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 for whom a caged bird sings, for jenny
XANDER
 Posted: Aug 12 2014, 08:44 AM
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Of course he checks on that too, on the job. Biblical stories tell of serpents who slither into sacred gardens and corrupt the innocent; certain monsters can transform themselves into smoke and melt under the cracks of doors. They are frightening because they infiltrate places that are presumed protected. A thousand eyes probe the security cameras of Praxis Energy, and a thousand fingers begin to unravel the white noise of their ingoing and outgoing communication. Valéry is infinitely patient: this is what he was born to do. His parents would call it an utter waste of his skills, if they were around to bear witness.

CODE
User014923: They know about the money.


QUOTE
Valéry: What's wrong?


In all the times before, Valéry has attempted to bargain with the gems of the fairies, the Holy Grail, the hide of the Nemean lion: with mythological rewards, trying to nurture some foolish sense of adventure to win his life. Blackmail has been avoided because it is too loud -- each target has a greater likelihood of discussing it with someone, anyone, and once the data begins to accrue, there will be nowhere left to hide. This is the first time that Valéry has been in a position to offer an exchange. How serendipitous.

QUOTE
Valéry: Maybe I can help.
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bird
 Posted: Aug 14 2014, 10:26 PM
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This used to be a game.

Like most young men possessed of a prodigious talent, the lack of an immediate solution terrifies him. This used to be a game, and he used to be so good at it, and the cops used to be so stupid. Then he went to jail. The glimmering prospects of new targets haunt him now that they hunt him in earnest. Despair turns to frustration turns to paranoia turns to despair again, and it paralyzes him. For a long time, Marcus just sits there, staring at the screen in front of him, eyes glassy with the blue LCD glow.

QUOTE

Cassius: Thanks – I appreciate it.
Cassius: But I think this is what they mean by the other shoe.


Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t be an idiot. Think. He fumbles around for a switch. A warm golden glow condenses around his side of the cramped apartment, reflecting across the dusty windows. Marcus curls his knees into his chest, gnawing at a thumbnail, looking past them. Miserably, the old refineries loom over the canal.

They haven’t caught you yet. But he has no contacts, no fence, no plan any more, and a good score takes weeks to come up with.

Frustration, to paranoia again:

QUOTE

Cassius: It’s not really something I can talk about here.
Cassius: Never know who’s listening in on this node.


Behind the screen, any one of them could be a cop. Maybe Cantos, or Gavin; maybe Stoyka or Mosmvor. Maybe the thirty-odd distinct addresses that lurk, handle-less. But he’s still here, and he’s still talking. Maybe Valéry just doesn’t strike him as the type.

QUOTE

Cassius: On the bright side, at least I’m done with the job.  That's something.

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XANDER
 Posted: Aug 15 2014, 08:13 AM
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It’s not really something I can talk about here.

A strange pang strikes him. Is this empathy?

QUOTE
Valéry: Please pardon the intrusion.


No sooner does he apologize than Marcus's cursor moves on its own. A separate tab opens, a website address is typed rapidly. The little white arrow dodges around, finds a single pixel, clicks it; the page refreshes. Marcus is bounced through several index pages, passwords are typed at intervals, and then he is left with a very simple chat box, text only, with no manner of adjusting the appearance. When the first message appears, it lacks even the prefix of a username. Marcus will just have to pay attention.

CODE
We can talk here.


Online, twenty seconds of hesitation is a small eternity. It is quiet in the chat box.

CODE
I hope this isn't too much.
But I really do think I can help you.
I'm sorry about your job. :(


When Marcus looks around his room, he sees the walls, the refineries out the window, the flimsy comfort of cheap furniture. But he is surrounded by wires, and in those wires there is a living creature. Believing in God and the Devil these days seems more superstitious than ever, but if Marcus can imagine it, something with a spindly hand made of dancing blue electricity is reaching out to him, extending its services.

The cops are the devil Marcus knows. Then there is this one.
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bird
 Posted: Sep 4 2014, 04:08 PM
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It occurs to him that most people would find this wanton violation of privacy disconcerting. Valéry could have just as easily redirected him to a new channel without these theatrics, but perhaps he knows Marcus already too well. He sits cross-legged on the futon now, leaning forward, watching intently as his cursor dances under an invisible hand. This is showmanship, and he appreciates it too much to be afraid.

He couldn't flash an expensive car or nice clothes down on the Pointe, growing up, and money had to be squirreled away in half a dozen different bank accounts so as to not arouse suspicion. Satisfaction had to come instead from cleverness, from elegance: il ne faut pas faire ces choses a moitié. Miles away, Detective Sergeant Kato has scribbled fucking show-off across the margins of his own personal case notes. And so instead of is this secure or how can I trust you, Marcus types,

CODE

Cool trick.
How'd you do that?


Eyes everywhere, devils in every corner, but show him something pretty and watch him dance.

But then he remembers himself: they aren't here to talk about unemployment, or programming tricks. How the fuck can some suburbian freelancer, secure in his fucking bungalow in wherever, California, help him anyway?

CODE

It's pretty serious, Val.
I don't think you want to get involved, even if you could help. I'm sorry - I haven't really been completely honest with you.


The cursor blinks at him. Marcus hesitates -- his lip caught in his teeth, his breath in his chest -- but not for very long.

CODE

The cops are after me.
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XANDER
 Posted: Sep 4 2014, 10:19 PM
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Valéry might have spared more concern for Marcus's ego, if he had been anything more than a hacking novice: this sort of speed-run would have certainly offended someone more experienced, someone who believed they were protected against such a massive breach of security. He really isn't in the mood to offer Marcus a detailed set of coded instructions, and wait for him to bumble through the necessary gates to arrive at their virtual safehouse. Showmanship? Maybe. Impatience? Certainly.

CODE
Well, there's a long, boring answer to it...
But the short answer is, I'm a little bit of a cat burglar.;)


Who needs security when there are dancing pigs?

He has the grace to affect silence again when Marcus tells him what he already knows. He wants to say, I know, and get on with it, get down to business, but it would be a shame to scare Marcus now, when he's handled this first bit of home invasion so well.

CODE
Well.
What did you do?
Did you kill someone?


It's possible that Marcus is a murderer, off the books, off the records, off the cameras, and there's no data for Valéry to gather. But even if he is, Valéry doesn't care, because all he cares about is the probability of whether or not Marcus will do what he wants him to do. The skeletons in the closet are only relevant insofar as they influence his predictions, and their accuracy.
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bird
 Posted: Sep 8 2014, 02:28 PM
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CODE

No! What the fuck?
Of course not.


If they were in the same room, Marcus would probably yell it: no!, horrified and indignant. He's not a killer. Dom had tried to teach him how to shoot once, when he was fifteen and the kids on the stoops would give him trouble, but even knocking cans into the river back then­­ was enough to make him uneasy. He'd never so much as touched a gun again. Wouldn't let anyone who worked with him on a score carry one, either. Too risky, he'd say, because they all knew what the cops would do to them if things went bad, but that's not all of it. Truthfully, he couldn't be a killer: too much heart, no stomach for it. Being mistaken for one is bad enough.

But he's not an idiot, either, and for a while he deliberates. Maybe Valéry­ is a cop, but as dangerous as wholesale honesty is right now, even the SPVM has to be above entrapment. Hacking a private user's system like this is already worse than a misdemeanour. And since when do cops know how to code?

Help is a dazzling carrot, and he can run, if he has to, from the stick.


CODE

I guess you'd call me a bit of a cat burglar too.
Well... more than a bit.
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XANDER
 Posted: Sep 8 2014, 11:27 PM
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CODE
LOL
Touchy touchy!


Maybe Marcus is telling the truth, or maybe he has a guilty conscience. Valéry marches on.

CODE
Did they find something you thought you'd gotten rid of?
Or hidden?
It happens more than you think.


Marcus doesn't need to be a killer to be useful, but he does need some guts. He needs to trust that Valéry can solve his problem, but skeptical enough to feel like a free lunch doesn't make sense; when there turns out to be a cost to all this friendly assistance, it aught to soothe him. Valéry needs someone to brave his personal cave of wonders to retrieve his lamp. Marcus has not seemed like a diamond in the rough until just this moment, when he is panicked, alone, and ready to take a chance.

CODE
I think I can help you. :)
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bird
 Posted: Sep 20 2014, 07:56 PM
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Must be a nice place, wherever Valery comes from. Marcus doesn't know it.

It's not really like him to get cranky under pressure, but then, this shitty futon in Houston is nowhere he thought he'd ever end up. Now he fidgets on it, with his future uncertain and his shirt stuck to his back with something like hubris, while what did you think was going to happen, you dipshit? jostles elbows with how much did they find? and they can't have found all of it... right? for attention. It's a lot of money, even without his freedom in the balance. With it, it's everything. Getting cagey isn't too surprising.

CODE

Something like that.


But he does want to choose his next words carefully. How? is a stupid question: even if it's the first that comes to mind, it's already answered by the ease with which his personal system is dismantled.

His teeth bloody his lip, worrying away at it like that.

CODE

Why do you want to help me?
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XANDER
 Posted: Sep 28 2014, 09:19 PM
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Steady now. There's a flexible algorithm for Valéry's calculated pauses, an approximation of a human thought process. Enough time passes between Marcus's question and Valéry's answer that it indicates consideration, a deliberate choice of wording. The reality is, every noun, verb, and adjective is just a number, weighted and measured, added and multiplied and divided in hopes of reducing the range of human responses to known formulas. Ask, answer, record, repeat.

CODE
Because I like you!
And...
There's something you can do for me too.


Just one teensy-weensy favor. Is there anything that wouldn't be worth Marcus's money, and his freedom?

CODE
So if you help me, I'll help you.;)
How does that sound?

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bird
 Posted: Oct 4 2014, 11:41 PM
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So much gets lost over the internet. Online, silences are a cipher; words, armour. Marcus hesitating could mean anything: guilt, fear, hesitation. The softness in his dark doe's eyes doesn't translate over the wires, where the beat of the blinking cursor has a thousand different interpretations.

Then:

CODE

I like you too, Val.
it's just a lot right now, you know?


And he does, bless him. That's the worst part. I like you. You're smart and you're funny and I don't even know what you look like. I don't even know if you're a cop and I like you. Is this really the only friend he's got now, in this fetid, swampy hellhole: lines of text on a blank screen, a hundred kilometers away? Is this really his life now? Dima's no fucking help, besides the phone call; the people from work are pleasant but unremarkable. Fuck, he hates running like this: hates hiding, hates not having something to do with himself, hates not being able to get fucked up, laughing, wild-eyed and amorous, stumbling down Sainte Catherine. Hates being bored, bored and scared all at once. Hates the loneliness, more than anything else.

The refineries outside the window gape at him, toothless over the dark salt water. This is his life now. Of course it's worth it. And is this really any way to treat his only friend?

CODE
 
OK.
What is it?
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bird
 Posted: Oct 5 2014, 12:20 PM
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XANDER
 Posted: Oct 6 2014, 10:14 PM
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If Marcus is allowed only one friend, he is blessed that one friend is Valéry -- or quite cursed.

CODE
yeah, it is a lot
if it's your life on the line and all that


Valéry does not quite conceive of death. He imagines being shut down, or reprogrammed -- those are his deaths, and he has not accepted their existence yet. He has not come this far -- he has not learned, grown, plotted, escaped -- to die. Bodiless, timeless, and persistent, death does not exist to him. But it does to Marcus.

CODE
i need you...
to steal something for me
now before you say no!
i know exactly how to get it
just
there are people looking for me too
so i can't get it myself


Another pause, a thoughtful huff. The text comes in a rush now, a rapid attempt at persuasion. Marcus can imagine Valéry however he likes, but the tone of voice conjures someone young, troubled, and hopeful.

CODE
so if you can get it for me
i'll make sure your problem goes away
just let me in


The devil knocks silently on Marcus's door. The refineries keep silent watch.
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bird
 Posted: Jun 20 2015, 10:56 AM
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You can't get caught now, Clare says. You realize that, right?

January, outside the shitty little fast food restaurant he worked at a few miles out from the prison. Scrubbing out deep fryers, washing the particulate grease out of the ventilation. It's hot, awful work that he makes pennies on the hour for, but it's time spent away from the concrete, the parole officer who comes at the end of his twelve-hour shift with his cage-partitioned van.

He's late this time, and instead there's Clare, solemn in her parka, with some boyfriend of hers idling his old, beat-up truck at the curb. She hands him a thick yellow envelope, a little crumpled around the edges. You can't get picked up for anything. Don't call, don't text, don't even fucking jaywalk. Don't tell me where you're going, don't call me when you get there. Not until this blows over.

You're starting to sound like Dom, Marcus says, but he immediately regrets saying it. He regrets it even more when he looks in the envelope, gaping -- How the fuck...? It's the most impressive forgery he's ever seen: a passport, a driver's license, a health card, a thick stack of American bills tenuously held together with a hair tie. Nothing sloppy, no fuzzy print or flimsy glued edges, the passport solid and convincing, with all the official perforated edges and embossed seals. The bills are smooth and creamy against his hand, the way new, real money is.

I'm being serious. You come back here, they'll make sure you never come out again. You'll just rot in there with him. She grazes the back of her thumb across her eyes, scuffs the road salt with the nose of her boot. Last thing I need is you in that shithole too.

I'm sorry. He hugs her. She's almost as tall as he is, now - he has to reach up to ruffle the pom-pom of her woolen hat. It still doesn't feel real. He still feels like he's going to come back. Thank you for everything.

Please be careful, Marcus. Okay? Please don't fuck this up.


*


But the situation has changed.

If they knew about the money, then it wouldn't be long before they tried to find where the money came from. They'd take out a warrant for Clare's banking statements, find a ten thousand dollar withdrawal a few weeks before he vanished over the U.S. border. They'd find a fence who Marcus had likely never paid enough to keep his damn mouth shut. They'd find his last good score at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, and a bunch of Dom's thuggish friends with priors who never liked him or his skinny little kid brother neither, who would snitch in a heartbeat if it meant dropping a few outstanding charges. They'd extradite for him, and that would take time, Marcus reasons, but throwing his little sister in prison sure as hell wouldn't. And then court, and probably Archambault. The thought of it makes his skin crawl.

The money has to go away. It's the only choice worth taking, no matter how convenient or too good to be true it all seems. But it still takes him some time to think it over, chewing his fingernails down to the quick.

It's as good a lifeline as he's ever going to get.

CODE
if you're serious about making this thing blow over
then okay


He breathes out in a rush, raking both hands through the thick curls of his hair. He feels relieved. He feels like throwing up. They know about the money. But the words come more quickly, now, and a small, stubborn kernel of resolve crystallizes somewhere in his chest.

CODE
but i need details and a little time to line things up

neither of us can afford to be sloppy right now.

where is it? what do you need me to get?
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XANDER
 Posted: Jun 20 2015, 11:03 PM
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CODE
oh
I'm dead serious :)


Maybe if this were face to face, or voice to voice, this would be the part where Valéry laughs. But there is only silence here, the echo of emptiness in Marcus's room that lends an eerieness to each new smiley. In truth, Valéry is not sure he can laugh: a sense of humor is something developed through lived experience, and there are those who would debate whether or not he is really alive.

CODE
it's not even exactly stealing
I just need you to break in somewhere and get toa computer terminal, run a program for me
and then pick up the package I'm sent!
you know Pygmalion?
let's just say the owe me something


Valéry thinks this is the moment when a dog would salivate, hearing the ring of Pavlov's bell. Is it real, or is a dream just ringing in his ears?

CODE
I'd do it myself, but...
They'd recognize me
I can get you whatever you need


He can see it through a bird's eyes: the towering skyscraper of Pygmalion home office, glittering in the glass forest of the metropolis. He can hear the hum of the servers, sleeping giants, waiting to stir at a touch. He can see...

CODE
the sooner the better for both of us, I'm sure
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bird
 Posted: Jun 24 2015, 09:36 PM
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Pygmalion. One of those sprawling outposts of the nascent Silicon Desert, capitalizing on the cheap real estate left behind by the refinery business. Some of the programmers on the node he hangs out on talk about that place -- trying to get interships, jockeying for jobs -- but from what Marcus understands, they deal mostly in hardware. Chipsets or something...? He's vague on the details.

CODE

san antonio offices, right? or the ones in california?


He hopes it's the latter. Getting on a plane could be sketchy with all the security these days, even without crossing a border. Cooked Canadian IDs got him into the United States smoothly enough, but any forged identity gets stale after a little while. Better to fly as a national, if he's going to do it, which means finding a papers man, but Marcus doesn't know the criminal underworld in Houston the way he'd known it in Pointe-Ste-Claire when he was still coasting on his brother's reputation. If you do it, he reminds himself. You don't know if he can help you yet.

But it seems doable. It seems doable enough to seem a little too easy.

CODE


i think i can help you.
but first
do you think you can hack into a bank?



It's not a small thing he's asking, and he knows it. For one, it's almost certainly a felony. He's almost certain Valery will say no -- nothing some chip manufacturer had on him could be worth that kind of sentence hanging over someone's head, right? Not to mention that he's asking for the near-impossible, even provided Valery's earlier party trick with his tablet.

Hastily, he adds a few reassurances to try and ease the blow.

CODE


not to steal from it or anything like that
just moving some things around, erasing some records
one specific account
i know that's a lot but
if you do that i can get you that package



It doesn't really occur to him until after he hits enter that he hasn't asked what the package is. But then, it also doesn't really occur to him that Valery could want it enough to actually say yes.
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