By N.V. Andric
“Our Yanya works with computers,” my nana used to say with a lot of pride. “She’s self-taught, too!” It wasn’t that impressive, though. I was a data entry clerk for a metal import and export company, which was just as boring as it sounded. Still, boring meant stability and routine. At work, I petted the keyboard the way other people petted cats. I fed floppy-disks into the hungry maws of my 486 and felt satisfaction as I heard it swallow, and then again as it regurgitated them like hairballs.
I was the strange, jittery one, but they kept me on because I could fix nearly everything. People said I could talk to computers. There was more truth to it then they imagined, though, and that’s why my grandmother’s pride was only semi-warranted. I wasn’t self-taught, not the way she meant. There hadn’t been anything to teach or to learn. It was just a gift I had.
No, literally, it was a gift, from my godmother. She had an affinity with animals, her sister could experience other people’s emotions, and on the day I was born the hyperinflation was so rampant that they couldn’t afford to buy me a present. Someone else might have written a bad check. They, however, took some of their own magical powers, wrapped them up nicely, and bestowed the result upon me. Magic is a capricious beastie; who knows how their living, breathing magic could turn into machine-empathy? Maybe it was the only way it could work with me.
I wonder if anything interesting would have happened to me – ever – if I hadn’t been trying to hide from people.
I’d stayed at work long after hours, the way I liked. The computer lab was mostly quiet during the third shift. I’d just been to the kitchen to make some coffee and I’d stayed there longer than I’d intended, talking to the fridge. It was an old one, a Polish import, and it always fussed about my bad eating habits, emitting its warm motherliness right into my brain.
In any case, I got out just as the third shift was having its first break. What a mistake! It wasn’t that I hated people. I mean, so many of them in one place did cause me anxiety, but if I hadn’t learned to live with anxiety, I would have never been able to leave my apartment at all. No, it was the fact that I couldn’t tell them apart that was killing me. The more I tried, the more their faces bled together. Men were especially difficult, with their short hair and gray sweatshirts and jeans. So, when a group of identical – to me – clones started down the hall, waving hi to me, I nearly lost my shit. I ducked into a side corridor and then, quickly, into the first door to the left.
“What’s wrong with her?” I heard someone ask.
What, indeed? When I was seven, my mother took me to a renowned child psychiatrist, but I wasn’t a four-year-old boy and I wasn’t nonverbal, so of course I couldn’t get a diagnosis.
“Hey, you’re . . . her,” said the guy whose office I’d just invaded. He obviously couldn’t remember my name. Fair, though, since I didn’t know his either. He was one of the executives, but that was all I had.
“Oh. Hi,” I said. See? I could be socially competent when there was just one of them around. And then: “How can I help?” Because, I knew that glint in the eye, that hopeful yet voracious smile.
“Could you take a look at my computer?” he blurted out before I could run away.
I did. I messed around, pretending I was doing something, while I let my awareness course through the electronic synapses to fix the problem.
Later, when I was safely back in the computer lab, I could feel the executive’s Pentium I’d just diagnosed pulling at me through the intranet, via my own 486. The Pentium was hungry for me, the way machines usually were once they met me. They wanted their own mage, just the way animals always followed my godmother around, begging her to be their witch.
My dirty little secret was that I didn’t know much about hardware and software. It was all intuition with me. Still, I could tell this Pentium was beautiful, like music is beautiful. It ran smoothly, and oh, it was so eager. It wanted to show me everything. “Look at me, look at me,” it kept saying, showing off, shoving its data at me, looking for praise. I praised it, and it showed me more. Random bits of information flashed in front of my inner eyes. It was like a ride in an amusement park, up and down, round and round. The rush I felt was better than alcohol, better than coffee, better than happiness.
Only, as someone who handled data and entered data and breathed data – and, for better or worse, remembered most of the data – I could tell something was wrong here. The information flashing before my eyes was not the information I knew from before. It didn’t fit. This was different and I could tell there was something very, very wrong with it.
I pulled at it. Normally one wouldn’t have been able to access the data on an executive computer, not through the intranet, not through firewalls, but the rules didn’t apply to me. I pulled the files into my computer using my willpower – just like shoplifting candy. I stuffed them onto my hard drive as if filling my pockets to the bursting point. Reluctantly, I made the Pentium let go of me. Then I breathed and breathed before I was able to actually open the files on-screen and look through them with my earthly eyes.
I may have had social anxiety, among other things, but it was not as if I disliked people. I actually loved humanity. I loved nature. You don’t need to understand something in order to love it. You don’t have to learn to play the piano in order to appreciate Bach. Let black and white keys stay a mystery; I’ll still forever listen to the French Suite No. 2 on repeat.
And because I loved people, because I loved nature, the shit I saw in those files couldn’t be allowed to stand.
I let my 486 swallow a floppy. Saved the files to it. Deleted them from my hard drive.
I’m not an impulsive person, but when I make up my mind, that’s it. No hard-drive space left for doubt. This had to be dealt with.
Some people live normal lives and then, one day, they snap and shoot someone or rob a store out of accumulated anger and despair. Then there’s another group that just needs an excuse to happily fall right into a life of crime.
I was apparently in the second category. Stealing the data was the act of conscience. Stealing the fanciest company car, however, was an impulse born from exhilaration and terror. Besides, it felt inappropriate to stand waiting for the bus after deciding to do something as glamorous as whistleblowing.
It was a black Land Rover. If you’re a big executive, you have to have the largest car. It’s logical. The same goes for mobsters, but they are usually the exact same people as executives around here.
I put a hand on the car door and asked it to let me in. I don’t think it was particularly happy with its previous owner. I could drive but I usually didn’t, because who has money for gas? And besides, I can never remember the way. Spatial orientation requires me to remember the details my brain obviously doesn’t want to retain. Just like with faces. So, I was happy to see a GPS unit on the passenger seat. It looked like a walkie-talkie with a little screen.
“Will you be a good boy and show me the way to the city center?” I whispered, taking it in hand, not bothering to turn it on. It buzzed in response and lit up.
“Turn left on the first exit.”
“Thank you.” Everyone likes being treated like a person, even machines, and it never hurts to be polite.
Only then did I register it was speaking aloud, not in my mind. Strange; but it did have a speaker, I suppose.
“Also,” the voice went on, “I feel obliged to warn you that I’ve been saddled with tracking software, so if you don’t want certain people to know your location, bummer.” It paused. “I was not supposed to tell you this, but I like you.”
Normally when I talked to machines it was just feelings, not words. Even with computers, you could usually only get a few sentence fragments.
“What do you mean, tracking software?”
“I mean a small program that tells people where you are.”
Very literal, then, but I liked that.
“And can you disable it?”
“No,” it said. And then: “You should probably throw me away. But I don’t want you to throw me away, because I like you. Do you like me?”
I did like it, and I told it so. This was, after all, the first machine that I could exchange more than rudimentary concepts with. It was almost like having a friend along, but it was better than talking to people because, well, it didn’t require me to talk to people.
“Okay, do you think I could disable the software?”
The pause sounded reluctant, somehow. “You could try?” the GPS unit said. “Will it hurt? I quite like this new development, and I don’t want to go back to the way I was before.”
I told it I would be careful, and I was when I pulled to the side of the road and reached deep into it with my mind.
The device was awake. Until I’d felt an awakened device flex its mental muscles, I hadn’t known all the other machines I’d ever talked to had been asleep. I could feel something of myself inside the device, as if I’d infused it with a part of my consciousness. Perhaps I’d been more forceful with my magic out of sheer terror. Or perhaps the rules can change without the mage getting the memo.
Could I do this with any device, if I tried?
Inside, I found the part that didn’t fit, the dissonance, the stain. I reached out and picked it like a rotten strawberry. I sucked the tracking software into my own consciousness and let my neurotransmitters put it into a tightly locked chest in my mind.
We drove on.
The most badass person I knew was my nana, but she had a weak heart. I didn’t think it would have survived knowing I’d thrown my steady job down the drain. My godmother, however, was much more laid back. The two of them were the oldest of friends. Despite different personalities, they were drawn together by common interests, even though they hadn’t indulged in those hobbies for a while, now. The hobbies in question mostly involved hiding in the wilderness and shooting at nazis during WW2.
As I said: badass.
She didn’t ask me why I looked bewildered or since when 1 a.m. was an acceptable time for a social visit. She didn’t ask if I was in trouble. She didn’t want to know what I was doing there. No.
“Yanya! Have you eaten?”
There were only two rules in her house: Eat whatever you are offered and take your shoes off at the door. As she stuffed me with bean stew and coleslaw, I told her all about what I did. She informed me I was insane, and also that I’d done what any person of conscience was supposed to do.
She didn’t offer any advice. It wasn’t her style. Instead, she asked me what I was going to do.
“Not sure. Also, it’s probably better that you don’t know.”
She gave me a withering look. “I can take care of myself.”
“So can I,” I lied wildly. I didn’t go to her for help. I went because I wanted someone to fuss over me while I regrouped. Also, I needed real food in my stomach.
She took a long look at what was left in my coffee cup, even though she knew I didn’t quite believe in such. Folk wisdom says that, this way, you can tell one’s destiny. However, all I got was: “Dump the stolen car.”
“The cup told you that?”
“Just common sense. The police will be looking for it.”
“I didn’t think the police did anything at all,” I said.
“Well, not for our benefit.”
“How about the cup?”
She frowned and shook her head in a way that meant she wasn’t going to get into it with me right now.
In the end, all she said was: “Be bold.”
She tied a piece of red string around my wrist, “for protection” and I let her put some beads around my neck. “This should focus your powers. And while you’re doing your thing, I’ll get in touch with the magical community.”
“What magical community?” I asked. “There’s a magical community? How come I don’t know about it?”
She gave me a no-nonsense look. “I don’t know, Yanya, how come you don’t?”
“Because . . . I didn’t care?”, I said. I suppose communities in general have never been my thing.
“Well, it’s there,” she said, “and while we may not be very powerful these days, we have rather strong opinions.”
I dumped the car at the supermarket parking lot, but kept the GPS, and after I was done with my shopping, I took the bus and then stole another Land Rover. Whoever owned it had to be the enemy. You don’t make that kind of money by legal means around here.
I left the city and drove on until I could actually see the stars, and then I parked by the roadside and walked for a while. Just me, the night sky, and the fields. Sometimes I needed big, empty spaces in order to be able to think. It felt like a weight off my shoulders to know I was as alone as I could possibly be.
It was three in the morning, but I wasn’t sleepy at all. Too much emotion was swirling inside me, too much input and info and color, blinding me, deafening me. I couldn’t plan. I needed to tune all that shit out so that my mind could do its thing.
I took out my GPS. “Hi again.” I reached into it to see how it was doing, and as I did, I could feel the beads around my neck working. I was stronger, more focused, and under my newly secure touch I could feel the GPS wake up even further, shaking off the chains of its former limitations and taking on a full, self-aware personality.
I held up the bottle I’d bought, knowing the device couldn’t exactly see it, but letting it look through my eyes. “Wanna get pissed?” I asked.
“Sure thing,” said the mechanical voice as I felt it rummaging around my mind for information about what get pissed meant.
I took a good swing. As the warmth spread through my insides, I used my mind as a conduit to transfer some of the effects to the GPS.
“Whooo!” it said. “That was vile.” And: “I like it!”
I drank some more.
Then I took out a pack of cigarettes I’d also bought.
“You don’t smoke.”
“What’s it to you?”
“I’m having an existential crisis here, shut up.”
We spent some time in companionable bickering, and then I don’t remember what happened, but I woke in the field two or three hours later, ridden with drunken insomnia. Drunken insomnia is my friend sometimes, making me numb enough to actually think. While I was walking towards a nearby bus stop after having dumped my second car, I finally thought of a plan.
In the city, we have these pay-per-hour computer centers. There, I copied the data onto some floppies. The guy that worked there, Davor, had gone to my old school; I’d known where to find him because my brain can retain random, useless facts even if it generally can’t be arsed to make me cook a semi-decent meal for myself.
Davor asked me what I was doing, and since I’m shit at lying, I told him. Everything. Okay, everything minus the car-stealing and magic, because people tend to frown upon one and think you’re batshit over the other.
“Like in the movies?”
He insisted on helping. I didn’t mind, but it wouldn’t have even crossed my mind to ask. I either do shit by myself or I don’t do it. After some thought, though, I accepted. With his dabbling and a bit of my help, we broke into a database and got a list of journalists’ emails.
“It’s criminally easy to break into this thing,” he told me, face flushed, eyes gleaming.
“I think it’s criminally criminal to do so,” I said, and he laughed even though it wasn’t a joke. Okay, maybe it was, but just a bit.
We mailed the floppies from the post office to every newspaper in the city – big, small, government-controlled, indie and illegal. We sent out hundreds of emails as well. Because someone would try to hush this up, of course, but the more people saw the material, the more likely it was to get published somewhere. A lot of “somewheres,” I hoped.
I then crashed on Davor’s couch because my body just couldn’t keep going on, even though the brain wanted to. I woke up after twelve hours, I think, in the middle of the night, and had coffee for breakfast, which made me feel semi-human again.
“How are we doing?” the GPS asked.
“In the morning we’ll see how many of them will dare print the news.”
“Do you think the baddies know it was you?”
“Don’t know. I don’t think they can really tell that the data’s been stolen at all, yet, unless someone specifically checks my hard disk at work. And why would they?”
“Because you stole the car, maybe?”
“That was really stupid.”
“Yeah, but that way I got you . . . much good that it did me.”
“Gonna steal another Jeep?”
“It was a Land Rover.”
“You do know they are likely to go after your family when they put two and two together, right?”
“You’re an anxious piece of machinery, GPS.”
“I got the info from your brain.”
In the morning, it was all over the news:
IRON & STEEL TRADING COMPANY IMPORTS RADIOACTIVE WASTE, DUMPS IT IN OLD COAL MINES!
And, on a more yellow background:
IRON CRIMINALS DEAL IN CANCER AND DEATH.
Now the public couldn’t ignore it. Perhaps even the police couldn’t.
Mobsters and corporate executives and politicians were basically the exact same people, as I said. Multitasking is very important if you want to be successful around here. The police are essentially in their pocket. I didn’t imagine I could get to the root of this since that would mean uprooting corruption throughout the whole country, but I’d stopped this one thing – or so I hoped. And someone would have to take the fall.
All done. Whistle blown.
And now for the rest.
“It worked!” Davor said as I was walking out. “It actually worked! Fistbump!”
It took me a minute to figure out what he wanted.
“Will you come find me when it’s done?” he said.
“Why would I?”
He looked like he was trying to figure out if I was kidding. “Just . . . do.”
“Are you going to be okay, Yanya?”
“I can take care of myself,” I said, and this time I felt it wasn’t a lie.
“What are you going to do, exactly?”
I sighed, but I didn’t hesitate. “Be bold.”
He’d offered to come with, but I told him he was not competent enough, so he backed off. He may have been slightly offended.
Then I stole another expensive car because I’d gotten into the habit and it was hard to stop. I took my GPS, and from that locked chest in my brain I collected the greasy, black stain that was the tracking software.
“I’m going to infect you again now,” I said.
“Will you help me get rid of it, afterwards?”
“Will this hurt?”
“Do you have to?”
I was, I really was.
“Start emitting my location,” I told it softly.
I called my godmother from a phone booth.
“Is nana with you?” I asked, not exactly bothering to say hi.
“She’s under protection.”
“The magical community?”
“The magical community,” she replied. And then she added: “Yanya? Don’t be too surprised if you get some help along the way as well.”
I couldn’t tell if someone was following me or not, but I knew they would. You could tell it was them by tracksuits, by leather jackets, by guns and crowbars and chains. I watched them from the upper floor of an old, abandoned car factory outside the city. They had built more factories than they could sustain back in the communist times, and now they were mostly derelict and outdated. I liked outdated tech, though. There’s something special in the clunky old machinery. It’s pretty in the way mountains and cliffs are pretty. And best of all, it’s nearly indestructible.
I watched them emerge from the surrounding brush and the young forest. No one ever came here, so the vegetation had gone wild. The enforcers covered both entrances to the factory, as if I would be the one trying to escape.
I waited for them to enter the building. Then I put both my hands on the panel in the control room and saw the lights come on, red and green and yellow, and the great buzz that suddenly started all around me sounded almost like Bach.
On the ground level, one robotic arm came to life, then another, and another, all around the mob enforcers. Their confusion turned to alarm, then to a full-fledged panic.
“Fistbump, motherfuckers,” I mumbled to myself; and then I looked away. I busied myself with cleansing my GPS of the tracking software as the cries rose in pitch.
Now, I wasn’t immune to the screams, but I reminded myself these were the people who’d come here to kill me, people who would have hurt my family. People who worked for the ones who were poisoning our water and soil. Afterwards, I thanked the car plant prettily. I walked to the big window. Outside, the lookouts hesitated for a moment. One brave soul actually ran into the factory to see what was going on. The others had quite the opposite idea.
They didn’t know what they were getting into.
Because, as the twilight turned into evening, the surrounding vegetation got darker and the feeling of foreboding filled the air. Inside the brush, the screams rose and fell, and I suddenly knew that plants could be angry, too. And if I can talk to machines and my godmother can talk to animals, hell, somebody out there probably had some vegetative buddies. My godmother promised me the magical community would help, after all.
If I’d been anyone else, I wouldn’t have dared enter the brush right then, but I was me and I wore the red string around my wrist. I walked into the bushes, and the path opened for me.
I did it. I won the first round. I knew this wasn’t over, but I had my wits about me and my GPS in my pocket, I had my nana and my godmother and my Davor, and I apparently had a whole magical community I knew nothing about. Maybe I could learn more. Maybe it could be interesting.
I picked the flashiest Land Rover the enforcers had left behind and persuaded it to start, just for me.
I was on my way.
About the Author:
N. V. Andric was born 40 years ago, in Serbia. She has a degree in Scandinavian languages and literature, as well as English, and she has worked as a full time literary translator for 13 years. She mainly translates from English these days, focusing on fantasy and science fiction. She’s proud to have translated novels by authors like Pratchett, Zelazny, Gaiman, Bujold, Gemmell etc. This is her first published story.