Fritz entered the alley as the first faint glow of daylight appeared in the eastern sky above Mondorf. His mobile vibrated in his vest pocket. Normally, he wouldn’t bother to answer in the middle of an operation, but only a handful of people on the planet had working mobiles, and all of them save one were mission participants. Probability dictated the call was important and relevant.
“Professor here,” he said.
“Professor? Are you working at the university now?”
Fritz sighed, leaned against the brick wall, and reminded himself of the difference between probability and certainty. Answering your mobile without first checking who was calling belonged on the Stupid List. “Oh. Hey, Dad.”
“I thought you were up north of the mountains,” Milo said. “What are you doing in Harbrucken?”
“I’m not,” Fritz said, glancing at his pocket watch. He only had five minutes if he wanted to stay on schedule. “Professor is just a code name. For a mission I’m on. Right now.”
“Did I call at a bad time?”
There was no such thing as a good time for chit-chat, but this was an especially bad time for it. Two hundred years ago, the white demons came to planet Verde and all but exterminated the planet’s guardians, the Mantissa. Fritz and his friends – the Mantissa’s remnants and descendants – were about to launch an operation which, if successful, would end the demon threat forever.
“No!” Fritz said. “No, it’s OK.”
He would have put his face in his palm, but he didn’t want to smudge his glasses. He couldn’t just say it was a bad time? Gosh. His sister was right. He had major confrontation issues.
“Good,” Milo said. “Get a load of this. What do you think? I have these all over the southern fields. Have you ever seen bigger heads?”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Oh. Sorry. Let me hold it up higher. Is that better?”
“No, Dad, I can hear you, but I can’t see you. I’ll never be able to see you through our mobiles. At least not until I have time to get back up to Skylab and find out why the only thing I can get out of its massive comm array is a puny, rudimentary RF carrier signal. But I’ve been a little busy.”
“Do I need to hang up and call back?”
“No, don’t hang up!”
What was he thinking? That had been his chance to bow out politely!
“I can see you,” Milo said.
Fritz moved his mobile away from his mouth until his exasperated breath completely cleared his mouth. “Dad, when you look at the picture of me on your mobile, are my lips moving?”
“And in that picture, am I standing near the oven?”
“Are you in the house right now?”
“When you look into the kitchen, am I standing near the oven?”
“That’s because the picture you’re looking at is the one I took with your camera when I first gave you your mobile.”
“You really can’t see this head of broccoli I’m showing you right now?”
From out on the sidewalk came the distinctive clicking and scraping of white demon claws on concrete.
“It’s probably just bad reception right now, I’ll talk to you later,” he whispered. He disconnected the line, felt horrible about doing it, and gauged the distance to the fire escape ladder. He needed to get to the roof, but he’d never climb all the way there before the approaching demon passed. All he could do was dive further into the alley, crouch behind a trash can, and wait for it to leave. And try to ignore the roaches scurrying away from the pile of broken bricks across from him.
He hid just as the demon and a human woman came into view. But instead of continuing down the sidewalk, they turned into the alley and walked straight towards the fire escape. Darn.
It wasn’t a demon in the literal “fallen angels kicked out of heaven and banished to the underworld” definition. It was an alien from a race called the Shakrath. Their monstrous appearance – six limbs, thick tails, claws, a whole mess of teeth, and chalky skin – had earned them the name “white demons” from the people of Verde unlucky enough to make contact with them over the past two centuries. Fritz bore a special hatred for them.
The woman had shoulder-length red hair and looked about Fritz’s age, somewhere in her early 20s. She didn’t appear to be armed, but Fritz wasn’t exactly a concealed weapons expert so he couldn’t be–
She held a descrambler!
Fritz’s eyes narrowed. He’d invented the descrambler. It was how he repaired chipware broken since the Blackout two centuries prior. The woman’s chrome-covered device was one of the handful of descramblers the demons had forced him to build for them back when they… when they held him prisoner. Fritz had assumed she was one of the demons’ slaves since they made up the vast majority of Mondorf’s human population. But descramblers were so rare and so important to the demons, they wouldn’t give one to just anybody.
There were a small number of humans who willingly collaborated with the demons. Was she one of them?
His mind went into data-gathering mode. The demon walked directly behind the woman where he could see her every move. Her clothes seemed just a little too big, and her jeans and boots looked very well-worn – even threadbare in places. Too low quality for a collaborator. Her eyes were downcast, except when she glanced at the demon from her peripheral vision, which was often – so much so, it seemed to be a nervous habit. He didn’t know why the demons would give a slave a descrambler, but the demon was the woman’s captor. He felt sure of it, and because of his Mantissa power, his feelings had a very good record.
Her eyes widened behind her spectacles, and she stumbled a step. She’d seen him! Resisting the urge to panic, he put a finger in front of his lips. She didn’t make a sound. Behind her, the demon snarled a few words of its growly language and gave her a shove. Yep. Definitely one of the demons’ slaves. She climbed the first steps of the fire escape and watched Fritz as best she could out of the corner of her eye. The demon followed her and, mercifully, didn’t see him.
Fritz couldn’t get to the roof with a demon up there, but nor could he wait very long for it to leave. He had a schedule to keep. Consulting the watch in his vest pocket would have required too much movement, but he guessed he had about four minutes to take control of the broadcaster. It was doable, but only if he acted soon.
His eyes landed on a bluebonnet growing out of a crack in the pavement next to the broken bricks. It was a splash of color in a dingy alley made even darker by the pre-sunrise hour. It was also getting to be an extremely familiar sight. He’d been seeing bluebonnets everywhere for weeks now – single, solitary bluebonnets, not the fields full of them he was used to from back home. But this one… Had it been there before? How in the world had he missed it? And back home, bluebonnets were spring flowers. Did they bloom in late summer here in the north?
His hyper-ability to notice the tiniest of details was part of his Mantissa power, but also sometimes a curse, such as when it led him to gape at flowers and ponder growing seasons when he was hiding inches from a white demon. The woman was nearly to the top of the three-story building. The demon was halfway there, though it climbed by digging its claws into the brick and scaling the wall directly. As the woman swung her leg over the parapet, he drew his gun from underneath his vest and aimed at the demon. He raised three fingers to the woman, then two, one…
The woman ducked for cover. Fritz pulled the trigger.
Every other gun in the occupied territories fired gunpowder in a metal shell, but Fritz’s pistol was a relic from a bygone era. A high-pitched whine reverberated in the alley, and a long, thin streak of red light pierced the side of the demon’s head. The monster dropped off the wall and crashed onto the pavement. It twitched twice, then never moved again.
Fritz darted to the bottom of the fire escape. The woman peeked down at him and the laser pistol still in his hand. Brandishing the weapon he’d just used to beef a white demon probably didn’t make him appear very friendly. He tucked it away, but that didn’t seem to comfort her much, which left the two of them awkwardly looking at each other. Perfect – he’d traded small talk with his father for small talk with a total stranger in a squalid alley. Even if there weren’t a white demon corpse beside him, he’d be intensely uncomfortable.
His power tingled in his mind as if trying to get his attention. Though he didn’t like talking to strangers, she had a descrambler. Why would the demons give a slave one of their precious chipware restoring devices unless they’d also trained her in how to use it? And if she could use it, maybe he could make up some lost time if he asked for help. He nearly groaned at the thought, but which was more important: appeasing his anxiety or keeping his mission on-time?
“You know how to use that descrambler?” he asked. Wait. Should he have opened with “hello”?
“Yeah,” she stammered.
“Want to help me with something?”
She glanced at the dead demon leaking black blood from the hole in its head. “Not really.”
Oh. Wow. Not the reaction he’d expected.
“All I need you to do is use your descrambler for me,” he said.
“Whatever you want descrambled, they’ll know I did it for you. They’re already liable to blame me for that.” She cocked her head towards the dead demon. “Whatever you’re up to, I don’t want to be involved. I just want to walk away from here. I got family to take care of.”
Family? She looked too young to be married, but Fritz supposed even a woman in her late teens could get hitched, or be a mother. Maybe she took care of her parents?
“Besides, you got a working laser pistol you must have stolen from the demons’ stash,” she said. “So I reckon you already have a descrambler, too.”
“I do,” he said, and he removed his from his pocket. She looked confused. Maybe it was because his descrambler – cased in wood and sporting analog number dials and clunky mechanical buttons – was so different than hers with its chrome casing and digital display.
“That’s a descrambler?” she said.
“I built it,” he said. “Built yours, too.”
She flinched backward and ducked almost completely behind the parapet. “I’m not a collaborator,” he called up to her. “Would a collaborator shoot a demon?”
Cautiously, she peeked back over the parapet. Fritz didn’t need Mantissa reader powers like his uncle once had to know what she was thinking. Who was this guy who killed demons yet claimed to have built their descramblers?
“A couple of months ago I spent several days as their prisoner,” Fritz said. “They made me build them.”
It had been far more horrific than that, but Fritz wasn’t going to talk about it.
He tucked his descrambler back in his vest’s inside pocket and glanced at his watch. Three minutes, if he wanted to stay on schedule. “May I come up there? I’m not going to hurt you.”
She nodded, but not immediately. As Fritz climbed, his shoes made hollow echoing sounds on the metal stairs. When he reached the roof, he forced himself to look into her eyes to appear friendly, even though eye contact with people made him as comfortable as wet socks. “I’m Fritz Reinhardt,” he said.
“Annalie Krieger,” she said. “Ain’t ever seen you around before.”
“I’m from out of town.”
She scoffed. “No one comes to Demons’ Town.”
“We do,” he said. “My friends and I, I mean. Listen, you can climb down and leave right now, but I would appreciate a minute of your time.”
She looked down and kicked at the gravel covering the roof. “What do you need?”
A ten-foot-tall antenna was mounted in the roof’s corner. At its base was a metal box about ten inches square. Fritz crouched down, opened the box, and exposed a control board full of switches and dials and a row of glowing red lights which should have formed numbers, but instead just made horizontal lines. “I’d like you to use your descrambler to fix this device.”
“It ain’t broke,” she said.
“It’s about to be.”
Annalie only cautiously knelt next to him after he took his descrambler from his vest pocket and plugged its wires into one of the control board’s ports. “You came here to shoot demons, break their chipware, then fix it again?” she said.
“We came here to run the demons out of town.”
She held up her hands and closed her eyes. “Stop. Sorry I asked. You get two minutes of help, but I do not want to be involved in… what you just said.”
“Fair enough.” He pushed a button on his descrambler, and the entire control board went dark. Then, once he got his device out of the way, she connected the cable from her descrambler to the control board without protest. Meanwhile, Fritz cut a handful of wires from the antenna and spliced them into a metal disk he brought out of another vest pocket.
“You’re not a collaborator, so how did you get trained in descramblers?” Fritz said.
“I’m maintenance duty,” she said.
Duty is what the demons called the labor specializations into which they organized their human slaves, and what they forced the humans to call it, too. Fritz stifled a growl.
Annalie pushed a button on her descrambler, and the control board lit up again. Its digital display read six zeroes, 000000. Fritz finished with the antennae and moved back to the control board just after Annalie disconnected her descrambler.
“This broadcaster was working fine a few minutes ago,” she said. “In fact, the demon you offed was bringing me here to copy its settings so I could apply ’em on another one a few miles yonder. Did you use your descrambler to break it? Like, to black it out again?”
“Something like that,” Fritz said.
“Mine can’t do that,” she said.
“Yours is hard-coded to use the descrambling algorithm. Mine uses whatever algorithm I come up with in my head. I can use the descrambling one or one that recreates the effects of the Blackout.”
“Decent,” Annalie said. “But why’d you break a working piece of chipware only to fix it again? Oh! Upon descrambling, does the system revert to a basic configuration and wipe out the demons’ passcode?”
She figured that out? Wow. “Yeah, exactly. It’s a lot faster way to crack a security code than a brute force attack. And my friends and I need this broadcaster to–”
Annalie wagged a finger at him. “Nope. Family to take care of. Don’t want to know.”
Fritz shrugged. When he was done flipping switches on the control board, its digital display read 314159 for a brief moment before the numbers disappeared, to protect their secrecy. He closed the junction box, put his descrambler back in his pocket, and stood. Annalie’s eyes darted between him, the roof, and the pre-dawn sky, but kept going back to the metal disk he’d spliced into the antenna’s wires. “Signal booster?” she finally said, unable to stifle her curiosity.
“You’ve seen one before?” Fritz said.
“No, but what else would you splice into the wires at that point? Cracking the passcode means you want to take control of the broadcaster, not sabotage it, so you wouldn’t be wiring in a dampener.”
Wow! Did she understand everything he was doing? He thought there wasn’t anyone else who understood ancient chipware as he did. Maybe he needed to meet new people more often.
“I’m done,” Fritz said. He didn’t have to tell Annalie twice. She bolted down the fire escape to the alley below. Fritz followed and, when he reached the ground, brought his mobile out of his pocket. “Thanks for your help. Get home, or somewhere else safe, OK? Fast.”
The look she gave him made him realize his warning had sounded far more ominous than he’d intended it to, especially when she was already paranoid about the demons thinking she had been involved, but he didn’t have time to explain to her any further. Besides, she and the rest of the city would know exactly what was happening in about fifteen minutes. Fritz brought his mobile up to his ear. “Big Man? This is Professor,” he said. He’d insisted on using call signs instead of real names. Not because he thought the demons might be listening in, but just because it seemed like a spiffy thing to do.
“Is it done?” said his Uncle Sebastian. His already tinny-sounding voice was made even more distorted by his mobile’s speaker.
“Everything is everything. Call up the broadcaster, enter passcode 314159, and you’re on.”
“Acknowledged,” Sebastian said. “Get into position and get ready.”
At the same time, Annalie snorted a grunt of a laugh. “Don’t accidentally use passcode 265358 instead.”
Oh, no way. No way!
Fritz lowered his mobile and gaped at her. “265358?”
Annalie’s cheeks flushed red. “Oh. Sorry. I said that out loud? Since you set the new passcode to the first six digits of the circle ratio, I was making a joke to myself about accidentally using the second six digits of it instead. But it wasn’t very funny. And it wasn’t supposed to be out loud. And I’m pretty sure I’m rambling now.”
“The circle ratio. As in the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter?”
“Umm, yeah. Is there another circle ratio? Since a broadcaster’s wavelengths are roughly circular, I figured that’s why you…” She looked down and scuffed the toe of her boot across the concrete. “Never mind, rambling again.”
“Professor?” Sebastian’s voice called from Fritz’s forgotten mobile. “You still there?”
He brought the device back up to his ear. “Sorry. Yeah, I’m on my–” He dropped the mobile back to his side. “You really knew the circle ratio inspired my passcode?”
“Yeah. Pretty dang obvious.” She chortled and blushed. “Look, I shouldn’t even be here anymore, but I have to know – that’s a working mobile communicator, ain’t it? And you’re talking to someone with it, so it ain’t the only one. But even if you have a hundred working mobiles, you’d need a working transmission matrix to shoot signals between ’em. The demons have been hoarding chipware for… well, since forever, and I ain’t ever seen a transmission matrix in their stash. I sorta reckon that before the Blackout they were all up in outer space. But by golly you’ve gotta have one, so where on Verde did you find it?”
He’d feared small talk, but this had become the most enjoyable conversation he’d ever had in his life. Fritz raised his mobile up to his mouth. “I’m on my way,” he said to Sebastian before disconnecting the call and putting the device back into his inner vest pocket. “Running the demons out of town is a necessary step, but it’s just the first step. Want to know what happens next?”
She looked intensely uncomfortable again. “No,” she said. “I really shouldn’t even–”
“That.” He pointed southeast towards the city’s outskirts, where a reactor tower loomed above everything. Even in the pre-dawn darkness, it was easy to spot by the softly glowing sparkslights ringing its roof. “That’s what’s next. The power plant. My descramblers can fix chipware, but chipware is going to need sparks. And the most important chipware is going to need a lot more sparks than batteries can provide. The Ulmbaden Power Facility generates three gigakrafts worth of dynamek energy every day. Before the Blackout, that was more than enough to power a million chipware devices, big and small, across the entire continent. Even a fraction of that output would be enough sparks for every chipware device we could imagine throughout the Occupied Territories, the University, Terrascorcha, Earp, Mondorf, and a hundred other settlements we don’t even know about yet.
“So we run off the demons. We take back the power plant. We descramble every piece of chipware we can find. And then we travel by cars instead of horses. Frozen water gets stored in a chipware box cooled by sparks-powered compressors instead of being wrapped in sawdust and stacked in an icehouse. Telegrams go away because we’ll have faster ways of sharing information darn near instantaneously with folks on the other side of the globe. Advancements in medicine and hygiene improve life expectancy tenfold, overnight.”
He had Annalie’s complete attention. “You really did build the descramblers. Look, I know I said I didn’t want to hear about it, but… holy moly, you’re jawing about rebuilding the ancient world!”
“Basically, yeah.” Fritz shrugged. “It’s time to change the world.”
Part of his brain sent words to his mouth even as another part tried to stop himself, to ask what in the world he thought he was doing. He was making an impulsive decision, but Cassie and Siv were always telling him he should make more friends, and good things tended to follow when he listened to his intuition. This felt right. It still made him a lot nervous, but it felt right.
“You want to help?” he said.
“Yeah,” Annalie said, stretching the word out to three or four syllables. “Yeah, I’m your huckleberry.”
“Great!” he said. “Then let’s go. We need to go four blocks–”
The pile of broken bricks distracted him again. He might have missed it the first time, but he knew the second time he’d looked at the pile, a bluebonnet had been growing nearby it, right out of a crack in the cement. He couldn’t have imagined such an unlikely detail. A flower had been there just a few minutes before. He was certain of it.
But it wasn’t there anymore.