Irene: War? Against who? How?
Max: I don’t know. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to go to ground, hiding in the shadows until whoever gets around to outing me.
Gate: I agree with Max. Better to go out fighting than to roll over and wait for the end.
Irene: Frizzle? You have anything to add?
Frizzle: …I don’t see how we’ve got any other option.
I leaned back in my chair, pinching the bridge of my nose in frustration and horror.
But why horror, though? Leveraging the combined strength of the Community and pointing them at the Magi could only lead to good things, couldn’t it? If my own skills fell short of the mark, why shouldn’t I add twenty or thirty of the world’s best hackers to shore up my weak spots? What could be the possible downside to gaining an entire army in the fight against the most mysterious criminal syndicate that no one had ever heard of?
As soon as I asked myself the question, an answer presented itself: exposure. Not just for myself, but also for my compatriots. If I’d guessed correctly, then the Magi were blindly lashing out at anyone connected to the Community in hopes of rooting out whoever had attempted to penetrate their systems. They probably wouldn’t stop until they found an acceptable sacrifice. If the entire Community started attacking their networks from all across the globe, the Magi absolutely would not stop. If necessary, they would scorch the very earth to secure their domain.
Subtle attacks were the only way to go and the Community, when roused, was anything but subtle.
Irene: Think about this for a second. Do you have any idea what kind of firestorm you could bring down on your heads if you piss off the wrong people doing this?
Max: The kind that’s already raining down around us? Do you know how many people we’ve lost, just in the last two months?
Unconsciously, I placed a hand on the manila folder from the Lady.
Irene: Not exactly. How many? Who’s left?
Max: Out of the upper tiers? Me. You. Frizzle and Gates.
Gates: And the Mouse, wherever the hell he disappeared to.
Max: There’s a good number of lesser talents we could tap, too.
Irene: …so, we’ve got a lot of grunts and only four generals? Is that what you’re saying?
Gates: I wouldn’t call them grunts.
Despite the rising temperature outside, a bone-deep chill settled into my body. Four people left, out of the upper tier? At last count, there had been at least fifty of us, working various jobs, perfecting code, experimenting with new attack vectors. Fifty of the most skilled hackers on the planet, all highly talented in the art of obfuscation and avoidance…and we were down to four? Five, counting the Mouse, who had apparently pulled quite a disappearing act?
I’d suspected that the situation would be bad. I hadn’t expected it to be dire.
Max: You picked a hell of a time to show back up, Irene.
Irene: Yeah, I’m beginning to understand that.
Gates: So. What’s it going to be?
Gates: Either you’re with us or you’re against us.
Irene: It’s got to be like that, Gates? I’ve been here longer than you and I’ve proven my loyalty a dozen times over.
Gates: What you did in the past doesn’t matter to me. What matters is what you do now. So. In or out?
I hesitated. Committing to a cause like this could be dangerous. A show of support might be all Gates and Max needed before launching their electronic crusades. There was, of course, a slim possibility that they might pull it off, but I wasn’t willing to roll those dice. The last time we’d managed to put the Magi in an uncomfortable position, they’d responded by blowing up a car in broad daylight, executing a wayward peon and burning a highly placed source at Interpol in the process. I couldn’t imagine they’d show more restraint going after me and mine.
Irene: Frizzle? You’re okay with this?
Frizzle: We’ve got to do something. Unless you’ve got a better idea…
Irene: I do have a better idea.
I absolutely did not have a better idea, but stalling seemed better than conceding the point. Then, the obvious answer occurred to me.
Irene: What if I find the Mouse?
Irene: I don’t know. Yet. But that’s got to be a better option than what you’re suggesting. Maybe there’s a way we can find some sort of peace agreement with…whoever the Mouse was digging into.
Max: Peace? Dozens of us have already been outed and you want peace?
Irene: What I want is a second to stop and think about what we do from here. If we’ve got to fight, fine, but I’m not going to do it on someone else’s terms.
The chat room went silent. I slid a little lower in the chair and snaked my cell phone out of my pocket. It only took me a few seconds to type out a text to Devlin – “Worse than I thought; we all need to meet up ASAP” – and to attach my location. He’d get in touch with Mila and Michel.
My suggestion had been made more out of desperation than reason. I had no idea how I could possibly find the Mouse, unless he wanted to be found. He was already on the run. And, even if he were in a mood to meet in the real world, I didn’t really have a reliable way of reaching out to him. Breaking protocol might be the last straw before he decided to abandon the grid entirely. If that happened, I wouldn’t be able to help him out the trouble my question had gotten him into.
I wouldn’t be able to help anyone.
Given a choice between allowing my friends and allies to fall by the wayside, as collateral damage in a war that few of them even knew about, I was going to pick the option that gave us a chance. Even if that chance was almost impossibly small.
Max: One week.
Irene: One week for what?
Max: If you can’t find him in a week, then…
Irene: A week? Are you serious?
Gates: I didn’t want to give you that much time, honestly.
I blinked. Max, Gates, and Frizzle must have started a private chat and discussed the matter before responding to my request. My invitation to the general discussion had led me to believe that we were all in this together. If they were talking behind my back, though…
Irene: You three are putting me in a really bad position here.
Frizzle: You’re the one who volunteered to find the Mouse.
Irene: Fine. One week. How can I contact you when I find him?
Max: Don’t worry; we’ll be in touch.
I started to type out a reply but only got a few words into my response before I found myself unceremoniously kicked from the room. A list of available rooms was visible on the right side of my screen but, according to that, there was no conversation taking place. So their room was still secret, even from their nominal ally.
Sighing, I disconnected from SvS and ordered another cup of tea from a passing waiter. He responded with a very subtle nod and returned moments later with a steaming cup of hot mint tea. I sipped at that while I thought.
One week to find the Mouse. Was that even a real possibility?
Probably not, if I were being honest with myself. Given months, perhaps, and a significant headstart, I could have found out the Mouse’s real name and his hiding places. But seven days? The Magi had been trying for almost six months and they hadn’t been able to pull it off yet. What could I do, what resources did I have at my disposal, that they didn’t?
I banished that negativity from my thoughts and started to assess my options.
I could go to war alongside the remainder of the Community, using my skills on the front line – well, the back row, but I’d definitely put someone into the front row – and maybe we could pull off a miracle. Devlin, Michel, Mila and I had pooled our skills and succeeded at a task that everyone considered functional suicide. Was it so terrible, then, to think that the Community would be able to ferret out the Magi’s real names, thereby saving my team and I the trouble of risking our lives again?
I shook my head. No, not terrible; just optimistic and arrogant.
Optimistic, because that option relied heavily on the idea that our collective couldn’t be beaten. The collected abilities of myself, Max, Frizzle, and Gates really were in the top one percent of the people who frequented the channel. That part, at least, wasn’t arrogance or false bravado; it was just simple fact. But if the Magi had somehow found a way to hire Caelum, our collected skills wouldn’t mean much. He was just that much better than we were.
The arrogance came when I reminded myself what the Magi had done to the last person who’d crossed their path: a public execution, live on major news network, for the sole purpose of demonstrating their power to any other peons with ideas of grandeur. There were more subtle ways to tie up loose ends, certainly, but the Magi had instead chosen to the most violent and visible method, for no other reason than to prove that they could.
They weren’t hackers and they weren’t going to be beaten by standard hacker tricks. I repeated that to myself five times, hammering the sentiment into my mind. It seemed like something I would need to remind myself of every day or two.
There were only two possible choices. Either I found the Mouse or I accepted that the Community would start launching attacks on the Magi within a week. Neither seemed likely to yield any successes.
I sat there, stewing over my own thoughts, for about forty-five minutes. While I waited for Devlin and the others to arrive, I ordered some couscous, mostly to keep the waiter from asking too many questions about my presence. It wasn’t bad, as couscous went, but I’d had better. In my position, idly nibbling at the food in front of me, I saw Devlin before he saw me.
He wasn’t just walking through the busy market street; he was practically sauntering. If I hadn’t been looking for him, I might have dismissed him as just another local. Somehow, he’d gotten his hands on a suit made from some light, breathable fabric, as well as a pair of comfortable shoes and sunglasses. His shirt, presumably cut from linen or a linen-cotton blend, was open at the neckline. Despite the press of bodies, he seemed to move with the crowd, not through them. For all the world, he seemed perfectly at ease surrounded by so many people different people speaking languages that Devlin himself couldn’t understand. Even as I watched, he casually flashed a thumbs up with his right hand to a group of children, who giggled and shied away behind their parents.
I bit back my immediate indignation – how had he become so proficient in navigating through these crowds in such a short period of time? – and waved him over to the table.
Devlin noticed my gesture, approached, and took a seat opposite me. He caught the waiter’s eye with a quick two fingered salute, still only using his right hand. “A cappucino, please?”
The waiter nodded his head and hurried off to retrieve the order.
With that finished, Devlin turned his attention to me. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
I raised an eyebrow. “If everything wasn’t okay, would you still have taken the time to order a cappucino?”
Devlin shrugged. “I assume you wanted all of us here before you filled us in on what’s happening in your Community. If that’s the case, you aren’t going to tell me anything until Michel and Mila arrive. Might as well as order a coffee while I’m waiting.” He paused. “Did you want anything?”
I touched my cool teacup with an index finger. “I’m sufficiently caffeinated, but thanks.”
We sat there, watching each other, for a few seconds. The silence wasn’t uncomfortable – how could any silence be uncomfortable between two people who knew each other as well as we did – but it did seem to hide some conversation that Devlin and I were both trying our best to avoid.
I broke first, picking a thought at random and speaking before I could stop myself. “Are you working on ambidexterity or something?”
He blinked. “What?”
“You’re left handed,” I said, “but you’ve only been using your right hand to gesture. What’s that about?”
His cheeks turned a little pink. “Ah, yes. That. Well, apparently, using the left hand is considered very rude here.”
“How’d you figure that out?”
“By using my left hand quite a bit,” Devlin said. “Thankfully, one of the local panhandlers realized I didn’t mean any offense and corrected me.”
I suppressed a smile. It was good to know that I wasn’t the only person struggling to adapt to a new culture, even if he’d found his footing far sooner and more thoroughly than I had.
“Good thing you got that out of the way,” I said, “because I don’t think we’ll have time to deal with any misunderstandings in the foreseeable future.”
I tapped the Lady’s manila folder and noticed, for no particular reason, that I was desperately in need of a manicure. Of all the things that shouldn’t matter, I couldn’t imagine why my brain had randomly latched onto that detail, but the incongruous nature of the thought didn’t make it less irritating.
“Had a chat with our mysterious friend before you got here,” I said.
Devlin’s eyebrows drew closer together for a heartbeat before he got it. His expression turned a few shades darker. “Oh. And what did the Lady have for us this time?”
“Online handles, for starters.”
“Handles? For who?”
In his own way, Devlin had cut straight to the problem, even without really understanding what he’d said. I smiled at him. “Well that, my dear boy, is the question, isn’t it?”