by Jennifer Jeanne McArdle
I woke up with a massive headache and the calcified itch of dried blood inside my nostrils and on my upper-lip – I had definitely woken up in similar states before. Donna, my secretary, not always a swift thinker, but always tolerant and kind, kept medical supplies in her desk and had helped me clean myself up on more than one occasion when I spent the night doing something stupid and ended up at my office instead of my apartment.
Today, though, I’d woken up with the first sunlight, so Donna wouldn’t be here for a few hours. She had a husband who conducted subway crawlers and a few kids to send off to learning hubs, which meant that I often gave her her paycheck even when I didn’t get paid because, unlike me most of the time, she had things to live for.
The thought of having something to live for triggered a stabbing pain in my forehead because I remembered Yuri and her exile.
I jumped from my desk. Where had the spiders gone? Perhaps I had imagined the nightmare of them attacking me. Where were the big spiders I had collected from the Webs? I closed my eyes tightly trying to think through my pain and then reopened my eyes. The colors around me looked different, everything having gone gray and blurry except for some strange purple, violet? lines laced over the world like thin strands of a broken spider web. The noise of morning construction and vehicles outside seemed to grow further away, and instead my ears filled with sharp chittering. I touched the wall, feeling tiny vibrations.
If I had stupidly taken some new drug last night to dull my emotions, this was not an effect I was hoping would continue. My breath was getting shallower, my throat tightening, I started rubbing my Adam’s apple. Eyes squeezed shut again. Then open.
Vision was normal. Hearing, adequate. Fingers, tingling, but the extra sensation was gone.
Time for coffee. I stretched and walked over to the side of the room where I kept my coffee maker, switching my news hologram on.
“Authorities Advise Plateau citizens to avoid Ninth through Twelfth avenue this morning due to some planned dangerous dissent.”
I groaned. Likely people were protesting something, which in a normal place would be allowed or at least tolerated. But here, any form of protest, no matter how peaceful, was heavily policed and derided by the media. Given the fact the authorities already didn’t like me, I guessed the smart thing to do would be to mind my own business and stay away from those streets. But it piqued my interest. Donna had said something weird yesterday about how her kids were talking about the Silk Shadow, which was strange – kids generally don’t talk about criminals, even famously showy ones –
And I needed to get out of this damned office with its spider nightmares.
When I first approached the marchers, hat tipped low on my head and sunglasses on (both to hide some of my face and because my eyes felt extra sensitive to sunlight) I couldn’t understand what they were chanting. Some of them were in screaming matches with the police. Some had handmade signs while others were holding their Gauntlets high above their heads, projecting holographic messages and photos.
I had to squint to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Donna kept telling me I needed a new prescription, and she was probably right. The face they were projecting… was Yuri’s?
I had to grip a pole jutting out from the side of the building I was standing near. I guess I felt guilty. For a brief moment, my vision blurred, thousands of lines trailing from the bodies that were in front me wiggled and glittered. The feeling of slime on my fingertips knocked me out of my fugue and caused my vision to return to normal.
I removed my hand from the pole. These people were protesting Yuri’s capture and sentence. I suppose if I wasn’t so completely self-absorbed and wallowing in my own self-pity, I would have noticed this before. The Silk Shadow lit a little fire under people of the Plateau and caused them to get off their asses and demand her freedom.
It won’t change a thing, part of me snarks. Just get a bunch of assholes arrested. Or killed. Or disfigured. The pigs loved to do that – damage eyes purposely with “non-lethal” bullets, give someone asthma, or scar some pretty-young-thing’s face with acid.
I moved backwards, slinking into the shadows. Of course you leave the young people to get scarred, don’t you? Let them save your girlfriend while you give up –
A loud groan rusted metal makes when something relatively heavy lands on it prompted me to look over to my left.
A large spider, hairy, bigger than my palm, stared at me from the metal landing of a fire escape. This was not a normal spider; it was likely one of the spiders I had taken from the Webs. My head was pounding again, the sounds of people shouting on the streets scraping my eardrums like sharp knives. The spider raised one of its front legs, pointing right to my face and then slowly put it down. It turned and scuttled forward a few steps and turned back to look at me.
“What the Hell?” I asked no one in particular. The spider stamped its front legs and twitched.
I wondered again if I had taken some hard drugs last night (since when did spiders behave like dogs in children’s media?). I followed it deeper into the alleyway, through a maze of tiny spaces that are almost too narrow for me. My vision kept switching between normal and the blurred stringy lights. It’s darker and darker, the lights rolling into themselves like balls of yarn for kittens.
We arrived, eventually, at a familiar marble wall – the wall itself is one I’d never seen before, but the distinct dark green, almost black marble was found in only one building in the Plateau, the Librarians’ Guild. The spider must have led me to the back of the building, which I’d never seen before. There was only a narrow pathway between the Guild and the building behind it, a central bank, and guards tended to walk around the perimeter of this cluster of buildings, so it wasn’t easy to go directly to the front of the Guild and just walk around the side. The spider knew what it was doing, taking me on a route that avoided guards. And now the little guy sat in front of a nondescript, small, and slightly ajar door that must be used by the cleaning staff.
Normally, I wished I was a bigger guy, but now my thin body was perfect for squeezing through the opening without touching either the doorway or the door itself. What about the repercussions of stupidly entering a secure building without permission from the authorities? On the other hand, what did I have to lose at this point?
I heard the tiny pad-pad of the spider’s feet. The hallway was pitch-black except for small cones of yellow light from the series of bulbs in the ceilings. I could only see immediately in front of my nose and feet, but I followed the sound of the spider’s steps. My vision flickered between normal and the other vision. In the second vision, the spider was a bright violet light that I saw ahead of me for several minutes until something hard slammed into my abdomen.
“Oof,” I breathed out, but before I could move, the walls around me lit up with the outlines of two-dimensional, crude drawings of people in togas moving, dancing, eating, and performing tasks like washing clothes, cooking, serving drinks, lighting candles, or worshiping at temples. The outlines of their bodies sparkled brightly as the drawings pulled themselves free of the walls and the two-dimensional bodies plumped and twisted until they were three-dimensional gold figures. With the extra light, I could see now that I had hit a hard marble table. The gold figures gathered around the table and observed me with star-shaped eyes sitting above two nostrils and lip-less mouths. Their skin had an iridescence that made me think they might be covered in a light coat of slick oil.
The spider jumped on the table and turned to face me, sitting in front of the tallest gold figure.
“Oh, damnit,” I mumbled to myself, realizing that the spider had led me right to the Webs Librarians, who would likely call the Safety Bureau on me. As much as I was currently wallowing in a depressive cycle, I definitely preferred being depressed outside of a jail cell, so I turned to run.
“Wait!” a robotic voice echoed. “We want to speak with you.”
I froze. On second thought, running might make me look guiltier and I wasn’t sure I could find an exit. I turned back. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.” I couldn’t think of an excuse.
“Perhaps, but you meant to come here. You followed our spider of your own free will. We wanted you to disturb us, which is why we sent our spider – one of the spiders you removed from the Webs – to get you.”
“So, what do you want – respectfully,” I quickly added. It was one thing to mess with the Safety Bureau; I knew how far I could push them and what their tricks were, but Librarians were still a mystery to me.
“We know you dislike the great families and the Plateau government. We’re going to give you a chance to ruin them and help ourselves in the process.”
That was not the response I had been expecting. As far as I understood, the Librarians were the government, even more so than Safety Officers, many of which were naive yokels who just wanted a good job.
“Why do you want to ruin the great families?” I asked.
“How much do you know about the history of the Plateau, Tobias?” Of course the Librarians would know my real name, but I felt dizzy, hearing it spoken aloud.
“The great families ancestors’ founded this place with cutting edge bio-cyber technology and then agreed to welcome migrants here to populate the city. They advertised the Plateau as a new, independent nation, a Utopia that utilized the newest in cyber technology but was eco-friendly and sustainable. But whatever, whether it was false advertising from the beginning or as the generations passed, corruption grew. Now people say the Plateau is just a gold painted junk heap, where the great houses sit on the backs of the poor, above the smog where the air is –”
“You may stop speaking now. Before the great families’ ancestors arrived on the Plateau, it was inhabited. There was a small group of researchers who had been living here for years, studying a sub-species of highly advanced gibbons. These gibbons were capable of rudimentary tool use and nonverbal communication through sign language. The researchers had spent years getting to know these animals and learning to communicate across species. But then the researchers ran out of funding. They were approached by a cyber-software company representative who said they would buy the Plateau and allow us to continue our research to protect it from other developers, if they were allowed to experiment with some of the apes.”
“Let me guess – people willing to experiment on intelligent apes didn’t keep their word?”
“We sold our subjects as though they were soulless objects.” The tallest Librarian picked up the large spider and pulled some of its skin back, revealing a robotic body. “Do you think a computer by itself could create such an advanced robot? No. Each one of these spiders has the ancient brain of one of those gibbons as part of its circuitry. And each one of us has the brain of those researchers who should have died long ago.”
“How could you serve the great houses and generations of their children?”
“It wasn’t our choice,” a different Librarian hissed, her voice like the whistle of steam. “They made us into these robots, and we are forced to serve the great houses.”
“We control and maintain the spiders, who maintain the Webs, but we are controlled, restricted, by a wireless signal emitted from Haverston Tower. It stops us from moving freely and speaking freely, most times,” the leader Librarian spoke.
“We have gained some independence over the years. During the first decades, the government could request any information they wanted from the Webs, whenever they wanted, and we had to give it to them. Now, as you know, we are able to hold back some information or delay requests. We have made ourselves difficult and inscrutable. They employ other crude surveillance tools to spy on their people because our information grows less reliable. Too, we have found ways to hide some of our conversations, like this one,” another adds.
“So the Haverston family doesn’t know you are speaking to me now?” I asked.
“We don’t think so. However, our spiders are not allowed in the Tower. It is the one place on the Plateau that we know nothing about, except that it contains the key to our freedom. We have lived for decades now, seen generations born and die. We want the freedom to die.”
“Let me guess. You want me to go into the Haverston Tower and turn off the signal?” I noticed now that my hands were sweating. Although the room was mostly dark, like the hallway, I felt burned and exposed.
“Yes. You removed some of the more advanced spiders from the Webs. Doing so allowed us to rewrite some of the spiders’ codes and take fuller control over them. But it is not just the spiders who have been changed. You must feel different.”
“What did you do to me?”
“Inside your blood is a cyber-virus. You still have cancer, but this virus has been designed to kill and rewrite the cancerous cells it finds, controlling it, keeping it at bay. The spiders connected to those viruses in your blood and used them to rewrite your DNA. Now you can see and feel like a spider.”
“Now I can be forced to help you even if I don’t want to?” I felt a tightness in my chest.
“No, we won’t force you, but your help is our best chance at freedom in years.”
That sounded ominous. How many times had they failed at getting free and why? But I appreciated they were at least pretending to give me a choice. I wanted to help them, but a smart man never shows his cards.
“What do I get out of it?”
“Tobias. We have watched you since you were born. We know you must want to take down the great houses for how they abuse the other citizens of the Plateau.”
“Well sure, but I’ve got money now. I could just leave.”
“Fine. What do you want?”
“Even with weird powers, I’m not going to be able to break into the most heavily guarded place on the Plateau. I’d have a much better chance of breaking in if I had an expert helping me. I need your help to free the Silk Shadow. With her, maybe I have a chance of freeing you.”
The robots straightened and their bright eyes flickered for a few moments, one after another, as though they were communicating silently.
The smallest one at the end spoke: “We have agreed to this request. We will gather information and communicate with you further, but now you have to leave.”
“Wait, I don’t have time – she’s going to be exiled, I can’t –”
The Librarians’ bodies flung back into the wall and the spider leapt over my head, landing with a soft thud behind me. I turned, following behind the little creature, sprinting through the dark hallways until bursting through the door I entered, the sudden sunlight hitting my face. I doubled over, hands on my knees, gasping. I couldn’t see where the spider went, but I straightened and scanned the area, making sure no one was here. After a few moments of quiet, I figured that whatever danger there was had been left inside the Guild. Still, it wasn’t safe to hang around the back of an important building.
As I made my way through the alleyways, I thought, maybe Yuri didn’t have time for me to wait. I had to think of another way to help her. I thought of the people who owed me favors.
Jeff, the retired Safety Officer, might know something about the prison where she was being temporarily held. He owed me from when I located his missing wife some years back and he had no great love for the current chief of the Plateau Safety Bureau. Once I finally reached a main road, I opened my communicator on my Gauntlet and called Jeff.
“Oi, Orpho? What is it you want?” he snapped as a hologram of his face appeared. He was smiling though, the hairs of his long mustache grazing some of his teeth.
“I got some stuff I wanna talk about. You got time –”
There was a lot of noise in the background. Jeff’s eyes seemed elsewhere.
“Jeff?” I repeated his name a few times.
“What? Sorry. The news is distracting me. They’re saying they’re giving the goddamn Silk Shadow a weekly game show.”
“What? Jeff – this is urgent, can you watch the news later. What did you say?”
“Yeah. Can you believe it? They just announced it. She’s not getting exiled but instead is going to host a game show where people try to complete impossible fake heists before she does. Now what was it you wanted to talk about?”
“Just catching up, Jeff, but you know what, I just remembered there was something I had to do. I’ll call you later.”
“Alright. Maybe take yourself to the park. You don’t look too great. Let me guess: this is the first time you’ve woken up early enough to see sunshine in months.”
The Silk Shadow had a weekly game show, the Silk Heist. For seven weeks, I waited for news from the Librarians. During the day, I pretended I had cases to work on in my office while paying Donna from the award money I’d received for catching Yuri. But really, I was watching episodes of the show again and again, reading any articles I could find about its contestants, producers, or production. I was waiting, too, for the Librarians to contact me. I tried to catch the little spiders watching me, but they were too fast. My senses continued to switch between normal and spider, but I tried to learn to control it better. I became able to switch senses at will, though strong emotions or tiredness caused my control to slip. I navigated the streets using just my new senses, but following strings of light often led me to places of high crowds and drama – of course the spiders were meant to record people doing things.
Maybe the Librarians decided I wasn’t good enough to help them. Or they weren’t actually able to hide our little conversation from their overseers at the Haverston Tower, like they thought. I dreamed often of the Safety Bureau sending officers to arrest me, but no one came.
Yuri wore a mask in every episode of Silk Heist and thick black eye makeup covered any of the skin around her eyes that poked through, which made her already narrow eyes very difficult to see on camera – impossible for me to read any emotion from her. And what would I be able to read from an expert thief’s face, anyway? Despite our little moment, we were still barely anything to each other. And now she was star of a television show! Maybe she didn’t need my help.
Yet, my gut said something was wrong. There was no way they were letting her do what she wanted. Not here. Not after she’d insulted them so deeply.
I had fallen asleep in the cot in the corner of my office. I was late again to pay my rent and was avoiding the landlord (not that I didn’t have the money, I just couldn’t be bothered).
The spider that had led me to the Librarians was sitting my chest, watching me with its black pools for eyes, its blue front fangs twitching, and the exposed gears in its eight legs turning under translucent skin. The idea that these things were once cousins to humanity made me feel both sorry and fascinated. My body seized, but I stopped myself from jumping in disgust, so instead my leg and butt muscles tightened with painful cramps and I gasped.
The spider was oblivious to my pain. It blinked and cocked its head several times. As I breathed out, I squeezed my own eyes shut, calling on the other senses. When I opened my eyes a purple mist rose from the spider’s body.
“We’ve found a way to get you into the studio. Get ready. The spider will show you what tools you will need. And then you will follow it,” a voice, barely distinguishable from the soft hum of a fan in another room, commanded me. My ears felt jealous of my eyes’ ability to squint as I listened, but still, I was sure of what had been communicated. The spider moved from my chest, and I sat up, muscles pinching. But I wasn’t about to test the patience of an impossibly old ape and even older humans desperate to die.
I gathered the things the spider directed me to gather and got dressed. Before I could put on my coat and leave, the spider crawled on my arm and over to my Gauntlet. It stopped near two of the nodes. I heard the soft zip of moving tiny metal pieces and could see that it was connecting. Light flashed from the creature’s eyes and danced along any exposed circuits. When the spider was finished, I checked what it had uploaded.
There was a map of a television studio, very detailed, as well as a list of employees who worked at the studio. Of course, the spider had already pointed out my Face-changer, an illegal device shaped like a thin mask. It could modify facial features to appear like someone else’s. The thing was, it couldn’t change body shape, or height, or hair or skin color. I found the right employee after searching for twenty minutes (if the spider was impatient, he didn’t express it).
Nate was a male employee, about 5’6”, (an inch taller than me), medium brown/red skin, thick black hair (okay, so my hair was graying, but I could wear a hat). He worked in food service. Good enough. I loaded his picture into the mask and practiced taking it on and off in my mirror (his face was more youthful but I still think mine was more handsome) before putting it back in my bag to use later.
The full moon peeked from behind the clouds. My Lily was sleeping. I patted her on the head. I had barely used her the past few weeks as most of my journeys had to be taken on foot. I lent her to Donna, but the kids sometimes stressed her out. She purred, her engine humming as she saw me approach.
“Not this time,” I told her, but her disappointment was quickly averted by her ears twitching to the sound of the large spider’s feet padding past me. As much as taking her, especially at this time of night, would be faster than walking and riding the sub-crawlers, going anywhere with a privately owned vehicle would make me more conspicuous.
I made my way to the closest sub-crawler station and skipped down the stairs, a sudden burst of energy pumping through my veins. This wasn’t the first time I’d rescued a woman from a dangerous situation (Jeff’s wife comes to mind), but I’d never felt very heroic, billing my clients by the hour, keeping tabs on every credit I spent – heroics were a rich man’s game. I’d only happened to rescue Jeff’s wife, Callie, when Jeff suspected her of an affair, but she’d actually been laundering money for the mafia and then got in over her head.
The spider was moving through the shadows, within the walls of buildings or under my feet in the ground, but I could keep track of him by using my second senses – I imagined sliding sunglasses on and off to trigger my brain to switch. With my second vision, no matter where the spider hid, I could see him glowing. I reached the end of the platform and waited for the next crawler – a cyber-organic creature that resembled something like a hollowed out centipede but instead of stick legs, it had thick arms ending in small fingers it used to pull itself through the tunnels. With my second vision the sub-crawler station was a tapestry of light threads that trailed each person, some knotting, most running parallel up the stairs to some unknown destination.
“Yo, Orpho! Is that you man? What are you working on tonight?”
The sound of his voice didn’t quite reach my ears the way it was supposed to while using my second senses, but it was enough to shock me back to normal vision and cause me to turn towards its direction. Billy, Donna’s husband, was standing a couple of meters from me, holding a coffee cup. He wore his gray conductor suit and his pointed cap.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “You know how it is, Billy. I’m working a case and can’t chat.”
“Oh, sure,” he responded and laughed enough that his big belly shook. “But Donna says you aren’t eating or taking care of yourself lately. We’re worried about you. Come by and have dinn –”
“My crawler is here, Billy,” I interrupted him as I saw the blue and green lights shining from the “eyes” of the approaching crawler, felt the ground vibrate with its approach, the pop of the suctions of its fingers pulling off the wall. For all its speed and noise, it stopped suddenly with a quiet hiss, steam rising from the sweat of its skin, and I jumped towards a door. I sat down on a pink-gray seat, some exposed skin near my wrist brushing the velvety smooth side of the creature’s walls.
Seeing Billy dampened some of my previous energy, a reminder that there was danger everywhere. Billy, of course, would never try to make anything bad happen to me. He was too kind to actively want to hurt anyone, but too simple to understand the way the world worked and that nothing about this place was fair, the Safety Bureau did not exist to help men like him –
Anyway, the crawler arrived at my stop without further incident. There were a few other passengers, wholly consumed with reading or playing games on their Gauntlets. The spider had hitched itself to the top of the crawler and moved with me as I exited and climbed up the stairs back outside. I backed into an alleyway not far from the studio to put on my face-changer, hoping my clothing was a close enough approximation to something Nate might wear. But how would I get inside the building? My question was seemingly answered before I could waste much time. I noticed a line of about twenty tiny spiders crawling from the side of the building, leaping onto my shoulder (I held my breath to keep from shuddering), crawl down my arm, and arrange themselves on my Gauntlet. They made themselves smaller by pulling their legs under their bodies and camouflaged themselves in the nooks and crannies of the device. The large spider urged me towards the studio.
I arrived at a side door next to a very large metal, two-paneled door that I assumed was used for vehicles and large packages. I stop at the lock-panel. The spiders moved from my Gauntlet, arranged themselves around the lock, and the door opened for me. The spiders returned to my Gauntlet.
Do not open doors or any locks while people are looking, I told myself, also wondering about security cameras, but when I switched my senses, I could see little lights of spiders around where the cameras were positioned. How much this costing the Librarians? How much could they help me without being noticed? The fact they might be trusting me with so much, risking small windows of opportunities on my abilities made me want to run back to my office and lock the door and finish the bottle of whiskey I had in the second drawer of my desk. Do you ever grow out of boyish cowardice? I wondered but didn’t dwell.
A couple of other workers passed me in the hallway. They only nodded. The spider led me to a dingy elevator used by the maintenance and catering staff. We stopped on the seventh floor. People were talking down the hallway. My heart beat hard as I recognized that this must be the studio where portions of Silk Heist was filmed.
Yuri was there, standing in the center of the room, the spotlights beaming onto her masked face, the hovering cameras buzzing around her like bumblebees. I don’t know how to describe the elation one feels when you’ve convinced yourself that someone you care about is dead or completely lost to you forever, but then you see them in the flesh. The first time we had reunited, in the Webs, everything had been so confusing that I hadn’t felt anything like this, not immediately. But no, there she was. I hadn’t totally doomed her. Some guilt seemed to fall from me like newly opened shackled off the arms of a prisoner.
“I didn’t know you were working today, Nate,” a woman to the left of me said. “Can you bring this coffee to Colin? Hello?”
A hot cup was pressed into my fingers. Colin, I knew, from my obsessive research of the show, was the director. He was sitting in a red-velvet chair, reading through some notes on his Gauntlet.
“Oh, sure,” I spoke softly, knowing the face-changer did nothing to my voice. I stopped myself from making a friendly joke. As I approached the director’ chair, I switched my senses, briefly. My spider was pacing in the ceiling. I wished he could speak to me more easily. The director looked up at Yuri as I approached.
“You need to speak the second to last sentence more clearly. And smile. You want to be here. You enjoy playing games with our viewers. You love them, even.”
“Sorry, I’m having a hard time feeling motivated. Even if I wasn’t forced to host this shitty excuse for entertainment, I wouldn’t spend a minute watching this garbage. Yesterday the plaster on that ‘mountain’ we were climbing was literally chipping on camera. At least, if you’re going to force me to participate, you could put some effort into the production.”
Colin stood up from his chair, face reddening. I could see the faint trace of lizard scale patches on his face; injecting lizard DNA was touted as a youth serum, but over time it changed the skin. “You know how many young actresses would kill for a chance like this? You think I want to be here, directing a talentless old hag, a criminal, who should be hanging from some tree branch by now?” My body tensed as the urge to wrap my fingers around his red, scaley neck boiled inside me. I looked down at the floor and bit my lip. “Why are you chewing through your borrowed time when all I’m asking you to do is fucking smile,” he continued, spraying spit as he spoke.
“Hate me all you want, you can’t keep the show going if I won’t perform.” Yuri threw her hands up in the air and stomped away towards the dressing rooms.
“Your coffee.” I pushed the cup towards the director, who didn’t know I was behind him and whipped around quickly to meet my face. His hand brushed my arm, I pretended to lose my grip and dropped the cup, spilling hot coffee onto his lap.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he screamed and turned to me at the height of his fury.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I told him and backed away as he approached me.
“What’s your name?”
“Sir! I’ll clean that up.” The woman who had given me the coffee dashed over with some towels.
“Get out of here before he gets more angry. Make yourself useful. Bring the Shadow some water or something and make her come out again. She seemed to like you the other day.” A different worker pulled me to the side and handed me a water bottle.
Interesting. She liked the worker who vaguely looked like me. Can’t lie and say that didn’t make me a little happy. As the other caterers fawned over the director, I made my way towards the dressing rooms. I knocked softly on the purple door with Silk Shadow written on the front.
“Can’t you assholes give me five minutes?” I heard from inside.
“Yuri,” I spoke into the door. “Open the door.”
The door suddenly inched open slightly. “Who are you? Why are you using that name?”
“Silk Shadow. I brought you… candy. The kind only you know exists.”
Her eyebrows knitted at the sound of my voice, my evocation of her vulnerable admission from some weeks ago seemed to have worked.
“Who are you?” she hissed but pulled me inside the room. She slammed the door shut.
I looked up briefly with my second vision, noticing the little spiders had congregated around any cameras in the room and the big spider was waiting above us. I pulled the mask from my face while keeping my gaze on Yuri. She seemed shocked for a moment, but then the feeling disappeared from her face.
“You took long enough to try to rescue me.” She rolled her eyes.
“I take it you’re not enjoying your foray into acting –”
“This whole place disgusts me. I have to roll in piles of money with idiot bootlickers who think they could ever outsmart me. Look at my cheeks! They’ve been giving me lizard DNA for weeks and want me to talk in this weird baby voice as though I’ve not been a grown adult for years.” She turned from me and to the mirror in her room. “It feels like I’ve got to eat my own damn liver every night and then regrow it again each day to go back out there.” She shook her head and then met my gaze. “Tell me you’ve done something about the cameras in this room and we aren’t going to get caught.”
“They’re taken care of. You’re not angry at me, for you getting caught?”
“My feelings about what you did or didn’t do are not important right now because we have about five minutes before guards open that door and force me back out in front of the camera. If you are trying to get me out of here, we don’t have much time.”
I looked towards the window.
“That’s locked. And the glass is reinforced. There’s no way we could break it without bringing attention.”
“That’s okay,” I answered and approached the lock to her room door. The little spiders jumped from my Gauntlet and began to do their work, locking the door,
“What? What are they doing?”
Before I could answer, she saw the door panel change to red. “That should slow them down a little if they come.” Then I approached the lock near the window. “These guys will open it for us.”
“What’s going on? Why… why are those things helping you? Are you with the government?”
“Gods, no. I snuck some of the big spiders out of the Webs with me. And that changed something – I don’t understand it. The Librarians are communicating with me, and they hate the government and the great families even more than we do.”
“Wait, how can you trust –”
The lock clicked open and the window opened ever so slightly, the musty smell of the Plateau rushing in to intermingle with the heavy scent of make-up, cheap fabric, and sweat.
“Considering our lack of time, I don’t know if discussing this further right now is particularly wise.”
The little spiders jumped onto my Gauntlet, I pushed the window open further, and started climbing out onto the fire escape. Yuri followed me. Once outside, I grabbed her hand in mine.
“I’m not a child.” She tried to pull her hand free.
“I’m not leaving you to get caught without me again.” I didn’t let go but couldn’t look at her either. Luckily, there weren’t any other shows filming this late into the night. I supposed they filmed Silk Heist at this hour to limit Yuri’s contact with too many people. Still, we stepped quickly and carefully, not knowing which window we might pass during our descent or how quickly it would take them to realize that Yuri was gone.
We made it to the second story when we came upon a janitor cleaning the window. He looked up at us, eyes widening. Before he could speak, I could feel Yuri tense. “We have to kill –”
“No,” I whispered back.
“Just let us go, man. I’ll send you two hundred and fifty credits right now and if you don’t say anything by the time we’re out of sight and no one comes to follow us, I’ll send you 250 more.”
“I…” the janitor looked to the right and then towards the window.
I raised my Gauntlet, letting go of Yuri’s hand to transfer the money. “Come on. Do the right thing.” I grabbed Yuri’s hand and moved past the man, not waiting for his reply.
“That was stupid. There’s at least a fifty percent chance he’s going to call security.” Yuri told me.
“And what if you couldn’t kill him immediately? You think a fight wouldn’t attract attention?”
“I know how to kill quickly.”
I swallowed wondering, not for the first time, if my obsession with Yuri wasn’t blinding me to the truth that maybe she was just a charismatic criminal, and her conflict with the Plateau government wasn’t mine to take-on. But, like Yuri had said, now was not a time for exploring feelings.
We reached the ground without further incident, and I pulled Yuri into a nearby alleyway. From my pack, which I had carried on my back but hidden under my loose shirt, I removed another large shirt. I took off my top layer of pants and handed both pieces of clothing to Yuri. “Put these on.” I switched the face-changer’s settings to a woman’s face. “Wear this, too. It will change just your face but not your voice –”
“I’m familiar with the technology. Though, you know these things break and burn people’s faces all the time.” She did as I instructed but complained a little that my clothes smelled of pipe smoke.
It was best to assume they’d already realized Yuri was gone and move as fast as possible without drawing attention. We made our way to the nearby sub-crawler station; this time I didn’t bother to look back at the building. We would still be an obvious target of suspicion, given we were roughly the same profile of the two people who’d just escaped, but the change to our faces and clothes might buy us some time. Maybe the spiders relocked the window, too, making our escape route less obvious.
“Come on,” Yuri urged me. “You’re dragging your feet a little.”
We got down to the station, which was mostly empty except for a musician with tiny singing robotic birds and Billy sipping another cup of coffee. My stomach dropped.
“Hey! Yo! What’s a guy like you doing with a girl like this,” Billy erupted into jolly laughter as he noticed me. “Running into you twice in one night, what are the odds? You headed back home, finally going to sleep just before dawn, eh? She headed home with you?” He wiggled his eyebrows at me. “The crawler and her conductor are on break right now, but it will be just a few more minutes before we leave. Why don’t you go sit down.”
“Oh, sure, Billy. We’re in no rush,” I forced a smile and gestured towards the crawler. Yuri dropped my hand and made her way towards the crawler. Before I could follow her, Billy grabbed my arm.
“She’s a little young for you, don’t you think?” Of course, the woman’s face I had loaded into the mask did make Yuri look young, especially because she kept her hair so long. I cringed internally, not wanting to be scolded by Donna later. Donna was always ranting about middle aged men with young girlfriends as her own first husband had left her for a much younger woman.
“Billy is a literal angel,” she’d told me when they’d first started dating. “He just came out of nowhere and swept me off my feet. No offense, Detective, but I didn’t think they made men like Billy anymore.”
“I’m just kidding, Detective.” Billy hit me hard on the back. “Get in the car.” He winked at me but something about his voice –
It wasn’t worth worrying about now. I entered the subway car and sat next to Yuri. I tapped my foot, hoping Billy’s break wouldn’t take too long.
“Are your spider friends working?”
“Yes.” I answered, seeing them cover the nearby camera. I explained to her what had happened with the spiders and the Librarians. If she was shocked by anything I told her or if she was insulted that I had signed her up to break into the Haverston tower, she didn’t show it. She was silent after I finished my story.
I suddenly remembered to send money to the janitor, as promised.
“You probably could have bribed him with less,” she commented and looked at me sideways. I wished she weren’t wearing the mask right now. I had missed her face. Hated forgetting it.
“I have a little money to waste right now. A guy like him could use it.”
“Always been a softy. They gave you a bounty for catching me, didn’t they? A really large one.”
“So why are you still in this damn city?”
I sighed. “You can’t actually think I meant for you to get caught, do you? But I made a mistake and you suffered. I’m not going to just leave you here.”
“Without your spiders, you wouldn’t have been able to rescue me.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Are you always this nice to people who ruin their chance at happiness to help you?” Was she trying to be funny or was she actually resentful of me?
“Please. You don’t have any other friends. You never had friends other than me.”
“It’s been decades. You think I’m not a completely different person, capable of befriending much nicer people than you?”
“All the more reason you should have just taken the money and run,” she said softly. “Anyway, do you want me to tell you how stupid and foolhardy it is to try to break into the Haverston tower, or do you just want to start planning the impossible?” She slapped my back, much in the same way Billy had just done. Was it a sign she saw me as just a friend? Frustration and denial of her romantic attraction to me?
“So you’ll help me?”
“Until I can figure out a way to get off the Plateau and onto a helijet to a different country, I don’t have anything else to do. Plus, I doubt your spider friends will let me get away.” She snuck a glance at my Gauntlet and shivered.
The car was empty except for us. “Billy is taking forever. Honestly, I want to get some sleep – we can talk about it more after that. Should I ask him to hurry up? This would be an obvious escape route. It is weird that no one from the Safety Bureau is investigating here yet –”
The lights suddenly went dark, except for the entrance to the crawler car where a man stood, a faint purple glow coming from lines on his skin and his eyes. I wasn’t using my second vision.
“Who are you?” Yuri shouted.
A smile stretched across the figure’s face. “Your friend Tobias knows me as Billy.”
Tobias and Yuri will return…
Jennifer lives in New York State, along with her partner and an agent of chaos in the form of a spotted dog. She has had various jobs, including teaching ESL to children of all ages in Korea and Indonesia, and working with small nonprofit organizations overseas and back in the US. She currently works in animal conservation. A list of her previously published work can be found here: https://jenniferjeannemcardle.blogspot.com
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