Escape Pod 721: Hustle


Hustle

By Derrick Boden

I’m all stims and grins as I kick open the door to West Precinct, strung-out bounty dangling from my headlock like a slab of vat beef with a fauxhawk. Inside, it’s the regular bullshit: a row of five tellers–one for each of the bounty app networks–a half-dozen grime-streaked auto-cuff stations, four janitors, one cop. Everyone’s hustling, of course–cobbling gig-shifts to cover backlogged tuition payments and overdue streaming services, eyes glazed and fingers flensed to bone. Everyone except the cop, who’s there to lock up after everyone bails for the evening rideshare rush. She’s a loophole, a salaried ultra-minority, a relic of pre-privatization. She gives me the creeps.

I wrangle my mark to the EpicBounty desk. “Payday, y’all.”

The teller stares at me with soulless eyes. “Name and ID.”

Her DMV monotone is the stuff of legend. Of course she recognizes me–I’m not sporting a latex halter top and violet-tuned contax to blend in. But I’m still riding the post-gig high, so I play along.

“Violetta Yamamoto–”

“Into the lens, ma’am. You know the drill.”

Of course I know the drill. I’m a five-star double elite EpicBounty hunter, two tiers shy of max. Max elites qualify for fucking health insurance. No one in King County’s amassed more rep than me since I made parole five years ago–seventy-four thousand points and counting.

But who’s counting?

I stare into the biometrics, say some words.

“Now the client.”

My perp’s been huffing Chim-X from a glass dick since last Tuesday by the way his eyelids are twitching, and there’s nothing but my premium-grade headlock keeping him vertical. But it isn’t designer drugs that landed him on the EpicBounty Top 10 municipal hit list–it’s the company he’s been keeping, the shallow sum of their ages. Sick pricks like this are the sweet spot of EpicBounty gigs, where the personal gratification–the ethical bounty, I call it–pays out as much as the cash and the rep put together. One rung closer to max elite, one less pedophile on the street.

I jam his face against the biometrics, pry his sagging lids back. “Sid White, contract three-four-alpha-one-two, apprehended with appropriate force in lieu of the Seattle Police Department.”

The cop glances up from her contax-delivered social media binge, but only for a second.

Next desk over, a retro Chuck Norris poser with a shrub of orange hair sprouting from his denim V-neck and a pair of nunchucks at his waist is whispering gossip to the EzHunter teller. I jack my stim-sense in time to catch the gist: Manic Molly, top cross-platform bounty hunter in Washington State–and my biggest professional rival–went rogue after breaching contract. Skipped town, got nabbed at the border with a trunkful of contraband, landed in State Pen. Paparazzi live-streamed the whole ordeal this morning while I was out collaring Sid.

Chuck Norris here probably sees it as a warning–more money, more problems, yadda yadda. For me, it’s a missed opportunity. A perp doesn’t earn live coverage until they’ve racked up five thousand crime points.

Molly’s bounty must’ve been premium.

Teller’s staring shivs into me. “I said, proceed.”

I select the grungiest of the auto-cuff stations, offer Sid’s clammy wrists. Metal pincers zip-tie them together. A conveyor shunts him toward a holding cell.

“Allow twelve hours for payment, pending contract approval.”

I open my mouth to thank her, but her attention’s already elsewhere. So I slip outside and hail a rideshare on my contax. It’s lunch hour, and Fifth and Pine is a business-casual stampede. Twenty feet up, the drone traffic weaves a frantic ballet, dropshipping lattes and sex toys from here to the Occidental Megatowers. At the corner, an off-the-gig shaman is preaching salary economics to dead air.

Her eyes track me, darkly.

Despite the crowd, I’m nestling into the back seat of my Dryve in five minutes flat, en route to the nearest dive, primed to celebrate my pending rep boost with whatever poor schmuck is gigging for Bartendr on a Thursday afternoon. First round will be on me, courtesy of Sid White’s premium contract. Max elite, here I come.

The car smells like a log cabin.

The driver leans over the divide, oblivious to the downtown gridlock. It’s ridiculous they still hire drivers, considering the mandatory autopilot–but it’s the cheapest way to keep rideshares from turning into rolling love motels, and besides, we all gotta get paid. That’s the nature of the hustle.

“Nice gat, lady.” The driver narrows her kohl-tattooed eyelids. “Where do you gig?”

Of course I don’t mind the attention. Why else would I keep my sidearm in plain sight?

I goad her with a double dose of nonchalance. “Here and there.”

“Aren’t you afraid it’s gonna, you know, go off in public?” She’s so damn eager she’s chewing her lip raw. “Demolish someone’s face?”

“It’s bio-locked, kid.” I blink open my contax feed, start scrolling through the latest EpicBounty boards. No telling when a quick gig might pop up. Serving a bench warrant would cover lunch. “Won’t even cock without my sweet caress. That, and the monthly dues.”

“It’s not yours?”

“‘Course not. You telling me you own this car? That your clothes aren’t hot-leased? This baby’s no different from the vaccines pumping through your veins–on demand, keyed to a billing cycle, approved by remote access.”

She runs the tip of her tongue across her lips, thoughtful. “How about a side job?”

Something in her tone is starting to irritate me, and the mountain lodge air freshener isn’t helping. Probably just the stims ebbing from my system. I crack a window and light a stick. First drag burns like hell, but it beats Davy Crockett’s deodorant.

I glower at her through the haze. “You want someone killed.”

“Yeah.”

“No you don’t.”

“Fuck you. I’m serious.” She knots her eyebrows in a way she must think looks severe. “I’ll pay you to kill the CEO of Dryve. CEO is the boss, right?”

“Yeah.”

I can’t decide whether it’s ballsy or just plain stupid that she’s propositioning a complete stranger to whack her boss, all while driving a company-leased car.

“Good. Kill him dead. Or her, I don’t even know. I’ll pay three grand.” She’s all kinds of hot now, wriggling around and digging gouges into the seat with her double-dipped nails. “Wanna know what they did to my bestie?”

“No.”

“Fucking normalized her. Get a load of this scam.” She leans way over the divide until she’s eight inches from my face. Every time the car hits a bump, her head nails the ceiling–but she’s so fired up she doesn’t notice. “Legally, top-tier drivers qualify for benefits–health insurance, disability, the works. No way is Dryve gonna shell out for crazy shit like that. So, like, when a driver gets too good–too many five star reviews, too many rep boosts–she’s a liability. So they start planting douchebag clients, nail her with a critical mass of complaints until her rep hits the bounce threshold and fucking poof, license revoked. Normalized.”

She pauses for dramatic effect. “Revoked license is a death sentence. No rep, no gigs, no sugar. Two weeks later, my bestie lands at State Pen for pawning stolen bling to cover rent.”

Crazy as her theory sounds, it sets my teeth on edge. Max elite hunters qualify for benefits, too. Manic Molly was max elite, and then…poof.

I take another drag, let the smoke leak across the girl’s face. “You sure she didn’t just piss off those clients?”

“Fuck that. She got too good.” Her eyelids narrow to slits, conspiratorial. “There’s ways to game the system, you know.”

I roll my eyes, because how the hell else would an ex-con like me ever hit double elite? With EpicBounty, the key is surge gigs. Petty vandalism nets quadruple points in the Swank. Indecent exposures in top income zones add up faster than double murders in the skids–

I cough smoke. The girl’s still talking, but it’s dead static in my ears as I stare slack-jawed at my contax alert.

EpicBounty payout denied.

I curl my fingers into a fist, but before I can punch a hole in the car door, another alert pipes in.

Contract breached, innocent apprehension clause. EpicBounty account temporarily suspended. Please contact support for details.

“Motherfucker.”

“Right? So anyhow, I don’t have the money on me, but I’m good for it. I’ve got this killer hustle in the works–”

“Turn the car around.” My fingers are already unclipping my gun. “And today was going so well.”


My rideshare squeals around the corner just as Sid White walks out of the precinct and sucks in his first breath of free air. The car hasn’t stopped and I’m already stepping out from the back seat onto the sidewalk, closing the gap, grabbing a fist of Sid’s sweat-soaked designer polo. The surge of conflict-averse foot traffic makes space, avoids eye contact. All but that off-the-gig shaman from before, who breaks her routine to stare.

I yank Sid closer, jab a thumb toward the precinct doors. “Back inside, jackass.”

The auto-cuff must’ve fed him stabilizers, because he’s lucid and upright and wearing a million-dollar sneer. Something in his eyes makes my skin go cold with doubt.

So I quick-blink a double dose of stim-sense to drown out the noise. Every greasy pore on Sid White’s face sharpens.

“Unhand me,” he says. “Street creature.”

I twist his collar, watch his face ripen. This guy came gift-wrapped–sixteen felonies, pockets brimming with roofies, Chim-X bleeding from his eyes. No way am I taking the heat for some bullshit clerical error.

His gaze trails for a half-second–engaging his contax–and a pair of drones dips from the overhead flow. Their bulb-eyes track my movement.

“Last chance, Miss Violetta.” His eyebrow goes way up. “Walk away, or this will end badly for you.”

In the seven-tenths of a second before I pistol-whip Sid White, I wonder how he knows my name–how those drones arrived so quick, how the rideshare rerouted me without the usual rebooking fee and what the chances are of my perp popping his pasty face out of the precinct at the exact second I rolled up. I wonder if that psycho Dryve kid was on to something.

I wonder if I got too good.

Then I remember what this pervert did to land on the bounty boards. Next thing, he’s writhing on the ground with a mouthful of blood.

Things escalate quickly from there. The drones swoop closer, little paparazzi automatons, camera flashes backlighting the shock in Sid White’s eyes. A siren blares from inside the precinct. My contax feed rattles off a staccato of alerts.

EpicBounty license revoked. Please contact support for details.

Firearms contract terms breached–prerequisite EpicBounty license not found.

Bio-enhancement contract terms breached–prerequisite EpicBounty license not found.

Et-fucking-cetera.

Deep in the trenches of my augmented body, proteins acknowledge a wireless command propagated from the offices of their manufacturers. The command says: deactivate biomods. The stim-sense metabolizes from my system so fast I collapse to a knee. The pistol’s grip goes frigid against my spurious hand; the trigger shunts into its housing.

A follow-up alert floods my contax.

New EpicBounty contract in your immediate vicinity. Distance: 0 ft. Risk: moderate. Happy hunting!

Through the glass doors, Retro Chuck Norris turns toward the street, blinking rapidly. From the adjacent desks–Hitm3n, Bount.ly, Ninjaz–three more hunters follow suit, fingers inching toward hot-leased weaponry.

My nostrils flare. “Risk…moderate?”


I retreat around the corner, hop the number fourteen autobus to SubCity. Thanks to EpicBounty’s relentless crowdsourcing–and those hunters that spotted me outside the precinct–high-res shots of my conspicuous-as-fuck gunslinger duster and latex halter top are going to be all over the bounty boards in a matter of minutes. I need a disguise, stat.

It’s a short ride home, ten minutes tops, but the bus reeks of cheap cologne and everyone’s watching me. Once EpicBounty puts out a contract, it’s only a matter of time before EzHunter and the others counter. Everyone’s in the hustle, meaning anyone could be a hunter. The sweaty-palmed high schoolers quick-blinking their contax-served soft porn AR, the grandma with the mechanical arm fist-gripping her knitting needles, the neo-greasers in the back with their sleeves rolled up over bulging biomesh muscles.

Anyone.

So I bail halfway up the hill and leg out the last quarter mile to the SubCity gates, where thirty thousand hard-luck hustlers live crammed inside shoebox cells under the weight of the Capitol Hill Swank. I jog past the elevators–out of order again–and tear down twelve flights of stairs, firing glances over my shoulder the whole way down.

Then it’s through the endless conveyor tube plastered with cheap digital landscapes on too-short loops–meant to trick you into thinking that you’re still outside, and that the stench is eucalyptus rather than urine, and that life is really just swell. Instead it induces mild nausea and a pervasive resentment. The landscape panels are peeling at the edges; underneath there’s a bloodstream of graffiti trying to leak out.

I check my six. Still no tail.

My address is unlisted, for now. EpicBounty can’t broadcast my private records without Seattle PD approval, which should buy me another ten minutes at least. Plenty of time to change my outfit and reassess my whole fucking life. So I hop the track at my cell block, flash the biometrics and lock myself inside.

My studio apartment is a generic CosyPads short-lease, like pretty much everywhere else, and if I stand in the middle of the room I can reach everything. I pop the fridge, scan the rows of ready-meals and fizzy drinks–all stocked and priced by FridgeGeek–buy a beer on my contax and wait for the Wi-Fi-keyed seal to pop. There’s nothing in this cruel, cruel world that can’t be solved with a cold, cold beer.

The seal doesn’t pop.

My contax flashes.

Multiple services have been disabled due to obedience-related contract violations.

The beer slides through my slack grip, shatters on the floor.

You have received a new fine from FridgeGeek! Please contact customer service for details.

The fragrance of cheap beer offers no solace.

The locks on the fridge engage, click click click. Then the oven. Then the closet, with my street chic hot-leased wardrobe from Clothesy. The induction range flashes OFFLINE. The HVAC shuts off with a terminal wheeze.

Sweat stands on my forehead.

SubCity’s ventilators are supposed to maintain regulation-breathable air for twenty-four hours in the event of an HVAC failure. Hypothetically.

The heat stifles, constricts.

I realize my mistake two seconds before the lights go off.

It’s called a contract cascade, and I should’ve seen it coming. In my defense, I’ve never been on this side of a bounty–back when I got nabbed, it was all vanilla cops and search warrants and Miranda rights. Things were simpler.

Nowadays, smart contracts are incestuous. Your auto-cleaning service wants to know when you’re not paying your streaming media bill because hey, they might be next. EpicBounty must’ve tipped off FridgeGeek about my legal status–and my corresponding unreliability as a customer–and the shit cascaded downhill from there. It’s only a matter of time before CosyPads suspends my rental contract. Then I’m locked inside with a dwindling oxygen supply and a clutch of bounty hunters en route, while CosyPads cashes in on an easy assisted arrest.

And today was going so well.

The lights shunt to standby red. I blink system override, pry the contax from my eyes and drop them into the morass of beer. There’s only one safe place left to go.

I just hope the doctor is in.


Dr. Samuel Indigo lives in an elevator.

The Occidental Megatowers are the world’s most garish mixed-use ecosystem. The threesome of golden phalluses stand ninety stories tall and engulf a dozen city blocks south of downtown, housing a farrago of over-funded startups, overpriced condos, and overindulgent retail, all spattered with a projectile vomit of indoor green spaces and art installations. Emblazoned over the brushed metal arches in haughty serifs: You’ll never want to leave, and you’ll never have to.

Doc took it to heart. He’s been off-gig and off-wire–a ghost on the run–for four years. His greatest trick was setting up shop in the Megatowers. He’s a fly hiding out at the tip of the swatter.

I slip into Phallus Secundus’s lobby on a tide of C-level gig consultants and a flood of competing artisanal pherofumes that have me craving a dose of stim-sense to flatten it all out. I’m wearing a wide-brimmed hat that I borrowed from a mannequin to stymie the facial recognition, but it’s only a matter of time before a micro-drone flits under the rim and the jig is up.

I let the foot traffic carry me to the elevator bay, wait for the crowd to thin out before skulking to the last lift on the right. Then it’s tap tap wait tap wait tap tap tap on the UP button, and twenty seconds later the doors slide open two feet, then stop. The door sensors are disabled–that much I know–meaning if I mistime the entry, I’m bone pulp.

I suck in a breath and plunge inside.

The doors shut. The elevator careens skyward on magnetic rails.

It’s a thirty-person elevator, which makes it larger than my SubCity apartment. The whole bay is automated and self-repairing, so once Doc cracked the firewall, the lift was all his. With forty elevators per tower, nobody notices that one never shows. There’s just one catch: the elevators are glass-walled to overlook the cavernous central courtyard. So Doc installed wraparound transparent screens that let him enjoy the view while simulating an empty lift for anyone that happens to glance inside.

Also, the elevator is always in motion.

“You look like shit.” Doc lies sprawled on a hammock wearing fluorescent boxers and a pair of oversized immersion goggles. His tattoos are sculpted bio-weave bas reliefs, ridges and valleys drawing labyrinthine shadows in the diffuse light. A bank of soft-form interfaces lines the adjacent wall. Opposite: an armchair, a human waste composting system that’s presently sprouting heirloom tomatoes, a rice cooker and a meat printer.

Nothing is lease-locked. This is life off the gig, and it isn’t half as easy as it looks–Doc is one hell of a hacker. If anyone can get me off the bounty boards, it’s him.

“Welcome to the hit list.” He pries off his goggles. “You brought a tail.”

I shrug like I knew it. Losing the contax was easy. Truth is, I’ve got no idea which of my biomods are trackable.

The elevator glides to a halt, plunges downward. My ears pop.

“I need your help,” I say.

He lets the silence answer.

I’m about to unload my sob story about the contract cascade at my apartment when I cut myself short. Doc has been off the gig long enough, only condolence he’d have would be a resounding no shit.

So I take off my hat, show him my serious face. “I need you to get me off the boards.”

He laughs.

“There’s gotta be a backdoor–”

“Too late for that. Your face is public indexed.” He’s up now, wrist-deep in the interfaces, eyes flicking across graphical readouts. “Your stim-sense is geo-tagged, even when it’s disabled. Rent-a-fuzz will be crawling the shaft any minute.”

That’s when I notice the gun on the wall, off-market, a square hole where the bio-lock used to be. From where Doc is standing, the gun is in easy reach. I have sudden doubts about the depth of our friendship.

“It was a legit contract, Doc.”

“‘Course it was.”

“Guy had a warrant a mile long.”

“Mm-hm.”

The elevator brakes, heads upward. Pop.

“It was a surge gig. Would’ve bumped me a tier, covered rent easy.” I stare out the window at the frenzy of shoppers and cafe denizens below, shrinking rapidly. I think about Sid White, sipping a latte somewhere with his usual company–some trembling mail-order kid that’s too young to drive, too scared to say no. “But the money’s the least of it.”

“The money’s the sum of it, Vee. Look out there and tell me different.”

I remember trying to land a gig after my turn at State Pen. I remember all the hoops–the groveling and the parole insurance and the provisional biomod contracts. I remember the late nights and the cheap stims, gaming the system and building cred. Proving them wrong. I remember seventy-four thousand rep points and counting.

“I want my life back.”

“The hustle ain’t life. It’s a long con, and all of y’all are marks. Direct to consumer is just marketing jizz. Nobody cut out the middlemen, they just replaced them with venture capitalists and exploitive algorithms.”

His rambling reminds me of the crazy shaman from Fifth and Pine, and all at once the scene outside the precinct comes flooding back.

“Someone set me up, Doc.”

His interface chimes.

I clench my hands to stave off the distant howl of stim withdrawal. “Sid White knew me.”

That driver was right. I got too good, had max elite all but in the bag. No way EpicBounty was going to shell out for health insurance. So they set me up to fail.

They normalized me.

But it still doesn’t add up. If Sid was the plant, that would imply he’s innocent. I read his EpicBounty file, I know what he did.

I need answers.

“Help me clear my name.” Panic laces my words. “I need intel on this guy, on the setup, anything. Also.” I bite my lip. “A gun would help.”

“Already looked him up.” Doc knits his fingers together, rests them on his bald scalp. “File’s restricted. Now why would that be?”

Doubt gnaws at me. “You gonna help or not?”

Another chime. Doc’s gaze slides to the display. His eyes widen an increment.

No explanation needed: I brought trouble, and in a hot second Doc is going to inherit it.

I slap DOOR OPEN. Time to get my life back.

“Forget the guy.” Doc is holding the gun now. “Let me extract your mods, feed them to the grinder. Twenty minutes and you’re off-gig, off-wire, untraceable. For good.” He hesitates, then: “You can stay here.”

I try to smile, fail.

Both of us know we don’t have twenty minutes to spare.

Doc sighs, flips the gun handle-out. “Always gotta do it your way.”


Sid White’s mansion is deep in the Swank. It’s a neo-retro Queen Anne number, modeled after an old Victorian–authentic, aside from the cascading smart-plex atrium and the subsurface carport and the million-dollar security network. The air hypo of geo-tag inhibitors that Doc hit me with on the way out bought me an hour, maybe two–nowhere near enough time to properly case the place. So I settle for a hasty once-over and formulate the plan: scale the maple across the street, toss a handful of scramblers over the fence to distract the drones, sail a grapple into the open third-floor window and go full-Batman down the zipline into the breakfast nook. Eat a bagel, dig up evidence that EpicBounty normalized me, split.

Then I round the corner and discover that–amidst his celebratory post-acquittal Chim-X stupor–Sid left the door open. So I check the magazine on Doc’s gun and walk right through the front, wishing for the hundredth time today that I had the stim-sense to quell my manic pulse. Doc’s inhibitors won’t keep me off-wire much longer. Eventually, my bounty’s going to catch up with me.

The living room is all chrome and crushed velvet, cavernous and vacant. Ambient light drenches everything in pale blue–nothing casts a shadow, not even me. Third-wave acid jazz drones from hidden speakers. It smells like bubblegum.

A panel by the front door flashes DISARMED.

“Just cracked White’s file.” Doc’s baritone buzzes in my earpiece. “You’re in over your head, Vee. Get out of there.”

A pressure drop from elsewhere in the house pulls the front door shut.

The lights on the panel turn solid. ARMED.

“Too late,” I subvocalize, and squelch the line.

My first step sends fun-house echoes banging across hardwood flooring and vaulted arches. I’m a bounty hunter, not a cat burglar–never even registered with steal.io or the other dark web apps–and this whole thing is finally starting to feel like a bad idea.

From upstairs, a dry cough.

I slip out of my boots, sock-shuffle my way to the staircase. At the mezzanine I find a stack of live-docs splayed across a lounge table. Each one has a headshot and accompanying blurb, names like Cherry and Kid Gloves. They’re all from the same escort service.

They’re all in high school, or younger.

Getting my rep points back feels suddenly irrelevant.

Upstairs, faux gas lamps flicker from brass sconces, casting a snarl of shadows across oak bookshelves, nude art, impossibly thin tanks crammed with improbably fat fish. A coffee table sits at the center, carved from the stump of a redwood. Perched on top: a mound of pink pills and a live-doc. Displayed on the doc: my EpicBounty profile pic.

The setup is real. I got too good, hustled too hard, hoarded too much rep.

Doc buzzes my earpiece. I ignore it, creep closer, scan the doc.

My vision blurs a little.

This can’t be right–

Movement flashes in the doorway. I whirl, level my aim on Sid White standing bow-legged in a floral bathrobe. His eyes are spiderwebs of burst capillaries. A glass pipe slips from his grasp, shatters on the floor. The menthol reek of designer drugs floods the room. From the halls beyond, a girl shrieks. I remember the headshots, suppress a shiver.

I point at the live-doc with my chin. “The fuck is this?”

He circumvents the broken glass, plucks the live-doc from the table, grins. “Looks like you.”

I tighten my grip on the gun. “Who are you?”

His grin widens. “An innocent man.”

My earpiece buzzes again. I pop the line.

“–but he was born Sidney Rosa–son of Chloe Rosa, President and CEO of Dryve, Inc.” There’s an urgency in Doc’s voice I’ve never heard. “Billionaire, hustler. This isn’t normalization, Vee. It’s a cover-up.”

Emblazoned across the live-doc: Thank you for your generous contribution. Please accept our sincerest apologies for the apprehension and arrest of your son. We’ve assigned an agent to the case, see below…

“You didn’t stop to wonder why you’ve never seen me on the bounty boards before?” Sid spreads his arms. “It’s because I don’t belong there. Those apps are coded to scrub the hit lists for VIPs like me. But you know how apps can be. Every now and then there’s a glitch, something slips through. So there are failsafes.” He smirks. “You.”

I’m grinding my teeth so hard my jaw cramps.

“They clear my charges, hit you with innocent apprehension so everything seems legit. It’s nothing personal.” Sid shrugs. “Could’ve been anyone.”

I blink through a swell of vertigo.

Being too good, that I can swallow–even if it means another turn in the pen. Being inconsequential

He chuckles. “Would’ve been a minor infraction, if not for the scene you made outside the precinct–”

“The proof’s all here.” I motion to the mezzanine, the back rooms. “You’re going down, Sid–”

“Oh, come on, lady. Who’s a jury going to believe? A CEO’s son with a clean record, or an ex-con hustler gone rogue?”

Gone rogue.

Was Manic Molly a clerical correction, too? How many others before her?

“I suggest you leave.” He flicks two fingers across the live-doc. “Before anyone else suffers for your mistakes.”

A mugshot of Doc Indigo slides into focus.

Oh, hell no.

I fire a round straight through the live-doc. The image fizzles.

Sid’s expression turns severe.

“Vee.” Doc’s voice crawls down my ear canal. “The security network registered shots fired. EpicBounty just pegged your location, tripled your contract. A half-dozen guns will be trained on your throat the second you step outside, if you don’t get out now.”

I don’t move.

“You can still ghost. I know a lady in the sprawl that’ll tweak your face, hack your pheromones, juice you with black market vaccines, the works. There’s life out here, Vee.”

Of course he’s right. There is life off the gig, off the wire. It’s scrounging and stealing and scraping by, and it’s maybe even rewarding. I could leave all this behind, carve my own rep from the concrete bones of the city.

And then Sid White will go back to his bedroom.

“Thanks, Doc.” I don’t bother subvocalizing. “Got other plans.”

I cut the line.

It might be too late to get my life back, but it isn’t too late for those girls.

Judging by the twitch of his lip, Sid must’ve caught my tone. He backpedals a step.

I let my gaze flick across the room. There’s enough evidence in here to put him away no matter who breastfed him.

Sid watches my eyes, forces a laugh. “You drag me back to the precinct, I’m not the one getting booked. Nobody’s writing a search warrant. Nobody’s going to see any of this.”

It’s sound logic, but I’ve got no designs for bringing this douchebag back to Precinct. There’s one record left for me to smash on the EpicBounty circuit, and it isn’t for rep accrued or bounties wrangled.

It’s for crimes committed.

There’s always a way to game the system. We’re knee-deep in the Swank, up here–vandalism nets surge rates for top-percent income zones. By how quick my gunshot registered online, Sid’s security system–his and everyone else’s in firing range–must be jacked straight into the bounty network for premium response times. Once I notch five thousand crime points I’m guaranteed live coverage from one of the news-gig apps–just like old Manic Molly. Paparazzi will be on me faster than my rival guns, and as long as I tread the right route, Sid White’s darkest secrets will end up all over the morning newsfeeds.

The rising dread on Sid’s face as he sorts out my intentions is a bounty in itself. The public loves a good celebrity takedown–the media will bleed this story dry for weeks. No way is Sid’s mama getting him out of this one.

I head for the rooftop deck, gun in hand. It’s time to cause some mayhem.

It’s time to show this town what it means to hustle.


Host Commentary

by Phoebe Barton

I was privileged to be able to read a draft of this story when I attended Clarion West in 2019, and I was bowled over by the energy and verve of its 21st century-cyberpunk Seattle. It’s a demonstration of why the same old styles can’t cut forever. For me there’s a sharpness here that goes beyond the stereotypical cloudy skies, neon signs, and street samurai.

Because this is a story that could never have been written in 1987. The foundations didn’t exist. Very few people in 1987 would have taken something as fundamentally ridiculous as the gig economy seriously, right? But now, here we are, and in 2020 it’s a short hop from gig-worker taxi drivers to gig-worker bounty hunters. It’s a story in the finest “if this goes on” tradition.

In my opinion, that’s one of the sweet spots of science fiction: when the speculative element is just familiar enough to be weird but plausible. It’s the energy of real life, but exaggerated and refined. I hope you all enjoyed it too!

About the Author

Derrick Boden

Derrick Boden

Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Compelling Science Fiction. He is a writer, a software developer, an adventurer, and a proud graduate of the Clarion West class of 2019. He currently calls Boston his home, although he’s lived in fourteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by two cats and one iron-willed daughter.

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About the Narrator

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and co-host of Escape Pod.

She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. In the past decade she has been: co-founder/co-editor of Pseudopod, founder of Mothership Zeta, editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).

She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.

Mur is the 2013 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

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Mur Lafferty
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