Thursday, October 22, 2015

The teenager had been so hungry.

New prologue for my novel: Insignia

-Prologue-


The teenager had been so hungry.
Life on the dirt-smeared streets of the slum city was more difficult than he had anticipated: squatting in abandoned warehouses with other disenfranchised youth and huddling close for warmth during the bitter winter. But not too close. He couldn’t get too close. Teens disappeared off these streets every day.  He wasn’t sure where they went. Maybe they moved on, found something better or maybe…something worse.
A year on the streets had made him lean. Gaunt. Pale. Desperate. Playing in the underground market was always risky. Unreliable. Volatile. Stressful. He had not been nearly as successful as he’d hoped to be.
Hunger.  He never imagined that he could be so hungry.
Learning to dumpster-dive had been a mixed blessing.  He now knew where to find the freshest food, though fresh was a liberal word. The food still stank with the rancid fumes of whatever had been left in the bin the night before.  Some days, he couldn’t stomach it. So he’d learned to beg. Occasionally he’d get treated to a mystery street-meat skewer, but most of the time the fare would be the mildly stale remnants of a stranger’s half-eaten sandwich. It was not much better than the dumpster, but at least it didn’t smell rotten….Then his pride overtook him.
He was better than this. He was smart.
So he taught himself to steal. He always had a knack with data:  computer navigation was second nature to him, even though he never loved it. The dingy cyber cafés had become his new haven.  Long days crouched over an ancient typepad, hunched in cheap fiberglass chairs with eyes straining at a dimly lit LED yielded him a fake credit account to which he stored real money.
He traveled through security networks of big CORPs, the underground tunnels of their cybernet space. Worming his way into firewalls and secure shields like a cockroach made of bytes, he scrounged for scraps of cred. Then he invested that cred in the virtual market. Win. Lose. Win.
He snagged only bits at a time. A little here. A little there. Not too much. Can’t get caught. Take just enough. Can’t ever get caught. Data heists were among the most severely punished crimes. In this world of capitalist greed where consumerism was rewarded, credit theft was punishable by death. 
The money though…it wasn’t for food. It wasn’t for clothing or shoes or mech mods. It wasn’t for him. It was for Charley. Someday, he hoped to have enough for two train tickets out of the hate-filled shitthole. To a real city. East, west, north – he didn’t care. All of them had promises, potential. A real job. A real school. A life. For both of them.
Then this strange man with a handlebar moustache and a plush burgundy waistcoat approached him in the café. Looking for him.
Why me? An offer. A good offer. Money. Money for food. He had been so very, very, hungry. And then this offer…
“What do you want me to do?” He asked the strange man.
The man took a drag of a long, mud-colored cigarette and handed him a small chip. “I need you to hack a shopping mall’s security system and pull the locked files.”
“Hack a system?” The teen asked incredulously, “That’s it?”
“It’s not as easy as you might think, kid,” the man explained, “It’s an AI security system. Makes what you’ve been crawling through look like a toddler’s game. It takes Skill.
“Oh, I got skills,” he responded arrogantly.
The man barely smirked and cocked his head. Nonetheless, he tapped a metal plate on the chip. There was one line of text:
JR. Avenue 5. Independence Plaza.
 “This is where you can find me,” he said cryptically and left, nodding.
*tap* *tap* *tap* *tap* *tap*
Skills indeed, the teenager thought angrily, this bastard’s convoluted as shit.
Maybe he was in over his head. The man had warned him that several who tried before had failed. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his t-shirt was becoming damp under his arms.
Failed how?”
The man didn’t say. It didn’t matter.  The money was too good. Enough to get him and Charley out of the slums. To get to freedom.
*tap* *tap* *tap* *tap* *tap*
The lines of code taunted him. Flashing their glaring green deep into his strained retinas. His stomach growled. It’s just a shopping mall! He railed to himself silently. What could be on here?
*tap* *tap* *tap* *tap* *tap*
An AI system.  What was an AI system?  It couldn’t be a new software because he knew all security systems. He’d never heard the term before. Maybe it was an old word? An antiquated security system? Maybe that’s why it was so hard to crack?
*tap* *tap* *ta—
He was in, he stared wide-eyed. The files suddenly were zipping themselves onto the storage device.  Bits flashed by in a whirr: zeroes and ones. Replicating with the precision of high-speed data, submitting to his hand, no longer taunting him but almost screaming.
Screaming... Red lights flashing. Something had triggered an alarm. How, though? He had been so careful!
Shooting to his feet, he yanked the chip out of the mainframe just as a boring-looking man strode casually into the server room.  The man’s eyes, however, were not boring. They were dark, and angry. And they were looking straight at him.

Fuck! He ran like hell. 

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