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.

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