Nick tapped his onboard sound system screen, selected his driving playlist and set it to shuffle. 'In the Air Tonight' by Phil Collins wafted gently through the speakers. With his hands tightly gripping the steering wheel Nick glided smoothly southbound towards the Gold Coast along the Pacific Motorway in his mauve, clapped out late 2020s model Holden Commodore. Orange light from the streetlights above the long, snaking six-lane road pulsed over his windscreen with its Heads-up display traffic data which directed him to take the approaching turn-off. The lights of Brisbane's southern suburban expanse twinkled in the darkness below the road until the motorway dipped down low enough to block out by surrounding scrubland.
Nick carefully eyed the fluctuating speedometer and made sure he hovered under 110 kph. The last thing he needed was to be pinged by a hidden police road sensor for speeding again. Being Christmas and all, there would be twice as many along this stretch. Most of the cars he shared the road with were self-driving and would never deviate from the traffic rules but didn't invest in driving lessons to be taxied about by a four wheeled robot.
Nick noticed his father, Mark Munro, fidgeting in the left hand passenger seat while he watched a recording of The Footy Show from an electronic tablet on his lap. There was no comfortable claytronic seating like in modern cars, just the faded classic leather interior that didn't naturally mould around Mark's lazy behind. As the song reached the climactic burst of drum, Mark, agitated by the loud distraction, pulled one of his earphones out.
"Turn the fucking thing down!" griped Mark, trying to reach the volume control knob.
Nick swatted his father's hand away from the controls and shot him a vicious look.
"Leave it," said Nick coldly. "If you don't like my music you should have taken your own car."
"Fucking smartarse," his father grumbled submissively then erupted into a nasty bout of smokers' cough.
About half an hour later they were crossing the bridge over the Nerang River towards the heart of the Gold Coast. On the either side were affluent suburbs of canal fronted homes and yachts. Nick thought about the three missed calls he'd got from Hannah alone that day. His American friend Jake also emailed him claiming to have come up with a new idea for the scam they'd floated around. Nick only skimmed the message; it wasn't worth getting excited about something that probably wouldn't pan out anyway. Directly ahead lay the long wall of huge, dazzling skyscrapers.
It took about five minutes for the elevator to ascend from the bottom level of the underground car park to the 75th floor of the Surfer's Pinnacle Building. Father and son, both laden with overnight bags and a bundle of wrapped gifts stood in awkward silence, desperate to avoid each other's eye contact. The spotless silver wall acted as a mirror for Nick to study his father: a pathetic, bloated older caricature of himself who kept scratching the top of his prosthetic left leg. Growing up Nick told his friends that his father lost his leg in Taiwan when he was in the army. He was too embarrassed to say it was a softball accident that went gangrene and Medicare wouldn't cover experimental limb regeneration treatment for someone who refused to quit smoking. A combination of disgust and prescient terror, as if he was looking at horrifically twisted version before/after shots of a weight loss programme gave Nick chills.
Finally the elevator chimed and the door opened and they passed a young, wealthy and handsome couple in the hallway. Nick noticed the couple looked at them as if they didn't belong before commandeering the lift. Now self conscious of his faded t-shirt and jeans and Mark in his typical shorts and Broncos jersey, reeking of Winfield Blues smoke he couldn't quite blame them.
Uncle Glenn answered the door and ushered them into his home, a penthouse apartment that took up half the 75th floor. Glenn shook his brother's hand and exchanged curt pleasantries with a pleased glint in his eyes knowing he was the taller, thinner and healthier than Mark.
"And how's my favourite nephew?" Glenn grabbed Nick's shoulder.
"Yeah, I'm alright," answered Nick noncommittally.
"Lucky we made extra food. We thought you were spending Christmas Eve with your girlfriend's family."
"No," Nick answered pensively. "I'm having a break from Hannah."
"Touchy subject no doubt... Anyway come in, come in," Glenn ushered and then called out, "Sunny! They're here, come say hello."
The penthouse was spacious and elegant. The living room and the elevated dining area was furnished in a sleek, modern no expenses spared kind of way. A grand piano and vaguely phallic sculptures decorated the corners of the room. The interactive wallpaper had been programmed to give the illusion that snow was gently falling around them, completely inappropriate to the Australian climate but accentuated the holographic faux-fireplace that sat beneath the hundred inch TV wall screen. The air was cool and recycled, a refreshing difference to the uncomfortably hot, humidity outside. Bing Crosby's White Christmas album added to the festive ambience.
Glenn's adopted daughter Sonhita lounged on the sofa watching cartoons. The eleven year old girl bounced up to greet them. She was dark skinned and tall for her age. Long ago she was the orphaned baby of Bangladeshi climate refugees. She had been in the family so long Nick thought of her as a cousin.
"Merry Christmas!" she wished them both and hugged Nick.
"Merry Christmas, Sunny," replied Nick.
Glenn took Mark's bags and handed them to Sonhita. "Can you put your uncle's stuff in the guest room please and while you're at it go find your other dad and tell him to stop being antisocial."
"I'll go put these under the tree," said Nick, gesturing the gifts he was holding.
The background music suddenly died and they saw Nanna was pottering about near the home entertainment wall panel fiddling with the controls.
"Mum, what are you doing?" Glenn admonishes her trying to usher her away from his sound system.
"I want to change it," she croaked.
"God damn it Mum, I told you we're not listening to that horrible Twisted Sister Christmas album again this year. I've heard enough old hair metal for one lifetime." Glenn spoke to the house's muse program: "Control, put Bing Crosby back on and deny any further access to home entertainment by my mother."
"Acknowledged," said the muse.
Glenn ignored his mother's grumbles and forcibly steered her toward her other son and nephew. "Look who's here Mum."
Mark said hello and kissed her on the cheek and Nick gave her a hug. His grandmother was a seventy-something leathery, less fortunate fragment of Generation X. She clearly enjoyed the 1980s too much to her own detriment and Nick looked at her faded, poor taste in tattoos and wondered if she'd have survived this long without the stabilising influence of his late grandfather.
"Merry Christmas Nanna," said Nick.
"Who are you?" she asked Nick with a confused expression as the dementia kicked in.
"He's your grandson Mum," Mark reminded her.
"Don't worry about it Nick," added Glenn sympathetically as he led Nanna over to one of the sofas. "She isn't exactly firing all cylinders at the moment."
Clive, Glenn's husband, a slim man in his late thirties with short greying hair came out the study with Sunny. He had a healthy tan and wore a black polo shirt and chinos.
Clive raised his hand, placating. "Sorry everyone, I had to finish some work."
"You're always working," complained Sunny.
"Well I had to make my deadline or else I wouldn't time to play beach cricket with you tomorrow."
"Hey Uncle Clive," said Nick.
Clive exchanged pleasantries and then offered everyone a drink. He handed Mark, Nick and Glenn each a stubby of Little Creatures pale ale. Nick's father initially declined the beer in favour of a can of Bundaberg rum and Coke but Clive tried not to snicker at his boorish taste and explained they had none, so he accepted. Clive made himself and Nanna a gin and tonic with a slice of cucumber and Sunny had a lemon, lime and bitters.
For a while there was small talk in the living room and then Glenn activated a holoprojector on the coffee table and explained the latest multibillion dollar project his renewable energy company was working on for the Queensland government. The projection showed three huge connected hexagonal facilities floating in the ocean with tanker ships docked at an adjoined port.
"These energy islands will be fully operational in nine months," said Glenn proudly. "The Townsville project will meets the needs of 400,000 households and provide 800 million litres of drinkable water each day. The islands won't just be water and power production plants because they'll have housing developments, fish farms, greenhouses and eco-tourism complexes. They're great alternatives to the fusion and orbital solar industries for the developing world. We've started construction on an identical project further north for the governments of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands."
"Sounds impressive," huffed Mark who clearly as not impressed about hearing about his brother's success with Green Energy Boom.
"We've got some potential contracts from India and West Africa too..."
"Honey," interrupted Clive. "I know you want to boast but we need to have that serious chat with Mark before dinner."
"Crap, I forgot," Glenn realised. "Sunny could you please get some vegetables for the salad from the garden? Take your cousin with you."
Nick and Sunny took the elevator down a few floors to the aquaponic garden. An entire floor of the building was an open space of garden beds, lattices, waterways and assortments of other green things under special UV lights. Residents paid a fee for access a local supply of fresh fruit and vegetables while it also provided a hobby for green thumbed residents.
Sunny led the way through a pebble path from the elevator under a canopy of passionfruit vines. "My dads want your dad to agree to put Nanna in an old people home. They think I don't know."
Nick savoured the sweet, moist air and the sound of the trickling streams.
Nick laughed. "What makes you think they're putting Nan in a home?"
"I saw brochures in the kitchen. Besides they bought her an android to do her shopping and cleaning when she moves."
As they explored the garden Sunny picked handfuls of lettuce leaves, peapods, cherry tomatoes, various herbs and a capsicum, and placed them in the large Tupperware bowl she was carrying.
"How come you broke up with your girlfriend, Nick?"
Nick hesitated, picking at a mulberry bush. "I suppose she just became too difficult to deal with."
"Don't you love her?"
"I don't know," answered Nick honestly. He quickly changed the subject: "I haven't seen you in New Babylon for a while."
"Nah, I play Assassin Nation now. There's lots of running in it so I don't have to play afterschool sport. Plus there's lots more cool mysteries."
They crossed a little stream and stood on a little patch of grass next to window and admired the view. Nick gazed down at the path of skyscrapers running north along Southport spit. In the darkness on the right flanked the centre of Australia's sixth largest city was flanked by the breaking surf of the Pacific Ocean, on the left the residential waterways and Gold Coast hinterland. The overcast night sky suddenly lit up as lightning struck in the distance and heavy rain began pelting at the window.
"Want to see something funny?" grinned Sunny.
She pulled out her AR goggles and urged him to the do the same. Nick instantly became aware of AR graffiti and advertisements all around him and across the neighbouring cityscape. On the nearby Q1 building Sunny tagged an AR image of a huge, erect penis over its exterior so that it would be visible to everyone in the city with augmented reality.
Even though this was juvenile humour Nick still chuckled. In moments the tag received dozens of likes and comments to the effect of "lol." It would take the building's body corporate IT some time to downgrade this AR graffiti from the public profile.
When Nick and Sunny returned to the penthouse everyone sat down at the table for dinner. Nick yanked the bigger end of the Christmas cracker from Uncle Glenn and won a little silver bottle cap opener, an orange paper hat and a piece of paper with a terrible joke on it. Everyone put on their festive paper hats and started eating. Nanna retrieved a pack of cigarettes from her purse and almost lit one when Glenn snatched them from her. "Jesus, you're not smoking in my house Mum. "
Clive suddenly spoke, "So Nick, have you heard from your mother?"
Nick was stabbing his fork into a stack of roast pork and green beans. "I got her obligatory seasons greetings email. Apparently she just had a new kid."
"Whore!" spat Nanna.
Nick froze and observed an uncomfortable silence.
"Always a pleasure Mum," snapped Glenn, giving her a serious warning look. Mark grinned to himself as he focused on his food.
"How's business going for you Clive," Nick's father asked in between a swig of his beer. "You're helping the coppers out aren't you?'
"Can't complain, Mark. My firm is being contacted out by the police to update their systems."
Nick glanced up from sniffing the aroma of his glass of Merlot. Something clicked in him that he should listen. "What systems?"
"Well I'm a cybercrime specialist so I deal with detection methods," explained Clive. "Criminals are always changing their scams, so the police are forced to catch up."
"Oh?" Nick was genuinely interested.
"Well, criminals always have to come up with more sophisticated ways to move money, scam people, and steal identities and so on."
Mark added: "Plenty of thugs and criminals on the Gold Coast. I bet that's why you moved here."
Glenn chuckled, "You worked out our secret."
"You have software that stops this?" asked Nick.
"No, but it scans for changes in suspects' bank accounts, social networks, and online transactions. When it finds a match, it checks if everything is legal. We use the Valefor Autolegal Suite and I swear by it."
"Interesting," replied Nick.
"I hope everyone has room for desert," said Glenn. "We've got pudding, plus I whipped up a pavlova."
When the conversation transitioned to something else Nick quietly tapped away an email on his iBand to Jake asking if Valefor Autolegal Suite meant anything to him.
After dinner everyone except but Nick and Glenn rested on the sofas watching television. Sunny channel was channel surfing between Christmas carols to the latest music video from Justine Beiber. Clive was making crude jokes about how much work the middle age brunette had done to her face.
"I remember when she was male," said Clive.
"Just barely," added Mark.
Nick helped Glenn clear the table and load the dishwasher in the kitchen. Nick talked about his break up with Hannah and her constant subsequent pestering.
"Sorry kiddo, I can't offer any sagely advice. Its times like these I'm glad I'm gay. Men are much less complicated."
"I guess you're still slaving away at that pub," said Glenn.
"Yeah I hate working in hospitality," complained Nick. "I'm thinking about going to uni next year."
"Anything in mind?"
"Not sure yet. I'll figure something out. I just don't want to end up a loser like my dad."
Glenn laughed, "Don't worry lad, thankfully I don't think you're a chip off the old block."
"Thanks, I guess."
"Tell me, if I offered you a way out of your shitty casual job would you take it?"
Nick almost dropped a plate. "I would kill for something different."
"Good. My company needs an assistant social networking officer. You're savvy with the net so I'm going to give you a shot. You've got potential kiddo so I'm going to give a chance to learn the ropes for business. Interested?"
"Yes! I don't you know what to say..."
"Thank you would be a start."
Sometime after 3am Nick was woken by his iBand buzzing. There was an incoming video call from Jake. Nick sat up. He was camped out on a sofa in the living room and it was dark except for the faint glow of the outside lights through the tinted windows. Nick accepted the call and Jake's face appeared on his wrist screen.
"Hello?" Nick said groggily, his mouth dry.
"Merry Christmas! Holy crap, do you know what you've done?"
"Merry Christmas too you too. Give me a second..."
Nick didn't want to wake anyone up so I crept out the front door into the hallway outside the penthouse, wearing only a shirt and boxer shorts.
"What are you talking about?" Nick asked finally.
"It's a Christmas miracle! Valefor! You found the missing piece to make our little goldfarming scam work."
"Are you sure you won't get caught?"
"It's not illegal, but I'd rather not get caught."
"Duh. That's hardly new. How did you come across the software?"
Nick explained to Jake what Uncle Clive had said.
Jake paused dramatically. :That software is just what I need. What we need."
"Need for what?"
"To make money. Real money. No, not just that. Listen, I'll explain the rest later. You have to get me a copy of that software."
"I don't know if it's worth it. My uncles have been good to me. One of them just gave a better job."
Jake's eyes glazed over, oblivious to anything but his immediate need for the software. "We can move money without anyone noticing. Not at once, but enough to live on. My AI can learn from the software, and mimic it. It can defend us, and help us do more than survive. You won't need a job. We could thrive!"
"Whatever," dismissed Nick. His scepticism was obvious. "This is over my head."
Exasperated, Jake repeated: "Just get me that software, and I'll try to explain the rest."
"Look I'm sorry but I won't steal from my uncles. I can't betray their trust for your little AI thing. Merry Christmas."
Nick hung up on Jake and went back to bed.