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Authors: Sam A. Patel

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Data Runner

BOOK: Data Runner
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Data Runner
Book One of the Data Runner Series
by Sam A. Patel
Copyright

Diversion Books
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1004
New York, NY 10016
www.DiversionBooks.com

Copyright © 2013 by Sam A. Patel
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

For more information, email [email protected]
First Diversion Books edition May 2013
ISBN:
978-1-626810-60-0

Dedication

The Data Runner series is dedicated to my family,
without whom it would not be.

This book is for my father, who always believed.

Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness.

—H.G. Wells

Prologue

It's hard to imagine that a little rubber stopper can almost break your nose, but that's exactly what happens to me when the rooftop door flies open so hard it bounces off the stop and back into my face. This sends me tumbling straight into two empty garbage cans like they're the last two pins in a spare. Garbage cans. Who the hell keeps garbage cans on a rooftop?

I groan.

Okay, so maybe there is no good way to come crashing through a door when Blackburn's goons are on your tail, but there are plenty of bad ways to do it and this is definitely one of them.

I jump back to my feet and wedge the door shut behind me.

I hurry around the roof looking for an out, dripping sweat in the cool night air. That's when I see them perched above me on the adjacent rooftop. Three Complex soldiers wearing full capsule body armor, laser goggles glowing red like the lit-up retinas of a pack of nocturnal creatures. Each of them holds a sundrop gun—you can tell by the accordion tubing that wraps around to the packs on their backs—but that works to my advantage because we're back in the Free City now and they can't fire those here. That's why they just stay there tracking me. It's all they can do. They sure as hell can't make that jump with all the gear they're carrying and there's no other way down here.

I skid to a halt at the edge of the roof.

I know what you're thinking.
Didn't you tell Red Tail that the key to a gap jump is to keep going?

I did, and when it comes to gap jumps that's true most of the time, but there are times when you have to stop and weigh what's in front of you against your skillset, and this is one of those times. Standing on the brink of the building looking over the edge to the adjacent rooftop, it isn't the horizontal distance that bothers me. That's only ten feet, and I can clear that easy. What bothers me is the drop, which I'm figuring to be about twenty-five feet.

Twenty-five feet.

Have you ever cleared a twenty-five-foot drop?

Maybe you have, but that was probably into water, right? Off a diving board, or perhaps you took the plunge off a short cliff into a lagoon. Something along those lines? If that's the case then the worst thing that happened was a little bit of slap rash where your body hit the surface. Yeah, I know that feeling. That whip-like sting, like your entire body has just been snapped with a giant rubber band, and when you finally climb out a few minutes later all you can see are patches of tender skin all over your body. That's a sting to be sure, but let me assure you, it's nothing compared to what I'm facing.

I turn around. The soldiers with red eyes watch me from above like the alien gods of some ancient mythology.

I hear a crash from the floor below, which can only be the big steel chair I knocked over just minutes before on my way to the roof. They must have picked it up and thrown it into the door I jammed with a broomstick. I knew it would only buy me a minute or two, but in a clutch situation like this, even a minute can make all the difference in the world.

Their footfall races up the stairs to the rooftop door behind me.

There is no going back. Right here, right now, for all the chips on the table, I am all-in. I guess this is what they call painting yourself into a corner. The only difference is, my corner just happens to be on top of a twenty-five-story building with the next rooftop ten feet over and twenty-five feet down. And just in case you're wondering…yes, I am wearing my body armor…but body armor won't do squat for my ankles if I don't stick the landing just right. If I end up with a twist or a sprain, I will be done. And then there's the matter of the cortex chip in my arm. Even if I do stick the landing, I have to be sure to protect the inside of my forearm when I roll out of it, because if that chip should happen to burst…

Full Tilt.

Game Over.

No Replay.

The footfall reaches the other side of the door. The wedge won't last long. Even now as they throw their shoulders into it I can see it begin to slip.

I take two steps back.

The men behind me aren't Complex soldiers like the ones above. These guys are internal security. They wear suits over light body armor and carry weapons that can be fired within city limits. Glock 21s, if I am not mistaken, and they are already drawn. That means they are shooting .45 caliber bullets. I can still feel the time I had Dexter fire a 9mm round into my body armor from ten feet out just to make sure I could take it. I took it all right, even if it did nearly fracture my rib. But a .45? I have no desire at all to find out what that feels like. That's just too big a caliber for a 17-year-old body to handle. Seventeen. That's something I still have to remind myself of from time to time—that no matter how gifted I may be intellectually, I still have the physical body of a 17 year old.

The wedge slips another two inches.

I hear the grumbling curses of Blackburn's goons as they squeeze their hands through the opening. If ever there was a moment for a leap of courage, this is it. I am ready. I have to be.

I take two steps back. Three. Four. And run.

The door flies open behind me. The clamor of their voices immediately turns to full-on words like
there he is
,
there's the Carrion
,
don't let him get away
as they raise their guns to my back. But I am already in motion. Committed, as the tread of my boot grips the edge of the building. I leap.

A shot is fired.

The bullet whizzes past me as I soar, suspended in thin air like I'm hanging by a thread hooked to the crescent moon, until the Earth takes over and I drop.

Feet running across air.

Arms swimming against wind.

I sail clear into the night.

And as the crushing blow of an impending landing that could go either way quickly approaches, I can think of one thing only—

That gravity, just like the blackjack table that started this all, is also a zero-sum game.

There Are No Limits, Only Plateaus
1

It's something I have done countless times before, but for some reason when I press my thumb to the biometric pad on this particular morning, it gets me thinking. The high-resolution scan converts the ridges and valleys of my thumbprint into a data matrix. This data matrix is then buffered into a volatile memory chip so that the internal processor can measure it against the two thumbprint matrices already stored in the EEPROM. Obviously, the comparison with Martin Baxter's will fail. But when the comparison with Jack Nill's authenticates…

BEEP!

The system trips the tumblers, and I open the basement door to a whiff of burnt silicon from overclocked processors. Grab both railings with gloved hands. Lift my legs and slide down the steep stairs into my father's workshop. “I'm off, Martin.”

Yeah, I call my father Martin. That started when I was 14, and he and I got into a huge argument one day about the Queen's Pawn Game. I kept trying to illustrate to him why the Indian defenses offered much more immediate counter-play for black than d5, but he just kept insisting that d5 was the best response to a d4 opening—the same old, boring counter-opening that he felt was still the best overall and second to none in versatility. Anyway, I made some point, I don't even remember what now, after which I blurted his name emphatically at the end of a sentence. Something like “I bet you didn't consider that…did you,
Martin?
” I don't know why, but it stuck. Now I call him Martin all the time.

You may be wondering why, if my father is Martin Baxter, then my name is Jack Nill. That's easy. The name comes from my mother, Genie Nill, the only thing of hers besides my olive skin, dark hair, and hazel eyes that she left me with when she disappeared. I wasn't even 4 years old at the time, so what memories I have of her are vague. Random images. A porch swing. Sitting on her lap. A beautiful woman with a carefree smile hovering over me as the sky moved behind her. Things like that, nothing more. If you want to know the reason why she left, then you'll have to get in a very short line that begins and ends with me. And if you do get in line behind me, I wouldn't advise you to hold your breath.

“Martin?” I repeat.

“Did you see this?” he asks, referring to the news stream on one of his transparent screens.

I read the scroll over the active video. “
More allegations arise in the Blackburn scandal. Brand new evidence suggests that Blackburn, Ltd.—primary defense contractor and standing army for the North American Alliance—has been conducting backroom deals with Caliphate Global, the corporate arm of the Islamic empire
. What else is new?”

“Not that one.” Martin turns his attention to the trans screen, throws that stream aside and brings up a local feed from the Free City News Stream. “This one,” he says, pointing to a dolled up newswoman reporting live from the riverbank. Behind her is a long strip of yellow tape, and behind that, a bloodstained sheet covering a corpse. “They found another data runner with his arm cut off.”

You know that moment when someone breathes a sigh of relief? Well, this is the exact opposite. Because unlike the Blackburn scandal, which—let's be honest—has nothing to do with me today, this news affects me directly. Dexter is already running the sneakernet, and it looks like Pace is about to get into it as well. “Is it the same as before?” I ask.

It isn't unusual for data runners to turn up like that. All those random bodies that are always washing up missing an arm—you always know they were killed for whatever it was they were transporting at the time. Running data isn't just a dangerous game in a dirty world, it is quite possibly the most dangerous game—and you accept that risk when you get into it—but this is different.

“Same kind of cut, same kind of weapon,” says Martin. “Apparently, there's some nut running around the Free City hacking off people's arms with a samurai sword.”


Katana
,” I correct, “and it's not just random people he's after…” Obviously, there is only one reason why an interceptor would cut off the arm of a data runner… “he's going after their cargos. He must be searching for a particular load that he just hasn't found yet.”

“Do you have any idea what he's looking for?”

“How would I know?”

“Your friends on the sneakernet.” Martin pushes back and turns in his chair. Underneath his lampshade of shoulder-length curls and the thin rectangular glasses he's worn for years, he's actually a good-looking guy. The chic geek who simply got old. “They must have some idea what this rogue interceptor is after.”

I shake my head no. “But I guarantee you he's not a rogue. Interceptors are just like data runners, they always work for somebody.”

“Somebody like the Hermes Agency?”

The Hermes Agency is a pretty decent outfit when it comes to information couriers. Obviously they're not Arcadian Transports. No other outfit even compares with Arcadian Transports. But if you're a potential client or a potential data runner, you could do a lot worse than Hermes. That's the agency Dex runs for. It's also the agency that has tried on several occasions to recruit me, most recently after our big parkour exhibition in the Free City. Martin knows I'm not crazy enough to run the sneakernet, but he also knows I've been getting offers from them, which is why he mentions it. “Somebody just like them,” I reply.

All of a sudden Martin gets that look. You know the one. It's the same look most people of his generation get any time they take a drive down memory lane. “Running data,” he says. “It's still such a foreign concept to me.”

Here we go. Martin's childhood. Growing up in the halcyon years of net neutrality when everything was secure, and you could actually send information over open channels without having to worry about it getting stolen. Hell, in those days you could actually send correspondence through the post without having to worry about it getting scanned for content. But that was then, and
then
is a world away from now.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't appreciate Martin's point of view, I just don't see it the same way he does. Maybe it's just one of those generational things. Martin grew up with the old Internet, so he still remembers what it was like when virtual space was public domain. He actually remembers net neutrality. But for me the aggregate internet—or
aggrenet
—is all I've ever known, so net neutrality is just another idea in history. For me, it kind of makes sense that virtual space would have ownership rights same as everything else in the world, and that a single megacorporation like Grumwell would own it all. I mean,
somebody
has to be the largest GDP in the world. Better them than Caliphate Global, right? But try telling that to Martin and you'll get an earful about Keynesian economics and the anti-democratization of the free market. I still don't fully understand it. How could I? How could anyone? It's all so vast.

“Well, look at this way,” I say. “Maybe the sneakernet was an unintended consequence of the aggregate Internet, but so was the undernet…”

The undernet. Because the more they locked the aggrenet down, the more people like us found a way to tunnel beneath it.

“…and so was Morlock.”

Morlock. The group of hackers who run the undernet.

Martin smiles. “Still haven't gotten the tap from Moreau yet?”

Moreau. The one who runs Morlock.

“How did you get yours?” I ask.

Martin shrugs, which isn't something he does often. “One day I ported into the undernet and there it was.”

“There what was?”

“The tag. There's no official invitation or induction or anything like that. One day you're an isolated hacker/phreak working on your own, the next you discover that your work has been tagged as Morlock.” Martin snaps his fingers. “Just like that, you're part of the collective.”

“Tagged by Moreau himself?”

Martin shrugs again. Twice in one morning, that had to be a record. “Every Morlock operates as an independent cell, so there's no way of knowing why some are selected and some aren't. I'm not sure there's any rhyme or reason to it.”

“I'm sure Moreau has his reasons.”

“You'd have to ask him that.”

“Oh, I will. When I find him, that's going to be the first thing I ask him.”

I remember the security panel upstairs. The nice thing about talking to Martin is that he isn't big on segues. You can just jump from one topic to another. “The biometric security system upstairs…you know how in the movies they're always cutting off someone's thumb to get past it? Well, couldn't you just pull one of the stored thumbprint matrices from the EEPROM and ghost it into the buffer to trick the authenticator?”

Martin answers without even giving it a moment's thought. “Those EEPROMs all use a modified Floating Gate MOSFET for their storage mechanism. It works like a built-in failsafe. Any attempt to pull the data matrix directly from the EEPROM will trigger a hot-carrier injection into the gate dielectric and wipe it out completely. Besides, any security panel worth its salt is going to put at least two inches of reinforced steel between the front-side scanner and the logic board. You wouldn't even be able to access it without some heavy-duty cutting tools.”

“What's a MOSFET?” I ask.

“Metal–oxide–semiconductor field-effect transistor.”

Okay, that's a few steps above my knowledge base. If integrated circuits are like Legos then I can use them to build anything to spec and, to a lesser extent, to create things on my own. But Martin isn't limited by what comes in the box; he can mix his own polymer and pour his own custom-designed Legos. His building blocks are the molecules and compounds that make up my building blocks, which allows him to build on a whole other level than me. Where I see a single EEPROM, Martin sees the transistors and semiconductors holding that integrated circuit together.

“I hate to say it,” says Martin, “but cutting off a thumb is still probably your best way in.”

Hacking off arms. Cutting off thumbs. It was a very strange morning in Martin's basement. Normally our day doesn't start with so much dismemberment.

Martin rolls across the basement to a worktable covered in felt and turns on the card shooter. After a brief mechanical whir, the machine spits out six hands in a perfect parabola followed by a seventh with the bottom card down. I know at once what this means. Blackjack at the syndicate gaming parlor. “I thought you were banned from that game?” I ask.

“The pit boss owes me a favor. He convinced Vlad to let me in for one more game.”

“Why would he do that?”

“They made an event out of it. They've bumped it up to a thirteen-deck shoe, so people are going to show up just to watch the game. A lot of whales.”

Whales. Suckers with fat wallets. “What are the stakes?”

“It's a zero-sum game. Fifty grand, heads-up.”

“Fifty grand? Where did you get fifty grand?”

“On margin.”

Of course. If we had fifty grand to start with, Martin wouldn't need to play. He was playing to win that fifty grand, which meant he had to borrow the buy-in to win the pot. If you think that sounds crazy, it's only because you're not Martin Baxter. His system reduces the gambling coefficient down to nearly zero. In that sense, Martin Baxter doesn't gamble—he works the numbers and trusts the math. For him, blackjack is like a cash machine.

“See that?” Martin glances at me as he wins five out of six hands against the card shooter. “They haven't invented a shoe yet that can beat me.”

That much is true. That's the thing about people like Martin—even when they're unemployed they're never really out of work. How could they be? Minds like his are far too active to ever go limp; they're always cooking up something, and they always find a way to get by. That's one thing Martin always says and I believe: when you're smart, you can always think your way out of a jam. And it isn't just true of mental smarts either. It applies to physical smarts as well. You know, muscle memory.

“PK training in the Free City today,” I remind him as I turn and hoist myself up the stairs.

“Okay,” he says. “Stop, drop and roll!”

Stop, drop and roll
. It takes me a second to figure out why that sounds so familiar. Until I realize…“that's what you're supposed to do if you're ever on fire. But I guess the principle applies to PK as well.”

“Bowling too, I would imagine.”

“Sure, why not. Why waste a perfectly good mnemonic?”

“Why, indeed.”

“Good counting,” I say as I reach the door at the top of the steps.

“Good jumping,” he replies behind me.

We don't say
luck
. Martin and I are both dedicated to math, logic, and the laws of the universe. Neither one of us believes in luck.

Pace waits for me at the end of my driveway with two bladders full of water slung over his shoulders. Today is his turn. He and I are both members of the TerraAqua water collective, Chimpo and Dexter aren't, so we take turns bringing extra water for them. Although that's probably going to change very soon. In the last two billing cycles, Pace's family has been past due on their fees, and with the overdue deadline coming up fast, I know their days are numbered.

We tap fists. Pace is shorter and leaner than me and wears a constant quarter-inch buzz cut. Constant. Seriously, he must buzz his head twice a week to keep that length because I have never once seen it grow out of that quarter-inch setting. As for the barely visible stubble on his chin, I suspect it's all his Filipino genes will allow.

“Have you heard the news?” he asks.

“I just saw it on the Free City newsfeed.”

“Newsfeed? What are you talking about?”

“They just found another runner with his arm cut off?”

BOOK: Data Runner
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