Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Chapter 34

Claire, the Yin Jiāng tour guide, brought Caleb, Leana, and Marcos to the tower’s fifth floor. She led them to a small room where lines of chairs faced a wallscreen. “Sit wherever you like. We have a short video for you to watch before the start of our tour.”

Caleb felt antsy. They were still far from where they needed to go—Experimental Lab 122 on the 61st floor, where Lucidity and Obscurity’s servers were located. But they didn’t have any choice right now but to play along. He sat beside Leana.

The lights dimmed. The screen lit up to show a well-dressed man on a bench with the Yin Jiāng tower standing behind him against a clear blue sky. “Welcome to Yin Jiāng, where the dreams of tomorrow are the work of today.” The man smiled with perfectly straight teeth. He explained that Yin Jiāng’s “mission statement” was to “make the world a better place through the development and effective use of innovative technologies.” He rambled on with more strings of buzzwords that didn’t make much sense.

The man got up and strolled past a series of large sculptures fashioned from twisted metal as he brought his spiel to a close. “Although Yin Jiāng is a for-profit company, making money is far from our main goal. We work to promote studies in technology and business for young people such as yourselves. Whether you end up working with us one day or not, we are here to help you on your journey. Thank you for coming.”

The camera lifted away into the sky as an up-beat piano melody started, accompanied by airy female vocals. “Clouds can’t contain you if you don’t allow them to. Be your best you and your dreams will come true.”

A chill ran up Caleb’s spine as the song continued. It eventually faded out along with the video, and Claire turned on the lights. Caleb rubbed his arms. The video had left his skin feeling slimy. If he didn’t already know Yin Jiāng for what it was, he might have actually been inspired by what he’d seen. And to make a video like this, they must host students here often.

“All right,” Claire said. “Ready for the tour?” She brought them out of the viewing room, down a few hallways, and through a door labeled Room C14. Dozens and dozens of occupied desks filled the wide room, arranged together in groups of five or six. “This is one of our many project rooms. The software developers here are working on an adaptive regulation system for the city’s atmospheric filters. When they’re finished, over a thousand filters will be able to run with almost no human monitoring at all.”

“Fascinating,” Leana said, as if she actually meant it. Caleb never knew she was such a good actor. He felt thankful to have some pressure taken off of him and Marcos, but he couldn’t help but be a little creeped out by it.

Claire continued explaining details of the filter project, which Caleb tuned out. He was busy looking for an escape route. The sooner they could lose their babysitter, the sooner they could make their way up to the experimental lab and find Lucidity.

Caleb leaned over to Marcos. “Look for a place to sneak off.”

Marcos nodded and began humming a tune as he glanced around. After a second Caleb realized the melody was from the inspirational song in the video.

“Gross,” Caleb said. “Stop that.”

“It’s a catchy song.”

Claire led them away from the busy center of the project room, down a long wall lined with doors.

“Look.” Caleb motioned to the doors. He moved to one and tried the doorknob. “It’s locked.”
Marcos tried the next. It didn’t budge either.

Caleb pulled on the third door and it actually opened. A man inside, sitting behind a wide glass desk, jumped, and nearly choked on the coffee he was drinking. “Sorry,” Caleb said. He gave a little wave, and quickly closed the door.

Marcos chuckled.

Caleb shook his head. “Personal offices, not exits. Let’s keep going.” They hurried to catch up to Claire and Leana.

Claire brought them out of the project room and toward what she called the “wellness area.” There were five wallscreens, each with its own leather couch. Further down was an actual gym, and past that, a cafeteria. Everything appeared perfectly clean and polished. The air smelled like fresh mint.

“Straight down this hallway here are the restrooms,” Claire said. “Would anyone like to take a break?

There are also vending machines with complementary snacks. Choose whatever you like, but please only take one each.”

Leana began to shake her head, but Caleb made eye contact with her and nodded slowly until her head moved to mimic his. “Sure,” she said.

Of course, since there were free snacks involved, Marcos didn’t need convincing.

“All right,” Claire said. “I’ll be here when you’re ready to continue.” She adopted a detached stare as her attention turned to her augmented reality glasses.

Caleb breathed a sigh of relief when the hallway brought them around a corner and out of Claire’s sight.

“How are we going to get away from this lady?” Marcos asked.

Leana pointed straight ahead. The hallway continued past the bathrooms and vending machines.

“There’s your answer,” she said.

They speed-walked quietly down the hall, but Marcos stopped at the vending machines.

“Come on,” Caleb said.

“They have SunChips.” Marcos refused to continue until he got his bag of chips. 

Past the vending machines, the hall brought them to an intersection.

“Which way?” Leana asked.

“Left,” Caleb answered. “I think the elevators were in that direction.”

At the next intersection they went straight. There were a few more branches afterward, but no elevators, and Caleb started to doubt his sense of direction. They cut a winding path through the halls, Marcos chomping on his chips as the panic inside Caleb grew. At one especially wide intersection they turned right and ran straight into Claire.

“There you are! I’ve been looking all over.”

Leana chuckled. “Sorry! We got so lost.”

Claire smiled. “Oh, don’t worry. This place is like a seventy-story labyrinth. Without these—” she pointed to her AR glasses, “I’d get lost just as easily.”

Claire and Leana shared a friendly chuckle as Caleb massaged his temples. Claire then clapped her hands together cheerfully. “Let’s continue the tour. We have only a few stops left.”

“Where are we going next?” Marcos mumbled, mouth full of SunChips.

“To the seventh floor, one of our hardware development labs.”

Marcos swallowed. “Could you bring us to the experimental labs instead?”

Claire’s face turned a little pale. “Oh no. That’s not on our scheduled—”

“It would mean a lot,” Leana added. “Marco— Marcus here dreams of leading an experimental research lab himself one day. He’s obsessed with bleeding edge tech. Everything we’ve seen is fantastic, of course, but I promised him we’d be able to see your Research and Development section.”

Claire shook her head and opened her mouth to speak.

Caleb cut in. “We’ve heard Yin Jiāng is the leader in rapid prototype development,” he said. “Nobody else even comes close.”

“Well, that’s true, of course,” Claire said. She chewed her lip, then spoke again. “Give me a moment.” Her eyes defocused and her fingers twitched. She returned to the real world after a moment, blinking. “All right. We can go, but we need to be quick, and you all have to stay close. No getting lost up there.”

“Of course,” Leana said with a polite smile.

“Follow me to the elevators,” Claire told them.

They did, and shared a series of silent air-high-fives behind her back.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Chapter 33

Caleb had to admit, as a giant obelisk of gold and silver shining in the daylight, Yin Jiāng Tower didn’t look like the headquarters of an evil corporation. It actually stood out among the other buildings in the city because of its sleek design and the absence of any glowing imagery on it. Most corporate buildings at least had the logo or the name of the company on them, whether in the form of a screen or a holographic projection. The only thing on the tower that could be construed as anything similar to a logo was the gold winding up it that gave the vague impression of a long dragon. Actually, Caleb thought, it could be a serpent, which would be much more appropriate.

The tower loomed so high above him as he followed Leana and Marcos forward that he could no longer look up at it. His attention moved to the base of the building, where people in business suits flowed in and out. Caleb could feel the sweat on his palms. As the only non-suited, non-adults around, they couldn’t help but stick out. More than a few people glanced at them as they passed. Caleb wiped his hands on his jeans.

Marcos walked stiffly, but Leana looked calm and natural. When they reached the revolving doors, Caleb tried to follow the other two in, but stopped when he realized there wasn’t enough room for all of them. He chided himself silently as he took the next opening by himself. Any stupid mistakes would only draw more attention to them.

The wide lobby was several stories tall. White veins traced through the polished black marble on the floors and walls. Leana headed for the security desk, which was also made of marble.

The receptionist regarded them with a curious gaze. “Can I help you?”

“Yes. I’m here for a tour. My name is Leana Li.”

Past the desk stood a wide cylindrical fish tank that reached up to the ceiling high above their heads. Colorful tropical fish circled lazily around an artificial choral reef.

“One moment.” The receptionist checked his computer, then made a quick, hushed phone call. After hanging up, he returned his attention to Leana. “Your guide will be here shortly. You can sit over there while you wait.” He motioned to a row of chairs behind them.

Leana and Marcos sat, but Caleb couldn’t. He rubbed his hands together and restrained an urge to pace back and forth.

Leana sighed. “I’m glad that worked.”

Caleb looked around to make sure no one was within earshot, then whisper-shouted at her. “You didn’t know it would?”

“Well, not completely. I thought we had a good shot, though. Don’t worry. We’re in.”

Caleb forced himself to sit but had a death grip on the two armrests. Leana reached over to scratch his back. “We’re okay,” she whispered, and Caleb’s shoulders loosened a little.

A short woman with immaculately styled wavy hair and designer glasses approached them. “Leana?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Welcome to Yin Jiāng. My name is Claire. I’m with HR, and I’ll be showing you around today. Are these two gentlemen with you?”

“Yes. They’re friends also interested in business studies.”

“Oh.” Claire’s eyes lost focus and her fingers began to twitch slightly. Caleb first feared she might be having a siezure, but quickly realized that her glasses must have augmented reality lenses in them. Were her rings gesture sensors? They looked like regular gold and silver. He couldn’t imagine how expensive tech like that must be.

Claire’s eyes snapped back to Leana. “I wasn’t aware you were bringing guests with you. That’s fine, though. I’ll need each of you to sign a non-disclosure agreement before we begin. It just means you won’t share anything you may see or hear over the course of your visit. It’s standard procedure.”

Claire brought them back to the security desk where they were given tablets with the NDA to sign. Caleb tried reading it, but couldn’t understand the legalese, and gave up after the first paragraph. He didn’t have much choice but to sign it anyway. The document couldn’t be legally binding if he didn’t use his real name, though. So he started with an T and scribbled the rest. He could only hope Marcos was clever enough to do the same. If only they’d known about this, they could have come up with aliases beforehand. Leana had to sign her real name, of course, since she’d had to give it to them to request a tour. Caleb didn’t like that at all. He’d tried to convince her not to come, but she insisted. Now he was actually grateful she was here, despite feeling guilty about it.

“All right,” Claire said. “Now we’ll need to pass through security.” She led them from the desk to a security checkpoint. Visitors had to take everything out of their pockets to be passed under an x-ray machine. After, Caleb moved through a metal detector. He wondered if the scanners did more than just detect metal. With a place like this, he wouldn’t be surprised if they also checked everyone for bugs. Caleb, Marcos, and Leana passed through security easily enough, though. Shi Fen had warned them, so they knew not to try and sneak anything in.

“For security purposes, we’re going to have to hold onto your cell phones,” Claire said. “We’ll label each one with your name so you can pick it up when you leave.” Crap. Panic bloomed in Caleb’s chest. The plan was already falling apart. Shi Fen had told him nothing about this.

Leana handed her phone over, then Claire came to Caleb with her hand out. He gave it to her, trying not to look upset about it.

“Can I have your name?” Claire asked.

Caleb’s mind raced to find a name that started with T. It felt like it took an eternity, with Claire standing there staring at him before his mind grasped onto something. “Timothy. Timothy Tillerson.”

“Thank you, Timothy.” Claire moved over to Marcos. He was staring at Caleb with a look of utter bewilderment before his face lit up with understanding.

Marcos handed over his phone and spoke quickly. “My name is M-Marc- Marcus Tillerson.”

Caleb squeezed his own thigh hard with one hand to keep himself from shouting.

“Oh,” Claire said, obviously a bit confused, but staying polite. She looked at Caleb. He gave her a strained smile. “Are you brothers?” she asked.

“Yes,” Marcos said.

Caleb bit his tongue so hard he thought it might bleed.

“Really? You look about the same age. Are you… twins?”

Marcos opened his mouth, but Caleb jumped in before he made things even worse. “No. We were adopted.”

Claire nodded slowly. “All right. Well, we’re happy to have you here.” She gave their phones and names to the security guard. “Please follow me.” They moved past the security station toward the elevators.

Caleb moved up beside Marcos. “What the hell was that?” he whispered. “You couldn’t come up with a different last name?”

Marcos gave a weak shrug.

“You weren’t going to say we were twins were you?”

“We could be twins…”

“We look nothing alike,” Caleb said, raising his voice.

Leana nudged Caleb and shushed the both of them. Claire had brought them to one of the elevator doors. They waited in awkward silence until the door opened. Then they entered. They waited again, in an even longer awkward silence as a simple muzak melody played and they were lifted up into the belly of the beast.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Chapter 32

Caleb saw Leana waiting after he turned the corner. She did not look happy. He jumped his bike up onto the sidewalk then brought it to a stop beside her.

“You ask me for a date by leaving a letter at my door, give me the address of a random street corner, refuse to respond to my text messages and phone calls, then show up late?”

“Sorry,” Caleb said while trying to catch his breath. “Phone isn’t working. Bad traffic. Almost got hit by a car.”

The stern expression on Leana’s face immediately melted. “Oh gosh, are you all right?”

“Yeah. Have you been waiting long?”

“Um, maybe ten minutes?”

“Damn. I’m sorry.” Caleb locked his bike onto a signpost.

“It’s all right. Your metro card still isn’t working? And your phone on top of that? What’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Caleb said. “Just bad luck lately. Ready to eat?”

“I’m famished.”

The restaurant was only a block away. The colorful sign on the front identified it as Casa de Sandoval.

“Wow,” Leana said. “How have I never heard of this place?”

“It’s brand new. Opened last week.”

“I hope it’s good,” Leana said, trying to hide her skepticism. Caleb wasn’t surprised. As Mexican food was her favorite, she could be very picky.

They entered. Caleb requested an outside table from the hostess and they were quickly seated on a second floor balcony with a great view. The setting sun painted the clouds in swaths of reds, pinks, and oranges—all reflected in the windows of the buildings. Everything in the city cast an elongated shadow.

Leana browsed the menu. “Wow. I have no idea what to get. Everything looks so amazing.”

“Check the next page,” Caleb said.

Leana did and her eyes lit up. “They have chile relleno burritos? Oh my gosh.” She looked at Caleb.

“You knew about this?”

“I checked all the reviews I could find. Lots of people say they’re are even better here than at Filipe’s.”

“No way. Not possible.”

“You’ll have to try it and find out.” Caleb casually scratched his chin as he looked up at the sky. “You might want to take a look at the desserts,too.”

“Hmm?” Leana flipped to the back. She gasped. “Tres leches!” The people sitting around them looked at Leana, alarmed. She laughed. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m just so excited.” She leaned forward and whispered to Caleb. “Tres leches is the best dessert ever.”

“I know,” Caleb said. “It’s your favorite kind of cake.”

“Have I ever told you that?”

“No.”

“Then how could you know?”

“I asked your brother.”

“He’s in Germany.”

“Yeah, but there’s this cool thing called the internet.”

“You’re ridiculous, Caleb.”

“You’re ridiculous-ly awesome. You deserve it.”

Leana blushed and turned to hide her face as their waiter walked up. He introduced himself, asked if he could get them drinks. Leana looked too embarrassed to speak, so Caleb ordered two horchatas for them.

Once the waiter was out of sight, Leana reached up to swat Caleb on the arm. “Don’t surprise me with corny stuff like that in public,” she told him.

“Sorry,” Caleb said, smiling.

“You don’t look sorry.”

“Probably because I’m not.”

“Ugh. You’re the worst.”

Caleb’s smile widened. “You’re the best.”

Leana blushed again and kicked him under the table.

“Ouch.” Caleb reached down to rub his shin.

Leana cleared her throat and straightened her posture. “So, Caleb, how are things going?”

“What do you mean?”

“How’s life? How’s your summer going?”

“Um.” Caleb’s mind raced with the recent events involving Lucidity, Yin Jiāng, and Obscurity. This was actually the first time he’d been able to stop thinking about all that crap in a long time. The flashes of memory felt like an intrusion on this perfect night, so he pushed them away. He wasn’t about to unload all of that on Leana. “Well,” he said, “I’ve made some new friends.”

“Oh really? Tell me about them.”

“I met Dem through Marcos. She runs DJ battles online. She’s really into anime and… computers.”

“Cool.”

“Bō’s another person I met recently. He’s into parkour and… art.”

“Wow. They sound like interesting people. How did you meet Bō?”

“Oh, you know, just around.” Caleb had hoped their waiter would show up again to interrupt the current conversation, but it didn’t look like he’d be that lucky. “Tell me about your new job,” Caleb said to change the topic.

“It’s going really well. Working with Meiying is nice, but it gets so busy that we don’t have have much time to talk or anything.” Leana sighed. “People make such a mess that I swear ninety-nine percent of my time is spent just refolding clothes and rearranging them. But the other people who work there are cool.” Leana thankfully stayed on the topic of her job. She told him about each of her new coworkers, then recounted a few stories about wild customers.

The waiter returned to take their orders. Leana got the chile relleno burrito, of course. Caleb decided to go with a combination plate that included a tamale, chicken quesadilla, and a beef burrito. They continued to chat until the food arrived and then they focused on eating. Once they finished the entrees, they ordered tres leches for dessert. Leana bounced in her seat as the thick slice of white cake arrived, resting in a small white puddle. The super-moist cake drenched in cold milk was topped with airy whipped cream. Caleb quickly understood why Leana loved it so much.

The waiter came to take their plates when they were finished and gave Caleb the check. After paying in cash, he stood and led Leana outside. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said as they reached the sidewalk.

Leana groaned. “I don’t know. I’m stuffed.”

“We can walk slowly. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”

“All right,” Leana said. She took Caleb’s hand. It was his turn to blush, and he hoped she didn’t notice.

Lunar Park was only a few blocks away. The small trees filling the park glowed softly from lights woven between the branches.

Leana narrowed her eyes at Caleb while grinning. “How convenient that this was so close.”

“I know, right? What a coincidence.”

They followed one of the many paths between the trees. The park seemed completely empty, except for them and the crickets chirping and the toads croaking in the grass. Caleb was completely relaxed. He felt no need to rush across the city, to track anyone down, or to research cybersecurity. This was the only place he wanted to be and the only thing he wanted to do.

They came to a circular pond in the center of the park. The wavering reflections of the tree’s lights looked almost like glowing fish swimming under the surface of the water. Caleb brought Leana to sit on a nearby bench. Before he had a chance to speak, she kissed him. He leaned into her. She squeezed his hand.

When they separated to breathe, a question burst from Caleb’s chest and out through his mouth. “Do you want to be my girlfriend? Again?”

Leana smiled at him in the dim light. “Yes, dummy.” They kissed more. After, Leanna rested her head on his shoulder. They sat that way for a while, listening to the crickets and watching the water.

Caleb’s sense of contentment shattered as a train of guilt slammed right through him. Dishonesty had destroyed their relationship last time.

Caleb took a deep breath. “I need to tell you something,” he said.

Leana lifted her head and slid back a bit. She had sensed the stress in his voice. “What is it?”

He told her everything, from the very beginning—the mysterious messages from a girl named Miranda that he’d never met—to the very end—the meeting at Dem’s warehouse where they planned their heist to destroy Obscurity and save Lucidity from the Yin Jiāng tower. “We’ve got everything pretty much figured out, he said, except for how to get in without being stopped at the front door.” After speaking, he kept his eyes to the ground. He couldn’t bare to see the look on her face, whether it was of disgust, or confusion, or anger.

“I can get you in,” she said.

Caleb looked up at her. Inexplicably, the only emotion showing on her face was determination.

“What?” Caleb asked. “How?”

“Remember that paper I wrote last year, the one that got first place in the contest?”

“Kind of…”

“The topic was Technological Tools for Open-Source Leadership. After it won that award, I got invitations from lots of companies to talk to them and take a tour of their offices. I only went to a few, but I’m pretty sure Yin Jiāng was on the list. I bet if I give them a call, they’ll invite us right in.”

“Wow.”

“There’s a catch, though,” Leana said. “I’ll have to go with you.”

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Chapter 31

Bō made a guttural growling noise when Shi Fen stepped on his foot.

Shi Fen cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he said. He tried to back away but tripped on Marcos’ foot and almost fell. Marcos steadied him.

Both Bō and Shi Fen wore virtual reality goggles as Caleb and Marcos led them down the street. The goggles weren’t active, of course, but acted as blindfolds.

Caleb had realized that if they were going to have a secret meeting to discuss their plans to take on Yin Jiāng and Obscurity, Dem’s warehouse would be the best place for it. But, of course, with Dem being Dem, she insisted that no new people be allowed in without a blindfold and without being scanned for bugs first. She’d given Caleb a wand that detected signals given off by any hidden devices. The VR goggles had been Marcos’ idea. And being blindfolded a few blocks away from her warehouse wasn’t good enough, so Caleb and Marcos had led these two halfway across the city like this. They’d taken two subway rides, then walked a dozen or so blocks, receiving plenty of odd looks from pedestrians on their way.

“I truly don’t see why this is necessary,” Shi Fen said.

“I actually agree with him,” Bō said. “For me at least, a blindfold is not necessary. We are on the same side, aren’t we?”

“Yes, but Dem is…” Caleb paused to find the right words, “very careful when it comes to security.”

“Sounds paranoid to me,” Shi Fen said. “How well do you know this person? Is she stable?”

Caleb halted Shi Fen with a hand on his chest. “Watch it. She’s a loyal friend who’s very good at what she does, which is taking on corporations like yours. That’s all you need to know.”

“Very well,” Shi Fen said.

They continued on. “We’re almost there,” Caleb said.

“Thank God,” Bō mumbled. “My eyebrow itches very badly.”

They turned into the alleyway beside Dem’s warehouse and came to the big metal security door. Caleb pressed the button on the bottom of the keypad like Dem had told him to. Almost instantly, a deep, distorted voice burst from the speaker. “They’re blindfolded?”

The first time Caleb had come here, before he knew Dem, her distorted voice definitely proved intimidating, but now that he knew her so well, hearing her voice pushed lower and projected so loudly was funny. He imagined her inside, leaning in to her microphone, making her scariest voice, like she was the Wizard of Oz or something.

“Yes,” Caleb said, pulling Bō and Shi Fen closer to the door and the CCTV camera above it. “Can’t you see?”

“How long have they been wearing them?” Scary Dem asked.

“Forever,” Shi Fen said. “Are you going to let us in, or what?”

Caleb shushed him. “Since we left. They haven’t seen anything.”

Scary Dem made a long humming thinking noise that sounded more than a bit disturbing with the voice distortion over it. “Fine,” she finally said. “Come in. But if anyone finds out where this is, I swear by the Power of Grayskull, Vanilla Ice, you’re going to be the one who pays for it.”

“I know,” Caleb said.

Then the door popped ajar. Caleb and Marcos ushered the two others in. After they entered the small entrance room, the door closed on its own behind them and its lock clunked into place.

Bō and Shi Fen reached up to remove their VR headsets, but were stopped by Scary Dem’s booming voice. “No. Keep them on until I say so.”

“You can’t be serious,” Shi Fen said.

“Dead serious. Caleb, take them into the big room.”

Caleb led them in deeper. The wallscreens on all four sides of the large central chamber showed a wireframe plan of the Yin Jiāng tower. Dem waited by the three mismatched couches in the corner with her arms crossed over her chest. She looked tougher than usual, like a fiery biker, but was still as stylish as ever. She wore a yellow leather jacket with spikes on the shoulders and sparkly red fingerless gloves. Of course, the style matched her new hair perfectly.

“You can take them off now,” Dem said as they approached.

Bō snatched off his headset and scratched above his right eye. Shi Fen removed his own and handed it to Caleb. He looked at Dem incredulously.

“What?” Dem asked.

You’re the infamous hacker known as Demon?”

“Yes. Are you the sloppy corporate stooge who got himself demoted, and then was tracked down by a bunch of teenagers?”

Shi Fen said nothing to that.

Bō stepped forward. “I am Bō.”

“Hi. I’ve heard a lot about you and the other Parkour Pals.”

Bō gave Caleb a sidelong glance. Caleb could only shrug.

Dem turned her attention to Caleb. “So what’s the plan?”

“Well, that’s what we’re here to figure out.”

“Obviously, but I assume you’ve thought about it at least a little.”

“I have. We need to get inside the building, find Obscurity’s server, delete him, then get Lucidity, and escape.”

Dem scoffed. “Wow, we’ve got a real Hannibal over here.”

Marcos laughed.

Caleb didn’t know who Hannibal was, but could tell when he was being made fun of—which was pretty much any time Dem was speaking to him. “Hey, if I knew exactly what to do, I wouldn’t need to be here. This is a team effort.”

Bō stepped in front of them all. “I would like to say something.”

“Um, all right,” Caleb said. “Go ahead.” He, Marcos, and Dem took seats on the center couch while Shi Fen sat alone on the one on the other side of the mini fridge.

“This city is a living thing,” Bō said. “The individuals inside of it are its blood. But in the center of it all, our society is its heart.”

Dem snickered. Caleb elbowed her. She elbowed him back, twice as hard, but stayed quiet.

Bō continued. “But the city is sick. The blight of greed and corruption may have started small, but over the years it has grown, and now threatens to kill this city. If this city dies, so do we. Most people won’t realize it, they’ll just continue with their lives, but they’ll be cold blood flowing through a corpse.

“I’m not satisfied with sitting back and watching this happen. It is up to us as citizens to stop this blight from spreading. If we can stop it now, we can reverse it. We can have our city back, the way it was supposed to be after the Transition. That’s what I’m fighting for, but there are few people who even realize the city is dying. Now I see that all of you realize it, too. And are willing to fight for it. Thank you. I am grateful to be part of your team.”

Caleb, Dem, and Marcos looked back and forth at each other, then at Bō.

“That is all,” Bō said.

Dem gave him slow applause.

Clap.
 

Clap.
 

Clap.

“Wow,” Dem said. “Cool story, Bō.”

Caleb stood. “Thanks, man, seriously. I’m glad you’re here.”

Bō gave Caleb a curt nod.

“Whew, how about some refreshments?” Dem asked. She hopped up and went to the mini fridge. She took out four cans of Future Cola, handed one to Marcos, one to Caleb. When she offered one to Bō, he shook his head.

“I do not drink soda,” he told her.

Dem looked at Bō like he’d turned into some oozing alien creature with two heads. She backed away from him slowly then walked past Shi Fen to return the extra can to the mini fridge. She popped open the last one in her hands and took a loud slurp from it before sitting on the couch. Shi Fen simply lifted one eyebrow at being snubbed.

“You said you would bring the blueprints,” Caleb said to Shi Fen.

“I have them.” Shi Fen took a memory stick from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and held it out to Caleb.

Dem took it out of his hand instead. “Thanks,” she said, then inserted it into a small black box hidden under the couch. She reclined on the couch, held up one hand with her fingertips all touching together, then spread them apart in the universal “open file” movement. The schematic of Yin Jiāng tower on the wallscreens was replaced by a much more detailed 3D blueprint of the building. Dem pinched two fingers together, then separated them, to zoom in. Her sparkly red fingerless gloves were apparently control gloves. They were like the haptic gloves used for VR, except they didn’t feature actual haptic feedback. “Not bad,” she said, as she explored the interior of the building.

“Hold on,” Marcos said. “Go up.”

Dem used hand movements to scroll their viewpoint upward. “The hell?” she asked as the interior details disappeared.

“I could not attain details on the top fifteen floors with my security clearance. That’s the Research and Development section.”

“But you worked there,” Caleb said.

“Yes, on only one floor. Every section is segmented, so no one except for the upper management has knowledge of everything. I can explain to you what I know of my floor, but things have probably changed since I was transferred. Obscurity has taken it upon himself to rearrange many things since he was given administrative authority.”

“You’re information is the best we’re going to get,” Caleb said. “Tell us everything you know.”

“Very well,” Shi Fen said. Then he proceeded to tell them how to delete one super-intelligent AI, and how to save another.

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.