By Jennifer Jeanne McArdle
Now that my eyes had adjusted to looking at the figure, it still looked like Billy. The same round, wholesome face, but he had that faint glow around him and his dark brown skin and eyes had an unnatural sheen. Yuri and I stood up. I felt her tense next to me as I grabbed her forearm. She didn’t wince.
“I am not here to hurt either of you,” Billy said, his voice, as always, deep. Comforting. “Many years ago, I was a scientist. I was nearly killed for standing up to the company that had purchased this Plateau. But my body was secretly saved by some of our mutual friends and cryogenically frozen before death.”
Billy stepped further towards us. “As you might guess, this is not my original body. Those whom you now know as the Librarians hid my body for decades until they could craft a suitable house for my mind, what you see me in now. This body allows me to change appearance easily, among other talents.”
Billy’s body shimmered; for a few seconds his form resembled both slow moving liquid and a black LED screen, then it settled into the shape of a red-haired, light-skinned woman with green eyes. I looked to Yuri, who met my gaze and then back to Billy, who now looked like Billy again. “Tobias, I’ve been watching you for a while. Waiting for the pieces to fall into place. Your friend is right. The tower would be impossible to break into, just the two of you. But I’m here to help you.”
“Why couldn’t you just break into the tower yourself?” Yuri asked the obvious question.
“I can’t enter the tower. I am not subject to control the same way the Librarians are, but I am still made from mostly the same technology they and the spiders were made from. They used their spare parts to make me. I will not bore you with the details, but I am blocked from entering. If I had someone on the inside, they could remove what is essentially a forcefield preventing me from entering. There is a second forcefield around the inner sanctum of the tower, too, that I’d love to be turned off. Once I got inside, I could do a lot of… damage.”
“So you need us to remove that barrier for you. So you can do what, exactly?” Yuri crossed her arms over her chest. I questioned the wisdom of sassing an extremely old and powerful cyborg.
Billy smiled. “Of course. Otherwise, I’d be leaving you to live your extremely fulfilling and happy lives together. My goal is to free my former colleagues and the animals that once inhabited this island. We want to die, finally – most of us, at least. Most of us would also like to fully erase the wealth and power of the ruling class – retribution for what they took from us so many years ago.”
“None of the current elites were alive back then,” I blurted. “What does revenge mean so many generations later?”
“Sure. But they haven’t freed us, though the wealthiest families know what we are. They’re happy to continue to abuse us. We aren’t planning to commit mass murder, but our actions will likely have far-reaching effects on the whole Plateau and society.”
“And in the resulting chaos, some people might be killed.” Yuri raised an eyebrow.
“I am very old and bitter, but I am not deranged. Depends on what is done, exactly. As part of our deal, I leave up to you how much of society you want me to attempt to dismantle. Think about it. This crawler has to get moving, but we’ll be in contact again. For the time being, perhaps you should start planning how you’re going to get into the tower. You’ll still be able to control the spiders near you with your device – for a limited time, so you don’t have to worry about being watched or recorded by the elites or the Safety Bureau. We can’t waste much time, otherwise they’re going to realize we’re hiding from them.”
“We didn’t agree to help you.” Yuri’s voice cracked ever so slightly.
“What choice do you have? If you don’t want to help me, I’ll just let the spiders watch you again. The Librarians won’t lie or hide info for you. It won’t take them long to find you if they access the Webs.”
“I hid for months without your help before I went into the webs.”
Billy tilted his head. “You’re sure about that? Like I said. I’ll be in touch.”
The shimmer faded from Billy and he looked like his normal, conductor self. He stepped back onto the platform and the doors closed. We both were suddenly jostled by the crawler raising itself and plodding through the tunnel.
“Don’t even try to tell me you were better off filming that damn show,” I told Yuri as she opened her mouth to speak. “You put up quite the front, but this is the biggest heist of your career. You’re far more excited about this than I am.”
She closed her mouth and half-shrugged.
I brought Yuri back to my apartment, figuring it was a less obvious location than my office. I don’t think the Safety Bureau ever thought I was important enough before this to track where I lived. They won’t know for sure that I helped Yuri escape, not yet, at least, if the Librarians won’t talk to them, but given their knowledge of our history, they have to at least have me on a list of leads. So, we had to tread lightly. Together we sifted through my list of contacts and notes on cases over the years for anything that might be helpful for breaking into the tower. We both put some things to the side, bits of information here and there, but nothing all that useful. Until…
“Jeff,” I said aloud.
“Who?” Yuri asked while rubbing her eyes and looking up from notes on a civil suit involving one of my clients who had worked near the Haverton tower.
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before – well I don’t know how useful he will be, but there’s a retired Safety Officer I know. For a short time, he was in charge of patrols in the district around the tower. He might know something.”
“And what makes you think he’ll help us. I’m sure you can get these pigs to get you little bits of information here and there, but you’d be asking for a lot from this guy.”
“Jeff… is unique. We’ve never spoken that freely about our feelings about any of this,” I said as I waved my hands broadly. “But who does speak freely here? He might be a big help. I don’t know. We can’t sit on leads for too long, though. We’re running out of time and options.”
Yuri rolled her eyes. “Whatever. You know this guy, and if I have to try to read more of your handwriting or about one more idiot divorcing their deadbeat spouse –”
“I’m calling him now.”
We laid low as the pieces of our plan came together. To avoid suspicion, I went to the office everyday. Yuri spent part of her days near the tower, gathering more intel. She stayed home a lot too, getting ansty, sometimes cranky, as she quickly exhausted my catalog of books and films. I wished there was more she could do, but we couldn’t have her attracting attention.
A small package was delivered to my door. I opened it to find a couple of small knick knacks you could find in tourist shops in the Coastal Union and a letter from my old boss, Tanith:
Dear Tom [Yuri made fun of that fact that my fake first name I’d be using since I returned to the Plateau wasn’t too far off from my real name],
You’re lucky you were a cute kid and those damn photos made me nostalgic. You’re also lucky the Coastal Union is a small place and I have connections to someone who works in that place you asked me about. He would do anything for a year of free wine. Something tells me you’re about to do something stupid. Good Luck.
The last piece of our plan had come together. It was time to raid the tower.
Billy, Yuri, and I used the patrol schedule that Jeff had given us to safely monitor the tower over the next few days, waiting for the part to be installed and for the virus to cause the chaos we needed. From Jeff’s paperwork, we learned possible code words the guards might use to report failings in the spider barrier. Despite Yuri’s doubts, Jeff had been more helpful than even I could have predicted.
To get the info I needed, I had visited Jeff in his nice little hovel in the less populated part of the Plateau. Most of his home was underground, but the top floor resembled a hill with round windows, except the lush green grass that once covered homes like this one was patchy and brown. In their fenced yard, Jeff and his wife kept genetically modified chickens with four legs and two pairs of wings. I never kept chickens because I could never get over the cruelty of breeding the featherless, naked creatures that usually became too fat to walk within the first few months of their shivering, miserable lives. Jeff offered me an expensive bourbon as we spoke in his yard, the pitiful creatures dragging themselves around.
“So what brings you over to my neck of the woods, huh? You thinking of selling out and joining the Bureau and want my advice?” He chuckled and patted me harder on the back than was necessary.
“I wanna talk about your time patrolling near the Haverton tower, Jeff.”
Jeff, who had been smiling into his drink, suddenly turned to me with venom radiating from his eyes. “You wanna think before you talk again?”
I took a deep breath. Now or never, I’d find out what kind of Jeff man was or if my little escapade with Yuri was about to be over.
“Jeff,” I kept my voice low and opened my hand. A small spider sat on my palm. Jeff backed away from me. “Go to my shoulder,” I commanded, and the little creature walked up my arm and perched. Jeff’s eyes widened. “Raise your first two legs.” The creature did as he was told. “Jeff, I can’t go into why or how, but I can control all of the spiders in this area. They won’t record us here. You have to trust me.”
Jeff stared at me; I could imagine the gears turning in his grizzled old head.
“You can command the spiders anywhere, not just here?”
“Anywhere I go.”
“Let’s go inside. I have some things to show you.”
On the lowest floor of Jeff’s house, we found a beige box full of files.
“Paper can’t be traced the way electronics are. Still, with the spiders watching there’s still risk of being found out. I’ve been lucky. But look. I kept a detailed map of the tower and our schedule for security patrols.” He pulled a large, folded sheet of paper out and spread it open between us. “There’s three security systems. One is a normal security system that will be tipped off by any intruders. However, there are two more separate systems that,” he looked towards a spider sitting on my shoulder, “keep those things out. One, I believe, applies a barrier to the outside of the tower and the other one, which has a similar electronic signal, surrounds just the top floors. It always made me wonder what kind of relationship our ‘fair’ leaders have with these guys.”
“A very complicated one,” I mumbled. That wasn’t exactly true. The spiders and librarians were enslaved – that was pretty simple and wrong.
“Does this have something to do with you having visited the Webs?” Jeff asked and motioned to the spider.
“Nevermind. Tom Orpho, whatever anyone says about you, you’re a good man. I know that.”
“– wait, what do people say about me?”
“Let’s get back to this. What do you need to know?
“Right. I need to disable all three.”
“I can give you what used to be the guard patrol schedule. That probably hasn’t changed much. If you could get your spiders into the tower, they could disable the security system and you could get inside.” Jeff handed me a paper with the guards’ schedules.
“Now,” he kept talking, the excitement in his voice growing. “Let’s talk about the first spider barrier, the one which encircles the whole tower. It’s generated by some very old tech and relies on multiple control panels and power sources. We don’t even make replacement parts, like batteries, wires, etc. for that tech on the Plateau. When we got notifications that something involved with the barrier was about to break down, we had to order new parts bespoke from Abernathy and Sons, a company in the Coastal Union, and only specially trained techs could fix issues. Only a part of the barrier would come down at one time. If we had a spider get inside, we were ordered to kill it on sight.
“As for the second spider barrier which only protects the top floors,” Jeff continued, “there’s a panel on the 42nd floor that controls the whole barrier. The second spider barrier is newer and has fewer problems, but the fact that it’s generated by that one panel makes it vulnerable. Be careful out there, Detective. You might have gotten in over your head with this one.”
“Don’t have much of a choice in the matter,” I said and shrugged, trying to keep my voice even.
“That’s what we always tell ourselves, isn’t it?”
On the third night of waiting, just as the sky was starting to turn dawn purple, Billy straightened.
“The spiders have noticed the guards reporting a barrier failure on the south side. I’m going to go in. I’ll send you a message via your gauntlet when you can follow.”
“You’re going in by yourself? Won’t the guards just kill you?” Yuri asked.
Billy smiled as dozens of spiders crawled over his body. His image altered from a normal man to that of a very tall, shimmering cyborg. “I am not worried.”
He went ahead, toward the tower. Yuri sighed and squeezed my hand. “I hope we made the right choice.”
I bit my lower lip. What choice? I thought, remembering Jeff’s words. The Safety Bureau forced me to find Yuri. The Librarians employed me for their mission. Then Billy forced us both to help him. My whole life, I’ve never felt in control, really. I was just like those damned spiders.
“You feel safe going out?” I asked Yuri after I came back from Jeff’s and explained what he’d told me. Yuri said that she could use the patrol data Jeff had given to secretly collect data on the barrier without arousing suspicion.
With her superior tech from off the Plateau, she could try to design a virus that might be able to temporarily disable at least part of the first spider barrier. If we could get our spiders into the tower, they could disable the human focused security so we could get inside to turn off the second spider barrier. However, Yuri guessed that transmitting a virus electronically wouldn’t work.
“I’ll have the mask on. I’ll wear the clothes your lady friend left here – not my usual style at all.” Yuri paused for a moment, I wondered if she was expecting a reaction.
“It isn’t just one style.” I shrugged. “A few women have decided to stay here over the years –”
“The point is,” she blurted, “I don’t think I’ll be very recognizable. And unless they somehow know that we’re in cahoots with the Librarians, which I doubt, why would I go to the Haverton Tower? It’s not my usual MO; nothing fancy is there to steal. I think you need to just keep going to work, like normal, until I can come up with the virus and a way to get into the barrier tech.”
“True.” I went to my bathroom and started washing my face and hands, something I’d been itching to do when I first walked through the door, but Yuri had demanded information. Since the Violet Welt Fever pandemic five years ago, I was careful to wash up pretty thoroughly after being out for the whole day.
“…why did so many different women leave their clothes at your house?” She was leaning in the bathroom doorway. As much as I liked the attention, I stifled my slight disgust at her casual invasion of my privacy.
“In the field I work in, you tend to meet a lot of desperate people. Sometimes, like you, these women have nowhere else to go. Sometimes they have to leave quickly and with few belongings.”
She looked down and then up again, raising an eyebrow. “So this is a habit for you, and I’m just one of many? You take advantage of women in need?”
I wiped water from my face. “I think, more often they’re taking advantage of me. They’re getting the free house and often free meals. If you’re asking if I slept with any of these women, yes, but not all. Not most, even. Some of them were children. Or married. Or old. Or just not interested in men, or me, specifically. Doesn’t mean I won’t help them. Doesn’t mean I won’t help you, either.”
“You’re trying to tell me that you’re some noble vigilante?”
“Hmph.” I squeezed past her in the doorway, our eyes meeting for a brief moment, the smell of her breath filling my nose. I picked up the papers Jeff had given me. “Not really. I’m smart enough to know that helping people makes them indebted to you. They become useful later. Case in point, Jeff. We could get your virus onto one of the replacement parts, couldn’t we?”
“How are either of us going to get permission to leave the Plateau and get to The CU? With me missing, they wouldn’t let you leave because you’re probably a suspect and we don’t have time to create a new identity and passport.”
“We might not have to. It’s not that big of a country. My old boss, Tanith, moved there a few years ago – her ‘retirement’. She taught me most of what I know. She could get the virus into one of the parts.”
“What makes you think she’d help us and risk getting herself arrested? How do we even know she’s capable?”
“I know she’s capable of getting the virus into the factory or one of the parts. I looked this company up; it’s pretty small. Tanith mentioned that security is pretty lax in most places in the CU.”
“We can’t assume they’d have no security.”
“It’s worth a shot – if we can figure out how to send her the information and the virus without anyone noticing.”
“We could make it look like you’re just being nice and nostalgic. We could send her a couple of ‘presents’ along with a memory card of pictures that also includes a file for the virus that she could upload into one of the replacement parts. File transfers between the Plateau and other countries aren’t so easy. That’s a decent cover.”
“Yeah.” I tapped my fingers on the table. “We used a simple code for messages between the two of us. I could modify the pictures to add instructions written in our code to the background, small letters. She’s going to be suspicious of anything I send her and scrutinize the files. I doubt the Bureau has any data about our code. We were never of much interest to them.” I turned to Yuri, who had moved to stand a little too close to me. “Up until you came around.” My face flushed.
“Still too many ways it could go wrong” She turned from me and flipped her hair in a way that made me grin, made me want to know if it was as soft as it looked. “What if they find the virus file? What if they figure out your code? What if she just doesn’t want to help you?”
My gauntlet was ringing. I looked down to see that Donna was calling.
“Hello Mrs. Tandy,” I said as I answered her call, forcing a smile. “What can I do for you on this fine evening?”
“Billy told me the news!” Donna cackled, revealing large teeth stained with coffee and lipstick, her wide eyes sparkling with mischief.
“– he what?” I looked to Yuri, my heart bursting in my chest, why would Billy tell her about the Silk Shadow and what we’re doing; Donna was a good woman but –
“You’ve been hiding your new girlfriend from me, and Billy says you’re serious about this one, for once. You promised you’d tell me if you met someone. I told you you’d find someone, see no more tears –”
“Ohh that,” I interrupted her but somehow my heart was still thumping hard.
Yuri’s expression had switched from one of fear to bemusement. “Tears?” she mouthed.
“Yes, that! Does ‘that’ have a name? What is wrong with you? You and ‘that’ need to come have dinner with me and Billy tomorrow night. I’ll make my famous casserole; I managed to get real cheese this time. I better not waste it. You and your girlfriend better come over after we close the office tomorrow.”
I looked at Yuri. She shrugged and mumbled something.
“Ok, ok, Donna. We’ll be there.”
“See you tomorrow!” We heard Billy’s voice in the background.
“What is ‘that’s’ name by the way?”
“…um …Alice?” I offered. Yuri’s nostrils flared in disgust.
“How old fashioned. Anyway, bring some wine or something; I know you have a secret stash in your closet. Don’t hold out on me.”
Donna ended our call.
“Where did you get Alice from?”
“I thought you liked some book with a main character named Alice –”
“Ugh, did you ever listen to anything I ever said? I used to say Alice was the worst character. I liked Bertha.”
“No, you liked Alice. Bertha was the mean one.”
“I liked the mean one,” she insisted while grabbing my shoulders. Suddenly, she realized she was touching me, and she snapped her hands back to her sides.
“I guess that this is Billy’s way of getting in contact.”
“Agreed. You’re smarter than you look, huh? But why couldn’t he have just sent a spider?”
“I guess when you’ve lived that long, forcing two people into a romantic comedy scenario is more entertaining than just doing things simply?”
“Oh, you’re funny, too.” She rolled her eyes.
“Well, I suppose it’s getting late. I guess you want to sleep,” I told her, feeling dizzy, excited and exhausted. “The bathroom and the bedroom are all yours. I’ll sleep in the other room,” I said, referring to what constituted my living room where a couple of older foam mattresses served as my “couch”. I didn’t have much in the way of decoration, and everything was dated, but I kept the ugly green floors and egg-white walls and my few pieces of furniture clean and neat enough.
Yuri bit her lower lip. “Thanks – I haven’t said it yet. Thank you. For getting me out. I don’t know where this is going, but I’d rather die doing something interesting than have rotted in some jail once they stopped being able to make money off the show. You don’t give yourself enough credit, Tobias.”
I was about to say something, but she quickly closed the bathroom door. I laid down on the mattress, expecting insomnia, but deep sleep, the kind of sleep that makes you feel like you’ve died and revived yourself upon waking, slapped me unconscious before I could form a full thought.
Before I could stew too long in my self-pity, we got the message from Billy. The security system was disabled. The guards were focused on him and the spiders. Now was our time to enter the building, our own spiders tickling our skin, acting as our weapons along with our shock batons.
We had to be careful, still. Our armored vests only offered minimal protection from a guard with a laser or a pistol. Luckily, according to Jeff, only some guards actually carried projectile weapons. Following the spiders, we entered the same way Billy had without incident. Inside the lights flickered, we heard shouting and banging up ahead and spiders, ranging in size from tiny spec to nearly palm-sized, ran across the walls. As we moved further into the building, we saw a group of guards facing off with Billy, who handily knocked them against the wall, resisting their lasers, shocks, and bullets. We could not stay long enough to decipher if he was killing the guards or simply maiming and restricting them. Yuri pulled me into a stairwell, continuing to follow the leads of the spiders who were presumably leading us safely to the panel. This stairwell had no advertisements, unlike most stairwells in the apartment buildings and offices of average people. The rich were spared from the oppressive weight of their own capitalism, I guessed.
“Bad day at work for those guards,” Yuri whispered to me as we climbed the stairs.
“They’re just doing their job,” I answered through huffs, thinking of Jeff.
“These spiders better not expect us to climb dozens of staircases.”
They didn’t. On the 12th floor, they led us from the stairwell and to a set of maintenance elevators. Most of the lights had been turned off. The floor had been soaked by sprinklers and squished under our feet. The wide doors opened with no problem, and the display screen lit up, showing 42. The spiders sat around us, quietly, legs folded, as though we were just a group of coworkers riding the elevator on a Monday morning.
On the 37th floor, our car came to a shrieking halt. Yuri pulled me to the side as the doors were blasted open. She struck with her baton, knocking a guard out as he entered the elevator. A second guard behind him raised his own baton to strike her, but I was able to move around and catch him on his exposed neck, sending him to the ground. The spiders rushed ahead, so we followed without waiting to check on our victims. We returned to the stairwell, sweat pouring down our faces, soaking our backs and hands – we had no time to stop and rest as we could almost hear the little animals urging us.
The 42nd floor still had its lights on. We quickly stepped down a long hallway. Near the end, a guard waited, pistol raised. A strange purple light shimmered on the wall next to him, highlighting his face in a way that made it look like a skull.
“We don’t have to fight over this,” I shouted out. His hand shook. An equally shaking red dot appeared on the center of my chest. “If you kill us, the cyborg will just kill you later. Drop the weapon. Let us get to the panel.”
Tears leaked from his eyes. “What do you want? What’s wrong with the spiders? What is happening?”
The question struck me as though he’d smacked me in the face. What did I want? My tongue felt swollen in my mouth.
“We want you to get the fuck out of here so you don’t die, you idiot,” Yuri interjected. The guard dropped his weapon, eyeing the dozens of spiders crawling toward him,
We had a small explosive with us for the panel. I quickly set it up, the purple light’s emanation made me woozy. We dashed down the hallway and pressed the button. Then we heard the sound of the explosion along with a sonorous echo and a strange sharp static stop. Only seconds later, we heard the loud crash of the sound of glass smashing. The spiders were on the move again, leading us toward the sound. Billy, in all his shimmering robotic glory, had made it to the 42nd floor. He had some smoking bullet wounds and was missing a couple of fingers, but other than that, he looked “healthy”.
“You two came through,” Billy said and forced a weird metallic laugh. All the pain I’d been ignoring in my body suddenly came back with a vengeance as I doubled over, catching my breath, my knees feeling like they’d been stabbed.
“Now you have to tell me what you want me to do. I am going to destroy the underground webs. The spiders will die. The Librarians will die. But I can do more. I have access to the identities and data of most of the elite families here.”
“So we could take some of their fortune and get out of here as soon as possible. Buy that winery you’re always going on about,” Yuri suggested as she tried to pretend she wasn’t as out of breath as me.
“Why just us? What about Donna? What about these poor guards? Or Jeff? We’re just gonna leave them?”
“What can we do for them? We’re just two people. Their problems are not your problems. Billy is powerful, but it’s not like he can suddenly change everyone’s mind and make people stop treating each other like shit.”
“But, why stop at giving us money? Billy, why don’t you drain all their funds? And distribute it more or less evenly among a bunch of different poor and middle class people. Then they can’t blame one person. There’s already going to be chaos once the spiders die, but if you take their money and disable communication between the Safety Bureau and their online networks, it will be harder to impose some kind of martial law effectively. In the chaos, people might realize they can stand up for themselves and make things fairer. They can’t just decide our money is meaningless overnight because it’s a shared currency with other countries. Losing their money will affect them, at least for a little while.”
“Or the Plateau regime will just call in foreign soldiers or they will still mobilize officers. We don’t know what will happen. People might get killed. Life might get worse here.”
“No. But what if we have this chance and do nothing?”
“You still think you’re a hero, huh? Who says the people here actually want change? What have they done to help themselves? Look at how they mocked me. Don’t you remember? They would have let you die as a child. Who cares about this damned place?”
Yuri, as Alice, was wearing her mask when we went to Donna’s for dinner. As soon as we got to Billy and Donna’s apartment on the tenth floor of what used to be a high rise (the higher floors were currently unoccupied), Donna pulled “Alice” inside and peppered her with questions. Yuri was good at this kind of thing; without missing a beat, she told her a fake birthday, an appropriate astrological sign, made up a career as an executive assistant and a cute back story.
“So, how did a nice, polite girl like you meet this old scamp?”
“You wouldn’t believe it,” Yuri exaggerated her accent, matching Donna’s speed, nasal vowels, and clipped words, “but my mother lives in the same neighborhood as Tom. Her little dog went missing, but Tom helped her track him down, and she invited him over for some coffee as a thank you, and I happened to be there. The rest of history.”
“Detective Tom Orpho agreeing to take a case after work hours! Now that’s a miracle.”
“Hey Tom, why don’t you help me in the kitchen,” Billy called to me. I shot Yuri a sympathetic look.
“You owe me,” she mouthed as Donna was in the midst of describing her first meeting with Billy.
Donna was a good cook, somehow, even with the poor quality of ingredients available to most of us on the Plateau. The smell of sweet pies in the oven warmed me and almost made me forget about the current precariousness of my situation and the fact that I was talking to an ancient cyborg. A few spiders skittered across Donna’s sunflower wallpaper.
“Have you thought of a way into the tower yet?” Billy asked me.
I explained our rudimentary plan.
“Yuri was able to design the virus that can knock out the spider barrier, based on the data she collected today. But there is no way it will get past their regular firewalls if we try to upload it virtually.”
“If you think your friend in the CU might actually be able to get the virus onto parts made in Abernathy, I can get your package out of the Plateau without it getting scrutinized too closely.” Billy stood a little too straight.
“I can’t be sure. But other than that, we don’t have any leads.”
“Tell me when you send the package, and I’ll make sure it bypasses security. Then we wait, but we can keep looking for another way inside in the meantime. I’m patient.”
“But how much time do we have before the Safety Bureau comes knocking at my door looking for Yuri?”
“The Librarians have fed the Bureau false information. They think she might have smuggled herself off the Plateau and are contacting authorities in the Plains Confederacy, looking for her there. That should buy you quite a bit of time. So I guess we have weeks. Not months.”
“I’ll have the package out by the end of the day pickup tomorrow,” I told Billy.
“Hey, are we teenagers?” Donna shouted from her living room. “Girls in one room and boys in the other? Get back over here, you two.”
“You better not come back without two glasses of that wine,” Yuri added.
Yuri pulled a knife from her pocket and before I could realize what she was doing, it was pressed against my throat. When we were kids, if we argued, she used to stare at me until I relented and agreed with her.
“If you don’t care, then why not just let me do what I think is right,” I hissed.
“You better make up your mind soon,” Billy warned, the purple light around him turning redder by the second.
“I’m trying to break you of your stupid habits. Your boss tried. But you never learn. You want to help people. Why can’t you, us, escaping be good enough for you? What if they don’t want your help?”
Yuri and I drank more wine than we should have at Donna’s apartment. The elevator in Billy and Donna’s building malfunctioned while we were eating dinner, so we had to skip down the emergency stairs. Somehow the speakers and hologram machines which played advertisements all day were still working. Lights and noise blinked and blared as we drunkenly descended the many staircases to the first floor. We held the crumbling bannister and half leaned on each other, the sound of words making us giggle as we swooned with new found appreciation for the commercial jingles blaring from the speakers. Once we got outside, we found ourselves in heavy mist, the orange street lights glowing amidst the fog, the blue lights of billboards swimming through the raindrops.
“I wonder what this would be like if it were all trees again instead of buildings,” Yuri mused. “You know, for a cyborg, Billy is a good husband.”
He really was. He and Donna seemed so happy. I had forgotten that people could be happy on the Plateau. I wondered if it was all an act or if Billy ever just wished he was a normal guy and he and Donna could grow old together.
“What would you do,” Yuri asked me and grabbed my forearm, “if we were really together?”
“What do you mean? Like right now or in the future…”
She let go of my arm. “Ugh, you are so literal, my friend. No wonder only some of the women who stayed at your house wanted to screw you.”
“Does this usually work for you?” I answered, suddenly feeling more sober. “Negging people who help you? Did that work for your husband?”
“Fuck you.” She stopped swaying, pulled her coat tightly around her body, and started marching ahead of me with purpose.
“Oh, come on,” I said after her. “We don’t have time to stop getting along.”
She stomped through puddles and alleyways while I trailed behind her. Once we reached my home, she waited for me to unlock the door. She pushed past me into the house, removing her coat and letting it drop to the floor, pulling her overshirt off and tossing it aside exposing her bare arms and part of her waist. Ripping the mask from her face, she then tossed it onto the mattress. Swiftly, she turned around to look at me and thrust her left arm in front of my face.
“I used to have a scar, right here. During one of my first heists, someone shot at me and the laser nicked me. I had one on my right collar bone, too, where an angry client tried to stab me.” She pointed to her waist. “This one was more recent. A guard electrocuted me. Here, I think.” She pressed her finger into smooth skin on her side. “I can’t remember exactly where because the scar is gone now. That show. They took all my scars with their damned lizard juice.” She took a deep breath. “You wanna know how I talked to my husband? I barely did. I married for money. He hated me but loved how I looked and thought I’d make some good looking babies. But I was barren. Divorcing me would have been expensive.” She was staring at me, I think not sure whether or not she was angry at me, not sure of the thousands of feelings swimming behind her eyes.
I hugged her and squeezed hard, not knowing what else to do, but remembering the recent feeling of sitting next to Yuri on Donna’s couch while Donna kept insisting we eat more of her food and Billy was laughing, sonorously, like chorus bells.
“Your rain coat is getting me wet,” she complained into my shoulder.
“Sorry.” I let her go.
Yuri cupped my chin in her hands and kissed my lips, softly. “Next time a woman comes
onto you in the rain, don’t say something stupid.”
I held steady and met Yuri’s gaze. This wasn’t her choice to make. Not this time. She hadn’t been living here for the last twenty years. She didn’t know this place like I did. Didn’t love it enough to hate it. To set it free of itself, at least temporarily.
“Yuri. This is my home. If I leave this tower, doing nothing for the people of this city, it’ll break me. If you ruin me, you won’t be able to stand yourself. You might not give a shit about anyone else, but you’ve always cared about me.”
She finally turned away.
“If you get yourself involved in some bullshit instead of leaving with me as soon as we can, I won’t help you.”
“I know. We’ll go. I promise, but you need to do one favor for me. Go through my contacts. Send out a warning to as many people as you can that something big is going to happen tonight and to either stay home or make plans to leave the country as soon as possible.” She nodded but didn’t protest.
Billy and I worked out the details.
Early that morning, before people could figure out what had happened, we used our extra funds to quickly leave the Plateau and head to the Coastal Union. We did end up buying the Winery next to Tanith’s as soon as we could, before some international consensus could be made about what had happened in The Plateau and some government threatened to take our money. Most of the other countries voted to not change the mass transfer of funds that had happened that night because they did not want to destabilize their own economies.
There was some protest from the great families that had lost their wealth, but to get it back would require taking money from every average citizen – a largely unpopular proposal. The Safety Bureau had its own issues, and without the webs or the librarians, they no longer had access to as much information. What could they do against the masses? Yuri was right. There was chaos, some death, some destruction as society completely rewrote itself overnight. But they did get a new start.
What they will do with that new start, I don’t know.
Donna and her sons were safe, but, Donna’s Billy disappeared. I had watched him shut down finally, that night, with the equivalent of a robot happy sigh, a relieved expression of air released from each of his gears at once. Like Billy said, all of the little spiders stopped in waves, suddenly dropping from the walls and the ceilings after he was done messing with the master computer hidden in the tower.
Those were happy, quiet months on the winery, spending time in warm sunlight. Yet, I knew Yuri was restless, often pacing or staring out in the distance. I woke up one morning to find a small rose, a note, and a notification that nearly all my funds had been removed from my bank account.
“You know the story about the scorpion and the frog? Well whatever, look it up if you don’t. You knew I couldn’t stay here with you for long. Of course you’re free to try to catch me.”
I sighed and typed a message before getting to work figuring out where Yuri had gone with my money.
“Donna, how would you and the boys feel about living in a nice winery far from the Plateau?”
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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