Then someone walks up to me.
“Oh, you ‘lone, Sister? Ain’ i’ late?” the man says.
Strangers don’t just walk up to you in Bazaar Street.
“Or ‘hapse you ain’ Sister. Null tha’. is i’ rat. Yeah. Gear rat. Street rat eve’.” The man had taken another few steps towards me and stopped again when I backed away.
What did he say? All the panic of a few minutes ago shoots back into my mind and stiffens my spine. I don’ eve’ got a slag.
I turn to look at the man for the first time. He’s rough and poor looking, but better dressed than I’d expected. He is shaved but unremarkable. I see the shadow of a face I remember well.
“Ya remember me? Got. I remember you, rat. I remember that you owe me.”
Dirk and I face off outside the rail station. It’s dark now and only a few half-working shop signs illuminate the intersection we’re standing in. We’re like night and day. I’ve changed in every way imaginable and he looks just like he did back when I was a gear rat for him. The only difference is his clothes look newer. He’d gotten the jump on me and surprised me, but it seems like he’s wasting that. He’s just staring me dead in the eye with a grin on his face. He knows the score is 1-0 but it’s like he’s waiting for me to say something.
“Hello, Dirk.” I strip him of his title and acknowledge him at the same time. He flinches. I put on my best imitation of Mom Super’s passive expression and purposefully study him back.
“I knew i’, bu’ my boys didn’ believe i’. See . . . ‘m know you are smar’ rat. Got lock on tha’ long time ago. Yeah, a long time ago, green eyes. Never could hide those, could ya?”
Damn it. What did he mean about my eyes? Hell. Score: 2 – 1
“You know, debt like yours pile up over time. Interest. You los’ me a cool 20k cred deal long time ago an’ word on Bazaar says tha’ up got deals for mos’ tech’s except mine. Like ‘m got bad reputation on account a you.”
This is not good. Lost deals are more than their cred value and if what Dirk’s saying is true, I lost him a big break when that customer saw me beat up and blamed him. Chances are I never would have earned enough to pay him back. If I hadn’t been caught on the rail that day . . .
I hear footsteps behind me and feel the presence more than see it. Two others, at least. Unhappily close. I can’t let them get too close to me. Score: 3 – 1
“Three of you? I thought you were more of a man than that, Dirk.” The thugs stop where they are.
Dirk’s damn stare hasn’t left me. I can’t break focus or he’ll think I’m weak or can’t hold my nerve.
“I don’t have what you think I have, Dirk. No credits to my name. The Sisters don’t use them. Even this coat’s borrowed. I’m not good looking enough to sell for a slave. I’m not a rat anymore. So you have a deal to make or are you just sucking O2?” Straight bluff. Better than nothing. Score: I’m losing bad.
He laughs, looking away long enough for me to steal a glance at each of the thugs. Big boys, them.
I feel the sting of it before I realize what’s happening. Dirk’s backhand knocks me down. I clutch my face in pain and shock, knowing that if more is coming, I can’t stop it.
“Tha’ wha’ you think, rat? Tha’ them Sisters none work with creds? Wha’ you think all tha’ information them got for, looks? Sister’s got high-up clients. Keep ‘em secrets. Sell ‘em info. Manipulate people with damn information. Smug bitches.” He spits and takes his time before he looks at me again. “How ya think ‘em keep lights on an’ meals cooked? Null tha’ free. Rat like you supposed ta know tha’. Got some ta teach you with, rat. An’ them Sister’s got ‘nough ta paid wha’ you owe me.”
“You can go to hell.”
His eyes are burning with hate. “Won’ hurt for me ta keep eyes ou’ on them rats you school some. Jus ta make sure them null gettin’ hurt none. Wouldn’ wan’ tha’, would ya, green eyes?”
Dirk’s thug pulls the child I’d stayed to help out from the shadows. A huge black eye and bruises on his arms.
“Le’ me go, ya slag fak.” The kid fights against Dirk’s grip. Dirk slaps him hard.
I nearly scream at the sight of it. The kid just wants to learn something and these abusing faks are treating him like a piece of currency.
“Wha’ ya got say ‘bout knowin’ if ya don’t do wha’ ‘m tell ya there be more a tha same for tha whole lot a ‘em?”
He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a cube bigger than a fist and tosses it at me. I catch it and one of the corners jabs me in the palm.
“Take tha’ and pu’ i’ nex’ ta tha Sister’s precious Vault. Press tha’ button an’ wait till i’ blink at ya. Don’ mess with i’. Don’ scan i’. Don’ be rough with i’. I’ come back broke, or messed with or wrong an’ i’ gonna be them rats tha’ get i’. Like this one.” Dirk shakes the child by the arm.
I’ve got to distract them so the child can get away. I won’t have more of this on my hands. I don’t know how I’m going to do that flat on my back, but I have to think of something.
I see five figures come out from around the corner and suddenly they are running toward the scene Dirk and I are making. If they’re not more of Dirk’s men, then they might be slavers or worse. I brace and get ready to jump up and sprint.
I tense my body for the jump to my feet but stop as I recognize the silhouette of Sisters in their habits with hoods up. The five black-clad figures surround me.
The commotion is almost enough to distract Dirk and the child pulls hard once, but can’t break free.
The Sisters all look the same with their hoods up, but one speaks directly to Dirk. “What are you doing with that child?” Dirk grins and lets go. The kid runs for it.
The child’s departure is hardly acknowledged by his thugs as I sigh with relief. I remember the cube I’m holding and stash it in my large coat pocket.
“Whatever your business was here, it is done.”
Dirk spits on her shoe. “Null, bu’ i’ is now. See ya a’ nex’ school, Sisters.”
My attackers leave without another word. A Sister offers me a hand. “Are you all right?” she asks.
“Yeah, mostly.” Shock is starting to wear off and I start to tremble a bit.
The Sisters move to support me. “Time to get you home.”
* * *
I stagger into my room and collapse. What the hell am I doing? How could I have gotten cornered out in the open? And Dirk knew who I was and that I live with the Order and . . .
I notice the cube thing in my pocket and feel compelled to take it out. 5×5×5 cm, only one button, and gloss black. Like nothing I’ve ever worked on before.
No big deal, right? Nothing I shouldn’t handle on my own. Nothing in the Library can hurt anyone. It’s just old stuff. Barely anything worth stealing unless you really like old gear and reading.
But that damn Vault.
All I’ve got to do is set the thing up in the Library and turn it on. It will do whatever the hell it wants. But the rats will be safe. Dirk said they will be.
If I don’t go along . . . The fak threatened my school and my kids.
But I’m doing this to keep the school open. Mom Super would understand, if I told her. And I just need to turn the thing on. Put it near the Vault. Easy enough. And if I get caught . . . I’m doing it to keep the school open. Mom Super would understand.
Dirk’s threat hounds me.
The Sisters talk about information and the sacred freedom, but have got a giant secret vault thing in the middle of it all. What the hell is that all about? And what Dirk said about selling information and high-class clients and the Sisters’ manipulation of people?
Somehow, I don’t feel as safe as I used to, even in my own room. Feels like I’m being watched by Dirk or the walls or god, but that doesn’t make sense.
The cube is black like a shadow, and I can’t stop looking at it every other second. Snatching it, I put it in my desk drawer and close it. I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. Amazing how such a small gadget can carry so much trouble.
The knock at the door makes me jump, but the pattern is familiar. “Come in.”
Mom Super comes in looking concerned. “I’ve heard you had a run in with some rough men. Are you all right?”
“It was just an old misunderstanding, that’s all.”
“The bruise on your cheek and the situation you were found in speaks otherwise, young one.”
“Really, it was nothing. I just need to be more careful not to be in Bazaar after dark. That sort of thing happens all the time if you’re not careful, and I just made a mistake. Nothing to worry about.”
“All right. I will leave you to attend to yourself. If you have more you wish to talk about, I am always willing to.”
As the door closes behind her I know that Mom Super has more questions for me then she asked. I know I have more questions than I know how to ask.
Just sitting here thinking about . . . all the “whys.” I’m sweating. Fear, anger and shame all mixed into a toxic knot in my chest.
I get up and open my closet. The floor is mostly clean. I push what’s there aside and crawl in. After what feels like hours I finally nod off in the only place I can think of to run to, and it doesn’t help. Null a secure ‘gainst your own mind. Don’t exist, that.
Suddenly I hear my young voice in my head, “Ask the ‘why’s’ an’ you dies.”
Like hell am I going to let threats and street rhymes start running my life again.
I get up from the floor of my closet and go over and open my desk drawer. I take stock of my options for a moment before I grab the cube and sit down at my work bench.
I’ll start with passive scans.
* * *
Days have never felt as long as these do. I can barely eat. I’ve come up with nothing. Passives show nothing my eyes couldn’t already tell me. The case is sealed tight. Even the button seems to be formed into the glass. No seams or joints to pry open. I haven’t been this frustrated since I had to study Biology.
Things start to take a toll on me as I realize how trapped I am. I’m flying blind without more information. Dirk can hold his threat against the street children over me for years and continually get me to cooperate. It’s too late to tell Mom Super. I still need answers though, and what he said about the Sisters has me doubting everything I know about them.
I get Mom Super alone in the meal hall after dinner the third night. “Mom Super, can I ask you about some things I’ve been wonder . . . thinking about?”
“Of course you may, young one. I will answer as best I can.”
If I ask too directly about what Dirk said I’ll give myself away, but I have to look inquisitive like I’ve been holding questions back.
“Only a few things I guess. It’s hard not to, ya know? Things just come up. Like, what do you do with all the information you collect besides study it and put it on shelves?”
“We sell it, or many times give it away. Sometimes we simply keep it and do nothing at all with it.”
That one stuns me a bit as I test Dirk’s words against the ramifications of that claim. It sounds like a canned answer but it rings like the truth.
“How do you get all the stuff you collect in the Library? Just Pilgrimages?”
“Sometimes information is bequeathed to us. At times it is given freely. Other times it is given into our care at great price by the faithful or others. At times when information is received as confession, it is not to be released until morally necessary or after the confessor’s death, and then always without connection to that person. It is one of our most sacred duties to ensure such things are not lost, but to acquire them often requires that we allow some stipulation and even restriction to certain information. That is what we keep in the Holy Vault.”
“What does ‘morally necessary’ mean? I mean, what sort of thing could a person know that would be so important?”
“That is the first follow-up question you have asked.” Mom Super caught my genuine curiosity by the tail like a cat nabbing a mouse. I sit frozen, trying not to react.
“It’s a very good question,” she continues. I let out the breath I’m holding. “Information of itself does not have moral character. It is the situations and circumstances surrounding information that determine its moral value. If it would be morally wrong for us to withhold or suppress something about a crime or event, then we cannot withhold it. If we have been sworn to the confessional about something that has no influence on the world, then that is reserved for a time. It comes to subjective assessments at times, so we must remain humble and vigilant of our own biases.”
That’s close to what Dirk described, but a whole lot different. “But what if information from the Vault or confessional or whatever would hurt people? Even if you released it for the right reasons? To manipulate things?”
Shit, did I just say that out loud?
“Is that something you’ve heard, young one?”
“Just once, Mom Super.”
For a split second, I think I see a tiredness on her face like I haven’t seen before. Maybe it’s sadness. After I blink, it’s not there anymore.
“Whenever the Order releases information from the confessional vault early, it must always have some sort of effect. If it were to mean nothing, then there would be no reason to release it. Those who entrust their secrets to us have the utmost faith in our stewardship and discretion.” Mom Super sighs and takes a larger breath than normal. “Some may see what we do as manipulation or meddling. Perhaps especially if they are on the wrong side of what is revealed. That too would be subjective, I think.”
Dirk had only given me a half truth and twisted it besides.
“That has to be really hard. Who decides if that happens?”
“I do,” Mom Super says quietly. “I think I will retire, young one. You should rest as well. Street school seems to take much out of each week.”
Even without trying to figure out what just happened to Mom Super, I’ve got a lot to parse. The Sisters do sell information, but it’s not back-alley trades like Dirk wanted me to think. Sure the info from the Vault changes things when it gets released, or the Sisters wouldn’t lock it away. They’ve even got a hang-up about the freedom of info, so it’s got to be a big deal that the Vault exists at all. If it’s all true, what she just told me changes everything but doesn’t make anything easier.
Cracking tough eggs is what a gear rat does, but it will mean covering all my tracks after I hack into the thing. I don’t call myself a gear rat anymore, but I sure as hell still have skills. More even, than I ever had as a rat, thanks to Mom Super.
I head back to my room. I can’t be stupid about this, but if what Mom Super said is true, then I can’t let Dirk have what he wants. A set of antennae and a mobiGlas can do a whole lot if you know how to make them dance right.
* * *
My active scanning finally shows me the innards of the thing, but what’s there doesn’t make sense. Why would you make a piece of equipment with a decryption suite, a tiny swap drive, a transmitter, and a power supply that will only last a few days? There’s no storage drive that could hold any reasonable amount of information. It doesn’t have the gear to transmit the information out to somewhere else.
I decide to turn it on. The cube starts to send signals on the same frequency that I’m used to seeing on my readouts when I’m near the Vault. So that matches up, but too much still doesn’t.
I set my scraped-together diagnostic tool to imitate the Vault’s transmissions, my room being far enough away that I’m certain the cube can’t actually reach the real Vault with so little power. The cube’s transmissions start to cycle through known encryption handshakes. It’s trying to connect, all right. I pick a protocol that’s old and obscure for my decoy to use and wait. Almost two hours of nothing, then it happens. A sudden spike in the communication between the cube and my imitation Vault transmitter. Then suddenly nothing. And my gear stops responding.
My setup is wiped clean. I panic and turn off my mobiGlas as fast as possible, hoping the wipe routine didn’t jump the link to my more precious hardware. The cube’s indicator light blinks three times and goes off, like an acknowledgement of what just happened.
It’s an info-nuke! Dirk doesn’t want to steal anything from the Vault. He’s trying to destroy it!
My mind starts racing. Why would he do that? The information in the Vault has to be valuable, but you can’t sell something you’ve destroyed. Dirk’s only good for petty theft.
I stop and think about what I know about Dirk and realize it’s all old information. Not as useful or complete as I would want. I’ve been assuming I knew what he wants.
Why should I care what he wants; this is an attack on the Sisters and feels all wrong.
* * *
I don’t sleep. Can’t sleep. I have to figure out why Dirk would want to wipe out the Vault. I have to get this cube back to Dirk and keep everything away from Mom Super. I . . .
I can’t do this. I can’t take this into the Library. I can’t betray the Sisters and Mom Super. I won’t. I’ll find some other way to protect the children. They’re street rats, maybe just warning them could be enough. What if it’s not?
I have to break into the operating system of the cube and find out more about it. That might show me what’s really going on.
The operating system turns out to be a labyrinth. This should be delicate work and I’m doing it with a sledge hammer. There’s no time to be more careful. Every time I make too many mistakes it tries to wipe out whatever device I have connected to it. Whoever made this used some high-caliber tech and didn’t skimp on accessories. Expensive, that. More than Dirk could afford, that’s for damn sure.
I know I have to give it back to Dirk and he’s sure to have some way to look at whether it’s done its job. Eventually, I find what I expect. Log files of everything it’s done and every connection attempt and signal received since it was turned on. I even see the entry for the wipe it did of my original decoy. Still no clue as to why it exists or who made it. I edit the logs about my intrusion. Then I find a hidden partition with more logs. Then I discover a second operating system that only runs when the device isn’t connected to anything. I sandbox that and get it to boot and find a whole new set of log files and double checks I bypass or change. I work forty-eight hours straight trying to make sure Dirk can’t detect what I’ve done and leave the record of the falsely completed Vault wipe intact.
Then, just before I start my last script to cover my tracks in the software, I decide to run a full power scan of the insides again and take stock of what’s there.
And I find something extra. After a while of looking at it I figure the only thing it can be, a write-once memory chip. The kind that only allows you to put information on it once and then it’s stored permanently.
If there are logs of what I did that the system put there before I could stop it, then I’m screwed and Dirk will know everything I’ve done and all my work to fake this is worthless.
* * *
The write-once memory on top of my guilt, the lack of sleep, and a bit of desperation push me to decide I’m going to stand up to him. I have to tell him I won’t do this. To hell with him finding out that I’ve played with his toy. I’m not going to let myself get bullied by some low life and his thugs. I can warn the children and then they can take care of themselves until I come up with something better. I’m sure word’s gotten out around the rat camps by now to stay away from Dirk.
Taking the ride to Bazaar Street feels different. Maybe it’s the cube in my pocket. The rail car seems hot, but I’m the only one sweating. I’ve got a plan and an angle. There is even a slim chance of a way out. Walking out of the rail car, the open air is chilled. The Sisters and I head towards Work Row.
There are still children there waiting for school to start, even in this cold. I make a mental note to bring jackets and some heat units next week as we set up.
The end of the alley darkens as three men stand blocking the way. I recognize them instantly. Dirk and his muscle.
The other Sisters look at me. This is still my turf to them, and they must not recognize them as the men who attacked me. I tell them to keep unpacking and go to face the trio alone, but two Sisters follow me. At least this time I have backup nearby and a way out behind me.
They form up behind me. A sign of support. A chip in the game of appearances that poor people play. They’ve come to my aid, and I almost betrayed them to Dirk’s five cubic centimeter invasion.
Dirk locks on to them right away. “‘m got talk ta green eyes ‘lone. You others can outbound.”
“Yours first,” I say.
Dirk shifts attention to me then gives a nod. The two thugs turn around and walk back around the corner, with one keeping an eye down the alley.
I give the Sisters my best try at a reassuring smile. They bow slightly and return to the work of settling the children for school a little further away. My hand reaches into my pocket for the cube. It’s like holding a loaded gun I don’t have control of. I swallow down my emotions and set my feet as I stop in front of them.
I look my old boss dead in the eye, “I won’t do it, Dirk.”
Everything is very still and very dangerous for what feels like minutes.
“Ya know, ‘m think you smart some, green eyes. Guess not. Them rats gonna pay for this.”
I look over my shoulder again at the students. “They aren’t rats. They’re children.”
I return my attention to Dirk and barely see the shock pistol before it fires. My body convulses as I black out.
* * *
I wake up to the sound of crying and someone shaking me. I finally get my eyes open and sit up. Pain racks my body so much I almost puke. My eyes are adjusting to the darkness. Darkness? The shock pistol. Must have been out for hours. I see two sisters huddled together. One is where the crying is coming from. The other is consoling her.
I look around the normally orderly alley and see chaos. Clothes and scraps of clothes. Debris scattered.
And blood. Too much blood. I look at myself and the Sisters again. None of it seems to be from us.
I make it to my feet without falling back down and stumble over the a stack of crates in the middle of the empty area we normally use for our classroom. On it is a note.
“I’ve got your rats. Do it or they die.”
It’s me that cries now.
* * *
The rail ride back is endured alone in my own head, as my mind fills with panic and rage. Why couldn’t I have just done what Dirk told me to? The rail car races its way along, but I silently will it faster.
Half running into the warm halls of the convent should have made me feel relief, but it only heaps on dread as I recognize one of our number heading off in the direction of Mom Super’s rooms. Most likely to tell her what happened. I don’t have time to think about that though, Dirk’s threats are real now. He’s changed more than I realized.
The others shepherd me to my room and at least one stays outside the door as I stumble through it. The uncommon sound of rushing feet comes down the hall just before Mom Super bursts in. She has right to do that anywhere in the convent, but she usually knocks on my door.
“Young one, are you all right? I’ve been told you and the others were confronted by a group of rough men. What happened? What did they want?”
Mom Super, panicked? I have to deflect this now.
“The Sisters report children have been injured or taken away by the same men who attacked you. Can you explain this?”
“Some thugs jumped us. They want us to shut down the school. We have to pay some sort of protection money and they’ll leave us alone. That’s all.”
Mom Super’s not buying it, “I don’t see how you could be this casual, young one. This is not some old secret of circumstance you should be keeping alone. You must tell me what they really wanted. Violence almost befell the Sisters on your behalf as well. That makes this a matter for the whole of this Order. It is a step too far to believe those men want only to extort some . . .”
“I’m taking care of it, all right! The kids are gonna be safe. It’s just thugs.”
I haven’t flown off the handle like that in years. Mom Super can see the wall I never let her past, and acknowledges it with a stern look.
“You want me to take your word without any explanation when I should be calling the authorities. I am charged with the safety of this Order and its members. What of these children? Is it so that you can protect them but you cannot protect yourself?”
“I’m taking care of it,” I repeat.
“I have a responsibility I cannot ignore. I should have already reported the assault and possible kidnapping. The police will have to know sooner or later.”
“The police getting into it will be a death warrant for those kids. You told me you wanted me to help you bridge the gap into Bazaar Street because you can’t understand it and I can. I’m the only one that can get those kids back.”
“What choice do I have then?” She pauses. “I expect to be told what has happened after it is settled.” Mom Super looks at me hard for a moment longer than comfortable and then leaves in anger.
Damn it all, she had to even bring trust into this? I feel the cube in my pocket nagging at me. I have to do it. Damn you to hell, Dirk.
* * *
I’ll have to wait a few hours till everyone is asleep. Mom Super’s suspicion means I’ll be watched if I try and go to the library now, and I can’t let anyone stop me. I lie down but can’t rest. Minutes pass as slow as hours, and my skin itches as the waiting ticks on. My alarm goes off and I roll out of bed feverish to be about my task.
The halls are empty as I make the trek to the library entrance. I’m half surprised when it opens for me. The lights in the library are dimmed to night settings. Weaving through the stacks to the Vault I see no one and jump at every sound.
I pull the cube out from the bag I’m carrying it in and place it on the desk nearest the Vault.
Even through the pain and fatigue induced haze I still stop my finger above the button just before I press it. I have to do this. For the children. I can’t wait or they’ll die. I close my eyes.
“Forgive me,” I say. Like the prayers the Sisters use, but to myself more than anything. Someone else responds as I feel a hand close around my wrist.
“Forgive you for what?”