by Brad Hafford
West London was, as always, abuzz. Even at 4:00 AM on a chilly November Tuesday, electric motorcars whirred down Kings Road, zipping people along, early to work or late from parties. The residential side streets, however, were quiet. Lined with parked cars, occasional street lamps, and darkened flats, they dozed peacefully. Ornate houses huddled in gracefully curving queues, awaiting the sunrise with little attention to the two figures loitering outside their narrow, iron-fenced entryways.
“There it is, innit?” the scrawnier figure said, pointing to a parked car. “D’ya see?”
The taller man stared intently at the vehicle. “See what?” he said, his breath misting in the frosty air.
Their eyes were fixed on a car sitting at the curb of a constricted street in Chelsea, part of the fashionable Kensington district. It was a brown cabriolet with a weather-worn faux leather top. An aging example, its low-light number plates showed it to be registered ten years previously. Its MOT and inspection were up to date, but its bonnet was dented and its windscreen cracked. Such an automobile did not belong in Chelsea. But neither did the two men examining it.
The smaller of the two impatiently tugged on the grey flatcap he wore. “Pay attention, Mik,” he sniped. “We in’t got all night.” Clipped words and rounded vowels marked his speech. The bells of St. Mary’s were ancient history and the East End had long since been gentrified, but he was retro-Cockney.
“I’m paying as much attention as I’ve got, Artie. More, really. I just don’t see it.”
“It’s a slight vibration, see. An ’ologram shift called glitching. The generator keeps the image dynamic, right. So it has to refresh at a specific rate.” He tapped his nose, a signal that he was imparting secrets. “Oy, there it goes again!”
“I still don’t see it.”
“And you fink you got what it takes to be a Techno-Rat?”
“It was Uncle Lazlo’s idea, not mine.” Mik said. His speech was not as thick as his teacher’s. It carried the calmer, neutral accent of the Midlands.
“’E was a great tea leaf, was Lazlo Utzbahn, but ’e’s been ’round for yonks. Since afore the ’lectric laws. Maybe his judgement’s gone tits up.”
“Give me a break, Artie. I’m trying, you know.”
“Awright, awright. Look down this street. What d’ya see?”
“A bunch of cars.”
“No, you stupid tosser. You see a bunch o’ targets. Now, which d’ya go for?”
Mik examined the narrow street, a mere alleyway but packed with sleeping transport. It was a car thief’s dream. Some of the latest models lay there, prime for the taking. But despite the calm appearance of the darkened streets, security was tight.
“Um, that one.” Mik pointed to an angular contraption glistening like mercury frozen in ice. “The shiny one with the big fins.”
“Crikey! Could’ya be more obvious? Even if you got past its AI, you’d be spotted in a second, mate. Plus it’s all show. The Tatzu Shark breaks down every hundred kilometers like clockwork. It’s utter bollocks. Try again.”
“Could you, uh, give us a clue?”
“Watch for the tar, mate. Watch for the tar.”
“Cor, you are green, in’t ya? Tar and pitch–glitch!”
“But I don’t see this glitch, or tar, or whatever it is.”
“It’s like I been tryin’ to show ya. Watch this ’ere cabriolet close-like. Wait fer it… There!”
Mik’s light blue eyes flickered with recognition. “Hey, I saw it that time! Like it glittered for a second.”
“More like a nanosecond, mate. And as generators go, this one’s shite. For the pico-second freqs, you gotta be damn good.” Artie positioned Mik by the passenger door of the car. “Now touch it,” he said. “Feel the roof.”
Mik pushed up the sleeve of his dark blue anorak as if to put his hand in a bucket of water. “Take off the gloves you berk,” Artie chastised.
“But, what about DNA trace?”
“We’re not boostin’ this one. Won’t matter none.”
Mik peeled back the sleek glove he wore, a close-fitting neoprene designed to provide warmth while allowing precise finger movements. With bare hand, he rubbed the cold, ratty material on the car’s roof. He withdrew quickly and stared at his palm, then felt the roof again. “Something isn’t right,” he said at last.
“Nah, ’course not. Like I said, this one ’ere’s shite.’Ologram don’t even conform to the surface. That not right feeling is the five-mill difference ’tween the apparent surface and the real one.”
Mik put his face almost on the roof and rubbed the material again. Like a child lost in a new toy, his broad mouth turned up in a distantly entertained smile. Tall and ungainly, Mik was childlike in most respects: his blonde hair neatly trimmed in a boyish style; his cheeks smooth and round, his grin toothy; and his big ears jutted like wing mirrors from the sides of his head.
He forgot the cold and continued to stroke the faux leather until Artie clipped him on the back of the head with a quick slap of his neoprened hand. “Oy! Din’t I tell ya we in’t got all night?”
Mik’s grin turned earthwards and he looked at his tutor with an innocent pout. “But it’s fun, Artie. What is it makes it do that?”
“Yer brain is trying to make up fer the difference ’tween sight and feel. But don’t go rubbin’ just any car. This were a good one, there’d already be alarms goin’ off, sendin’ yer DNA to the cops.”
“Got to watch out for the coppers, eh?”
“Nah, cops is thick as bricks. Easy to fool. It’s the machines you gotta worry ’bout. Gotta know how to trick ’em good.”
Mik smiled. “That’s what I’m here to learn, Artie,” he said. “That’s just what I’m here to learn.”
The two thieves walked the alley away from the cabriolet and further from Kings Road. A light frost had formed on the pavement, spidering across the flowerbeds resting in tiny but perfectly meticulous lawns and up iron gates at footpath entrances. Mik and Artie’s sauntering feet crackled ever-so-slightly and their breath made collective steam puffs like ancient trains.
“Why do we go for the ones with hologram generators anyway, Artie?”
“In’t ya sussed that yet? Them’s the ones with real potential. You protect the things with the highest value, yeah? Make it look like shite to fool the thieves.”
“But the other ones have protection too, right?”
“Mostly. But we’re lookin’ for the cream, the best o’ the best. See, most thieves settle for middle or low end, ’cause it’s easy. But we Rats don’t settle for second best. Right?”
“I guess not. But what about the police?”
“Plod’s after the easy ones too. Make it too difficult for ’em and they leave you be. Can’t suss nothin’ anyways. It’s my mission to outsmart ’em. All of ’em. ’Cause when it comes to thieves, I’m the best o’ the best.”
As they strode past a streetlight, Artie adjusted a mechanism in his upper coat pocket.
“That one of those camera spooks?” Mik asked
“How’s it work?”
“Broadcasts a short range signal that keeps streetlight cameras seeing nothing but ghosts. Clever little fing, innit?”
Artie began to skip across the frosty pavement in an exaggerated way, puffing up his chest and hooking his thumbs under his jacket lapels. The jacket was tattered tweed, but genuine wool. Its sleeves were too long for Artie’s short arms and its hem fell low across his faded trousers.
“I think I see glitch, uh tar, here,” Mik said waving his gloved hand at an old Citroen.
Artie glanced at the rounded red beast. “Yeah, that’s tar. But it ain’t worth it neither. Slow generator…” he turned his head sharply. “’Ang about… What ’ave we ’ere?”
He stared in the direction of two flashy motors. Mik assumed his criminal mentor was appraising the golden Porsche with its supercharged capacitor, but was suddenly horrified that he was not. Instead, he was staring at a compact, broad-ended car sandwiched between the Porsche and a statelier BMW. Checkered in vivid blue and neon yellow, this middle car was unmistakable for its design, the configuration of its lights, and the large letters across its doors, boot, and bonnet: METROPOLITAN POLICE.
“You’re not gonna…”
“Relax, mate. It in’t really a p’lice car. Got a pico-freq generator makes it look like one. Clever, innit? What better way to keep a bloke from nickin’ yer motor?”
Mik gazed at the checkered pattern. It made his head hurt. “You can see tar on that?”
“More like a feel. I just know it in me gut. Now to clock it and see what we got.” From inside his coat he produced a package and began to unwrap it. Mik leaned closer to the car door, staring dizzily with crossed eyes. “Don’t touch it, you prat,” Artie warned. “Don’t even get close. I bet this one’s already part awake.”
The big-eared novice backed off and sat down near the gold Porsche. “Maybe we should give up on this one?” he suggested after a brief moment. “I mean, it really looks like the Bill to me.”
“Don’t be stupid. Just sit back and watch ’ow it’s done.”
Artie pulled his flatcap down and went to work. He took a short black rod from his pack and waved it over the car’s boot. Lights flickered along the grip and formed into numbers. Artie whistled appreciatively.
Next, he pulled out a pair of dark goggles, the earpieces wide and blocky. He tapped them with the rod he’d used to measure the hologram shift and a low, green glow spread out across the lenses. Finally he donned the glasses and examined his target.
“Well, bugger me!” he exclaimed in whispered awe. “It’s a Tecno-Dyne V38!”
“Lemme see,” Mik said, standing quickly and flailing for the glasses. “Lemme see!”
“This in’t no game, ya know. In’t no peep show neither.”
“But I want to see! How’s it work?”
“Matches the refresh rate so’s ya can see through. But this one’s so fast it’s gonna run my power out quick-like. You can take one look, that’s all.”
Mik pulled the goggles unceremoniously from Artie’s face and fumbled to get them over his own eyes. He ended up with one earpiece properly hooked and the other folding his jutting ear back against his head. “Wow,” he breathed at last.
The refresh rate was rapid, but it had infinite harmonics that caused the image to stutter. In a bizarre green strobe-light effect, Mik took in the most incredible car he’d ever seen. It was stocky but stylish, sleek in its angled lines, wedge-shaped with a fat back end and wide rear tires that bespoke power. Squat in its overall design, it conformed to the basic shape of the police car it wore as a disguise, but it was infinitely more thrilling. The paintjob seemed to sparkle in the low light and stammer with the refresh-rate-synch, but the color was hard to discern. It felt, more than looked, like a metallic black with purple overtones.
“That’s enough,” said Artie, flicking a switch at the earpiece and causing the goggles to blacken. “Power’s important, ya know. If we all had unlimited ’lectric, that AI would already ’ave us made. Tecno-Dynes are top line, right? Only sixteen of ’em known to be in Britain.”
Mik removed the goggles, still grinning from the image in his head. “How can we sell it off, then?” he asked as Artie continued to sift through his pack. “Won’t it be easy to trace?”
“We’ll fence it in Monaco. Don’t you worry ’bout that none. Got a continent-wide network for that sort o’ fing. Right now, we gotta get in, quick-like.”
“How? This thing’s monitored for sure.”
“’Course it is. I come prepared for that.” Artie arrayed a few compact electronic tools on the pavement near the false squad car. “Take out that kit I give ya earlier.”
“Huh? Oh yeah, why’d I have to strap it beneath my coat anyway?”
“You never want to look like you’re carryin’ somethin’, mate. Gotta be casual-like. ’Sides, a boostin’ pack’s easy to detect when assembled, and dangerous when disassembled parts get too close together. You’re only carryin’ ’alf of it.”
Mik unstrapped the pack and slid it out. About the thickness of his thumb, it was as wide as his shoulders and had an unusual gyroscopic heft to it. He laid it on the ground near his companion and watched as he slotted two cartridges at the sides. Immediately a shudder ran across the pavement beneath Mik’s feet and a crackle of static caused the hair on his shins to waver under his trouser legs. The pack undulated as if alive, but eventually stilled. An unidentifiable smell lingered, a sweetly acidic tang in the air.
“That’ll cause a power spike on the main grid,” Artie said, “but the planks at Central Monitors’ll probably log it as an anomaly. Now we gotta wake the car up.”
“Wake the AI? Are you crazy?”
“Gotta. It’s the only way to find its report frequency. We do it quick enough, we take over that freq and send a false report.”
“That’s the way it works, huh?”
“Yeah. No faffin’ about, now. Way I figure it, we got less than thirty seconds to find this car’s report freq, blast its memory, and send the fake signal. Blimey! It’s already awake. I got a scan signal. Spike it, quick!”
“Spike it, you arse! Fry it on the wheelbase!” He indicated two leads coming out of the boosting pack with a nod of his head. Meanwhile he typed furiously on a tiny computer keypad he’d folded out from one of the tools at the curb.
Mik picked up the leads and jammed them against the upper right tyre hub. A blue-white aura surrounded it and traveled immediately along the axle, causing a flash of ghostly light over the car.
The acidic smell turned distinctively plastic, melted silica and burned nano-transistors. Mik blinked. He blinked again. All he could see was a red afterimage of the blue light. The sights and smells didn’t seem to faze Artie, though. He was still typing away and checking several miniature screens at once. “Well done, squire,” he said. It was the first compliment he’d given all night.
“Did we kill it?” Mik asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Nah, just stunned it. Gobshites in the car industry never get the axle is connected all the way through, conductively at least, to everythin’ else in the bleedin’ car. That jolt smoked the AI long enough to get us in and wipe its CPU. Bought us another thirty seconds, I reckon.”
The car was starlight black and almost inconceivably sleek now, its defensive disguise down. Even its number plates were dark.
“What about the scan signal?”
“Preliminary. Din’t go to satellite. But it give me the freq and I hacked the report signal to send false data. In the virtual tracking world, this car’s on its way down Oakley right now. Done been boosted and it’s racin’ towards the Albert Bridge. There it’ll go off and into the Thames across from Battersea Park. Stupid coppers’ll be all over searching for it any minute. We gotta get movin’. But slow, like nothin’s wrong.”
Artie stuck a clawed tool into the recessed door handle. A few taps of sparkling keys along the tool grip and there came a metallic click. The door swung open, rolling back into the roof. He snaked his body under the steering column, forced out a section of the covering plastic, and pulled out a set of wires along with a bogglingly complex nano-circuit board.
A quick flash from another rod-like tool and a wisp of blue smoke ensued. The smell of fried components wafted. “Yeah, it’s a feisty one, awright. This one in’t givin’ up easy. Give me the prison gate.”
“Um, is that more slang?”
“Nah, it’s a ’lectronic component. Looks like a li’l crab.”
Mik searched the ground and quickly came up with an electronic crustacean. He handed it to Artie.
“What’s it do?”
“Traps the AI in an infinite loop, like puttin’ it in prison. Meanwhile, we get control of the vehicle. But no major computer assist’ll function.”
“So how do we drive it?”
“I’ll operate the false tracker and replacement computer from my pack. You’ll do the driving.”
“Where we going?”
“A chopshop in Basingstoke, if we got enough power. Now move, you pillock. Mr. Plod is on his way.”
Emergency lighting filled the cabin, gleaming low intensity red off silver levers and onyx buttons. Along with eight leads running to Artie’s pack, Mik took his position behind the wheel. He breathed in the new-car smell of rich upholstery and burnished metal, but coughed on the sharp aftertaste of burned electronics.
The interior of the Tecno-Dyne was even sleeker than the exterior. Black leather and brushed steel filled out the lean two-door décor. It was racing chic of yesterday masking the technology of today. The electronic controls were there, and so were the gear lever and foot pedals.
The manual mode was exactly what Artie needed, not to guide the car in an emergency as it was designed to do, but to force control away from the AI. He engaged it from his mini-computer through the leads that ran across his partner’s lap.
“How do I start it?” Mik asked. “Its AI wouldn’t recognize my thumbprint even if it weren’t in lockup.”
“Just relax, mate. I got the start system isolated on this ’ere portable. I can tell it to ID your print.”
Mik’s thumb hovered over the pad to the left of the steering column. He hesitated. “It’s not going to send my print out to be made, is it?”
“Nah, don’t wanna go broadcastin’ that. But the satellites are gonna see us move and we’ll ’ave to give ’em a trackin’ signal. I made a ghost car on the virtual trackers pullin’ out of a drive ’bout three blocks from ’ere. It’ll pass us in exactly one minute, and then we become that ghost. It’s a low-priority personal vehicle registered to a made-up bloke called Alan Swann. It in’t licensed for travel on motorways so it don’t need close observation. The car don’t exist, but the system and the thick plods that monitor it fink it does—even logged it travellin’ into London from Basingstoke five hours ago. Now Mister Swann’s goin’ back ’ome and we ride his signal from ’ere on out.”
Mik pressed his thumb against the pad and it gave off an orange glow. A warm sensation ran the length of his print and the words Swann, Alan appeared. The instruments on the dash sprang to greenish life. It materialized at less than ten percent, and a blinking red “low power” light dominated the display.
“Electric doesn’t look good, Artie.”
“It’ll have to do. Now pull out already, our ghost is ’ere.”
Mik engaged the gear lever and the Tecno-Dyne jolted. “Watch out! If you wake another AI, it’ll do us up a treat.”
“I’m not used to posh cars. I only drove an old farm van before.”
“Well, this in’t no time for cock-ups.”
The midnight wedge of super-tech edged from its position at the Chelsea curb and flowed into the alley. It stalked and strutted more than drove, a true piece of craftsmanship and technical supremacy. Even without the guidance of its AI, Mik felt he owned the road. Artie’s computer, however, generated a low-level hologram over the exterior that made it look as though the car was nothing but a struggling Vauxhall.
Carefully they shuffled to what had once been the outskirts of London at the M25. Even in the early morning it was a massive knot of moving vehicles across a raised multi-lane thoroughfare. Artie and Mik both knew they couldn’t approach that road. It was heavily monitored and their ghost car wasn’t permitted on raised carriageways.
They entered a roundabout. “Where do we go from here?” Mik asked nervously.
Artie checked one of his mini-screens. “Move up to Staines on the B3376. We’ll get the A30 from there.”
“Won’t the cops be watching the A routes?”
“What do they know? Coppers is just stupid. We nicked this ’ere car right out from under their noses, din’t we?”
“Quit yer whingin’! So long as it’s mostly dark, our ’ologram will fool the watch and our trackin’ signal will fool the virtual plod.”
Dawn lurked just beneath the horizon as an ugly Vauxhall approached Basingstoke on two percent power. Its hologram had slowed to a sputtering one-second interval, but finally, the poorly disguised Tecno-Dyne limped onto a concrete stretch behind the garage. It powered down, dropping its final percent of electric. The shabby hologram faded and the racing wedge materialized in all its darkened glory.
Artie pushed a button on one of his tools and the garage doors began to roll back. He and Mik stepped out of their flash conveyance and into the chill morning. Without power for a heater it had been cold in the car, but the pre-dawn air outside was damp and all the more miserable for it.
“We gotta push this thing in, quick-like.”
Mik tilted his round head skyward and his cheeks grew rosier in the chill air. He watched a red spark of light hovering far up in the clouds. It seemed to recognize him, winked, and then darted like a warhead locked on target. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Artie,” he said.
A sudden rush of wind almost knocked them off their feet. A metal contraption like a giant beetle formed out of the sky and set down ten meters away, its struts flattening to absorb the shock of landing at speed. The road rumbled with the strain of pushing back. Before the legs had rebounded to their upright position, a dozen men in Kevlar uniforms and black headgear leapt from the hopper, their riot guns aglow with high-stun settings.
A cackled warning brayed, “This is the Police. Put your hands on your head or you will be stunned.”
The hopper pulsed with light. Red and blue swept the scene in alternating streaks, increasing the impact and urgency of the moment.
Artie was stunned even without being tagged by an industrial taser. His mouth fell open and he stared wide-eyed at the authoritative swarm that had descended upon him. He looked to his partner, who was much less childlike now that he was standing tall, bathed in blue and red. Somehow Artie hadn’t noticed his earlier stoop. Now he stood to all of his two meters, and he wore a stern smile. “Better do as they say, Artie.”
The small man looked much smaller now. He slowly raised his arms and locked his fingers atop his flatcap. Black-uniformed police advanced on his position. Some ran behind to investigate the now open garage doors, ordering the occupants to stand down.
“You knew, din’t ya? You knew they’d be here.”
“Well, Artie,” Mik said, rounding the front of the Tecno-Dyne and pulling out a folding wallet, “you could say that.” He opened the wallet and keyed his thumb across it. A holographic ID popped up: Detective Inspector Walter Atkins, Metropolitan Police.
“Nice work, Inspector,” said one of the officers behind him. This man was not arrayed in black armor, but instead wore a standard blue jacket and checkered hat.
“But how did you…?” Artie stammered.
“I activated the AI of the gold Porsche in Chelsea,” Atkins explained. “It scanned my DNA and ID’d me quietly, then entered a special police mode we’ve installed in all AI drivers. It recorded the whole scene with you and the Tecno-Dyne. After we left, it pulsed the data to HQ.”
“But Lazlo… He weren’t no copper…”
“Lazlo cut a deal with us and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a kind of dual repentance. He’s not well, you know. We forgave him a lot of sins in order to move in on the Rats. See, most police focus on the middle- and low-end thieves because they’re easy to catch. But me, I go for the best of the best. Maybe us coppers in’t so stupid after all.”
About the Author
Brad Hafford is an archaeologist, teacher, writer, and traveler. Combining them all is his life. He puts his experiences mostly into his fictional characters.
About the Narrator
Alasdair Stuart was briefly employed as a circus geek until an unfortunate mix-up involving a prize-winning fighting cock. Its owner had ties not only to the carnival, but also to the Russian mob, so now he writes supplements for role playing games, where he exercises his superpower to make you appreciate the Sixth Doctor. He has played for the national rugby team after defeating the monstrous four-horned sheep across his home island. He is the Supreme Mugwump, Keeper of the Big Red Button, a regular contributor to Tor.com, and he owns a bunch of awesome podcasts.