The Azure Windbreaker
A long day was ahead at the market, and his Sleek phone vibrated in the front pocket of his bomber jacket. He didn’t even need to look at it to assume it was Gary asking about margins and profits and whos-who of attendance. Still, in spite of all the insanity and his grey hair, David loved this part the best. The risk, the reward, the feeling of being on the cutting edge of the end times, surfing all kinds of webs until he got to the right places, the wrong places. Too old for this, too much at stake at home, but who could put handheld beryllium onto plutonium in the heat of the moment behind them?
The wind blew a slight chill through David’s hair as he surveyed the scene before him. It always gathered in this meadow at noon, and he never quite knew what to expect of it. Small pockets of people moved through subtle paths in the long grass, the overcast day adding a fine finish of frost to the whole affair. For some people, this meant spring was almost here. He was glad he’d thought to wear a bomber jacket with a thick inner lining.
David was partly a reporter, partly a survivor, and partly one of the crowd before him. The smallest open-air market on the continent was slowly opening in front of him, groups of men in leather jackets looking violent and shoving anyone who wandered too close to their employer’s tables without a nod. The tables themselves were uniformly refurbished last century pre-war wooden tables that propped up on steady legs and had a display covered in glass dominating the top with a small side drawer for the hiding of particularly prized secrets. Everyone that he could see had a Geiger counter on their tabletop, and whether you were buying, selling, or browsing, you had one in a pocket or on your belt.
David had spent a fair bit of time behind a less prestigious one of these tables at an event not so auspicious in a decade past, meeting the right people at weird raves, occupations, and waves, but now he merely observed and reported for a small digital publishing node. His editor, Gary. sat in his office right now hitting a vape and waiting for a report. Gary was a middle-aged man with a ponytail and a stressed face, a girlfriend with a serious amphetamine habit who swallowed his money and jizz like holy water, and a bullshit passion for intellectual freedom acquired from his years on the other side as a corporate software raider kopyright kop. David never knew if he should take his boss at his word that he would defend “his principles” to his grave. A man who lived off the ad money of insane people who gambled big and wanted to see the post-nuklear kopyright disbanded, as well as the occasional large shipment of illegal parts. One of David’s loose friends, the two had met at an after-party of a crypto=conference. In some circles, the rest was history.
The underground merchants were both exclusive in their paranoid associations and the wares they presented. Illegal chips and scattered open-source projects that moved fast enough to avoid shutdown were the only boards that didn’t have the NSA or the DIA hardwired into them these days. David picked out the flat grey of the Sleek uniform at a table, the only “mainstream presence” right alongside a gorgeous cherrywood table manned by a few foreign faces with translation wires hanging. Importing smiles alongside transistors from Luna, Malaysia, the arks, was easier when you had cryptographic exchange money to point to and a dozen friends/strangers eager to show off and impress.
Obsession with secrecy due to the snooping eyes of the law had led to a range of cryptographic standards displayed in glowing neon that hung off the front of the tables That segment of subculture ranged from securely standard to esoteric languages that resembled a mix of computer code, binary, and a jumbled slew of religious references doing a handshake with Bach. David had a few ciphers in his head himself, but he had gained membership here by his longevity. The gleaming circuit boards on display were illegal everywhere except three sovereign cities, and David knew with a sinking feeling that there weren’t many free cities left. There used to be federations, autonomous zones, a New West, a stab at a Renaissance amidst the tower cities and radiation, but power always covets and crushes to control.
He idly wandered from table to table, trading small talk that filtered through his earpiece about prices and import difficulties and who was still making music and who had died and the new Intel processors until something caught his eye. A small azure chip. It’s aloft translucent anti-static foam, beneath an inch of glass. A fake, a forgery? Out in the open like this? He hadn’t seen one of those in a baker’s dozen years, and even back then, they were nigh legendary. Designed by a schizophrenic noise freak with a serious Hype habit, they were rumoured to distort electricity itself. Waves and particles, observance, a slit experiment etched. He had seen them in action first-hand only once, in hacking houses it took favours and connections to get the address of, and it had collapsed a trans-metropol pipe connection like an ant beneath a bulldozer. A viral video of the inside of one had been making the rounds, and it had looked like something simple enough to power a light switch with a few surreal ripples across it. Nobody understood.
He drew in a breath imagining the possibilities. Decentralized banks, inside in an instant. Small governments, hell, big governments, inside in an instant. A few billion nodes in maybe four minutes. The Geiger counter clicking at his waist. Cracking into almost anything faster than the sane human mind could comprehend. David looked at the vendor, a small woman in glaring retro-flipper green, a face that had not aged well due to the torrent of information and stimulants, with small beady eyes that ferociously scanned David. The long greasy hair swept in front of her eyes, looking inherently unwashed. He idly wondered if this lady had an idea of the value of the thing she possessed, but then decided that in these circles, of course she did. The true question was, what was the price? The two huge bashers to either side of the man were huge Spaniards, with shaved heads and hard stares to commit unspeakable things with. Refugees of the wrong side of Western European fascism, no doubt, men who had spilt large amounts of blood. David’s heart fluttered for a single second, then he kept his cool. He’d been in much worse situations. It was broad daylight on the far edge of a crater, for Christ’s sake. He calmly inquired, opening the eelskin of his wallet in one smooth gesture, tumbling past the family photo and right over to the money. He put it down on the table, the value evident, but in easy grasping reach.
“What’s the price for the Azure WindBreaker?”
She didn’t even look at the money, nails painted with a fuzz designed to throw off surveillance cameras tapping staccato on the glass. The underground entrepreneur looked at him with a wide smile, painted teeth, a delighted grin, “The real name of someone you love.”
David paused for a brief second, running it through his mind. Fuck this, he could feel the grey in his hair. He could imagine the endless nights of guilt stretched upon him, the fate of someone dear destroyed by this vile soul who would make sure it happened, no compromise would be accepted. No vague acquaintance, no good friend, someone he truly loved. Definitely his wife, one of the nephews old enough to be online…
While the horrorshow tried to be a literal devil and doing her best Faustian grin, he gave her a solid look. Dressed like an insane hallucinogenic general, military surplus stamped through glitched paisley, flanked by ranking soldiers ready to do inhuman crimes, trying to be a cruel and vicious bargainer that would destroy her enemies, What a pretentious fuck.
David shook his head slowly. As he refused and turned, the neon merchant opened up her little side drawer and pressed a button. The azure chip operated for milliseconds, warped things a little, and a message was automatically relayed to David’s phone.
“It’s too late for you now…” Her left eye rolled back in her head for a half-second, “David, it’s too late for you now.”
A silence fell as David said, “Excuse me?”
“It’s too late for you, now, you expressed interest. Curiosity killed the cat, as everyone here should know.”
“We haven’t had a handshake on nothing, and that bullshit of yours is probably counterfeit.”
A grimace mutated into a leer, another dead roll of her left eye, “Look, lad, you’re not from here, you’re not from the continent, you’re connected here through five degrees across an ocean…Be wise before accusing me of trickery.”
A small circle began to form and the two adjacent tables had put up thick slabs, undoubtedly lead or graphite. The front of this circle held what looked like repurposed riot shields, painted over with something mottled. Clench of the teeth activated the earbuds, and they turned to a muffling foam.
David saw the basher on the left pulling first, and was almost behind the draw. A bulbous grey firearm pointed at him as he pulled his own grey orb that shaped forward, pistol grip and form factor smooth out of his jacket pocket. Gary wasn’t such an idiot as to send him unarmed. He thought deliriously of his wife’s hairdryer and the resemblance here as he pointed the pulsar at the trio. Cold sweat beaded down his back. In turn, the two Ibizian marauders had heavier pieces and blank expressions pointing at him.
That grin again, “We already hacked your phone. A true name of a loved one, a trust phrase, or you’ll be dead from blooming tumours in anywhere from an hour to a month, depending on how-”
David curled his left little toe, turning the potentiometer inside his boots. Gaze looked down at the ground for a second, a slip that could be fatal if the timing is off, these jackals would tear him to shreds for fun, if they could. His wallet exploded, cracking the glass tabletop, counterfeit cash a rain of burning confetti, the blinding flash left howling tracers across his vision, afterimages of the trio as he pulled the trigger. A flash of blue, a loud crack, a hum in the air. A simultaneous quartet of beeps from the Geiger counters on each duelist. David dived down, and washed where they should have been with radiation, rolled to the side and sprang up. Hot yoga was saving his ass right now, he couldn’t believe it. The general was screaming, and David darted towards the closest riot shield. Mercifully, the crowd parted for him like the sea for Moses.
He was running now, but the crowd didn’t part for the trio. Instead, the crack of gunfire, the crunching cracks of pulsars, and the crowd descended.
David walked to the next table. His knees aching, his back, hurting. He wearily thought he shaved a few years off his life there, but what could one do?
When he checked his messages later, the screams and anguish of hundreds who danced the dance and lost would be played at full volume and put on unstoppable replay and sent until the phone was smashed. A combined practical joke and virus, a carefully curated collection, and it was truly heartbreaking to hear.
Fortune favoured the bold, and one should be wary of an old man in a young man’s game.