’t supposed to. At least no alarms had gone off. At my best estimate, I had about ten minutes of invisibility before I got patched out. There was no time like the present, so I walked through the door.

The clerk didn’t look up as I entered, but then he never did. I’d only been to the store once before, to buy something they didn’t have in the automated store closer to my apartment. There were a few customers strolling through the aisles, barely paying any attention to their fellow human beings.

Walking to one, I stood nearby and waved my hand in front of her face. The woman didn’t react for a moment, but then she sniffed the air and held her nose. With a start, I realised I hadn’t washed in days, and I reeked.

The woman searched her surroundings, but her eyes didn’t pause on me. She’d no idea I was there, just that there was a horrible smell nearby. I repeated my experiment with the other customers, waving, dancing, and flailing in front of them. None of them so much as glanced my way.

As a final test, I walked up to the counter and took a candy bar from under the clerk’s nose. He didn’t so much as blink as I stuffed it in my jacket and walked out.

I could hardly control my excitement. I’d cracked the uncrackable hardwall. Stupid, amateur Chris Noonan had done what some of the greatest hackers on the planet hadn’t been able to do.

I turned off my hack and hurried back to my apartment, calling Felicity on the way. She finally answered when I reached my place.

“I’m a little busy right now, Chris,” she said.

“I’ve done it,” I said. “Cracked it.”

“Cracked what?”

“I can do what Sloom can. Or at least my own version of it.”

Felicity frowned. “Chris, I am busy. This isn’t the best time for a wind-up.”

“Check Montag’s Convenience on Vibevej, about fifteen minutes ago.”

Felicity sighed, but her eyes flicked to the side and I knew she was doing it. After a moment, she nodded. “I see it. You’re walking into the store.”

“Keep watching.”

She did so, her frown turning to widening eyes as she watched. “Tell me this isn’t a wind-up, Chris.”

“It’s not a wind-up,” I said. “Those aren’t paid actors or friends. They’re members of the public who can’t see the invisible man dancing in front of them.”

“You cracked the hardwall? Really?”

“I did,” I said, grinning. “I really did.”

“Can you do it again?”

“Sure,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Anytime I want.”

“Can you show other people how to do it?” Felicity asked.

My thoughts shot back to every time Felicity had refused to share her hacks with me. What she’d always said made sense: a shared hack became a useless hack within days. At the same time, I wanted to be on her crew. “I might. For a price.”

“Anything,” Felicity said. “I… I can’t come over today. I’m caught up in something. But I’ll be over tomorrow morning.”

“You know where to find me,” I said, closing the connection.

That done, I ran up a quick, disposable hack into the store’s surveillance system and extracted the video. Since no one had reported anything wrong, the police wouldn’t have a copy. All I had to do was duplicate the footage from the day before and paste it over.

Then I blurred my face and uploaded the video to the boards. People might think Chris Noonan was a joke, but they wouldn’t think the same of Masterwerk. Masterwerk would be spoken of in the same breath as Sloom.

That done, I closed the window and looked around my apartment. I’d unpacked the sofa, bed, and display, but the rest of it was still in the plastic wrapping. With nothing to do but wait, I set to unpacking it all and arranging it around my apartment.

It only took me a few hours of physical labour. My body protested, unused to bending and sweating. But once it was done, I was happy with how my place looked. It was still sparse, but at least it seemed like someone lived there. And with my new hack, I’d be able to afford all of it and much more besides.

Only after I’d finished and collapsed on my sofa with a glass of water, did I allow myself to check the boards. My video was the top thread, with hundreds of comments. I read through them with a smile. People were calling me the next Sloom. A lot of them had even copied Sloom’s tag into their messages, alerting her than people were talking about her. She was nowhere to be seen, though. Neither was Felicity. Zohar had posted a comment as Mar Mahi, calling me a pro. That made me grin.

I ordered Chinese food for dinner, along with a small ice cream cake as a reward. When it came, though, it reminded me of my mother. I ate it anyway, but it didn’t taste as good as I’d expected it to.

All done, I took a last look at my success on the boards and headed for bed. In the morning, I’d start work on other hacks to support my invisibility. I needed a way of overriding cameras and robots, or I’d be visible to them. I wondered just what Felicity’s crew were planning to hit. When I thought of that, I had to suppress a thrill. I was going to get on her crew. She couldn’t turn me down with my new hack in my pocket. I was too valuable. And I’d learn things from her that would make me unstoppable.

Chapter 4

INTRODUCTIONS

I wasn’t sure why I’d woken. It was still dark in my room, and I was tempted to go back to sleep. But something niggled at me, warning me. With a start, I realised I wasn’t alone. I put the lights on, sat up, and stared at the three people standing at the foot of my bed.

The thin, curly-haired man on the left was leaning on a cane. He seemed to have trouble standing straight, but was grinning at me anyway. The woman on the right was short and a little heavy, with shoulder-length blonde hair. She didn’t seem to even see me, her eyes lost in the far-off stare of the ReadyNet. The woman in the middle had dark skin, a thin body, and a hard stare. She looked an awful lot like someone in a video I’d studied dozens of times.

“Sloom?” I asked.

The middle woman nodded and answered in an American accent. “That’s right. And you’re Masterwerk. Is the video on the boards real?”

“Eh.” I glanced between the three of them. “Yeah, it’s real. How did you find me?”

“Erika found you,” the man on the left said. “Sorry, I mean Cognytus.”

“Cognytus?” I stared at the chubby woman on the right.

She broke off from her ReadyNet long enough to give me a little wave and a nervous smile.

“Shut up, Balker,” Sloom said.

The man shook his head. “This makes no sense, Hailey, he’s seen our faces.”

The woman glared at him, but he ignored it.

“I’m Max,” the man said. “But online, I’m Balker. This is Hailey/Sloom and Erika/Cognytus.”

“Max, our identities are secret,” Sloom/Hailey said.

“Only from everyone outside our crew,” Max said.

I stared from one to the other, wondering why they didn’t consider me outside their crew.

“I haven’t said he can join yet,” Hailey said. “And he hasn’t said yes.”

“Yes! Yes, please,” I said. Then with a flush, I realised by joining them I’d be turning down Felicity. “Or at least, probably.”

“See?” Hailey said. “He’s not sure. Do we want someone who isn’t fully committed?”

“Join us,” Max said. “We need you. We have a job lined up that your hack would be perfect for. There’s a quarter of a billion kroner, just there for the taking.”

“Max!” Hailey said sharply. “Shut up.”

“We need him,” Max said. “You know we need him. How are we meant to get him if we don’t tell him about the job?”

“A quarter of a billion kroner?” I said. “And what would my share be?”

“That is your share,” Max said. “All that money, just for you. The total take is a billion.”

I goggled at him. With that much money, I could buy an apartment. I could pay off my mother’s mortgage, or buy her a bigger house. She couldn’t help but be impressed with a number that large. It was more than she’d earned in a lifetime. That amount of money would change anyone’s mind.

Which left Felicity. She was my mentor and the only reason I’d gotten where I was. Could I turn my back on her and join Hailey’s crew?

“What’s the problem?” Hailey asked. “We thought you’d jump at the chance. What you did in that office was beginner stuff. We’re slumming by taking you on.”

“Slumming?” I asked.

“Don’t mind her,” Max said. “She gets grumpy late at night. She doesn’t mean to be insulting, but she’s right that you need us. You need someone who can plan a job properly. Anyone can see you’re skilled technically, but you aren’t good at research.”

“You’re not the first person to tell me that,” I said. “But I needed the money, so I had to break in.”

“It’s only money,” Max said.

“Says the billionaire,” Hailey said.

“Not this again,” Max said.

I felt like I’d stepped into the middle of an argument that had been raging for a while. Glancing at Erika, she smiled nervously back at me.

“I’m a huge fan,” I said. “Of you as Cognytus, I mean. Some of the things you’ve done are amazing.”

“Thanks,” Erika muttered, so low I could barely hear it.

“She’s shy,” Max said. “So, will you join us?”

I thought about it. Felicity was my friend and a skilled hacker, but Sloom, Cognytus, and Balker were legendary. If I wanted to learn, their crew was the best way to do it. “Yes, I’ll join.”

“Fine, but you have to prove your hack works,” Hailey said. “It might have been staged.”

“I’ll prove it any way you want,” I said. “I just need time to make a new version.”

“We’ll be back tomorrow at lunchtime,” Hailey said. “Be ready.”

Rather than disappearing in a puff of smoke, as I’d expected they would, they all walked out of my bedroom. After a minute, I got up and checked, but the apartment was empty. I had trouble convincing myself it hadn’t all been a dream.

 

 

The next morning, I was even more unsure. I started work on a new hack, anyway. I knew it couldn’t have been my imagination. If I’d imagined Sloom, Cognytus, and Balker, they’d have been two metres tall and glowing somehow. A man with a cane, a thin American, and a chubby, shy woman, weren’t the images I’d had of them in my head.

I got stuck into the code, working out how to vary it enough that the block wouldn’t stop it. Felicity was right that the skills she’d shown me allowed me to recognise shortcuts and alternatives. I was deep into the changes when a knock on the door interrupted me. In my excitement, I’d forgotten she was coming over. I opened the door and let her in. She’d brought Zohar with her, along with two women I didn’t recognise.

“This is Mannequin and Sternwood,” Felicity said. “Or Aurora and Evelyn. They’ve joined my crew.”

I smiled at the two of them. Mannequin/Aurora was how I’d expected her to look. She was tall, thin, and beautiful. From her posts, she was obsessed with fashion and that showed in her clothes. I didn’t know what brands they were, but they looked expensive.

Sternwood/Evelyn, however, would have stood out in any crowd. She was dressed in old-fashioned clothes I’d only ever seen in black and white movies. Her hair was up in a tight bun and her makeup made her look pale. She had to be in her early twenties, but her makeup and clothes made her look much older.

“Nice to meet you both,” I said. “I’m Chris. Or Masterwerk, if you’d prefer.”

“We saw your video,” Evelyn said. “It was incredible.”

Aurora nodded. “Nice work.”

“Chris,” Felicity said. “I brought them here because I want you to join my crew. I’m guessing that’s the price you were talking about?”

“It was,” I said. “But…”

“What?” Felicity frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“Sloom was here last night,” I said. “With Cognytus and Balker. She offered me a place on her crew.”

“Oh.” Felicity paused, her face falling a little. After a moment, she shook it off and smiled. “You should take it. Your hack is like theirs. You’d all work well together.”

“Felicity,” I said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without you. If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t even consider it.”

“I know,” Felicity said. “You’ve always had ambition, Chris. You want to be the best. Heck, we all do. That’s why you approached me, after all.”

I returned her smile. “Thank you.”

“Congratulations,” Zohar said. “You’re in rare company.”

“So are you,” I said, glancing at Felicity. “This is the secon— I mean, this is a great crew too.”

Felicity nodded. “We’d better get going. We’ve got work to do.”

“I’ll call you later,” I said.

“Do.” Felicity grabbed and hugged me. “Do amazing things, Chris. And don’t let Sloom change you.”

“I’ll try not to,” I said, squeezing her back.

They left, and I sat thinking for a moment. I couldn’t avoid my work for long, through. I needed to get a hack in place, or I wouldn’t be on anyone’s crew.

 

 

By the time a knock came at my door, I was ready. I smiled nervously when I saw Hailey, Max, and Erika there. “You knocked this time?”

“We figured it was rude to burst in,” Hailey said, glancing at Max. I got the impression knocking was his idea.

“I’m ready to show you my hack,” I said. “You want me to shoplift again?”

“No,” Hailey said. “I’ve something else in mind. How confident are you?”

“It’ll work,” I said.

“Good,” Hailey said. “Because we’re going outside. You’re going to strip off and streak down the street in broad daylight.”

I gaped and then swallowed hard. I guess I really was going to show how confident I was in my hack. Still, there was less chance of going to prison if I got caught, than if I stole something. I could play it off as a prank.

I followed them outside and around the corner to the busy street where the local shops and restaurants were. Since it was lunchtime, office workers were out getting their sandwiches.

“Come on then,” Hailey said, gesturing. “We’re waiting.”

I took a deep breath and activated my hack.

 

 

Figuring I’d better move before I lost my nerve, I stripped, leaving only my shoes on. If I was going to run naked in the chilly weather, that was one thing, but I’d no intention of running barefoot. I set off down the path, jogging slowly enough to avoid people. Since they couldn’t see me, they made no effort to avoid me. I had to swerve a dozen times as people walked in front of me.

When I reached the end of the road, I jogged back. As I got close, I saw Max, Hailey, and Erika’s eyes were on me. They could see me, there was no doubt about it. Had my hack failed? I double-checked, but no one else was looking my way.

Hailey clapped as I ran up. “That was incredible.”

I grabbed my clothes and pulled them on. “You can all see me?”

“I wasn’t sure we would,” Hailey said. “But you’re using the same exploit we are. The first thing we all did was plug it, so we wouldn’t fall for it ourselves.”

“So you all just watched me run down the road naked?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” Max said. “You were far more impressive than the rest of us would have been. And the other people didn’t even know you were there. It’s an interesting choice, invisibility. What made you choose it?”

“I figured it would come in handy,” I said. “It makes me difficult to catch.”

“You can hide in plain sight,” Max said. “My hack gives me power in a fight. I can tap people and they’ll think they’ve been hit by a heavyweight boxer. You’ve seen Hailey put people to sleep. Erika can persuade people of anything she says.”

I eyed the blushing Erika. She’d picked a power to compensate for her nervousness. Perhaps we were all compensating for something.

“Am I in?” I asked.

“You are,” Hailey said.

“So I can finally tell you about the job,” Max said. “We’re going to hit the First Nordic Cooperative Bank.”

I took a moment to process that. They weren’t aiming small, but then I should have expected that of their crew. You didn’t group together that much firepower without a target. Still, banks took their security seriously.

“This time next month, we’re all going to be rich,” Hailey said.

“We’re doing it in a month?” I asked.

Hailey nodded. “I’ll be in touch.”

She walked away, Erika trailing her, but Max stayed behind.

“Welcome to the team,” Max said. “It’s good to have you aboard.”

“Listen,” I said. “I have my invisibility hack, but not much else. After a trace, I had to delete everything a week ago.”

“I’ll help you with that,” Max said. “There’s a few tips and tricks you might not have heard about. I just have a favour to ask in return.”

“Anything,” I said.

“I need a wingman,” Max said. “Erika and Hailey don’t hit the clubs very often. I need someone to come out with me and pick up women.”

“Ah,” I said. “I’m gay. So I’m not really up on picking up women.”

“Perfect,” Max said, beaming. “A no-competition wingman.”

I shrugged and smiled back. “I’ll do my best.”

“Good,” Max said. “We can start tonight. First, though, I’ll show you all the shortcuts I’ve learnt for close-up hacking. Your hacks will have to be your own, of course, but I can point you in the right direction.”

“Should we go over them back in my apartment?”

“Ah,” Max said. “No offence, but it’s kind of small. I have a place near here we can use.”

Max hailed a taxi, and we headed across town. As we drove, I tried to work through my thoughts. I’d gone from a know-nothing scrub to a member of the top team in the NCP. I’d have to work hard not to embarrass myself. At least Max seemed friendly enough. If he was serious about helping me out, I’d work every hour I was awake to get ready in time.

Still, a bank heist in a month’s time? It seemed too soon. I hoped Hailey had a good plan.

http://simoncantan.com/SYAB

[* *]

AUTHOR’S NOTE

 

I wrote Shiny New Swindle two years ago, back in 2013. It was the second book I ever published and is still one of my favourite things I’ve ever written. Anyone who’s read it, tends to love it too. After all, it’s full of action, with lots of cyberpunk stuff thrown in. However, it’s never sold well. So it’s been difficult to justify going back to the series.

 

I’ve always wanted to finish what I started. I don’t want any unfinished series out there. As a reader, it’s deeply unsatisfying to me when a story isn’t finished. At the same time, I recognise that sometimes things just don’t sell. The TV show most people cite, for instance, is Firefly. It was a show that wasn’t a big hit at the time, that took a while for people to discover.

 

I have an advantage over television, though. There are no actors to move on to other shows and other contracts. Chris and the others are still waiting for me, the same age they were when I left them. So I wanted to find a way to introduce people to the series, so I could get more readers to justify the second and third books in what was going to be a trilogy.

 

I stumbled on the idea of writing this novelette. It’s something that’s worked very well on my [Kyra Sarin _]series: giving people a short, free taste of what the rest of the series contains. All while telling a complete story on its own, so no one (hopefully) feels short changed. I was interested in what Chris did before the events of _Shiny New Swindle, so I hoped other people would be too.

 

If you enjoyed this taste of what’s to come, you’ll be happy to know I intend to write at least one more book in the series next year (2016). Shiny Iron Curtain is a book I’ve had planned out for two years now, so I can’t wait to get the chance to write it.

 

Cyberpunk is one of my favourite sub-genres, just as humorous fantasy and 80s science fiction are. So I want an excuse to write some more of it. If you enjoyed this book, please let me know either through a review or by emailing me at [email protected]

 

And make sure to join my mailing list on my website (http://simoncantan.com/ShYA) to get the next book in this series (Shiny New Swindle) absolutely free, along with a bunch of other books for free too!

 

Simon Cantan, 13th December 2015


Shiny Young Adult

Hack people’s minds and you can do anything. Chris Noonan wants to be spoke of in the same breath as the top hackers in the world. The trouble is, he’s only starting out, and no one has even heard of him. Meanwhile, a new hacker called Sloom has just cracked the hardwall. The hardwall has been unbeatable for twenty years, protecting everyone’s neural implants from external interference. If Chris could do the same, he’d be unstoppable, a legend in the hacker world. Others have been trying for years, so how did Sloom break through, and how can he recreate it? “Shiny Young Adult” is the first book, a short novelette, in the “Cyberpunk Outlaw” series by Simon Cantan. With fast-paced heists and plenty of action, it’ll have you tearing through the pages to the very last word. Grab a copy today and wear out the edge of your seat!

  • ISBN: 9781311238085
  • Author: Simon Cantan
  • Published: 2016-02-01 09:05:08
  • Words: 13180
Shiny Young Adult Shiny Young Adult