In honor of this (finally!) releasing on Friday, enjoy the first half of the first chapter of the story. In other words, the first scene. In which our intrepid heroine is hacking a database. But UNBEKNOWNST TO HER she is being stalked by our determined hero.
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Night had fallen on Tarrytown, at the far north end of the urban sprawl that had once been known as Manhattan. Here, where the vacant hulks of old buildings crumbled and moisture dripped from the shadowy rusted beams. Where the city moldered and you could see the fires burning in barrels in the very lowest levels where people camped. Those who lived here were the people the corporations forgot, as they gradually consolidated and closed up the buildings and moved south. It was the sort of neighborhood that smelled like wet metal and Chinese food. No one looked each other in the eye. Heads down, they skirted the boarded-up buildings. You wouldn’t even know if interspace gangsters and illegal tech vendors and credit scammers passed you in the street. You wouldn’t know them if they were your next-door neighbor.
Riley Janecek, in her drafty loft on the third level, wasn’t interested in any of it. She leaned back in her chair, wearing a pair of goggles that emitted a blue glow. Her fingers moved in the air in front of her, ghostly pale and blue in the light, typing words on a keyboard that didn’t exist.
But that wasn’t strictly true. It existed to her, when she had the goggles on, anyway. It was a virtual keyboard interface. Moving through chunks of code and pages and pages of data, her fingers flitted at a speed she barely noticed. She was deep in SpectreTek’s private corporate database. There were massive amounts of data, too much for a human to sort through in a lifetime of lifetimes. She had three worms working for her, which she monitored through the data stream that sat off to the side, to the left of her vision.
Her earpiece pinged, one of the alarms she’d set. She sketched her fingers across the empty air and pulled up the list of results. She’d set the worm to scan for a certain set of keywords. Boom. There it is. Her eyes skimmed the data, verifying the highlighted words.
Her lips cracked into an involuntary grin. She had it! Twenty-eight minutes deep in the system and she hadn’t triggered anything. Her security workaround had really done it this time. She tapped to begin downloading the passwords to her personal system. Her client would be pleased. Like, twenty thousand dollars worth of pleased.
That was a whole hell of a lot of pleased. She could get another implant. Or she could get some furniture. Riley set her goggles to transparent view to see her dingy apartment while monitoring the data download on the right side of her vision. The numbers, set to a shade of green that she had decided through trial and error was the least tough on her eyes, cascaded over her actual surroundings. Twenty thousand, Riley mused, could get a bed frame instead of a futon. A stove instead of a hot plate. It could also get some heat in here. She shifted in her chair and rubbed the gooseflesh on her thin arms.
The loft still resembled the warehouse it had once been, with tall ceilings that rose up, stark and undecorated above her rickety shelves of computer equipment, and light bulbs that hung bare. Twenty thousand could keep you in noodles and coffee for a long time, Riley thought, as she glanced over the mess of mismatched, half-empty dishware on her desk.
No, definitely the implant. Maybe some new designer accessories for her avatar. She never met clients in real life. What did it matter that there were holes in your jeans, when you were queen of the virtual fucking city? Her penthouse in interspace was lavish, and that was what people saw, not this dump. Her avatar had a level of expensive customization that made people jealous. Yeah, she could fix up this shithole of a loft, if she was ever here.
Riley checked the numbers on her display. The download was at 59 percent. She sighed, sick of looking at her apartment, and tapped over into full view. Watching a data dump scroll across her screen wasn’t exactly exciting, but it made a better impression than four-day-old coffee with something green growing on top of it. She could stop her worms—that was something she could do while she was waiting. She didn’t need them anymore, and two of them were still scanning. She lifted her hands to type the commands.
And then she saw it.
Something moved. Something changed. She examined the numbers, skimming the lines composed of tiny pieces of data. She checked the connection, which was through a backdoor she had created. One that only she, therefore, should know about. Someone was in the system with her.
“Fuck,” she spat, fingers moving in a flurry.
Was it a security protocol or a human? Riley bit her lip. None of her alarms had been triggered. She couldn’t say how she knew there was someone following her, prodding through bits of code, pulling up and discarding sections of the database. It was opening the sections of the system she’d just been in and ignoring the others. Maybe even checking to see what had been changed. A script? No, that wasn’t it. Again, she felt certain of this. It was jumping around in a haphazard way.
It wasn’t anything she could see, exactly. It was…a presence. She wasn’t alone.
Shit. If it was SpectreTek, why hadn’t they jumped on her before? Thirty-two minutes her security workaround had performed fine, and then…what? It just stopped? She ground her teeth together. What if it was a competitor? Someone trying to undercut her, steal her work? Every hacker had rivals. She checked her download, her heart thumping and her blood singing with adrenaline. 76 percent.
Her fingers twitched and flexed. She hated feeling helpless. She hated this. Think, think, think. She called up the files that had been most recently scanned. How was it following her? What was it doing? The other person in the system must have latched onto her worms somehow. He or she was pulling all the same data she’d just been pulling. But, she realized with a smug grin, the other person was doing it manually. That was why his movement through the system hadn’t looked methodical, like her worms.
Which meant he was going a lot slower. Which meant she had time.
She tapped her foot on the floor as the download reached 80 percent, then 90. The numbers seemed to slow to an almost unbearable pace. Everything depended on what the other person in the system wanted to do. Get her data to the client before she could?
Her lips curled. She had a huge head start. She could log onto interspace and make the transfer as soon as the download was at 100 percent. The other person would have to locate the passwords, then wait for his own download and rely on Riley being too lazy to contact the client right away. But what if the person meant to sabotage her? Wanted to interrupt her download?
97 percent. She could almost breathe. Beads of sweat rose on her skin. Her fingers flexed. She held them poised, ready, at the back of her neck. 98 percent. Her fingertips touched cold metal, hovering over the catch.
100 percent. Download complete. She seized the thick cord that protruded from her neck, twisted it, and yanked. It slid from its metal-lined jack, and she exhaled as her interface lost contact with the network and blinked away.