“I remember when this was all farm land.”
Danny looked up from his palette and surveyed the landscape through the Audi Q7’s tinted windows. The SUV was creeping along the elevated lanes of the 130 tollway; a sign indicated an exit for the 290 tollway. Although they had passed Austin proper, the proximity of Old Downtown meant an influx of traffic coming from Houston, mostly old beaters without toll tags who would rather chance a run-in with the police than sit on the access roads for hours.
“There wasn’t even a toll road then.”
“What?” asked Danny.
The driver looked at him in the rearview mirror. “It was just empty. Austin didn’t extend this far out. When they first built the toll road, you could bypass 35 for a flat ten bucks. Save you a good hour or two on the worst days.”
“Sorry,” said Danny, lifting his palette in explanation. “I’m trying to prepare for a meeting.”
“Ah,” said the driver, nodding. “Apologies. I’ll leave you to it.”
Danny nodded and swiped at his palette. A small dot flew up from the bottom of the screen, hit a couple of squares, and then exploded in a dizzying array of pixelated fire. The squares quivered and disappeared. With the last of the squares cleared, the field reset and the next level appeared.
The last thing Danny needed was a history lesson on Austin, Texas. He knew the city’s love-hate relationship with the tech companies that had built it up only to abandon it in its time of need. He knew hundreds of disheveled engineers showed up on its doorstep every day with their student loans and CCNA certificates hoping for a job with one of the few tech companies that remained. They flocked to the campuses of Dell, Pattrn, and Nixle Chronos, but more often than not ended up in Old Downtown with all the rest of the unused talent.
Network Engineers worked the serving line at Subway.
Developers wrote code for lighting systems at cyberpunk night clubs.
IT guys worked backend systems at VR brothels.
There were still a few tech jobs to be found outside of the Big Three, but the startup culture that had quenched Austin’s thirst during its period of growth had mostly dried up, leaving the city parched. The few startups that did try to break through the concrete soil rarely passed the Vinestead benchmark; that is, they were either acquired or run out of business when Vinestead stole their ideas.
Danny thought about the streets of Old Downtown, its potholes and long-abandoned construction signs, its abundance of zombie-like pedestrians shuffling from one synth fix to the next. What the city really needed was a day of MotoSlaughter, a one-time event to help rid Old Downtown of its infection. The skyscrapers that had been built there in there 90s were still standing strong. Places like the Austonian and Monarch could be used again if the right people came in.
Not that that was likely.
Nobody bought home computers anymore, and though Dell had tried to shift into consumer-grade immersion rigs, it seemed to be following in the footsteps of IBM and HP. Pattrn was new and growing, but social media itself was a dying industry now that feeds were the primary form of sharing. And if Nixle Chronos’ augmented reality tech was going to take off, it would have done so already.
Austin was dying, and in some wonderful way, that gave the city a small-town feel. Local businesses outpaced the national chains by 5 to 1. Corporate didn’t sell in Austin, and that suited Danny just fine.
“Would you like me to take the Express lane?” asked the driver. “I don’t think we’ll make eight o’clock without it. There’s a small uncharge.”
“That’s fine,” said Danny.
The Audi lurched to the left, cutting in front of an eighteen-wheeler that was doing its best to maintain a constant speed. The blast of its airhorn hadn’t even died out by the time the SUV slipped into the far left Express lane. The small surcharge the driver had mentioned came in the form of dynamic tolls that rose and fell depending on the traffic. Electronic signs set along the toll road updated like stock tickers, showing times and distances and costs.
Time to ABIA: 28 minutes.
Express Lane to ABIA: 4 minutes.
Express Lane charge: $19.22/mi.
With less traffic in front of them, the driver pushed the Audi up to the 90 mph speed limit and hugged the left shoulder in case some distracted commuter decided to cut into the lane. Gas stations and rest stops scrolled by, as did burned-out husks of cars that had been foolish enough to pull over and stay overnight. Nobody knew how or why abandoned cars got torched, but they were a common sight and had been readily assimilated into Austin’s lore.
Danny felt his body lean as the SUV took a banking right turn towards the airport. The Express lane carried them over the main toll road, over the fools on the free roads, right to the entrance to ABIA.
“It’s a private hanger,” said Danny. “Whichever one has the jet with the flames painted on the sides.”
The driver navigated the narrow roads and took a hard right at the cell phone lot. They passed through a secure gate where the SUV was checked for explosives, and onto a private tarmac where the morning sun was already boiling the accumulated rubber. In the second hangar, a fire-red Gulfstream idled just inside the massive doors. The driver pulled up to a shaded area and put the SUV in park.
Danny stepped out as his door opened.
“I shouldn’t be too long,” he said.
The driver nodded and returned to the front seat.
Two men in black suits with thin ties approached Danny. They were tall, thin, and much like Pyrosius, very Asian.
That wasn’t just Danny’s assessment. Years ago before they had ever met in person, Guns had asked Pyrosius what he looked like, to which the flame-winged hacker had replied, “very Asian.” In reality, Pyrosius was Asian (Chinese, to be exact), but there was nothing over-the-top about it. His bodyguards, on the other hand, were quite the sci-fi trope, with slick-backed hair and dark sunglasses.
They greeted Danny with a slight bow and led him to the open stairs at the front of the jet. There, standing in the threshold, was the very Asian hacker himself.
In virtual reality, Pyrosius imagined himself as a god of fire and often mixed elements of the mythical Phoenix with old-world Chinese imagery. His avatar stood nine feet tall in most constructs, though when he was on a private server, he dialed himself down to a respectable six foot even. In reality, Pyrosius was five foot four at the most. He wore wire-frame glasses and a long ponytail that reached down the middle of his back.
He wore his typical outfit: a starched white button-down tucked messily into black slacks.
Few would have guessed his net-worth rivaled that of an NFL star or a rapper.
“I’m not coming down there,” said Pyrosius. “These shoes do not set foot on Austin soil. Come inside and have a drink. And if you tell me what time it is, I’ll punch you in the nuts.”
Danny climbed the steps in the Gulfstream and turned away from the cockpit. Pyrosius stood near a table with a small cardboard box and gestured to its contents.
“I can’t remember how you take it, so I just got one of everything.” He read off a few entires from the Starbucks menu before Danny stopped him.
“Nothing for me.”
Pyrosius shrugged, extended his hand. “Thanks for coming, Guns.”
Danny nodded, sat down on one of the plush leather seats facing the table. The chair was more comfortable than anything in his condo.
“I’ll be brief. We’re wheels up in forty minutes.”
“Roger, captain,” said Danny. “Forty mikes for chow and muster.”
Pyrosius sat down opposite Danny and folded his hands on the table. His eyes narrowed, as if he were peering directly into Danny’s soul.
“How are things?” he asked.
“Make with the ask, Pyro. I’ve got things to do today.”
“I want to talk about the work you did for Benny Coker.”
Danny shook his head. “Who said I did work for Benny Coker?”
“He did,” said Pyrosius, smiling. “Said you helped him recover some photos an employee had stolen from his wife.”
In truth, Eileen Coker had been having an affair with Dylan Carter and when she tried to break it off, Dylan threatened to sell an extensive photo catalog of their private moments to a rival media feed. It had been Danny’s job to make sure every last copy of those photos was erased.
“An easy seek and destroy job,” said Danny. “I used off-the-shelf code to hunt down the signatures on his drives.”
“And,” said Pyrosius, tapping his head, “up here, too, right?”
“You think I hacked his brain?”
“Well, no, but his biochip, right? Margate third generation? That level of encryption is supposed to stop even the spooks in Langley. But you got through it. How?”
“Fine,” said Pyrosius. He reached for a cup from the box and pulled out what looked like a frappucino. “But that means you have to do this job for me.”
“Who said I wasn’t?”
“Huh, I don’t know. I guess I thought you’d be reluctant. You know, dick me around for more details or money, refuse to do it so I’d have to beg you, that sort of thing.”
Danny shook his head. “Not really my style. You’ve got work. It pays money. I like money. Simple.”
“Good, good,” said Pyrosius, turning on the palette.
“But I do have some demands.”
“You don’t even know what the job is yet.”
“I know it’s something beneath you. You said you didn’t have time for it, so it must be some kind of shit-work owed to some rich elite who needs you to make a problem go away.”
It was always the same thing for celebrity hackers. They started out doing what interested them, then what benefited them, and finally what benefitted those who could afford them.
“You’re half-right,” said Pyrosius. “The client is an elite, but he’s a nice guy. A small-grade philanthropist.”
“No elite is a nice guy.”
“You need to expand your world-view. Maybe this job will help you do that. In any case, his ‘problem’ as you call it is actually quite interesting. Two days ago, a person or group of persons unknown broke into the Orange County Municipal Morgue #17 at 3 o’clock in the morning. The official report says they were looking for augments and to that end, many of the corpses had been rummaged through. The police aren’t sure how much the thieves made off with.”
“One of the smaller cipher dens, LA Knights, I think. It doesn’t matter. They were busted trying to unload their haul at the swap, and among the items recovered, police found six biochips.”
Danny frowned. “They ripped out their chips?”
“No, it was a professional removal, probably by the morgue doctors. All the grow-wire had been snipped and the chip was clean. I don’t know what they thought they were going to do with used biochips, but my client ended up with them. He brought them to me, and now I’m handing them off to you.”
The questions about the Benny Coker job suddenly made sense.
“You can’t get into them, can you?” asked Danny.
“Into? Yes. But there’s data there that we can’t seem to touch. Something extra. I need someone who’s adept at breaking encryption. I don’t know how you do it, but you’re the best in the field.”
“No, you’re the best. I just don’t get why you’re bringing this to me.”
Pyrosius leaned back in his chair, smiled.
“Johnny already said no, didn’t he?”
“He said he was working on something big,” said Pyrosius. “Wouldn’t tell me what it was. Wouldn’t even take my call, just sent me a text saying not interested.”
Danny chuckled. If there was one thing you could count on with Johnny San Vito, it was his unbreakable focus in the face of even the most attractive distractions. Whatever he was working on, it had to be worth more than the intrigue and the paycheck of what Pyrosius had to offer.
“Did you bring the chips?”
No,” said Pyrosius, shaking his head. “Those don’t leave LA. My client has them in a secure building. You’d have to travel.”
Danny looked around the cabin. “You gonna give me a lift?”
“I’m not going to LA, but my client—.”
“What’s the client’s name?”
Pyrosius seemed to hesitate, but he knew as well as anyone that Danny would eventually figure out who was financing the job.
“His name is Frank. He runs the Kagan Group out of Los Angeles. One of the biochips belonged to his son.”
“Oh,” said Danny.
“So it’s personal, huh? If this Kagan guy is connected, then I don’t really have a choice, do I? This is gonna be lucrative.”
“Mid six figures if you can decrypt the data,” said Pyrosius. “Double that if you can figure out how the kid died.”
“And your cut?”
“Zero. I’m doing this as a favor… to both of you.”
Danny nodded, reached for a random cup in the box. He took a sip of something foul and resisted the urge to spit.
“Get me a proper drink, and I’m in.”
“Deal,” he replied. “I told the client you’d meet with him in Los Angeles tomorrow night. I’ll message you all the details.”
Goddamn Pyrosius. Always thinking he knew the future.
Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash