Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Chapter 26

For the fourth time, Caleb brought the bike skidding to a stop so he could check the GPS signal on the prepaid phone he’d bought with cash borrowed from Marcos. He seriously didn’t know if the thing was so unreliable because it was cheap or because Obscurity had found a way to infect it already.

Caleb still struggled with what Lucidity had told him earlier that day—that Obscurity was just like her, artificial intelligence. It had disturbed Caleb enough when he thought he had a simple flesh-and-blood thug after him.

After Caleb had texted Bō that they needed to meet, Bō replied with only an address—so here Caleb was, thirty minutes later, huffing his way through downtown in the fading sunlight on his bike because his metro card still didn’t work.

Caleb smacked the phone against the handlebars and his GPS signal returned. It said only two-hundred and eighty kilometers remained to his destination. He hit it again. It changed to two-hundred and eighty yards. He hit it one more time but the distance didn’t change.

Caleb passed an upscale fashion store that apparently only sold clothes in the color black and turned into an alley that separated the store from the next building. The phone led him on until he reached an open space behind the buildings. It looked to be where the different businesses took in shipments.

“Bō?” Caleb said quietly.

He was completely alone. He waited a couple minutes.

It wouldn’t surprise him at all if that dumb phone sent him to the wrong place entirely. Caleb kneaded his eyebrows. He’d had a long day and the last thing he needed right now was to spend his night biking across the city. He’d much rather blast enemy ships in Cosmosus with Jie. Still, this was important.

“Bō?” Caleb shouted.

A figure appeared at the edge of the rooftop to his left. It waved.

“Thank goodness,” Caleb muttered to himself as he waved back unenthusiastically.

“Come up,” Bō yelled, then disappeared from the edge.

Caleb looked around for an easy way to the roof. All of the fire escape ladders were secured out of reach.

“Can you lower a ladder?” Caleb shouted.

No one answered him.

Caleb dismounted the bike with a grunt and let it fall to the ground. He wanted to kick the thing. Was it too much to have a simple conversation on the ground? Of course, he should have expected as much, as nothing about his life seemed simple lately. He needed to tell Bō about Obscurity and couldn’t risk having any kind of message intercepted by Obscurity. Bō must hear it in person, and Caleb damn well didn’t come this far just to go back home, but he intended to give Bō a piece of his mind once he got up there.

Caleb locked the bike to a nearby pipe. None of the stores would let him inside just to get onto their roof, so he needed to find a different way up from back here. A dumpster below one of the fire escapes looked promising. Caleb pulled the giant thing inch by inch until it sat directly below the ladder. He then climbed atop—but no matter how far he reached and hopped—the bottom rung taunted him from a good meter away. Climbing onto a heavy duty window A/C unit gave him enough height, but meant he couldn’t quite reach the ladder horizontally. Caleb needed to jump. The only thing to catch him if he messed up was the steel lid of the dumpster.

Caleb breathed measured breaths in and out as he counted to five—then jumped.

Fortunately, he didn’t die. His grip held and he managed—just barely—to pull himself up to the fire escape. The rush of pride he felt at his accomplishment quickly gave way to anger. His little race with Bō’s crew the other day had been fun but what possible reason could Bō have to put Caleb through this? His fury intensified with every step up toward the roof. He’d become a seething pressure bomb by the time he reached the top.

Bō and his three friends stood together by a wall. Caleb stormed over.

“Who do you think you are?” he said. They turned and he could see what they were doing.

Bō and the one with the smartglasses—Min-to?—held spray cans. They had been painting a graffiti mural on the wall with a mixture of active paint and normal spray paint. Min-to’s side of the mural portrayed a long flying dragon that literally undulated back and forth as the active paint changed colors. Bō’s side, mostly done in normal paint, showed a warrior in a high-tech version of traditional Chinese armor ready to fight the beast. Energy, painted with active paint, crackled around the warrior’s sword.

“That’s amazing,” Caleb said. “You’re artists?”  

“Well, I am,” Bō replied. Min-to flipped him the bird.

“Wow.” Caleb scratched his head. “Isn’t that illegal?”

Bō smiled. “Very.”

Caleb walked closer to get a better look at the artwork.

“How do you get such thin lines with spray paint?” Caleb asked.

“Practice, practice, practice,” said Lei, the one with the short mohawk.

“So this is what you spend your time doing when not racing around rooftops?” Caleb asked.

“Pretty much,” Min-to said.

“We spend a lot of time setting up nodes for Lucidity, too,” Bō said.

“Right.” Caleb pulled a memory stick from his pocket. “This is for you. My friend Marcos designed a new node that will be harder to track down. He calls it the ninja node.”

Bō tossed the stick to Min-to. “Thanks.”

“That’s not the only reason I asked to meet. You need to know something. A person calling themselves Obscurity has been trying to intimidate me by shutting down my accounts. I assumed he was a corporate hacker from Yin Jiāng, but yesterday Lucidity told me the truth about him: he’s an AI just like her.”

Caleb paused for their reactions. Bō and Lei just stared at him. Johnny scratched his head as if he didn’t understand. Min-to seemed to be the only one even slightly concerned.

“You know what that means right?” Caleb asked.

Bō nodded. “He is an entity of digital existence who can travel through the internet and hack systems faster than humanly possible.”

“Exactly,” Caleb said slowly.

“It is no surprise,” Bō said. “They could not control Lucidity, so they tried again to create something that they could more easily manipulate. It is what corporations do—if something cannot be used as a tool, they discard it to find something more useful.”

Bō was apparently a deeper guy than Caleb first assumed.

“We were about to set up more nodes,” Min-to said. “Want to come along?”

“I don’t know if I can keep up,” Caleb said.

“We’ll go slow for you,” Min-to replied.

“Speak for yourself,” Johnny said, then winked at Caleb with one of his unsettling white eyes. For a second Caleb wondered if they were contacts at all, or the result of some freak accident.

“I’ll come,” Caleb said. “Were you serious the other time about showing me parkour moves?”

“Sure,” Bō said. “Come on.”

Johnny howled and took off, performing a front flip before disappearing around the nearest corner. Lei rushed after him but Min-to and Bō held back long enough for Caleb to catch up. Caleb rounded the corner with them to approach a low, waist-high wall. Johnny flipped over it, but this time twisted in the air as he did. Lei dived over the wall to land with a roll. Min-to and Bō both jumped over it by using one hand to hold them up then one foot on the top to push their bodies across. It looked very boring when compared to Lei and Johnny’s moves.

“Your turn,” Bō said.

Caleb walked to the wall and draped a leg over to climb across but the entire crew exploded into laughter.

“No, no, no,” Bō said. “You have to jump.”

Caleb could feel his face grow warm. “I’ll fall if I try to do it like you guys.”

Bō jumped back over with the same hand-hop technique. “Do it like me. Land your hand flat on the surface, put your opposite foot on top, and push yourself forward as your other leg passes underneath you. It’s called a step vault.”

Caleb breathed in and out, repeating the focusing technique he’d used when jumping from the dumpster. He felt dumb for being so nervous over such a basic move. After counting to five in his head, he hopped over. One foot landed wrong. He tumbled forward, reaching to catch himself, but grasping only air—until Min-to caught him.

When Caleb stood the whole crew clapped. His face felt warm again.

“I messed up,” he said.

“No, you did good,” Bō said. “Johnny’s first time, he fell on his face.”

“No way,” Caleb said.

“It’s true,” Johnny said, shrugging.

“All right, then—what’s next?”

Bō chuckled. “No more moves yet. Perfect that one first.”

“Come on. I can do more.”

“If you try too much too quickly you get hurt. Caution is an important part of parkour. Without it, you’ll break your neck before you get any good.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“Besides, you have other things to improve first—like stamina. You already look tired. We have five nodes to set up. I don’t know if you can make it.”

“I’m just a little winded from biking the whole way here. You also made me climb up the back of the building.”

Bō looked unimpressed.

Caleb stood up straighter. “I can make it.”

“Let’s go then.”

Caleb followed them from rooftop to rooftop, keeping up most of the way. He rested each time they set up a new node or sprayed up a piece of graffiti. Bō explained that they needed to be careful not to do both in the same spot, as it might lead Yin Jiāng to make a connection between them.

Min-to called Caleb over to see the process as he set up the first node. At the second stop, he handed Caleb the parts and told him to do it himself. Caleb asked for help a couple times, but eventually got it done. By the third stop, he could do it without any help.

As he was connecting the network cable, Bō stopped him by placing a hand on his shoulder.

“What is it?” Caleb asked.

“Do you hear that?”

A faint whine grew louder as he listened. Caleb saw Bō’s eyes widen as they realized what it was at the same time.

“A drone?” Caleb whispered.

“We need to go.”

“What about the node?”

“Forget it.” Bō pulled Caleb away as he searched the air. It was impossible to tell what direction the sound came from.

Caleb, Bō, and crew moved quietly toward the next roof. They had nearly reached it when the UAV came into view from around a tall building. Everyone shot off in a different direction, leaving Caleb alone. He froze.

Bō calling Caleb’s name snapped him back to reality. He waved from the next roof. “Follow me!”

Caleb jumped into action as the drone swooped in his direction. He rushed with Bō down the fire escape at the back of the building and didn’t stop running until they reached the alley behind the clothing store where he had left his bike.

It wasn’t until Caleb had a second to rest that he realized they’d lost the drone. Still, he couldn’t help but watch the sky as he biked back home.

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