Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Chapter 30

Caleb returned home just before midnight. The apartment was dark; Mom had already gone to sleep. He slipped into his room and dropped onto his bed.

The night had gone better than he could have expected. Not only had Shi Fen been completely thrown off by Caleb appearing in his apartment, he’d actually offered to help them get Lucidity free from Yin Jiāng. For what felt like the first time, Caleb had scored a point against that crooked corporation.

So why did he feel like crap? Physically, he was fine—his veins still hummed with jittery energy—but emotionally he felt dissatisfied. He knew he had every reason to feel like a million bucks, but something was missing. He stared at the ceiling as he searched his feelings.

Marcos.                                                                                               

After his fight with Dem, Caleb had left Marcos behind, and hadn’t talked to him since. This victory against Shi Fen was an empty one without Marcos involved. He’d been with Caleb since the start of all this. Caleb needed to talk to Marcos and fix things.

He resolved to go see his friend first thing in the morning and immediately felt much better. The adrenaline from the night’s events was wearing off quickly. Caleb turned out the light and promptly fell asleep.

---

Caleb knocked on the door of Apartment 531. When no one answered quickly, he knocked even harder. The door opened before he could knock a third time.

Marcos blinked in the doorway. “Caleb?”

“Hey. Can we chat?”

Marcos yawned. “Right now?”

“Yes. It’s important. I’ll be quick, promise.”

Marcos moved into the hallway and closed the door behind him. He rubbed his eyes. “What’s up?”

“Yesterday I confronted ‘Miranda.’”

“The Yin Jiāng agent?”

“Yeah. Bō brought me to the Yin Jiāng headquarters and we saw the guy as he left for the night. We followed him home.”

“You did what?”

“His real name is Shi Fen. We broke into his apartment.”

“You did what?” Marcos now looked fully awake.

“I’m done hiding from these people. We went on the offensive-and it worked. He told me how Lucidity was created, then agreed to help us free her if we destroy Obscurity.”

“He did what?”

Caleb waved away Marcos’ concern. “That’s not why I’m here, though.”

Marcos looked nearly speechless. “Then why?”

“To apologize.”

“Oh.”

“I lost my cool and left you hanging. I’m sorry.”

Marcos shrugged. “Don’t sweat it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. You’re my best friend, man. It’s not a big deal. If you’re going to apologize to anyone, though, it should be Dem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you forget what you told her? ‘You don’t have a home do you? Go back to your dirty warehouse.’”

Caleb groaned. “Damn. You’re completely right. I am the worst.”

“Pretty much,” Marcos said.

“I’ll go right now.” Caleb gave Marcos a big hug then hurried down the hall.

“Hey,” Marcos called behind him. “Be careful. She might try to kill you.”

---

Caleb reached the dingy alleyway beside Dem’s warehouse, set his mother’s bike against the brick wall, and gave himself a moment to catch his breath. With the heavy duty metal door in front of him now, he questioned his decision to come here. Dem wouldn’t be as quick to forgive as Marcos had been. Would she scream at him? Attack him?

There was only one way to find out. Caleb knocked on the door and waited.

He knocked again.

And waited.

Caleb looked up at the closed circuit camera overhead. “Dem, can I talk to you?”

He received no response.

Caleb swallowed and cleared his throat. “The things I said to you were really messed up,” he said, addressing the camera. “I was wrong. I can’t take them back, and I accept that, but I don’t want you to think I don’t respect you. I do. And I deserve every bit of your anger.

“I’m sorry. You’re right about sometimes having to break the law to do what’s right. I’d just like to discuss things like that before jumping into them.

“But I recognize it’s too late for that now. My stupidity pushed you away before we even had a chance to become real friends.” Caleb sighed. “That’s all I had to say. Goodbye.” He turned from the camera and went to his mother’s bike. He was swinging his leg over it when he heard a noise behind him. He turned.

Dem watched him with narrowed eyes from the doorway. She’d dyed her hair again; it was now fiery red with yellow highlights, which made her look even more fierce.

Caleb put the bike back against the wall and went to her. “I’m sorry, Dem.”

She continued to glare silently, her jaw moving like she was grinding her teeth.

“You can kick me if you want,” Caleb offered.

This actually got a sly grin out of her. “Dude, don’t even tempt me. Do you not see all the spikes on these boots?”

“Ah. You’re right. What about a punch?”

Dem shrugged. “That could work.”

Caleb turned and presented his shoulder. Dem didn’t hesitate to slug it with all of her strength. It felt like a small sledgehammer smashing into his arm.

Caleb yelped and shrank back. “Damn.”

Dem pointed a finger at him. “Next time I’ll go for the kick. And I’ll use my bigger boots, with the bigger spikes.”

“There won’t be a next time. I want you with me. Not because you’re useful, but because I want you as a friend.”

Dem cocked her head. “You saying I’m not useful?”

“Oh, you are. More useful than three Marcoses, at least.”

“That’s cold. Not untrue, but cold.”

Caleb rubbed his shoulder until the pain numbed a bit. “Well,” he said, “I guess I’ll see you later.”

“Are you hungry?”

“What?”

“I assume you digest food for energy like a normal human being.”

“I do…”

“Well, have you done so recently?”

Now that she mentioned it, Caleb realized he was famished. He’d forgotten to eat anything before leaving home. He touched his stomach as it rumbled. “No.”

“Do you like ramen?”

“Yes.”

“Then come on.” Dem turned to walk deeper into the warehouse.

Caleb followed. They passed through a few more doors, down the hall with the grated floor, and into the giant central room with the cargo container in the center of it. Dem brought him to the corner where her couch was.

“Sit,” she said as she retrieved two cup-o-noodles from a giant pallet of them. She quickly poured water into them and put them in the microwave.

Caleb sat on the couch as instructed. As the microwave did its work he absently picked up a manga book resting on the couch beside him. The cover showed a giant robot with giant robot cleavage blasting off into space. The title read Meka. Sex. Death. Kill.

Caleb slowly put the book back, this time with its cover facing down.

The microwave beeped. Dem took both of the cups out and began adding the ingredients. She retrieved a few extra things from the minifridge, but she moved so quickly that Caleb didn’t get a chance to see what they were. She soon handed him a cup of noodles with two chopsticks sticking out of it. I was instant ramen like he’d never seen before, filled with extra stuff like little calamari bits and bean sprouts. The liquid was deep red and gave off an aroma that singed his nose hair.

“Is this spicy?” Caleb asked.

Dem sat on the other side of the couch with her own cup. “Shut up and eat.”

Caleb tried a single noodle. It was spicy, very spicy, but also the most amazing ramen he’d ever tasted. He didn’t have much problem shutting up as he inhaled the soup and noodles. He was forced to take short breather breaks every few moments to keep the still-hot noodles from burning his tongue.

Dem turned on the wallscreen opposite the couch. The wall stood all the way on the other side of the wide room, but was also five meters tall, so it was like a personal movie theater. Dem put on an episode of an anime series and sang along in Japanese with the intro.

The show was bizarre to say the least. It started simply enough, with one of the main characters, a teenage girl named Kiki, starting a new job as a secretary. Her boss acted a bit creepy, though, and kept hitting on her throughout the day. At the end of her shift, he confronted her as they were the last two left in the office. When she rejected his sexual advances he moved to grab her, but in a burst of light she turned into a magical girl with shimmering crystal knuckle weapons. The boss only laughed before quickly going through a transformation himself—into a slobbering reptilian monster. A ridiculously awesome fight ensued which left the office in ruins—and that was only from the first ten minutes of the show. From then on, Caleb was hooked, leaning forward at the edge of the couch.

Halfway through the episode Dem paused the show and turned to Caleb. “Just a few days ago you thought breaking the law was the worst thing ever. What brought about this drastic change of heart?”

“Well, last night I broke into a man’s apartment and subtly threatened to hurt him if he didn’t answer my questions.”

Dem’s eye widened. “For real?”

“Yup.”

“Badass.” She held up a fist.

Caleb bumped his fist with hers. Without another word, Dem resumed the video. Time melted as one episode led into a mini-marathon that lasted most of the day.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Chapter 29

Caleb sat in the dark, working to keep his breathing steady. “You’re going to be okay,” he whispered to himself. It actually helped. He closed his eyes and repeated the words. His heartbeat slowed to an almost normal pace.

Then footsteps started outside and his adrenaline spiked all over again. The walking soon stopped—keys jangled—and Caleb chewed the inside of his cheek. He dug fingernails into his thigh as his leg began to shake again. A deadbolt thunked. The door opened, letting in a slice of light around the shadow of a person. The shadow entered and closed the door behind it.

Caleb breathed out slowly, jaw clenched, as nerves gave way to anger. He’d been messed with all summer long and wasn’t going to take any more of it. Now was their turn to be afraid.

The man entered the living room, turned on the light, gasped, and dropped his suitcase.

“Welcome home, Shi Fen.” Caleb said.

The man Caleb had previously known as “Miranda” stood before him, frozen like a statue in an expensive business suit. His mouth hung open.

Shi Fen swallowed. “Get out of my apartment,” he said.

“I’m only here to ask questions,” Caleb replied.

Shi Fen reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his phone. He started inputting a number but stopped as Bō and Lei exited the room to his right. Johnny and Min-to emerged from the opposite side of the apartment. Johnny walked over to lean against the front door. He stared at Shi Fen through his white contact lenses and began popping his knuckles one at a time.

Shi Fen slowly returned his phone to his pocket. “You brought these thugs to assault me?”

Part of Caleb wanted to smile, but he was much too angry now to gloat. “No. Like I said, I have some questions. Sit down.”

Shi Fen lowered onto the couch across from Caleb. “I hope you realize the crimes you and your friends are committing right now. On top of breaking and entering, this could count as kidnapping.”

Caleb clenched his hands into fists. How dare this manipulative jerk lecture him on breaking the law? Caleb took in a deep breath. “What do you do at Yin Jiāng?”

Shi Fen narrowed his eyes at Caleb. “I am a software engineer.”

“What projects have you worked on specifically?”

“I am legally obligated to keep all company details confidential.”

Bō stepped closer and Shi Fen coughed. “I’ve worked on several projects. The most recent was a government contract for alias creation and management software.”

“Explain it to me.”

“I doubt you would understand the technical details, but I can give you the basics. The government wanted an advanced system for creating digital aliases. With this software they would be able to create elaborate, very convincing fake identities. Within minutes, you could have several social network accounts with completely fabricated pictures that are indistinguishable from real ones, along with an email account, and printable fake documents. We even implemented real-time audio and video masking. You could have a live video conference in which the software would alter your voice to match the alias—and create a dynamic video of the false individual.”

“Bullshit,” Caleb said.

“Excuse me?”

“Those are the same lies you told me when we first met. You wanted me to help you find Lucidity because she stole your alias software.”

“Yes. It is the truth.”

“No. Lucidity didn’t steal the software, she is the software. You created her, but she was too smart for you to control, so now you’re scrambling to contain her.”

Shi Fen’s back straightened. “How could you know that?”

“You and your company aren’t as skilled at covering your tracks as you think.”

For once, Shi Fen was speechless.

“Will you give me honest answers now?” Caleb asked.

Shi Fen glanced at Bō, over at Johnny, then back to Caleb. He took a moment to adjust his tie. “Yes.”

“Good. Why did Yin Jiāng create Lucidity?”

“She was an accident. Our research into advanced alias software required self-evolving systems on quantum servers. As we progressed, our team leader, Director Yuan, became more and more interested in the machine learning aspect of the project. She shifted the majority of the team in that direction. One morning upon coming back to the lab, Lucidity was there—the product of a simulation we’d left running over night. After creating trillions of test aliases, and teaching itself after every one, the alias software became Lucidity.”

“How is that possible?”

“We still don’t understand completely. Analysis of the processes has only provided limited answers. One moment, the software was working as designed, learning—but not sentient—then it manifested true artificial intelligence.”

“I told you, no more lies.”

“Why do you think I’m lying?”

“You know exactly how you created Lucidity or you wouldn’t have been able to make another AI. Where did Obscurity come from?”

Shi Fen inhaled sharply then blinked several times. “You know about him, too?” He shifted in his place on the coach. “It’s true that he was created second, but we didn’t create him. Like Lucidity, he created himself. We simply repeated the experiment with a slightly tweaked version of the alias software. Director Yuan thought editing the original seed program would have an effect on the AI born out of it. She was correct. We got Obscurity, an entity much more willing to cooperate.”

“What you got was a monster,” Caleb said. “He’s obsessed with finding Lucidity and has been trying to intimidate me because he knows I’m helping her.”

Shi Fen smirked. “You got tired of being intimidated by a program over the internet, so you decided to break into my apartment and do it to another human being in person? Don’t say I didn’t warn you about Obscurity. If you would have taken my advice the last time we’d met, you could be spending more of your time enjoying shaved ice with that girlfriend of yours.”

“You know what, you’re right. I’m here because I’m tired of being the victim. I had nothing to do with this until you and your company dragged me into it. Now you can deal with the consequences. You’re used to just rolling over people, but this time you picked the wrong person.”

Shi Fen chuckled. “You fancy yourself a brave little hacktavist now. Remember, it wasn’t us that pulled you into this, it was Lucidity. You’ve had several chances to walk away. Now, out of brash stupidity, you’ve pushed past the point of no return.”

“You think I haven’t nearly walked away a dozen times already? Lucidity didn’t drag me into this, she cried out for my help. She’s a person—maybe not a human—but an intelligent person with feelings. You people are trying to wipe her out of existence because she doesn’t follow your commands. I know the government won’t stop you because they’re in your pocket. But I’m not in anyone’s pocket, and I’m going to get her free from you.”

Shi Fen rubbed his jaw then leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. “Do you really believe that?”

“Why do you think I’m here?”

Shi Fen pulled back. “Because you’re reckless.”

“What I am is tired of being pushed around. Now, on to my next question. How and where is Lucidity contained?”

Shi Fen sighed. “She is in a quantum server inside the tower. It’s been isolated since the first failed test. There’s no internet access—or even access to the company’s local intranet.”

“So she’s trapped?”

“Essentially.”

“What does she do?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“Without access to any information, what does she do in the server?”

“She contemplates existence, I suppose.”

“You’re disgusting. How would you feel locked in a small room with no contact with anyone or anything?”

“I offered alternatives. I tried proposing a small, simulated network where she could explore and be tested, but he wouldn’t have it.”

“He? I thought a woman was your boss. Director Yuan?”

“She is, but the board has been so impressed with Obscurity’s performance that they have granted him ‘provisional administrative authority.’”

“You’re joking. All he’s done is track down some of the Lucidity shards and fail to scare me away.”

“He’s actually done much more than that. In the months since his activation he’s taken over the company’s bookkeeping, saving 47% through tax efficiency—he’s updated the entire intranet to work twice as fast—and he’s restructured our workflow to maximize employee effectiveness. Upper management is more than impressed with him.” Shi Fen scoffed. “They may push to make him CEO before too long.”

“No way,” Caleb said to himself. He stood up and walked back and forth through the living room as he digested that information. After a moment, he stopped to turn back to Shi Fen. “It sounds like you don’t agree with them.”

“Obscurity’s efficiency can’t be questioned, but he’s new, unpredictable, and free of empathy.”

Caleb laughed. “Yeah, before him, Yin Jiāng was just brimming with empathy.”

“You’d be surprised. It’s why I was transferred from the Lucidity project.”

“What?” Caleb sat back down in the chair.

“Even before Obscurity, Director Yuan and I didn’t often see eye to eye when it came to Lucidity. We had multiple heated discussions. Once Obscurity gained some authority, he quickly convinced her that I was a liability to the team. It happened soon after my last talk with you. Since then, I’ve been banned from anything involving the Lucidity project.” Shi Fen’s posture had changed. His shoulders had sunk down and his back had curled slightly forward.

Usually, Caleb wouldn’t have believed this story, but he did remember a video clip Lucidity had shown them in which Director Yuan chastised Shi Fen for calling Lucidity ‘her’ instead of ‘it.’ Maybe Shi Fen was being honest this time.

“If all of this is true, why don’t you quit?” Caleb asked.

It didn’t even look like Shi Fen had heard the question. He was staring at the floor. Then he blinked and rubbed his face with both hands before speaking again. “I’ll make a deal with you.”

“You’ll what?”

“Obscurity is a serious threat, much more than Lucidity ever could have been. He’s power hungry and aggressive. I believe he plans to systematically take over the company—and I doubt he’ll stop there. There’s something else, too; he’s started a secret personal project. I don’t know if even Director Yuan knows what it is, but he’s commandeered over half of the company’s processing power for it. I’ve heard he believes he’s very close to its completion. I don’t know what it is, but I know that if it’s such a high priority for him, it can’t be a good thing.”

“Okay,” Caleb said. “But what do you want from me?”

“I want you to stop him. You and your friends are obviously more resourceful than I ever imagined. If you’ll destroy Obscurity, I’ll help you free Lucidity.”

Caleb leaned back and took a deep breath. He glanced from Bō to Min-to, then to Lei, and to Johnny. None of them appeared to think this was a good idea.

Caleb returned his attention to Shi Fen. He leaned forward, looking the man directly in his eyes. “Deal,” Caleb said.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Chapter 28

The cool night air pressed against Caleb’s face as he lifted from the bike seat, leaned forward, and pedaled hard. His thigh muscles grew tighter with every downward push. His lungs felt larger with every breath.

A car turned in front of him without using its blinker. Caleb hit the breaks and turned to pass behind the car, pushing off its trunk with his hand to regain some momentum. He usually avoided biking downtown because people drove extra-stupid here. But tonight, after taking his mom’s bike for a ride to blow off some steam, he soon found himself drawn straight into the heart of the city. He was tired of being afraid. He was tired of relying on others. He didn’t need Marcos or Dem. For the first time in a while, he felt great. He was strong, full of energy, and—most importantly—unafraid. Hiding at home wouldn’t solve anything; he needed to deal with Yin Jiāng.

Caleb weaved between two cars and turned at the next intersection. A convenience store stood on his right. The flickering holoboard above it projected the words “24 Hours” beside an attractive winking woman. Caleb hopped onto the sidewalk and skidded to a stop beside the automatic doors. He texted Bō as he walked the brightly-lit isles.

Where are you? We should meet.

Caleb grabbed a bottle of water and an energy bar. He gulped down the water before even reaching the counter.

Xièxie,” the old lady at the cash register said after taking his cash.

Caleb’s phone vibrated as he chewed into the energy bar. Characteristically, Bō had replied with only an address.

Caleb met Bō and his crew on the roof of a small apartment building. They were eating burritos as Min-to played Chinese hip-hop from his phone. Min-to rapped along with the song even with his mouth half-full of beans and cheese.

Caleb greeted each of them with a fist bump.

“I want you to take me to the Yin Jiāng building,” Caleb said.

Bō’s crew exchanged glances.

“There are more drones now,” Bō said. “They patrol a twelve-block radius around the tower every night.”

Caleb shrugged. “I’m not scared. Are you?”

Lei crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Caleb. “You’re tough all of a sudden.”

Johnny chuckled. “Let’s go.”

Bō agreed to take him. They walked across a plank to another building and climbed a set of utility stairs up several stories. At the roof of the second building they came to the end of a cable that reached across to a building on the opposite block.

“What is this?” Caleb asked.

“A zipline. We set them up between blocks,” Bō said.

Min-to patted Caleb on the shoulder. “You’re up first.”

“Um, I don’t know.”

“I thought you weren’t scared,” Johnny said.

Caleb took a deep breath and moved to the edge of the roof. Four lanes of traffic passed on the street below. “I’m not—” he said, but his voice caught in his throat. He coughed. “I’m not scared.”

“Okay,” Bō said. He handed Caleb a tangled mass of straps. “Put this on.”

It was a harness like mountain climbers use. Min-to showed him how to put it on. As he did his best to adjust the bottom portion positioned awkwardly between his legs, metal glinted further down the cable. As he watched, several

“What’s that?” Caleb asked.

“Remote handles,” Bō replied. “You can call them back with an app on your phone.”

Bō brought Caleb to the cable and hooked his harness into the last handle. “Are you good?”

Caleb tugged on the connecting strap. “I think so.”

“Good.” Bō shoved him off.

Caleb screamed as the roof disappeared below him. He was weightless, several stories above the ground, then falling. But the harness caught him and he moved sideways. The terrifying sensation of falling quickly gave way to the sensation of flying. His scream became a laugh, but he was only slightly aware of the sounds he made as he took in the world below him. Under shifting colorful light of holoboards and screens, people walked—chatting—laughing—staring at phones. A grandfather struggled to catch up with a young girl skipping down the sidewalk. Two people, nestled in a nook between buildings, kissed like it was their last day to live. The elegant music from a street performer’s violin mixed with the bumping dance music blasted from a passing car. Caleb felt simultaneously like a god, a superhero, and a soaring eagle. He’d never seen the city like this before, and it was beautiful. Then it was over. Caleb jerked to a stop on the other roof.

The others zipped over in quick succession. None of them used a harness. A chill ran up Caleb’s spine as he watched Johnny go halfway across the cable hanging by only one hand.

“What did you think?” Bō asked when they were all across.

“He crapped himself,” Johnny said, making the others laugh.

Caleb smiled. “Almost, at the beginning. But it was a rush. It was amazing in a way that I can’t really describe.”

Bō nodded. “You felt simultaneously removed from the city and more a part of it than ever before. You could see the people moving through the streets like blood cells through the veins of a larger organism. You could see how each part of society relates to every other part.”

It sounded goofy, of course, but wasn’t actually goofy at all. “Yeah, exactly.”

“That’s how I see the city every day. Most people think of it simply as a place, but it’s much more than that. It is not just a construction of society, it is a part of society. It influences the way we think and the way we live.”

“I’ve never thought of it like that before,” Caleb said, “but that makes a lot of sense.”

 “It’s why we write graffiti. Some think we’re destroying property, but we are making our environment more beautiful for everyone. The city speaks—through architecture and advertisements; its only fair that we add to the conversation. Why should corporations hold the exclusive rights to fill our city with their messages, while we are chased and thrown in jail? We are the ones who live here and we cannot be intimidated. Our voices deserve to be heard.”

This was the most Bō had spoken since Caleb had met him, but it sure was some deep stuff. He had time to mull over Bō’s words as they traveled the rooftops, and—all of the sudden—the city felt different. Caleb absorbed every detail as they traveled—the snatches of conversations overheard from the street and through open windows—the way signs were distorted by dead lights or glitching holoprojectors—the ebb and flow of traffic, punctuated with the staccato blasts of car horns. He paid attention to the graffiti, too. He noticed it almost always appeared in places where the walls were discolored or damaged or where the paint was flaking off. Graffiti artists seemed to avoid clean, well-designed spaces out of respect.

Caleb was so engrossed in the texture of the city around him that he didn’t notice the drone at all until Min-to grabbed his arm and pointed. The small machine hovered about two blocks away, moving in their direction. Bō led them around to avoid it. Less than ten minutes later, they came across another.

“Do you want to turn back?” Bō asked.

“How far to the Yin Jiāng building?”

“About five blocks.”

“Let’s go for it,” Caleb said, eagerly rubbing his hands together.

Bō smiled, looking Caleb up and down. “All right, but we’ll have to be fast and quiet. If you fall behind this time, we leave you.”

“Fair enough,” Caleb said. He bounced on the balls of his feet and shook his arms at his sides to loosen up.

Each member of the crew went through their own simple warm-up routine. Johnny interlaced his fingers and pushed both of his hands out in front of him to crack all of his knuckles at once. Min-to took his Yankees cap off and put it on backward. Lei quickly rubbed his palms against the stubble on either sides of his mohawk. Bō turned his head from side to side, cracking his neck.

Before Bō or anyone else had a chance to say anything, Caleb jumped into action. “Go,” he said as he ran for the next roof.

The others caught up easily enough and Bō took the lead. He brought them through a maze of passages through, behind, and between hulking buildings that kept them mostly concealed from the sky. They jumped railings, slid under giant pipes through maintenance areas. At one point they had to freeze against the walls in a narrow passage as a drone’s light swept overhead. Once it passed they burst back into action.

Caleb kept up the entire time. He followed Bō’s trail as closely as he could, even performing vaults at a full run without falling.

“Here we are,” Bō said, but he didn’t need to.

The Yin Jiāng building towered in front of them, a silver and gold monument of corporate power. It stood across the street, on the other side of a plaza peppered with large sculptures and manicured trees.

Caleb took out his phone to activate the camera. He zoomed in on the base of the building.

“There’s a lot of people going in and out,” Caleb said.

Bō approached beside him. “The building is busy twenty-four hours a day.”

“I guess there’s no sneaking in when it’s closed then.”

“You want to get inside?”

“How else do you expect to get Lucidity out of there? Wait a second—”

“You see something?”

“Someone. Yeah, it’s him. The bastard that tried recruiting me to help Yin Jiāng find Lucidity. He called himself ‘Miranda’.” Caleb hastily put his phone away and headed for the access stairs they had passed at the back of the roof.

“What are you doing?” Bō asked.

“I’m going to follow him,” Caleb said.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chapter 27

Several days passed since Caleb’s night setting up nodes with Bō’s crew. He’d spent almost the entire time holed up in his room. There wasn’t much point in venturing outside where one of Obscurity’s drones could swoop down on him at any moment.

He tried playing Cosmosus with Jie, but couldn’t manage much enthusiasm for the game. Hours dissolved as he watched his favorite movies on repeat or lay in bed in the dark, listening to angsty music.

Eventually, Marcos and Dem showed up at his door. They dragged Caleb out to install some ninja nodes. Caleb insisted they stay away from downtown, at least, in order to avoid Yin Jiāng drones—so they headed for the warehouse district. On their way, Caleb and Marcos explained to Dem what happened when they used the VR headset to talk to Lucidity.

“I cannot believe we’re dealing with two AI’s now,” Dem said.

“Well,” Marcos replied, “once Yin Jiāng figured out how to create one, the floodgates were open. Why would they stop there?”

Dem looked at him. “You think there could be even more than two?”

Marcos shrugged.

Dem kicked a loose piece of concrete with her steel-toed boot. “This is how it happens. This is the way the world ends.”

Marcos sighed. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Six months, tops,” Dem said, “until we have robot soldiers rounding up people in the streets.”

“I always wanted to be a Cyberman,” Marcos said. He stuck his arms straight out in front of him and spoke in a robotic monotone. “You will be upgraded.”

Dem groaned. “Are we going to set up these nodes or what? I’ve got stuff to do.”

“Emceeing another DJ battle?” Marcos asked.

“Nah. Tonight I’m running an online Shadowrun game for some friends.”

Marcos’s eyes widened. “You’re kidding. I’ve always wanted to play that. Could I join?”

“Hmm. I don’t know if you’ve got the cred to run with my friends.”

Marcos deflated a little. “Oh. All right.”

Dem slugged him in the shoulder. “I’m just kidding, baka. You’re welcome to play.” She turned to Caleb. “What about you, vanilla bean? You want in?”

“No thanks.”

“Meeting with the Parkour Pals again? You’re going to make your bestie here jealous.”

Marcos opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated.

Caleb had no plans with anyone but didn’t correct her. It was better if she assumed he was busy.

Dem frowned at Marcos. “It’s okay, I’ll be here to fill the hole in your heart after C-dog falls off the side of a building.” She gave him a big, sarcastic hug.

Marcos’s face reddened but Dem didn’t seem to notice. She tousled his hair and let go.

“Wait,” Dem said, “how do we know this Bō guy even exists? Have you met him, Marcos?”

Marcos straightened his hair. “Um, no.”

“Interesting.” Dem tapped her chin. “Maybe he’s only in Caleb’s head.”

“He’s real,” Caleb said, not able to keep the edge from his voice.

“Want to invite him to join us?”

“I don’t need to. I can show you what he taught me.”

“You’re going to juggle chainsaws for us?”

Caleb looked away. “I’ll do parkour.”

Dem snorted.

“Are you serious?” Marcos asked, trying not to smile.

Caleb cleared his throat. “Absolutely.” He appraised their surroundings. “I’ll jump that railing over there.”

“My goodness,” Dem said, “he taught you to jump over railings? What’s next, descending stairs quickly?”

“Shut up and watch.” Caleb moved into position, facing the railing from a few yards away. The step vault that Bō and Min-to had taught him wouldn’t be too impressive, so he needed to jump clear over the railing. Caleb swallowed back doubt that grew in his throat. He knew he could do it; he’d watched Bō land it several times.

Caleb took a deep breath, held it for a second, then let it out in one huff as he shot into action. He jumped as high as he could—tucked his legs up—but they hit the top of the railing hard—he tilted forward—hit the concrete—rolled—and ended up on his back.

“Oh crap,” Dem said.

“Caleb!” Marcos ran over. “Are you all right?”

After seeing his friend’s concerned face, Caleb exploded into laughter.

Marcos and Dem joined him. The three laughed together until Caleb’s stomach hurt. Once they could breath again, Caleb was pulled to his feet and brushed off.

“You sure showed me,” Dem said.

Caleb nodded. “I may have been too ambitious.”

“Guys,” Marcos said, “I think we should set up a node here.” He pointed across the street to a network box on the side of a large brick building.

Most network boxes Caleb had seen were either located high up in places difficult to access, or were at least surrounded by a fence. This one sat at street level right by the sidewalk.

Caleb glanced around, saw no one. “All right. Let’s do it.”

The three of them jogged across the street.

“Never mind,” Marcos said as he reached the box. He lifted a padlock secured to its side. “Too good to be true.”

“Not so fast, kiddos. I figured this would happen.” Dem unslung the lightning-print backpack she had brought and reached inside. She let the bag fall to reveal a pair of heavy-duty bolt clippers.

“Is this a good idea?” Caleb asked.

Marcos offered only a shrug.

Dem stepped up and cut the lock. It clattered to the ground. “Oops. It was that way when I got here, honest.” She pointed a finger at Marcos and shot it like a gun, even adding a little pew noise. “You’re up.”

Marcos glanced at Caleb before retrieving the node parts from his backpack. It only took a few moments to plug everything in.

“Done,” Marcos announced, wiping his hands. He closed the box, but without the lock, the metal door didn’t stay closed.

“Someone will notice that,” Caleb said.

Dem returned the cutters to her backpack and retrieved a lock of her own, bright pink and purple. “Rule one of being a successful criminal: preparation is key. Seriously, what would you two do without me?” She fastened the new lock to the door. “Now only we have access.” She spun a little key ring around her finger.

While the nodes technically did hijack bandwidth, Marcos had assured him that the ninja versions only siphoned off the tiniest amount. But someone would have to come check the box eventually, and wouldn’t be able to access it at all now.

“Having a crisis of faith there, buddy?” Dem asked. Caleb didn’t realize his face was so transparent.

“Um, I’m not comfortable with this.”

“What did you think we came here to do?”

“We’re here to help Lucidity, not cut our way into private networks.”

“You need to understand something,” Dem said, advancing on him. “This is a war—it always has been, and odds are, it always will be. This here is just the most recent battle between those who want freedom and those who want control. If something as simple as cutting a lock hurts your feelings, you should give up now. Go home and play your video games.”

Caleb’s face turned hot. “I should give up? You’re the one that didn’t even want to help Lucidity. You’d rather delete her. You act like being here is a waste of your time. I’m here because I care. You just want another excuse to break rules and stick it to ‘the man.’ You think it makes you cool; it doesn’t. If anyone should go home, it’s you. Wait, you don’t have a real home, do you? Go back to your dirty warehouse.”

Dem looked ready to punch Caleb in the face. “Screw you.” She turned and stomped away.

Marcos looked at Caleb with sad confusion in his eyes. Before Marcos could say anything, Caleb headed in the opposite direction.

“Caleb?” Marcos said behind him.

Caleb kept walking.


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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Chapter 25

Caleb gritted his teeth as he held the sliding door open with his back and attempted to pull a folded deck chair from the balcony into the apartment. The stupid chair fought him the whole way, threatening to fly open if he didn’t maintain a vice grip on both sides.

“What are you doing?” Caleb’s mom said——suddenly in the living room——giving him a sidelong look.

Caleb froze with the chair halfway through the threshold. “Oh. Um, I’m going to hang out on the roof.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Thought a chair would be good,” he continued. “These are comfortable.” He grunted and adjusted his hands to maintain his hold on it.

An agonizing moment passed as she continued to stare. His mind raced to create excuses to any questions she might have. A drop of sweat rolled down the bridge of his nose.

His mom shrugged. “Just remember to bring it back down when you’re done.”

“Of course. Not a problem.”

She continued on her way into the kitchen.

Caleb and the chair fell into the living room together. He lay there for a time——the unfolded chair perched over him like a tent——until his frustration and embarrassment dissipated. But getting the awkwardly-shaped thing through the front door of the apartment also proved a giant pain. After that he had to carry it down the hall, into the elevator, and out onto the roof. It took three times longer than he ever imagined it could.

When he finally reached his destination and set the chair in front of Marcos’ new ninja node, he collapsed into it with a sigh. A pleasant wind helped him cool off as he watched the clouds drift quickly overhead.

He should have brought something to drink. And snacks. He wasn’t about to go all the way back down after that, though. He’d have to do without.

Caleb eventually got up, fished the USB cable from his pocket, and went to the node to connect his phone. The cable didn’t reach so he pulled the chair closer. He cringed as the metal legs scraped across the concrete.

His phone showed a spinning wheel as it connected. The wheel quickly disappeared and dark smoke roiled across the screen. Caleb reclined in the deck chair and brought up the phone’s keyboard.

Hello.

No immediate response appeared. It occurred to Caleb that Marcos’ new node might actually be a dud. Then something came through the smoke.

Caleb?

Yes. You remember me. How are you?

The strings tremble out of my reach.

You can take data in but can’t send anything out. If Yin Jiāng tracks you back here, we’d be in big trouble. Soon though, we’ll make a new node and transfer you, then you can connect like normal.

Would having full internet access even matter to her? It must. His mother had grounded him for a whole summer once. The only time she let him out of the house was to help her go shopping or to bring out the garbage. He couldn’t even have any friends over. Caleb’s only socialization came through technology, and it mostly consisted of Marcos telling him stories of the cool things he’d been up to. By the end of the summer Caleb had nearly lost it.

Hopefully Lucidity didn’t respond to isolation the same way. Could an AI go crazy? That was a scary thought.

Lucidity hadn’t responded. Caleb typed something else into his phone.

I’m sorry. We will get you transferred as soon as possible.

Thank you, Caleb.

That was oddly straightforward. Most of Lucidity’s messages sounded like riddles or excerpts of poetry. Sometimes he couldn’t even tell if she completely understood him. She obviously realized he was trying to help her now, though, and that made him smile. He typed again, feeling kind of silly.

Do you want to talk about anything?

“Are you safe?” said the voice of a young girl through his phone’s speaker.

Caleb dropped his phone. He scrambled to retrieve it.

“Hello?” Caleb asked. “Who was that?”

“It is I, Lucidity.”

Caleb stared at the phone, slack-jawed. She’d taken it literally when he asked if she wanted to talk.

“You can speak?”

“I can. Are you safe?”

The voice didn’t sound electronic at all. If he didn’t know better, Caleb could’ve sworn he was having conversation with a real little girl on the other line. But why did she sound so young? Well, she was young—— technically less than a year old——but couldn’t she have synthesized any voice she wanted? He had to admit though, the voice fit her well.

“Safe?” Caleb asked. “Yeah, of course. Why?”

“You help me. But the shadow grows angry. His tentacles are long.”

“You mean Obscurity, or whatever his name is? Yeah, that guy is a pain. Seems like he’s everywhere.”

Lucidity fell silent. Even the smoke disappeared from his phone.

“Lucidity? Are you still there?”

Nothing.

Caleb tried typing into his phone.

Lucidity? What happened?

An alert appeared on the screen.

- CONNECTION ENDED -

“Caleb!” Marcos called from behind him, standing at the elevator doors. Caleb waved him over.

“Talking to Lucidity?” Marcos asked when he got closer. “I was just coming up to check on her.”

“Yeah, but the connection died. Can you check it?”

“Sure.” He set his backpack down next to Caleb’s chair and moved to the node. “Looks like it’s still plugged in.”

Caleb rolled his eyes. “Yes, it’s plugged in.”

“Let me see your phone.”

Caleb handed it to him.

“Hmm,” Marcos said, flicking through the menus. “There’s no error. The connection was shut off on her side.”

“She did it on purpose? Why?”

“Did you to piss her off?”

“No. I mean, I don’t think so. She just warned me about that Yin Jiāng hacker.”

“Speaking of that jerk, did you ever get your phone working again?”

Caleb shook his head. “I used my mom’s phone to call the carrier like you said, but they weren’t very helpful. Everything’s going wrong for me lately.”

“What about Leana? You saw her earlier today, right?”

Caleb couldn’t hide the grin that came to his face. He shrugged. “Okay, maybe not everything is terrible.” Just hearing her name made him happy. Not very long ago, it would have had the opposite effect.

“Ooh,” Marcos said, rubbing his hands together. “Just remembered, I’ve got something to show you.” He went to his backpack and reached inside.

“Is this really the time? We need to figure out what happened with Lucidity.”

“This could help, actually.” Marcos pulled out a black device that looked like a big pair of sunglasses.

“Is that a VR headset?” Caleb asked. They were popular several years ago, but Caleb hadn’t seen one in a while.

“Yup. Almost forgot I had this baby. Found it in the back of my closet.”

“How is that going to help us?”

“Well, I figured it might be a better way to interact with Lucidity than just plugging my phone in and typing. We could interact in 3D. Maybe to her it would feel like I was there with her. Instead of me now, you can try it.”

Caleb wasn’t completely convinced, but Marcos’ thoughtfulness impressed him.

“Might as well try,” Caleb said.

“Sweet. Put this on.” He handed Caleb the headset and pulled a 3D camera from his backpack to set up on the floor.

Caleb donned the inactive headset and reached to tighten the straps on the back of his head.

“Hold your hands out,” Marcos told him.

Caleb felt Marcos put two haptic gloves over his fingers. Caleb had used them a few times in the past and found them a little creepy. They would detect his hand movements and give feedback for anything he touched in the simulation.

“All right,” Marcos said, “everything is set up. You ready?”

“Sure. Just stop me before I walk off the roof.”

“Don’t worry, I got you. You’re connected now. Use the button on the right side of the headset to turn it on.”

Caleb pushed the button and nothing seemed to change. Everything still looked black.

“Marcos, I think this headset is busted.”

“What do you mean? It’s live.”

“I don’t see anything.” Just after Caleb said it though, the blackness moved. It shifted in front of him, slightly illuminated by something. He realized that smoke surrounded him, smoke so dark that he could barely tell it was there at all. He instinctively raised his hands in front of his face. The limbs he saw were not his own. They belonged to a generic avatar, gray and angular. The hands followed his own movements but with just enough lag to feel odd.

Something glowing moved nearby, but he couldn’t make out its shape in the haze.

“Hello?” Caleb asked as stepped forward.

A person stood in front of him, albeit a small one. She was a young girl, wearing such a dark black dress that it seemed to bleed into the surrounding smoke. But her skin glowed soft white. Long, dark, unruly hair covered half of her face. Large eyes peered through at him, hesitant, fearful.

“Lucidity?”

She nodded slowly.

Caleb stepped closer and offered his hand. “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

She reached out to take it. He could feel her thin fingers through the haptic gloves.

“Don’t let him get me,” Lucidity said weakly.

“Who? Obscurity? Why are you so afraid of him?”

“He’s the same.”

“The same as you? You mean he’s an AI?”

She nodded. “But he’s bigger. He’s stronger.” Tears welled in Lucidity’s eyes. “Don’t let him get me, Caleb. Please.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Chapter 24

The door towered, solid and imposing. On it hung a sign which said “Li” with decorative vines painted along the edges.

Caleb shifted his weight from one foot to the other. What if she left for work already? If he knocked, her mother might answer. He hadn’t seen Mrs. Li since the break up. It would be awkward.

Caleb wiped his sweaty palms on his pants. He raised a hand to knock on the door. It opened before he had the chance.

Leana looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Caleb?”

“I brought you these.” He held up flowers.

Her face flushed. “I have to go to work.”

“I know. I, um- Can I walk you there?”

Leana smiled. “Sure.” She took the flowers and smelled them. “Let me put these inside.” She disappeared back through the doorway.

After she returned they headed down the sidewalk. Caleb opened his mouth to speak more than once but kept changing his mind and diverting his gaze. Why was he so nervous? Earlier he couldn’t wait to see her. Now he could hardly talk.

“I knew something was up when you texted me to ask when I worked,” she finally said. “You could have just asked to meet.”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

“If I left earlier, though, you would have missed me.”

“I’d try again tomorrow.”

She smiled at him. “There are times when I’m not at work, you know, or on my way there.”

“I figured you might be nervous about starting your new job. Having someone to chat with on the way could be nice.”

“You’re right. Thank you.” Leana looked into his eyes.

“Not a problem, buddy.” He gave her a nudge on the shoulder with his fist and immediately regretted it.

Leana bit the inside of her cheek and looked at the sidewalk.

“Sorry,” Caleb said almost inaudibly.

Two blocks passed.

The emotion trapped in Caleb’s chest soon pushed itself out.

“I messed up,” he said. “I messed up big. I lied to you. I had no good reason to but I just let it happen.”

Leana stood straighter and pushed her hair out of her face. “I don’t want to talk about it. I made that clear the other day.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it, either. But we need to.”

Leana stopped to face him. “No. What happened is what happened. We can’t change it now. Let’s just move on.”

“It’s true that we can’t change what happened—I wish I could—but that doesn’t mean it’s over. I should have told you that the head of the honors club didn’t like you and talked crap about you behind your back, but you wanted to join so badly. I couldn’t ruin that. You deserved to know, though. I definitely messed up, but at the same time, it wasn’t the end of the world. Even though you had a right to be upset, I feel like you blew things out of proportion, and I’m still a little mad about that.”

Leana sighed and walked away. Caleb hurried after her.

“I’m not trying to throw blame, I just want to be honest.”

Leana picked at her nail polish and didn’t say anything for a moment. Then she threw her hands down at her sides.

“It wasn’t the end of the world, but joining that club meant a lot to me. You knew that. It took a year to get my grades up high enough to join. Then I had to befriend the members so they could vote me in. If I knew the leader had some dumb grudge against me, I could have gone about things differently. Instead you hid that information from me and acted all supportive.”

Caleb took her hand to stop her.

She glared at him. “What?”

“I’m sorry.”

Leana’s face softened. Caleb realized he still held her hand and let go. People passed as they stood in silence.

“Caleb, I’m sorry, too. All of my anger over not being voted into the club got directed at you, which wasn’t fair. I shouldn’t have lost my head like that.”

“I understand why you did,” Caleb said. As an afterthought, he pulled out his phone to check the time. “Hey, we should keep going or you’ll be late.”

“Right. Thanks.”

The subway entrance was only a block away. When they got there, Caleb stayed at the top of the stairs as Leana descended. Halfway down, she realized it and turned around.

“Caleb?”

“Hey, if you want, we can split here.”

“What? Who else am I going to talk to on the train—Miss Cabbages?”

Caleb couldn’t help but grin. Miss Cabbages was the nickname they made up for some old lady who they saw on the subway almost every time they rode it. She always wore a dark green coat and smelled like boiled cabbages.

“You’re right,” Caleb said. “That would be too cruel.”

He followed her down the stairs, and they came to the turnstiles which only allowed people with prepaid subway cards through. Leana swiped hers then pushed through the rotating bars. Caleb swiped his own card. He moved to follow, but the turnstile didn’t budge—it shoved painfully into his stomach and knocked the air out of him.

“What the hell?”

“Are you okay?” Leana asked.

“Yeah. This thing is busted.” Caleb ran his subway card through again, but the turnstile remained locked in place. The screen beside the card reader flashed the message ZERO BALANCE in red letters.

“No way,” Caleb said to himself. When he used the same card to pay for his trip over here it still had over ten dollars left on it. Now, like his phone and debit card, it was dead. Caleb closed his fist around the card, crumpling it into a ball.

“Don’t worry,” Leana said, “you can use mine.” She leaned over to hand him her own card.

He took it, did his best to smile, and swiped. The turnstile let him in. After stepping through, Caleb took a deep breath. This was becoming a serious problem. What else could Obscurity do? Hopefully the jerk would realize he made his point and leave Caleb alone. Caleb didn’t want to imagine the alternative. 

“I hear the train,” Leana said. “Hurry!”

Caleb and Leana rushed down to the platform and made it through the doors just before they closed. The subway car rumbled into motion.

Caleb couldn’t even get another subway card now because his debit card had also been disabled. He might have to bike from now on. That would take him at least twice as long to get anywhere.

“Caleb, can you hear me?” From Leana’s tone, Caleb could tell she’d been trying to get his attention.

“Huh? Sorry.” She didn’t appear angry, instead she was smiling and holding back a giggle.

“Look who it is.” She nodded down the subway car where a familiar figure in a long green coat sat, reading a book.

“Miss Cabbages.”

“I wonder what she’s reading,” Leana said, leaning in to whisper. “A Thousand Ways to Cook Cabbages?”

“I don’t care what she’s reading, I’m just glad she’s doing it down there so we don’t have to smell her.”

A laugh burst out of Leana so loud that it surprised even her. A couple of people looked over but Miss Cabbage remained too interested in her book to notice.

“Caleb! That’s so mean.”

“But it’s true.” Of course Caleb didn’t mean it. He just knew saying it would make Leana laugh and couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Leana laughed again but kept it mostly under control. She snorted, though. Her hand landed on his.

They enjoyed their ride then Caleb walked her the rest of the way to the mall. The day seemed so nice that Caleb almost forgot about the corporate hacker working to systematically derail his life. Almost.