PREVIOUSLY: Trace’s Side Hustle
Rider made good on his promise of a proper beer, returning to the table with two glasses filled to the brim with dark, almost muddy liquid and a small but well-defined head. He sloshed her drink on a paper coaster and cringed.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
“What is this?” she asked.
“Night Fog Black something. Bartender said it was from a brewing company in Austin. It was that or Coors.”
“Good choice.” Trace picked up the sculpted glass and took a tentative sip. Even with her failing tastebuds, she could tell it was a hearty beer, well-mixed with just enough oomph on the low end.
He took a sip and nodded in agreement. “So, I held up my end of the bargain. Now you show me yours.”
“Sure,” said Trace, shrugging, “but not here. Let’s dip into the MESH.”
“Really? The uh… goss… is that hot, huh?”
“You never know who might be listening.”
“Alright, you dip, I dip, we dip.” He took a long drink.
Trace turned her attention inward, reaching invisible hands deep into the fabric of the MESH, wrapping her fingers around the individual fibers that made up the peer-to-peer network. And once she had enough of the thin strings of energy balled up in her fists, she yanked them out of the back of her head, through her eyes, and into the very real Streets Ahead. Another layer of reality fell over the dingy bar. The low music playing from the jukebox muffled down to the bottom of a deep well. The bartender, still mindlessly wiping a glass, stared off into the distance.
No veil fell over him. Through his constant movement, he remained as well-defined as the fans spinning above their heads. Anything moving would punch through the MESH overlay, while anything that didn’t was swallowed up, replaced by the high evercrete walls of a warehouse. The roof of the bar disappeared, replaced by the image of scaffolding, of dark red braces gleaming in the late afternoon sun. Massive square windows dotted the roof of the warehouse, laid out in a perfect grid.
Rider looked around. A hazy outline appeared around his head, showing glimpses of Streets Ahead before the background turned to the warehouse.
They now existed both in and out of the MESH.
Half-jacked, as the kids said.
“This your work?” asked Rider. His body was in a seated position, despite there being nothing but empty space beneath him.
“Yeah, it’s the first thing that came to mind. I can take us somewhere else.”
“Up to you. Just figured you wouldn’t want me knowing where you get all this premium gear.”
Trace shook her head. “Don’t bullshit me, Rider. You know where I work. You figured it out months ago.”
He reached out into nothing and closed his hand around an invisible glass. Only when he moved it did the beer pop into being in the warehouse. It disappeared again after he took a sip and set it down.
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” continued Trace. “If you were a fed, you’d have popped me by now. Otherwise, we know enough about each other to fuck up each other’s lives. We’re essentially business partners at this point.”
“Sounds good to me. I’ve been looking to expand.”
The warehouse was stagnant, like a video on pause. Not only did nothing move, but there was no breeze, no air to even support one. It gave Trace the feeling of being slightly off balance, always in a state of thinking the world was going to move at any second.
“Well, I’m not,” she said. “If they paid me a living wage, I wouldn’t be doing this shit.”
“Fuck the rich.” Rider raised a fist in the air. It came down in a middling wave. “Not that I wouldn’t mind being loaded. I’d probably move somewhere without hundred degree springs.”
“I’d get me a proper Perion-Katsumi chassis.”
Rider tapped the invisible table with a knuckle. “Does it have anything to do with why Wa— why your work isn’t doing Vinestead installs anymore?”
Trace glanced at the bartender, but his back was turned, his attention on a small vidscreen over the sink.
“I guess, but even before I wasn’t too keen on it. Lots of controls in a Vinestead chassis. I know we lose a lot of our humanity when we go synthetic, but that’s no reason to hand over the balance to Vinestead. You’re less a person and more a product at that point.”
“I’ve never met a pleasant Vinestead synthetic. They’re all dicks. Every last one of them. But… that’s no reason to take them out of rotation.”
“Oh they’re not just out of rotation. We’re at a complete stop-ship.” Trace recalled the strongly worded memos that had been handed around a couple of weeks ago. “We’re not even letting Vinestead chassis into the building.”
“Come on, Trace. I’ve got the W and the X, now hit me with the Y.”
Trace crossed her legs. “That might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“Okay!” She waved her hand, urging him to keep his voice down. “It’s not really that complicated. We get chassis from a bunch of different manufacturers, and they come ready for install right out of the box. But because our clients are usually affluent shitbags, we can’t risk any kind of manufacturing defect slipping through. We take the bodies out and put them on a test rack, you know, run ‘em through the paces. A couple weeks ago, we got this real top-of-the-line Vinestead chassis—jacked to the teeth with fast-twitch carbon fibers and distributed power cores for localized delivery. One of the techs hooked it up to the test rack and bam…”
“Bam what?” asked Rider. He’d sat up and was now leaning his elbows on hazy splotches of a wooden table.
“Bam nothing.” Trace spread her hands. “Whole rack goes dead. Tech thinks there’s a problem with the power, so he moves the chassis to another rack, and again…”
“Bam nothing,” said Rider.
“Bam fucking nothing. So at that point he calls in the big guns ‘cause he’s not going to take another million dollar test rack offline. Some engineers I’ve never seen before in all my time working there show up with mobile gear and go to work on the chassis. All this time I’m moving boxes, straightening up—basically finding any fucking excuse to stay in the room. I look away for five seconds and I hear this zap.”
“They pulsed the chassis. Surgical EMP, right in the back of the head like a sheep getting slaughtered at the farm. That lets the engineers get into the chassis and start taking apart the code. I had to ask a coworker later what it meant when they kept saying unsigned binaries. It has to do with checksums, these um, unique alphanumeric sequences that act like a digital signature for any given file. Usually, these files are encrypted and ‘signed’ with a specific certificate. The ones in the new Vinestead chassis weren’t. You get it?”
Rider nodded slowly. “Yeah, but explain it to me anyway, so I know if you’ve got it.”
“The code controls everything in that chassis. The signatures on that code is the only guarantee that it hasn’t been tampered with since it left the factory. What the engineers found didn’t match what Vinestead said they would find. Someone modified the code before it got to us.”
“How is that possible?”
“It’s not,” said Trace, shaking her head. “The physical security on a Vinestead chassis is as tight if not more than a mil-spec PK sleeve. I mean, they both come straight to Sheppard on military transport from Sacramento. For someone to mess with that code, they’d have to get access somewhere between California and Texas, in the air, without a mobile engineering lab. It’s impossible.”
Rider sat back in his chair and took another drink. The MESH overlay tried to peek through the individual strands of hair that hung over his cheeks.
After a moment, he muttered the words fucking wild.
“No, that’s not wild. Wild would have been finding a single Vinestead synthetic with altered code. We found five. Five is an end-of-the-world scenario for Vinestead. There’s no way someone could have messed with that many chassis in that little time. No, this was an inside—”
“Inside job!” shouted Rider, slapping the table.
The bartender turned briefly. He couldn’t hear the conversation they were having the in the MESH, but if Rider struck something in reality with enough force, it would draw attention.
“Yes, you’re very smart,” said Trace. “I guess you’ve also figured out who did it.”
The smile faded from Rider’s face, and he shrugged.
“That’s what I thought.”
“Do you know?” he asked.
“No, and I don’t think the engineering team figured it out either. Bunch of jarheads in green camo came over from the base and took all five of the bodies away. And that was like, ten minutes after we put in the call to Vinestead to let ‘em know what was happening. It’s been two weeks, and they haven’t sent us a new chassis to load up since. We’re pushing off some big names in oil and gas because we just don’t have the inventory. But, I guess fortunately for us, I hear no one else has Vinestead inventory either. The whole market just dried up in the last two weeks and no one is talking about it.”
She picked up her beer and wet her lips. “That’s what scares me about it,” she added.
“The silence,” said Rider.
“Yeah, the silence.”
The sound of old wooden blades cutting through stale air filled the room. Trace used the lull in conversation to tear down the MESH overlay, returning both of them to a single plane of reality. The bar around them reappeared, somehow even less vibrant than before, as if the color were slowly draining from every surface.
Chirping crickets worked their way back into the din.
“Well shit,” said Rider. “That, I think, was worth more than the little trinket you brought me. I mean, I feel like that’s information we could use, but I don’t know how.”
“Me neither. I mean, if we owned a ton of stock in Vinestead, we could make a move before the news got out, save us from taking a massive loss.”
Rider bit his lip. “You, uh, you got stock in Vinestead, Trace?”
“In Vinestead? No.”
“Also no. Shit, what’s the point of owning stocks when my body is literally falling apart? Oh, I can’t walk, but fuck if my portfolio isn’t blowing up.”
“Can’t take it with you,” said Rider, finishing his beer. He clinked the glass twice on the table. “But I could take you with me.”
Trace raised an eyebrow.
“No strings. Just puttin’ it out there. Felt like you and I bonded a little tonight. Kinda curious where that feeling takes us.”
“It takes us home. You to your home, and me to mine.”
Rider put his hand to his chest. “You’re breaking my heart, Trace. At least let me walk you to your car.”
She let him, and thankfully he made no effort to casually brush against her or otherwise make physical contact. She’d known Rider a while, and his relationships always seemed to end in pregnancy or incarceration. He didn’t feel anything for her beyond a slight tingle between his thighs, but that slight tingle wouldn’t be enough for both of them.
Trace was tired, though not in the sense organics tire, a feeling so far back in her memory that it might as well have never happened. Her body simply felt heavy. Her inner machinery struggled to move her chassis around, a result of long-deferred repairs and a lack of power. Full charges lasted only a day or two at most, and the induction pad at home rarely topped her off anymore.
Her chassis was a wheel whose axel was beginning to rust, whose kinetic energy was burning off as heat and sound. Soon it would all be gone, the wheel would stop, and Trace Butler would simply stop moving.
“Second thoughts?” asked Rider, opening her car door for her.
“Rain check,” she replied. “You can cash it when the world ends.”
He smiled enough for her to see his teeth. Oily cheeks rose to partially obscure his eyes.
“End of days booty call,” he said. “I’m in.”
“Good night, Rider.”
“Happy trails, Butler.”
He stood in the parking lot while Trace backed up and got back onto the road. He disappeared in the afterglow of red taillights. She rode for several minutes in silence, not realizing the radio wasn’t on until she was up to cursing speed on the highway. Randy Travis resumed his serenade, soothing nerves that had suddenly been set on edge.
“That’s what scares me,” she repeated. “The silence.”