Excerpt Chapter from the novel, The Blood RingFirst published on The Blood Ring
Martin felt the van pick up the pace as it hurtled down Salamander Highway, devoid of traffic or life. She looked over at Rick, who grappled with the steering wheel as if he were attempting to rip it off. His battle with the self-drive function could have been avoided had he been successful in disabling it. Rico managed to purge the van’s smartie and kill the geotracker, but not the self-drive. Only via the emergency override could he steer the vehicle, otherwise it will retrace the last waypoint entered into its memory by the now-defunct smartie.
“Fucken Hianto, over-engineering everything,” growled Rico.
His murmuring was starting to annoy the crap out of Martin. She squirmed in the passenger seat, her guts growing uneasy by the second, “What are you doin’? Can you slow tha fuck down?”
“It’s been programmed ta go this fast. All I can do is hit da brakes. Why don’t ya relax? Git off ma back for once, eh.”
“Cops pull us over, then I get on ya fuckin’ back like a gorilla?”
The Hianto Express started to beep and boop.
Warning alerts. Without a smartie to interpret them, they would need to look them up on the GIoT. Martin felt the momentum dissipate. The electric motor cut out and the lights dimmed. The van rolled in silence into the night.
They both fall silent.
“We are out of juice,” said Martin, “Don’t hit the brakes, stupid. Keep it rolling until we reach that place over there.” Ahead, a mecca of lights lit up the horizon. A giant green and white logo, featuring a pair of human footprints within a sun, grew closer by the second.
“As luck would have it,” she said.
“We are not going to make it.”
They held their breath as the van rolled down the slope and up the driveway leading into the Solaria Energy Station. With all momentum spent, it came to a standstill just a meter away from the recharge booths. Martin jumped out and walked over to one of the chargers. The plug barely reached the van. She leaned over to the driver’s window, “Next time you hack a ride, hack one with a full charge.”
“We gotta pay inside. I disabled the identipay?”
Martin looked at the scanner plate, extending out, ready to accept a multitude of payment platforms except for the one that mattered. “Our only option is dash. Then go and pay.”
“What? You have dash. You go and pay,” said Rico.
“Go pay. And don’t forget your head-mirror.”
Reluctantly, Rico headed towards the kiosk, pulling a band from his pocket and strapping it around his forehead. He walked halfway, turned around and said, “I don’t have any dash.”
Martin pretended not to hear him. “What was that?”
“Forget it,” Rico turned back and continued on his way.
To kill time, Martin decided to clean the windscreen. By the time she was halfway done, she noticed the charge indicator was still inactive. “What the fuck is he doin?”
As the next minute ticked over and still no green light, Martin tossed away the squeegee and walked over to the glass doors. Pulling down her Rebelo’s, she entered, only to discover the store unoccupied. Searching all the aisles, Martin found them devoid of any human presence, “What tha fuck is going on?” The door behind the service counter opened, and a sweaty, exhausted Rico emerged. He walked over to the refrigerator rack, opened a glass door and helped himself to a can of orange-flavoured Zilliqa tea.
“What are you doing?” demanded Martin.
“I didn’t have any dash to pay. Do you want a drink?”
Martin made her way back towards the service counter. Inside a tight storeroom, the shop’s cajero was sprawled on the ground, hogtied and gagged with electrical tape. Martin turned to the service counter and studied the transaction portal. “Are you kidding me?”
“I was discreet,” called out Rico while stalking the aisle like a hungry monkey in a fruit market. “Stop acting suspicious, unless ya wanna get tagged.”
“Did you manage to lift anything?” She tapped at the screen and opened a dash wallet. She felt a disdain ripple across her face was, “Fifty-eight point three five dashies! You did all this shit for just fifty-eight point three five dashie? That’s worth what? Two hundred? Jesus.” She looked up at Rico.
Rico was halfway into a Rize chocolate bar. Something caught his attention outside. “Let’s get the flamin’ shit outta here. There’s a customer outside.”
Martin had other ideas, “You’re a customer, okay!” She plugged her hackerjack cable into the register, attaching it to the scanner plate. The portal displayed their scumhacker splash screen. Her pango would act as the register. “Did you knock out the Yellowcop?”
“What? No. Are you insane?”
With Yellowcop’s eyes observing, Martin knew her time was limited. Rico’s actions would have most likely caught the ire of the network. Depending on what the algorithm detected, the alert would go to a parliament of police super-smarties, who would confirm with each other whether a crime had occurred. If the data is vague, it could take an hour for confirmation. Then it handed over for human confirmation, who then dispatch resources accordingly. From experience, if the assault or felony is unique or less obvious, and if there is an overload of data, this process could take hours. Facial obscuration tags hardly prompt a response anymore, so Martin got to thinking. “Quick. Keep pretending you’re a customer.”
A male customer entered and approached the service counter, “Excuse me, the self-serve isn’t working.” He said with a blank expression and with a no-nonsense voice. Behind him, impersonating a derisory version of a customer, Rico picked up a pack of Frenos, exaggerating every nuance.
Martin pointed to the scanner.
The male customer looked at Martin, “Yes but my self-serve is active.”
“Self-serve is out,” answered Martin, matching flatness with flatness. She pointed to the scanner again.
He forced a smile and waved his pango over the plate.
“Sorry, looks like the system is down; dash only at this stage,” says Martin as she slides him her Dendro-hacked pango. The customer’s smile turned into a confused frown as he thumbed at his pango, tapping out one fifty in dash for the prepay, then bitterly held it over the counter.
Martin accepted the payment and activated charge dock number seven. Without a single word, the male customer turned and rushed outside, headed to his vehicle waiting to be charged. “Thank you very much,” said Martin as she got to work on the register, enabling the customer’s dock to commence charging. “How simple was that?”
“Now you’re fuckin’ pushing your luck.”
Martin shrugged her shoulders.
Rico stepped towards the refrigerator, inspecting the refreshments. “Raspberry Ice Tea. Fuck. Sixteen bucks? I know shit little about current affairs or the state of the fucking economy but this shit’s an injustice. It a war against homeless people, pricing us out of existence, that’s what it is.”
“Fuck them all,” Martin said with renewed defiance. “They try to fuck us, we try to fuck them back.”
Rico jumped. “Who the hell was that?” he shouted, appearing a little spooked, “Did you see someone in the next aisle.”
“No,” Martin looked and saw no one there.
“A chick with blond curls.” He seemed adamant, his face tense, glowing under the fluorescent lights emanating from the refrigerators. Rico took two steps towards the corner, looking for some phantom, confusion prevailing on his face.
Martin looked through the wall of glass at another customer outside, waiting for their recharge. She then turned to watch Rico wandering down the aisle looking for something interesting to eat, “How much have we made so far?” Rico said. “Ah, chillihoney chips.”
Martin, still manning the service counter answered, “About three thousand!”
“That’s plenty. Let’s not push our luck. We’ve been pushing it for three hours.”
“I can’t believe how much money these people make.”
“What do you expect? People who run a business generally make a lot of fuckin’ money.”
A dark-haired, distraught woman entered through the glass doors and approached Martin.
“Can I please buy a recharge? Top it up with fifty.”
“Machines down, we take dash only.”
Martin sighs but collected the fifty via her pango.
The woman turned to leave, but then all of sudden she stopped dead in her tracks. Turning back to face Martin, she said, “Excuse me. Sorry, but you didn’t top up my account. Yet, you charged me fifty.”
Martin looked at the tap register and shrugged her shoulders, “Machine says it has credited your account.”
“Well, it doesn’t show up on my pango.” She thrust the device, a pre-Spartan module, at Martin. The balance showed zero, true to her word.
“Maybe your pango’s lagging.” Martin found it odd that the transfer had failed.
“I didn’t come down in the last shower sweetie. You have made a mistake.”
Ricko walked up to the counter with his packet of chillihoney chips, posing as a customer standing in line.
“Look, the self-serve is down. Things are buggy at the moment. You may have to wait.” Martin felt agitated. She knew something had transpired. Had Yellowcop shut down the tap vendor remotely?
“Look,” said the teary-eyed woman. “I don’t have time to wait. Aren’t you the cajero? Can’t you fix this?”
“If the tap vendor is down, there’s nothing much we can do about it?”
“Listen. My daughter is out there. She’s waiting for me. If I don’t pick her up from this goddamn highway her life may be at risk.”
Martin assumed a sympathetic posture. “How old is your daughter?”
Ricko played the air violin behind the woman’s back.
“Fourteen?” Martin snickered. “Salamander Highway’s no place for little girls.”
“That’s just great. All this technology and I’m stuck here. I come in here to buy a recharge and I end up being judged by a fucking moron.”
Martin shook her head and indicated with her finger, gesturing for the customer to lean closer. “Can you repeat that last bit please?”
“Yes, that’s right. I called you a fucking moron!”
With lightning speed, Martin grabbed the woman by the collar, pulled her halfway over the counter and headbutted her in the face. Crack! The customer recoiled and landed with a thud at Ricko’s feet.
“That was awesome!” But Ricko’s admiration turned to shock as he caught sight of something behind Martin.
“What’s the matter with you?”
Ricko pointed above Martin’s head. “That was so obvious, dude.”
Martin turned around and looked up at the graphite lenses dotting the store.
“I don’t believe this shit,” said Martin stepping over the two bodies on the floor of the storeroom. Eyeballing each other, the customer and the cajero were down side by side, tied up and gagged with electrical tape. “I can just picture it. We’re going to be on all the fucking junknews channels. Shit, we’re going to be on Crimeline, or worse, the world’s dumbest crooks! Fuck! Where is the fucking startpoint?”
“It’s Yellowcop, man. We’ll never be able to hack in or delete the fucking data.”
Martin hated risk. She knew if she acted quickly she’d be able to thwart the system. “The Yellowcop blockchain distributes fragments of data in real-time, otherwise it bloats up until it’s useless. Endpoints store high-def data locally for a month. If we find the startpoint that manages all this local node, we can wipe it clean.”
“Leave it. We need ta get the fuck away.”
She looked at Rico, her determination hardening with each moment. “All it takes is one frame of data to identify us. Just one.”
“It’s impossible, what ya tryin’ to do. Ya can’t hack into it. No way.”
Martin stopped, looked back up and glared at Ricko who stood there munching on chillihoney chips. “What are you doing?”
Ricko looked at his packet of chips and held them out to show Martin. “Chillihoney. Want some?”
“Are you going to help me look for the startpoint or what?” Martin searched underneath the service counter. Ricko contributed by helping himself to another packet of chips. A noise grabbed both of their attention.
The glass door opened. A man sporting a dark shirt and pants entered. Martin recognised him immediately.