I've got to type this in 'cause my roommate is sleeping. He says we don't have the bandwidth for video here anyway. They're really low-tech, you know? They make their own power and capture rainwater. It's never enough to go around, but that suits me just fine. It tastes awful. They even warned me not to drink straight from the tap. Wish I could send someone to our favorite store for a bottle of soda, but they'd be arrested. And I can't go because I'm supposed to be hiding.
As if! A white face around here stands out like Slender Man at a gay parade. I was afraid to go out by myself at first. Did you know the police never come to this neighborhood? How can anyone feel safe like that? Then again, the first cop who saw me would probably ship me right back to dad, and we'd be back to square one.
When did the world become so complicated?
Did I tell you about my roommate? His name is Marius, and he's the landlord's son or nephew or something. Everybody's somebody's relative around here. And there's dozens of people just in our building. Marius says we're lucky it's just the two of us in the room. I don't see why. The larger buildings have been abandoned ever since the city stopped pumping water this far uptown. There's plenty of empty apartments to go around. But even the homeless would rather sleep in tents along the main street, where the farmers pass on their way to market. Marius took me there in the morning when he went to trade with them. I had no idea it takes so many people to feed a city. Guess industrial farming really died with cheap oil, like Professor Vultur said. They sacked him for saying that, too.
You know what else I saw this morning? Cyborgs. At least they had to be, with those eyes that sometimes glow and circuits tattooed all over. Creepy-cool. Didn't think I'd ever meet one. I mean, we buy contraband from them, like 3D printers, but they're supposed to live far from the big cities because what they do to themselves is illegal. Then again, who's going to notice if a few of them lurk around the periphery? They can probably hack drones just by looking at them. It's the rest of us who have to work harder at tricking cameras. Marius taught me how to cover my face and disguise my gait. It's kind of fun, too. But please don't ask me to attach a selfie.
I'd better finish this up. Sun's coming down, which means we can go out again, and there's always work to be done. Wasn't supposed to tell you this, because you're paying them a lot of money to keep me here, but I can't sit around all day doing nothing, especially with no TV and no fiber. Besides, it's good to feel useful, not just a trophy.
I'm so angry right now. Somebody stole my running shoes. It was too hot outside to wear them over the day, so I left them in the hallway with everyone else's. In the evening they were gone. It's pretty obvious who took them, too — there's this Roma girl who comes over all the time. I wish they'd just lock the doors. Sort of watching each other's back sounds nice if you're one of them. Oh well, sandals it is tonight.
Marius is calling me outside. Gotta finish this later.
Back. What a night. Biking through parts of the city in the dark is like riding through a ghost town. There's no public lighting anymore, and you can't do much to avoid potholes when you're pulling a big-ass trailer behind you. We went down Linden Ave., then north across the river. Funny how century-old apartment buildings still stand, even deserted, while much newer shops and such are a pile of twisted metal already. It all looks quaint and mysterious from a limo by day, but when the wind is blowing through grass as tall as you are while dogs bark in the distance, and you only see shadows...
Anyway. I got nervous when we turned right at the overpass. The village guards know me from the time when dad was taking me to visit grandma. But we didn't go that far.
You know, it's funny. All those times I sat on grandma's porch, looking towards North Village Business Park, telling myself I'll work there as a lawyer one day, and never went close enough to notice those gleaming towers are only half completed. Another thing you don't see from the back of a car. We pulled into a driveway that went around the back to where the dumpsters were. Marius handed me a baseball cap with LEDs all over.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Infrared lights. Blinds the cameras."
I kid you not, there were cameras pointed at the platform. Had to force myself not to look at them. We could end up in prison for dumpster diving. Well, he could. I'm rich. You get the idea.
"What about the security guards?"
He snerked. "Who do you think tipped us about those?"
There was a bunch of big flat packs leaning against the bins. Had to look from very close to realize they were solar panels. That's when my coin dropped. Professor Vultur taught us that everyone pays lip service to recycling, but in practice they throw out goods with even minor defects. That keeps the suppliers in business, the workers busy and the economy rolling. Do you suppose he was being sarcastic?
Long story short, we loaded everything we could on our bike trailers. Had to leave behind the best stuff, too. It's not like we could have come with a truck, even if there was one available. Too conspicuous. I was jumpy enough already; a close thunderclap nearly gave me a heart attack. Did I mention the thunder? Between that and the cold wind, we didn't exactly need to see the weather forecast. Thought we were hearing steps all the time, too, but nobody showed up. Must have been a loose banner or something.
I was sweating bullets by the time we left. Just the recipe for a cold. Marius kept telling me to move faster, and damn it, I was trying! We pedaled like maniacs until the office tower was out of sight. Now it was all a race against the storm.
Or rather, it would have been, if the bridge across the river hadn't been blocked by ambulances and fire trucks. You know that stretch is supposed to be a favorite of drag racers. And we had to go really close to the whole light show so we could turn left into an alternate route.
Luckily, that's when the rain started. There's no way anyone saw us through that.
I thought it had been spooky on the way in, when the moon was high and I knew the places. Ha! We were rattling down a narrow street, through a torrent of water, ruined office buildings on either side poised to come crashing down on our heads whenever lightning flashed. Can't have been longer than two KM, but at the time it seemed more like twenty. We did come to the other end, just as the downpour eased up, and Marius pulled over next to a barrier of shrubbery, broken fence and barbed wire.
"What's wrong?" I asked. It sounded awfully loud. He just groaned and tried to dismount.
With some help he managed in the end, gritting his teeth and favoring one leg. The capacitors on the bike headlights were already winding down, but you couldn't miss the gash on his calf.
"Let's get you inside, man."
"It's dangerous," he protested.
"No you don't. There are things in these ruins."
"Like what? Come on, you have to sit down."
It wasn't hard at all to find a hole in the fence, and the nearest building no longer had most walls, let alone doors. The trick was to find a corner where the ceiling didn't leak too badly. There was a lamp post right outside; by how pale it was, nobody had cleaned the solar panel in years. I took out my own torch.
"Now let's see that leg, man."
Marius snorted at me and rolled up his pants. They were already torn lengthwise, so that was easy. Less fun was that his sock was swimming in blood.
"You're not getting home like that. Better call your parents."
"With what? I don't have a mobile."
"... You don't?"
"What are you, five? You need ID to get one. 'Sides, how'd you like to be tracked 24/7, wherever you go?"
He got me there. That's why I left mine with you in the first place.
"So what do we do?"
"I don't know..." He sounded really scared and in pain. I sat next to him, 'cause my legs were about to give. And that's when I felt something in my pocket.
It was a pack of wet wipes, and my CutsBeGone pen. Must've picked them up without thinking when I left home.
Marius didn't need much convincing to let me use both items on him.
"It's warm..." he sighed with relief as I moved the pen back and forth. It buzzed loudly, spreading the antiseptic glue over the wound. I prayed that the battery would hold. The device wasn't rated for a cut this size.
"There," I said, "Take a look." He did, and made a face. "It's not pretty, but you almost won't need a doctor after this."
"What's the bad news?" he joked.
"The wound will reopen as soon as you try to walk, let alone pedal."
"How do you figure?"
He nodded, and proceeded to tear a strip off his pants that was already loose. He used it to bind his leg tight.
"Problem solved." He grinned, then winced.
We lied down together for a moment and listened to the water dripping through countless unseen cracks in the reinforced concrete.
"Wait until your mother hears you're a thief now," chuckled Marius. I hadn't really thought about it until that moment. Scary.
"Wait until your mother sees that wound," I countered.
"Shush. Hear anything?"
I started saying no, but then I heard it too: a kind of skittering sound outside the light cone of our torch. He snatched it out of my hand. "Gimme that." Clearly he was feeling better already. The beam swept over the debris-covered floor. There! Something moved. Many somethings. And they were coming closer, climbing over each other to get in front. One nearly bumped into my foot and stopped.
It was a box the size of a Big Mac packaging, with a solar panel on top and six insect legs. I swear, all it lacked was a pair of wriggling feelers. As me and the robot stared at each other, Marius reached over to grab it.
The machine dashed between his fingers, grabbed one of the bloodied wet wipes we'd discarded and ran away, down a deep dark pit not one meter from us. Now I could see that the piles of garbage in the room were too neat: a tower of broken glass against a column, nuts and bolts in a corner...
I've no idea how we got to our feet and started towards the nearest gap in the wall, swarmed by the metal bugs all the way. Many were missing a leg or just acting oddly, and I bet they hadn't seen a human being in way too long.
"Turn off the light," I breathed, and for once Marius did what I told him. It worked, too. The few robots that followed us outside seemed more interested in the dying lamp post. We walked straight past, shuffling noisily through the wet grass. And that awoke something else. Mechanical tentacles unfolded around the base of the pole, writhing in our direction. I started running before I remembered that Marius couldn't. We settled for sort of hobbling along the fence hand in hand, trying to find the hole we'd entered through.
Through sheer dumb luck we did. All the shadows were coming to life around us. We rode away like mad.
"I told you so," puffed Marius after a while.
"Could those things really hurt us?"
"Do you want to find out?" he retorted. I really didn't.
The rain stopped entirely at some point along the way, but the damage was done. The river was roaring furiously when we finally crossed it back. From there it was a short trip home. I was looking forward to a dry bed, but having to explain why Marius was injured? Not so much. You see, I'm pretty sure it was my fault, back there at the business center.
Turned out, his folks were more worried about me being soaking wet than him needing medical attention. Was it because I'm white? Or because you're paying them well? Either way, it didn't seem fair.
Talk to them about it, will you, mom?
If I'd known you'd be so upset, I wouldn't have sent you the last e-mail. I'm fine! A few cups of hot tea were all I needed. Marius on the other hand... His leg started swelling, not to mention the fever, and we all feared tetanus. Luckily there's a doctor of sorts in the vicinity. Now, they have rules here. One doesn't simply walk into another neighborhood. But for going to see the doctor there's an exception, because they attracts gifts and prestige for their local community.
Anyway, we got Marius to take the shots. He's afraid of needles, the big hero, so I got to hold his hand again. (Mooom... Stop worrying!) But that took care of his leg. Well, apart from the scar he's going to end up with. Then again, girls dig that sort of thing.
Speaking of girls, I was right about my running shoes. The next day I saw that girl around again, and she was wearing them! But when I asked for my things back, she claimed they'd belonged to her all along. Can you believe it? Because everyone here did. She even showed us her initials carved into the soles as "evidence". As if she couldn't have done that after taking them.
Marius says I should have made secret marks on my shoes first. That's barbaric. I don't like the way property works around here...
Damn Gypsies. Why can't they do anything like everyone else?
I know, I know... Marius is Romani, too. But you wouldn't guess just by being around him. Or his parents for that matter. Did you really use to work with them? I wonder how they ended up on the periphery.
They're calling me downstairs. I wonder what they want this time. Don't feel like leaving my stuff unattended after what happened.
Aaand I'm back. We went down by the lake to pick up some fruit and relax. Water's still high, way over the old concrete rim. Ironically, I would have ruined my shoes if I still had them. Why did the city stop regulating the river? They could operate the dams remotely if paying someone to make the rounds is too expensive. Guess nobody who matters lives close to the water anymore. Marius says there used to be a public park here, which they converted to fruit trees to fight the food crisis. Or so his grandparents told him. But now it's more like a nature reserve from the History Channel; there are gulls, frogs, ducks, turtles... I even saw someone catch a huge fish, as big as my forearm.
On the minus side, the insects are scary big too, and they walk on water.
Anyway, I'd better hit send and hit the hay. Night, mom.
We need your help, mom.
You're going to be upset again, but Marius' parents made me write you anyway. This is big, and I don't mean like biking through a rainstorm. Remember those solar panels we picked up from the trash? Most of them were the ordinary sort, good quality but nothing special. Broken, of course, but we have a workshop here that can fix all kinds of things, even cars. And power sources are always in demand.
But there were a few oddities in the pile — the size of my palm, and a color I can't describe. Me and Marius were there when the mechanic hooked them up. You should have seen his face. He started muttering about cars that can go on forever without a recharge, and relaunching industrial civilization. In the end he calmed down enough to explain these particular solar panels have 99.5% efficiency, an order of magnitude more than the regular kind. Must be some sort of secret prototypes, 'cause that's basically sci-fi. I wonder how they ended up in a dumpster.
You won't believe what happened next.
See, Marius immediately said we can't just sell them. For one thing, these prototypes are too small to be a game changer. So instead he and the mechanic started asking around discreetly on the Darknets. They also shipped a handful of them to folks from other neighborhoods who might know more. Too bad most of the really smart ones have already moved to the cyborg cities. Maybe that's where we should send the prototypes.
While we waited for answers, the little thief invited me over for a visit. Imagine that! I had no intention of going at first, but curiosity killed the cat. She's older than I am, nearly an adult, and has two younger brothers to raise. Didn't have the guts to ask where their parents are. Must be hard for her. She works at the market on weekends, and I think she barely makes a living, 'cause she doesn't have any nice things. Well, except for my shoes. Wanted to talk to her about them, but didn't know what to say. "You could have asked nicely", yeah, right!
Anyway, not long after, someone started poking us on the Darknets, asking all kind of questions about the solar panels. Very suspicious. And we couldn't easily find out who it was, like you can on the Internet. So we set up a meeting in Gristmill Square and watched from a distance to see who showed up.
Sure enough, they were private security. Not in uniform, mind you, but these guys all look the same. Dumb, but street wise. No way we could have gotten close without being seen. But after a while they got bored and left, and we followed them to their car. It was unmarked, but we wrote down the license plate. That was something we could look up online.
It belongs to dad's company.
I was puzzled at first. What could they want with solar panel tech? Dad used to tell me all the time how he made a fortune selling bioethanol to the military — they can't exactly fly the big drones on electricity. And with arable land being so scarce, that stuff costs a fortune.
Of course, if you could power a drone with solar panels, the business would go down the drain...
If dad was angry with you before, imagine his face if he finds out who's throwing wrenches into his shady plans.
So anyway, we need some help here. You used to have contacts within the company. Think you could maybe ping them discreetly and see if they can find out what's going on? We need to figure out what to do about the whole story — it's too late to pretend it didn't happen. I promise to stay safe. Marius and his parents will handle the dangerous stuff.
P.S. Now we're in trouble. One of the prototypes has made it to the cyborgs. That's the good news. Turns out, those super solar cells are made of a metamaterial that's mildly radioactive. Not enough to be bad for you, but it has a distinct signature. And we've already spread them around.
Yes, we heard about the arrests. Word travels fast on the Darknets. But we didn't know the details until you wrote us. Thanks, by the way. Sorry to hear that the guy who snuck out the devices was caught. He's a hero.
What I can't understand is why he did it.
At first I thought dad wanted to bury these new solar cells in red tape. You know the method: research the technology before everybody else does. Take out a patent on it. Lock it up in a safe and lose the key. Ta-da! No more innovation threatening your core business. But we ran a search, and it turns out there's already a web of patents covering this stuff. Nobody could market them if they wanted to. The license fees would cost them more than they could sell the goods for.
Okay, so maybe the leaker wanted the prototypes to end up in a cyborg city. After all, the cyborgs didn't get a century ahead of everyone else by respecting intellectual property. But he couldn't be sure whoever took the trash would follow the script. It would have been a lot quicker and safer to just leak the documentation via darknet. It doesn't make sense...
Sorry. I'm thinking out loud here. Well, typing out loud. You know what I mean.
Ugh. What is it this time?
I just had to ask. It was the police. In full combat gear and escorting a bunch of corporate investigators with radiation detectors. Who needs a warrant? Luckily it's market day, and the street is busy. Word got to us way before the suits did. But we needed a plan, like, yesterday.
You'll never guess what we did.
Actually it was the guys at the workshop who saved our asses. They had us bring them all the remaining devices, hid them superficially and closed up. The cops broke the locks and made a mess, but couldn't find anyone to talk to. It was the prototypes they wanted, anyway. They left without even trying to come deeper into the neighborhood. Guess they didn't want to push their luck after the reception they got in the street.
How ironic. A week ago I was afraid of a neighborhood without cops. Today I was relieved to see them go.
Whoops, somehow I never finished this draft. Something else happened tonight. The hackers who were arrested have been released. Turns out the people who interrogated them weren't from dad's company, but various rivals. Funny how everyone is suddenly interested in the prototypes. How did the secret get out so fast?
More importantly, who's got the damn things now?
I know, I know, it's not my problem anymore. Besides, corporate espionage isn't on the list of recommended vacation activities. Speaking of which, school starts in a few weeks. Have you made any progress on the legal front? Because the moment I go back, dad will know where I am.
Mother, what did you do?
The dust was still settling over the whole story when Marius' parents went out to meet with you one morning and only returned after dark, in bad shape. They had us pack our bags without any explanation; I thought you'd asked them to move me elsewhere. It made sense, with everything that happened lately. But they packed a bunch of their own stuff too. We loaded everything into one of those trailers pulled by a two-wheel tractor. You should have seen me, hanging for dear life at every pothole. My bikes have better suspensions than that. Worse, I don't think the driver was entirely sober.
They told us the whole story while we drove up River Road towards the city limit. I didn't like it one bit. But by the time we were at the corner with Bottom Road, I knew what had to be done.
Marius was nervous as we dropped off his parents.
"You should go with them, man," I told him. "I'll be perfectly safe. You, not so much."
"Someone has to be there to embarrass you," he retorted.
We entered North Village from the other end this time. The driver waited for us in the driveway of a corner store whose owner he knew. There was even some fresh produce in the trailer, in case the police wanted to know what he was doing there. Sure enough, we walked past a patrol car on the way from the store. Marius almost lost it, but nobody looks twice at a boy with brown skin being dragged along by a wasted girl. I warned you not to ask for a selfie; even the guard at the gate didn't recognize me. Luckily the code was unchanged.
Grandma's house was surrounded by armed security guards.
Well, okay, they were patrolling all the alleyways equally, but there were more of them than I remembered, and packing more heat. Funny how we keep adding more defenses yet we never feel any safer. No way we could pass by without talking to one of them.
"Try that one," pointed Marius, "He's green."
"How do you know?"
For what it's worth, he was right. I asked for directions to the house behind grandma's, and the guard patiently pointed us at the perfectly visible building, what, with the party going on inside. My faked high must have been pretty convincing. But if that's what stage fright feels like, I don't want to become an actor.
The back door had grown a camera in the mean time.
"Let me," said Marius, and proceeded to throw sticks at it, timing them to coincide with gusts of wind. About the third or fourth smacked the lens out of our way, and it was my turn. I'm hardly a hacker, but the best NFC locks aren't worth much if you have a rooted e-reader and the right software. Just like that, we were in.
All the tension left my body, and I hugged the nearest door frame to remain standing. It smelled of vinyl and strange cosmetics; old wood lacquer, too. The grandfather clock was tick-tocking away in the living. Someone else must have been in the house within the last week. You know how much grandma loved her antiques. But ghosts don't wind clocks. I stared at the windows for a while to figure out what was missing: the houseplants. It broke my heart. Those plants were the reason she never had any pets, and you know how much she loved animals.
"What are we looking for?" whispered Marius.
"I don't really know."
It was a lie, of course. They were all there as expected, under the basement stairs, neatly stacked on a shelf: the confiscated prototypes. No, don't reach for the phone app. By the time you're reading this, it's too late. I know you were awarded grandma's house at the divorce proceedings. Dad hasn't been there in ages.
We found an old suitcase and started packing the damn devices. Not sure why. It just seemed wrong to leave them, after all the trouble. We were almost done, too, when we heard steps creaking on the rubble outside, and voices. Someone at a control panel must have noticed the camera pointing at the sky. The guards rattled the back door, and shone flashlights through the basement windows. Never thought I could fit so well under a shelf.
It felt like hours until they left.
By the time we could climb back upstairs, I was jumping at every little noise from outside.
"You look awful," Marius said grinning.
"Well, you look exactly as usual," I countered. He punched me in the arm.
"So, how do we get out with the goods?" I asked after a while.
"First we have to wait for the new guard shift," he pointed out.
So we turned on the TV. Internet was working, so we could play a few games and watch funny videos. There were also breaking news (in rerun) about a mysterious research project at a well-known company having attracted government attention. It explained some of the rumors that had been circulating on the streets after the raid. At one point, when Marius was in the bathroom, I checked the local services on a whim. The corner store where our ride waited was actually listed.
"This is our ticket," I told Marius. He agreed.
The rest of the night passed slowly. We cleaned ourselves up a little and nibbled at some chips we found in the kitchen. I showed Marius the rest of the house. He pretended to be unimpressed. When dawn came, we called the corner store and asked for our driver. The man grumbled, but there was no arguing with logic. Not unless he wanted to go back without us. The guards let him in with the trailer, ostensibly to deliver groceries, and we opened the garage door. When it closed again, it was on a timer, and it was us under the tarp.
So yeah... We're headed out of the city now. Going to stay with other relatives of Marius. I don't know the details yet, and frankly I'm too sleepy to care. Speaking of which, I'd better finish this in case we find an access point we can borrow along the way.
As for the solar cells? We threw them back next to the dumpsters behind the business center, where we picked them up in the first place. They were too hot to keep, in more than one way. And frankly, mom, your involvement in the whole story is more easily proved by the call logs from your TV.
Sorry for taking so long to get in touch. Mom had me convinced that you wanted to separate me from her. You know the story by now. She had me stay with a family who used to work for her as housekeepers after the last schools on the periphery closed down and put an end to their teaching jobs. But that was before I was born. Ironically, I'm still staying with them, in a farming community far enough out of the city that the cyborgs come to buy from us. It's a little like that one time when we went camping, except crowded and smelly. At least the water tastes good.
But you know what hurts the most? Knowing that me, Marius, his parents... all of us were peripheral to mom wanting to get back at you. Even the deal with the new solar cells was more so that you get in trouble for letting a secret government project leak out to the public. She used them to convince your rivals to help her, but you caught her spy before he could finish the job. Let me guess: the prototypes were useless without knowledge of how to mass-produce them cheaply.
I just hope the investigation finds you innocent. Maybe it's not a bad idea for you to stay out of public life for a while.
Anyway, I'd better get back to work. Been learning how to build and fix bikes. It's almost as fun as riding them. I even made my first sale. Got a nice folding knife out of the deal. Remember how much I wanted one? Could never figure out why they're banned. Too bad I'll have to give it up for a new pair of shoes. Autumn's coming.
Speaking of which, they're not exactly big on formal education around here, and I don't plan to spend the rest of my life in the country. Urban boy is urban. I keep wanting to run back home. But since that's not an option...
Do you think they have good high schools in the cyborg cities?
See you there,
Felix Pleșoianu, 12 September 2014
Second edition, 11 August 2022