Authors: Eliot Peper
“What are you thinking about?” Frederick nudged her with his shoulder.
Lilly looked up at the lined russet-brown face above the tuxedo. He really
tall. Seated next to him, her head barely reached his shoulder.
“I was just wondering what Sara might think of all this,” she said.
Pain flashed behind Frederick’s eyes. “The thought had occurred to me too.” He put his hand over hers and gave it a squeeze. “Sara never liked it when I tried to speak for her. She hated other people putting words in her mouth. But I can only imagine that if she had seen a friend killed, she would stop at nothing to get to the bottom of it. I’ve never met a person more tenacious than she was. My dogs could have taken a few pointers from her in that department.”
Lilly stared at him for a long moment. “What do you want?” she asked.
The corners of his lips turned down. “More than anything,” he said, soulful exhaustion behind the words, “I’d like to retire.”
A half dozen police cruisers were parked haphazardly across the street in front of them. Their lights were flashing but their sirens were silent. The old truck pulled up, and an officer stepped forward. The driver rolled down the window, but Frederick leaned over before he could speak. The police officer’s eyes widened when he saw Frederick in the cab, and he waved them through without a word.
The truck had to roll one wheel up onto a curb in order to get around the police cars, whose flashing lights had blinded them to the scene beyond. It took a moment for Lilly’s eyes to adjust as they thumped back onto the street on the other side. The truck pulled forward another few hundred meters and then stopped. The driver left the engine running.
They disembarked from the cab, and Lilly got her first clear look at what was going on. The street ahead of them was an ocean of tightly packed people. It went on for blocks and blocks and blocks. Toddlers, teenagers, and grandmothers of every shape and color. Far off in the distance, the central bonfire blazed above the heads of the assembled multitudes. It was late afternoon, and the sun was just starting to dip below the horizon. Dusk threw shadows everywhere, and turned the vast cloud of smoke issuing from the fire into a tower of deep purple that stretched impossibly high above them. A constant, unending buzz made the crowd seem like a living organism. It was like the audience chattering in anticipation before a sold-out stadium show.
Five of Frederick’s dreadlocked enforcers stood at the edge of the crowd facing out toward the waiting police. Lilly imagined similar scenes must be playing themselves out on the hundreds of other streets that led into the multiple square kilometers of city the protest now occupied. They recognized Frederick, and one hurried over to greet them, shotgun dangling from its shoulder strap.
“Sir,” he said. “It’s starting to get out of control in the northeast. We don’t have enough men stationed there to keep the crowd back.”
Frederick’s expression turned grim. “We knew that would happen eventually. How far have they gotten?”
“They just hit the Fringe.”
“Well, at least it’s not our territory,” said Frederick. “Remember your orders. Our duty here is to protect the people. Property damage is deplorable, but we will not tolerate violence directed at our citizens.”
The man bumped a fist on his chest. “Yes, sir.”
“Now,” said Frederick. “Can you give us a hand unloading this truck?”
THE MILK SLOUGHED OFF
crystals of sugar and cinnamon as it flowed down over the mountain of CTC piled high in the bowl. It formed swirling eddies as it pooled and eroded the pyramid of cereal. Little by little, the mass disintegrated until the entire thing finally collapsed into the churning milk.
You know why I’m asking about the protest.
Graham had to admit that his last conversation with Huian had put him on edge. The demonstration itself wasn’t a problem. It was an inevitable side effect of their era. Let the disenfranchised burn off some steam and break a few windows. But the timing had been bad luck and the blog post worse. He had expected Sara’s assassination to be written off as yet another Slum homicide. Killings were so frequent and unremarkable in the Slums that he hadn’t suspected this one would attract undue attention. The stack of OPD cold cases was sky-high. But Sara had been some kind of folk hero, and her neighbors had taken to the streets. Even that wouldn’t have lasted as long as it had without direct support from local gang affiliates. Now their efforts were making the futile search for Sara’s killer into a cause célèbre.
If Sara had lived in the Green Zone, he would have expected her death to create a scandal. There hadn’t been a Green Zone homicide for three years running, and Security had a nearly perfect conviction rate before that. When every device was an extension of Cumulus’s eyes and ears, investigations were pretty straightforward. Security could just access Cumulus data on the victim’s phone or any connected devices, vehicles, or drones in the area. Just scroll back through time, and you could see exactly who the perpetrator was, and proceed from there to follow every digital breadcrumb they had ever left.
Security didn’t have jurisdiction in the Slums, and OPD didn’t have access to Cumulus data. But even if OPD detectives were able to win access by using the publicity angle to convince a judge to force the issue, Graham was still untouchable. That’s why the blog post and the protest made him nervous but didn’t send him into a panic. This was precisely the kind of contingency he had designed the Ghost Program to defend against.
Law enforcement and intelligence organizations depended on digital tools to aid their physical surveillance and investigative efforts. Every agency on earth had grown complacent with such easy data at their fingertips. Their human intelligence capacities withered on the vine. But with the Ghost Program in place, those tools would be useless against Graham. His special status as a digital wraith made him virtually invisible. They could dig through every archive but wouldn’t find him anywhere. Every trace of his presence was automatically wiped clean by specially designed algorithms.
Graham rubbed his eyes. He had been staring at a screen for too long. The gray light of pre-dawn was just starting to filter through the windows of his apartment. He filled a fresh mug of coffee, picked up the bowl of cereal, and returned to his desk.
Infiltrating Cumulus had been many times easier than winning access to many of the cadres that he had been charged with cracking over the years. In fact, counterintelligence measures were so weak that Graham himself had gotten lazy about them. He didn’t even bother with SRDs anymore. Surveillance detection runs were standard practice prior to running an op. The agent would combine pedestrian, private, and public transit in a way designed to flush out any followers. You’d take the subway, get off the train, and wait in the station until everyone else had moved on and then take the train back in the other direction, forcing anybody shadowing you to come out in the open. You’d take elevators to various floors and then leave through different exits. You’d walk up one-way streets against traffic to throw off anyone following you in a vehicle. After moving to San Francisco, Graham had run SDRs here for the first few months out of force of habit, but it quickly became clear that they were nothing but a waste of time. With the Ghost Program in place, who cared? Why bother with an SDR when you were already invisible to a potential enemy’s drone? He carried the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.
But with the events of the last forty-eight hours, Graham knew he needed to be more careful. He had become too reliant on his ace-in-the-hole, using it as a crutch instead of a superpower. Granddad would have been disgusted with his negligence. From now on, he would increase his security precautions. The Ghost Program had saved him from an otherwise disastrous scandal. There was no need to press his luck. Inconvenient as they were, he’d run SDRs on all ops from now on. His enemies might be civilians, but even amateurs got lucky every once in a while. No need to make it easy for them.
He sat down at the desk. His display showed live coverage of the protest. This would be the third straight day. Last night, the crowd had invaded the Fringe, and turned into a riot. They were looting the hipster coffee shops, coworking spaces, luxury condos, cocktail bars, and gourmet restaurants that clung to the edge of the Green Zone like barnacles. They had somehow surrounded a number of Fleets and had set the vehicles on fire. The main thrust of the crowd was surging up
Street toward MacArthur BART Station. MacArthur BART was a raised station built in the center of Highway
, which ran perpendicular to
Street and constituted the border between the Fringe and the Green Zone in that part of North Oakland.
Security had fortified the overpass at the intersection of Highway
Street. They had spray-painted a green line across the asphalt, demarcating their jurisdiction. Hundreds of Security officers in full riot gear stood at attention under the overpass, the boots of the vanguard just centimeters behind the line. The first wave of protesters was only about thirty meters from that line, holding back but jeering at the waiting officers. Security had shut down Highway
entirely, and sharpshooters brandished high-powered assault rifles atop it, using the highway guardrails as ramparts. Drones supported them from the sky, and Security vehicles were lined up in orderly rows on the Green Zone side of the highway. Security had also called for a voluntary curfew within the Green Zone, and had already evacuated people living close to the border.
Graham shook his head and took a bite of CTC, washing it down with a mouthful of coffee. He had been in enough burgeoning riots to know that this would not end well. When tension got this high, all you needed was one idiot to make a mistake, and things would go to hell in a handbasket. Huian had received separate calls from the governor and the president. The former was trying to mobilize the National Guard, but that would take far too long. The president was terrified of seeing a catastrophe developing when the country was only one year away from a national election. Karl was on the line with Mayor Gonzalez and the OPD chief for hourly updates. But their efforts would be too little, too late.
He stood behind what he had told Huian. The real issue here was the country’s long descent into inequality. The changes he had noticed whenever he returned to his homeland had quietly fermented, a vat of perceived social injustice. If you wanted to avert this kind of situation, you needed to start
earlier by correcting the socioeconomic shift. They hadn’t. Which was totally expected. Why would powerful incumbents want to rock the boat and upset a pecking order that benefitted them? The only difference here was that American leaders had gotten soft. They had won their positions in a country that didn’t yet require an iron hand. The middle class had fallen victim to the death of a thousand cuts. With them had died the nation’s solidarity. Now, those leaders felt uncomfortable because they had put themselves in an untenable situation. They lacked the nerve to do what needed doing. Violence was rearing its ugly head, and they were tying themselves up in knots over it. Leaders more accustomed to ruling societies with these kinds of demographics would never have been caught with their pants down. They would have put this to rest on day one with a few well-timed displays of shock-and-awe force. Nothing made joining a protest less appealing than intermittent raids by ruthless strike teams.
Graham ate another spoonful of CTC, slurping the milk so it didn’t drip down his chin. Violence didn’t make him uncomfortable. This was exactly what he had been expecting. It was blindingly obvious. But it was called
obvious for a reason. These kinds of situations were his professional forte. Moments of chaos were tipping points. History books imagined that change happened in smooth arcs, but Graham knew better. Ninety-nine percent of history was essentially static. Incumbent players competed for incremental gains. But the other one percent—that’s where things got interesting. Circumstances would shift so radically that century-long assumptions would be turned over in a day. Most people were so caught up in those assumptions that they wouldn’t even realize it was happening. But the few who did could leapfrog from street urchin to robber baron. Or from lowly intelligence agent to the corporate overlord.
He lifted the bowl to drink the last of the sugary milk left in the bottom. His long-laid plans were finally bearing fruit. Huian was ensnared in concentric circles of traps. He was engineering her world from the inside out in a psychological architecture that gave him total control. She had been easy to subvert. Success in Silicon Valley was unusual by geopolitical standards because it did not entirely depend on the classic mix of refined paranoia and megalomania. Huian was fundamentally a builder, not a ruler. And that distinction left her vulnerable to people with Graham’s skills and mindset.
He smiled and finished the last sip of coffee. When this little piece of action was over, he really deserved to get himself laid. Sex might be nothing more than a temporary reprieve from the vagaries of life in the shadows, but that didn’t mean he needed to give himself blue balls. Maybe he’d track down that Japanese-looking piece of ass he’d seen after leaving Dr. Corvel’s office. She was seriously hot and so shy that she had demurred to respond when he had approached and complimented her. Visions of alabaster skin and entangled limbs rose in his mind. He shook himself. Yes, he’d track her down once this was over. That would be easy. Hell, he could trawl through her account history and find footage of her in the shower if he wanted to. But pussy could wait. Right now, he had work to do.