by Jennifer Jeanne McArdle
“The Silk Shadow broke into the Webs,” Officer Ramos, wearing her crisp gray uniform, announced in my doorway. “We need your help.”
I finished lighting my pipe and breathed in, the smell of cloves tickling the inside of my nose as I decided how to respond. “I thought you didn’t trust me.”
Safety Officers hated private investigators like me. The Plateau government was likely to ban my profession within the next decade. The Plateau was my hometown, a technical marvel, but living here wasn’t always easy for those who didn’t completely fit in. I often wondered why I’d returned.
“I’m not here to play games. An unauthorized person in the Webs means we could lose years of sensitive data and no one’s privacy is safe if she figures out how to navigate the strands.”
“Has she done anything violent yet? She’s stolen some tchotchkes from rich folk. She’s more a nuisance than a national security issue. Wouldn’t chasing her through the Webs potentially cause more chaos?” I leaned back in my chair, causing some of the bones of my spine to pop. Why was she coming to me, though? There were other PIs with much better track records than me. But I wanted to see where this was going; actually getting the chance to chase a real criminal sounded fun, even better if I could finagle a way to see the Webs. I also wanted to see Officer Ramos squirm. I wanted her to negotiate, to beg a little. I was a nobody in a place where money and status superseded justice and basic dignity. She hated standing in my doorway, she hated my smug voice, my sweet pipe, my cluttered office, my airhead secretary, and she hated how the sun leaked through my half closed blinds, causing the dust to sparkle in the air.
“I have a contract here for your services.” She lifted her arm and pressed some buttons on her Gauntlet. My own Gauntlet blipped. I accepted the message, and the contract displayed in a hologram above my forearm. “We can’t risk sending a Safety Officer into the Webs. If one of us messed something up… But you’re a private citizen…”
“If I fuck up, they can punish me. Make an example of me for messing with our information. I have no union protections.” Real Safety Officers on the Plateau were almost never punished for excessive force or mistakes that caused expensive damage or deaths, and trying to punish one usually led to lengthy court battles. Not that I would think it was fair for an Officer (or anyone) to be punished for accidentally damaging something in the Webs while chasing a criminal—no normal person would know how to navigate them properly. The higher-ups knew that a civilian would feel more pressure to be cautious than an Officer would. “I wouldn’t mind if you’re the one doing the punishing, though.”
She stared at me blankly. She wasn’t taking the bait to play. Her supervisor must have known to send someone who was all business, no humor.
“So, don’t fuck up,” she said finally after a few painfully awkward moments. She had no sympathy for the lamb brought to the slaughter. I scrolled down and saw how many credits they were offering. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. No wonder the Officer hated me; she was damn jealous that if I caught the Silk Shadow I’d receive around three times her yearly salary for just one job.
A sum like this would fund a move off the Plateau to a foreign nation, the Coastal Union, where my old boss, the PI who had trained me years ago, owned a bed and breakfast. She had been trying to convince me for years to buy a nearby vineyard, promising an easy, relaxing life with sun and space. Even if life on the vineyard didn’t live up to her promises, it had to be better than the dark, foggy days on the plateau, my empty fridge, my cheap liquor, and my tiny dark room in the that old, shared house stained with old body fluids and painful memories of past tenants.
Still, though, the money probably wasn’t worth the risk. If I accidentally ruined parts of the Webs, even if it wasn’t my fault, my punishment would be severe; possibly several years in an unsavory prison.
“Of all the private investigators on the Plateau, why does the Safety Bureau want me for this job?”
Officer Ramos shrugged. “I asked Supervisor Kelly the same question. He told me to give you this.” She pulled a paper envelope from her pocket and tossed it towards me. I snapped it from the air. I ripped the envelope open and unfolded the letter—who used paper nowadays?
I nearly dropped my pipe on the floor but managed to catch it as a chill ran up my spine.
“Alright,” I mumbled. “Officer Kelley has his man.”
“Thank you, Investigator Orfo.” Officer Ramos smiled, finally, and a tiny spider dashed across my desk.
There were fifteen exits from the Plateau that either led down to the thick forest miles below us, or to landing pads for Helijets or passenger blimps. You could access the underground cave system containing the Webs from five of those exits.
We knew which exit the Silk Shadow had used to access the Webs not because of any great detective work. The thief had knocked out the guards and disabled the security system, giving her access to the underground cave, and she had left her calling card. Although the Silk Shadow’s flashy heists caused little real damage, on the Plateau, flamboyancy from anyone not part of the old upper-crust was often considered more offensive than murder. According to her file, highlights of her career, among other, less impressive crimes, included:
Stealing the famous meteorologist, Zach Solden’s lighting caster and leaving it at his ex-wife’s home
Leaving a packet of smart arrowheads stolen from champion huntress, Amelia Tanger, at the Annual Games’ Judges’ office, so the judges finally had proof she cheated every Annual Stag Hunt
Poisoning famous actress and beauty, Phoebe Dito’s, make-up, causing a purple skin rash.
Switching the video at a ceremony meant to honor a corrupt Safety Officer, Erik Sares, with a compilation video of his victims.
Good for you, I thought, admiring her, just a little, despite myself. Nearly all of these crimes had made the news and even delighted the public, but I hadn’t realized until now that she had been responsible for all of them. That was probably on purpose. The government didn’t want people to see her as some kind of Robin Hood, so they didn’t allow the media to name her as the primary suspect. The fact that she’d left her calling card this time meant she was likely leading us into a trap, was just confident enough in her own abilities to taunt the Bureau. But she probably didn’t expect me, of all people, to follow.
As I approached my vehicle, she opened her wings so I could enter the driver’s cavity. She purred a little as I got into the seat and pulled up the control panel. Most people insisted that the biotech vehicles, although alive, weren’t conscious enough to have opinions about their drivers. I had convinced Lily’s old owner, who’d never treated her right, to part with her for cheap. She only started purring after living with me for a few weeks.
Lily lifted her body with her six legs and began to scuttle down the street. We passed a construction site where small birds with silver wings and steel beaks were ripping apart old buildings and furiously weaving and molding a new high rise for expensive apartments; the only people who would be able to afford them already had several large apartments. Never mind the insult to the scores of homeless here, the construction was also scrubbing the city’s history away; this was the only neighborhood in the Plateau that was still mostly populated by old, classic houses with individual styles.
A spider hung from its silk, swinging as Lily swerved through the streets. Surely its many eyes were watching me. I shivered. Very few civilians got a chance to enter the Webs; my visit might be historically significant. That was their job, anyway, to watch, and then weave all the events, the consequences, the causes and effects, into the biotech Webs under the Plateau.
When I arrived near the Danber-Starford Exit, I headed to the guards’ watchtower first. The artificial atmospheric settings had been suspended in the room; a slight breeze came through the window as I surveyed the control panels, the taped lines marking the positions where the guards had passed out, and a holographic picture frame that had been knocked over, the image of the family blinking irregularly.
“She’s long gone into the Webs,” Officer Cardelli scoffed while watching me examine the room. “The more time you waste here…”
I breathed in, catching the faintest hint of a smell, a mix of ammonia, fish, and lavender. I knew that smell from my time living abroad, off the Plateau. Gangs in the East Republic used to inject chemicals that temporarily altered their DNA, making their skin more like a mimic octopus, helping them camouflage and lower their body temperatures to avoid being seen by the naked eye or detected by infrared devices. I explained this to the Officer.
“I hope this won’t become a trend.” Officer Cardelli folded his arms. It probably wouldn’t. After the Reformations a couple decades ago, smuggling large quantities of illegal substances or committing blue-collar crimes had become fairly difficult (don’t worry: corruption and white-collar crimes have increased). My services weren’t exactly in high demand, but usually, I was hired to spy on cheating spouses, wayward family members, bad employees or bosses, not chase a notorious international thief.
“There’s a coating you can put on lenses which will allow you to see someone using the chemical.” I sent detailed data about what I’d described to Cardelli.
Cardelli paced and sighed, prompting me to wrap up my investigation. After a quick stop at Lily to retrieve a pair of glasses I had with that special coating, I made my way to the tunnels. A guard punched a code into a keypad next to the huge metal door blocking the entrance. The door’s metal components disengaged in a spiral shape. I tried to not show the Safety Officers how anxious I was. There weren’t supposed to be any people in the Webs at night and the spiders couldn’t speak to us, so the Silk Shadow and I could very easily get very lost. I didn’t like the idea of dying alone in a cave with creepy, crawly creatures.
Perhaps she was already lost. If she were still in the Webs, she’d have been down there for several hours already.
As I made my way down the narrow stone, twisting staircase leading the Webs, I thought of the letter Officer Ramos had returned to me. The fact that the Safety Officers had found such a thing made the Silk Shadow’s extreme confidence seem foolish because they must know her identity. I stopped at the end of the staircase, my knees feeling a little sore—a reminder I was in my forties now and not the broken-hearted teenager who had written that letter. On the floor, at the bottom of the steps, I left a tracer so I could navigate back to this exit once I wanted to leave. I scanned the area, but couldn’t find evidence that the Silk Shadow had left any of her own tracers or markings to aid her navigation back here.
The Webs resembled real, dense spider webs in shape, but the strands each had a unique color or blinking pattern; some flickered rapidly, others faded their colors, and in others, a bright spark ran from end to end. These connections were maintained by Web Librarians, who trained for years to navigate and understand the biotech. Their Council determined what information various government bodies, private businesses, and individuals had access to on their computers and digital networks.
The spiders down here were not like the spiders above ground. These were bigger, but slower. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t catch the spiders watching you above ground. They were too fast and clever. But these big, slow guys hanging on the strands of the Webs could easily be caught, and they didn’t seem to bite either. I didn’t trust either myself to catch this thief or the police to pay me if I did. I had to make this trip underground worth it, somehow. I put a few them in a jar I’d brought with me—it was a nice little piece of illegal technology that blocked electronic scans and signals. The police would never know if they scanned me if I took some spiders. Hopefully. Who knew with Webs technology?
I had to focus on the mission at hand again. I couldn’t waste time and look suspicious. The Librarians had refused to guide Safety Officers or me. They were notoriously obsessed with tradition, so who knew why they refused to help. Perhaps their professions had left them jaded and with god-complexes, and they thought they were above the concerns of normal men. Or perhaps they were just afraid, of the Silk Shadow, of failing to catch her, or of making their own mistakes?
The Librarians told the Safety Officers that anyone could travel inside the Webs quickly by traveling through the strands themselves and popping out in a different physical space. I had been given these basic instructions for Webs navigation:
Close your eyes tightly.
Concentrate your mind on one moment, or concentrate on a person or a place, a date, how that place must have appeared at that time.
Touch the strand with just one fingertip.
Count forward, from one to ten.
If a recording you are trying to skip begins to play, don’t start to watch it, don’t pay attention.
When you want to leave the Webs, imagine the cave, remember its smells, its tastes, the feeling of the ground under your feet.
Count backward, from ten to one.
What information would she need for her next heist? Her targets didn’t fit any pattern, except that they were people who could benefit from being taken down peg or two. But, I was a private investigator, not a psychic. Given the limited information, and the fact that she might have already left the Webs, undetected, I doubted I’d actually be able to catch the thief or even produce any fruitful investigation.
Or maybe, now that the Safety Bureau knew her identity, I was the trap. They were hoping she’d be curious about me. It wouldn’t work. Why would she care, even if she figured out whom I used to be?
I thought of some rich men and women on the Plateau the Silk Shadow hadn’t stolen from yet and who had interesting things to be stolen. I breathed in deeply and touched a strand of the Webs, something purple and sparkly. I tingled all over, my stomach dropping, my inner ears buzzing beneath my skull. I smelled a field in the summertime after the rain.
I thought very strongly of Althea Nera, of her mansion home. She was someone who hadn’t been stolen from yet, and she was the first rich person to come to mind. Last week a lot of the high-society people had held big masquerade parties to mark the beginning of their social season. A masquerade party filled with bored, rich people would be an ideal time to gather information for a heist, either during or after the fact in the recording.
“When I get rich, I’ll buy that house,” I remember telling my friend, years ago, about the Nera family home. We were small enough then to still be hopeful.
“The Nera home? There’s bigger homes out there. Why that place?” My friend Yuri rolled her eyes.
“I just like it the best. I can see their garden from my apartment. They have these big birds, like hawks and owls, that live in cages in the back. If I look through my binoculars, I can see Lady Nera feeding them sometimes.”
“You spy on them? How creepy!” Yuri giggled. “But can you show me them?”
The meadow smell faded, and the smell of dust and leather replaced it. I opened my eyes to hundreds of people in dresses and suits, sipping fizzing cocktails. A waitress walked through me as though I wasn’t there. Because I wasn’t–not actually. This was just recording, I reminded myself. There were so many conversations going on, it was hard for me to just concentrate on one. I walked through the crowd of people, picking up bits of information but nothing interesting. It was a shot in the dark, anyway, I hadn’t expected to find anything.
A woman in a sparkling white dress began to sing. It was hard not to get distracted by her voice. The guests stopped their conversations and watched her. The Siren, as she was known, dazzled the crowd with vocal acrobatics. I was wasting time in this memory. I had to get out. I turned from the stage and walked further away to get away from her voice so I could concentrate on leaving the recording. But then I noticed a figure in the corner, sneaking out through a back door as everyone else watched the singer. I followed the figure. I stopped at the doorway. There was the moonlit garden of the Nera family mansion with its great white rose bushes climbing around trellises shaped like elaborate spider webs. I took a step forward, through the doorway. The figure was a woman. She was staring a cage holding a large owl, who watched her back with wide yellow eyes and false feather ears raised high and alert.
The woman turned to look behind her. Her face. The woman’s face resembled Yuri’s…Could it? I tried to walk forward to get a better look. The world around me went black, and I felt like I was falling. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping I hadn’t made a dangerous mistake.
I opened my eyes again. I was back in the Webs, but physically in a totally different section. Perhaps the spiders hadn’t collected enough information to let me get a closer look at the woman’s face. I had come to the end of that recording. I scanned the area around me in the caves. Nothing. No sign of another person.
I tried a couple more names of rich people whose homes I could visit via the Webs and who had held big parties the week before, but saw nothing interesting; no clues in the recent recordings of their homes and no signs of anyone using the recordings to gather information. This was impossible. It was a total crap-shoot.
Perhaps the Silk Shadow wasn’t her to gather information for a future heist. Maybe she was here to erase her own past? Did she know they already figured out her identity? Would it matter if she erased herself here? Had that been her at the Nera mansion? Why had she been looking at the owls?
I might be the trap. The possibility echoed in my thoughts again.
Ick. I noticed a cluster of hundreds of baby spiders erupting from the webbing in the corner; I was cold, my clothes damp and heavy from the humidity. My mind drifted in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) my creepy surroundings. When I was a teenager, most of my family had been forced to move to a new country, the East Republic. I carried with me guilt and a cancer that had been ravaging my body.
For some years, I had a new start there as I recovered. Too, it had been easier to forget her, the intended recipient of my returned letter. The woman who might have been looking at that owl. I had returned to the Plateau because I thought the place owed me something—at least, that’s what I tell people when they ask why I’d moved back to this city.
What had made her return?
I didn’t know anything about her life after she had left mine. I hadn’t seen her in years, but the face of the woman looking at the owl at the party at the Nera family home looked like her. I had told her about the owls.
If I followed our connections…
It was a place to start. I thought of a good memory; studying while sitting on the balcony of my family’s cramped apartment, twenty stories high and near the western edge of the Plateau. When we got bored of our books, we leaned dangerously over the banister, yelling out the furthest point we could see with my binoculars I often used to spy on the Nera mansion.
“A waterfall.” She had pointed.
I touched a strand with my fingertips.
“I don’t see it,” I had told her.
I counted to ten.
“Squint harder. Look. It’s right there.”
My stomach dropped.
“Oh, I see it now,” I had lied.
The air became dryer. The ground under my feet felt harder. I opened my eyes. I saw Yuri’s face the clearest I’d see in it years. It was fuller than I remembered, her eyebrows wilder, her black hair struggling to be free of her hair tie and framing her face in wisps. I stepped back, and realized I was looking at myself: a small, pale boy who was already sick but didn’t know it yet. She was bigger than me. She had always been extraordinarily healthy and strong.
“We’ll have to go scouting there one day,” I said and placed my hands behind my head, breathing in deeply, trying as best I could to puff out my small chest. My arms were so scrawny and my voice cracked on each word. No wonder she hadn’t wanted to stay.
Stop. You won’t find her here. You have a mission to take care of. You can’t get lost.
I had to get back into the physical world. I plugged my ears, shut my eyes, and counted back from ten. I was back in the cave, and my eyes opened behind my treated glasses. I felt the tickle of spider legs on my palms and shook them. This section of the cave still had a lot of empty space not yet filled by Webs strands. I left another small tracer on the wall and scanned the room to check for any sign of life. Of course she wasn’t here. Why would she want to go back to some childhood memory? Even if the woman had been her looking at the owls, so what? It didn’t mean she cared or even remembered that I’d wanted to see them years ago.
I heard a noise that had to come from something bigger than a spider or a water drop. My heart thudded in my chest. I whipped to meet the noise, pulling my electric shock pistol from my belt, ready to fire. Through my glasses, I saw the neon outline of a woman created by the chemicals rising from her skin.
“I can see you.” My voice cracked. Part of me was just a boy again.
My mind raced through a hundred thoughts when I heard Yuri’s—the Silk Shadow’s–voice.
“What are you doing here?” Her voice.
“The Safety Bureau sent me into the Webs after you.”
The space between the outline began to shimmer. A tall, muscular woman with a pixie-cut and a skin-tight purple cat suit was revealed.
“It’s been a long time, Yuri.” I kept the pistol pointed at her.
“So they must know who I am. They didn’t hire you for your skill.”
“I found you.” I breathed in sharply.
“No. I decided to let you see me after I figured out who you are.”
“Whatever. They’re paying me quite a bit to catch you. So, we can make this easy or difficult.”
She rushed at me, her fist coming towards my head, but I ducked in time. I was sickly when she knew me; I was still a small man, but I had trained for years and was strong and fast. She swung at me again and again; I continued to dodge. Pull the trigger, part of me screamed as her fist flew past my face. This was stupid; did she want to be electrocuted? Was this really the best the Silk Shadow could do?
“Wait.” I shielded my face. Her fist stopped mid-air.
“You’re the one not shooting.” She ground her teeth.
“Why aren’t you afraid?”
She stood up straight and her hands fell to her side. “My suit protects me from electric shocks. Why didn’t you just shoot me? I’m sure you wanted to. I bet you wanna hit me, too. But you’re just dodging. But I can tell: you could hurt me, if you wanted to.”
I slowly lowered the electric pistol and put it back into my belt.
“Aren’t you angry at me?” She clenched her fists.
I swallowed though my mouth was dry. We stared at each other for a few seconds. I suddenly grabbed her hand, she gasped but didn’t resist. I put her finger on the pink strand I’d been touching when I arrived in this area of the Webs.
We were on a scouting trip together. Everyone else walked faster than young me, but young Yuri stayed with me.
“Everyone’s gonna think you’re weird for hanging out with me,” young me had told her.
“Everyone thinks I’m weird anyway.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated. I sped the memories up; we were spinning, my hand sweating in hers.
We were playing chess in my parent’s living room. We were cooking food with her mother. We were arguing with her dad because he had spent her class trip money on a useless gadget, because he was injecting illegal animal DNA, because he looked twisted and inhuman, and because her mother was depressed. She was offering me illegal memory pills that showed life from the eyes of a catfish, then an eagle. She was telling me she had broken the security system at a point in the fence around the Plateau and had snuck down to the jungle.
I was holding her while she cried because her dog died. She hated the Plateau.
“Life is so much bigger than this city. Once I graduate, I’m moving. Let’s both go to the East Republic.”
“Come on, stop it,” real Yuri told real me. “Let’s get out of here. You’re making me dizzy. How do we get out of here?”
Real me grabbed her hand again. We zoomed forward.
Young me was in the hospital. The holographic image of waves hitting the shore was projected on the walls and seagulls circled on the ceiling.
“Are you going to get better?” young Yuri sat at the end of young me’s bed. For a moment, the real me couldn’t breathe. She spoke to me so tenderly in this recording. I had always remembered her snapping at me, always remembered her looking at me with contempt, but in the recording, she spoke tenderly and tears were welling up in young Yuri’s eyes.
“I don’t know. Why do you care? You just wanna leave, don’t you?” Young me rolled onto my side and curled up into a ball, avoiding looking at her face.
“I…” Young Yuri started reaching for me but stopped herself. “I could always video chat.”
“Your family is normal now. Your parents are in therapy, and you said your sister stopped crying at night. Why do you need to run away?” Young me didn’t turn to look at young Yuri. Real me bit my lower lip, but avoided looking at real Yuri. Honestly, I hadn’t remembered saying that.
“Your family is good,” young Yuri shot back at young me. “You wouldn’t understand.” Real me remembered that part. Real me was still bitter about how wrong she was, but…
“Tobias, why are we watching this?” Real Yuri was looking at me. I was watching young me cry. I was watching young Yuri hold back tears as she left the hospital room. Had the spiders followed her out? All I know is that she left the next day, for the East Republic. Although I would eventually move to that nation as well, we never met there. She did not call me once. I never saw her again. Until today.
I counted back to ten and thought of the cave. We appeared together in the physical world. My head swimming, I had to sit down. Yuri stood over me.
“Are done with your little hissy fit?”
“It’s a lot to take in, finding out your first girlfriend is now an internationally wanted criminal, and the government is basically forcing you to catch her.”
“How did they get you involved in this?”
“They found the letter I wrote you right after you left the Plateau, all those years ago, in your current home.”
“My parents sent me your letter. When I was finally ready to respond, I couldn’t find you.” She sighed and sat down next to me. “For years, I thought you died.”
“My old identity is dead. My father got involved with the mafia, helping them smuggle contraband before the Reformations ended the careers of most Plateau pirates to make some extra money to pay for my cancer treatments—you know how useless and expense healthcare in this damn city is. After he had been tried and sentenced to many years in prison, my mother and I were temporarily moved off the Plateau, into the East Republic, and given new names and identities. But, ironically, my father’s arrest saved my life; we could actually afford the doctors there.”
“I’d never imagine your father, the straight-laced civil servant, a criminal. Or you, a detective.”
We each talked about our lives. Yuri had eventually married a much older man with money back in the East Republic. He paid for her to buy random gadgets and chemicals and to take classes in whatever she had wanted, but eventually he got sick.
“Did you leave him, too?” I interjected, not able to help myself.
“No. I held his hand while he died. But I inherited a lot of money and had more time. So I decided to come back here and cause trouble to see if I could. There’s so many rules here, and weak people who are afraid of the big bad jungle around them.”
“So, stealing is just a hobby for you?”
“I suppose. I don’t know what else to do.”
“Stealing fancy jewelry is one thing, but you know how precious the Plateau government is about the Webs. They won’t let you get away with this.”
“I know you’re hurt I left you all those years ago.” She changed the subject while brushing a spider from her shoulder. “I was your only friend. It wasn’t right for me to leave and not even call you again. But you were so angry at me, and I didn’t know what to do. I really did care about you, but I saw the trajectory of my life if I had stayed, and I just couldn’t. I thought had to leave then, or I’d be stuck here forever.”
“And somehow, here we both are, back on the Plateau.” I sighed and rubbed my eyes. “I was being stupid before. I shouldn’t be holding grudges; we were teenagers.”
“You never married?” She smirked.
I shrugged. “My other relationships never worked out.” She had always treated life as a game. “Did you think about the consequences of getting caught breaking into the Webs?” Without thinking, I was squeezing her shoulder. “What was so important to find down here, if this is all just a hobby?”
“I wanted to see if I could.” Yuri stared at the ground for a few long moments. “You’ll probably think I’m lying just to flatter you.” She turned to look at me. “But I came here to find out what happened to you. I guess I hadn’t thought about you in years. But last week, I went to a party at the Nera family mansion, and I remembered how you’d always spy on them. I got distracted from thinking about what I was going to steal there. I just kept wondering about what had happened to you. But when I looked up information about you, I couldn’t find anything. No death certificate. It seemed like you disappeared. Had I just imagined you? Maybe I was going crazy.” She turned away again.
My throat tightened. I couldn’t believe my memory had meant so much to her. She had risked too much, acted too recklessly. Her memory had been like a shadow following my whole life. I had always been bitter about how much she’d broken my heart.
“Honestly, I thought you off and on over the years. Sometimes I remembered you like other people remember their childhood pet or favorite candy: something too sweet to be real.” Yuri’s lower lip was shaking. “Other times, you were a ghost from a nightmare, cursing me for leaving you to die, alone. It’s ridiculous. If I had known I could have just broken into Safety Bureau records and find out you were put in some witness protection program instead of coming here…” For a second her head almost touched my shoulder, but she straightened herself.
“Yuri.” I wanted to hold her, but I didn’t move. “I’ll tell them I couldn’t find you.” I used to wish guilt on Yuri, but now that I could see it tearing her up, I felt nauseous.
“I don’t even know how to leave. I didn’t plan this well.” She stood up. “I’m starting to slip up—my life has become—I don’t know—” She was pacing. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed? Even when you were the one who was sick, I always thought I was living on borrowed time.” She stopped, and now I stood.
“We’ve been down here too long, and it will take us at least a few hours to get back out.” I took her hand again. “We’ll talk about this later, when we’ve had time to rest, collect our thoughts. I left a tracer near the exit. Just follow carefully a couple meters behind me.”
She smiled a little and my heart skipped, but I needed her to be careful. “You should wait near the staircase for a few hours,” I continued. “They might have Safety Officers waiting near the exit. Don’t go back to your home. If we both leave without anything broken or missing, they’ll be happy enough with that. I’ll lie and say I couldn’t find you.”
She raised her hand to my face and lightly ran her fingers over the scruff on my cheek. “My mom always said you were going to grow into your features.” A couple of tears were forming in her eyes. I turned from her and opened my navigation tool in the Gauntlet on my wrist.
We traveled carefully and slowly, to not to break anything, through the delicate Webs and tunnels for hours. The spiders zoomed around us, watching us from the strands or hanging from the stalactites of the cave. Some librarians might eventually watch our recorded encounter here and know what I did, know I stole some spiders, too. Who knows if they’d tell the Safety Bureau?
My navigation tool started beeping louder and louder as we approached the stairwell. I picked up the pace while still being careful of strands around me. Then I noticed a few Safety Officers waiting in the distance near the stairwell. I prayed their scans wouldn’t pick up on the spiders that I’d collected.
I hadn’t expected them to come down the stairs. I briefly glanced behind me. How far back was Yuri? I hoped she had noticed them and had decided to wait in the shadows until it was safe. When I finally reached the officers, they ran some of their scanners over me. None of them reacted. They were too lazy and trusting of their technology to physically search me.
Idiots. I sighed relief.
“You’d been gone for so long and our messages weren’t going through. We were debating a search and rescue party, but of course the Librarians’ Council was taking their sweet timegiving us permission.” Officers Kelley, Ramos, and Cardelli were all there.
“I’ve failed. I couldn’t catch her,” I admitted. “I want to go home and take a long bath.”
“After all that time, you turn up with nothing. Shoulda known you couldn’t handle a real criminal.” Ramos shook her head.
That night, I couldn’t sleep; I stared at the ceiling. What now? They knew her identity, how long could she hide? Would she talk to me again? We were both single. She was so much harder now, but still beautiful—
Maybe we could pool our money and buy that vineyard near my old boss’s place, although I feared Yuri would get bored of that life. I had something we could sell off the Plateau. I looked at my jar with the spiders inside. They were still moving as I had cut small holes into the top to let in enough air to breathe. I’d have to feed them, right? Or could I sell them dead?
When I woke up, I made some coffee and then turned on the news.
I nearly dropped my mug on the floor.
THE SILK SHADOW IS NOW IN CUSTODY
There was Yuri in handcuffs.
“How did you find her?” I asked Officer Kelley later that day.
“We had officers spread out, hiding in the entrances of the tunnels near the staircase. One of our guys noticed that when you saw us, you glanced backwards. Why would you glance backwards? He signaled his team, and they investigated the area, using glasses with the coating you recommended, and they were able to hit her with a tranquilizer dart before she even realized what was coming.”
Yuri would likely be sent to decades in prison or even executed. The Plateau took would use her to send a message regarding tampering with the Webs.
Why had I looked back? Why had I made such a stupid mistake?
I had been so distracted by meeting Yuri and worried that police would notice that damned jar of spiders that I wasn’t thinking at my best. My damned selfishness and incompetence had ruined everything.
The Safety Bureau paid me the full sum in my contract, but I couldn’t even enjoy the miracle of the Plateau government actually keeping its word.
“You looked back then and you’re looking back now. Cut your losses and get out like I did.” my old boss told me when I told her I couldn’t buy that vineyard and leave the Plateau until after I helped Yuri.
I had to find a way to help Yuri. I couldn’t just run away from this. Because she was the only one left who remembered me.
I pulled the jar from my coat pocket. Inside were four spiders I had grabbed from the webs. Could I use them to break into the Webs or see the Webs? Maybe I could find information that might help me rescue Yuri from prison?
I took the jar to my work bench with my computers and tools. I opened the jar and shook one of the big spiders out onto the table. I heard a soft sound. A little spider on the wall was staring at me. Two more looked up at me from the desk, more on the window, the floors, my chair, my computer. They were crawling out of the corners, by the dozens, one after another, all of their tiny, beady eyes watching me. Were they here to help? Or to tear me apart?
I blinked my eyes. The spiders were gone. I blinked again. They were back. I looked down at the big spider on my desk. My mind raced. What was I doing? What could I do? I had to help Yuri. I had to.
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.
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