Jul/Aug 2022  •   Fiction


by David Evan Krebs

Public Domain image

Syd taps hard on the inch-thick glass. The pawn shop closed an hour ago, but she knows a guy who works there. Not well enough to know whether he's working today or not, but if he is, he'll let her in. She taps again but won't pound because it's not a good neighborhood to draw attention to yourself in. She shrugs her oversized jacket up higher, hiding her smallness as best she can.

A shape moves in the shop, a big one that could be Dwight. She shrinks back a little though, because if it's not him, it might be trouble. But it is. Short, thick beard almost up to his eyes, precisely faded haircut.

He pauses when he gets to the door, glancing toward the back of shop, then taps in a code and fumbles with an old-fashioned key to let her in. A puff of fresh air escapes as she slithers inside like a liquid, instinct getting her off the street as soon as possible. She takes a moment to relish the scrubbed air.

"Need something, Syd?" Dwight asks, but he's already brewing her coffee, because he knows she'll need that, at least.

"Yeah, I do." She rubs her hands together, hesitates.

"Well, speak up," Dwight says, but gentle because he's so big.

"Wally says someone sold you something of his."

"Whoa, whoa. You know our policy."

"I know, I know. I don't expect you to just give it back. Neither does Wally. I'll buy it."

"What is it? And what d'you have for it?"

"It's a ring. Like a fancy old one. A ruby in it. In silver."

"Oh, yeah. I know what you're talking about." Dwight moves behind the glass counter. Syd expects him to stop and pluck it from among a spread of rings laid out on crushed velvet, but he keeps moving, pushes through curtains to the backroom, and comes out a minute later. "This it?" he asks, holding up the ring and looking at her through it, one eye squinted closed.

"That's it," she says. She pulls a bundle out of her oversized jacket pocket—a brick-sized chunk wrapped in a T-shirt—and places it on the counter. "Is this enough?"

Dwight takes the lump, unwraps it. It's a mostly featureless plastic thing, matte grey—an undifferentiated mass of CPU gunk. He turns away and opens a little door in the wall, placing the lump in a brightly lit recess. He closes the hatch and stares at a screen to the side of it, punches buttons. Info dances. "Pretty good, kid." Syd is 26, but was 14 when she first started doing business with Dwight, so she'll always be "kid" to him. "I'd say this is plenty." He removes the plastic brick and puts it back on the counter. "Or would be, anyway, if we didn't know what that ring actually is."

Damn. They probably put everything that comes through the shop through that scanner—or a bigger one in the back—no matter how innocent it looks. And the ring isn't innocent—a pretty high-end biometrics cloner. Not a cheap jammer that sets off alarms, freaking out the bots because they don't know who you are. Those are only good for smash-and-grabs, when the best you can hope for is to not be remembered. The ring will tell the bots you're someone you're not, let you take your time doing whatever it is you need to do.

The coffee maker dings. Dwight fills a cup and slides it across the counter to her.

She takes a sip, warms her hands on it, taking the time to think, even though there's not much to think about. "Okay," she says. Wally thought this might happen. She wraps the brick up and sticks it back in her pocket. "I got something else." She owes Wally—a lot—and he called it in this time. If the brick of CPU stuff wasn't enough to get the ring back, the plan was she'd pay with something of her own. If she brings both the ring and the brick back, Wally will cancel her debt outright, instead of bit by bit, job by job. A double-edged trade. Out of debt with Wally, but...

"So what d'you got? You know how much we can get for this ring. How're you gonna square this?"

"My cortical scan. A deep one. I'll sign you guys the exclusive rights." The ads won't last forever. Her brain scans will only be good for a few years before her 'waves have changed too much for the bots to track them. And if she gets tired of being accessed, she hears there are monasteries that'll take you in, get your brainwaves unrecognizable within a few months.

Dwight whistles. "You sure you wanna do this, girlie? Tell you what: come back tomorrow. We open at noon. Take some time to think about it. Do you know how much we'll earn from ads on those scans? Don't get me wrong—that ring is..." he glances down at it, "worth something. But..." He stops talking as he catches the look in her eye, looks at her silently for a second. "You're not going to think about it, are you, kid?"

"No, Dwight. I gotta do this." She doesn't want to look at Dwight looking at her.

"You owe Wally something?"

"A lot. Have for a long time. Time's up."

Dwight waves her toward the back of the store, starts walking. "Scanner's in the back," he says over his shoulder.

She downs the last of the coffee, then follows him.


The next day, Syd leaves Wally's squat without telling him where she's going. Which feels good. She knows she'll come back, but she likes that she doesn't have to.

The ads haven't started yet, which just means Dwight's bosses haven't cashed in on her scan yet. Probably still shopping for the best deal. Or maybe they've already sold it, but corporate AIs are still curating an ad-stream that won't impair her below the legal limit—responsible citizenship has its own cognitive bandwidth requirements.

Syd was afraid to sell the scan at first, but now she's kind of disappointed the ads haven't started. She does a lot of thinking, which does nothing but drive her crazy. The ads might actually help, might make her stop thinking so crazy, might make her get a job, even. She hears when you sell a scan as deep as the one she did, you get pretty flexible about what you're willing to do in order to buy all the stuff the ads tell you about. And sometimes being flexible like that can be a good thing, like you can be someone you've never been, someone you didn't think you could be. The ad-streams aren't allowed to use up bandwidth you'd need for a mid-tier job. She'll probably earn more after the ads kick in than she ever has before.

She's a little giddy, looking forward to it. She doesn't really need to be up in the middle of the night, jonesing for grime, thinking about nightmare versions of her mom from when she was a kid. Bring those ads on! She doesn't know why she was so nervous about selling the scan.

By afternoon, she's starting to jones for grime. She didn't think she would, thought the ad-lust would've taken over by now, gotten deeper inside her than grime ever did.

Six PM and she's back at the pawn shop, needing to know what's happening, what's going to happen. She bangs on the door's thick glass. They're not closed yet, but they're always locked up, no matter what.

Syd sees Dwight and Vic near the door to the back, casting looks at her but just talking to each other.

"Hey!" she yells. She doesn't even quite know what she's mad at. Maybe they're doing her a favor. Or at least think they are.

Finally, Vic comes to the door. Syd wishes it were Dwight. Vic punches in the code, uses the old-fashioned key. The door opens. The puff of clean air comes out. Vic steps back, making room for her. She breathes extra deep as she steps in. Dwight takes a couple steps toward the front of the shop, but still hangs back.

She's still mad the ads haven't kicked in, but still doesn't know why. After all, her mom didn't raise her to sell her brain to the corporate 'net—Syd should be grateful for whatever's leaving her brain free for herself and for grime. Maybe Dwight bought her debt, wants her to stay free, thinks of her as a daughter. She looks at him to see if his eyes say that, if he's done something kind for her. But she can only get him to look at her for a second, then he's studying rows of shiny things under the counter's glass. Bad sign.

"Syd!" Vic's got a big scary smile for her he's never had before.

Her gut sinks, even though she doesn't know what's happening. Vic doesn't get happy about things that are good for anyone but Vic.

"What do you want, Vic?" She doesn't shout. She never shouts when the room feels like this, never shouts at someone who feels like Vic does.

"You must have figured it out by now."

She hasn't. She's got that tickle she gets when someone's playing her, double-crossing her. But she hasn't put this together yet in a way she could explain to someone.

She looks at Vic, feeling mean on the inside but making sure she looks calm on the outside. Sometimes that alone is enough to make things swing her way. It doesn't now, though. Vic is smart, eats the smart meds because he can afford them. She can't bully her way out of this one.

"No, Vic. I don't know what you mean," she says, voice edgy enough to be a warning, but not so much as to piss him off.

"Work for me." He doesn't say more. Looks at her hard.

Her 'wave scan is good for two or three years. She's young, able-bodied—a prime worker and consumer. He'd make a killing off her without lifting a finger if he just flipped on the ad-stream. She'd have to work hard for ten years to earn that much.

Which might actually be good for her. Better than working for Wally, better than drowning in the 'net. Vic is rich—not so rich as to draw attention, but as rich as you can be without that being a problem. And he's always got loot he can sell off. He'd probably give her an apartment. Or at least a room. But who knows what he'd make her do. Nothing that would break her, probably—if labor is worth more to Vic than cash, that'd be a waste. Maybe she'd end up like Dwight—he's always seemed good, calm. And she'd get to work with Dwight. And if she made some big scores, showed some ambition, maybe she could buy herself out early.

"Got a contract?" she asks.

Vic waves Dwight forward without taking his eyes off Syd.

Dwight brings a tablet, doesn't look at Syd. She doesn't have time to be mad at him.

Vic takes the tablet and hands it to her. He can probably see what's on it through an implant in his eye, or in the eye-part of his brain. Dwight slinks to the back again.

Vic says, "This is the projected ad earnings from your scan, tapering off over two to three years as it loses synchrony. Any time before that, I can turn on the ad-stream and your debt will be mitigated by my earnings. If I don't turn on the 'stream before your scan loses focus, you'll still owe me anything you haven't earned back."

Syd scrolls down the contract till she can't see the giant number at the top anymore, then looks over the text, glad her mom made her learn to read, glad Wally made her do his reading for him. The wording is as vague as she expected, pretty much just saying Vic can use her for whatever she's good for. Just like Wally. She's lucky she's smarter than she is sexy, a better liar than she is strong. She's lucky she knows people who know things. Vic will get the most out of her if he lets her use her head, which is the part of her she likes using best. And Vic would never use anyone for less than they were worth.

If she takes the job, she can stay on the grime, which only takes up some of your brain, some of the time. The ads are on all the time, as long as you're not asleep. And you gotta get a job so you can buy stuff from the ads, and that takes up a lot of the rest of you.

A few years of that—till your brainwaves change and the bots lose track of you—and you're free again. But you're so used to it by then—the ads, the job—that you'll probably go straight back to the scanner. There's always the monks. But you probably don't even want their help by then, or have enough brain power left for doing whatever they try to teach you.

She gnaws a lip. Vic isn't Dwight. He won't give her till morning to think it over. If she says no, he'll go straight to the back and throw a switch to start up his revenue stream. He's got the license to her 'waves, fair and square, with her eyeprint on it.

She feels the meanness coming up in her, but it won't do any good, so she lets it go. Maybe Vic's not so bad. Maybe she and Dwight can be friends like they never have been. Maybe she'll find something good to do with her brain, something better than signing it away. Maybe she'll even get off the grime.

She puts out her hand. Vic shakes it, laughing his booming laugh. The sound of it makes her feel weak all over, but she'll get used to it.