By Tim Nutting
She broke out onto the street, feet slapping a staccato on the wet pavement. She burst right into the path of the festival parade. The noise of thousands of celebrating people was already deafening. It surged around her. Lights flared in a brilliant array of color, stabbing at her eyes.
Her goggles compensated and her earplugs toned down the roar into something manageable. Sounds filtered in as she dodged a large man wearing a paper mache Ganesh head with electric eyes. The sounds resolved into rhythm of feet, running like she was. Behind her. They were chasing. They were gaining.
“Stop! Tranh, stop!” a voice yelled. Shit. Gunnar. She didn’t need void identified by her system, but it displayed his picture in her upper right field of view. The huge Caucasian man was quite possibly the worst thing she could have after her right now. Why was he suddenly involved? Did her prize have that much cache?
She ran harder. To her left a massive float rolled down the street. Ganesh again, huge and impossible. The elephant head swayed left to right, and for a moment she felt it made eye contact with her. A surge of dread washed over her. The god wouldn’t care if she got trampled underfoot. She blasted through three young men gawking at the float from the edge of the road where they were safe, unless someone pushed them under the god’s wheeled feet. It happened every year.
“Phuh’ing lew!” shouted the tallest. The shortest reached out and grabbed her arm. His grip faltered on the rain slick fabric of her jacket, but his fingers clamped around her wrist, pinching the bones under her watch. Her heart leaped into her throat.
Her motion yanked them just away from the road-side and into a press of celebrants. They protested, but gave way. The tall one loomed and she looked up at his face. Thin and long with dark bronze skin, his eyes were dark pools in multicolored night. He leered with gapped and stained teeth. A tianshang root chewer. Visible above his shirt was an iridescent green dragon, shifting with his motion.
The other two smaller, and thinner, dressed in light jackets with neon dragons on the sleeves. No motion tattoos for them.
Normally she’d be a little scared at this point. But he was coming…
“Let go!” she shouted in Chinese. The root chewer frowned. She probably should have used Thai.
“No, skinny girl. You should learn politeness. Pranay.” The last was at the man holding Tranh’s wrist. He gripped harder and yanked her back toward the nearby alley. She twisted against his pull, trying to break free.
Gunnar appeared, simply thrusting one of the crowd around them out of the way. Ganesh thundered slowly by behind him, huger than life. The European seemed bigger. His white skin reflected the celebration lights in a psychedelic array, shinier than should be. The implanted goggles, chrome through and through, reflecting dazzling pinpricks of light. All three men looked at him. Those goggle hid half his emotions. She never knew what Gunnar was really thinking. She didn’t think anyone did.
Gunnar punched the root chewer with a heavyweight boxer’s skill. His head snapped to the left. A tooth bounced off Tranh’s face. The thin man collapsed, a puppet with the strings cut. He might even be dead. She knew Gunnar could kill with a punch. She’d seen it. The other two men stared.
Tranh wasted no time at all. She twisted to the right, wrenching her arm away in a circle. The move avoided downward motion on her arm, thus not risking the watch coming off. Her captor straightened his arm, his center of gravity moved unexpectedly. She struck with her free hand, the heel snapping into his locked elbow.
Something popped, she thought. The man–Pranay?–bawled in pain and let go. The watch stayed on. Tranh turned just as she saw the other man try to take on Gunnar. Idiot. She needed every moment to put more distance between her and that monster. The alleyway beckoned. She dove for it.
“Tranh, stop!” Gunnar shouted again. She heard the third man shout a wordless battle cry that ended suddenly under another meaty smack. She suppressed the shudder. It sounded like slabs of meat smacking into things when he punched people. She found an old fashioned fire escape ladder and grabbed at it.
Seriously, why hire him to come after her? Could it be that valuable? Her employer sure seemed to think it was worth something.
She swarmed up the ladder. The whole structure seemed to sway under her. Maybe this wasn’t the best course of action after all. A quick glance back showed how little choice she had.
The deal had been agreed to in the normal way. They’d met in a black room far from any public access point, one of those places the carefully made up news readers spoke of in worried tones when they talked about the so-called “deep web”. Well it was deep web territory, so deep that your average user didn’t have a clue what kind of computer you used to get to it. She certainly hadn’t when she started this business by accident.
She was up two flights by the time Gunnar reached the ladder. The instant he started climbing the whole structure shifted again, a low metal groan rang in her ears, helpfully amplified by her gear. For just that moment she wished she’d turned off the sound filters. She continued climbing.
Her employer had used a custom avatar, one with all the proper hallmarks, including the identifying bits of code she’d slipped him in encrypted communications. It still didn’t guarantee he wasn’t police of some kind, be it military, religious, or simply national, but it had been a good sign. They’d talked, tried to sort out exactly what she’d be stealing. She doubled the price when she found out where she’d steal it from. As she climbed the fourth flight she wished she’d quadrupled it. The watch hugged her wrist, its weight like a thousand sins.
Gunnar got his speed. Tranh was light and quick, but the European man moved with relentless speed. In her mind he suddenly became like the juggernaut of ancient days. Gunnar was t
he implacable statue, the god that rolled over men sacrificed to him. She climbed harder. She would not be the latest sacrifice.
“A Little Theft” is based off of an idea I had about a cyberpunk story set in a very futuristic India or Thailand. Like the stories that spawned it, Asia is a powerhouse here. It is the place all the advanced technology is developed, where the money is, where the people are. But I also wanted to play to some cultural tropes of the region a well. What if this future isn’t the atheist’s wonderland that Gibson and Sterling and others decided it was?
I lean, some, on Paolo Bacigalupi’s fabulous “The Windup Girl”, but I also saw this image, the giant Ganesh, the massive parade, and the juggernaut, when listening to the soundtrack for Baz Lurman’s “Moulin Rouge”, specifically “Hindi Sad Diamonds”.
Some day I should find out what Tranh stole, and how she knows Gunnar. They’ve worked together, it seems. They definitely know each other. Some day…