TWENTY MINUTES INTO THE FUTURE.
"...and though this latest clandestine attempt to trace and round up the city's Blanks has been stopped, there can be little doubt that the government will continue efforts to impose its will on these people, whose only crime has been to render themselves untraceable by the global computer network and therefore immune to the tide of relentless advertisement and invasive monitoring that the rest of us must live with on a daily basis. Are they becoming a subversive influence, or simply exercising rights that we all should have? I leave it to you viewers to decide … as we break for a word from our sponsors. I'm Edison Carter, and this is Network 23."
A pause, and Theora watched her monitor screen as the camera view spun away from a retreating metrocop van. Edison turned his vidcam to focus on his own intent face. "Did you get all that, Control?"
"Every second, Edison." Theora smiled at her charge, Network 23's star reporter. "You came through loud and clear, as ever."
A low chuckle from behind her announced Murray's presence. "Every time he makes one of those anti-establishment comments, the ratings spike. Speaking of subversive influences."
"Ahhhh, I'm sssso proud of ourb—ourb--our bbbbbboy!" As if on cue—and he took everything as a cue—Max popped up on the secondary screen just above her head. "He tttttttakes after me, y'know." Theora felt sure that Max would have wiped a nonexistant tear from the corner of one computer-generated eye, if only he'd possessed a pair of hands. Or even one hand.
"I heard that." Theora glanced back at Edison's screen in time to catch the end of his eye-roll. "Max, you and I need to have a little refresher talk about which of us came first. Again."
"D-d-d-does that make you the chicken and me the eggggg? Or the other w-other w-other way around?"
"Why don't you go ask Bryce? I'm sure you two could have a fascinating discussion on the topic."
Theora chuckled as their AI friend appeared to consider this, then blinked out. "I don't believe it. That actually worked."
"Really?" Edison's eyebrows arched over blue eyes glinting with amusement. "I'll have to bronze this moment. What say I make myself presentable and take you out for a drink to celebrate Max letting me have the last word? And wrapping up the story, of course."
"That sounds like an excellent plan." She sat back, flexing her shoulders to loosen them. They'd worked flat-out for a week on this assignment; a chance to unwind was more than welcome. "How long will you be?"
Chopper sounds came over the vidilink. "Martinez is on approach, so about twenty minutes." He flashed the slightly crooked smile that had helped make him a household name. "Carter out."
"Control out." The screen image cut back to whatever 23 had put on when Edison cut the link at his end. Theora hit the mute without looking at the screen and turned to look up at their producer. "Are you coming too, Murray?"
A very put-upon sigh filtered through Murray's neat black mustache. "Alas, no. My workday won't end until I find out what kind of follow-up Cheviot may want on this story." That same mustache quirked with a sudden grin. "Besides, the man asked you, not me. I wouldn't want to crash your hot date."
Theora took her turn for a put-upon sigh. "You know perfectly well it will be no such thing. We've had this discussion before."
"Yeah, I remember. Something about you not needing or wanting to sleep with a coworker to further your career, preferring to be the captain of your own destiny and all that." Murray's expression had gone very bland.
"Exactly." In reply, she gave him a coquettish look from under her lashes. "Or that could all be a smokescreen, and I'm holding out for a mature, irresistible producer."
He snickered as he turned back toward his office. "You're so lucky I know you're teasing."
"Heartbreaker!" she called after him. His louder laugh faded as he walked away.
Theora's own smile faded slowly. I'd hate to be the one to rub your nose in your own privilege, Murray, but network broadcasting is an old boys' club and always has been. Any advantage a woman's career might gain from a personal relationship with a coworker only lasted as long as the relationship held good. When things went sour … well, she'd seen the results time and again. Theora refused to betray herself the way Julia Formby had, getting involved with someone higher up on the corporate food chain and then taking the axe when her and Ben Cheviot's affair became public knowledge. No one ever breathed a word about it to Cheviot, oh no.
But do you really believe Edison would hang you out to dry like that?
Fortunately the chime of an incoming call distracted her from her own niggling thoughts. Theora's eyes widened when her vidscreen identified the caller, and her smile returned full-force as she hit accept. "Shawn!" She beamed at her little brother's image and tapped out the sequences that would fuzz the security monitoring and isolate the call from the databank record. She always did both when Shawn called. Neither sibling saw any reason to have Network 23 listening in on their private conversations.
"Hey, Theora." Shawn's lazy drawl sounded the same as ever. "How's life in the upwardly mobile fast lane?" Not long ago he would have thrown those words at her like knives, but now he delivered them with a grin, a gentle jibe.
"One thing after another, as usual." A hint of worry crept into Theora's voice as the oddness of the situation dawned on her. "Is every thing all right with you? How are Winnie and Jillian?" Surely Shawn wouldn't smile like that if anything had happened to his partner or daughter...
"We're fine." As if to contradict his words, the smile slipped off his face. "Look, sis, I know I don't usually call you at work, but I was kinda hoping to catch you and Edison. Is he there?"
"He will be soon. What's up?"
Shawn raked fingers through his shaggy brown hair, only adding to its disarray. Her teeth caught at her lower lip when she saw his hand shake just a little. "Can the two of you meet me at the Ouzo Bar down in the Fringes? I need your advice. And your help."
A prickle of warning raised goosebumps on the back of her neck. The Ouzo Bar was known for lethally strong drinks and a total lack of security cameras and bugs. "Sure. You know I'll help in any way I can, Shawn."
"Yeah, I know. But you may want to hear the details before handing out a blanket approval. It's complicated." He sighed and reached for the console. "I'll see you there."
He cut the connection before she could reply. Theora reached for her keyboard to call Edison—and paused, rapid thought furrowing her brow.
Her relationship with Shawn had come far in the past year, healing from all the time he'd spent bitter and angry over Theora getting adopted and leaving him behind in the state home system, but she knew her little brother still saw asking her for help as nearly a last resort. Whatever complicated situation he'd landed in, she didn't want to accidentally screw it up further with a moment's carelessness. A call monitored at an inopportune time, for example.
Besides, Edison would arrive soon. She could wait ten minutes to tell him that their not-date had just had a change of venue.
"You want to what?!"
Seated between Theora and Shawn at a table in the dimly-lit back of the bar, Edison held his peace and noted that brother and sister never looked so much alike as they did when they were both upset. The same rumpled hair, the same flashing hazel eyes, the same taut jawlines...
"You heard me." Whereas Theora's jaw had clenched in astonishment, Shawn's was set in stubbornness. "I want to have my computer records erased. To become a Blank."
"But why?" Edison could see it in Theora's eyes, her scramble to make sense of her brother's announcement. Thankfully she lowered her voice. "Shawn, if you're mixed up in something illegal, tell us so we can figure out another way to handle it. You can't abandon Winnie and the baby--"
"Oh great, sis. Thanks loads for the vote of confidence." Edison stifled a wince. That snarl came straight from the old, angry Shawn, not that he could entirely blame the kid. Of course he couldn't entirely blame Theora either, not after they'd had to rescue her brother from the highly illegal and nearly lethal raking games he'd gotten into last year.
Fingers burrowing into his hair, Shawn visibly reclaimed his self-control. "I haven't done anything wrong. And I want to do this for Winnie and Jilli. They'd have to be blanked too, of course."
Edison lightly brushed Theora's hand to get her attention before she could say anything else. "Why don't you unpack what's on your mind, Shawn? We can't help you without information." Theora's hand felt tense under his fingers; she didn't look at him directly.
Shawn swallowed hard before going on. "Look, I've tried, okay? I've tried for years to take care of my family, but all I can get are dead-end jobs for minimum wage. Winnie tries too, but all the money she makes gets sucked into paying for someone to take care of Jilli while she's out. We only get deeper into a hole no matter how hard we work."
Theora pulled her hand away from Edison's. "But life as a Blank won't be any easier, Shawn. And I have money. I told you I'd help--"
Shawn was already shaking his head. "You handing me money won't fix what's really wrong, Theora. It'd just be a temporary band-aid." The boy's posture and eyes radiated trapped desperation. "Put yourself in my shoes for a minute. How would you like it if you had a big sister or brother offering to pay for your family's needs because you couldn't take care of them?"
Theora's lips parted, but no words came out. She looked as miserable to hear the words as Shawn looked to have said them. Edison's stomach clenched with sympathy for them both.
"But it's more than that. It's the system, this damned endless loop of a system. I don't have the education to get the jobs to make the money to pay for Jilli's education, so what does she have to look forward to?" Shawn clenched his hand around his barely-tasted glass. "A drudge job in some factory, where she'll spend every day worrying about being replaced by the latest in robotics? Selling blood at the body banks so she can eat? Or something even worse?"
Ouch. Edison watched Theora's eyes close and knew she still saw the word-pictures Shawn painted. But the kid wasn't done yet.
"And if you spend your money taking care of Winnie, Jilli and me, how will you afford kids of your own some day?" Did Shawn's eyes flick toward Edison for an instant? "Yeah, Blanks have it rough in some ways, but they look out for each other. They also believe knowledge is for everyone, even the poor. I've heard that they find ways to teach all their kids, even though they're cut off from the pay-per-view education shows."
Very true. He, Theora and Murray had all seen the printing press they used for the purpose. Edison slowly shifted to touch Theora's hand again. She didn't pull away; all her attention was on her brother.
"The Blanks are trying to find a better way. Who knows if they'll succeed or not, but they're trying." Shawn's eyes burned with his effort to make his sister understand. "I want to help them. This may be the only chance I'll have to do something important with my life. Something that will matter to more kids than just my own." He slumped in his chair, exhausted. "You and Edison try to change the system from the inside. I never had your brains, sis, but maybe I can use what I have got to help change it from the outside."
A thick, fraught silence descended on their table. Theora broke it first. "So you want us to go to the Blanks and ask them to take you in."
"Yeah." Shawn ran a finger along the rim of his glass, not meeting Theora's eyes. "I figured it would be safer than trying to contact them on my own. There are thugs who offer to blank people's records and then rob them blind once they have access. Plus the Blanks know you; they'd listen if you put in a good word for me."
"You don't want our advice. You've already made up your mind." Theora's flat inflection made it clear that these were statements, not questions. "And you wanted Edison here because you thought I wouldn't pitch a fit in front of him."
"I wanted you both here because I need all the help I can get." Shawn looked up at last, swallowing again at what he saw in Theora's eyes. "But I won't lie, that thought did occur to me."
Double-ouch. For a moment Edison wondered if Theora intended to prove Shawn very wrong about that fit. Then she pushed herself to her feet and stalked toward the door without saying another word.
"Theora—" Shawn spun in his chair and started to rise. Edison rose himself and laid a hand on his shoulder to stop him. "Hang on a minute. Let me go talk to her."
Shawn suddenly looked very young indeed as he looked up to meet Edison's eyes. "I'm not trying to hurt her, or cut her out of my life again."
"I think she knows that much." After squeezing Shawn's shoulder and trying for a reassuring smile, Edison loped after his controller. His friend. He found her leaned against the bar's front wall, arms folded tight, heedless of the dirt accumulating on her dress or the wolf-whistle a drunk sent her way.
She shot him a quick glare. "A word of support in there would have been nice."
He stopped and spread his hands. "What do you want me to do, Theora? Tell you he's wrong? I wish I could."
"I know." Her shoulders drooped, but her gaze stayed fixed on him. "It's one thing to respect the Blanks for the risks they choose to take in the name of their principles. It's quite another to find out that my little brother chooses to run the same risks. And to know that I can't protect him now any more than I could when I was twelve."
"This isn't your fault. You have to know that." Edison reached out again, this time to cup his hands around Theora's shoulders. "Shawn said it himself; it's this damn system. It lets people like him fall through the cracks for the sake of the almighty cash flow." He took a deep breath, searching her eyes. "If you want support, you have it. What do you want to tell him when we go back in?"
Her shoulders lifted under his hands. Edison thought he could feel her spine steeling against the inevitable. Controller. Her job title fit her in so many ways...
"We'll tell him that we can't promise results, but we'll go see Blank Reg."
The next morning saw the pair keeping their promise inside the pink bus that housed Big Time Television. A concerned Reg looked on with Dominique, having set up the untraceable vidcall that allowed Edison and Theora to talk to a mild-voiced man with slightly protuberant grey eyes and frizzled ginger curls receding from an already-prominent forehead.
"Your brother, Theora?" Blank Bruno spoke in his usual precise and polite tones. "Certainly we Blanks are inclined to do him a favor, in return for all the help the two of you have given us." They could hear the faint clatter from his fingers dancing over his keyboard. "But we have an unanticipated complication."
Theora's heart sank toward her stomach. "What kind of complication?"
"One moment—ah. Yes." Bruno leaned to one side, presumably to check a readout on another screen, then returned his attention to them. "Most of the people we bring into our fold are Fringers, people on the outskirts of society. Blanking their records attracts little attention, because they're usually beneath the notice of anyone more powerful than the local metrocops. Such is not the case with Shawn."
"He said he wasn't involved with anything illegal--"
"He isn't." More clatter, another screen check. "But unfortunately when Carter did that exposé last year of the chicanery involving the CEO of Security Systems Incorporated, he attracted the negative attention of those who took control of SSI once Valerie Towne was ousted. They have extended their surveillance not only to those closest to Edison, like yourself, but also to those close to you. Including your brother."
Bruno picked up his pet toad and stroked it gently, frowning in absorption. "Any attempt to manipulate his records or those of his family will set off alerts at SSI, drawing down an investigation that we simply can't afford."
"So you can't blank him after all," Edison growled. Theora snorted at her own dejection. How ironic, to get so upset about Shawn's intentions, only to get equally upset when a roadblock popped up to interfere. But to let Shawn down yet again … she couldn't. She just couldn't.
And maybe … maybe I won't have to.
"Bruno." Theora tapped one finger against her lips as she spoke, both posture and voice taut with intensity. "Is it just tampering with the computer records that will trip SSI's alarms? They're not monitoring him or Winnie physically, are they?"
"They are not," Bruno replied. "Moving them physically will be a simple matter of slipping Shawn a handwritten note with a location where they would be met for transport to one of our safe houses. Better if you don't know where, of course." His eyes probed hers from across the network. "You have something in mind?"
"What if you had outside help setting up a diversion in SSI's systems? Covering fire, to distract their security programs while you take care of blanking the records?"
Bruno's brow furrowed. "Risky. We've used similar tactics before, a very few times. Each effort required someone to sacrifice themselves to the hacker-hunt that followed, to keep the rest of us from being found out. Obviously not a ploy that I— or your brother –would wish to see duplicated here."
"But you didn't have Bryce Lynch helping you then." Theora gripped the edge of the table, willing Bruno to see things her way. She could make this work; she would make this work.
"Or Max Headroom," Edison drawled from behind her. She glanced back to flash him a smile, grateful that he was in step with her as usual. He replied with a wink.
"True...nor did I have Network 23's considerable array of other resources at my fingertips." Bruno's absorbed look returned, likely indicating that he was doing some rapid recalculating. His toad croaked in his hands, the only sound in a long minute of stillness
"Very well." He set the amphibian down carefully and leaned into the screen. "Ping Reg as soon as you and Bryce have a workable plan for your attack, no words, just a single neutral data-packet. Once you do that, we'll be on the clock. Give us two hours to move Shawn and his family before starting your diversion. We will then unleash our data-ferrets to track down and eliminate any trace of the three of them in the system. And Theora--" Those grey eyes pinned her again. "I want no heroics. I'm more than willing to take your brother in, but not if doing so will land any or all of you in jail. Or worse."
"Right, we're almost at the two-hour mark." Bryce had the faintly manic gleam in his eyes that he usually did when about to do something illegal. In some ways, Edison reflected, he really was just a typical teenager. "Theora, do you have Max set to go?"
"All ready." Edison watched Theora play her keyboard like the virtuoso she was. Her steady hands and voice gave no hint of the turmoil she had to be feeling right now. "The piggyback program we're sending with him is locked in, and his recall is ready to yank him back on my signal. The recall is kind of an electronic bungee cord," she turned to explain to Edison. "Timed right, he should be in and out before the A-7 computer knows he's there."
"Sounds good, but if Max goes in to gum up A-7's works again, I don't see how you'll keep SSI from tracking it right back to us." His gaze shifted from Theora to her screen, where Max noodled around as usual. "They have to be keeping an eye out for him after last time." Last time, when Max made the A-7 AI fall in love with him. Edison still got headaches trying to figure out how he managed that.
"Ah, but he won't gum anything up. At least not by himself." Bryce oozed self-congratulations, just like he always did when about to do something particularly clever. "His piggyback program will link A-7 to another advanced computer system, one that happens to be completely free of SSI's monitoring." A few taps brought up the control interface for the system in question.
Edison caught his jaw just before it dropped. "The CENSOR computer?"
"Exactly, Edison. I designed CENSOR as a completely self-contained system, incapable of being manipulated or compromised by any outside influence." Bryce grinned over his shoulder, radiating hacker smugness on high frequency. "Except for mine, of course."
Hallelujah, Theora actually laughed, the first laugh Edison had heard from her since they'd spoken to Shawn. "I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be grateful for censorship."
"You and me both." Edison tilted his head back, still thinking through the ramifications. "But Bryce, won't using CENSOR make it that much easier for SSI to connect this diversion to Network 23?"
"To Network 23, yes, but not to us. CENSOR is also the only other system in the city capable of A-7's level of independent decision-making where security matters are concerned. It even has the clearance to override SSI in certain circumstances." Leaning forward, Bryce focused on the task at hand. "Once Max stealth-connects the two systems, they'll quite naturally start an argument over whose programming and protocols take precedence..."
Edison caught Theora's eye over Bryce's head and mouthed, it's quite simple actually. She stifled another laugh behind her hand.
"… in essence, we're setting up a situation where not only does each hand not know what the other is doing, they'll actively interfere with each other. A smokescreen for a smokescreen, as it were. During the confusion, which I will add to as opportunity allows, your friends will have a window to do whatever they like with the data they're interested in. Afterward each system will assume the other caused any discrepancies. It's really very simple." Bryce blinked at Edison and Theora's sudden snickers. "Did I say something funny?"
Edison shook his head, still chuckling. "Computers arguing with each other. Does that sound weird to anyone else, or is it just me?"
Bryce shrugged. "It's one logical end result of making computers more and more intelligent. Eventually they develop their own opinions."
"Not to mention their own egos," murmured Theora. "Isn't that right, Max?"
Max huffed several times. "Ddon't look at mmm-me. My ego came from my original s-s-s-source programming." He looked pointedly in Edison's direction.
"He comes by it honestly, then." Theora smirked at Edison, who returned the favor.
"But what I wanna kn-kn-know is, why can I onlllllly have a millisecond or two?" Max . "I haven't seen A-sev-sev-seven in a whole year! Don't I at least get to say hello? Say hello?"
"Not this time, Max," Bryce answered firmly. "We can't take a chance on A-7 becoming aware of your presence. We have to keep this quick and clean."
"Besides, Max, they've reprogrammed A-7 from the ground up." Edison added, not entirely without sympathy. "She wouldn't even remember you."
"Ah, but what the mind forget-get-gets, the heart will ever reca—hey!" Before Max could launch into a sonnet, Theora balled him up in the self-contained package he used for travel to other computer systems. Bryce started the countdown. "Insertion on my mark in five ... four..."
Edison picked up the separate button Theora set up to send an abort code to Reg in case something went wrong. He'd never before wished so hard to be unnecessary.
"... two ... one … mark!"
"I wish I could have waited with him."
They at last had a chance for that drink. Granted, the drinks Edison assembled were cups of tea and the location was his apartment, but Theora had no complaints, aside from the one she'd just voiced.
Edison joined her on the couch and pressed a warm cup into her hands. "Shawn's safer this way. And Bruno will put him in touch with you as soon as the coast is clear, you know that."
"It's silly, I know." She shook her head in wry self-deprecation. "He's all grown up, and in the best of hands under the circumstances … and I still wish I could have been there for him."
"He's your family; of course you want to be there for him." Edison's own tea sat untouched on the table. His arm lay draped on the couch back behind Theora without actually making contact. "He's all you've got."
"Yes … and no." Theora took a single sip of her tea before setting it down to join Edison's. Moving with slow deliberation, she shifted closer to him, close enough to lean in and brush a kiss across his cheek. "Thank you for the support. And the help." Her voice come out sounding ever so slightly breathless. She wondered if he noticed. "I know I don't make it easy sometimes."
Edison shrugged her almost-apology away; that his arm moved to brush her shoulders at the same time may have just been coincidence. "You told me once that twelve years spent in state homes cures you of any need to think back on the good old days." Or maybe it was no coincidence, because he took the opportunity to give her a gentle hug. "I imagine it also does a number on your willingness to rely on someone else. Anyone else."
"That it does." She rested her cheek against Edison's arm and looked up at him, her smile turning thoughtful. "But we've been through enough by now that I think you've earned a little trust. A smidgin at least."
"Good." Almost cautiously, as if she might bolt at a sudden move, he leaned in to press a return kiss to her forehead. "Theora, I rely on plenty of people to help me do my job, but I rely on no one as much as you." He pulled back just far enough to look in her eyes. "I guess ... I'd just like to return the favor. When I can."
Warm. How could cool blue eyes make her feel so warm? "You already do." Her smile shaded into something just a touch wicked. "Besides, I am your controller. Why shouldn't I trust you when you're already trained to do what I tell you?"
"Oh I am, am I?" Edison saw her smile and raised her a throaty chuckle. "So does my controller have any directions for me now?"
Theora tilted her head, considering the question, then smoothly collected her teacup for another sip. "I might," she murmured, meeting his gaze over the rim of her cup. "One in particular."
Some time later, a muffled sound blared from the television, a sound that might have been a certain AI presenter finding himself balked by an unexpected barrier. "H-h-h-HEY! Edison! Why are there blank-blank-blankets over all your sets?! Are you up to someth-th-thing? It's not even bedtime yyyyyyyet, bedtime yet!"