Behind gray blocks

(1) The welcoming committee

It was a cluster of three-story condominiums with flat roofs: maybe a dozen buildings caught in a web of alleys, their facades a patchwork of old repair jobs. Scrawny trees dotted the ground floor gardens; vines grew on wires that stretched between balconies, providing a modicum of privacy from the drones flying way too low at times. Futuristic wind turbines perched on two or three poles, spinning silently. Away from the taller buildings across the street, mid-morning sun reached the ground with enough strength to make the air hot even halfway through October. Music blared from an open window overhead as women in floral dresses tried in vain to herd a gaggle of naked children. Somewhere, a trashcan was overflowing.

On a bench with peeling paint sat three people: an old man dressed in black, with a wide-brimmed hat, a fat woman in a warm housedress that looked as worn as she did, and between them a young man with pasty white skin, wearing new jeans and a polo shirt. Now and then he cast fearful glances at a couple others who stood around. They were big and muscled, beer bellies hanging over unwashed shorts, but with shiny patches on their temples, head movements tracked by turret-shaped devices on the nearest walls.

The young man almost failed to notice someone crossing the street, until the elder next to him waved a hand. "Yo, Vic!" he called in a raspy voice.

The newcomer made a beeline for them and stopped in front of the bench. "Good morning, sir. Ma'am." It was definitely a male voice. Maybe. Between baggy clothes the color of asphalt and a hood pulled over the eyes, it could have been anyone. Curly brown locks of hair framed a mask that covered his nose and mouth. He shook hands with the guards.

"What's the word? Keeping busy?" rasped the old man.

"Yes, Mr. Strajnic, sir," answered Vic, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. "Just came from the hardware market. Steve asked me to fetch some equipment for the school."

"Steve who?" asked the woman.

"Tractor Steve," Strajnic explained. "Lives a couple of streets over. You've met him at Sparky's wedding."

"Ah." She picked up a cup from a small table set nearby and elbowed the young man. "Drink up."

"Oh, right," resumed Strajnic. "Vic, meet my nephew, Andy."

"Hey, Andy." Vic made a greeting gesture, eyeing the guest. "Nephew, really?"

"Hush." The elder winked. "None of your business. His parents ran into trouble with their employer. We owe them, so the kid's going to stay with us for a while."

The woman reached under the table for a portly bottle and filled another cup. "Say, is Helen still with you?"

Vic sighed. "She's been gone for three weeks. Took her baby and left."

"Was it yours?" The woman handed him the cup, and he took his mask off to drink.

"She said no. I didn't mind either way. Place is awfully quiet without them."

The woman smiled shrewdly. "So... you have a spare bedroom? We have a favor to ask."

"A favor." Vic looked conflicted for a moment, then nodded. "Sure thing, Ma'am. Can do. Just let me swing by the store and grab some extra food."

"What do you take us for?" She reached under the table again and came up with a textile shopping bag that was bursting at the seams. Vic took it without a word and pointed the way down a different alley. The young man followed meekly, an oversized suitcase trundling on rollers after him.

He stopped for a moment in the middle of the road to watch the ghosts of skyscrapers in the distance, large quadcopters obscuring the view now and then. The bell of a cargo bike woke him up, and the young man hurried to catch up with his guide.

Condos on the other side looked very different: tall and narrow, maybe a dozen floors apiece, and much better maintained, but only up to a certain height. An alley ran between flower beds to a raised entrance. A handful of young people sat on the steps, all of them watching Andy. There was this blonde girl in black fishnets; another wearing a hijab and high-tech visor over her left eye. Then an older boy with Asian traits and a little trilby hat perched atop his head, and a big guy with a too-tight t-shirt, most of his right arm covered in a metal armature with LED and servos.

"Morning, Vic!" the blonde girl chimed. "Who's your new friend?"

"Hey, gang. This is Andy. He's moving in with me for the time being."

The big guy eyed both of them suspiciously. "Says who?"

"Mr. Strajnic. Feel free to take it up with the old man if you don't like it."

He draped an arm around the young man's shoulders and dragged his charge up the stairs. Behind them, the suitcase whirred in confusion, before locating a ramp it could use.

"Could be fun," said the other girl. "Meet you back here around six, when the sun sets? We haven't talked in a while."

"What was that all about?" asked Andy as he picked up his trunk to begin his ascent to the second floor. There was no light on the stairs, so he stumbled every other step. A big fluffy cat came out of the gloom and rubbed on their ankles. Vic bent down to pet the purring creature.

"The welcoming committee," the host said. He led the way into a dark recess, then through a door. The clattering of keys echoed up and down the stairwell.

There was more light inside, seeping through closed window blinds. Lots of rooms, too, for such a cramped unit. Andy could only hope to remember which one was the bathroom.

"Oh, alright," he said, and hesitated before adding, "I'd like to meet your friends."

"You will," Vic told him gruffly. "That wasn't an invitation."

(2) Toys of the trade

There wasn't much to do while the sun was up except sleep off the heat, but the young man couldn't even do that. He squeezed out of the guest bedroom, dragging his feet across linoleum floors, and somehow found the living room on first try. An old mattress placed on pallets and lined with cushions formed a couch of sorts. There were bookshelves against the far wall, and several flat boxes with many buttons. On the table sat an orthogonal keyboard just wide enough to allow touch typing, hinged to a screen about the same size. Through a gap in the curtains, he could see more identical condos, and a large greenhouse behind a fence; nearby, a toy truck was parked next to more overflowing trashcans.

"You're feeling restless too?" Vic shuffled in without a noise, wearing only a pair of black briefs. "Well, how do I look? White enough for ya?"

Andy looked away quickly. "I don't know what you're asking me."

"Not what you think." The host brushed past him and sat at the keyboard. "Check this out: twelfth-gen RISC-V cyberdeck with vector and JIT extensions. Not as good as a workstation, but can run circles around it."

His guest boggled at the neon green characters marching across the display. "What am I looking at?"

"It's running NullBSD. There's MacroForth in ROM too, if you like it better."

"You speak in riddles." Andy pointed at a flower made of big pixels, with the words Rose Garden Collective under it. "I mean this."

"Oh! That's an anarchist group, straight across River Road from us. We have fast pipes to everybody who's somebody in Riverside."

The young man rubbed his freshly shaved chin. "They deal in information, right? I've heard rumors. Do you suppose they might know what's going on at UbiVision these days? Like, the real scoop, not press releases."

Vic started pounding out a query, then paused and glanced over the shoulder at his guest. "What is it to you?"

"My parents work there as company lawyers. Mom's in HR, and dad in the financial department. They won't tell me what's going on."

"Fair." Vic resumed typing. "Go grab a drink. Get me something, too."

By the time Andy came back, his host was obliviously hunched over the keyboard, hugging a pillow, each slipper in another corner of the room. He paused to open a bottle of soda and gulped down half of it in one go.

"I couldn't find any alcohol," apologized the young man. "Any luck?"

The host signed no. "There's a media blackout for three hops around UbiVision. And I can't probe any deeper, or they'll see me."

"Some hacker you are," teased Andy. "Oh well, thanks for trying."

Vic quirked his eyebrows at him. "Who says I'm a hacker?"

His guest wordlessly waved a hand at the electronic equipment around the room.

"These are toys," said the older man. "Come on, the sun is setting. We should probably get dressed soon."

The sky was beginning to darken noticeably by now, yet the concrete steps weren't done radiating warmth. Andy reached into his back pocket out of habit, and panicked for a moment. Oh right, his phone was in a steel box in the luggage, in airplane mode. He sat down and watched a cute tomboy bump into a man in heavy makeup, then startle and rear up into a stroller whose occupant promptly started to cry. Before long there was a small crowd in front of the grocery across the street, everyone arguing loudly with no-one in particular. He reached behind his back again, only to elbow Vic by mistake. "Sorry."

"No problem. Should I try and scrounge up an old cyberdeck to keep your hands busy?"

"Is it expensive? I haven't seen an ATM anywhere."

Vic stared at him, pondering. "Don't worry about it. You're the old man's guest."

"Ah... are you family or something? Everyone seems to respect him a lot here."

"In a way," answered a voice from behind them. The blonde girl came out the door and leaned against it. "He's the Godfather. What he says, goes. That's the first rule of Flower Street."

Andy turned to look at her. "What's the second rule?"

"You cause trouble, I break your legs," answered the big guy instead, following behind the blonde. He gave her a kiss on the lips then sat heavily next to the young man. "I'm Salman. My folks are big fans of Bollywood."

"Roxie," echoed his girlfriend.

"Nice to meet you." Andy sat very, very still. "What kind of trouble do you mean?"

"Don't bring cops here," explained Roxie, "And don't touch anyone without permission."

There was an awkward silence. At length, Vic started rummaging in his bag. "Anyone wants a sandwich?"

"What do you have?" asked Roxie, looking over his shoulder. "Oh, there's Julian and Hamidah."

"Gimme," added Salman. Vic handed him a little wrap distractedly, watching the trilby hat floating towards them through the crowd.

"So where have you been lately?" asked Hamidah once she was close enough, looking at Vic. Little lights were dancing on her visor.

"Me and Gina could have used your help at the Blue Box this week," added Julian.

Vic handed out more sandwiches. "Hauling pipes and valves for the school. They want the greenhouse working again before the weather turns."

"School?" Andy took a big bite out of his sandwich and chewed valiantly.

From behind him, Roxie snorted. "That's what some joker named our local soup kitchen."

"It used to be a school," pointed out Hamidah. "Before we were born. Right, Vic?"

He nodded while finishing his food. "Went there until eighth grade. We were the last."

Andy looked disappointed. "Oh. You know, first year of uni, I enrolled in education sciences. A few months later the last public schools started closing left and right."

"Dude, that sucks." Julian leaned on a concrete planter. "What did you do?"

"I transferred to content management and information retrieval. Just got my Master's."

"Is that some kind of rich kids' sport?" asked the big guy, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

Hamidah sat down carefully on the bottom step. "Salman, be nice. Why don't we all swing by tomorrow and see if they need anything else?"

"Whatever." The big guy shrugged. "What are we doing tonight? There's a new place at the Blue Box I wanted to check out."

"Brilliant idea," said Vic. "Coming with, Andy? You can ask Julian here to show you what he's up to most days."

(3) Fair share

The young man slept fitfully, dreaming of a maze-like bazaar, street food of dubious provenance and a vast square littered with remnants of days past, the open space crushed on one side against fortress walls with a gaping dark hole in the middle. The light of dawn woke him up way too early, yet his host was already up brewing chickpea. It didn't help Andy feel any more alert, but the hot drink was welcome: temperatures had dropped like a rock overnight. The wind had picked up too, as it turned out once they were outside for the fifty-meter walk to their destination.

"Want to go back and get a jacket?" Vic asked him.

"I'll be fine," answered the guest between clenched teeth. He looked around curiously.

It was a pair of squat utilitarian buildings, one smaller, the other bigger. Both had complicated pipework on the roof, all painted black, and faded murals facing the yard. Between them on the other side sprawled the greenhouse, sounds of construction work coming from inside. A chicken wire enclosure next to it overflowed with barrels and crates; a line of people snaked around it, pointing at a big tent that sheltered some tables. Delicious smells drifted from that direction, along with the clatter of cups and cutlery. Vic started to turn away from the scene, towards a side door into the nearest building, when they became aware of a commotion.

"Put it down!" a high-pitched voice said. "I said put it down!"

That was Hamidah, facing a man in outmoded clothes, white-haired yet still imposing. He had grabbed a whole crate of bread rolls and was about to walk off with it, but the girl wouldn't budge. He shifted his loot under an arm and raised the other hand to strike. She took half a step back.

"Hey. Hey!" Vic stopped just outside the man's reach, trailed by his guest. "Pick on someone your size."

"What did you say?" the old man asked mockingly, turning to face the pair. "Take off that mask and speak properly."

Vic stood straight and squared his shoulders before smacking a balled up fist into the open palm of his off hand. The old man hesitated.

"It's none of your business anyway! They're free!" he stated haughtily.

Hamidah snuck behind his back and snatched the crate to put it back where it belonged. "A couple are free, not two dozen."

In response, the old man took a step towards Vic, raising his hand again, then turned around sharply and elbowed his way through the line of hungry people. He stormed off in a hurry, barking vague complaints at no-one in particular.

"It's always the well-dressed ones," the girl said, shaking her head.

"Come on, Andy." Vic waved the young man over. "Let's see where he's going."

The school grounds faced a main road along the far side. A fence with nasty spikes separated it from the sidewalk, but the gate was open. The old man picked up the pace without looking back. His pursuers got there just in time to see him cross the road towards a large condominium on the other side, where more people watched.

"He's not even from our neighborhood," pointed out Vic. "Figures."

"Strangers aren't welcome at the soup kitchen?" asked his young companion.

"Everyone's welcome... if they behave." Vic gave him a serious look. "That's rule number three, by the way: never take more than your fair share. Steal if you have to, but don't hoard."

Andy looked shaken. "What do we do now?"

"I'm not sure." Vic surveyed the area, hands in his pockets. There was a police cruiser idling by the roadside, not far from there. "Shit. Let's go back inside."

The young man obeyed without hesitation. "Can they give us trouble?"

"No, but I bet their dashcam is running. Come on, let's go find Hamidah."

She wasn't by the tables anymore, but a volunteer pointed them at a nearby door into the smaller building. Vic led the way past a kitchen, pantry and office, then up the stairs. There was a little workshop and a storeroom, then deeper in a sewing room with a dozen machines, some of them in use.

"There they are," said Hamidah. Roxie poked her head around the door and waved.

"Salman had too much to drink last night," she apologized. "How are you?"

"I didn't have enough to drink," countered Vic. "What are we doing here?"

Roxie turned to a middle-aged woman with thick glasses who was busy giving someone lessons. "Picking up an order. Winter clothes and stuff."

"Bed linens," the woman added. She turned to Hamidah. "Here. This sack is for your mother, and the other two for the twins' shop over on Park Lane."

Andy eyed the sacks doubtfully. He could have slept comfortably on the largest one. "What do I do?"

"Help me carry mine," Roxie told him. "I just got my nails done."

They blundered their way back outside with their cargo. Small clouds tumbled across the sky, and it wasn't as hot as the other day. On Flower Street, air currents blew dust and dead leaves around at random. Mr. and Mrs. Strajnic weren't out, but more tables were set. Women of all ages busied themselves making small bundles of fruit and pastries, each topped by a thin yellowish candle. Andy watched as they walked past, looking puzzled.

Vic rolled his eyes. "Oh, right. I forgot it's a Sunday. We're going to church later."

"To church?" The young man snickered. "I didn't think you were the type."

"I'm not. This isn't what you think either."

(4) Bread and fish

A better-dressed couple visited them later, as the group met out in front again, bringing a couple of bags with some of those little bundles inside. More people joined on the way, trickling out of gangways and side streets. They followed the sound of church bells, this time past the school, then by a car charging station along the main road. Traffic was rarefied, mostly just the occasional van or pickup. The whole procession crossed to the other side, up a walkway and through a wrought iron gate into a yard that went on and on, with a round building in the middle. It wasn't shaped like most churches Andy had seen, but still had a cross atop the dome, and little niches with icons of saints over the entrance. Right outside, a young priest was already preaching to the early crowd, his sing-song voice aided by a discreet amplifier system.

During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, "I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance."

His disciples answered, "But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?"

"How many loaves do you have?" Jesus asked.

"Seven," they replied.

He told the crowd, "All we have is plain bread. Let us give taste to this meal. Who among you can spare a small fish, an apple or a little cheese?"

Many stepped forward; afterward the disciples counted seven times seven basketfuls of food. Jesus told them to distribute it again. The people ate and were satisfied.

"Wait," whispered Andy. "That's not how the story goes. I know as much."

"I've read the Bible too," confirmed Vic. "This version is better, don't you think?"

They were interrupted by much of the crowd loudly saying "Amen". Those who were closer to the entrance queued up to receive a blessing from the priest and light their candles, then proceeded to pass on the flame. Many crossed themselves, or muttered a prayer. Andy helped Vic untie the bundles from their bags and hand them to their friends, apart from one for each of them, and a third they held between themselves.

"What are these for?" asked the young man.

Without a word, Vic pointed towards the gate, where a different crowd had gathered: people in rags, surrounded by emaciated children. In the dwindling daylight, they looked like ghosts of things to come.

"Not what, whom," Vic said wearily. "Come on, light your candle from mine and let's feed some kids."

"Why all the candles, anyway?"

"To remember the dead. As a symbol of hope. But mostly they're just pretty."

Andy watched the sea of little lights flowing back out into the road. It reminded him of decades-old photos from space that still circulated online. "Yes, yes they are."

Salman appeared behind them in the dark. "Enough moping, you two. Let's party."

The way back passed by a crumbling wall with old decorations, its gate stuck open. Inside loomed the ruins of a once imposing palace, glowing from within. Trance beats made the night air pulsate like a dragon's heart. Shadowy shapes swayed in the shifting spotlights. Somewhere, an unseen DJ recited alien poetry.

"Let's dance!" mouthed Roxie, and dragged Salman towards the open space in the middle.

"Do you want to go with them?" shouted Vic over the din. Andy shook his head no. They went near the opposite corner instead, where a fading solar lamp hid behind some trees, and sat on sculpted stone slabs, while Vic unwrapped a bottle and two small glasses.

"I don't keep this in the kitchen," he told Andy.

Bushes rustled, and Julian found his way to them. "Can I? Nothing much is going on."

Unfazed, Vic took out another glass. "People are here to party, dude, not swap files."

"Can't they do both at the same time? Whatever. Cheers!"

"Who were those poor people at the church?" asked the young man. He took a sip from the drink and made a face.

"They pick up our trash," explained Vic, "among other things."

"It's cool to help people in need like that," added Julian, and emptied his glass.

Vic finished more slowly and poured another round.

It was late. The wind had died down, leaving a chill to linger in the air. Andy walked out the gate ahead of the others, then along the sidewalk with the thinning crowd. There were no streetlamps, but LEDs shone in every window of every building. Overhead, the moon looked down between stringy white clouds. It took the young man a while to notice someone coming from the opposite direction. A woman, he realized, in a bulky trenchcoat. He tried to step aside a couple of times, but she matched his movements.

"Excuse me," she called out. "I'm a little lost. Which way to Linden Avenue?"

Andy stared at her in confusion. The avenue in question was clearly visible right past the charging station with its floodlights. He gestured in that direction, vaguely aware that two more strangers were coming up behind him, dressed in blue jackets.

"Can you help me enter the address into the GPS?" she pressed. "My car is over there."

He looked around desperately, but the street was almost empty now. The woman grabbed his arm and started pulling. Andy took a step, then another, before something else got her attention and she opened her mouth to shout, but too late. There was a muffled thump and a gasp. Andy turned around to see one of the men behind him trade blows with an indistinct gray shape. The other raised a baton; out of the dark, a laser beam slashed across his wrist and the man dropped to his knees in pain before trying to get away. Someone else was coming towards them. Someone big. At last, the woman tried to run. A dancer-like shadow tripped her, but she got up again and was gone in a instant. Her other accomplice got the upper hand over his opponent just long enough to follow.

"Good going, Vic," Salman said snarkily, helping his friend up. "You'll get the hang of it any day now."

"Who was that?!" asked Andy. "What did they want from me?"

"They looked like private security if you ask me," Vic told him. "Say, a contractor of a subsidiary of UbiVision."

"Keep your voice down," admonished Julian. He pocketed a ridged box with a handle and took out another, that had many buttons instead.

"What do we do with the car?" asked Roxie, straightening her clothes.

Julian looked up from his box. "Download what we can and leave. It's going to be spare parts by morning."

The girl nodded. "You okay there, Vic?"

"I'm going to have so many bruises tomorrow," he answered. "Good thing Hamidah isn't here to see me like this."

"Why didn't she come with us, anyway?" asked Andy.

Salman cast him a weird look. "Do you go to Friday prayer with your Muslim friends?"

The young man blinked. "I... don't think I have any Muslim friends."

(5) We have our channels

They sat on the couch in sloppy sweatshirts, hot cups of chickpea in hand, listening to rain in the window as early morning light filtered through clouds filled the room with gray. On the table, neon green letters marched endlessly across a little screen.

"Aren't you going to call your parents?" asked Vic before taking a sip cautiously.

Andy hesitated. "They said not to get in touch unless it was really important."

"A kidnapping attempt isn't important? Suit yourself. But we have to tell your uncle."

"Uncle, yeah, sure." The young man sobered up. "Is this going to get you in trouble?"

Vic shrugged. "Let's go with uncle. And that's what we need to figure out."

"Knowledge is power, gotcha." Andy sipped from his cup too. "So where do we start?"

"First we need to do something about your clothes. Mine won't fit you."

The track suit was so new it squeaked, but the unzipped hoodie revealed an old t-shirt turned inside out, sloppily tucked into the waistband, and a cheap silver chain around the neck. The sneakers had little strips of reflective tape stuck on top, hiding the original brand. Andy examined himself doubtfully in the full-length mirror.

"Are you sure, man?" he asked. "This is extremely over the top."

"Yes it is," Vic assured him. "That's perfect. Now be a good boy and put on a mask. It's clean. I have spares."

Andy rolled his eyes. "Do I have to? ...Alright, alright! What is it with you and masks anyway?"

"Chicks dig them. They say I look mysterious."

"In your dreams." The young man laughed, but accepted the mask and put it on clumsily.

Vic made finger pistols at him. "There you go. Seriously, grandpa lived through the Shitty Twenties. He never stopped wearing one after that. And dad was a doctor."

"Your father must be retired by now," Andy said, looking at him with newfound respect.

"Permanently. Come on, we have places to be and the morning is short."

There was hardly anyone around that day. Wet leaves littered the maze of empty alleys, too heavy for the wind to shift. Even the lone guard was staying inside, trying to look like he just happened to hang around the building's open atrium. The rain had stopped for a while, so the old man sat on a chair near the stairs, reading intently from a tablet. Bare-headed and in a sweater, he looked a lot less scary.

"Your parents said this wouldn't get us involved, Andy," he said once Vic had recalled the previous night's events.

"I'm so sorry, sir." The young man didn't know what to do with his hands. "Is there anything...? Maybe if I leave they'll come after me."

"Why, nephew, don't like it here?" Strajnic chuckled. "Nah. Let me talk to them first. We have our channels. And Vic, see what your friends can find out. I have another job for you in the mean time. Kind of important."

The young man didn't hear the rest. A door opened behind him, and a woman in a thick warm housedress came out. He almost didn't recognize her at first.

"Oh my," she chirped, "who's this young person visiting us?"

"It's me, Andy," he said in a hurry, and took off his mask. She laughed and kissed him on both cheeks.

"Is Vic treating you well?" she asked, her face turning serious. "You're not eating enough. What are your parents going to think about us?"

He stammered. "That's fine, uh, Auntie. I mean, I won't be staying long... right?"

She gave him a reproachful look. He turned to Vic for help, but his host seemed busy.

Park Lane was animated even on rainy days. Right across the street from Andy stretched a long, tall apartment building with a strip mall along the ground floor. Closer to the road, tents and shacks lined up to service passing vehicles directly. A tiny three-wheeled truck painted an ugly green drove by too fast, and the young man jumped back to avoid getting soaked. An imposing old house with two stories and broken rain gutters loomed over them. Vic swore quietly at the dripping water and dragged him into a kind of shopping alley lined with little walk-in kiosks along one side. A door into the adjacent house hid behind the corner. Inside it was dry for a change, and bright lights reflected off a counter strewn with electronic components.

"Hey, you two," called Julian, waving. He was bare-headed for once, but wearing a mask and goggles, fussing over a welding station. Andy recognized him by voice.

Another person in a similar getup came out from behind the counter to see a customer out before extending a hand. "You must be Julian's friends. Name's Georgie."

"Nice to meet you, Miss," said the young man. He hoped she was a woman. "I'm Andy."

"Welcome to the jungle," she replied, and eyed the other visitor. "You must be Vic then. I'll go ahead and close the shop, it's almost break time anyway."

Julian waved them into an adjacent room, where a table and chairs were set among ceiling-high shelves filled with accessories. "You were right about those three goons. That's all we could figure out so far."

"I was hoping you'd have a better lead." Vic leaned back in his chair. "The old man said to keep digging."

"Sure thing, but where to start?" Julian propped up his chin with both hands. "Oh! Andy, do you have a phone?"

"Yeah!" Andy sounded surprised. "It's in my bags, locked down tight."

"Perfect! Bring it over, will you? We can use the SIM to set up a honeypot and see who else turns up."

Andy and Vic looked at each other. The latter nodded. "Okay. Sounds like a plan. Need anything else while we're out?"

"Actually, yes. Can you swing by Eddie's shawarma place on the way back and pick up our lunch? We ordered two of everything today."

(6) Not a good place

They left home again long before dark. The clouds had scattered for the most part, letting the sun shine golden light over the rooftops. Delicious smells drifted from Eddie's shop as they walked past for the second time that day; across the road, birds flew back and forth over a barrier of trees, calling distantly.

"Park Lane leads up to a public park?" asked Andy. "Who would have guessed."

Vic eyed him with amusement. "And the Blue Box is painted blue, surprisingly enough."

"How come we're going again so soon, by the way? Not that I mind."

"We have a business meeting," explained Vic. "Don't worry, I'll do the talking."

"Oh." Andy pondered the answer. "By the way, what do you do for a living?"

The older man looked at the sky, then the ground. They had crossed Park Lane where it ended in a wider avenue, and went left along the titular park, past some grand old buildings of unclear purpose. "Let's just say good stuff falls out the back of a truck all the time. We keep it off the streets, cops look the other way, megacorps chalk it up to rounding errors, and everyone's happy."

Andy blinked. "But why would they allow that in the first place? You bribe cops?"

"Sometimes, maybe, a little. But mostly, it keeps mass popular revolts at bay for one more winter."

"Contraband with a higher purpose," joked the young man. "What's next, friendly drug dealing? Protection tax for the public good?"

"You'll have to ask Mr. Strajnic about it," Vic said seriously. "I just do my thing."

"I was kidding!" Andy stared at him and took a few steps back, seeming ready to break into a run. "You're not kidding."

Vic simply stood there. "I thought you knew, given what else your parents do on company time."

"That doesn't make me anything like you!" the young man retorted. He examined his own clothes and swallowed his next words.

"You're right," answered his host. "This isn't a good place, and I'm not a good person. Sorry to disappoint. You deserve better. Everyone does."

They watched each other across a one-lane side street, while bicycle traffic passed between them. At length, Andy walked back. "Thanks for taking me in."

Floodlights were coming on at the Blue Box: an oblong, two-story building painted a strident shade of the titular color. Behind it, solar panels covered a stretch of asphalt still bordered by parking signs. The adjacent corner was a pedestrian area; long-disused tram tracks took a turn around it. From overhead wires hung paper pumpkins and fake cobwebs, when it wasn't a pair of boots with their shoelaces tied together. As the crowd thickened, Andy could see people wearing witch hats, skulls painted on their faces, or a couple with glowing eyes and circuit board tattoos on their necks.

"Are those cyborgs?!" he asked Vic urgently, suppressing an urge to point.

His host didn't turn to look. "Shush. If you see them around here? No, you didn't."

"But...!" Andy sighed and followed quietly inside through the glass doors at one end of the Box. Sounds grew muffled, and lights dimmed, filtered through layers of hanging fabric. He wanted to linger and gawk at the merchants and their wares. There were cheap clothes in bright colors, decorated with glitter; soaps and perfumes smelling as good as they looked plain; tools and toys. Vic simply walked past them, then up the stairs to the top floor. Few people went through the trouble. Those that did haggled with merchants over the contents of fancy boxes before wads of cash changed hands.

A booth full of electronics took up one end of the floor. Across the corridor from it was only a small break room with chairs and tables. Behind the counter sat a wiry man with piercing blue eyes, a threadbare sweater hanging on him. Jeering teenagers formed a gallery.

"There you are," the man addressed Vic. "Right on time as always. Who's your friend?"

Vic nodded. "Yo. This is Andy. I'm showing him the ropes. Andy, meet The Russian."

"Good evening, sir," said the young man. He winced as they shook hands.

"New around? Piece of advice: learn fast." The Russian gestured towards a pair of stools. "Please, sit. What do you have for me, Vic?"

The latter made a show of rummaging in his pockets before he made a thumb drive appear. "The source code to every release announced by UbiVision for next year. Here's a sample."

The Russian whistled. He plugged the drive into a box with cables going out of it and turned to a screen on a shelf behind him, placing a keyboard on his knees.

"Not bad," he commented after a while. "Wait. How come this stuff isn't already on a whole bunch of public servers?"

"It was," explained Vic. "Then some kid bragged about it in the wrong chat."

The other man nodded absently. "Hum. Alright. I can give you the usual price: two thousand apiece, plus ten percent if you give me exclusivity until after New Year."

"I'll pass it on. Thank you very much." He pocketed the drive slowly. "Come on, Andy."

"Send my regards to your boss," said The Russian, getting up to show them downstairs.

"Bye, Vic! Bye, Andy!" chimed a girl from the gallery. A bigger boy elbowed her.

They were just back across the street when the young man leaned closer to his companion. "We're being followed."

"Yep. Good catch." They kept walking for a few seconds, then picked up the pace and veered off, cutting across the pedestrian area. Behind them, several shapes broke into a run. Andy and Vic did the same, past the corner and into a side street with little stores along one side casting reddish light from their windows.

"We're too visible!" puffed the young man. He pointed down another alley to where some people gathered under a spotlight. The rest was in darkness. "What's over there?"

"Someone else's turf." Vic gasped for air. "This way."

He dragged Andy into the shadows across the street from all the lit windows. By now their pursuers were much closer, coming in from two directions at once. The two ran faster. It wasn't enough.

"Wait a minute... Vic, was it?" It was one of the bigger boys from the Box. "I want a word with you."

His girlfriend sneered. Her makeup was obvious even in the low light. The other three hadn't been at the meeting earlier.

"Oh yeah?" asked the older man, trying to catch his breath. "What's that?"

"Well, you see... we're doing all the hard work for The Russian, and he's paying us peanuts. We want more."

Vic looked around uncertainly as the circle tightened. "Such as?"

"Aw, come on. You know what I'm talking about." The teenager held his palm up. "Hand us those samples and nobody gets hurt, you know?"

The older man hesitated. "I'm on the hook for them. This stuff is worth a lot."

"More than your friend here?" The teenager nodded to one of his goons, who flipped a knife open. Andy pulled closer to his companion. The goon grabbed his elbow.

"Whoa! Let's not be hasty." Vic reached into his pocket with a couple of fingers, while the girl watched like a hawk. "Here. Take this. It's not worth it."

The teenager snatched the drive and gave it a cursory look-over before putting it away. "There. I knew you'd be reasonable. Good bye now!"

He signaled his goons, who shoved the two over the knee-high fence behind them and into the bushes, while the group ran away.

A minute passed, then Andy slowly untangled himself from the branches. He helped his companion up. It wasn't easy.

"Oh, no," asked the young man. "What do we do now?"

Vic straightened up and patted his shoulder, laughing. "Go home and party, what else? They took the bait! Ow, my back."

(7) There all along

Soft music played from speakers on the shelves, while wind rattled the windows. On the couch, Andy lay slumped against the backrest, thumbing at the keyboard of a flat, squarish device whose amber screen stood out from the gloom. Now and then it beeped.

"So you found the interface to my media server," Vic said from the door. The older man moved like a cat. "How do you like it?"

Andy waved his new cyberdeck. "This? I'm getting the hang of it... probably. At least it has help files. Not like wall screens. How are you feeling?"

"I'll live. Ought to mind my own business for a few days. Getting too old for this."

The young man typed a command and watched in satisfaction as the device turned off. He sat up and placed it on the table. "So, about last night... Was it all a trick?"

"No way! We do business with The Russian all the time. That part was real. A friend of Julian's paid attention and downloaded the whole stash while he still could. The samples we showed him were genuine. They're worth a lot of street cred by themselves."

"And now they'll end up on the high street." Andy pointed out. "Wait. The thumb drive we got mugged for wasn't the one you showed The Russian, was it?"

Vic pointed a lazy finger at him. "Bingo! We'll make a hacker out of you yet. Nope, that one has a virus on it. Sly little bugger. All it does is phone home."

"Oh. Cool. Speaking of phones," Andy said, "Any word from Julian? Or my parents?"

Something clicked in the hallway, and a light came on. Vic looked that way and rolled off the couch. "The batteries are charged. One moment, I'll put the kettle on."

He walked out. Behind him, the young man stretched and proceeded to tidy up the table. His notebook, pen and marker, old ring-bound printouts and a half-eaten pack of crackers. He looked for somewhere to put the latter, then placed it back just as his host wandered back in with a steaming kettle and two cups. He set them down and pulled his own cyberdeck closer, while Andy poured hot chickpea for both.

"Mr. Strajnic says your parents couldn't talk. They said, stay safe, we're going to get those bastards." Vic typed more commands. "Oh, and there was an information leak from UbiVision. Or rather, news of a leak. The actual documents have been stolen."

"I wonder where they are now. Dad was saying something about an audit before this whole thing started."

His host kept typing. "Don't panic, but it seems they were in your phone all along. Julian found them yesterday while sweeping for spyware."

"You're kidding." The two men stared at each other for a moment, then Andy set his cup down. "You're being serious."

"There must be a good explanation for all this," Vic told him gently.

Andy snorted. "Yeah, sure. Turns out I was a baddie all along. That's the thing."

"Bad guys have the most fun," pointed out his host, and got up. "Let's get dressed. We're meeting someone who can help us."

It was sunny and getting hot again, but not as much as three days earlier. Andy could have gone for a walk, but it wasn't far after all. Near the other end of Flower Street stood a taller condominium with a generous garden in front and iron fences all around. An average man around Vic's age, in dirty jeans and a leather apron, busied himself raking dead leaves, while Julian stood around hands in his pockets. He lit up at the sight of newcomers and waved them over.

"Hey there, Vic, Andy!" he called as they entered the gate. "Robert, these are the friends I messaged you about the other day."

The other man straightened up and took off his baseball cap to wipe his brow. "So you're the guy who sells my other merchandise. I trust it was the right stuff?"

Vic nodded slightly, extending a hand. "It went for a good price."

"So you're a gardener?" Andy looked around in wonder. "I thought you cracked software or something."

Robert leaned on his rake. "Someone has to do it. There's hardly anyone left."

Andy looked up at the silent building, with its mostly empty windows. "Can we help?"

"Yes, please." The gardener indicated a full wheelbarrow. "Take this to the backyard, will you? Just empty it there, next to the container."

The wheelbarrow was incredibly heavy. The young man struggled to hold it up, never mind steer it, but got the hang of it after a while, enough to complete the task. He returned panting, as Vic flailed around with a shovel.

"Dude, leave it," their host said, barely holding out laughter. "I'll finish later. Let's eat. What's this problem you're having?"

They took turns telling him, while a big bowl of fresh vegetable salad sat between them on a rustic table, emptying out by the minute. The door to Robert's unit stood slightly ajar, visible from the tiny kitchen. It was quiet out in the hallway.

Julian followed his gaze. "Where's Chrys, by the way?"

"Over to her parents, with the kids. They spend a lot of time there. This place is starting to creep them out. Can't blame them, I feel the same."

The man led his guests to another room, dominated by a computing rig that looked cobbled together from scavenged parts. Half the monitors were alive with scrolling text and video feeds; LEDs blinked above a large keyboard without key caps. Overturned boxes doubled as seating.

"Your idea was good," he said looking at Julian, "but it's even better to know who you're up against. These people don't sound like simple paper pushers."

He started typing; the maze of little monitors changed colors, showing a different set of data. One of them zoomed in repeatedly, opening windows inside windows.

"Vic, was it?" he resumed. "That was a pretty good guess. Blue Bulldog Security was hired a couple of weeks ago by SafeBit Forensics when they raided some datacenters as part of a takedown request issued by the local branch of UbiVision."

"That doesn't narrow it down much," pointed out Julian.

"I tried to find out more," Vic reminded him. "But that's what they're waiting for."

The other man gave both of them a big smile. "See, you need an expert. Bounce your requests off enough proxies and they won't know which way to look. Megacorps use AI for security. That's not smart."

He demonstrated by drilling down a list of results, then another. "There. I found an unsecured server in their DMZ. Now where do these people keep their org charts."

"Let me," Andy told him. He added quickly, "Vic has been teaching me how."

Robert handed over the keyboard and watched as the young man typed a few commands haltingly, then with more assurance. Andy downloaded a few files, then the last one stalled. The screen flashed red, windows closing left and right. One last message popped up, and the host flipped a few switches. As many LED banks winked off.

"It's fine!" Robert patted the young man's shoulder. "We're safe. Probably. It's all set up to pull out automatically at the first sign of trouble."

Julian took off his hat and ran a hand though his hair. "Let's see what you found."

Andy nodded, bringing up a series of tables and diagrams. They all leaned closer.

"Okay, it's starting to make sense," said Julian. "But how does that help us?"

"Very little." Vic gave him a serious look. "We're going to need boots on the ground."

(8) You can have a beer

The whole gang was out, sitting on the entrance steps to Vic's building to try and soak up the last rays of the sun before it vanished behind rooftops.

"Let me get this straight." Roxie counted on her fingers. "Someone at UbiVision was leaking pre-releases to the black market, until they made a wrong move and a ton of stuff ended up on public servers."

Julian nodded emphatically. "They tried to cover it up as soon as news got out, but by then an internal audit had been ordered, pointing fingers right at them."

Roxie rubbed her chin. "So they tried to get rid of the audit in turn? But how?"

"They must have a lot of dirt on everyone else," pointed out Hamidah. She turned to Andy. "Including your parents."

Salman snorted. "Corporate types have their neurons in knots. What's this all mean?"

"It's a stalemate," explained Vic, "like in Chess. None of them can make a move without losing, so they're waiting to see who blinks first."

"They tried to kidnap me," Andy reminded them. He reached out to pet the resident feline. The fuzzy creature leaned into it with an audible purr, tail swaying.

"A desperation move, probably," suggested Hamidah. "I doubt they knew how close that came to winning the game for them."

"What do we do?" asked Roxie. "We can't fight these people, or bring them here."

Julian looked uncertainly at Vic before answering. "We've hatched a plan, but..."

"Here's our idea," the older man said more firmly. "Tomorrow at nine, Andy's phone will come online. Its GPS module will report the location of an abandoned shop all the way on Virgin Street. I broke into it a while ago and nobody noticed."

"Where are you going to be?" Salman asked suspiciously.

"At the bar across the road. We'll be in touch. Robert rigged something for us."

"They're not that stupid." Andy sighed. "Besides, it's me they want."

"Oh, no." Salman loomed over the young man. "You're staying right here where I can watch you. Get it?"

"They'll call," stated Hamidah. "That's the plan, isn't it?"

Vic shrugged. "Pretty much. Roxie's right, we can't fight them, or expose ourselves."

"What are you even going to tell them?" pressed the girl. Her visor twinkled. "They've played this game before, you haven't. None of us did."

"No idea." Andy looked at her, seeming lost, and slumped.

Roxie looked puzzled. "I don't get it. Why don't you tell your parents what's going on? They'll know what to do."

"Uncle tried to reach them all afternoon. They're not answering."

"Ever had to bullshit your way through an exam?" Vic patted his shoulder. "You just have to talk fast and sound confident."

Andy just curled into a ball. The older man sighed and turned his attention to the people passing by in the street. Dead leaves swirled through the air, while sparrows quarreled in the bushes. Up in the nearby tree, a crow called, but nobody answered.

"I know!" Salman clapped his hands. "Let's have a party tonight. Just the six of us."

"Can't, sorry," said Julian. "Got to help Gina with a thing."

"Oh well. What do you say, kid? You can have a beer too, for once. Just the one. I'll get something light."

It had been a good idea after all, thought Andy later that night, lying in bed. A few hours of music, games and a girl he'd seen around once or twice, who acted very friendly towards him for some reason. They all but shared a controller while playing an ancient racer from Vic's library, and somehow came in second anyway. Roxie's and Salman's place was another floor up, facing the street. They hadn't been the only ones in the neighborhood staying up late. Now it was quiet again, and the dark thoughts were coming back, somewhat dulled yet still there. In the next room, Vic tossed and turned. Andy couldn't blame him.

"What am I even doing here?" he thought. "I'm supposed to be looking for a clean, well-paid job like a respectable citizen."

He had forgotten the question and the answer by the time he woke up in the morning. It was already light outside, but his host had slept in too. They went over the plan one more time over chickpea and breakfast in the kitchen.

"You've got this, Andy," the older man told him at the door. "It's like in an RPG."

"That's what I'm afraid of," he retorted. "Good luck with your dice rolls out there."

The command center was upstairs. The young man tried to help Roxie pick up empty bottles from the table, until Hamidah told him very sternly to sit down and focus on setting up the equipment. There was his phone, held in a bigger contraption, logic probes coming out of the missing back plate. Julian had showed all three of them how to operate it.

"Where's Salman?" asked Andy at one point, while plugging his little cyberdeck into the TV and an external keyboard.

"He went with the boys after all," answered Roxie, "in case they need some muscle."

The young man nodded and pressed a few keys. The TV came alive with dashboards and chat windows. Hamidah tapped the side of her visor and nodded approvingly.

"Hey, gang. Is this thing working?"

There was a pause before the replies started coming in.

"Like a charm. Almost there. So far, so good. No movement on the street. You ready?"

"As ready as we're ever going to be. Let's do this. You stay safe out there."

He flipped a switch without waiting for the answer. His phone booted. They waited.

"Any sign of them yet?"

"Still no. This might take a while. It's not like they're keeping watch."

"..."

"I take that back. Bunch of big cars just showed up. Old guy in a fancy suit. Couple of stooges. Lots of guards, too. They're breaking down the door."

"Thanks, Julian. Wish me luck."

Andy leaned back on the couch and looked at the young women sitting with him. They smiled at him, and Roxie squeezed his hand. He wanted to say something but came up with nothing.

Then his phone rang.

(9) Plugged in

"Mr. Roman," the voice on the phone said gruffly. "We've located your... temporary accommodations. Where are you? Everyone has been worried sick."

"Good morning to you too, Director Petrea," replied Andy, trying not to sound smug.

"You know who I am?" asked Petrea. His voice was punctuated by the sound of passing cars and bicycle bells.

"Phone numbers aren't really private," explained the young man. "Besides, I had a feeling you were going to call me."

The voice at the other end paused briefly. "I'll get to the point then. You have something we want. You probably know that by now."

"Something you want buried for good," clarified Andy.

"Not quite. You see, the report has to surface. It only needs a few minor edits, namely in the essential points."

"I see." The young man exchanged looks with his companions. "There's only one problem with this package: it's not mine to give."

"Holding onto it makes you complicit to a crime, Mr. Roman. Can we arrange a meeting? We'd be willing to offer a substantial reward."

Andy snerked. "You tried to kidnap me."

"Our overzealous contractors were duly reprimanded. Please be reasonable."

The young man hesitated. Next to him, Roxie mouthed, Ask him about your parents.

"Anyway, why are you calling me about this, Mr. Petrea? Why not my parents?"

This time the pause at the other end was much longer. "Your parents are currently in police custody, following some very serious charges brought against them."

Roxie exhaled. For a moment, Andy looked ready to faint. Then his hands raced across the keyboard. "Then you can arrange a phone call, right?"

"Naturally. As soon as we get what we want. It's a win-win scenario."

"Don't mess with me, Director. Do you know what else I have here? Your entire team's personnel files, and your bosses on speed dial. Bet you haven't bought all of them."

On the speaker, muffled voices argued. Then, "Very well, Mr. Roman. Wait by the phone. We'll get back to you as soon as possible."

The main chat window came to life almost before the phone call ended.

"Uh-oh. Someone poked the hornets' nest."

"I think they're leaving. How are you doing over there, Andy?"

Hamidah reached over and grabbed the keyboard.

"Quick, find out where they're going!"

"On it. BRB."

They looked at each other uncertainly, then Roxie got off the couch and went to the kitchen. The chat was still quiet by the time she returned with two cups of strong tea. But not for long.

"Back. I had to get in close, and they almost caught us."

"Any luck?"

"Yeah, their cars are chatty as ever. They're off to Station 17."

"Good work! I think you can come home now."

Andy nodded, and Hamidah handed him the keyboard again. He ran a quick search.

"Round two," he said. "Talking to the cops."

He pressed a few buttons on the phone's cradle. On the big screen, its fake location changed. The young man wiped his brow and plugged in a headset.

"Hello? Police station 17? Good morning, Officer. My name is Andrei Roman. I'm looking for my parents... Yes. Certainly, I'll wait. Thank you."

While he talked, Hamidah got off the couch and waved Roxie into the kitchen again. Minutes passed, then the door opened, admitting Salman. The girls shushed him, but it wasn't long before Andy joined them.

"Where's Vic and Julian?" he asked, seeming about to fall over.

"Downstairs," answered the big guy, and patted Andy's shoulder. "We're fine. How did it go for you here?"

Roxie brought them a tray of leftovers while they talked, then more tea.

"So I got to my parents first," Andy finished explaining. "Now that old jerk can't intimidate them either. Not anymore."

"He might still have a trick up his sleeve," Salman said. "Folks like him always do."

The young man sighed. "That's what I'm afraid of."

He reached for the keyboard again.

"Hey, guys. You still there?"

"You can't get rid of us so easily. Is it over yet?"

"Not quite. Sit tight, I'll let you know."

The phone chose that moment to ring again. Andy picked up.

"You are certainly getting around today, Mr. Roman," Petrea said crankily. "I was hoping these negotiations would go smoothly."

"That's a strange definition of smooth. How do you know where I am, anyway?"

Next to him on the couch, Roxie suppressed a snicker. Salman gave her an odd look.

"Location data isn't really private either," Petrea snapped back, "when you know the right people. I'd very much like to meet you in person, Mr. Roman, if you'll stay put for half an hour."

"It's too late to keep this conversation private, don't you think?" On a whim, Andy reached for his phone in its cradle, brought up a map and plotted a course across the city. On the TV, his bogus coordinates began to update in real time.

"I'll make sure it remains so," Petrea assured him. "Now let's get real. What do you want? Money? I can get you a cushy, well-paid job in our media department."

"What about my parents? I want all charges dropped." Andy paused. "And guarantees that you'll leave them alone from now on."

"Don't push your luck, young man. I could easily make you a wanted person as well."

Andy exchanged looks with Hamidah. Can he do that? she mouthed. Then the phone speaker screeched with the noise of car brakes. There were people shouting, and loud impacts on a hard surface, followed shortly by electric motors in overdrive.

"Alright! You win!" Petrea was all but shouting. The other noises faded. "How do you propose we do this?"

The young man paused again. It was a detail they hadn't rehearsed in advance. "I'll upload the whole thing to a file sharing service and e-mail you the link. The decryption key will follow as soon as you keep your side of the bargain."

"You do that." The rest of the answer was drowned by a persistent cough, then the connection broke.

They all sat there in silence for a few moments. At length, Andy got up shakily.

"Are you all right, kid?" asked Salman. "Did we win?"

"No. I don't know." Andy proceeded to turn off and unplug everything. "Got to go downstairs and crash for a while. See you later."

Roxie helped him out. "What did you do, anyway? Right there at the end?"

"Oh, that. I sent him to the address of those bozos who tried to double-cross The Russian. Vic taught me you don't just waltz in on someone else's turf. Big no-no."

(10) Visit any time

For Halloween, Salman went as a fairy tale pumpkin and Roxie as a witch, complete with messy hair, claw-like hands and dark circles around her eyes. Not to be outdone, Andy donned a flat cap, monocle, cane and bushy mustache. It all fit his regular clothes fairly well. They went for a stroll up and down the half-mile length of Park Lane, to gawk at redecorated stalls and store windows. In the end they washed up at the restaurant right next door to Georgie's shop. She joined them soon after, wearing mirrorshades and a catsuit with military boots and a belt of many buckles. They ended up talking about old movies and new feelings. At some point the girl from the party showed up too. She wasn't as friendly anymore, but still good company.

Andy went home that evening to find Vic in the living room, banging away at his keyboard while music played. After a while a DJ took over to dispense safety tips for partying outside in the neighborhood. The older man stretched and patted the couch next to him.

"How was it?" he asked with a tired smile.

"Lots of fun!" replied Andy, sitting down. "Too bad you couldn't come."

"Sorry about that. Julian and Gina dragged me over to Robert's place. Turns out we have a lot in common. I got to meet his family, too."

"Oh? What are they like?"

"In fact I knew his wife already. Chrys used to be my next-door neighbor years ago."

"Right here in this building? It's a small world."

"Nah, I used to live the next street over back then. It was a different time."

The young man didn't know what to say. Later that night he dreamed of wandering the maze of little streets beyond Robert's building. It went on and on, with something new and curious behind every corner.

In the morning, they didn't say much to each other as Andy packed. Outside, the sun peeked out from behind clouds now and then, but not for long. He zipped up his jacket as Vic sat on the entrance steps, a hand over the luggage.

"Go say good-bye to your aunt and uncle," he prodded.

"You're not coming with?" asked the young man.

"Nah, this is your show. They like you. Trust me on that."

Andy nodded slowly. He went across the street, around the grocery store, and up the alley. A woman taking out the trash watched him curiously, but didn't say anything. A different guard waved him in like an old friend and pointed him at a side door. He didn't have to knock.

"Oh, look who's here!" Mrs. Strajnic looked chipper that morning, dressed like she was about to go out. She dragged her slippers across the bare cement floor as quickly as she could, calling over her shoulder. "Marty! We have a visitor!"

They sat around a table covered in colorful vinyl, surrounded by hanging flower pots, with tea and homemade cookies.

"So you're going home today," the old man noted. "Your parents sent word."

"Ah... I'm sorry for all the trouble," stammered Andy. "And thanks for the help."

"They told us what happened, you know," Mrs. Strajnic said mildly. "Don't ever do that again, hear me?"

Her husband laughed. "You need guts to survive in this business, Jo."

"You're right, Auntie," Andy admitted, but he was beaming with pride at the old man's sly praise. "That was pretty awesome though, wasn't it."

"So it was," she assured him, then turned serious. "I know you don't like us much, but you're welcome to visit any time, okay?"

He hugged and kissed them both before heading back out.

The whole gang was gathered on the steps when he returned to where he'd left Vic.

"Hey, dude," greeted Julian, hands in his pockets.

"So this is good-bye?" asked Roxie. "Bet you can't wait to go home already."

"Yeah, back to his crystal palace in the sky," added the big guy.

"Salman, be nice," admonished Hamidah. "When do your parents get here anyway, Andy?"

The young man reached for his back pocket, but it was empty.

"Left your phone upstairs?" she asked. "It's 9:30."

"I keep forgetting. Sold it to Georgie for parts a couple of days ago. It was a piece of junk anyway." Andy rummaged into a different pocket and came up with a handful of bills. He gave them to Vic. "Here, for the cyberdeck."

The older man put the money away without hesitation.

"How are your folks doing, anyway?" inquired Julian. "That was quite the mess."

"Oh. They were let go from UbiVision, but got a nice severance package. We'll be fine for a while."

Salman grinned. "How about you? Going to take that job you were promised?"

"Ew. No! But check this out: it turns out your school is largely financed by a legit charity called Children of Hope. And guess what, they're going to need a librarian."

"Oh, right!" exclaimed Hamidah. "They were saying something about resuming educational programs, when I checked a while ago."

Roxie laughed. "Our school will be a school again. Hear that, Vic? How ironic."

Everyone laughed with her. They patted each other's back, then stood looking at each other until a car horn sounded. At the end of the street could be seen a large, gleaming SUV parked outside the slabs of concrete that kept the city outside.

"Good bye!" blurted Andy, and walked quickly that way. His luggage whirred to life and followed dutifully.

Julian looked at the ground for a while. "So, what's everyone up to this morning?"

"I should make another trip to the hardware market," answered Vic. Thanks for reminding me."

He ran off to a shed near the schoolyard fence, and returned riding a bike with a trailer attached. They waved as he pedaled away, wheels creaking.

THE END

2023-12-22