Chapters:

Chapter 1 Scenes 1+2

“Fuck.”

Alex Pryor stood in the main room of his loft apartment, staring down at his phone. The expletive had been aimed at no one in particular — well, no one in the room, at least. He supposed he owed it to whichever beancounter had pulled his name out of a hat. He’d proven himself, dammit. To lose his job in a layoff… ugh.

He did a quick mental inventory of his cash flow. He’d need to slash his entertainment budget, definitely. And he had a feeling that he’d be eating nutrient bars for a while. But his UBI was enough to cover rent and utilities, and he was owed enough licensing residuals from his side projects that he could spring for the nice nutrient bars, at least.

Still… it stung.

“Fuck,” he repeated.

When he realized he was still staring at his phone, he shook his head and shoved it into his pocket. He then wandered over to his apartment’s sole window, with the intent of staring down at the street and people-watching for a few minutes.

“Mrow?” Bob asked curiously from his perch on the windowsill.

“Hey there,” Alex said, and he gave the mackerel tabby a few quick scritches behind the ear. “Don’t worry, we’ll be okay.”

Bob gazed up at Alex, then blinked slowly and returned to staring out the window. Alex took that as his cue to join him.

San Francisco, he thought with affection. As expensive as it was, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. He watched the people scurrying about two stories below, going each their own way in the mid-day November rain. He heard a loud honk, followed by the clatter of a bell being repeatedly struck, and then a Muni train swung into view from around the corner and sailed through the intersection, ferrying its passengers toward downtown. But more than anything, the day was dominated by the sound of wet — of raindrops hitting the pavement, of water-coated surfaces schlicking together and then surface tension schlopping them apart again. It muffled all but the loudest noises in a blanket of noise.

The scene would be improved, Alex decided, if only it could have some fog. Not that wispy marine-layer summer fog, either. That fog didn’t know how to slow down and appreciate things. No, a nice blanket of Tule winter fog would be perfect. The ethereal way it deadened sound… he’d once walked home from a New Year’s Eve party through a thick patch of winter fog. Only the sound of his own breath had been audible, and the Christmas lights had produced these beautiful chromatic halos. The effect was mesmerizing. But Alex knew he probably wouldn’t see that fog until December at the earliest. Until then, the rain would do.

Alex’s phone startled him out of his reverie. He pulled it out of his pocket and glanced at the screen. His friend Nyna Shaw was texting him. He considered ignoring it — he wasn’t sure if he was in the mood for her shenanigans — but in the end he decided to take a look.

Nyna: you got laid off, huh?

Alex: Yeah. Five years there, and nothing to show for it but a line item on my résumé

Nyna: that sucks. btw, offer’s still open 😊

Alex made a noise of disgust. Most of it was directed at Nyna’s standing offer. He had no intention of joining her as a grey-hat hacker protecting the reputation of some celebrity, or politician, or eccentric billionaire, or whoever the hell it was that she worked for. For one, he had no desire to cross the law. For two, it was a cottage industry that officially didn’t exist. He’d never be able to tell anyone what he did for a living, nevermind say who he worked for. If he did join her, everything would be hush-hush and under the table.

A sliver of Alex’s disgust was reserved for Nyna’s use of “emojis”. The emoji fad had come and gone by 2020, experienced a revival in the 2030s, and faded out again by 2040. Here in 2046, emojis were deader than doornails. Nyna only used the damn things ironically.

Alex: Hell no

Nyna: cmon, you’d be great at it

Alex: Nope

Nyna: fine

Nyna: that’s not the reason i’m bothering you anyway

Nyna: grapevine says someone’s looking for cs geeks

Nyna: lots of em

Nyna: government job

Alex scoffed. Everyone knew that government programming jobs were 90% meetings and spec documents. There’d be enough red tape to choke an elephant.

Alex: What, some new FBI database boondoggle?

Nyna: pfft, i said cs geeks, not programmers

Nyna: that language you wrote was pretty geeky as i recall 😉

Alex: Fine, what’s the project?

Nyna: classified

Alex: Like that would stop you

Nyna: of course not 😏

Nyna: but i’m not gonna tell you via text, dumbass

Nyna: brunch 10am our usual haunt in the castro

Alex: Alright, see you then

* * * *

When Nyna finally arrived at the restaurant, twenty minutes late, Alex sat watching her through the window as she shook off her umbrella, folded it up, and stepped inside. He wasn’t surprised: she wasn’t exactly the most organized person he knew. She fussed with her auburn hair, the most obvious sign of her Celtic ancestry, then spotted Alex and made her way to his table.

“Sorry! Muni and rain, you know how it goes,” Nyna said as she took a seat at the two-person table. The restaurant was packed — San Franciscans took their weekend brunch seriously, rain or shine.

Alex smirked. “I got here on time,” he said, waving his hand over the table.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said with a dismissive hand gesture. “Have you ordered yet?”

“Nah,” he said with a quick shake of his head, “just looked at the menu.”

Nyna raised her eyebrows with a question. “Does anything stand out?”

He nodded. “Dungeness crab benedict,” he said, enunciating each word with anticipation.

She chuckled. “‘Tis the season. I may join you on that.”

There was a pleasant lull in the conversation.

“So, how goes the personal life?” Alex asked.

“Eh,” she said, wobbling her head noncommittally. “Lately Jasmine’s jealous of how much time Luke and I’ve been spending together on our maker project. I think she’s feeling insecure that she doesn’t share as many interests with Luke as I do, so she’s feeling like a fifth wheel.”

Alex nodded. “Understandable. Your maker project, that’s the self-watering garden?”

“Yeah, Luke’s been wiring up the microcontroller to the sensors and solenoids and I’ve been coding up the firmware,” Nyna said.

“Nice,” he said.

The waiter interrupted their conversation to take their order. Alex ordered the crab benedict, as he’d said before, while Nyna decided on the huevos rancheros. As the waiter left, the conversation picked back up where it left off.

“Yeah,” Alex said, “poly triads take a lot of work.”

“Says the single man,” Nyna ribbed.

Alex grinned and shook his head. “What? You saying they don’t?”

“Nah, they do,” she said. “I’m just wondering what your basis of measurement is.”

“Well, I’ve participated in a few three-ways in my time” – Nyna scowled and looked like she was about to say something – “and if managing feelings in a full-time triad is even twice as difficult, then I don’t envy you.”

Nyna shrugged. “Fair enough.”

Plus I get the feeling that all-guy arrangements are easier than mixed-gender,” Alex added with a grin.

“No comment,” she muttered, although she half-smiled as she said it. “Anyway, mister single man, how’s your personal life going?”

“Eh, a few dates here and there, nothing serious,” he said. “I’m keeping my profile up-to-date but…”

“You know you’ve gotta message the other guy first now and then, right?”

Alex shrugged. “I guess I’m at an awkward age to be single. Not a lot of profiles interest me. Hell, I feel lucky if I spot an available guy capable of polysyllabic words. Maybe my standards are just too high.”

Nyna put her hand to her mouth. Cough. “Bullshit.” Cough.

“Fuck you,” he said with a grin. “Besides, I don’t even know that I feel like dating all that much. It’s work, and I’m lazy.”

She rolled her eyes. “It sounds to me like you’re avoiding it because you’re scared.”

Alex tilted his head. “Of what?”

“Rejection?” she said with a shrug.

He frowned as he gave that serious thought. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“You’ve been single for, what, ten years now?” Nyna asked.

“Yeah, that’s about right,” he admitted.

“And you want a relationship, right?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“And what are you doing to change that?”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m not the social butterfly that you are.”

Nyna theatrically placed her hand over her eyes and heaved a dismissive sigh. “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Alex shook his head. “Anyway, what was this secret job opportunity?”

“Like I said, they’re looking for Computer Science geeks. Information theorists, codebreakers, compiler designers. And anyone with a neural implant goes to the top of the list.”

Alex self-consciously reached behind his neck and scratched his implant port, which suddenly itched when he remembered that he had it. “Okay, color me intrigued.”

“Here’s the good stuff,” Nyna whispered. “The agency doing the hiring? It’s NASA.”

Alex reared back his head in surprise. “NASA?” He considered this for a long moment, then leaned in and whispered back. “What, did they finally spot an exoplanet with life and they’re going to broadcast some kind of signal?” Some updated version of the Voyager probes’ golden records, perhaps?

Nyna leaned in conspiratorially. “Even better,” she said. “They received one.”