My Stories, Short Stories

3% – A Short Story

Riding the grid is a lot like deep meditation. You let your mind wander, not really thinking but not completely unaware, either. Both can be incredibly relaxing. Both can lower your blood pressure and provide your body with rest in your mind with renewed focus. But, meditation can’t recharge my implants. Which is why it is incredibly frustrating to be on the Zenith of letting go. When someone begins to pound on the door to your apartment.

I opened my eyes and let the interface disconnect itself. The pounding in my door was rapid and persistent, something desperate about it. Without getting up, I commanded my scan wall to show me who thought it was a good idea to come knocking on my day off.

The face on the other side of the door was familiar. Zig McGary wasn’t exactly a friend, but he wasn’t a stranger. We knew each other from all the way back when I was still convincing ATMs I needed a meal more than banks needed an accurate statement of cash-on-hand. He was part of my life in the Down Below. I didn’t want any reminders of that life crawling into my home, but looking up at his face on my wall–large enough to see the desperate panic in his eyes–and the fact it couldn’t have been easy for him to make it all the way to Level 193 caused something in my chest to decide it was a good day to get nostalgic.

I unfolded myself from the memory foam recliner and let the connectors running down my spine pull free. In the lower-right corner of my vision, the icon switched from charging to 3%. Zig had less than 45 minutes of my time. I’d be damned if I was leaving the relative safety of my breech-resistant walls without a solid connection to the grid.

I pulled on a shirt and waved a hand, giving it permission to open. It whirred and slid back into the wall, leaving Zig standing mid-knock in the hall. His wore a torn and tattered suit from natural fibers worth more than five years of his income the last time I saw him. They must have been borrowed for his trip to Top Side because the pants were rolled several times at the ankles and sleeves of the jacket hung down past his first row of knuckles. Unless that was the fashion now in Down Below, he was in trouble. The shoulder of the jacket was torn at the seems and the white shirt carried more grime and soot than even the most high-end scrubbers could get out.

“Thank god, Pete,” he said, stepping through my door before I could invite him in. “You’ve got to hide me.” He walked to the middle of the room and flopped down in my recliner. I winced, but he didn’t notice. As out of his price-range as the suit would be to replace, my connection rig made it look like pocket change and I couldn’t afford to replace it.

“Come on in,” I said dryly, waving the door closed again. “But, I’m not hiding you from CitSec, Zig. I don’t know if you got the ping, but I’m on the other side of the line, now.”

“Yeah, yeah, little Pete Charmer went and got legit,” Zig said. “Look, Petey, I’m not here because I got trouble with the heat. I wouldn’t bring that on your door. In fact, if you can get CitSec here now, it’ll solve my problems.”

I let the datastream from the grid run past my heads-up and highlighted the location of the nearest patrol. Five levels up and rises east. “It’ll take them twenty minutes to get here. I’d rather this little visit was over by then.”

“Why, You got somewhere to be? You got something more important than making time for the guy who pulled Tommy the Rock off you all those lunchtimes?” Zig put a hand against his chest and let his mouth open in feigned outrage. “Look, I know you’re a big time Cryptologist or something, now, but that hurts, Pete.”

I rolled my eyes and gestured around the room. It was empty except for the chair he was current sitting in and a counter against the back wall with a built in refrigerator and microwave. “You said you needed somewhere to hide. This is what I’ve got. I can get you off the level. Maybe even back down to U22, but that’s all I can do for you Zig.”

“No, no, no. I don’t need that. I need you to make me disappear,” Zig dropped out of the chair onto his knees and held his hands up to me in supplication. “Please, Pete. If they find me, I’m a dead man.”

“If who finds you, Zig?” I asked, but it was too late. Another knock came from my door and the wall lit up with three new faces. I recognized one immediately. Joseph Lighthorn’s face was one I’d never forget. As far as Down Under was concerned, the old man was the king, president, and Jesus all rolled into one. They taught about his rise to power in history classes. Zig’s eyes widened when he saw the face on my wall and I realized who he was hiding from. “What did you do, Zig?”

“I didn’t do anything. I swear. But, it don’t matter. It’s what he thinks I did.” Zig walked across the floor on his knees and grabbed at the hem of my shirt. “Please, Pete. You gotta do something.”

“I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but alright,” I waved my hand again and part of my wall slid away, revealing the small room with my bed and clothes. “Just don’t say anything, alright?”

The knock rang through the room again and Zig jumped up to his feet and darted through the door. “Thanks, Petey. You’re not going to regret this.”

I didn’t say anything back, just gestured for the door to slid back into place. I already knew I would regret it, I just needed to find out how much.

As soon as the wall was closed again, I let the apartment open the outer door and smiled at the three waiting me. “Please, come in,” I said, doing my best to keep my tone respectful. I stood beside my chair, arms folded behind my back and eyes cast down at the floor. “What can I do for you gentlemen.”

The first of Lighthorn’s two body guards stepped through the door, eyes running across the empty room. He was big, close to half again my size. Not that it takes much to be bigger than me. There is a reason Zig called me little Pete Charmer. His companion leaned in and looked around the room, too, but chose to stay in the hall. I assumed he would be the sacrificial lamb if I was able to get CitSec here before they were gone. I doubted I could pull it off, but I tucked the paranoia away as a useful fact.

“Mr. Charmer,”  Lighthorn said as he walked into my apartment like he owned it. “I am ever so sorry to trouble you, but I am looking for a man who stole a large sum of money from me and I was informed he was seen on this level. Since you are the only person he could possibly know this far above ground, I thought I would stop by to see if you’ve spoken with him recently.”

“Well, sir,” I said, not sure exactly which honorific you’re supposed to use when addressing a crime lord who thinks of himself as a king. “You may have heard finding things is a specialty of mine.”

“I have heard that, yes,” Lighthorn said. He walked a slow circle around my apartment, occassionaly tapping on the wall with the handle of his cane. “I’ve heard it said you can see anything that happens in the city. That you know everything.”

I shrugged. “Not everything. Only what the grid wants me to know.”

“Then I suppose it would be a simple matter for you to ascertain the location of one Zigler Allen McGary. As I said, Mr. McGary took something that doesn’t belong to him.”

I closed my eyes and let my fingers twitch as I pulled on seems all over the grid. “Sorry, sir. It looks like Zig isn’t currently in the city. Are you sure he didn’t buy his way out to one of the islands?”  I flicked my wrist at the wall, sending the live feed from the video processing program up for display. Hundreds of thousands of windows appeared, broadcasting video from cameras, public terminals, and service droids all over the city. It was only a tiny fraction of the true data, but it made for a good show. To really put icing on the cake, I sat a copy of Zig’s ID photo on the screen. “See, face-rec isn’t getting any pings.”

Lighthorn wasn’t impressed. He continued to knock on my wall with his cane every few feet as he circled me. His faded brown eyes softly reflecting his own data stream from the inside of his glasses. “Mr. Charmer, I am giving you an opportunity to be a friend to me today. The money Mr. McGary took from me doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of my finances, but, the UV bulbs it was meant to procure will mean a great deal for the hydroponic farms that feed so many of the people in my care.”

“Zig stole infrastructure funds?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. If Lighthorn told me Zig had walked off with a dust payment or a bribe for an alderman, I’d buy it. But I couldn’t reconcile the Zig McGary who caught more than one fist making sure the tiny nerd got to eat his lunch with a Zig McGary who would steal food from a few million people.

“Believe what you will, Mr. Charmer. The facts are the facts. Now, Mr. McGary is a traitor to me. I will find him and I will make an example of him and anyone who tries to protect him from me,” Lighthorn said. “Are you loyal to the people of Cartolva and a friend to me, or are you going to need to be an example?”

“What if I can find the money?” I asked. I was already tapped into the grid. It couldn’t be that hard to trace the cash. All I had to do was trace Zig back through the city from the moment he hit my door. Innocent or guilty, if he was being blamed, he had to cross paths with the money somewhere.

“It would be a beginning,” Lighthorn said. “But, if I find Mr. McGary first, it will not end well for you.” He reached the edge of my scan wall and tapped it with his cane. “I think your unit must be smaller than your neighbors, Mr. Charmer. You should protest your rent.”

I closed my eyes and turned off the visual processing in my brain. Running raw data was faster, even if it did come with a nasty headache. The data tracked Zig all over the city, back and forth, rise by rise, level by level.

Tap. Lighthorn was getting closer to the hidden door. I killed the list of apps running in the background and put processing on high priority. My battery ticked down to 2%.

Tap. There it was, Zig in a room with nearly a million in hard credits. And Zig leaving it on the table and locking the door behind him.

Tap. I stopped following Zig’s virtual ghost and turned the data pull to focus on the cash itself. It sat on the table for hours and then…

Thump.

I opened my eyes to find Lighthorn directly in front of the hidden door. “Mr Charmer, please open this door and save Andrew the trouble of forcing it open,” He said. He smiled a wolfish smile and gestured toward his bodygaurd with his cane. I shook my head and the body guard pulled a long, wide cylinder from inside his jacket.

“Wait!” I flicked my wrist at the wall, projecting the video feed of Zig leaving the cash inside the secured room. “See, Zig didn’t take your money!”

“This merely shows he left and returned,” Lighthorn said. “And it doesn’t not show me where my money is.”

“Just watch,” I said, letting the video fast forward. The lights in the room went dark and the video feed was interrupted for a few seconds. “That’s where your thief came in,” I said. “Cut all of the camera and terminal feeds in the entire block.”

“So Mr McGary covered his tracks,” Lighthorn said. “This still doesn’t show me where my money went.”

I flipped my wrist toward the wall again and a black-and-white video appeared on the screen. The picture was grainy and from a very low angle, but it showed the money on the table. “Sweeper rat,” I explained. “They’re all over the lower tunnels, but they only turn on if there is a grid outage. They tack the connections and then call in for repairs. This little guy only got a brief glimpse, but, there it is.”

A man appeared on the screen. He was easily as short as myself with a distinctive hooked nose and over-sized ears. Face-rec named him as Lenny Forwitz and I pushed his profile up onto the screen. He started piling cash into the dufflebag before the rat’s video stream disappeared into the wall and I turned it off.

“You recognize that guy?” I asked.

“I do, indeed,” Lighthorn said. He gestured for Andrew to follow him as he headed back toward the door. “Mr. Charmer, this does not prove Mr. McGary wasn’t involved, only that he did not work alone. If you should happen to see him. Please tell him it would be best if he either gave himself willingly to me or was never seen in the city again.”

I nodded and the old man and his body guard let themselves out.

As soon as they were gone, I let the door to my bedroom open. Zig sat on my bed, face in his hands, but as the light from the main room hit him, he jumped up and hurried over to me.

“Thank you, Pete! Thank you,” he said, pulling me into a hug. “You just saved my life.”

“Not yet, I didn’t.” I pointed up at the face on the wall. “If you really want to get back in Lighthorn’s good graces, you’ll get to that guy first.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” Zig asked. “He could be anywhere in the city… or out of it by now.”

“He could be,” I admitted. “Or, he could be waiting for his flight at Amicus 321. You’ve got about an hour before his flight takes off. It won’t be easy for you to get there. You should go.”

“I will,” he said. “You’re the best, Pete. I owe you. Big.”

“No, Zig, let’s just consider ourselves even for Tommy the Rock.” I pushed him toward the open door. “Now get out. I’ve got things I need to do.”

“I won’t forget this,” Zig said as he left the apartment. “You’re a real hero.”

I waived the door closed behind him, jerked off my shirt, and dropped down into the recliner. The battery switched from <1% to charging. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing.

Published by M.A. Brotherton

M.A. Brotherton is a writer, blogger, artist, and fat-kid from the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. He’s tasted a little bit of everything the Midwest has to offer, ranging from meth-tweaking rednecks in massive underground cave complexes to those legendary amber waves of grain. When he’s not writing, he spends most of his time screwing around on the internet.