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Ghost in the Machine

CW: allusion to underage sex work

Autonomous City Berlin, Germany, 08/15/2071

Arclight hurried out of the U-Bahn station. Mayer's place was two doors down from here, and that was good thing, since his last text had them worried. Whatever he'd run into while tracking their cyberspace ghost — a kid named Glitch, for all they knew — it was bad news. And then no news, which was worse.

"Got some spare change for my retirement?"
They glanced up from their phone and found themself face to face with a punk who couldn't be any older than fifteen. Strands of bleached hair fell over bloodshot amber eyes, and his nose was crooked as if it had been broken and never set. The prong collar around his neck barely hid the scars underneath.
"I can make it worth your time," he added with a half-hearted smirk that might've looked seductive on anybody else's face.
Arclight frowned. "Aren't you a bit young for that?"
He shrugged, pouting. "Who cares, it pays the rent. You gonna buy me lunch, or no?"
Their frown grew deeper. Whatever they'd give him would likely end up in a drug dealer's hands, but then there were worse ideas than buying a kid a few hours of sweet dreams during a war.
"Got a cashcard?"
He promptly handed them a worn paycard, and Arclight transferred fifty Euros onto it.
"Have fun."
The kid took the card with a grin that revealed a few missing teeth, but never reached his eyes. "Thanks, man."

Before Arclight reached Mayer's door, it opened and the man stepped outside, cigarette in hand, face marked by exhaustion. When he noticed them, an expression of sheer terror crept across his face.
"Arc. Dammit."
"What happened?"
"Your fucking ghost happened. I found him. Or rather, he found me."
Arclight took a step closer, alarm bells ringing in their head. "What do you mean?"
"He put a trace on me and when I caught it... bastard crashed my system. It's all gone. I tried to retrieve files..." He gestured with a trembling hand. "This is some mil-spec shit, Arc, I'm not prepared for. Whatever you're up against, you're on your own."
Mayer stuck the cigarette between his lips and fumbled with the lighter for a moment. "You sure you're even dealing with a kid here?" he finally continued. "'Cause I think your ghost is something else. Some kinda rogue AI."

Before Arclight could reply, a soft laugh behind them caught their attention. The punk strolled toward them, hands buried in his jeans pockets.
"So you're Arclight, huh?"
They stared at him, dumbfounded, until it dawned on them. "You're Glitch."
The hacker grinned, and this time the smile reached his eyes, if only briefly. "Yeah. I'm your ghost in the machine."

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