Following-up on last week’s article about the enduring relevance of cyberpunk, my latest story is now available in Boundary Shock Quarterly 22.
“A Valid Exchange” is a follow-up to my short cyberpunk piece “Critical Impact Vulnerabilities”. It continues the adventures of hacker extraordinaire Tilda Slash and the police detective assigned to investigate her:
Tilda Slash has been a thorn in the side of the Seattle PD for years. Every time they think they have her dead-to-rights, she slips through their fingers. But circumstances have changed. There’s a worse threat out there than Slash, and the police need her help to bring it down.
Here’s an excerpt:
A Valid Exchange
by Brian Scott Pauls
I took an autocab out to Bainbridge Island, head against the window, trying to soothe my anxiety by watching Puget Sound pass below me.
I rarely push back on assignments, but this one stuck in my craw. I wasn’t sure why Sergeant Tande thought I was the best pick after what happened the last time. Two months planning an airtight sting, and we had to release our target before my head hit the pillow that night. She’d outsmarted and outclassed me.
But pushing back on Tande doesn’t work. She flicked me an address from her phone and said, “2:00. Don’t keep her waiting. And quit your bitching. You’re a professional.”
How do you argue with that?
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So there I was, making a house call on Seattle’s most notorious unconvicted criminal.
My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number in the lower right-hand corner of my view, but I needed a distraction. I tapped my glasses, audio only. “Detective Davis.”
“Hello Detective! I see you’re only a few minutes out.”
There was no mistaking the voice.
“Who gave you my number?”
An authentic, good-natured laugh rang in my ears. “Oh, come on, you know I have any number of ways. All legal, of course.” I hadn’t known it was possible to wink over audio. “But as it happens, your sergeant gave it to me.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I said nothing—a tactic I’ve found useful in all sorts of situations.
She waited—not quite long enough for the silence to become uncomfortable. Then she said, “Please tell your car to set you down in back. We can have coffee and chat in the garden.”
She dropped off.
I passed along the instructions to the autopilot. The Honda banked as it descended, slowing as the motors on the wings rotated from horizontal to vertical. It set me down, smooth as silk and nearly silent on its ionic motors, in the middle of a well-manicured garden behind the house of Tilda Slash.
I emerged from the cab with my overnight bag. The car gave a few warning beeps, rose out of the garden, and whisked off to pick up its next fare.
Slash sat a few meters away on a stone terrace in the middle of the garden. She held a steaming mug in one hand and gave me a friendly wave with the other. Ever stylish, she wore an emerald green dress that seemed specially chosen to accent the surrounding foliage.
I walked down the path from the gently sloping sward where the cab had deposited me. Slash gave a wide smile and motioned for me to take an available chair at the circular table. I accepted, and she poured coffee from a large carafe into a mug that was the twin of her own. A silver tray next to the carafe held milk, cream, sugar, and various low- and no-calorie substitutes. I chose a generous amount of cream, then sat back and appraised my host.
“I hear you asked for me,” I said, lightly stirring my coffee. “Did you want to make sure you were working with someone you knew you could outwit? From experience?”
I’ve imagined doing a lot of things to Slash over the years, but leaving her speechless was never one of them.
For a moment, she said nothing. Then a smile crept into one corner of her mouth.
“Detective—are you under the impression I look down on you because of the way our last outing ended?”
“Well, I lost. You won.” I shrugged.
Suddenly she was laughing again, her head thrown back, dark brown hair spilling over her shoulders in luxurious waves.
“No! Exactly the opposite. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to going to jail and staying there…at least overnight.”
“Not close enough,” I replied, trying not to smile myself…and failing.
“Detective, I’ve never had any desire to work with the police—but after that night, I’m very interested in working with you.”
I felt my heart skip a beat, like the first time we met, at the Bazaar.
“So,” she continued, still smiling, “if you’re not going to call your cab back and leave, why don’t you deliver the briefing you came to present?”
I took a sip of my coffee and set down the mug.
“It’s pretty simple. Selenium Tide has been plaguing the big three tech firms in the region for months. It’s making the Chief look bad. Tande’s higher-ups have tasked her with taking them down. She wants you to help.”
“Why should I help the police?”
“You’ve built Hack ’N Slash into one of the most successful criminal hacker groups in the world.”
“‘Allegedly’ criminal,” she corrected.
“Selenium Tide is one of your biggest competitors,” I continued. “If you put them out of business, you can increase your…do you call it market share?”
“And why do the police want to work with an…allegedly…’criminal hacker group’?”
“You know you’re the best. HNS has the skills to succeed at something like this. There aren’t a lot of other good options.”
“There’s the U.S. Government.”
This put me a bit off-balance. I played it straight. If we were going to do this, we needed to trust one another, right up until the op was over.
“Even they think you’re better. We’re carrying out this op in consultation with the FBI.”
Tilda graced me with another smile, and I felt I had passed a test.
“Very good, Detective. Yes, I’ve been having my own confidential discussions with the Bureau. ‘Confidential’ because they don’t want the bad press of working publicly with HNS. And because certain provisions of the Johnson-Green Amendment make it necessary to use local law enforcement as an intermediary—to keep everything legal. You’re basically my FBI handler.
I hadn’t looked at it that way, and now that I was, I found I didn’t care for it very much.
“Here’s the deal.” Slash became more serious. “I’ll do this, as long as I can do it my way. You’ll have full access as an observer, but I’m in charge. You play chaperone, so you can report back to Tande that HNS is behaving. Tande can report back up the chain to the Bureau.”
“OK,” I said, “Let’s get started.”
“Let's finish our coffee first,” she said with another laugh, “then let's get started.”
If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from “A Valid Exchange”, you can read the entire story in Boundary Shock Quarterly 22: Cyberpunks, available at Amazon and other online booksellers.