Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Anatomy of a Credit Assasination - Part 1

This short story takes place after the events of Under the Amoral Bridge and a few days before the beginning of The Know Circuit. Part 2 is available here

"You're trespassing on our territory, Cyndal," Matt stated emphatically, adding a thrust of his gleaming pyrotic sword in the Hierdul's direction for effect. "You and your entire flea-bitten guild are in direct violation of the RGD treaties you yourself signed. The Crimson Swords have laid claim to this dragon according to the rules of that treaty and your very presence here on the night he pops is an act of war." Matt was proud of his unswerving calmness. Had this been his real life job, he'd have stuttered through the entire spiel, but here he was King Matthias of the Crimson Swords, one of the largest player guilds in Ars-Perthnia.

"Your precious RGD treaties don't mean shit," Cyndal replied curtly. Even through the plastic surrealness of the GlobalNet's avatars, Matt could read the contempt Cyndal held for him. The Hierdul, a race of super-evolved, dark-skinned mages, came out of the virtual womb with a haughty, superior air, and running a guild of hundreds exacerbated the douchieness. The long-standing bad blood between Matt and his former guildmate Cyndal had honed that arrogance into palpable loathing. "We are in pursuit of a wanted criminal who escaped capture earlier tonight. Our scouts have confirmed his location in the dragon's cave."

"And it just so happens he sought refuge in this dragon's cave on the very same night we had announced our plans to take down the dragon. I'm sure there's no coincidence there. And when you've accidentally killed the dragon and stolen all the loot, I'm sure that'll be a coincidence too. No damn way." The troops were getting restless. If Matt didn't get them moving in the direction of the dragon soon, they'd take the next available targets, which just happened to be Cyndal's gang of thugs.

Matt wasn't worried about his group's safety. They could hold their own with any army in Ars-Perthnia. But the political shitstorm created by such a battle would render him sleeplessly busy for weeks. All because Cyndal had beef with Matthias from way back. Nothing to do with roleplaying, nothing to do with the game. It was just metagame bullshit from their former association, useless drama for drama's sake. Matt prepared a telepathy spell, intending to call upon the world's elder mods to adjudicate the situation.

And then the world went blank.

Blackness. Suffocating. No air. He should have air. He should be able to breathe. Something hard on his face. He has a face. His face. Where is his face? His hands are wet. His arms slick with slime. Drowning. Floating in slime. Can't remember his name. He has a name. Floating in inky-black vision. Bursting. Blasting lights exploding behind his eyelids. Take a breath. Can't take a breath. Arms move. His knuckles rap against something hard, something enclosing him. Buried alive, buried alive! Something on his face, constricting his breathing. A mask. A coffin.

Not a coffin, his net creché. Open the lid. Find the inner latch. Find the latch before blacking out. His fingers scrabbling, sliding off metal. Grab it, grab it, grab the latch, open it, open! Eyes closed to protect against the harsh light he knows will be flooding the room. Ripping the breathing mask off his face. No air coming through the mask, there should be air.
Slowly opening his eyes in wary anticipation of his vision being filled with blinding, stabbing light as he rose from the absolute blackness of the crèche to the dimly lit dinginess of his apartment. But there was no light, only a less oppressive shroud of blackness. Matt was certain he'd left at least the lamp in the corner lit. Maybe the bulb had died. Matt had been in the creché how long? Eight hours? Twelve? He lost track when he entered Ars-Perthnia. The only light in the three rooms were dusty slivers leaking in around the thick paper he'd affixed to the windows. The creché blocked light pretty well, but he went the extra mile to ensure the room around was darkened no matter the time of day. Ambient light hitting his eyes could sometimes interfere with the GlobalNet interface, confusing his virtual senses with his physical ones. Such confusion would cause his avatar to lose life-saving speed. Other crèche-dwellers could handle the conflicting data better than he could.

He stood on wobbly legs, pins and needles causing his toes to tingle as the digits made contact with the waterproofed rug under the creché. His balance was completely screwed up, forcing him to hang onto the lid to prevent falling on his naked ass. Using his hands as eyes, he stumbled shakily to the lamp and flipped its switch. Click. Nothing happened. No light. He clicked it again in vain. The lamp refused to illuminate the room. The silence was stifling.

He finally noticed the silence. It wasn't natural, or more precisely it was too natural. Absent was the artificial hum of climate-controlling air conditioning, the buzz of electric lighting, the entrancing hum of the apartment's refrigerator. All the white noise he would normally ignore completely was now painfully apparent as he stumbled through this inky void of sound. Perhaps this was a blackout. Los Angeles had had a number of them since last year's riots, though with much less frequency since the corporation Chronosoft had taken over civil administration as the Local Governance Licensee. He made his way slowly to the window, tripping over a few software packages on the way.

A faint sliver of sickly-orange light outlined the shape of the shade. Matt pulled it back slowly, conscious of the shock his vision could receive if there was daylight outside the window. Luckily, it was night, but the illumination of the streetlights and neighboring buildings was still enough to cause him to cringe in discomfort, a sharp spike streaking through the back of his head. The familiar strain of a disconnect headache settled around the netjack interface in the back of his skull. The neighboring buildings had power. He scanned the windows below. Other apartments in the building had power. Only his apartment seemed affected. His first unconscious reaction was to wirelessly connect his interface to the house phone, but kicked himself for forgetting that his power was dead. He'd have to manually dial the phone.

Leaving the shade open to guide his way, he stalked over and snatched up the receiver, oblivious to his nudity. It touched his ear with a cold silence. No dial tone or operator greeted him. He cursed under his breath. Not only could he not call about the power problem, he couldn't even call a cab to take him to the 24-hour utility service center. He'd have to hoof it to the street term on the corner. He dressed quickly, grumbling the whole way. On the way out, he absentmindedly began the key sequence to set the apartment's alarm, cursing again as he remembered the power outage. Disengaging the electronic locks on his door took an irritating amount of effort, and more bother on the way out since he couldn't re-engage them. He'd have to make do with the manual deadbolts.

Matt cast a sideways glance at the elevator down the hall but thought better of it. He was already having a helluva day (night?) with modern tech. He decided not to tempt fate, opting for the stairs instead. "Legs need a little loosening," he muttered to himself. He was still unsure how long he'd been under this time, since the clock in his apartment didn't work and he was having trouble connecting the wireless in his jack to anything. The darkness outside told him it could be no earlier than six p.m. and probably closer to eight or nine. The night sky had none of the pink tinged glory of late afternoons in smog-shrouded Los Angeles. Music blared from behind multiple doors, and the couple next door was midway into another boisterous domestic dispute. He rarely heard any of these things, safely sequestered in his soundproof creché. He jogged down all five flights of stairs. Matt exited into the alleyway, his breath ragged from lack of exercise, heartbeat throbbing in his eardrums.

The street was awash with police vehicles, flashing lights flooding Matt's sensitive vision with a painful kaleidoscope of reds and blues. He felt dizzy from the combination of a five-story jog and the disorienting light show. Half-staggering out of the alley, he pushed through the growing throng of onlookers. Seconds after he'd left the alley, a clot of stormtroopers entered from the opposite side, jamming into the stairwell while uniformed cops closed the alley off with yellow wooden barricades. Matt noticed the stormtroopers' gear, a mixture of vests, gas grenades and submachine guns. He noted the CLED logo, Chronosoft Legal Enforcement Division, the corporation's LGL-backed local police force.

Matt sidled up next to some of the local color. Two of the onlookers were engaged in a conversation while simultaneously vodcasting, probably to some local video blog. One of them, a half Puerto Rican Chinese girl had a crappy vidcam strapped clumsily to the side of her head, transmitting through her interface jack to her Globalnet site. She looked young enough to have to beg her parents for the gear, which is probably why she had the external camera instead of cybernetic eyes with video recorders.

"What's going on?" Matt asked with a half-interested tone. The neighborhood was no slum, just a polyglot of lower middle class apartment complexes. But this was L.A. He was no stranger to police raids. Since the riots, CLED had raided most neighborhoods with an alarming frequency as part of Mayor Soto's new crackdown on crime.

The girl never turned her head, conscious of her vid feed. "Big time po-po action," she managed in broken English. Her friend took notice of Matt, scanning him up and down before deciding he would add nothing interesting to her story.

"I heard one o' dem say sum'in 'bout a hacker, big timg GlobalNet pimp," the friend replied dispassionately. Having sized Matt up and found him wanting, she began emoting into her blogphone with badly mangled slang in a gravelly voice. Matt searched up the face of the building for his darkened apartment, finding it quickly.

"Ready to proceed," he heard the police radio of a nearby crowd control officer squawk. "GO!"

A festival of flashlight beams and laser-targeting sights danced across the darkened windows of his apartment.

Matt was the target. As the realization began to slowly crawl across his consciousness, the adrenaline coursed through his veins, setting his feet into terrified motion.

He began to run.

Matt ran for four blocks, randomly changing directions, weaving through alleyways. He stopped to catch his breath in an alleyway awash with the neon glow of a tattoo parlour's lights. Whether from the smell of trash in the alley, the incomprehensible fear of pursuit or the unwelcome exertion, he threw up violently. Though hunched over and gasping for air, the distant wail of sirens shocked him into motion again. Another two blocks and the dry heaves began, forcing another rest. Crouching behind a dumpster, his stomach turning from the smell of rotting garbage, he tried to control the panic gripping his heart. He had to get somewhere, anywhere but here. The police were after him. They were even now searching his apartment for something. They were likely finding his collection of bootlegged Netvids, his porn magazines, his… what?

Nothing in there was worth a squad of vest-wearing, SMG-toting CLED stormtroopers. The worst he had was no more than a fine and a temporary GlobalNet access ban. Maybe his credit had been rejected at the utility, which was why the power was out. But surely they weren't arresting deadbeat power clients. He'd get to the utility office. He'd straighten it out.
Get a cab. Find a street term, order a cab. There on the street corner was a term. He'd get a cab, get it straightened out and get back online. Just a temporary misunderstanding. He reached the terminal, but his cred card didn't work. He couldn't logon to the GlobanlNet, not even to order a cab. The screen kept spitting the words "Credit Rejected" back at him, no matter how many times he swiped the card. He slammed his fist against the screen, prompting a warning about the destruction of private property being a criminal offense. Another siren in the distance put his feet in motion again. Rounding the corner, he caught a glimpse of two CLED patrol vehicles swooping in on the street term. He ran again.

Two blocks over, he lucked into a cab idling on the corner after dislodging a fare. The driver, a stout Mexican with an old-fashioned soul patch sat inputting figures into the cab's touchscreen. "You still on duty?" Matt asked. The driver pointed up to the cab's "On Duty" sign without looking at Matt. "Take me to the utility office, over on Winston."

Again without moving his head to look at Matt, the driver jerked his thumb towards the card reader built into the clear bulletproof divider between the seats. "Card," he said without interest. Matt fumbled with the card, swiping it nervously. "No, this card's no good, man." The driver finally got a look at his potential passenger, and he was not amused. "What the hell happened to you?"

Matt surveyed himself. His clothes were drenched in sweat, a little puke staining the front of his shirt. "Jogging, not used to it," he replied breathlessly.

"Well, whatever, man but I can't take you anywhere. Your credit's no good."

"But I gotta get to the utility office!"

"And I gotta eat. Go take the damn subway, you deadbeat." With that, the driver took off, the rear door slamming shut on the disappointed deadbeat. Matt quickly glanced up and down the street, crossing to the other side before reluctantly heading towards the subway station.

No one took the subways anymore. If you had credit, you took a cab or, if you were some well-heeled corporate executive commuting from the company-subsidized suburbs, the more expensive dirigibles. If you didn't have credit but had some cash, you took the buses. Matt had no cash, because no one used cash but poor people and criminals. The subway was a last resort. After the popularization of the dirigible, the subways had degenerated into an underfunded welfare transit system. Without funding, there was little security, no cameras and no way to tell who rode it. After the riots in 2027, the Chronosoft Local Governance board had cut what little funding the subway system still retained, abandoning it to the gangs. They somehow kept a few of the trains running for the city, but what few trains still ran did so with few passengers. Drug runners used the subways to move product in small amounts, pimps and prostitutes and rapists and muggers and homeless and all other forms of forgotten people squatted in the cars and stations and no one paid them an iota of attention. And now whitebread cubicle jockey gamer geek accounting programmer Matt had to take the subway.

Half the lights on the staircase leading down into the underground were out. The shadowed tunnel smelled of urine and dust and something vaguely scary, something with the faint hint of gunpowder and copper. Elaborate grafitti shared the walls with more crude scrawlings, much of it in an incomprehensible amalgam of Spainish and English. Bullet casings jingled under his steps, alerting anyone ahead in the shadows to Matt's entrance. Cold sweat broke out all along his back. The cloying silence of the tunnel enveloped Matt, and he unconciously slowed his breathing to a shallow whisper, his entire body tensed for a coming ambush. He finally reached the bottom of the stairs, stepping through the open gate into the larger station area. He breathed a long sigh of relief at having made it to a well-lit area.

"You seem to be in the wrong place." The voice had come from Matt's left, from the area drenched in shadow directly beside the staircase. The English was thick with a Mexican accent. The speaker was a tall Hispanic, easily a few inches taller than Matt, wearing a bulletproof vest with the CLED logo on it over a sleeveless muscle shirt. He carried a machine pistol as casually as a carpenter might wield a hammer. Matt's mind struggled with confusion, as part of his mind wanted to believe the tough guy was a cop and not some gang member out to jack him and another part that was afraid he was a cop who was searching for Matt the fugitive.

"I need a ride," Matt blurted out, his voice almost a squeak of mousy fear.

"Does this look like a taxi service?"

"Well… the trains… are the trains still running?" The faint echo of a train crashing through the station reached Matt, and he struggled to keep himself from running for that train. His fear had rooted him to the spot.

"Do I know you?" The Mexican eyed Matt like a butcher sizing up a slab of beef. Matt shook his head, his puzzled expression accurately portraying the confusion and fear he was battling. The guard raised the machine pistol and held it up to Matt's head. "DO I KNOW YOU?" he screamed, each syllable punctuated with a press of the gun's barrel against Matt's forehead.

"NO!" Matt screamed in response, his eyes squinted shut. "I just need a ride on the subway, man, I gotta get across town. I don't have any money."

"You think the train is free? Do you? You expect to come in here and not leave a donation for the peoples and just ride whereever you want? You got some balls on you, son."

Matt was close to the verge of tears, but he somehow managed to contain them. "Look, I don't have any money, my cards don't work, they cut my power out, the cops sent a godamn SWAT team after me, where the fuck am I supposed to go? I can't even use a street term and I…" His eyes squeezed shut, he managed to halt the babbling stream of consciousness as he felt the gun lifted from his temple.

"Give me your card," the Mexican commanded, genuine sympathy replacing the tough guy bravado of a moment earlier. Matt's mind raced in desperate confusion, unable to process the change in attitude. "Let me see your card," he repeated. When Matt hesitated, he motioned irritatedly with his hand until Matt retrieved the card from his wallet. The guard opened a well-hidden panel on the wall and swiped the card through a terminal, frowning as the screen spit rejections back at him. "Damn, they got you good."

"What do you mean?"

"You got crashed, homes." Seeing Matt's puzzled expression, he continued. "Credcrashed, dog. Your credit is fucked. Finito. You might as well get you a carboard box to sleep in." Realizing that Matt still didn't quite get the concept, he said, "Tell you what, let me take you to Stonewall. He's the jefe around here. He's a smart motherfucker. He'll explain it better than me."

Matt had no idea what or who a Stonewall was, but he followed the gangster dutifully. The subway station appeared abandoned at first glance, but as the pair moved through the dusty terminal, Matt noticed people all around, hidden well in shadows and alcoves. Trash littered the floors and cracks went along the walls to the ceiling, but as Matt moved farther in, it became apparent that this was a disguise to fool the easily dissuaded. They traveled down a long escalator into a promenade full of discarded shops and Matt was amazed at the low hum of activity that permeated the air. Though no longer retail outlets, the store spaces were neverthless being fully utilized, with numerous hives of busy people transacting business. In contrast to the level above, the promenade was almost immaculately kept, floors polished to an almost mirrorlike sheen. Everyone seemed armed with a sidearm while a few sported submachineguns.

"You look surprised, homes," said Matt's guide. "You shouldn't be. This all belongs to the peoples now. They keep their shit together, no? The suits may not give a shit about the trains, but we does, you know?"

"Who does all this?"

"We do, man, the Five Families. Ever since the riots, those CLED fuckers been driving us out of our homes. The train's the only place we got to go. They let it go to shit, so we took it. We get to choose who rides. The rich got their balloons, the suits got their taxis and their cars, us proles got the trains."

"So what do I got to do to get a ride to the utility office?"

"I'll let Stonewall decide that. I'm just the gatekeeper. Here he is." The pair had arrived at an old sandwich shop, which now appeared to be a makeshift watering hole and meeting place. The cloying, earthy smell of freshly brewed coffee hung around the booths and tables. Several groups sat at the tables absorbed in conversation. Matt's guide spoke to one of the men, handing over Matt's card and pointing in his direction. The man stood, a lanky Mexican over six feet tall with short blonde nappy hair tied into a field of triangluar-shaped buds about an inch high. Matt instantly knew why they called him Stonewall. Though thin, he had a solid build with an expression chiseled of unflinching granite. He looked like exactly the kind of man you went around, because you can't go through him.

"You the guy got crashed?" Stonewall asked in a voice tinged with sympathy. He spoke in a low voice, almost a hoarse whisper but with enough force to be heard by anyone. Matt felt immediately comfortable around the man.

"That's what your guard said. I don't know what that means. I just need a ride to the utility office and my card isn't working and there are cops at my apartment…"

"I got this, Antonio," he said to Matt's guide, holding up his hand to cut Matt off. He motioned for Matt to sit down at a table away from the others. "Sit down. You want anything? Coffee, a soda, some water?" Matt shook his head. Their conversation had the air of a doctor telling a man he had terminal cancer, the kind of whispered empathy and sedate undertone of an impending funeral. "Suit yourself. We got something stronger if you want. No? All right then, let me check you out." Stonewall pulled out a PDA and ran its scanner over the card's bar code. His huge fingers moved with a practiced deftness over the PDA's touchscreen, and Matt wondered why anyone would bother to use one of those antiquated things when an interface jack and internal HUD were so much easier and quicker.

"What are you looking at?"

"A corpse," the Mexican said with grim finality. He put the PDA down gently on the table and began picking absently at his soul patch as he spoke. "What do you do for a living?"

Matt was confused about what his job had to do with the situation he was in, but answered the questions anyway. "I write accounting software matrices. Pretty complex economic projection modeleing based on previous revenues, stock prices, market conditions. I can't really talk about most of it… NDA, you know," Matt said, making the sign of a lock and key on his lips.

"So nothing major then? No huge product waiting in the wings to revolutionize the industry?"

"Well, it's pretty cool stuff if you're an accountant, I guess. It could revolutionize accounting if I get it to work right." Stonewall's expression was soaked in boredom, the same kind of look most people gave Matt when he began talking about his work.

"You own your own company or work for somebody else?"

"I don't have the patience to run my own business. I work for this small software house, Incremental Financial Software Systems."

"You guys on the verge of a buyout or merger?"

"Not that I know of, but not really my department. I just write the software, I don't deal with the money. What's that got to do with my lights getting shut off and cops busting into my apartment like I was public enemy #1?"

Ignoring Matt's question, Stonewall continued firing questions at him. "Have you been approached about a new job, been recruited by a head hunter recently? Threatened?" Matt shook his head. "Then somebody out there must really hate you."

"What are you talking about?"

"You ever heard of a credit assassin?" Again, Matt shook his head, his confusion only growing. "Yeah, not many people have. You're smart with numbers so you should be able to get this concept. Used to, you'd get paid a check, you'd cash it or deposit it in the bank and that amount would be how much money you had. It was actual wealth. It ain't that way so much anymore. Nowadays your paycheck is deposited directly to your accounts, and it's based on how much your employer thinks your work will be worth. In lieu of a concrete measure of wealth, it's all just numbers on a spreadsheet."

"Think of your credit as a living, breathing entity that lives off your ability to pay for things sometime in the not too distant future. A whole lot of numbers and judgements by bean counters are the blood of your credit, and it's backed up by not only how much you make today, but how much those bean counters think you'll make tomorrow and how much of what you make is owed to someone else."

"I understand what my credit score means," Matt said with irritation. "What does that have to do with my power getting shut off?"

"Credit score, shit, that's 20th, man. That's old school. Your credit these days ain't just your credit history and your place on a balance sheet, it's EVERYTHING. Your power is paid for out of your credit. All that intangible money in your bank account is just a part of your credit, as is the payment history with the power company. And your payment history with your credit card accounts, and your rent history and all those other things you've ever paid. Any cash you've used in the last five years that wasn't Five-Year? That's part of it too."


Stonewall made a disappointed face. "Five-year. You got any cash on you?" Matt shook his head. "Good, 'cos it's fucking worthless now. Five years ago, the government put out a new set of bills, right? Big-time tech-heavy bills. Supposed to eliminate counterfeiting and money laundering. You ever wonder how they were going to do that? Easy, every bill gets tracked. Every. Single. Bill. Every bill gets tagged with your name when you exchange it with a reputable merchant, and every transaction you make is catalogued and tracked and added to your credit. People who don't want to have to answer where their money goes use Five-Year, the bills they made before 2023, because it doesn't have the tracking embedded. Get it, Five-Year? Currency that's five years old or more. Some pendejos want to call it 23's, but that's hard to say. I mean, you gonna ask for $1500 in Five-year or $1500 23's? It don't roll off the tongue, eh?"

"What's that got to do with my credit though?"

"All those transactions are aggregated, databased and analyzed by that same type of software you probably write. Well, different, but same kind of math geek shit. What a cred crasher, this credit assassin, does is systematically destroys every single piece of your credit that he can. Those last six months of utility payments you've made? Dead. Your last four paychecks? Gone. Your bank account? Wiped. The last year of rent you paid? Desaparecido. Vanished. Deleted."

"So someone stole all my money and my utility payments?"

Stonewall shook his head. "Not just stole, deleted. It isn't just that the money is stolen. It was never there. It never existed. It's like they reach back into the past and delete history. There's no paper trail to show you paid. If you checked your email, those bill confirmation notices you get? Erased, and so's your bill. The account is still there, but suddenly, your ass is six months unpaid and you get shut off. And so's your water, and your GlobalNet and your rental agreement, all up in digital smoke. The cops are sent out because suddenly you've been stealing electricity and water and lodging. Anything you thought you paid for, you didn't actually pay for anymore, eh? And if they can catch you, they put you in jail, brother. You want to try to settle up all those debts with one phone call? A lawyer won't see you and your public defender wants you to plead. If you're lucky you don't get any jail time but you get hammered with the collection on all that debt. And your employer just fired you for lying about your credit rating on your job application. If he doesn't, it won't matter much, because your salary is going to get garnished so hard you'll get stuck working three jobs unless an angel descends from on high and saves your ass."

"And that's when the job offer comes."

"What job offer?"

"There's always a job offer," Stonewall continued, with the sly look of a snake oil salesman. He took a slow sip of coffee. "That's why I asked you what you did. Usually, the person gets targeted because some executive at a competitor got word you was working on some hot shit. He wants it for his company, because that makes him look good to the higher ups. Now, he could go the normal way, and offer you the job, and pay above market value for the talent he needs. Or, he could just pay a guy under the table, in Five-Year or through some backdoor account, to cut the legs out from under the talent. Leave the talent drowning in a sea of cops and debts and impending homelessness or jail time just long enough to get him extra desperate. Then they throw him a life preserver. It's the perfect con, man. No one's going to hire you, not with the police after you and your credit rating in the toxic range."
"Watch. You'll get approached from nowhere by some slick fucker with enough clout to make all the charges go away, offering to get you back on your feet. Granted, you'll be making cacahuates but it's a job. You just have to sign an unbreakable contract for a few years and you'll eventually be back to just underneath where you once were. The corporation gets a bargain, a new hit, and an endentured servant too traumatized to see the con."

"That can't be legal," Matt replied, trying vainly to sound cool. His mind was already working through the possibilities, a feeling of claustrophobic fear creeping just underneath the surface. The thought that such a thing could be true, and worse, that he could be the victim was at first ludicrous, but deep down he was scared it was all too true.

"Who said it was legal?" The Mexican laughed with a wistfull lack of humor. "It's illegal as shit, but who is going to tell? The suits who order the hit? The crashers doing hits? The government? Shit, they all get their piece of the scam. Anyone who could investigate the kind of thing got neuteured when they set up the Local Governance Liceneses last year. The corporations are the power, man. Welcome to the Oligarchy, where the modern-day bourgeious own the worker serfs lock, stock and barrel. That whole freedom thing? They figured out the way to kill it."

"You sound like a Communist."

"Socialist, actually, but that don't change the truth. Which is that the people with the money are in the driver's seat like they been all throughout history. The names change, but power follows money. And power does what it wants."

Matt mulled over his situation silently for a moment, while Stonewall leaned back comfortably in his chair and sipped his coffee. If what this gangster said was true, Matt was well and truly fucked. He couldn't go back to his place, no matter what. If he had been targeted, going to the utlitity office would probably mean the cops would arrest him there. "Let's assume for a second what you're saying is true. I got crashed. Can't I just go to the utility office and straighten this shit out? Surely they have paper records of everything."

"You ever been to the utility office?" Matt shook his head. "Heh, you think the DMV is full of unhelpful assholes. First off, their paper records ain't at the office. They're in some warehouse. You know how they retrieve those records? Robotic filing system. And what do you think one of the first orders of business for a crasher is? Send out a shred order, remove all your paid bill receipts and make the network forget it ever did the shred. And that's even assuming you can get the bitch behind the computer to send the order to retrieve the paper before she calls the popo. You're a wanted criminal, a deadbeat who illegally gained an account with them through falsified credit reports and proceeded to steal electricity and water and sewer service. Why should they believe you?"

"Because I'm telling the truth!" Matt shouted. He instantly regretted raising his voice, as the entire shop grew quiet as a tomb. All eyes were fixed on Matt and his eyes darted nervously from one face to the next. The looks of concerned respect on all the faces spoke to the esteem in which Stonewall was held. He was a little king, the nobility of the city's castoffs. Matt recognized that look from the faces of his guild in Ars-Perthnia.

"Truth is for sale these days, mi hermano. And your truth got sold. Your truth is whatever those computers say it is."

"I can't believe this. I write accounting software. I'm all about tracking these kinds of transactions, that's what we have computers for. And you're trying to tell me those transactions get wiped and no one can tell they were even there? That's impossible." Though he said it, his conviction was weak. Every digital transaction had a record, but every record was digital. If you cut deep enough, you could remove those traces. But the sheer immensity of the operation would be daunting. The vast interlinking of transactions with other transactions in modern accounting was massive. Just one purchase at a convenience store involved entries in a multitude of accounting databases, from the store's sales records to the store's merchant account, through the creditor's bank to the purchaser's bank. From that bank to the payroll account of the purchaser's employer and into the bank holding the payroll account and further back, those transactions could be decades long. Surely somewhere along that chain of transactions there existed a record of Matt's existence. To just sever all those links without causing a cascading failure that someone would notice would require skills Matt could barely fathom.

Stonewall noticed Matt's pensive stare as the chain of events became clear. "You're thinking it over, thinking about how hard it would be to pull that off. It's the perfect crime, really. No traces, no clues, just a vast hole where a person used to exist. One day, you're just a regular old consumer, happily doing your American duty to use up as much of the world as you can while enriching the economic elite. The next, you're nobody, a zero, a negative balance. You're one of us, the castoffs. The only question now is what are you going to do about it?"
Matt's mind was made up. With steely determination, he made eye contact with Stonewall and said, "I'm going to the utility office, and I'm going to get my shit straightened out. They have records of my payment and I will get them. Nobody can erase me, not if I don't let them."

Stonewall exhaled a resigned sigh. "It's your loss, brother. Some tontos got to learn for themselves. You want a ride? We give you a ride, no charge."

"Just like that? No charge?"

"Hey, if I'm right, you'll be back. The peoples could use a guy with your skills. I know someone who probably knows someone looking for your type of work on the sly right now. Probably pays good in clean Five-Year. And if I'm wrong, I did you a favor which has got to mean something to the universe, right?"

Stonewall snapped his fingers at one of the hangers-on a few tables over, holding his hand to his ear as if he was speaking on a telephone. One of his attendants tossed him something shiny and black. "Here, you'll need this." He slid the object to Matt along the table. Matt stared at it for a minute as if trying to comprehend what it was. "It's a cell phone."

"I know what it is, it's just been so long since I saw one this old," Matt replied. "What am I supposed to do with this? Do I have to start it with a hand crank? Does it even work?"

Stonewall nodded his head. "Oh yes. It's like us, see? Another castoff. People don't use something this big anymore, they either plug in the little ear buds or get the implants like you got. A few chips and this thing works as good as it used to for free. 'Course you don't want to use it more than a few days, but there's plenty more where that came from. America consumes until it gets tired, spits out the refuse for the new shiny and we pick up the old and make it useful again. Just like the subway."

"So who do I call with it?"

"Well, if you manage to make it out of the utility office without getting arrested, you give me a call. I'll hook you up with some work to earn a little cash. You're gonna have to eat sometime. After that, we'll see."

"I don't know, I don't think I'll need it," Matt stammered.

"You'll need it." The Mexican said it with enough certainty to shake Matt's confidence. He took the cell phone quickly, stuffing it into his pocket. "Antonio will show you to your train. Good luck, brother." As the guard led Matt out of the restaurant into the main terminal to put him on a train, something that had been tugging at his mind finally came to the surface.
Matt stopped and turned back to Stonewall. "Hey, do I know you? You look really familiar."

"You a football fan?"

"What were you, a wide receiver or something?"

"No, not that kind of football. Soccer, brother. I played for the Galaxy."

"Oh, I don't follow soccer."

Stonewall shook his head with a smile. "Americans. Know nothing about real sports. You probably saw my picture on the news a few months ago. They calling me a cop killer, don't you know?" Matt couldn't conceal the abject terror as he remembered the story. Three cops killed in a raid on a warehouse. The raid turned up a bunch of bodies, criminals that had been tortured before being executed. To escape, the killer had blown up the place to conceal his tracks. A big shot club owner and former soccer player had been one of the victims. "It's a frame job, brother."

"You didn't kill those cops?"

"I didn't kill those people in that warehouse."

"That's not the question I asked," Matt replied, showing a little steel in standing up to what might very well be a multiple murderer.

"But that's the answer you got, hombre," Stonewall said with a smile before turning his attention back to his coffee. Antonio urged Matt on towards the train with a bemused smile.

The train car was empty except for another pair of guards, calmly brandishing their submachine guns as he boarded. As the sickly lights of the station faded from view, the ball of nervousness in the pit of his stomach grew.

No comments:


Chapters (17) Cyberpunk (26) GlobalPedia (10) Interviews (3) KCChapters (54) Meatpunk (4) News (76) Reviews (15) Tales (10)