Sky goes glitchy when it rains, makes the lumens ripple like they’re dancing. The droplets mess up the proximity calculations and you see the logos overhead as smears of paint in water, losing their proper shapes, becoming glittering broken things. Scattered glifs, whispered dreams. You deserve this. A hamburger melting into a haze of light. Try our new flavours. A yellow butterfly emerging from a woman’s face. Experience Bliss. Peaks of the buildings getting lost in the clouds and the shifting lumen-glow, and for a moment I imagine I could walk up the walls of these cityblocs to some other beautiful place.
No one else looks at the sky; they’re focused on what’s ahead. There’s a whole crowd pouring out of the magrail station, dressed in rainwraps, bored faces staring behind laminated masks. Most of the people pushing past are corpsmen, low-rank workers with corp uniforms and corp implants and corp minds. Born in corp nursingblocs, live in corp housingblocs. Drink together at corp recreation nights and cry together at corp funerals. I can see a guy with a fry-stall, smell the locusts sizzling in pans under a canopy, like anyone will buy his food today if there’s a chance the rain touched it. A column of moonies dressed in bright orange, carrying coiled lengths of cable, walking in unison. A squad of Metrowatch enforcers by the station gates, black armour branded with their staring eye, water glistening on their visors. A snoop prowls the air above the crowd, rotors just louder than the rain, shining its little light on one commuter’s head, then another. So that’s what you’ve got out here this morning: corpsmen, vendors, moonies, police. Everyone with somewhere to be and nothing to hide.
And then there’s me.
Who am I?
When I was born – the only name I ever got given for free – I was Hanna Latch. The first time I robbed someone my name was Imelda Barlow. Last week I was Mindi Wheatman. Today, outside the magrail station in the rain, I’m Charlotte Alorda. But if you really knew me, if you saw through me, you’d call me Nova.
What I’m doing here is work, even if it looks like I’m watching the world turn. There’s another city behind this one. An invisible city, without streets or buildings, a city built from code and cold light. This hidden city is the metanet: the web that links every person, every product, every machine, everything the corps value. It’s all around us, data flowing through secret pathways like the corpsmen flow through the station’s turnstiles. I lean against the wall and watch the crowd and listen to the whispers. I hear the snoops checking faces against active warrants; I hear the implants inside every commuter monitoring their heart rate and blood sugar and eye movements; I hear people talking to their families, downloading music, catching up on the newsfeeds – all this and more is the metanet, an infinite sea of information. This is where I do my work.
I’ve got digital assistants out in the crowd already, travelling unseen, prying and probing, trying to scent who’s strong and who’s weak, who doesn’t have the right ice, who didn’t update to the latest version. When my assistants find someone, I hear a chime and my optical implants highlight the target so they shine like a beacon in the rainy station concourse. Right there: today’s unlucky object of my affection. One figure among countless others, ablaze with lumen-light.
I join the crowd, jostling through plastic-coated bodies. I’m running a list of programs in my head, watching their glifs fizz behind my eyelids: icebreakers and spoofers, leechers and loopers, port-jammers and proxies, ready for the day’s business. Some are pre-fab; some are custom programs I made myself. All of them are illegal.
My target’s up ahead. I can’t see him any more, but I can see the lumen-trail he leaves behind, a thread of light in the air. The commuter concourse blends into a shopping plaza that hangs between two cityblocs, the magrail line running below us. I duck underneath a guardrail, ram through the gap between two commuters, elbowing and pushing with my gaze set blankly into the distance, like the people around me were nothing but walking cushions. I’m good at moving through crowds, and soon I’ve caught up to my target, a corpsman with broad shoulders and blond hair flattened down under the plastic hood of his rainwrap. I get to work.
It’s pretty simple, the way it happens. Everyone’s got a wristhub, the implant in your arm that lets you buy stuff. Your wristhub talks to someone else’s and you fork out that way. What I’m doing is setting up a transaction, one that goes from him to me, without his permission, no receipts and no refunds. It’s called leeching. The first problem is making sure he doesn’t know it’s happening, which is why I need my box of tricks. The second problem is that wristhub transactions have a limited range, so I need to stay right next to him.
It’s going good so far. I can see readouts in the corner of my eye: confirming the first transaction, telling his hub that it already agreed to send me the money. A snoop hovers overhead, bathing the pair of us in harsh light, but my heart doesn’t miss a beat. I’ve got a rainwrap over my face and a nice fake ID with no criminal record, so there’s no reason for security drones to take an interest. The snoop barely pauses before whirring away.
First transaction goes down smooth. It’s best to carve cash out in small chunks. If you’re greedy, try and drain all the byts from their account in one go, it’ll get frozen and flagged and some BytBank operator will be squealing in their ear. You come away with nothing. Right now, if anyone is monitoring his payments, it looks like he bought a meal on the way to work. Second transaction goes through. He’s feeling generous, bought a meal for a friend as well. We walk further, past a camp of non-econs sheltering from the rain in a disused storefront, and on to a pedestrian bridge, still pressed together, and I’m looking into the distance, face emotionless beneath my mask. Third payment goes through, more byts flowing from his account to mine. This is an excellent start to the day.
Out of nowhere he stops dead. I walk straight into his back. He’s definitely realised. I keep cool. I’ve got location spoofers running, so there’s no way for him to track where the leecher is. I brush past him, disengaging my programs. Nothing to see here.
A hand grabs my wrist, pulling me round so hard I nearly fall. I’m face to face with the corpsman, water beading on his rainwrap, dripping from his laminated chin.
‘Get off me!’ I yell, trying to slip away. He keeps his hand on my wrist, the tight, professional grip of a man who’s used to catching people.
‘Ms Alorda,’ the guy says, ‘you’re aware unauthorised wristhub transactions are a Category Two crime.’
He’s not a corpsman. He’s Metrowatch. He’s bait. Goes into the crowd with deliberately weak ice and waits for a leecher to bite.
‘Got one,’ he’s saying into his hub’s mic. ‘Need a compliance team at my position.’
One of the big problems women have on the magrail is gropers. It’s so crowded and some revolting guys just can’t resist having a feel, especially because they know you can’t move away. A lot of commuter girls carry these little shockers, civilian-grade nerve disruptors. They’re totally legal. You can take one through a Metrowatch checkpoint and they won’t even blink.
So what I do is scream ‘PERVERT!’ and give him the highest dose possible, right in the gut. He yells and convulses, letting go of my wrist as his hand spasms. Corpsmen are still flowing past, nobody giving us a second look. Who can afford to be late for work? If you’re fired, you’re nothing. Lose your apartment, your healthcare, your whole life.
‘He tried to grab me!’ I yell, pushing away from the enforcer, who’s twitching on the wet concrete. ‘You saw! Dirty groper!’
‘Watch out!’ someone shouts as I bounce into them. The Metrowatch guy is trying to get back up, but his legs don’t work too well yet, can’t hold his weight. I’m taking stock. He led me into the middle of a bridge, making it as hard as he could for me to get away. I can see a snoop diving for us through the rain; three Metrowatch enforcers push through the crowd ahead, warning glifs on their armour strobing nosebleed red. Behind me the undercover enforcer is getting to his feet.
Other people, maybe they’d give up. Get taken off in cuffs. But some of the programs I run on my implants are way more illegal than unauthorised wristhub transactions. Two of my icebreakers are Category Five prohibited software, not to mention my copy of Phantom. The big corps don’t care that much about someone robbing one of their workers. Once they’ve paid him his wage, it’s his problem what happens to that money. What they do care about are the programs that break their encryptions and steal their secrets. If they arrest me and find something like that… it’s over. I’ll end up as a moonie, head shaved, working down in the dark until I die. Makes me shudder thinking of it. The Moth himself couldn’t get me out of that kind of trouble.
Four Metrowatch enforcers. One girl on a bridge. It doesn’t look good. No easy way out of this. Like I said, other people, maybe they’d give up.
But do you know what a nova is? It’s when a star shines brighter than it ever has before, a blazing beacon up there in the blackness. You don’t get people calling you Nova by being dull.
So I jump off the bridge.
For a moment, there’s nothing beneath my feet, just me falling with the rain, the void between the cityblocs yawning wide. From an upstrata floor like this one, the fall to the ground is close to a mile.
I’m not suicidal. There is something between me and that abyss. The thing is, it’s not a walkway – it’s the magrail line. I hit the metal hard, the shock fizzing in my legs. The enforcers are yelling overhead, but I know they aren’t keen to follow me. They won’t risk their lives to catch a teenage leecher.
I’ve solved one problem. Now I need to get off the track before a train hits me. The magrails travel fast, almost silent, and I don’t have long. I’ve never walked on this bit of track before, but they’re all built the same. There are hatches at regular intervals, maintenance access for the moonies, which take you down to a crawl space underneath the magrail line. I just have to find one before the next train gets here.
I set off as fast as I can, looking for an orange door in the ground. Ten steps, twenty, rain still crashing down on my hood, and now there’s a static feeling too, a vibration in my bones. Train coming.
I can’t see any orange hatch up ahead, and I’m starting to panic, with nothing below me that’s close enough to leap on to, and then my foot hits something and I nearly fall over. A handle. It’s the maintenance hatch, so dirty that it’s black, not orange, with the locking panel right where it should be. I press my wristhub against it. No idea how long I have. I send icebreakers shooting out into the system, invisible fingers pulling the lock apart.
Rain beats down on my back.
Should’ve just let them catch me.
No. Better dead than a moonie.
Static rising. Every hair on my arm standing on end now. Fizzy feeling in my stomach. Magrail’s almost on me. Every breath could be the last one. Icebreakers worming through the lock.
The track is shaking beneath my feet.
The locking panel chirps, telling me to enter. I grab the handle and wrench the access hatch open, throwing myself into the crawl space below the track.
As I hit the floor, the magrail passes overhead. I clutch my head to cover my ears, pain throbbing in my hands and knees, the world shaking like I’m inside a drum.
The noise only lasts a moment, and the train is gone. Rain drips through the hatch, pooling in the dirt around me. I check my rainwrap, but it’s fine, no holes. I breathe in deeply, tasting oil and chemicals and the rubbery tang that the air picks up from my mask’s filter. Still alive.
The crawl space is dark, but I light my fingertorch, casting a blue glow over the grimy metal walls. My optic implants project a lumen-thread into the air, showing the way back to the station. I know the enforcers can’t get a location trace on me, Phantom takes care of that, and, though there won’t be such a crowd now, there’s always someone around who isn’t as secure as they think they are. We’re behind on our payments; Patches will want more money than I got. I should try again.
No. They’ll be on the alert for a young female leecher now, even though they couldn’t get a proper trace on me. I’ve had bad luck once already. For all I know, that station is swarming with Metrowatch decoys. I have eighty byts in my leeching account, and that’s not nothing.
I turn and crawl away from the magrail station, towards an engineering relay. There’s an elevator there, which will take me all the way down, into the undercity. I’m going home. ●
Phantom will be released in the UK on the 9th of August 2018. You can preorder today.