The day after a big job was always weird. Last night was a small, intense world full of fear and danger and stress. This morning is bright with highs in the low forties. Cylee was up, showered, dressed, and done with breakfast by the time Mitzi rolled off the couch and stumbled into the bathroom, blond hair a weirdly weightless halo around her head.
Cylee went and found a small digital reader and pulled up some books. She could have done that in her HUD, of course, but sometimes you need to look like you’re reading and anyway, physical things are nice.
Mitzi finished her shower and walked out wrapped in huge towel. “Can I borrow some clothes?”
“I…sure, but we’re not really the same size.” Cylee said.
“That’s okay, I can make it work,” Mitzi said walking into Cylee’s bedroom. “Yes, you probably can,” thought Cylee and regretted the moment of white-hot resentment she felt toward her friend. If Cylee had tried to put together a reasonable outfit out of Mitzi’s closet she’d look like someone who was borrowing clothes. Their body types were far too different.
“Okay then. Anything you want out of the closet.” Cylee called.
“Closet, or floor? Do you ever put anything away?” Mitzi called back amiably.
“Do you? Or do other people just put everything away for you?” Cylee responded.
“Did I just find a green top? You actually own other colors? I figured everything you owned was black and red.”
“You’ve seen me wearing that top, Mitz. And anyway, I’ve got blue stuff as well. I wear colors.”
“But you’re wearing all black today. Again.”
“Ugh, throw me the green top.”
“There’s a good girl. We’re off the clock. Let your hair down.” Mitzi said, and the green top in question flew out the door. Cylee changed and threw her black shirt back through the door at Mitzi.
It still took Mitzi thirty minutes to get dressed, even before she started on her hair. She was wearing one of Cylee’s long black shirts, which on Mitzi went down almost to her knees and—and with the addition of a silver belt—looked almost like a dress. She was also wearing a pair of Cylee’s black leggings, and her own boots. Somehow, Cylee reflected, Mitzi had taken a couple of the most utilitarian pieces of Cylee’s wardrobe and made them look cute and feminine.
“I thought all black was a no-no,” Cylee said as Mitzi stood in front of the mirror fixing her hair and makeup.
“I mean, usually. But look how cute it turned out!” Mitzi said and smiled. Mitzi smiled and realized she had absolutely nothing to say to that. So instead of responding she tried to concentrate on her book, but was spared the trouble by Julian.
Julian: Hey Cylee. How are you doing, now that we’ve been back in town a couple of days. There’s a new café I’d like to try and I figured we should try it together. Maybe tonight?”
Cylee smiled. Julian was exactly the sort who would be sure to include the accent in “café”. Well, as far as she knew.
Cylee: What kind of food do they do there?
Julian: Hmmmm looking over the menu. Seems like…Mexicali-Middle-Eastern?
Cylee: Ah, just like mama used to make.
Julian: Who wasn’t raised on hummus burritos?
Cylee: Wow, really?
Julian: You’ll have to wait and see. So, 8pm?
Cylee: Wow, emoji. Really? You’re going all-in on this retro-21st-century thing, aren’t you?
Cylee: 🤦🏼♂️ Okay. Later!
“Who was that?” Mitzi asked, still brushing her hair.
“Who was what?” Cylee said.
“You always get this weird faraway look when you’re Spine-texting.”
“A guy I met on the Portland job. He seems harmless. Lame, kinda pretentious and full of himself. But harmless.”
“Wow, don’t talk him up too much or I might decide to steal him from you,” Mitzi said, looking at herself in the mirror.
“Go for it. But…after tonight. I kinda what to try this café he told me about.” Cylee said, and wondered if you were supposed to pronounce the word differently with that accent mark at the end.
Mitzi finished playing with her hair and makeup and turned to Cylee. “Okay, ready to go?” Cylee absolutely didn’t laugh out loud. “Yep, let’s head out.”
Mitzi hailed an auto cab and they waited on the curb for a couple of minutes. Suddenly something occurred to Cylee and she looked at her friend.
“Even for you, this is a bit more effort than you usually put into going to meet someone to fix a thing. What’s up, Mitz?”
Mitzi smiled brightly and seemed to ignore the question for a moment. Then looked up at Cylee. “We’re going to see Wayne. He’s…also nice. And kinda lame. But… he’s a good guy. Anyway, you’ll see.”
The cab arrived and Cylee sighed inwardly. Mitzi’s various romantic interests tended to have short shelf lives, and blow up rather prettily at the end of the affair. Cylee just hoped she could get her charger fixed before the fireworks started.
The cab stopped and Cylee slid out. They were in a very old part of town, all cracked asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks. Weeds and grass grew up through the cracks. There were a few small, shabby-looking businesses along this street, oddly interspersed with single-family houses (most of which held the entire family, based on the kids and old people hanging out in the small front yards. Or maybe, Cylee thought, people around here just keep having kids until later in life.) The people in the yards watched Cylee and Mitzi get out, watched the cab speed off, and then, sensing that the entertainment was over, went back to whatever it was they had been doing. The kids were playing games with rules that changed constantly and the older people were nominally watching them. A few were actually watching handheld screens, but most were just chatting and actually watching the kids.
“Come on, this is Wayne’s store,” Mitzi said, grabbing Cylee’s arm.
Wayne’s store was an old free-standing building, built of bricks along the sides, the front all steel and glass. Above the windows was a tall facade, on which the words “Early Electronics” were written in light. As Cylee looked at the words they changed color, red to purple to green to blue, fading slowly from one to the next so that you couldn’t really tell quite when it changed. Through the windows Cylee could see collections of cardboard boxes, covered with text in various languages to be sold in any territory possible. Along the back wall was ancient and unimproved-upon pegboard, holding racks of wires and cables and small, pre-built electronic devices. Below the pegboard was a row of 3D printers, ranging from an expensive mono-molicule compositor to old resin-layer plastic prototypers. A few of them were running, a few others seemed to be either under construction or repair. Cylee imagined that one of them was printing parts for another one, and laughed.
In front of the peg wall was a glass display case and counter. On the far left end was a cash register that was at least two hundred years old, entirely mechanical. Inside the display case was an assortment of oddities, from typewriters to laptops to tablets, relics of earlier ages. The ones with screens were on, displaying 2D graphics that seemed to move from a neolithic, monochrome display, to an ancient grainy laptop to a slightly less ancient cell phone.
There was a bell over the door that rang when they opened it and went in. Mitzi walked up to the counter and waited, fidgeting just a little as she waited.
“Melissa! How are you doing today?”
Wayne emerged from the backroom. He looked to be in his mid forties, wearing a button-down shirt that never went into style and tan pants. He had a slightly middle-aged shape, not quite a pear but no longer an inverted triangle. He was pale, but had active, intelligent eyes.
“Heya, Wayne!” Mitzi said as he came to the counter.
“And who is this?” Wayne asked, reaching out to shake Cylee’s hand.
“Karen,” Cylee said. If Mitzi was going to be Melissa in here then she could be Karen. Mitzi looked slightly surprised but only for a split second.
“Pleased to meet you, Karen.” Wayne said. If he noticed any surprised looks he ignored them. “What can I do for you today?” He asked.
“Well, Karen here has a new Spine and she accidentally broke the charger. I know you believe in fixing things instead of throwing them away, and I thought you might charge less than a new one. It’s a proprietary thing.” Cylee put the charger on the counter and Wayne picked it up, turning it over and over in his hands, running a finger along the place where the plastic and electronics had been cracked.
“I see. Yeah, this is a nasty break. If there’s any fancy pre-printed stuff in here it might take a little time to reverse engineer and emulate, but generally Spine systems keep all the fancy stuff inside the spine proper…” he took the device and put it on his workbench, in a spot that was surrounded by implements and tools. He pulled on a pair of goggles and started poking at the internal parts of the charger. “Hmmmm…” he said.
“Let's see here...” Wayne said. He took the device and turned to his workbench. Almost absently he pulled a pair of microscopic glasses on, and started reaching without looking for a wide array of tools to work on the little torc-shaped device. He worked in utter silence, nearly motionless except for his hands, which never stopped moving.
Cylee was a decent field electrician herself, but this was artistry. A minimum of fuss, bringing just the right tool into play for a moment, casually brushing over the afflicted area with a new wire box, or adjusting the flow across a damaged board, glancing only momentarily at the readout of his instruments, he seemed to already know what they were going to say.
Mitzi turned to Cylee. “He’ll probably be pretty closed off to actual human interaction for the next few minutes,’” she said and leaned on a box near the counter.
“I mean, I can still hear you,” Wayne said, without malice.
Cylee smiled a little and went to explore the show room a bit. There was a little bit of everything here, from the aforementioned ancient computer toys to much more modern drones, hoverers, and even a few off the rack Augments.
“Hmmmmmm… It’s probably good you brought this charger to me…” Wayne said and stood up straight. Cylee looked up. “Why is that?”
“Well, one, it’s really pretty broken, but that’s not a huge problem. The connection is a simple magnetic four contact job, I can make you a new one in a few minutes. But two…come look at this.”
Cylee walked over to the workbench and looked through the microscope. There was a mass of…electronic stuff.
“I have no idea what I’m looking at,” Cylee admitted.
“So, like I said, this is a pretty simple charger. There are four contacts, and all the charger really has to do is send power along two of them, use one for a grounding pin, and stop sending current when it gets a signal on the fourth. The design hasn’t changed in centuries. “
Wayne gently moved the microscope away from Cylee and attached a camera to the eyepiece, then turned on a wall-mounted screen, showing the microscope’s view.
“So, if that’s all this system is meant to do, why does it have data storage,” he pointed to a small black rectangle on the screen, “A graphics processor,” another rectangle, slightly larger, “And a communication chip?” This one was a very small rectangle.
“Someone’s using my charger to spy on me?” Cylee asked, her stomach sinking. “But I checked it for radio radiation and there didn’t seem to be any.”
“Well, I didn’t say it was a wireless communication chip,” Wayne said, squinting at the screen. “My guess is that it’s communicating through the power plug, sending signals through he power main.”
“That…can people do that?” Mitzi asked, crowding around as well.
“Sure, it’s just a matter of putting a certain flutter back into the wires. It’s a trick that’s been around forever. If you put a surge protector between this charger and your power main it’d probably defeat the system entirely. But, based on Karen’s face, I’m guessing this is a not-altogether-happy revelation?”
Cylee sat down. “So, does it have a battery or…or capacitors or something? Can it broadcast right now?”
“It doesn’t look like it, but that doesn’t mean I want it in my store any longer than necessary.” Wayne said, then put his head on one side, and thought. “Although…this looks like Shiira technology, and it’s entirely possible they put all this in here as a sort of diagnostic package. In that case it could be harmless…if you’re okay with that sort of thing.”
“No, I’m not, and I’ll dispose of it,” Cylee said. “But, you said you could make me a replacement, one without a tiny spy computer in it.”
“I’ll get started on it right away,” Wayne said.
Mitzi came over to Cylee and put an arm around her. Cylee growled a little.
“They said they wanted to give me the Spine as 'a retainer', I guess they meant 'leash',” Cylee said, seething at herself. “This means they know where I live, and…and anywhere I charged this new Spine in Portland…” She shook her head.
“Cyl, I’m so sorry…” Mitzi said and her eyes widened. “I mean, Karen,” she half-muttered. Glancing over at Wayne he seemed entirely engaged in setting up one of his 3D printers to create a new charger.
“Karen, if you could come over here, I’d like to just take a look at the charging port on the top of your spine. I need a couple of measurements to make sure this will actually work.”
Cylee walked over and sat down on the proffered chair. Mitzi walked to the other wall to look at whatever weird things were hanging thereupon.
“So, you and Mitzi seem pretty worried about this,” he said, working with a small handheld measurement tool, gently prodding the charging port on her Spine. She got a few flashes of “charger connected…charger disconnected” on her HUD.
“Well, yeah, wouldn’t you be…oh. You just called her Mitzi.”
“She’s a good person, and a smart person. But like many good, smart people she tends to forget that other people can also be smart. But at least she still believes that most people are good. I’ve never figured out why she doesn’t trust me more, though. It’s not like I’m ignorant; you don’t have the sort of problems she brings me without spending some time in less-than-legal enterprise. Not that I’m judging, mind.”
“Names seem important to you, Mister Early.” Cylee said, and Wayne laughed.
“Names are useful, in a time and place. When they stop being useful it’s fine to move on from them. Okay, I’ve got what I need, give the machine a couple of minutes and we’ll have you all set.” Cylee stood up and walked over to Mitzi. She thought about telling her friend about the conversation, but…nah.
**Tamara Patel (Doctor): ** Hello Cylee! I hope you are having a great day.
Cylee: Oh, yeah, pretty good, thanks! How about you?
**Tamara Patel (Doctor): ** So, listen, I know it’s been a while and it might have slipped your mind, but I wondered if you’d like to come over for dinner tonight? There really is something I’d like to tell you, and sooner is probably better than later.
Cylee felt her breath speed up. This wasn’t a good fight-or-flight option; how do you fight social situations? At least she had a good excuse for tonight.
Cylee: I actually can’t tonight, I have a date. But…is there another night? Maybe on the weekend?
**Tamara Patel (Doctor): ** Oh, yeah totally! Would Friday work?
Cylee paused. Doctor Patel was part of the organization that had presumably planted a transmitter in her charger. And Doctor Patel was the most recent person to interact with that charger. Which didn’t mean she was definitely the person who planted the bug, indeed it seemed unlikely, as she was a doctor not a technician…
“Hey, Mr. Early? How hard would it be to create that little bugged charger system thingy?” Cylee asked.
“Well… If it’s a custom job, meaning you are only making one of these ever, then pretty hard. If you have a kit, or know where you can buy a kit, adding it into the charger would be…only moderately hard. I could do it, but I don’t know a ton of other people who could.”
“What about a medical doctor? They’re half technologists anyway, these days.” Cylee asked.
“Maybe? Who knows? I’d have to meet this doctor of yours. But if you ask me, this was built in the factory. It’s too clean to be a local job, unless you’ve got a whole Spine production factory.”
**Agent: ** We sense no threat from Doctor Patel. We do not believe she was complicit in spying on your charging collar.
“There’s one way to find out,” Cylee thought.
**Cylee: ** Tamara, did you know there was a tracking device and modem in my new Spine’s charging collar?
There was a long pause. Cylee wasn’t sure if this meant she was aware, wasn’t, or was telling her bosses that the jig was up.
**Tamara Patel (Doctor): ** Cylee, you must believe that I didn’t, although I guess I was foolish not to suspect. If you will come over on Friday… I think it would be best. Some things probably shouldn’t be transmitted.
**Cylee: ** Okay. Friday. Send me the address, or I can look it up.
**Tamara Patel (Doctor): ** No, I can send that. They already know where I live.
“Okay, Miss Karen, I think we’re there. If you could come sit back in the chair here…” Wayne gestured and held up the new end of the charger. It was, somehow, even more padded than the original, and fit her neck better. He attached the contact and her HUD showed “Battery charging” and the annoying little animation.
“Looks like it works, Mister Early.” Cylee said. “What do I owe you?”
“I accept USD, Canadian Dollars, Pacifica scrip, pesos from around the globe, old and new Euros, any form of Crypto that has an active exchange, pounds sterling, Dutch marks, German marks, Finnish marks, and shiny beads. I even accepted a papal indulgence once. At least, the guy said he was a pope. I took his word for it in case he turned out to be right. Oh, and in USD it'll be one hundred bucks.”
“So...you get ripped off a lot,” Cylee said, swiping her credit chip over the payment sensor. For some reason she knew that was the question he wanted to be asked. A hundred USD was kiddy money.
“That I don't, ma'am. Look around. My little electronics shop stands in the middle of some bad territory, but I never get robbed. I don't make a whole lot; after all, who repairs electronics, when you can replace them? But I never end up short on my rent or groceries, and people bring me nice things when they think I can use them. I may not make a ton of regular cash, but I'm trading in a different currency, and doing quite well.”
“So why charge people at all?”
“So that we all feel like the transaction was legitimate. If you just work for free you're a pushover. If you do good work, charge a fair price, and expect people to be fair to you you're a good person. Everyone comes away with their dignity intact.”
“I feel like this is leading up to you pitching a religion.” Cylee said, half-sarcastically.
Wayne smiled. “Well, I’m too fond of coffee for the folks over in Bonneville to accept me, I’m not a Catholic, so I’m not welcome in southwestern Texicali. Melissa’s parents wouldn’t like the fact that I’m not entirely sold on Fed Protestantism. But I’m also not a Northwest atheist either.”
“That’s not an answer, Wayne.” Mitzi said from her place in the corner. For some reason her eyes were watching Wayne’s face intently.
He had tried to go back to work, but he looked up again, and looked Cylee right in the eyes. “I believe in God, Miss, and what's more, I think he believes in me too.”
Cylee sat quietly. Honesty was rare in her world, and it was as frightening to her as a loaded gun. She had no idea how to respond to such a bare statement of...of faith. But Mitzi did.
“What's that supposed to mean? You think God talks to you?”
“He's never said anything, but He's not ignoring me either. I think he knows I'm good for something, and the best I can do is not let him down.”
Even Mitzi was quiet after this.
Cylee didn't know if there was a god, and she suddenly found that, at this moment, it didn't really matter. What Wayne had said to her was true. It was his actual belief. In his mind—in his world— there is a God, and he had let her into that world, just a little bit. He had actually showed her a part of himself that was real.
Truth changes worlds. At least, in that moment it changed Cylee's world. All her other problems, all the street running and scores and Pacifica—all that was insignificant, it was all a web of vapors and lies. Nobody involved in any of that was doing anything for the reasons they said they were, and when it came down to it, they didn't even believe the reasons they told themselves.
“Thank you, Wayne,” Cylee said, her voice quiet and sincere. She had nothing she could pay him with for his honesty, except her own. And she found, in that moment, that she was honestly grateful. So she said it.
And he seemed to understand. He looked up one more time, nodded, and said, “you're welcome”.