This post is a bit different, as I’m featuring someone other than myself. Christian Martin is is the creator of Static Breaker, a cyberpunk webfiction serial available to read for free at www.staticbreaker.com.

Some info on his series:

– The setting is a fictional Chinese city in the near future.
– It covers the subjects of hacking, mass surveillance, corporate greed, and artificial intelligence.
– It is updated one chapter at a time every other Wednesday.
– It’s a long-running serial that is nearing the conclusion of Book 1.
– This is a standalone prequel story focusing on one of the major characters.
– There will be three more back stories posted on other blogs over the next few months.
– He recently did an interview with the author and editor Brandon Black about the serial and my motivations for writing it: https://brandonblackonline.com/2017/02/14/interview-with-local-author-christian-martin/

Okay, now that you’re caught up with who Christian is, you can enjoy this excerpt featuring a teenage miscreant hacker’s quest to follow a confusing trail left by a missing friend.

Enjoy:

Dem’s Hunt

A Static Breaker Back Story

by Christian Martin

Dem used chopsticks to mix sriracha and wasabi powder into her instant ramen and inhaled the thick aroma. It immediately cleared her sinuses. She smiled as all the tension in her body dissipated. Her favorite food and her favorite anime together made this the highlight of her week, a time when she could forget her depressing situation for just a little while.

Cradling her ramen cup between her hands, Dem navigated her cramped apartment, stepping over manga books and tangled wires of a dozen different kinds of tech. The literally-six-foot-wide apartment barely had enough space for all of her stuff, let alone for her. She hated this place, but it was all that a fourteen-year-old runaway could hope to afford by herself with the little money she made from contract hacking work. At least it beat living with her family. Not even hitching a ride to China as a stowaway and slumming it on her own could make her regret getting as far as possible from Mother’s spotless Tokyo condominium. Just the thought of being back there gave her chills.

Dem lowered carefully to sit on the sad sleeping bag in the corner that acted her bed. Her computer set up lay on the floor between the sleeping bag and the opposite wall. She used her toe to hit ENTER on the keyboard. Her monitor——which rested atop a cardboard box——activated, but its holographic display quickly flickered and died. Dem kicked the side of it and it flashed back to life, playing the intro to the anime series Rainbow Murder Girls. The sequence showed teenage magical girls in colorful outfits performing violence on monsters and creepy men alike. Dem sang along with the theme song in Japanese as Kiki, her favorite member of the team, did a flying kick to a man who had catcalled her on the street. She hit him so hard that his head went flying off in a spray of blood.

The first season of the show was only at its fifth episode now, but Dem already couldn’t wait to see each new episode. She’d cracked into Jusei Animation’s database and downloaded the episode before it came out. That only got her access to the show a few days early, but damn was it worth it. She kept any spoilers to herself, of course. Unless someone pissed her off.

She made a point during this part of her week to completely disconnect – no messages, no forums, no programming, no snooping around high security networks, no editing the Gundam wiki. Only her, some cheap spicy noodles, and cute violent anime girl action. She slurped noodle juice and savored the heat.

Her phone chimed, instantly popping her little bubble of contentment.

“The hell?” Dem said as she put down her noodles. She pulled the phone——which she thought she had silenced——from the pocket of her pink pajama pants. As she pressed the volume button she saw the alert on the screen.

–  MESSAGE FROM G525 –

Dem had befriended G on a forum a while back. She’d never met him in real life, but he’d proved himself as both a cool guy and a coding whiz. No matter how often she asked him, though, he’d never agree to work with her on any of her projects. He went silent recently, so this sudden message grabbed her attention.

Dem sighed and paused Rainbow Murder Girls. She brought up G’s message on her monitor.

Hey Dem0n,

I’ve got to duck out the scene for a bit. Left you a present though, if you’re smart enough to find it.

Ciao.

Dem opened the image attached to the message, a map of Yue Fei Park. She knew the place, had visited it a few times. It wasn’t far from her apartment.

A big letter X, like from a pirate’s treasure map, marked the gazebo on the northern edge of the park. That’s where he left her present? Shouldn’t be too hard to find, then. She’d have to hurry, though, before some crackhead stumbled across it. Rainbow Murder Girls would have to wait, damn it.

She changed clothes——put on red boots, fire-print leggings, black cut-off shorts, and a Sailor Mars t-shirt. As she donned her leather jacket a thought occurred to her.

G was no idiot. He had impressive programming skills and he’d taught her a lot. Why would he say something about her being smart enough to find his present if he’d pointed it out so obviously on the map? There had to be more to it. She returned to her computer and analyzed the image closely. She brought up its metadata and found her clue, a hidden message. The message was a simple street address and apartment number. Dem entered it into her phone’s GPS. It pointed her to an apartment complex on the opposite side of the city from Yue Fei Park. That’s where he actually wanted her to go. She printed the park map anyway, just in case, deleted all traces of the message, and stuffed the hard copy of the map into her pocket before rushing out of the door.

Upon exiting the building, Dem pulled up the collar of her leather jacket and walked with determination down the sidewalk. In this neighborhood——a dark, forgotten corner of a “gleaming modern metropolis”——the high, drunk, or stupid would accost you in a second if you didn’t act like you’d plow them over if they got in your way. Fortunately, the holographic sign for the subway station wasn’t far.

At the station she swiped her special public transit card and pushed through the turnstile. The card looked just like a normal transit card, but Dem had made it herself. She exploited a flaw in the card’s coding to load it with unlimited credits.

After her subway ride and a short walk she arrived at her destination, an apartment building similar to her own. She took the elevator to the seventh floor. It opened to a long hallway. Halfway down, waiting in front of an apartment door, stood two guys who immediately turned to look at her.

Crap. She doubted that G left the door unlocked. She could pick it open, but not with witnesses around.

Dem took a deep breath and walked into the hallway before the elevator doors closed. As she approached while avoiding eye contact with the guys, she felt an increasing sense of edginess from them. They stood way too stiff.

Uh oh. She counted the doors as she walked, and the one the guys stood in front of would be apartment seven-fifteen, exactly where she needed to go. She’d have to walk past them, leave down the stairs, and come back later. Dem did her best to act casual. The guys didn’t move to stop her, but never took their eyes off of her, either. Both looked to be in their early twenties, wore slim-fitting button-up shirts, and had terrible haircuts that tried too hard to be stylish. As she passed the door, she saw that it was ajar. Inside, she heard something crash to the floor followed by a person cursing in Chinese. She twitched. Whatever serious crap was going on, Dem had no interest in falling into the middle of it. She hurried after passing the door and the two guys.

“Hold on a second,” one of them said.

Dem ran. Footsteps pounded after her. She got a few steps away from the stairway door before they grabbed her.

Dem slammed her fist behind her into the crotch of the one to her right. He yelped as he fell back. She drew her pepper spray and turned on the other one, but he knocked her arm aside and she dropped it. Metal glinted in his hand, a small knife. She froze.

“Hey, hey,” Dem said, “I don’t know who you think-”

“Shut up.” He pointed the knife at her.

The other grabbed her and they brought her to apartment seven-fifteen.

Papers and broken electronics littered the floor. Several pieces of furniture lay on their side. The guy who obviously created the chaos stood in the center of it, fuming. He turned toward them quickly as they entered. He must be the leader, as he looked similar to the other two, but wore a snazzy suede blazer. His jaw muscles tensed.

“Who the hell is this?” Leader Guy asked in Chinese. Dem couldn’t speak the language fluidly but had a decent ear for it.

“Don’t know,” Knife Guy replied. “She tried to sneak by outside. Acted suspicious.”

Leader Guy narrowed his eyes at her and stepped closer. “Where is GhostMan?” he asked, this time speaking English.

“GhostMan?” Dem knew the name, of course. He was a legend online. One of the greatest hackers for hire out there. He refused to work for big corporations or the government and charged very specific, but apparently random amounts.

“Yes. This is his place. We paid him exactly seven-thousand three-hundred and two dollars, then he took off. Where is he?”

Dem couldn’t believe that G525 could be GhostMan. The real GhostMan must have fooled these thugs into tossing the wrong person’s apartment.

“I don’t know who you’re talking about, okay?” Dem said. “I was just-”

Leader Guy leaned forward so his face was level with her as he gave her an odd look. “Are you GhostMan?”

Bruised Nuts Guy behind her chuckled. “She’s just a kid.”

Leader Guy glared daggers at him and he shut up.

Leader Guy stepped back. “Search her.”

Great. Dem didn’t need these creeps getting frisky with her.

“Wait!” she said, holding her hands up. “I know where he is. He agreed to change my grades for fifty dollars and fifty-five cents. He gave me a map of where to meet him if he wasn’t here, though.”

Leader Guy held out a hand. “Give it.”

She pulled the crumpled printout from her pocket and handed it over, trying her best to look disappointed.

Leader Guy appraised the map. “Where is this?”

“Yue Fei Park. It’s on Zhōngshān Street. I’m supposed to meet him in half an hour.”

Leader Guy grinned for the first time, thinking himself triumphant. “Let’s go!”

The three rushed out of the apartment, leaving her alone.

Dem waited until she heard the faint closing of the elevator door down the hall before she sighed and let out a chuckle. Those three weren’t so bright.

Her mind returned to G’s cryptic message. He’d left her a present here somewhere. Hopefully he hid it well enough that those thugs didn’t find it or smash it. She just wished he’d given her some hint of what to look for. She started by searching the least-obvious place, the kitchen. The fridge was empty save for a few energy drinks. Dem grabbed one, popped it open, and sipped as she continued her search. The microwave contained a melted tablet and three hard drives that G fried before bolting. None of the drawers held anything interesting or contained any secret compartments. Next she moved into the bathroom.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.

Atop the back of the toilet stood a vinyl figurine of a cartoonish red devil with curled horns and cute little wings. It was an obvious reference to her alias, Dem0n.

Dem took the figure and inspected it. Taped to the base she found a thin memory card. She peeled it off and slotted it into her phone.

This better not be an elaborate troll just to brick my phone.

The memory card contained a single text file. She opened it.

235 Jin Street.

Dem roared in frustration.

“I swear, G, if I go there just to find another address, I’m going to hunt you down and beat you worse that those idiots ever would have.”

She stuffed the demon figure in her pocket before storming out of the apartment.

###

The address brought her to the sketchy warehouse district and down an even-sketchier alleyway. Dem had her pepper spray ready in her hand as she walked past active paint graffiti that flickered between different images and Chinese characters. She came to a metal door in the side of a heavy duty warehouse. Beside the door was a keypad. A closed-circuit camera looked down from above. Dem felt more than a little nervous, but she had already come this far. She walked up to the door. It was locked of course. She knocked.

A moment passed with no response. Dem looked into the overhead camera.

“Just open the door,” she said.

It remained closed.

The only thing left to try was the keypad. The text file had contained no other numbers than the address, though. What would G-

Five-two-five, the numbers in his username.

Dem shrugged and gave it a shot.

The door popped open.

“Wow,” Dem said, elongating the word. Somehow G had managed to make this puzzle of his simultaneously tricky and stupidly simple.

She passed through a small anteroom, through another door——thankfully unlocked——and into a medium-sized concrete room. Her eyes could barely make out the interior of the place in the dark.

Then, in a flash, she was blind.

“Dem,” a male voice said over tinny speakers, “congrats. You solved my little alternate reality game.”

The light came from a wallscreen to her left. As Dem blinked back tears, it resolved into the image of a guy’s face. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with short salt-and-pepper hair, and dark bags under his eyes that showed he hadn’t gotten enough sleep for probably half of his life. But he smiled, with a kind face that Dem immediately wanted to trust.

“This is me, G525. I’m more widely known by a different handle, though: GhostMan. Yes, that GhostMan. I’m sure you’ve heard of me. Well, some thugs who call themselves hacktavists hired me to do a job. It sounded like a worthwhile thing at first, but once I got started, I realized they had been less than honest with me. They planned to use the program I made them to spy on corporate employees so they could harass them into quitting their jobs. Naturally, I decided to cancel our arrangement. I took their down payment as compensation for their dishonesty——but, as you can imagine, sterling guys like these weren’t very happy about it. So I’m leaving the city. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of those idiots, but they could cause me more trouble than I’d care to deal with, and they’re not the only enemies I have around. So I’m off to live the life of a wise hacker hermit——like Yoda, but with more computers.

“I’ll get to the important part, the present I told you about. This is it. The old warehouse you’re standing in is halfway to making a great digital vigilante hideout. I started converting it into my new digs a while back, but don’t need it much now. So it’s yours, no strings attached. It’s bought and paid for, with ten years of property taxes already taken care of. Merry Christmas! Finish the job of fixing her up, treat her well, and be very careful about who you invite over. She should serve you good for a long time. In a few years I might stop by and see how you’re doing.

“Thanks for being a pal, Dem. Ciao.”

The wallscreen deactivated, returning to black.

Dem looked around the room. “This is it?”

A dim light activated against the back wall to illuminate another door. It connected to a hallway with metal grating underfoot and exposed pipes overhead. The hall opened to a giant room, several stories high and a few hundred meters wide.

It was all the room she could ever hope for.

Dem jumped and kicked the air in her best impression of Kiki from Rainbow Murder Girls.

“Hell yes!” Her voice echoed through the giant chamber.

Enjoy this excerpt? Then feel free to find out more about the world of Static Breaker at his personal blog: www.prismaticcastle.com.

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