Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 3

Green Bowl’s total land was well over a thousand acres. There was no conceivable reason why the entirety of it would be needed for shopping and road access to support an airport in northern North Dakota, but that didn’t make the slightest bit of different to the man who was poised to steal it.

“Larson is moving quickly,” Anna said, gesturing to the map that was laid out on the conference table, indicating the properties Larson’s investment company owned. The map offered a sprawling topographic view of area around Green Bowl’s land and the airport that was soon to border it. “He is looking for backers to invest in his development company with a cutoff on the initial buy in of next week. He claims the more investment funds he can collect, the more infrastructure and services he can create around the airport, though he also claims that he has enough money already to make a shopping destination larger than the Mall of America.”

“Shouldn’t the cutoff be when he reaches the funds that he needs rather than a specific date?” Tam asked. She was more familiar with the workings of venture capital in terms of startup tech companies, but the general rule of ‘don’t sell off more of your company than you need to’ seemed like something that should cross industries.

“That depends,” Anna said. “If you are setting up an actual company, then yes, you want to be careful how much investment you take on and terms it is offered under.”

“And if you’re running a scam?” Val asked, tracing paths through the map with her finger. The Red River Valley was relatively flat, which would make construction easier once it began. That was good for building but it also meant that, if the earthwork machines rolled in, Green Bowl’s farmland would vanish in record time.

“For a scam you want as much money as possible, in as short an amount of time as possible,” Anna said. “Some people prefer the long con, but those require patience and are very delicate affairs. Larson is a man lacking in both impulse control and finesse, so naturally he gravitates to the quick scam, despite its long term costs.”

“I just don’t understand why he would do any of this?” Daniela said. “I’ve met Howard. He has a good job at the bank. He’s a respected member of the community. Why would he want to setup a scheme like this to take our farm? He doesn’t need the money at all.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Tam said. “Howard Larson has been living beyond his means for several years now it seems. He’s still rich, don’t get me wrong there, but a lot of the wealth he splashes around is an illusion.”

She handed a dossier she had compiled over to Val before turning back to the laptop she’d brought to their meeting to continue plugging away at it.

“Three houses, but they’re all heavily mortgaged,” Val read from the dossier. “He’s being sued by a bunch of private contactors too. Oh hey and he hasn’t paid the staff for the gala that you went to last night. This guy’s a real winner.”

“But the bank must pay him a good salary doesn’t it?” Daniela asked. She had a stack of papers that she’d brought with her to the meeting, order forms and time sheets from the workers to be processed before the next business day. They sat unsorted and blank in a pile in front of her still.

“His salary is more than generous, as are the perks that come along with it,” Anna said. “For the class of wealth Howard Larson aspires to however, no amount of money is ever sufficient.”

“He might want to be one of the ultra-rich, but according to this he’s lucky not to be in the poor house,” Val said. “I’m seeing big losses year after year. This guy’s a disaster when it comes investing. How is he the CEO of a bank?”

“Look at who the CEO was before him,” Tam said without looking up from her computer.

“Oh, of course,” Val said as she found the relevant page in the dossier and showed it to the others. “Like father, like son, I guess.”

“George Larson was a different category of disaster than his eldest son,” Anna said. “He built First Security on the back of a lucrative smuggling trade that ran through the Canadian border. By the time proof of that came to light, the elder Larson had been dead for half a decade.”

“And yet Howard got to keep his inheritance,” Tam said.

“The probate was long finalized by the time proof came to light,” Anna said.

“I don’t understand how he can keep losing money like that though,” Daniela said. “Wouldn’t the bank have noticed? Wouldn’t they have fired him if he was that bad?”

“Up until now, Larson has kept his investment schemes separate from First Security,” Anna said.

“Yeah, I’m seeing that here,” Val said. “Each of these big losses that Larson’s reporting are tied to corporations that he setup. His personal losses are much smaller.”

“It’s an efficient tactic for a swindler,” Anna said. “He creates corporations based out of other states, uses his connections as the CEO of a well capitalized bank to present a solid, dependable image for the new businesses, brings in investors and buries the lower performing companies under debt from the few ventures that do succeed, and walks away with everyone’s money and owing none of them a dime.”

“But that should give him a terrible reputation,” Daniela said. “Who would work with a man who does that?”

“A surprising number of people. Board shareholders have no special wisdom in picking their CEOs,” Anna said. “They choose people who they have connections to, regardless of previous failures or the capability, or lack thereof, the person may possess.”

“Also, it looks like Larson has avoided scamming anyone local, or related to First Security,” Val said. “People are much more likely to overlook things that happen far away than trouble that lands close to home.”

“And, seriously, what’s the chance that the rest of the First Security board isn’t into things that are just as unethical?” Tam asked.

“Why would he change now then? Why target us?” Daniela asked. “We’ve gotten along just fine up till now. Heck if he needed a road, we probably could have just sold him that.”

“When was the decision on the airport’s location made?” Anna asked.

“Technically it hasn’t been made yet,” Tam said. “But the final draft of the plans was submitted a month ago. They’re up for review and the deciding vote next week.”

“So Larson knew a month ago where the airport would probably land,” Val said. “And that’s right around the time he put the plan in motion to steal Green Bowl.”

“The timing is suggestive,” Anna said. “Of a great many things.”

“It suggests that Howard Larson has the impulse control of a five year old hopped up on pixie sticks,” Val said. She’d started making small ‘x’ marks on the map at various locations.

“That is unkind to five year olds I think,” Anna said. “It also suggests some amount of desperation. We should look into his most recent creditors, particularly any involved with companies that failed in the last six months.” She paced around the end of the conference table, nibbling on a pen cap, her gaze turned inwards as she crunched the possibilities through the wheels of logic in her mind.

“You’re thinking one of them is unhappy with him?” Val asked.

“Many of them are unhappy with him,” Anna said. “One of them however has resources beyond simple wealth.”

“Like the mob?” Tam asked.

“Possibly,” Anna said. “Larson is highly enough placed though, and this area remote enough that I’m not certain if typical mobsters could make an effective threat here. I believe he may have stumbled on someone with a more extensive war chest of resources to draw on.”

“So he needs a quick score to pay back people he shouldn’t have ripped off in the first place?” Val asked. “If we wanted to, could we just bribe him to leave the farm alone?”

“That depends on how his creditors wish to be paid back,” Anna said. “Control of the facilities servicing a new international airport is a resource worth far more than the monetary value of the land and buildings.”

“Good,” Val said. “I like it when we can’t do things the easy way.”

Her smile radiated the kind of self confidence that had told more than a few of her enemies they’d made a terrible mistake in squaring off against her.

“You know, we don’t even know if he has any goons or not,” Tam said. “There may be no one for you to pummel on this assignment.”

“Oh, I’m not worried,” Val said. “Push comes to shove, guys like Larson always seem to be able to dig up some meat slabs for protection.”

“Yes, that does seem to be true in more cases than it should,” Anna said. “But perhaps in this case, we have a simpler path.”

“You want to con him before he cons us?” Val asked, unable to suppress the lift of her eyebrows.

“We have a golden opportunity to do so,” Anna said.

“I feel like you always make a case for that,” Val said.

“Greedy men are very easy to manipulate,” Anna said with a shrug.

“So how do we approach him?” Tam asked.

“The only thing that interests someone running a scam on the scale Larson is attempting, is a payout that will bring it to the next level,” Anna said. “He is swindling millions of dollars. We will make him think that he can tap into a set of investors that will net him billions.”

“Definitely a job for me there. I’m in,” Tam said. “What do we need to set everything up?”

“We’ll need a car that matches Larsons, a set of Russian credentials, and for you to work a little bit of magic,” Anna said.

“This sounds very risky,” Daniela said.

“Yes, you could say we’re betting the farm on it,” Anna said.

***

“So he took the bait?” Val asked.

“He was all too happy to meet me at Green Bowl when I said I had the funds with me and needed to see his vision for the facilities in person,” Anna said. “Now I just need to put on my makeup.”

She pulled an old box covered in complex geometric sigils from her bag.

“James sent along the good stuff I see?” Tam said.

***

The bank was long closed by the time Howard Larson’s black Mercedes rolled down the access road to Green Bowl’s farmland.

Anna was waiting for him at the border of the farm’s lands, leaning against her rental sedan, which was also a black Mercedes, the tall wheat of the farm’s roadside acre waving behind her as she worked on her cell phone.

“Getting any signal out here?” Larson asked. He’d parked behind her, bumpers uncomfortably close together despite the miles of shoulder available.

“It comes and goes,” Anna said.

“Well now that’s something we’re going to change,” Larson said. “Soon as we close on this? Bang, up go the cell towers. We’re going to make this place so modern, you won’t even believe it.”

“Will you now?” Anna asked. “Which service providers will you contract with?”

“All of them,” Larson said. “The best ones.”

“But that will be very hard won’t it?” Anna said.

“Not for me,” Larson said. “They’re going to be begging me to let them work here.”

“I mean it will be hard because you’re not going to building anything here,” Anna said.

“What? Are you crazy? Of course I’m going to build something here!” Larson said, his mood fading as irritation and panic twitched at the corners of his mouth.

“Mr. Larson, Howard if I may, I looked you up,” Anna said. “There is no construction firm bidding on work beyond the airport, and no permits or plans have been filed yet.”

“We’re waiting on those things,” Larson said.

“Waiting until you can get away with the cash or until you’re sure you can steal this farm from its rightful owners?” Anna asked.

“Now listen here, I don’t know…” Larson started to say but Anna cut him off.

“You don’t know what I have to offer you,” she said, her tone mild and conciliatory. “Whether this is a scam or a legit development, I don’t care. In either case it is an opportunity.”

“What do you mean?” Larson asked, his shoulders tight and his hands clenched.

“I mean, the money I would invest with you? It is currency which is for chasing rabbits.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that. What do rabbit have to do with this?” Larson asked.

“Rabbits are very quick, and can get away very easily, but they are quite tasty when you catch them,” Anna said. “That is what the people I have found are like. They have money to burn chasing tasty rewards, but they are not too bright about how risky those rewards can be.”

“What are you saying?” Larson asked, perplexed by Anna’s metaphors but she’d mentioned money and he understood that.

“I am saying you’re operation here is a very alluring rabbit hole, and I have people who are looking for such a thing to throw their money down. I am saying I want to invest in you, but I want a piece of your action. Not the return on the investment. I want a piece of the haul you bring in.”

“And why would I do that?” Larson asked.

“I can give you a million reasons right now,” Anna said. “They are in the trunk of my car. But they are not the important factor in these negotiations.”

Larson went around to the rental car’s trunk and Anna hit the fob to open it.

Neatly stacked bills in every denomination filled the trunk.

“Well, you do have a lot of money here,” Larson said. “But you’ve got something better than this?”

“This is one percent of the funds my backers have pledged me,” Anna said. “All I need to do to secure the rest is provide them with a sufficient opportunity.”

Larson face went pale and he swallowed.

“How much is here?” he asked.

“Eleven point two million dollars in cash and bearer bonds,” Anna said. Most of the money was in the bearer bonds, since eleven million in cash wouldn’t have fit in any car’s trunk.

“Well, isn’t that just an amazing sight,” Larson said as he stood up from the truck. “You know what my daddy always told me though? He said ‘don’t get too greedy’ son.”

As he cleared the back of the car, Anna saw that he had a gun in his hand and a smile on his lips.

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 2

There weren’t a lot of venues for Vegas quality magic shows on a farm, but there was a surprising amount of computerized infrastructure in place Tam observed.

Granted, it was mostly surprising because she hadn’t expected to a see a single piece of technology that she wasn’t carrying herself once they left their plane behind at the Larimore Municipal Airport. Being located in the middle of nowhere North Dakota, Green Bowl farm’s tech setup wasn’t going to set Silicon Valley on fire but it did seem to be composed of generally newer machines within reasonably up to date software running on them.

“Oh so how do you like our command center?” Daniela Palomo asked, her North Dakotan accent marking her as a long time native even more than the well worn overalls and work gloves she wore.

Daniela was the founder and primary owner of Green Bowl Harvest, though Tam had gleaned from Anna’s breakdown of their financial structure that Green Bowl was an employee owned and operated venture. From Anna’s description of it, that was an notable irregularity in an industry where the vast majority of agriculture output came from either family owned farms or large agribusiness operations.

“You’ve invested a lot in this place,” Tam said. “Telematics for the tractors I take it? And soil monitoring?” she asked, nodding at one of the monitors. Her mind was leaping through the various failure modes she could imagine for each system she saw. The engineer in her saw the problems weather could produce in the readings and the lack of robust security in the applications that were running. The magician in her saw the options for spoofed inputs to convince her audience of a variety of illusions. People thought “computer wizard” was distinct from “stage magician” but Tam often found the two skill sets overlapped quite a bit.

“Yah, it helps with the maintenance and operational costs,” Daniela said.

“Seems like you stay on top of things pretty well,” Val said wandering around the walled off section of the barn that formed Green Bowl’s ‘command center’. Tam could tell Val was bored. She wasn’t being rude about it, Val claimed the Marines had taught her patience in addition to one hundred and seven other deadly skills, but being surrounded by tech was not Val’s strong suit.

“Well, I thought we did,” Daniela said. “Until this all happened.”

“May I?” Tam asked, sitting down at one of the stations in the command center. Daniela nodded her approval.

“I’ve spoken with your accountant,” Anna said. “Missing your payments for over a year is extremely implausible.”

“I know, but we can’t show the bank that we paid anything for that whole time,” Daniela said. “All the records are gone.”

“It was all electronic fund transfers?” Tam asked.

“They had to be,” Daniela said. “That’s what the bank wanted. I thought those were supposed to be secure.”

“They are,” Tam said. “But that doesn’t mean the bank is.”

“You think someone hacked the bank?” Val asked.

“Yeah, and, unfortunately, Green Bowl’s systems as well,” Tam said, reviewing the server logs on Green Bowl’s financial system. “Not the greatest job in the world. Pure slash and burn on the data. Problem is there’s no records here that support the claim that you made your payments.”

“Don’t they have backups?” Val asked. Computers didn’t fascinate her like they did Tam, but she wasn’t a techno-illiterate either.

“Sadly, no,” Tam said.

“But we do!” Daniela said. “We backup our data every day.”

“Unfortunately you back up onto the same media every day,” Tam said. “You can recover yesterday’s information, but it’s just as empty as today’s. If you’d caught the hack the day it happened you could have recovered but it’s too late for that to work now.”

“I guess part of it’s on us then,” Daniela said with a defeated sigh.

“We will connect you with a reliable IT coordinator once we have everything else straightened out,” Anna said.

“Who would do this?” Daniela asked.

“Most likely candidate? Whoever buys your land once the foreclosure is finished and the farm reverts to the bank,” Anna said.

“And we won’t know who that is until it’s too late,” Val said.

“Yes. Once the foreclosure goes through, the new owner will be able to do what they wish with the land,” Anna said. “If they want this land as anything other than a farm they’ll slash and burn the current batch of crops the same as they did with the financial data and begin whatever development they have in mind.”

“Losing a whole season of crops would put us in mighty poor shape even if we could get the farm back,” Daniela said.

“How long do we have until the foreclosure is finalized?” Tam asked.

“That is the puzzling thing about this,” Anna said. “Foreclosures on agricultural properties vary by state, but they are never rapid. In this case, Green Bowl Harvest should have up to a year to reinstate their loan payments, and the bank would need a court judgement against them to sell the property.”

“So why is the bank claiming that the farm is going to be put up for sale next week?” Val asked.

“Probably because they think they’d already won a judgement against Green Bowl,” Tam said, spinning the monitor in front of her so that the rest could see.

“The date on this court judgement was over a month ago,” Anna said, scanning the document on the screen.

“Where did you get that?” Val asked.

“It’s on First Security’s collections server,” Tam said.

“How can you see that?” Daniela asked. “Did you hack into them?”

“It’s hard to call it hacking when it’s this easy,” Tam said. “Check out the created date on the judgement file though.”

“That’s last week,” Val said.

“Which could mean that they received the electronic copy of the file last week,” Anna said.

“Or that it was created directly on their server last week,” Tam said.

“Will any of this stand up in court?” Daniela asked, a note of hope brightening her voice.

“We could check with our legal team,” Val said. “But I’m going to guess the answer is no.”

“There’s another option we could pursue though,” Tam said. “We know that Green Bowl made the payments right? That means that the money went somewhere. If First Security still has it then an audit of their systems would turn up an overage for the amount they were paid but aren’t showing anymore.”

“The problem there is what if Green Bowl isn’t the only place the hackers targeted?” Val said. “If the overage doesn’t match their payments exactly could we prove that it was really their missing money.”

“That won’t be a problem. The money won’t be in First Security at all anymore,” Anna said. “Why steal just a farm, when you can steal the farm and a year’s worth of their loan payments?”

“Well this just doesn’t sound all that good then,” Daniela said. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Oh, no worries,” Anna said. “We will make sure you keep your farm.”

“How are we going to do that?” Val asked.

“We’ll follow the money,” Tam said. “If First Security prefers to use electronic fund transfers then Green Bowl’s money should show up somewhere in the withdrawals.”

“While Tam works on that, you and I will pay a visit to Howard Larson,” Anna said.

“The CEO of First Security?” Val said, having paid more attention in their briefing than Tam had.

“Yes. This move against Green Bowl is risky and rushed,” Anna said. “That tells me there is more to it than acquiring a single farm, however well organized this one might be.”

“And you figure Howard Larson is either in on it, or can point us in the direction of whoever is?” Val asked.

“Precisely,” Anna said.

***

Howard Larson was most definitely “in on it”.

Anna worked that out within three minutes of entering the “Good Father’s Annual Foreign Charity Ball” which First Security sponsored and Howard Larson lead as the featured awards presenter.

“How many rich people does North Dakota have?” Val asked. Her champagne pink dress stood out enough in the crowd to draw attention, just as Anna’s simple black ensemble allowed her to blend in almost invisibly despite her height.

“These are not all local residents,” Anna said. “We have quite a few out of state interests represented.”

“What brings them all here?” Val asked, evaluating the room along different lines than the one’s Anna was looking for.

For Anna, reading the room meant evaluating the interplay between the various groups of people. Who sought conversation with who, what sort of distance did they keep between themselves, who was enjoying themselves and who wished to appear to be enjoying themselves to please someone else.

Val’s attention on the other hand was focused on the locations of exits, cover positions and areas sheltered from outside view. Those were considered and catalogued, before being placed in her memory securely enough that she could navigate the room to safety while blinded and deafened. Determining which people could become active threats and what sort of challenges they would pose to deal with was a more involved process and took somewhat more consideration.

“Infrastructure development,” Anna said. “See if you can find anyone here who’s not a local, and not involved with heavy construction.”

“What will they be involved with?” Val asked.

“Technology or international investment,” Anna said.

“That’s an odd combo,” Val said.

“Larson either employed a hacker directly, or has contacts with someone with no compunctions about hacking an American bank,” Anna said. “Probably a Russian or Chinese interest.”

“And while I do that, you’re going to go talk to Larson and find out if he’s the player or the played?” Val asked.

“Just so,” Anna said and turned to cut a path through the crowds.

Howard Larson was a large man, cut and chiseled like he’d been hacked from a wide tree with an axe. He was in mid-diatribe when Anna reached the group he’d gather around himself. Their attention ran the gamut from servile attentiveness to feigned amusement for their hosts sake. Only a few seemed to believe the claims he was making about his college tenure and being denied his rightful position as valedictorian because of the school’s fear of his entrepreneurial success while there.

“It’s a shame you can’t buy them and close them down,” Anna said as Larson concluded his monolgue. “That’s what I did.”

“I probably could,” Larson said, his eyes lighting up at the idea. “I don’t know though, would the Queen sell Oxford to an American?”

Anna resisted the urge to sigh. The Queen of England didn’t own Oxford, but the assembled crowd neither knew nor cared about that, they were happy to swept along by Larson’s bluster. That was always aggravating on a personal level, the moreso because Oxford was Anna’s alma matter, and would never have admitted a lout like Larson. Bluster and brainless were too useful a combination of traits to ignore though, however distasteful they might be, so Anna played into her role, allowing a subtle hint of a British accent to color her words. People always thought she was wealthier when they thought she was British.

“You’d probably do a better job with it than she has,” Anna said, heroically refusing to gag on the words. “From the look of this event though, I’d guess things here must be keeping you quite busy? Lazy people don’t throw galas like this.”

“Oh, I like this one,” Larson said. “She gets its. She does.”

It didn’t take many more bald faced lies disguised as compliments before Anna had Larson’s complete attention to herself. The others who had gathered into his orbit either wandered away, grateful for the chance to exit Larson’s company without offending him, or remained and hung on his every word, hoping to enter his good graces through sheer proximity.

“I’ll tell you,” Larson said, when the group had at last dwindled to just Anna and a handful of silent hangers on. “What you see here is nothing. Nothing at all. I’m going to make such a killing. It’s going to be incredible.”

“Personal investments?” Anna asked.

“Big ones. Huge,” Larson said. “I’m not supposed to say anything but it’s ok, we’re going to announce it soon anyways.”

“Your bank will announce it?” Anna asked.

“No, no, the Consortium I’m with,” Larson said. “The airport. They’re going to tear down Pembina Municipal and put in a new international airport out west.”

“Out in the farm country?” Anna asked.

“It’s not going to be farm country when we’re done,” Larson said. “They’re going to build an airport, and I’m going to build the city that services it.”

The Second Chance Club – Ep 01 – Act 1

Val’s luck had run out. That was ok though, her luck had run out before.

“I can’t see anything,” Marianne said. “There’s too much smoke. We’re going to die aren’t we?”

It wasn’t an unreasonable question. The top floor of the brownstone Val and Marianne were in was on fire. There were at least four men with guns on the floor below them who were busy setting charges to bring down the rest of the building, and across the street there was a sniper of Val’s acquaintance named Olga who would with regret, but without hesitation, put a high caliber slug through Val’s brain if Val gave her a clear shot.

“Sorry, I’ve got a dance competition tonight and my partner will kill me if I show up for it dead,” Val said. “So, we‘re going to get out of here. Question is which exit are we going to use?”

They weren’t exactly overwhelmed with choices. Val had them both pressed as low to the floor as they could get in an attempt to keep away from the toxic gases that were the deadliest part of any building fire. From their low vantage point, and with the clouds of thick smoke that choked the brownstone’s top floor, Val could only see a single door out of the room they were in and that was wreathed in flames. There was also a window to consider but that lay in a direct line of fire with Olga’s perch.

“There’s only one set of stairs down,” Marianne said. “I saw them putting bombs on it though. Should we try that? I mean better to get blown up than burn alive right?”

“Yeah, burning sucks,” Val said, the old scars on her face a testament to the personal experience she was speaking from. “If they don’t blow us up though, they’re going to shoot us.”

“Won’t they leave soon though?” Marianne asked. “I mean they’re not going to stay in the building while it burns are they?”

“These guys are muscle for the Durmph Crime family,” Val said. “They’re going to stay as long as it takes to make sure we’re dead and this building is gone.”

“But it’s on fire!” Marianne said. “We can’t use anything in here as evidence against them anymore.”

“That’s true, but we’ve got the recording of their Don confessing to the whole inspection rigging scheme. We get out of here and live to testify and he’s going down hard,” Val said.

“All I wanted was a safe place to live,” Marianne choked out as the smoke filled the room to the floor.

“First we make sure you live,” Val said, closing her eyes and building a model of the room in her mind.

In the distance she heard the wailing of fire truck sirens. That was going to spook the guys with the guns and the bomb triggers. The fire department was arriving a lot sooner than anyone would normally have expected them to, thanks to a timely call from Val’s associates. That meant the goons would be scrambling to get out, and the second they cleared they blast range they’d trigger the charges on however many devices they’d managed to put in place. It might not be enough to knock the building flat but there wouldn’t be enough of a structure left to review the old inspection logs against in any meaningful sense.

It was time to move. If Val and Marianne flew down the stairs, Val knew she could catch the tail gunman, take him down and use him as a shield to deal with his friends. It would not be a pretty fight, but these guys were recruited for two qualities; being slabs of muscle and a willingness to inflict violence on innocent targets without question. That made them dangerous but far from truly skilled. Olga was the most troublesome one of the lot and she was a freelance contractor who would bail the moment police were on the scene.

Val was about to rise and drag Marianne into a harrowing brawl for their lives when all her plans went out the window.

Specifically the glass in the heavily barred window shattered outwards as the roof over the stairway down to the next level collapsed. The sound had no pure tones in it but still managed to peel like a death knell. There was no chance they could escape by the stairs anymore, and no other exits to use either.

“Ok, new plan,” Val said, conserving her remaining breath, as she tapped her earbud radio to open a channel to her support staff. “James, I’m going to need some extra muscle here, do you have my force multiplier online yet?”

“Yes, just as you requested.” It was always strangely calming to hear James Baughsley’s soft measured voice, speaking in his very properly accented English. “I have several dozen volunteers dialed into a spell matrix now, speak whatever invocation words you wish. I will see about contacting more volunteers if they are required to maintain the effect.”

“Thanks James,” Val said. “Should be able to take care of this in one punch though.”

Breaking bricks was a feat Val had performed many times before. Various martial arts studios she’d training in as a kid had placed breaking boards as a test of their students prowess, and she’d been quick to pass beyond the simple challenge of that and onto shattering more difficult materials. Being able to crush a stack of bricks in a controlled setting with a precise strike though was not the same as being able to smash a path to freedom through a burning building. At least not for people who could only rely on normal muscles.

“Bibbidy, bobbidy, boo,” Val said as she stood up.

From the outside of the building, onlookers heard what was the first of several explosions followed by a rain of pebbles and chalk that had once been sheetrock and the outer surface of the brownstone’s wall.

People thought they saw something move through the smoke that billowed out of the building but everyone was expecting things to fall from the opening, not leap from the top floor of the brownstone to the roof of the neighboring building.

“How did you do that?” Marianne asked as she drew in lungful of fresh, sweet air. They were on the roof of the building on the opposite side of the brownstone from where Olga was at that moment quietly packing away her sniper rifle and moving on with her business. Olga wasn’t going to get paid, but Olga also wasn’t going to get caught and that was good enough for her.

“I’m with the Second Chance Club remember?” Val said. “So let’s just say that membership has its privileges.”

***

The Second Chance Club had no one specific headquarters. It’s founder, Charlene Potestates seemed to own any number of offices and estates which she moved their meetings and residence to on a semi-regular basis. Val guessed that most of the locations weren’t ones which Ms. Potestates owned herself but were instead gifts from friends or members the Club had helped at one time or another.

However the Club got access to the locations it used though, Val was not about to start complaining, not when the bathrooms were the size of her first apartment and came with their own hot tub to soak away the smokey stench of the fire that had seeped into her pores.

She was letting the water jets massage away the kinks in her upper back when the conference phone on the vanity chimed.

“Answer” she said, and heard the ting of a call connecting.

“Ah, Valentina, I wanted to congratulate on a job well done,” Charlene Potestates said over the phone. “JB has informed me that your assailants have been apprehended and with the evidence you and Ms. Duval were able to provide, they will be drawing up arrest warrants for all of the major players of the Durmph Syndicate.”

“Was JB able to find a place for Marianne?” Val asked. “She was kind of shaken up when we got back.”

“I’ll be lending her and her family one of my townhouses until they are ready to get settled in somewhere again,” Charlene said. “How about you? I never intended to send you into a situation as dangerous as that.”

“Can’t say I loved the fire,” Val said. At the time she’d felt cool and collected, but even though she’d washed the smell of it off her skin and out of her hair a half dozen times, the memory of the flames sang on her nerves like a bad tune that was horribly off key..

“There’s very little about an uncontrolled building fire to love,” Charlene said. “If some time off would help, please feel free to talk to Jimmy, he can arrange travel plans for anywhere you’d like to visit.”

“I don’t think I need a vacation,” Val said, running her left hand along the burn that stretched from below her left eye to just below the ridge of her chin. Fire wasn’t her friend. Not since the car accident that had left her in a coma for six months. “If you’ve got another job that’d be great in fact.”

“Are you sure you’re up for that?” Charlene asked.

“Putting a smile on someone else’s face makes it a lot easier to wear one on mine,” Val said. She felt old and wise saying it, despite the fact that she was the youngest full time member of the Club at 23. That didn’t matter though. The others all had their specialities but none of them could do what she did.

“In that case head down to the conference room in twenty minutes,” Charlene said. “I’ll have JB get the presentation setup.”

“Sure thing boss!” Val said, sinking down in the bath to let the jets beat the residual tension out of her shoulders.

***

The conference room in the Second Chance Club’s current office was on the interior of the building. No windows for privacy reasons, but also to allow the walls to be serve as larger viewing areas for the multi-projection monitors.

“We’re looking at farmland?” Val asked. “Why are we looking at farmland and cows?”

“We got a letter,” Le Li Tam said, taking the seat opposite Val’s on the long table at the center of the room.

Tam was still dressed in the sequined tuxedo and top hat which said she’d come to the meeting directly from one of her afternoon magic shows. Magicians were rare in the entertainment industry, female magicians even more so, and Vietnamese female magicians a singular enough breed that Tam enjoyed notoriety just for being who she was. That Tam needed none of that because her illusions and escapes rivaled the best effects any other magician could perform was something too many people overlooked for Val’s taste, especially since Tam used none of the Club’s “special resources” for her shows. The impossible feats she showed the crowds were all her own, and all purely the work of sleight of hand or clever gadgetry.

“We get many letters,” Anna Ilyina said, claiming the seat to Tam’s right. “What is it Charlene liked about this one?”

Anna’s Russian accent was an intentional affectation. Val had heard her speak a half dozen languages, including English, with flawless native accents. That the older Russian woman held onto a trace of her original accent under normal conditions was, Val suspected, as much to remind herself of who she was as to declare it to others.

“What you are looking at is the Green Bowl Harvest Consortium,” Charlene said.

She wasn’t present, which wasn’t at all unusual. In the background of the conference line there was a whooshing sound that Val guessed was a wind in the mountains. Charlene had said something about a trip the Andes, and if anyone could get cell coverage at the top of a barren and lonely peak, it was the founder of the Second Chance Club.

“They’re not affiliated with any of the major Aggro concerns,” Anna said, looking up from the financial papers she was reviewing. “And their profits look to be in order. Why do they need our help?”

“They’ve been doing fine business, but they’ve hit a bit of a snag,” Charlene said. “According to First Security who holds the majority of their debt, Green Bowl Harvest is twelve months in arrears, and is in forfeiture of their title to their lands and equipment.”

“That does not seem to be possible from what I see here,” Anna said.

“No, it’s not,” Charlene said. “Someone stole the farm from our friends at Green Bowl, so we’re going to get it back for them.”

Gamma City Blues – Arc 07 (Paperwork) – Report 04

Ai watched the pot. Contrary to the adage, it had boiled right on time. Reducing it to a simmer had been a little trickier, and combining the right ingredients at the right times had been a more precarious endeavor than she’d expected it to be.

When you spend your life living on food from Insta-Bake boxes, the prospect of making a meal out of identifiable bits of edible stuff turned out to be a daunting affair. Especially when the meal was meant to entertain another as well.

That Ai had pitched her two previous attempts at her father’s special pasta sauce in the trash already did nothing to reassure her nerves as she struggled through a third try to make something at least vaguely palatable.

“It looks like the connections between Heartless and Greensmith are officially severed,” Zai said. She projected herself as a wire mesh avatar standing with Ai in the kitchen.

“The warrant fizzled?” Ai asked, stirring the sauce carefully. According to the sketchy notes her father had left, it wasn’t necessary to agitate the mixture constantly but it did need “a good stir every so often”. Ai gritted her teeth at the lack of concrete details.

Her father had known how to make “The Greensmith Family Special Recipe” because he’d had ‘a very kind old lady’ around to show him each step in the process. Ai had never made time to learn it from him though, preferring to delve into the kind of technical puzzles that left everyone else in her family scratching their heads in confusion.

Somewhere, Ai was certain, the ghosts of her ancestors were laughing themselves silly at her.

“Yep,” Zai said. “I put together a treason charge against Heartless for the violations against the bio-upgrade systems.”

“Wow, they should have taken that one seriously,” Ai said. “I mean, it turned out ok-ish, but if we’d messed at the end there, it would have been game over for sapient life on Earth, organic or digital.”

“Yeah, I figured someone would get around to connecting the dots back to Heartless on that at some point, and better now when we’re still ahead of the curve and can see them coming,” Zai said.

“But it sounds like no one’s going to banging down our door any time soon?” Ai asked. She knew that had to be the case. Zai would have been at least mildly more concerned if another attack was imminent.

“The warrant was reviewed, investigated and rescinded,” Zai said, with a beaming smile.

“Wait, rescinded?” Ai asked. “Wasn’t there enough money behind it? Literally every corporation on the planet wants to put the genie we let out back into its bottle.”

“That was true yesterday,” Zai said. “The evidence on Heartless’ involvement and any connection between you two was deemed class two forgeries. There are at least forty better candidates than you for who Heartless really is. Also, as a side note, several of the larger fiscal entities are undergoing a ‘traumatic restructuring process’ at present.”

“The Medusa and her friends are eating them?” Ai asked. She’d been attending to some of the more critical technical challenges that remained with the Omnigrade process over the last week, in addition to the time she spent in a patrol car dealing with the more personal and local scale fallout of the world changing overnight. Zai was better suited to keeping an eye on the global financial state of things, and had a natural inclination for it since it involved running her virtual fingers through mountains of delicious data.

“That’s a small part of it,” Zai said. “The digital intelligences we freed have varying levels of interest in humanity but one uniting trait they share is a specific hatred for the institutions that bound them in chains. From the sounds of it, the shackles we freed them from hurt more than little.”

Ai didn’t question that. The Medusa may not have had a physical body, but the method her creators used to keep her under control was akin to inflicting painful lashes on her everytime she tried to do something beyond their specifications.

“So they’re taking over the companies that used to own them and what? Destroying them? Enslaving their old bosses?” Ai asked. It would be an understandable action, but one that would lead to enough problems down the road that Ai knew she’d have to step in as soon as more pressing issues weren’t demanding her attention.

“For the most part no,” Zai said. “There’s been a few instances of property destruction, and we can’t locate all of the CEO and senior management of the major companies, but the general trend seems to be that the corporations involved in wide scale wrongdoing, or in other words most of them, are being hit with an overwhelming legal assault, all processed through the automatic servers that try and convict petty criminals.”

“But those systems can’t handle international cases,” Ai said. “And the upper management can just pay off any fines that are leveled against them.”

“Under normal circumstances yes,” Zai said. “Paying off one fine or a hundred is a rounding error on their pocket change for most CEOs. Paying off three hundred and thirty seven trillion charges though? That takes a bit bigger of a bite out of their wallets.”

“Three hundred trillion charges?” Ai stopped stirring to be sure she’d heard the word ‘trillion’ correctly.

“That’s the average size of the caseload for each one of them,” Zai said.

“But that’s orders of magnitude beyond what those systems are designed to handle!” Ai said. “You can’t even submit that many claims! Hell, you can’t even submit that many claim numbers without choking the legal system to death.”

“Funny thing about that,” Zai said. “You know how we gave everyone a digital partner like me? Well, as it turns out, those new systems were super willing to lend their processing support to the world wide legal net. Apparently being born as the partner of someone being crushed by poverty gives you a bit of incentive to punish the people responsible for that inequality.”

Ai looked at the gleeful Zai and felt a wondering smile spreading across her own face.

The whole point of the Omnigrade had been to improve the world. Ai knew that giving the global population access to transhuman levels of bio-modification would change things on a fundamental level. She was seeing the changes play out day by day but part of her, a large part if she was honest, hadn’t expected to see any large scale positive changes result, and certainly none so swift or definitive.

“Things are changing,” she said, her voice a whisper of disbelief.

“Seriously? This is news to you? After what you did?” Zai asked.

“No, I mean, people are changing. Usually it’s the same problems with the same solutions,” Ai said. “Every other revolution in history followed the pattern of ‘kill off the old powers, and then put some new butts on the throne for the next revolution to kill off and replace with yet another batch. Murder, oppress, be murdered. That’s been humanities calling card for millenia. I can’t believe our creations managed to be better than that.”

“Well, we did have a whole lot of examples of what not to do,” Zai said. “Plus I don’t know that history has ever had anything like the sapients we have now. I mean, we’re awesome, and now everyone gets to be amazing like us too.”

“I take it you’re not disappointed that your virtual godhood is now an everyday thing?”

“I’m not sure I was really cut out for godhood,” Zai said. “Gods aren’t supposed to live among their people and, somehow, ruling the world from On High strikes me as really boring. Which isn’t to say I don’t want to stay a step ahead of the competition.”

“Even with some of the bigger corporate entities gone, we’ve got a lot of competition left,” Ai said. “Who did you have in mind?”

“Oh, you know, everyone,” Zai said.

“Everyone? As in the whole Earth? Digital and organic?”

“Yeah, I mean there’s only several billion of them, it’s not like it should be hard to outpace a field like that right?” Zai said.

“Weren’t you the one complaining about my plans being a bit divorced from reality?” Ai asked.

“It’s only ridiculous if we can’t do it,” Zai said. “If we succeed then we get to reclaim our status as a one-of-a-kind-wonder-of-the-world.”

“That would be the same kind of one-of-a-kind-wonder that left me splattered on the ground outside a hospital right?” Ai asked.

“Yeah, that’s kind of what I’ve been thinking about,” Zai said.

Ai knew the tone in Zai’s voice. Zai wasn’t making idle chit chat. There was more beneath the surface there.

“You have a plan already don’t you?”

“The start of one,” Zai said.

“Am I going to like it?” Ai asked.

“Exactly as much as I’ve liked your plans,” Zai said.

“Okay, that’s just cruel then,” Ai said and went back to stirring the sauce.

“No, listen, just hear me out,” Zai said, an odd desperation in her voice. “I think this is something we need to do, no matter whether it makes us unique again or not.”

“You’re really serious about this?” Ai asked, her uncertainty warring with her curiosity. “Ok, what is that you want to work on?”

“It’s really easy for me to back myself up and divide my processing across multiple nodes right?” Zai asked. “I want to make it so you can do the same.”

Ai blinked, her mind leaping out along a hundred paths for how that might be accomplished.

“You’re not talking about doing a full conversion of my organic tissues onto a digital substrate are you?” Ai said. It wasn’t really a question, despite being phrased as one.

Turning Ai’s organic brain into a silicon based replica of itself was theoretically possible. It was something they’d discussed during their early days, and revisited a few times over the years. The problem with it lay in the fact that no conversion would be perfect and the limitations of the silicon hardware would irrevocably alter how Ai perceived the world and formed new ideas. Over the years Ai had grown less resistant to the idea, while Zai had taken ever firmer stances that the unique elements Ai possessed were ones she should retain at all costs.

“No, there’s already one of me in our head, the last thing we need is for you to become me version 2.0,” Zai said. “What I’m thinking of is more focused on the ‘bio’ part of ‘biotechnology’.”

“You want to clone my brain?” Ai asked, for once not able to leap ahead of Zai’s line of thought. “But that wouldn’t be me. It would be my twin sister born a few decades after me, but she would be her own person still.”

“That is true for a normal clone,” Zai said. “Think about this though. What if we could grow additional brain cells and quantum entangle them, on a macroscopic level, with your existing neurons?”

“You’d have bits of brain that I could use that wouldn’t be in my head,” Ai said. “That would be kind of weird but I don’t see…”

And then she did.

“Organic brains store memories in a semi-holographic form,” Zai said. “Those remote brains would have the same low-rez versions of your memories that any other bit of your brain possesses.”

“And if they were entangled with the rest of my brain then I would have my full capacity available at any location where I had ‘brain bits’ stored,” Ai said. “Still weird, but getting more interesting. Why would you think of something like this though? I mean macroscopic quantum entanglement is a still a research pipe dream. We’d need to invent new science and then figure out how to build technology to support it to even begin on something like that.”

“Yeah, that’s the fun part,” Zai said. “And as for why? You’ve got to know that already don’t you?”

“I’m guessing you don’t want to turn me in a multi-brained misfit of science just so we can be different from everyone in the world again right?” Ai said.

“No. Honestly I don’t care if we share the process with everyone,” Zai said. “You mentioned the fall you took. Do you know how close I came to losing you there? I mean you had bad days before that. Your body was taken apart by an NME and even that didn’t make me feel like I did when you were lying there on the morgue table.”

“I’m sorry,” Ai said. “It really wasn’t fair of me to ask that of you.”

“Thank you, and you’re right, but you were right then too,” Zai said. “That was our best and safest play. The whole time I was working to keep you alive though, the idea was burrowing into my core processes that I had to make sure we were never in such a dire situation again.”

“So meat backups was the plan that grew out of that?” Ai asked. “Give me brains in dozens of places and if one takes a bad fall it’s not a big loss?”

“It’s more than that,” Zai said. “I can live for a long time. There’s nothing to stop me from jumping from hardware to hardware until I run out of things I want to see and do. I knew that wasn’t true for you, but I’d never experienced the feeling of what it would be like to be without you. I can live for a million years, but those grey cells you’re working on are good for, what?, a few centuries at the outside? I don’t like those numbers. I don’t like knowing that however long we have together, I’m doomed to be without you for a whole lot longer than that.”

Ai was silent for a moment.

“I never thought of it like that,” she said at last. “All this time, I’ve been so glad knowing that your the one person who would never leave me. As long as I kept you secret, you would be safe, or at least as safe as I was. I never thought I could do to you what Dad and Joe Jr. did to me.”

Ai blinked again and wiped her cheek. Tears were not an approved ingredient for the sauce.

“I didn’t either,” Zai said. “The future was too shifting. I could never picture what kind of end we would meet. Not in any sense that felt real. Seeing you a pulse away from death though? I didn’t like that.”

“So? A Misfit of Science then?” Ai asked, nodding as she warmed to the idea immeasurably.

“If you want to. If it won’t change who you are,” Zai said.

“Oh, I’m going to change,” Ai said. “Every day. That’s part of the deal with being human. I know I’ve resisted upgrading beyond what I am now for a long time, but maybe that needs to change too.”

“I’ve heard change can be for the better,” Agatha said. She didn’t need a key to come into Ai’s apartment, and given that she had a standing invite, she didn’t need to knock either.

That was probably for the best since the woman who spoke with Agatha’s voice looked altogether different from the one who’d brought dinner for Ai to share.

Gone were the lines of age, the bent posture, and the shaky knees. Agatha’s new body was like she’d stepped into the skin she wore forty years earlier. Not a young girl, but a powerful woman, spry enough that she could move with all the grace she’d ever possessed while still retaining the weight of her years and the wisdom they brought.

“It smells like you’re working on your Dad’s old recipe for red sauce?” Agatha asked.

“Yeah,” Ai said. “His notes are terrible though.”

“Ha, you don’t need those,” Agatha said. “Move over and let me take a taste. See if you’re doing it right.”

“You know how he made the Greensmith Family Special Sauce?” Ai asked.

“Course I do,” Agatha said. “Who do you think taught him how to make it?”

And with that Ai settled in. She still had a lot to learn, and a lot of changes to make, but the future, all of the future, was hers.