“Hey, Mel. Can you take a look at the error in the ATM service layer?” said Robbie from the next cube. “It’s not a priority, just happened to notice it in the system logs.”
“Sure, yeah. No problem. Message me the log,” said Melchior, chewing on the end of a ballpoint pen. He was tall– even sitting down–late twenties, vainly chiseled physique, scruffy face, dark hair, his piercing brown eyes focused on the computer screen in front of him.
“Ok,” said Robbie.
“Got it,” he said.
Melchior opened the log file and made a quick search for the error. “You heard of UTNMessageRouter.java?” he asked.
“Dude, there’s like a million source files in this banking system. I haven’t heard of most of them. You could code PresidentFoxSucksCocks.java and no one would notice,” said Robbie, the Fox regime never far from his thoughts.
Melchior opened the code and examined it. He saw the problem immediately, but something else caught his eye.
“Come here, Robbie. Check this out.”
“Ok. Did you find the error?”
“Yeah, but take a look at this.”
Robbie, a stocky, compact man, 30, with a mustache that might be decent in ten years entered Melchior’s cubicle, one of forty cubes on the 22nd level of the Bank of Greater of America building in Oklahoma City, and looked over Melchior’s shoulder at the screen.
“See how these ATM transmission ending with UTN are being diverted to this another path?”
“That doesn’t strike you as weird? Shouldn’t they all be going to the same path?”
“Look, just fix the bug, ok?” said Robbie, stepping out of his cube.
Taking a sip of his government-issued-excuse-for-coffee, Melchior analyzed the code, chewing his pen. He logged in to the server, and found the diverted folder. It was loaded with files with names ending in “.utn”. Whatever these files were, he knew they shouldn’t have been there. He turned his attention back to the bug and made his fix.
“Fixed it,” he said.
“Oh yeah? What was it?” said Robbie.
“Someone forgot to put a null check on a date conversion.”
“Typical shit from the ATM team,” said Robbie. He grimaced as he took a drink from his mug, “Your fix goes live this afternoon.”
“Nothing like testing in production. Ok, I’ll keep an eye on it,” said Melchior turning back to his computer, closing the file, but leaving the folder full of the strange files open.
For lunch, Robbie and Melchior walked down to a sandwich shop on the corner. November was approaching and a stiff breeze was just starting to burn their ears as they pulled out their travel visas and swiped. The door opened and the college kid with the sandy blond hair and a look like he’d just smelled a sweaty pair gym socks said, “Welcome to Chimpy’s”
They ordered up and took a seat by the window. Outside, a man with curly hair and a satchel strapped over his shoulder was trying to swipe his card, but the door kept making a nasty buzz; a buzz that made Melchior’s and Robbie’s hearts race.
Seconds later a black van pulled up, tires screeching to a halt. Two men in black fatigues with automatic weapons jumped out and dragged him into the van without even a moment for him to scream. The van door slammed shut and the van sped off, to where nobody seemed to know.
Robbie shook his head and said, ”Second one this week. This is not right. Someone needs to do something about this. I don’t know what or who, but something needs to be done.”
They ate in silence, as did the rest of the patrons, not knowing if one of them could be next.
Later that afternoon at the office, Robbie talked to Melchior from his cube saying, “Looks like your code fix went in ok.”
“Awesome,” said Melchior, remembering the folder with the odd files.
The fluorescent light above them began to buzz and flicker. He opened one of the files, but it was just gobbledygook, so he dropped it in some pirated decryption software and waited. As it ran, he pulled up his company email app. He’d received a company-wide email that said that due to an incident at lunch, their lunch privileges were being revoked. They were welcome to eat in the break rooms or the cafeteria.
He checked back with the decryption. It must have been checking every encryption algorithm from here to kingdom come, but just as he was about to give up, it bleeped and flashed. It had found a match.
The message had been decrypted.
Be at North Penn and 10th Oklahoma City, OK 5:30 pm
On a hunch, he edited the file to say 5:45 instead of 5:30, encrypted it, and closed it. It disappeared from the folder.
“Hey, Robbie. Do we have an ATM at North Penn and 10th?” he said.
“Lemme check,” said Robbie, from his cube.
Melchior could hear him punching a quick search into his keyboard.
“Yeah, we do. Why?”
“Do you want to take a little field trip after work?” said Melchior.
“As long as it’s before curfew, I don’t want any trouble.”
Melchior got up from his desk, walked around to the entrance of Robbie’s cube and hung his arm over the cubicle wall. Robbie turned around in his chair. Melchior said, “It’s like, an hour-and-a-half before curfew. I’m sure it will be fine. Besides, probably won’t take more than a few minutes”
Robbie touched his mustache, subconsciously wondering if it had somehow filled in a little bit more since the last time he checked it. “Ok,” he said, glancing at his watch. “That’s like in 20 minutes. Sure we have time?”
“Yeah. It’s just over at the Ten Pen area.”
“Ok, but do you have your travel visa? They will take away whatever privileges you have–or worse–if they catch you without one.”
“Dude, I just used it at lunch. Just chill. Not that it’s worth much anymore since we got night time tourism revoked,” he said.
“Well, you and pretty much everyone we know…except for the Clarkes.”
“Yeah, well the Clarkes can suck my dick.”
Robbie scoffed and said, “Ok, I’ll go,” and pointing at Melchior hard he said, “but we need to be in before curfew.”
“Few minutes tops,” said Melchior. “Let’s go!”
Robbie grabbed his sports coat and Melchior went back to his cube to grab his sleek, black bomber jacket. They clocked out with their cards at the door and made their way to the parking garage. Melchior’s transport had technically been made by one of the big-name American carmakers, but the government had bailed it out and was now running it. He thought that it looked about as sexy as his Aunt Cynthia who wore an ankle-length denim dress, slip-resistant loafers, and her hair down to her waist in a ponytail; an expression of her obsession with all things horse.
In the transport, Melchior put his visa in the ignition and Robbie said, “Are you sure this thing will take us there?”
“Yeah. It should go to any BOGA Location–that includes ATM.” Then he said, “Cynthia, take us to the ATM on the corner of North Pennsylvania and 10th.” He waited, never quite sure what the computer would say. But the approval bell rang, and the computer said, “Destination approved.” The transport started, backed out and began driving to the parking garage exit.
“I fuckin hate these things,” said Robbie. “I miss my 2018 Challenger. That mother had some rev, you know? Plus, I could drive it–really drive it–like wherever the fuck I wanted to go.”
“Seems like another world ago. Can you believe it’s been eight years? And two years of this Greater America shit. Do you think it will be over soon?”
“I hope so. I mean, he said it would be just until we were secure.”
“Said every dictator ever,”
“Shit man, you want to be arrested? This thing has ears, you know?”
The car took a right and switched into the left lane.
“Right, right. We were talking about Castro, right? Just a little history lesson.”
“Right. Glad you’re doing your homework,” said Robbie, looking at the cabin computer cautiously.
Downtown to Ten Penn had been a twenty-minute drive in rush hour before the government issued, self-driving transports. The system was so efficient now that they would be able to get there in 8 minutes according to the onboard GPS.
At first glance, the city looked no different than it had before the Greatening. The buildings were all there. The streets looked no different. And yet, everything was different. The restaurants had one by one shut down, except for the ones exclusively patroned by the privileged few who still retained their tourism clearances. There were cameras everywhere, and men in black carrying automatic weapons policed the streets
“So what is this all about?” said Robbie.
“I’m not sure. Remember the error? Well, there was some weird shit going on. I found this encrypted message. It said to meet somebody here at 5:30. I just wanted to see what it was about.”
“Dude, are you crazy? You find a hidden message in the state banking system that says to meet at some random ATM and you want to know what it’s about?”
“Come on, man. Aren’t you a little curious? I checked the logs on that code. It was checked in with a dummy account. That’s like really fishy. Aren’t you a little curious?”
“Not in the least. Let’s turn this around.”
“The route has already been approved. We’re almost there. Let’s just check it out. Look, here it is,” he said as the transport pulled into a parking place right in front of a convenience store with a Bank of Greater America ATM by the front door. “No one here. No police. No big deal.”
They got out and Melchior checked his watch. 5:28. He looked down both streets where he saw the old Nic’s Grill train car and a restaurant that used to be called the Hungry Frog which was now an exclusive bar. There were cars driving people home in transports; white, gray, and blue.
“Ok, when 5:30 comes around, Mel” said Robbie, “We’re out of here.”
“Deal,” said Melchior. He checked his watch again, “Aaaaaand 5:30.”
“Ok, can we go now?”
“Just hold on a second,” he said.
At that moment, a black van tore around the corner and screeched to a halt. Two men in Black fatigue jumped out and ran toward them.
“Hey, guys!” shouted Robbie trying to pull out his wallet, “We have our–”
But it was too late. They had hoods over their heads and were being muscled into the van.
“What did we do?” Melchior shouted over the van engine, but there was no answer.
“Goddamn it, Mel,” said Robbie, “I knew some shit like this was going to happen.”
But there was nothing to be done but wait as the van knocked them into each other. After 10 minutes or so the van stopped abruptly and the door was sliding open with a lurch.
“Ok, this is your stop, guys,” said a man’s voice. “Do you have your cards?”
They pulled out their cards. He took them and heard a buzzing and a beep. “You won’t need a sponsor next time. These will work at any Bank of Greater America ATM. Just swipe and wait for the receipt. It will tell you where and when to meet for your next excursion.” He handed them back.
“This is what’s going to happen,” the man said, ”We will take you in. You’ll have a great time, then we’ll come and get you at midnight. This van will return you to your cars. Your cards have night time privileges now, so no one will hassle you when you drive home, and no one will be the wiser. Got it?”
“Ummm…” began Robbie, then Melchior elbowed him and said, “Got it.”
“Oh, one more thing. If this place gets busted, you’re out of the UTN for life. Got it?”
“Right. Remind me,” said Melchior, remembering the name of the files ending in “.utn”. “What does UTN stand for?”
“Underground Tourist Network.”
“And that would make you?”
“Your tour guide,” he said.
Quickly and blindly, they were led onto a sidewalk and down a flight of stairs. They heard an electronic bleep and were led into a room with a lot of people talking and music playing. They could smell Chinese food. Their masks were removed.
What they saw was a low-lit nightclub, with a jazz band on stage fronted by a gorgeous dark-skinned woman in a sequined gown. An Asian man in a maitre ‘d tux greeted us. Neither of us had not seen any people of color in months.
“Welcome to Chuck Wo’s! Your cards please?”
Melchior turned around to ask the men who had brought them in what was happening but they were gone; then he turned to Robbie. He was also bewildered, perhaps more. They pulled out our cards and examined them, then examined Melchior and Robbie comparing their faces to the faces on the card.
Melchior and Robbie looked at each other nervously. Perhaps this is when their folly would end.
“Yes, Misters Johnson and Terrell.”
“Um…” Melchior began.
“Come this way,” said the maitre ‘d. He led them through a crowd of men and woman having more fun than they had had or seen anyone have in months. The people drank champagne and Manhattans and beers. A woman in a red dress smoked a cigarette with casual, coolness. Two men stood by the stage bobbing their heads and ogling the singer.
The maitre ‘d led them to a small table for two, gestured for them to sit and said, “Are these seats suitable for you?”
Seeing that Robbie was still dumbfounded, Melchior said, “Yes, sir. These will do fine.”
“And can I bring the gentlemen a drink?” he said.
“Make it two old-fashioneds; rye whiskey, please,” said Melchior with growing confidence.
“Very good, sir. And will you be needing a menu?”
“Sure!” said Melchior, “We are starving,” He nodded at Robbie; encouraging him to nod with him. He nodded, dazedly looking at the band.
“Very good, sirs,” he said, and he swept away meandering deftly through the crowd, avoiding servers with large trays and one man stumbling back to his table with two cocktails in his hands.
Then Robbie spoke. “What the fuck is happening?” he whispered harshly.
Melchior shook his head, “Well, I’m thinking we took somebody’s reservation.”
“Yes, but what is this?” he said, pointing around the room.
“This is obviously some sort of underground club we were lucky enough to find.”
“May I remind you that tourism is restricted to those with approved tourism visas?”
“Yes, I’m just as delighted as you are. I’ve needed a night out. Look at this place,” said Melchior, looking around, “This place is fuckin’ hot!”
“We could be detained indefinitely for this!” said Robbie, as the singer finished her number and the audience began to clap and whistle.
“Look at these people,” said Melchior. “Do they look worried? Something about this place is obviously very secure. They fucking hacked the central system for the Bank of fucking Greater America! Let’s just enjoy ourselves!”
“Have nothing to do, but enjoy ourselves, Robbie. We have no idea where we are, and no way to get home until 12.”
“Your old fashioneds, gentlemen” said a beautiful Asian woman in a silk cheongsam dress carrying a tray. She set their drinks in front of them on napkins, and then put a plate of steamed dumplings between them.
“Chuck Wo’s famous spicy pork dumplings, courtesy of Chuck Wo himself.”
“Why thank you, Miss–”, began Melchior.
“Feng Mien,” she said, with an alluring smile. “Tonight we have a very special treat for you: Chuck’s special Peking Duck served with a jellyfish salad. Mr. Wo prepared it himself.”
“Um…” began Robbie.
“Sounds great,” said Melchior.
“Very good, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Terrell. These dishes were his grandmother’s. He is very proud of them. He only makes them for special guests. Enjoy” she said, leaving.
Melchior looked at Robbie and raised his eyebrows and said, “Well, there you go!”
“Dude, we have to get out of here.”
“Why? VIP treatment? Chinese delicacies? Beautiful women?”
“Um, men impersonating police? Illegal clubs? Mistaken identity? Dude, we are in deep shit!”
“Now hold on, hold on,” said Melchior, lowering his voice, “If we leave now, we risk getting arrested anyway. I’ll take my chances here.”
Robbie scoffed and swigged his drink.
The band started playing again, a slow sizzle of an introduction. Then the singer began, singing almost entirely with her breath. “There was a boy. A very strange enchanted boy…”
“She’s pretty good, right?” said Melchior, mesmerized.
But Robbie was not paying attention. He was looking nervously around the room as if expected a rhinoceros to trample him at any moment.
“Robbie, Robbie, relax,” said Melchior distracted by his nervousness and grabbing his arm. Melchior caught the attention of the the waitress, “Feng Mien, yes,” he said, “Bring us another round of drinks.”
“Listen to me, Melchior,” Robbie said. “I want my wits about me. I don’t want to relax. I want to get out of this alive.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Get out of this alive? We are living for the first time in months. I don’t know what made this fucking miracle happened, and I don’t care if this is the last meal I eat.” Said Melchior, and Robbie pulled his arm away from him.
“You know?” he said, “I just had this feeling that something bad was going to happen tonight. I should have trusted my gut.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” said Melchior, lowering his voice. “Now quit being a little bitch and look around you.” Melchior looked around the room. Two tables over were a couple of women wearing elegant cocktail dresses . “See this shit?” he said nodding his head in their direction. “When was the last time you saw that kind of talent?”
Robbie looked hesitantly over at the two women. One of them took notice and smiled. He averted his eyes quickly, but Melchior gave her a quick nod back.
Elsewhere, on the corner of 10th and Penn, two young men were waiting for something.
The one with neatly trimmed beard, turtleneck and black leather jacket said, “Are you sure the message said 5:45?”
The short stout one with the shaved head and silver earring pulled out a slip of paper from his pocket and showed it to him. “Says right here.”
“Man, I want to fight this thing, you know?” said the man with the beard. “I’m sick of living this way. I want to play my part.”
At that moment, a black van pulled up four guys jumped out in black fatigues and tried to cuff them. The men struggled, the guy with the beard landed a right hook, but a man in black clubbed him in the head with a nightstick. They were led at gunpoint into the van, never to be seen again.
“Let’s go talk to those girls,” said Melchior.
“Yeah, come on,” said Melchior.
Robbie gave Melchior a hard look, one that might have sat him down in his seat before the Greatening had occurred, but things were different tonight. He felt alive and willing.
They got up and made their way over to where the women were sitting. Melchior said, “Hey, can we buy you two a drink? We’re new in town and don’t really know anybody.”
One of the women, with wavy blonde hair and thin but very expressive eyebrows smiled and said, “Sure, but we’re not from around here, either.”
They pulled up a couple of chairs while I found a server.
“A round of,” said Melchior turning to everyone then back to the server and said, “Do you serve a negroni?”
“Excellent choice, sir,” he said. “Four negronis, Compliments of Mr. Wo.”
The women looked at each other with looks of surprise, but Melchior was getting used to the treatment, and also curious. “Tell Mr. Wo that we appreciate his hospitality.”
“Perhaps you will have a chance to tell him yourself.”
Robbie stepped on Melchior’s toe and ground it into the floor. Melchior stifled a yelp.
“I look forward to the opportunity,” said Melchior.
After the maitre ‘d left, the woman with the copper red hair and pale, porcelain complexion said “Wow, compliments of Mr. Wo. Who are you guys?”
Melchior could feel Robbie getting ready to stand up so he grabbed Robbie’s knee under the table and said, “Like I said, we’re new to the neighborhood. I’m…Johnson…and this is Terrell”
“No first names?”
Melchior considered this carefully, they were there as Johnson and Terrell. He didn’t want to blow it so he wanted to play it safe, not knowing what the real Johnson and Terrell were named.
“Not tonight, babe,” he said with a wink.
“A man of mystery,” said the blonde, to the redhead.
Melchior elbowed Robbie who cleared his throat and said, “So, what are your names?”
The blonde said, “I’m Roberts and she’s McClelland. No first names for you, no first names for us,” she said with a sly laugh.
Then Feng Mien came with a large tray and said, “Would you care to eat your dinner with the ladies?”
He looked at them and McClelland said, “Only if they share.”
“Deal,” said Melchior.
“Very good, Mr. Johnson,” said Feng Mien,and she arranged the plate of duck and the salads on the table.
As they ate and chatted, Robbie began to come out of his shell a little bit. McClelland even seemed to be taking a liking to him. After their plates were cleared and the band finished their set, the maitre ‘d approached their table.
“Mr. Johnson and Mr. Terrell, I hope your evening has been to your liking. I see you’ve made some new friends. Delightful!”
“We’re having a wonderful time Mr.–”
“Yes, thank you. It’s been a very interesting evening.”
“Mr. Wo, your esteemed host, would like a private audience with you. If you would come this way.”
Robbie looked at Melchior sternly, and for the first time that evening, Melchior began to feel uneasy.
“Can you show me to the bathroom?” said Robbie suddenly.
“Of course,” said Li. “I’ll come find you when you are ready, but I ask you, do not keep Mr. Wo waiting for long. He has much work to do tonight. The men’s room is on the other side of the bar. I can show you if–”
“No, we got it,” said Robbie, and he took Melchior by the arm and began to pull him through the crowd.
When they got to the men’s room, Robbie shut the door and locked it.
“This has gone too far, Mel! I’m stopping this right now. We have our visas, and we have our phones.” He pulled out his phone. “Great, no bars! Whatever! We can find our way back to our car and get out of here.”
“Ok. Ok. I get it. This is getting scary, I know,” said Melchior, calmly. “Ok, if you really want to leave, then let’s leave.”
“Thank you,” he said, with visible relief on his face.
He unlocked the door and we headed for the entrance. Two men were standing by the door. One looked at the other and then stepped in front of them.
“Mr. Johnson? Mr. Terrell? Mr. Wo is waiting for you.”
They turned around and Li was waiting for them, “Come, come, he is waiting.”
Li led us through red, velvet curtains next to the stage. The musicians were backstage laughing and smoking weed. The singer was applying lipstick at a small vanity. She looked up and smiled at Melchior. Then Li continued to lead them down a dark hallway until they reached a door. He opened it and gestured for us to enter.
They entered a study with dark, wood-panelling walls, books, and shelves of Chinese artifacts. A venerable looking Chinese man was sitting at a stately desk.
“Ah yes. My new Misters Johnson and Terrell,’ he said, rising and bowing. “Please have a seat.”
Melchior bowed and elbowed Robbie to do the same. Anxiously, Melchior sat down and so did Robbie, giving him a surreptitious glance.
Mr. Wo sat down, “I’m so glad you’ve decided to join us in our little,” he paused,” resistance. We had a glitch in our system otherwise we would have contacted you sooner. Excuse my men. I did not want you to leave before we had a chance to talk.”
Melchior nodded, not sure of what to say.
“Hand me your cards,” he said.
They handed him their cards and he pulled out a small machine. He put first my card in and it buzzed and beeped, then Robbie’s.
“Now, these cards will get you into any establishment in the UTN–Underground Tourism Network. Consider them carte blanche–unlimited access and credits to our many underground entertainment venues. I only ask that you swipe this daily at any of the Bank of Greater America ATMs. You will have a role to play before this is over. Have fun. Enjoy your little taste of freedom courtesy of the UTN. But when it is time, you will get your chance to fight for all of our freedom,” he said staring Robbie in the eyes with intensity. “We will not let this Fox get away with his crimes. He will stand trial. We will restore democracy!” said Wo, slamming his fist on the desk.
Melchior looked at Robbie, he was on the edge of his seat with fight in his eyes. He turned to me and nodded.
Mr. Wo regained his composure and said, “Li, please escort these fine gentlemen back to their tables. Make sure they are well taken care of for the evening. Show Johnson and Terrell to a private room and bring in their new counterparts, Roberts and McClelland. They have much to discuss.”
When they got to the door, Robbie said, “Mr. Wo? We will not fail you.”
As Li was escorted them to a private room with the beautiful women, Robbie stopped in front of a woman who was smoking and said “Hey, can I bum one of those?” She smiled and handed him a cigarette and a lighter; two things we hadn’t seen in a year before Chuck Wo’s. He lit up and took a long drag. His body relaxed. He turned to Melchior and said “Mr. Johnson. I don’t care about the clubs, the drinks, the ladies…none of that shit. You can have all of that you want. I don’t really know what we’re getting ourselves into, but if it means kicking that asshole out of the White House, I’m in.”
Melchior reached out for his cigarette and took a drag himself. Then he pointed it at him and said, “You’re a crazy motherfucker, you know that?”
“But can I ask just one favor?” said Robbie, straightening Melchior’s collar and smiling his first real smile of the evening, “Next time? Will you just fix the damn bug?”