“He was behind the cleaning-bot pileup?”
“I watched that vid a dozen times! The little cat!”
“I know! All that chaos, to save the cat! Brilliant!”
“I just… whoa, hold up. Breather.”
Gav slowed his hopping stride and sank onto his crutches, chest heaving. His dark hair was close-cropped, and he bore the puffy red complexion of those who couldn’t afford even the cheapest circulation g-mods; he seemed to be almost fading away by the moment. He took a couple shuddering breaths, face pointed at the floor. When he looked up again, his earlier mirth had been replaced by cloudy skepticism.
“Sara, how is some trash prankster going to help me?”
“I dunno what legit work this guy does, but he’s definitely not trash. Look—all the lights are on, we’re only two levels down, the lift works, and all the graffiti down here is current. Not a single tag from an old gang in sight!”
They continued their journey, eventually stopping outside a nondescript door, identical to dozens on this floor and hundreds, if not thousands, in this habspace alone. Sara looked at her companion. “Trust me. He’s the real deal. Now, you going in alone, buddy, or d’ya want some backup?” Tall, blonde, and well built despite lunar gravity wastage, she flexed dramatically, finishing with a wink.
“I’ll be fine, but thanks. You go get a coffee, I’ll ping you when I’m on my way back.”
Responding with just a nod, Sara made her way back to the elevators as Gav leant on the wall to catch his breath. Just as he raised his hand to knock, the door swung open and an empty wheelchair rolled out.
A voice called from somewhere inside. “Take a seat before you collapse. It’ll bring you in.”
Salonga wasn’t what Gav expected, didn’t match up with the image he’d conjured in his mind of this “hacker” at all. The person who asked to be called “Tāo” was a far cry from the kind of person the newsies warned about. Sitting in a battered old workstation chair, wearing a pastel bodysuit and warm smile… it was hard to see this man as the threat to civilisation hackers were supposed to be.
The room better fit Gav’s expectations. Dozens of servo mechanisms sat everywhere in various states of repair and disassembly. Cables snaked around the furniture like vines, and a large multi-armed device took pride of place on the desk. The space looked more like a personal workshop than habitable space. There were a couple of homely touches, however: a tiny hologram of another young man with dyed hair and a smile even wider than Tāo’s, a minifridge stocked with Diesel.
“So, I’m guessing right now, you’re thinking two things: Firstly, have I made a mistake? Secondly, I hope he can help. Fair assessment?”
Snapping out of his thoughts, Gav simply nodded in response.
“Now, do you want to tell me why you’ve turned up at the door of a flighty dabbler with nothing but a pair of crutches and an admittedly strong-looking friend?”
Gav shifted slightly, took a deep breath, and composed himself before speaking his first words since crossing the threshold. “I can’t work, I can’t go home to my family, and it’s taking all of Sara’s spare money to keep me in the medication I need. I’m out of options… and I was told you sometimes take pity on people the corps no longer require.”
Perched in this stranger’s messy workshop, his heart pounding, Gav felt more vulnerable than ever. He couldn’t meet Tāo’s eyes. The low lunar gravity meant nothing if life itself was crushing you.
The hacker spoke. “Well, the good news is that’s broadly right. I prefer to help people help themselves, though. I’ve looked at your file and I see you’re an electrical engineer—even worked on the new Jinteki dome—so I have two proposals for you. Job offers, if you like.”
Tāo rose with a surprising lack of grace and walked over to a large locker. It took Gav a few seconds to place the sound he was hearing.
“You’re wearing an exoskeleton? But why, if you can afford this place?” He looked around in shock. “You’re stuck here too?”
Laughing, Tāo took a small chip from a box and closed the door before turning. “Not quite… I’m here by choice, because my parents saw it was better than the alternatives. Broadly though, yes—neither of us would have much fun back on Earth.”
Gav cocked his eyebrows. That was the truth.
“Now, before I make my first proposal, I should explain. You can go with either, neither, or both. You don’t have to decide today; I don’t like people rushing into things when the option for a calm, measured choice is there. You get me?”
Again, Gav just nodded.
“Job one, then. I can arrange for a year’s worth of your medication to be obtained from a med-insurance account—terrible thing, really, system failed to update the records when the guy shipped downstalk. In return for that, I’d really like you to help me breach a network I’m curious about. All it takes is just inserting this chip into the duct-cleaning robots when you go back for the final gold-plating check on the dome. Those lugs move so slowly anyone could get the drop on them.”
“But I don’t have any more shifts. Zero hours left in my contract.”
“You do if the records say you do, and I can tell the records that you do. Get me?” Tāo winked.
Gav grinned. “Sure, I get you. Just plug it in, that’s it?”
“Correct. The intrusion software on there will take about fifteen to twenty seconds to copy over, so make it thirty to be on the safe side. Then you can pull it out, and drop it in a recyc unit on your way home. Regardless of what you decide, I’ll sort your medication out for the next month, gratis. You and… Sara? can pick it up from the pharmacy on level five. If I get a connection to the bot from inside the network, I’ll make it the full year. Take the chip now. If you decide you don’t want to do this, just trash it.”
After a moment’s pause, Gav reached out for the offered chip, and slipped it in his jacket pocket. He once again found it difficult to meet Tāo’s eyes. This level of compassion, especially from a stranger… well, he was starting to understand why Tāo had a reputation as more than a prankster.
“Thanks. That’s… thank you.” Gav blinked away the dust in his eye and straightened up again. “You said you had two job offers. What’s the other?”
“I recently came into a surprising number of print-cycles on an industrial fabricator down in the docklands. Have enough parts to build a thousand of those babies”, Tāo said, gesturing at the wheelchair supporting Gav. “Could help a lot more people than you, my friend. Thing is, I don’t have the licence to operate a business like that, so I need someone to help me wire ten assembler-bots to the grid fast and take them down just as fast. I can pay for your time, too. Overtime, since it’ll have to be done in one shift.”
Gav sat back, surprised at the audacity of charity, before recovering himself. This one conversation alone, with a complete stranger who owed him nothing, would make more of a difference than the dozens of meetings he’d had with Jinteki representatives over at MedTech. “Mister, you got yourself some deals. You got a crew to drive those assemblers, I know a few—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tāo said with an easy smile. He waggled his fingers, and every mechanical manipulator in the room mimicked the movement. “I like to get hands-on with these things.”