It was ugly, really.
She stared at herself in a small mirror, the gem around her neck barely catching her eye.
“Stunning,” the salesman said. “That color is perfect for you.”
She ignored him. He didn’t know what he was talking about. The gem on this necklace was too big and tawdry. Not at all like the simple, elegant silver thing a few inches farther down the display, with diamonds so small and clear they looked like pinpricks of light running down the chain.
It had caught her eye the moment she’d walked in. She hadn’t once looked at it since.
“I’ll take it,” she said, eyes still on the mirror and showing the salesman a perfectly forged smile.
“I’ll get the case then.” He stepped away. He didn’t seem to suspect a thing.
She rested her purse on the display case, just so, her hand fast and precise. When the man returned, nothing appeared out of place.
The glass lit up, a bill and scanner appearing over the more expensive pieces locked up below.
That much? she thought. For this garbage?
She didn’t shake her head or roll her eyes or betray any hint of what she was thinking. Instead she dug a card out of her bag and pushed it across the glass display case.
It was important to buy something. No one was ever suspicious of a paying customer. Most customers paid using a tiny chip in their wrist, invisible under the skin. She had a small scar instead.
“Thank you, Miss…Nadia,” the salesman said. Still smiling but his eyes were hollow. Customer service eyes. Or maybe it was just the retinal implants.
With practiced nonchalance, Nadia took off the ugly necklace and let the man case it up for her. A few long, agonizing moments later, she stepped outside into the city.
Her city. Her home.
A healthy stream of people flowed down the stark pavement of the sidewalk. Nadia melded into them, just another fashionably dressed young woman shopping downtown. One of many wearing this season's latest, hers being a slim white trench coat with a sweeping scarlet “A” spiraling down one sleeve. This was the fashion district, after all.
Stretching up the glass-paneled side of a skyscraper, an ad reminded her that she was in an urban redevelopment zone owned by Auktoris Global Funds, Inc. Celebrating twenty years of their reclaimed city. The ad flickered, replaced by a cartoon cat’s face with a smile full of sinister teeth, grinning over the words TWENTY YEARS OF SLAVERY LOL.
Nadia ignored it—as did everyone else—ignored it as steadily as she ignored the small drone hovering a few feet over them, clicking dozens of times a second as it collected face scans.
Her own face was calm. Nothing to see there at all, no reason for anyone to look at her tiny pleased smirk. In her bag, her fingers curled around the simple, elegant silver necklace, with tiny brilliant diamonds running down its length.
* * *
Home was among an endless row of office buildings nearby. The neighborhood had nothing to draw anyone who didn’t work there. No landmarks, no common spaces, no name. Only nearly identical skyscrapers as far as the eye could see, plastered in moving advertisements.
Nadia also owned an apartment downtown, of course. But this was home.
Her beloved white scooter hovered a foot over the pavement, leaving a V-shaped wake of dust fluttering after her. It was one of the few things she owned that she actually had affection for: elegant white with clean classic curves, modeled after the old Vespas back when they had wheels. Most people didn’t own one. It was too easy to rent one or call on one of the many hardware-as-a-service apps and have one arrive for you.
But this one was hers. Paid in full, up front.
She swooped into a wide, lazy curve. The streets were nearly empty this late, plenty of space between the rideshares traveling home on their own accord, full of office serfs still typing away. A short ramp led down into a garage that opened for the chip on the handlebars of her ride. It was rare to find a garage like this—a private garage, with a private elevator leading to a private office that was sufficient as private living space in a pinch.
In such a nondescript building, too. It was perfect.
She left her helmet on the scooter’s seat and tried very hard to think of nothing on her short elevator trip. Normally she’d be giddy, running her fingers over her latest catch and sneaking peeks at it now that they were alone together. One last little bit of fun should have been just the thing to calm her nerves. Instead she gripped the necklace tightly in her coat pocket, staring at nothing.
The elevator doors opened. A visitor, approaching from the main elevator, would be greeted with a plain, locked door and a placard next to it reading Functional Fashions. Coming in through her private elevator, however, led into what had been built to be a cubicle farm.
Nadia’s one and only employee—and she fought a sly smile whenever she thought of the word, because they were partners in all but name—was sitting at a desk dominated by multiple screens. No reaction, no greeting.
“Good to see you too,” Nadia said, walking past her with barely a glance. “Please don’t get up. Dinner is ready, I’m sure?”
That got her a dry snort. Neither of them could be trusted to cook. The office had a kitchenette, but it was part of a break room that served as little more than storage. Nadia wove her way through her personal workspace, a chaotic set of tables and mannequins covered in projects at various stages of abandonment.
She stopped at a set of drawers and opened one. Piles of jewelry glittered up at her, mostly necklaces, tangled up with bracelets and rings in a dazzling variety of cuts and colors. Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gems. Some of it she had even paid for.
She fished the small case out of her purse, letting her fingers caress the black velvet for a moment. The case cracked open easily, unceremoniously dumping the ugly necklace in with the rest. The stolen necklace took its place.
“Did you happen to get the blueprints, Tess?” Nadia called out.
“Any minute now.”
A heavy sigh from Nadia. A theatrical roll of the eyes. For no one’s benefit but her own, of course. Tess was still absorbed in whatever nonsense she was up to now.
“Tonight,” Nadia said, stalking over to the girl who was currently, against all odds, failing her utterly. “It’s supposed to be tonight.”
No response. Nadia hovered at the back of Tess’s chair, her eyes running over the screens piled up on the desk. Six of them, two rows of three, scrolling too quickly to read through news feeds and lines of code and social media posts, a testament to how useless technology could be. Nadia couldn’t begin to make sense of it.
She knew it didn’t matter, though; Tess was probably only paying attention to the displays built into her eyes.
“I said tonight,” Nadia repeated. “As in a few short hours.”
“I heard you,” Tess said. She wore thick-framed glasses without lenses. Nadia could see the flicker in her pupils where retinal implants painted a picture just for her. The nanoengineered irises were expanding and contracting rapidly, completely shielded from the real world.
Nadia didn’t bump Tess’s chair or wave a hand in her face. She merely stuck out an index finger and pressed it against the side of her partner’s head.
Tess jumped in place, her brow pinching.
“Don’t tell me you’re gaming again?” Nadia said.
“No. Yes. Maybe.” Tess slapped the finger away and turned her chair to face Nadia. The flicker in her pupils died down to a spark. “The download is going on right now. What else do you want me to do?” she said, sniffing loudly and wiping her nose on the sleeve of her hoodie.
Nadia said nothing as she frowned at the lack of manners. She stared instead, distracted. Her friend had chosen a beautiful deep purple for her new eye color when the implants had gone in. Although Nadia hated what retinal implants did to pupils—made them look hollow, faraway, glazed over—she couldn’t argue with the color change. Tess’s eyes were gorgeous now, stunning in a way that clashed entirely with her unkempt brown ponytail.
“You stole something, didn’t you?” Tess said.
“You always get that stupid smug little smile.” Tess tried to mimic it, pouting awkwardly instead.
Nadia planted her nose high in the air, preparing her finest haughty tone. “I shan’t dignify these base accusations with an argument. I did, however, get something for you.”
Nadia held out the black case, which was accepted gingerly and with a show of great trepidation.
“Do try to contain yourself,” Nadia said.
“Uh…what is it?”
Open it, you dolt.
Nadia didn’t reply; she simply raised an eyebrow.
Tess opened the case and managed to look even less excited somehow. “It’s…beautiful, actually. Kind of more your style though, isn’t it?”
“I already have one just like it,” Nadia said. “Aren’t you going to put it on?”
“This would be really sweet of you,” Tess said, “if I didn’t know you had a whole box full of stolen necklaces around here somewhere.”
So she hadn’t found the drawer yet. “I spent money.”
“Mmm.” Tess side eyed her, clearly not buying it.
“Get up, will you?” Nadia said, pulling Tess out of the chair and turning her around. “I’m going to put it on you, and you’re going to say, ‘My goodness, this is absolutely stunning!’ and I’m going to give you a look because I was right all along.”
Tess grunted in reply, purposefully slouching and slumping her shoulders and making this difficult. She passed the necklace back, and for one fleeting moment Nadia’s fingers met the metal tips of Tess’s right hand, a full prosthetic replacement that went all the way up to Tess’s shoulder. Nadia suppressed a shudder. It wasn’t cold; that would have been better somehow. It didn’t feel particularly warm either. It was strangely skeletal, exposed polymer strands shrinking and pulling to move the fingers in an eerie reproduction of a real human hand.
She brushed Tess’s ponytail to the side and fought to fasten the necklace. “You’ve seen the newer models, correct? With the shape-molded shell?”
Tess didn’t even bother to throw a heavy sigh. “I thought you didn’t keep up on the latest in prosthetic trends.”
“They look very real. Very natural.”
“I built this,” Tess said, and Nadia felt the tension in her friend’s body, the walls strengthening. “It’s as much mine as the original was.”
“Yes, dear, I know,” Nadia said, with no empathy whatsoever. “There! Turn around. Let’s see it!”
Tess did so. It was…not absolutely stunning. Something about jeans and a purple hoodie with “My Other Car Runs on Linux” across the front had that effect on a silver-and-diamond necklace. The fact that Tess once again was sniffing loudly and using her sleeve as a tissue didn’t help.
“Right all along, huh?” Tess said, shaking her head.
“We have to dress you up nicely sometime,” Nadia said, for what had to have been the thousandth time in all the years they’d known each other.
“I’m not taking fashion advice from someone wearing a piece of corporate propaganda.”
Nadia opened her mouth to say how much she hated this coat, but caught the words before they escaped. “You went to prom in a pantsuit, for goodness’ sake,” she said instead.
“Ooh, look,” Tess’s pupils lit up again, no doubt an alert appearing in her vision. “Your download is finished.”
“Such a masculine cut too. You could’ve at least worn a jacket with a peplum.”
“Ooh, look at these important blueprints I downloaded for you,” Tess said, swinging her hand at the displays on her desk. The monitors acted as one, each sharing part of a blown-up image of building schematics. “I heard we needed these right away for some incredibly important and not at all stupid reason.”
“Ugh, sarcasm.” Nadia tsked at her. “So unattractive.”
“Unless you’re the one doing it?”
“That’s called wit,” she said, although her heart wasn’t in it. The screens had caught her eyes now, leading them in a quick and calculating scan.
“Wasn’t easy to get these,” Tess said. “Auktoris is getting more serious about their database security.”
“Well, it’s about time. We…they only own most of the city. Overlay electrical?” Nadia asked.
Tess didn’t move. “Ah, I’m sorry. Were you asking me?”
Nadia gave her a withering look.
“Of course. Right,” Tess said, making a colored overlay appear with a quick gesture of her hand. “Because someone still doesn’t have interactivity implants.”
Nadia ignored her as she followed the lines on the map.
“You’ve seen the newer models, correct?” Tess said, matching Nadia’s meter perfectly. “They’re completely invisible to the naked eye, exactly like the last generation. And the one before, come to think of it.”
Still ignored. “Data lines as well,” she asked, pausing for a moment, then adding, “Please.”
New colors appeared. “What does that look like to you?” Nadia said.
“Like a complete mess. The office above the store is piggybacking off the same connection the store has.”
“Same parent company.”
“And minimum effort,” Tess said.
“I’ve found people can be relied upon for that much.”
A long moment passed, Nadia slowly biting her tongue the whole time.
“All right, fine, go ahead and say it,” Tess said.
“Told you so,” Nadia said.
“I’m still skeptical we can get anything good out of this.”
“You were the one who said all you needed was a strong, physically dominant connection.”
“Domain. A physical domain connection,” Tess said, averting her eyes and suddenly taking an intense interest in adjusting her bangs. “Still doesn’t guarantee I’ll get anything valuable.”
“Only one way to find out.”
Nadia drifted toward her workspace, to the nearest mannequin. It was wearing a black turtleneck with a slim band on one sleeve hiding a built-in touch console. The fabric was layered with enough wire to stretch back and forth across the office a few times. She knew this because she’d painstakingly woven every inch of it into the fabric so that it was all but invisible.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Tess asked.
This was some of Nadia’s finer work, the cut slim and tight in a particularly flattering way. But the technology hidden inside was the valuable part, and all of that had come from Tess.
“Are you ready?” Nadia said. “I’m not doing this without you, and I’m not doing it unless you’re absolutely certain you want this.”
Tess seemed to gather herself, standing up straight and meeting Nadia head on. “Oh, I’m in. Don’t worry about me. I mean…you know, you’re the one putting yourself out there.”
“This isn’t like when you hack or mine or whatever you call it now,” Nadia said, ignoring the glare the comment earned her. “You’re certain nothing in the sweatshirt can be traced back to you?”
“I’m clean. Unless you flip on me.”
No chance of that. Nadia ran a hand down the slick, soft fabric of the turtleneck, light but strong. She knew it was synthetic, and hated that fact a bit, but there really was no other proper choice for the job. She couldn’t even feel the wires.
“I wanted to thank you,” Nadia said, settling her eyes on the necklace.
“You’ve put an incredible amount of work into my silly idea.”
“Pssh. Nothing to it,” Tess said, waving her artificial hand. It was completely fluid in motion, as lifelike as could be. “It’s not like we don’t stand to make a ton of money.”
Nadia was quiet.
“I mean…if we get something good,” Tess said. “And if you don’t wind up in jail.”
Very large ifs. Nadia crossed her arms and put a thoughtful finger to her lips. “I’m going to rest up a bit. Do we need anything else?”
“You’re going to what?” Tess said.
“Rest. Sleep. Recuperate from my trying day,” Nadia said, ignoring the scoff Tess made, “in preparation for our long, exciting night ahead.”
“I don’t know how you can sleep like you do.”
“Beauty rest, my dear. Very important. We are ready, yes?”
Tess nodded. “Good to go.”
“Mmm.” Still staring at her handiwork, Nadia returned the nod absentmindedly. “I’ll be back out in a bit.”
The corner office called to her. It was supposed to have been for an executive—practically an apartment unto itself, a set of large rooms with a private bathroom attached. Instead of a desk, it had a bed and the bare essentials: a few spare pieces of hotel furniture as soulless as the building they resided in.
She and Tess called it the “Pass out from Exhaustion Suite.” Nadia used it on a more or less permanent basis, although she was a far cry from exhausted right now. The moment she closed the door behind her, the tension in her chest returned—a wire strung tightly and still being pulled.
She sat on the edge of the bed and stared at a mirror across from her. There was no reason to be nervous. This would not be her first time breaking the law.
It would, however, be her first time involving an accomplice.
The mirror showed her something she very much did not like. Her face was still stunning, of course, high cheekbones and a slender jaw arranged in perfect symmetry, framed by elegant black tresses. But there were shadows in her eyes, flickers of doubt and guilt that looked as bad as a retinal implant. She flopped back onto the bed before her face fell into an ugly scowl.
Sleep. Still in her clothes, she lay back, running over their plan in her mind.
There was nothing left to do but wait.