A drink arrived that Culin hadn’t ordered.
No one sent drinks to the crowded annex where Culin sat, crammed in with seven other people, all with contagion bands on their sleeves and matching tattoos on their arms. Sending drinks was an affectation Culin didn’t see much in the Dead Engine at all.
The bartender who’d brought it over—Nis with the slit nostrils, the only one who’d serve the contages with anything approaching civility—shrugged, pointed to a woman at the counter, and said “Don’t ask me.”
“I can’t accept this,” Culin said. The thumb glass was sweating in the muggy air, and Culin could smell it from where he sat. It smelled like spices, something organic, something expensive. Everyone in the annex was watching.
“It’s paid and she won’t take it back,” Nis said, and pushed the glass at Culin. Culin took it. Then, as Nis walked away, and before any of the other contages could make an offer or express interest or make a grab for it, Culin tipped it back into his mouth.
The drink was red and full-bodied and savory-sweet, with only the breath of the alcohol keeping it from feeling syrupy on his tongue. He wasn’t worried about being drugged. His armband marked him as too virulent to take advantage of, and there were cheaper ways to get at someone in his profession. When he lowered the glass he saw the woman who’d bought it already on her way out the door.
He jumped up, abandoning his own cheap distillate, but by the time he limped out of the door she’d already vanished into the spider’s-maze of alleyways. It was shitting down rain, most of it hitting the walls and the wires and the dishes with their antennas nosing toward the shreds of sky; a few lucky droplets managed a direct path down onto Culin’s neck and shoulders, while the rest slid down the buildings and into the gutters. Not many people wanted to be out on nights like this. Not many got a choice.
Culin sighed, and unclipped his gloves from his belt. There was no point in returning to the bar; Nis made it his business to know as little as possible, and no one else would touch the mystery. A red cordial for a red-banded contage, a disappearing woman—what good would come of wondering about it?
He pulled the gloves on and fastened the buckles around his wrists, setting the rubber snug against his palms. Then he took hold of the data line running up the side of the bar and climbed into the disused vertical avenues of the city.
• • • •
The white flag, stained grey from rain and city grime, called him halfway up a block of flats to a job. People like him didn’t have territories, but this—inconvenient from the streets and rooftops both—was as close as it came to his: the space where it was easier for those who preferred to move in three dimensions than two.
There was no ledge at the window, but good climbers never needed them. This window had a clothesline anchor, an outdated and rusting data satellite, a data network link, a lectric link, an illegal lectric link, and a canister full of mineral wool in which a few seeds were failing to germinate. He made the leap from the opposite building and caught the proper network’s lectric link—never could tell how the hack jobs would hold—and knocked on the window.
No one answered for a minute or so, then a shadow came up to the window grime and slid the plastic away. With that gone, the shadow became a young woman, who blinked blearily at him and then settled her eyes, as though by natural magnetism, on his arm.
“LEMR. What do you need?” Culin said, and shifted. If he hooked his foot against the bolts of the hydroponics pot he could lean away from the window. Give her some contage-free space to breathe.
She blinked at the band, then swallowed and looked at his eyes. “Data’s out. I’m running security on Tii Market; I can’t go dry.”
Culin grunted. “How many others on security?”
“Not enough. People don’t feel safe anyway. Losing one set of eyes is going to keep people home.” She shook her head. “I just need data back.”
“Soon. Yeah.” Culin glanced behind her into the flat. It was spare, like he’d expect from someone her age, living alone; new monitors and cables and keyboards, like he’d expect from someone on the data lines for a living. “What do you pay in?”
“Name a vendor,” she said. “I’ll get you your worth.” Her look got sharp. “Minus the time you spend.”
Culin nodded, and turned to the data line. The woman pushed the dirty window plastic closed.
A few meters up the data line there was a patch of lectric tape where another LEMR had hacked onto the line and patched it up. He peeled the tape away, pulled a reader out of his pocket, hooked it up, and went to work.
• • • •
Nis didn’t bother asking for an order, most days. There were only so many drinks Culin could afford, and when he came in moving like all his muscles ached and looking like his mind was in the wires, that meant he was on a job, working rough, and unlikely to afford more than the drink which would be his rent for the annex stool. The stuff he was getting today was from Nis’ backroom still, with flecks of sediment drifting at the bottom.
Least, that was what he ordered. Nis arrived at his table with another thumb glass of something sweet and red, and it took Culin a moment to react.
“You drink it,” he said, and pushed himself up to limp into the main room.
The woman from the other day was at the counter. Tall, solid, and pale, she had slick brown hair just verging on black, and a face people would call handsome—but probably not where she could hear it. Her eyes were a thunderstorm green.
She also had a halo of empty seats around her. Culin was used to seeing those halos, but mostly around contages.
If there was one thing she wasn’t, it was a contage. Even this close she looked clean and not quite real. Real was soggy cigarette butts on a pavement which had started off grey and grimed its way to charcoal; it was the smell of people who only afforded full showers when it rained and the water discounts hit. Real was acne scars and loose skin from lean months; it was yellowing, uneven fingernails and sour breath. Real wasn’t her.
Which meant one of two things: She was fantastically sheltered, or fantastically augmented. And sheltered didn’t come down to the undermarket.
“So, sit down,” she said.
Culin shook his head. “They don’t like me on the stools here.”
“No, but they like me. So, sit down.”
She took a sip of her drink, and didn’t seem that concerned with whether he sat or not. The bartender at this end of the counter—a burly woman who looked like she’d put out her share of fights—was scrubbing out a pitcher and not-looking at them as hard as she could.
“I’m sorry I had to disappear on you last night,” the stranger said. “I got a call. Not that it helped; nothing’s panned out.”
She turned, and something glinted behind her pupil. Culin startled; he’d never seen an ocular camera, but he could guess his picture had just been snapped. And who the hell was she, coming down here with optic implants and talking to him like he should know what she was talking about?
“I think you have the wrong person.”
“I don’t think so.” The corner of her mouth tugged up into a smile. “Culin Wei, the hook-footed LEMR contage who spiders the walls and frequents the Dead Engine. How many of you can there be in a city?”
Not many. Culin still didn’t take the seat. “Why were you looking for me?”
“Because you’re good and you’re desperate and you know things I’m never going to know,” she answered. “And we can help each other.” She extended a hand. “Name’s Jace. I keep the peace, Upcity.”
Culin ignored the cold dread at that intro, and ignored the hand. “Helping Upcity cops doesn’t end well for us, most days.”
“This isn’t most days.” Her voice cooled, and the smile disappeared. So did the offered handshake. Now she was giving him the look that rats gave injured pigeons. “Today, I want to help you. I’m probably the only person in the city who does. And today if we don’t fix this thing, it’s both our necks. So sit down.”
He still didn’t sit down.
She watched him like she really did expect that he’d just soil the nest for her, then sighed. “Fine. This data thing. You’re on it?”
“Every LEMR in the city is probably on it,” Culin said.
“What makes you say that?”
He exhaled. “I traced the signal,” he said. “Checked thirty, thirty-five cables—copper, optic, market, slough.” Legal, illegal, he didn’t say. “Everyone’s calling LEMRs to get it fixed.”
“Must be keeping you in bread,” Jace said.
Culin shook his head. “I don’t know how to get it fixed.” Besides, they’d been calling; he hadn’t been answering. He’d been trying to work out what was wrong. He could show up and play the hero once he could actually fix things.
“You got a lead?” Jace asked.
Jace watched him, then rolled her eyes and growled. “Fine. Here’s what I know.” She flipped a smartscreen out onto the table, and Culin noticed without surprise that it was a model he’d never be able to afford. And, if he could afford it, it would get him killed for carrying it. “All your lines are being clogged with encrypted data. We can trace it back, but it seems to be originating everywhere. Sounds like a virus, but it doesn’t look like it’s transmitting itself, and of the people who are actually willing to let me lay hands on their screens, none of them seem infected with anything. Have you got anything more than that?”
Culin digested that. “You’re a tech?”
“Special investigator,” she said. “Data is kinda important to us in Upcity.”
She said that with a note of self-deprecation. It was the first thing that made him think they could do business. “You looked at the nodes yet?”
She blinked. “Nodes?”
He grunted again. “You don’t know nodes?”
“Tell me about them.”
“Where all the data goes,” Culin said. “Everyone connects to nodes, nodes connect to each other. They keep data on hand, too, in case your smartscreen gets nicked or busted. You want a picture of what’s going through the data, you go to the nodes. If they’ll talk to you.”
Jace gave him a sidelong grin. “It’s less distributed, down here,” she said. “Would have made my job easier if I’d known that.”
None of that was adding up. “Who sent you down and didn’t know that?” Culin asked. Upcity might be insular and arrogant, but he found it hard to believe they’d dispatch a special agent who didn’t know how the thing they were investigating worked.
And Jace wasn’t even subtle about dodging the question. She shrugged, stood away from the bar, and said “So, show me to a node.”
• • • •
The way to the closest node took them out of the undermarket and into the slough, where the previous day’s rain had pooled in oily lakes on the pavement. It was a shorter path on the ground than the walls, although left to his own devices, Culin would have taken the walls anyway. As it was, he limped in front of Jace, trying without success to avoid odd looks from anyone. He was a limping contage leading some Upcity clean; there was no way to avoid people’s attention.
They got to one of the better buildings in the slough, meaning that most of the windows were still in place and none of the footholds on the walls were cracking and ready to give way. Culin looked up, the climb slotting into his mind without him needing to think about it. “You, stay down,” he said. “I’ll ask what’s been happening.”
“I can climb,” Jace said, digging in her hip pouch for gloves. Culin shook his head.
“Not what I’m worried about. You come up, we get nothing.”
“And why’s that?”
Culin looked down from the wall, up into Jace’s face. “Because they trust us,” he said. “You couldn’t pass for a LEMR if we had uniforms. You look like someone who’d care if they had an illegal lectric link or hacked data.”
Jace huffed, and gave the wall a cursory look-over, eyes skipping from one link to another. “All right; I’ll sit this one out.”
“You sit them all out,” Culin said. Then, when she didn’t seem to comprehend, he said “Everyone who’s not in Upcity has an illegal something. Why do you think we don’t like Upcity cops?”
She looked like she was swallowing something bitter there, but she relented. “Gimme your smart,” she said. “I’ll load it with what you need to know.”
• • • •
Like most of the node managers in the district, Lisp had barred windows and reinforced walls, most of which weren’t actually necessary because no one in their right mind would risk breaking a node if people could find out about it. That was fouling the nest in the most spectacular way.
Lisp actually opened the window when Culin came up and knocked, letting him into the flat with only a little extra distance between them. Then, Lisp knew about being a contage—he’d been one, yellow-band, for most of his life until noding got him the money to go Upcity for treatment. He didn’t talk about it, much, but you could see it in his attitude and the set of his shoulders.
“Not the equipment I’m having trouble with today,” he mumbled, and ushered Culin back toward the bedroom. Or what had probably been intended as a bedroom, once upon a time—now, it looked like a data center had exploded in there, and Culin suspected that Lisp slept on the pile of old cushions in the room with the barred windows. His privacy was one thing, but the transit of the district’s data was entirely another. “You seeing this?”
Culin nodded. “Got a white flag on it,” he said. “And I know someone who says it’s clogging lines all over the city.”
On one of the stationary terminals bolted to the wall, a message popped up: 1,1.
Lisp glanced at it and, without much thought, typed in 2,3. It was one of the ubiquitous call-and-response codes, a little ping, pong to let the person on the other end know that someone had picked up the connection, that a real person was typing. “It’s coming through me. And Py’s node, and Erich’s, and every node I’ve talked to.” He scratched at the thinning hair at his temple. Lisp didn’t actually lisp, but he did mutter, and Culin wished he could lean in to listen closer. “I try to scrub, but soon as I get a pattern set up for the encryption, it changes. No use tracing the origin, neither. Comes from everywhere. I try to block it, I just end up shutting the whole network down.”
“Do you know how it started?” Culin asked.
“Know how it did here, yeah.” Another message popped up on Lisp’s terminal, and he typed something back in keyboard shorthand, one-handed. “Ask any other node and it started different. But I can give you all the records I’ve took, if it helps ya. Origins, patterns, volumes, all it.”
“Might,” Culin said. Or it might help Jace, who seemed to have more resources for dealing with data like that. Lisp nodded absently, then wandered across the room to another terminal attached to a large bank. A few more commands, and a burner on the floor spat out a thin finger of smartfilm, which Lisp picked up and tossed in Culin’s direction.
“That’s all I have,” Lisp said. “Hope it does you more good than it did me.”
• • • •
By the time Culin got down to the alley again, Jace had made herself a seat out of an abandoned water drum and had her feet up on the wall across the path. Culin had to fight off a stab of disgust; sure, no one had probably come down this way, but there were things you didn’t do if you weren’t an asshole. Taking up the entire alley was one of them.
“I wanted to ask you something,” Jace said, without bothering to get up. Culin made an acknowledging noise, and Jace waved a hand up at the walls. “You fix all of this?”
“Electric Maintenance and Repair,” Culin said.
“You’re licensed, though.”
He grunted. “That’s what the L stands for.”
“And it doesn’t bother you?” Jace asked. “You go around and fix all their illegal hacks just like you fix the legal ones?”
“Not like they don’t pay me for the illegal stuff.” He crossed his arms. “Got a question for you, though.”
She motioned him to go ahead.
“You’re Upcity. But it doesn’t bother you?”
She hesitated on that just long enough to tell him she’d be lying. “Arresting the entire district is outside my pay grade. I just want this thing solved. What did you get?”
He pulled the smartfilm out of his pocket. Down here, the light was too muddy to see the smudges of burned data, but Jace took it from him and fed it into her smartscreen without a second look. He heard the beep of it making access, and Jace’s eyes flicked over the data. He watched her. It was hard to believe someone could know what they were doing without knowing about things like district nodes, but she looked like she understood what she was seeing. Straight through to the point where something caught her eye, and she grinned.
“Hah!” The exclamation made him jump; it was too much noise for an alley like this, and it made him want to clear the area. “An hour on the job and you’re nabbing more leads than I did in three days; I knew you were a good idea! I can use this, trace it back—”
She plucked the film out from between his fingers, and then he couldn’t parse what was happening; she was moving closer to him, her hand was coming up toward his neck, and he flinched and stumbled sideways, ready to suffer the first blow, but her hand caught him, pulled him closer, and then her mouth was on his mouth, her breath hot in his.
Culin shouted into her, and threw himself away. Hit the wall. Jace stumbled back and Culin tried to say something but found he had no words—he was gasping.
“Sorry,” Jace said, sounding more surprised than sorry. It was hard for Culin to hear her anyway, over the rushing of blood through his ears, the heartbeat rattling through him. “That wasn’t because you were desperate,” she said, and her words seemed to have the tone of an apology. “I mean, I didn’t decide to go for you because I thought you’d be desperate.”
He stared at her, breathing hard, until it occurred to him that that, that was why she thought he’d jumped away, and then the fear got spiked with rage. She had his saliva on her lips, her sure-to-be-augmented Upcity lips, probably being preserved at that moment ready for any lab wanting to look at it. He pushed away from her, back up against a wall, and spat “You fucking Upcity whore!”
Jace blinked, at that. “For one kiss? Come on, I was happy.”
“For—” he said, and the words imploded. “I’m—” Implosion again. He was shaking, and the grit in the concrete wall rattled against his back as though his shirt was nothing. His hand went to his arm, nails digging in just under the contagion band, and his voice was tighter than his fist. “They can charge me,” he said. “They can fucking charge me!”
It took a moment, then her brow furrowed. “You’re worried about biological battery?”
Culin was breathing too hard to answer that.
“C’mon; I kissed you,” Jace said. “And whatever it is you’ve got, I’m immune.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Culin hissed.
“I don’t fucking care what the law says!” The fear was kicking at his ribcage; it felt like his muscles would constrict him, grind out his breath. “I care about my mates who got banged up three years on when an old lay worked out they could get them back for something for the price of a Shunt Street traffic bribe.” I care that you’ve stolen my DNA, he couldn’t say. Spit was just one more thing to hold against people like him. If it came down to his word, the word of a gimp contage, a barely-legal LEMR scuttling around in the rain and the grime, his word against hers, he might as well just turn himself in as guilty and save the trouble.
He took in a breath to say something, anything, and discovered that the fear was turning into nausea, and the nausea was thrumming through his blood. He turned to put a hand on the wall, pitched forward, and vomited.
“Whoa,” Jace said, and stepped forward to help him. How she thought she was going to help, he didn’t know.
“Fuck off,” he snarled, and scrabbled for the wall. He could climb faster than she could, and he was sure of that; he could climb faster than any of these people who preferred the ground. He’d preferred the walls for a long time, where he was mostly whole instead of only half, where his crushed, hooked foot was an asset, not an injury.
Not that it stopped Jace from following him. She was half a story up by the time he’d cleared two.
“Culin,” she called. Then, louder, in that don’t-screw-with-me, I’m-the-law voice, “Culin!”
But he was as good as gone.
• • • •
Culin’s perch wasn’t even a flat; more like what a flat would be after the ceiling fell in on half of it and all the windows got busted out. But it was enough shelter from the rain that the important corner kept dry, and enough shelter from the wind that if he curled up with blankets in the dry corner he wasn’t too cold, and it was in such an awkward place that none of the landlords or roof gangs knew about it to come and collect rent. Lectric and data were both hacked, of course, but like Jace had said: He was licensed for maintenance and repair on these things. LEMRs didn’t pay for these unless they wanted to, and Culin didn’t want to.
His hands were shaking after the climb, but there wasn’t much he could do about it except try to push everything out of his mind until any shit on its way to the fan hit the blades. He hooked his smartscreen to the rat’s-nest of cables in the dry corner. Eighty-one new messages blinked into his notifs, and almost a thousand onto the common LEMR lines; he scanned the subjects, opened a sample handful, and skimmed them. All reports of flooded data lines, drowning in either encrypted signal or gibberish noise.
A burst of laughter caught Culin’s attention and he looked to see three kids clambering up the wall opposite his window, only to disappear into a balcony door. Two girls and a boy, he thought, though they were the age and dress and grime that made it difficult to tell. He froze, as though by moving he’d become noticeable and monstrous to them, like a troll under a bridge.
Never mind that there was another spectre in the district; a spectre of choking data lines and failing data net. Much more dangerous than a man with bad blood, skulking in a ruined flat. Give people a small, specific threat and a large one with no obvious solution and they’d spend their energy on the smaller one every time.
Though there was something to be said for the parallel there: him with the biological poison of his blood; the data lines with the algorithmic poison of their trash data. Mark the lines as contagious, he thought. And Upcity knows the next time it dips in for a kiss from our network, we’re both screwed.
He shook himself out of it.
Data fed knowledge to the schools and freelance teachers. It told the fire climbers where to go when fires broke out, it requested doctors and delivery of groceries and missing-persons bounty trackers. Data ran the electricity failovers that kept the coldest parts of the city from going dark when the plants failed. Data let kids who’d never be taken by the factories or the Upcity offices or trusted as couriers or anything else run security on the streets of the district. Without data, the district went blind and dumb and deaf. It might not die—Culin knew a few things about surviving while crippled—but the balance of de-facto cooperation would swing back toward free-for-all, and the people who could manage without the distributed net of helping one another here and there in hopes of getting help off yonder would be the only ones to thrive.
They’d be criminals, mostly. And bullies. Culin had dealt with both breeds, and didn’t much want to again.
He looked at the smartscreen. The encrypted stuff clogging the lines had the usual headers, the routes the data took, but a cursory look told him mostly that it was going around in a knot through all the relay points in the district. He took an origin at random and plugged it in as an address, just to see what would happened.
1,1,2,3, he wrote.
And an answer came back: 5,8,13,21.
Odd. He’d been expecting a diagnostic error, not an answer pattern.
ping, he sent.
pong, it replied.
He considered that for a moment, then typed district?
The reply came back, far too fast: distributed.
He furrowed his brow.
Where can I get locust flour?
Again, instantly: Gage Dade Exotic Market 31.5c/kilo Market Bulk 35c/kilo Vista Anton’s 39.9c/kilo, on and on, like a search listing. For Upcity. Places no one in the district would frequent, ask about, know about. He scrolled six or seven screens down and found a few listings for ag district shops, their flour at hundreds of credits a kilo; there weren’t any barter houses, any old grandmothers in thirteenth-floor flats with locust tanks, anywhere a real district person might direct him to.
But search listings didn’t answer pings with pongs.
He typed in 1721,1722,a17,a18,a19 and got a20,2122,2123, the street crossings from the district’s transit stop to the undermarket. That was a district-specific shibboleth.
With nothing else for it, he typed in Who are you?
No one in the districts would answer that for someone they didn’t know. And it might have been his imagination, but he thought there was a pause before it spat out a chain of gibberish: I am not going to the market was busy at four hundred credits a kilo is a lot to carry up twenty flights of stairs.
Culin killed the data connection and pulled the smartscreen away. He stared at the words for a moment longer, then killed the display. Then he got out of his flat and into the more-open air.
• • • •
Culin crept through seven back alleys, passing more and more LEMR flags he didn’t know what to do with. Eventually he dropped back down to street level to clear his head, and ordered a meal at a dumplings-and-noodles cart staffed by someone with grey in his hair. Culin stayed away from the ones staffed by children, because he’d seen the way parents pulled their children close when he came by. He didn’t want the kids to go home and talk about the contage who’d handed them money.
The noodles were yellower than usual, which meant there was more millet or durum or something in the cheap mixed flour these days. The broth had a hydroponics-cabbage tang, the salt tasted like more minerals than usual, and the blobs of protein could have been bean curd or anything. There was an entire news report about the current production in the ag districts, there in his bowl, if only he knew how to decipher it.
There were too many things he didn’t know how to decipher.
The sky looked grey, like it might let loose again, and he moved into a doorway and bent his head over his bowl. He could have looked up the chance of rain, but he didn’t want to get on data lines that were already slowed to a crawl.
He’d almost finished his noodles when his vision was interrupted by a steaming bowl of dumplings, a pale hand holding them. Jace. “Peace?”
He swallowed back a sudden taste of bile. Upcity dog—she probably had tech to track him, or had planted something on him. Probably saw no problem with that, either. “Did someone tell you the best way to work down here was to buy people with food?”
Jace blinked. “I keep torquing you off, and I don’t mean to. I just thought these had to be better than what you’re eating now.”
They probably were, but Culin wasn’t about to admit that, and they weren’t that much better in any case. The menu said the dumplings were pork, but he suspected they were cooked filler with slightly more expensive seasonings than the noodles got. “I’m not hungry,” he said, and downed the last of the noodle broth so he could throw the bowl back at the dirty-bowl bin. He glanced down the street until he caught a telltale heap of fabric and limbs hidden in a crevice between two shifted-together buildings, trying hard to be invisible. “She’s probably hungrier than I’ve ever been.”
Jace followed his gaze, gave him an odd look, then turned to take the bowl over to the street kid. The kid’s eyes went wide, flicking around for avenues of escape, and Jace knelt down and offered the bowl out as though trying to lure a wild animal. Culin couldn’t hear what she said, from there, but the kid darted out of her hiding place, grabbed the bowl, and darted back to stuff the dumplings into her mouth without taking her eyes of Jace.
Jace got up and came back, spreading her hands. “Peace now?”
Culin just glared at her. She dropped her hands.
“I’m not going to charge you,” she said.
Culin growled, pushed away from the wall, and limped up the street away from the street kid Jace had fed. “I don’t care if you’re not going to,” he said. I care that you could.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” Jace said. “Peace?”
He really wasn’t being given a choice in the matter.
He gave in, slumped back, crossed his arms tight over his chest. “Why the hell are you down here?”
“I want to solve this,” she said.
“Yeah, but why?”
“I’ve seen something like this in a district before,” she said. “Two districts. Got so bad that they just cut off the links to those districts; no data in or out. I don’t want that to happen here.”
Culin swallowed at the thought of being cut off, but she hadn’t answered his question. “Why not?”
“Because it’s not right,” she said, too fast. He kept his eyes on her face.
“What do you care?”
She struggled for something to say. He could see it. He could also see how inadequate it was, to her, to settle on “Because there are five-year-old boys down here who watch camera feeds so they can tell strangers when it’s safe to go to market.”
Well, that explained something.
“You’re one of those people who’s in love with the districts even though they’ve never been here,” Culin said. There had been one in a flat a few alleys away from Culin’s, a while ago. Came down to make a data lab where you could find parts for any machine in the market for cheap, from mostly modern to decades out-of-date; came down for the spirit of adaptation and ingenuity. Hadn’t counted on the lectric that was buggy at best, or the way the cold went right through the buildings no one thought to insulate. Hadn’t counted on half his protein coming from the larvae in the bread, or the way people bought up the buggy flour first, ’cause hell if they could afford protein otherwise. In the end, he’d bugged off Upcity again.
“You find anything new?” Jace asked.
He let her dodge. He pulled out the smartscreen, flipped it on, and showed it to her. “I tried talking with the encryption. It’s all patterns and words, but it doesn’t make sense.”
“That looks like a Markov chain,” Jace said. Culin frowned at her, and she explained. “You figure out what words are most likely to follow each other and use it to make sentences. Of course none of them make any sense, but every three or four words do.”
“Markov chains,” Culin muttered. “What the hell are those used for?”
“Market tests and party tricks, as far as I know,” Jace said. “But there’s a professor Upcity who’d know more. Maybe it’s a lead.” She looked over at him like she was about to say Let’s go, then caught herself. Culin shifted on his bad foot, feeling a sudden pang of imposed self-consciousness. He was no more fit for Upcity than an Upcity pet was fit for the sewers in the slough.
Jace exhaled, sharply, and reached out to clap him on the shoulder. He flinched away, and she pulled her hand back with a rueful, sidelong smile.
“I’ll keep you in the loop,” she said.
• • • •
Ten hours later, the data lines cleared up like they’d never been clogged. The only news on the net was wild speculation, and aside from It was something with Markov chains?, Culin had nothing to add to it.
He kept an eye out for Jace that entire evening, but didn’t see her. No sightings, no messages. Probably to be expected, that. She might track him across the districts, but would she know his net address? Probably she had better things to do.
He went to collect his payment from the girl running security. From the look on her face when she answered her window, she wasn’t impressed with his service; still, he said “I earned something, didn’t I?”
“Minus the time you took,” she said. Then, after a second, she sighed. “Hang on a minute.” She vanished into her flat, and came back with a plastic sack to give him. “For your effort, anyway.”
“Thanks,” Culin said. Then, as an afterthought, “Sorry.”
She shook her head and shut the window on him.
He climbed up to an empty ledge, settled there, and opened the sack to find a half-full bag of red wheat, a jar of salt, and a clear envelope with a five-credit piece. It’d keep him for a couple meals; not much, but something. No one wanted to send a LEMR away empty-handed. Thin times for everyone, but not so thin you’d flirt with the rep of being someone who didn’t pay.
He tied the sack shut and started climbing again, searching through the crevices of the district for the flags that said someone might need him. All around, the buildings crowded too close together, all but rubbing shoulders to keep from collapse.
• • • •
Culin saw Jace again, after the rains had gone and the water was taking on the old-plastic funk of stuff stored up again. He was sitting in the otherwise-empty contage annex of the Dead Engine as though nothing had happened, nursing cheap distillate and a bruise on his jaw, and another thumb glass of red cordial arrived. This time, Jace was carrying it.
“Sorry to disappear on you,” she said.
Culin grunted and kicked out one of the old crates that served for chairs. She took it without comment, and Culin took the drink.
“So what was it?” he asked.
“This seventeen-year-old kid in Vista Norte, trying to get into a technical college,” Jace said, and Culin had to blink at the idea of someone being a kid at 17. “He had this project to map the districts. Not the buildings, the ideas. The data.” She shook her head. “He wanted to understand the districts. I can understand that. He just didn’t realize he was hurting them.”
“You can understand that, too,” Culin said.
Jace gave him a sharp look, then relented. “Yeah, I guess.”
She reached over and took his distillate, gave it an appraising sniff, then tasted it. He watched her, but she didn’t show disgust.
“Upcity has a cure for that,” Jace said, gesturing at his contage band. “We could take off the tattoo, too.”
Culin leaned back, probing at his bruise.
“So, you came here to save us,” Culin said. “Then it turns out it’s some Upcity rat? That must smart.” He smiled despite the ache. “The people down here know me. Tat or no tat, they know who I am. Upcity, even another district, I’d just be the no-reputation LEMR from the junk district slums. Sounds like no cure.”
Jace watched him for a moment. “How’d you get that bruise?”
He winced, and turned away.
“We might not be perfect, but I think we’re closer to it than you are,” Jace said.
Culin shrugged. “You might be better than us, but this is the place that lets me be good.”
“And throws stones at your face?”
It’d been a shoe, but it didn’t matter. “Hazards of existing.”
She looked pained. “It shouldn’t be.”
That wasn’t a sentiment he could do much with. “And, what? You’re here to make my life better? I don’t really want to be your district charity adoption case.”
Jace looked chastised, but more like she’d already been thinking it than like he’d called her out. “Friend, then? Can that work?”
That didn’t compute. “Friend?”
“Well, clearly I can’t save you.” She pinched at the skin between her thumb and forefinger. “And we’ve seen where trying to study you gets us. But you interest me. Maybe you could deputize me.”
Culin doubted that Upcity taught people the meaning of the word “deputy”—at least, any definition that would follow them down into the districts. “I fix lectric and data lines.”
She shrugged. “Then that’s where I’ll start.”
He was about to respond, but it occurred to him that maybe Jace was like a bloodborne disease he wasn’t getting rid of. What you could do—with contagion, with the crud in the water supply, with the bugs in the flour and the very fact of Upcity and the districts—was learn how to live with it as best you could.
He shook his head, sighed more for effect than for protest, and said, “Let me buy you a drink, this time.” Jace raised an eyebrow, and Culin ignored it and raised a hand for Nis to come.
Spread the word!