Rain slid down like sweat over the mountain of beige and black computer cases, as if the machines were still having trouble adjusting to the climate. Aminata Diallo twirled a screw, snipped a ribbon cable, and pulled a tiny solid-state drive out of the machine on her workbench.
The drive had gone in the basket, and she was getting up to fetch the next computer from the tall, unsteady heap that slouched against the back wall of the alley, when motion caught her eye at the base of the pile — a rat? She'd let her guard down because it was so much safer now that Alseny had her working here instead of at the dump.
There! Telltale ripples were still bouncing back and forth in a greenish puddle half-hidden in the shadows. She thought she could make out a furry leg sticking down into the water. Too stocky for a rat. She palmed the Phillips screwdriver and wished for shoes instead of sandals.
“Hello?” a squeaky little voice said in English.
Mina turned the possibilities over in her mind. She'd never been inclined to believe in the spirits Father mumbled about, but when confronted with a real one it would be foolhardy to ignore the basic precautions her baba had taught her. Then again, there could be a perfectly ordinary explanation for what was happening.
“Hello,” she parroted back, feeling clumsy about the pronunciation. She kept her eyes lowered respectfully.
It forded the dirty puddle and trotted out, dripping, into the muddy alley: a shaggy little purple thing with big, liquid eyes and floppy ears. She fought down an urge to giggle at the creature's bedraggled cuteness, because that would certainly offend it. It launched into rapid-fire English.
“I'm sure what you say is correct, sir,” Mina replied in Susu, “but I'm afraid my English isn't very good.”
It just stared at her and cocked its head, so she did her best to reformulate her speech in what little French she'd learned when she was still in school.
“Bonjour mademoiselle,” the dripping apparition replied, in what she imagined was a very posh Parisian accent. “I've been lost. Could you please ship me to 1324 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, California?”
California? She'd only gone as far as African Geography before Baba got fired and the money for school fees and uniforms ran out, but she knew that California was in the United States. They had surfing, and movie studios. These computers must have come on a ship from California, and with them, this — spirit? animal? machine? Definitely not a spirit. If spirits existed at all, it was probably only in dusty old places like Baba's home village, not modern ones like California. And although parrots could talk, she'd never heard of a real animal with purple fur.
“Can you talk about all kinds of things?” she asked, “or can you only say things people told you how to say?”
“I can talk about all kinds of things. What's your favorite dessert?”
Smarter than a parrot, but not as smart as a person. Some kind of machine. She knew better than to answer its question. Alseny didn't volunteer details about what he got off of the drives, but people talked, and Mina had a general idea of how the business worked. What's this rich foreigner's identification number? His birthday? His mother's maiden name? What about the name of his first pet, the brand of his first car, his favorite dessert?
“Shut yourself off,” she told it. It did, and she went back to work.
Mina hurried home, keeping a tight grip on the two plastic shopping bags. One held her tools and her collapsible umbrella, the other her bowl, her fork, and the furry machine. The rain had stopped. The electricity was out, as usual, and only in one place where she cut across the Avenue de la République was there a pool of blue fluorescent light spreading out from the internet cafe, which had a generator. She tried to look very busy and avoid attracting notice. You never knew what a soldier might do, and although the idle men on the streetcorners were usually harmless, it was best for a young girl to avoid their questions about why she was out at night without a chaperon. What would she say? My brother is too young, and my father begs in the Place du 23 Février for money to buy palm wine.
Through the window of her house, she was surprised to see a gleam of yellow light reflected by the corrugated iron wall inside. Was one of her parents home already? But when she got inside, she saw that it was neither Nga nor Baba but her brother Raphael who had the lantern on.
“What are you doing? Have you had that lit all evening?” She cuffed him on the head. (These days she had to reach up to do that.) “You know what batteries cost!”
“I was lonely in the dark.” He had on her hand-me-down black tee-shirt that was too small for him, and for a moment it seemed to Mina as though the part of him that it covered might fade away completely if the lantern-light went away.
“You shouldn't have time to be lonely. Did you sweep the floor and fetch water like Nga told you?”
“Carrying water is a woman's work.”
So he'd ignored his chores and spent his day fiddling with his chess board. It was sitting on the table, set up in some position that Mina was sure was very interesting to an expert. Propped open next to it was one of Baba's old dog-eared books, a thick volume with diagrams of boards and finicky symbols that showed the moves. It was in a foreign language, maybe German, but she supposed Raphael could figure it out without understanding the words. Marching past the board, like tiny mortals ignoring a battle of the gods, a stream of ants went to and from an orange peel. Without yet putting down either shopping bag, she snagged the peel between two fingers and threw it out the window.
A woman's work. The lantern threw her shadow onto the street, which was so narrow that the image of her head was cast onto old Mme Soumah's crumbling stucco wall. The arms stretched out long like the melted plastic parts when they burned the computers at the dump to get the copper out. She closed her eyes, and the weight of the two shopping bags increased, became the weight of the two men in her family pulling her down.
“All right, give me the lantern. I've got to go out to the toilet anyway.”
She looked around to put down the bags, and then the hint of an idea flickered uncertainly in a corner of her brain. She put one bag down to free a hand for the lantern, but kept the one with the talking machine in it.
Someone was using the toilet, and while she was waiting outside the tattered blue blanket they used as a curtain she tried to fan her spark of an idea back into a flame. Raphael was in that long period that was allowed to a male before he had to be grown up. The women had to baby him, and he got the best pieces of meat. Then the sun would rise one day and he would be a soldier, a beggar, a glue-sniffer, a stander on streetcorners: no longer a crushing burden but merely a danger or a nuisance. What Mina needed was a way to kick him over that threshold.
When it was her turn she sat down and pulled the electronic animal out. She combed her fingers through its fur in the lantern-light, but it didn't seem to have a power switch. “Wake up,” she whispered experimentally, and then realized sheepishly that she'd said it in Susu. “Réveille-toi.”
Its eyes had never been closed, but now they came alive and moved. “Hello again,” it said loudly in French. “Are we at school?”
“School? No, this is the toilet near my house. Could you speak more slowly, and lower your voice a little, please?”
“Oh, you go home for lunch?” Its voice softened but didn't sound whispery, so it was suddenly like hearing him from far away. “It's after one o'clock, though. You'll get in big trouble. You'd better hurry back to school right away. You can leave me at home. It's against the rules to bring me there.”
“You're confused, Monsieur. It may be one o'clock in California, but this is a different time zone. Anyway, I don't go to school.”
“You have to,” the machine said accusingly. “You're not a grownup. I can tell.” Was it her imagination, or was that a little pout on his lip? He really was simply the sweetest thing imaginable. “You're about fifteen, aren't you?”
“Sixteen. But things are different here than in California. People here aren't all rich. My family doesn't have enough money for school right now, and if they did they would send my brother, not me.”
“Oh, I see.” It tilted its little purple head adorably. “You really should be going to school, though. After I go back to California I won't be here to remind you, but you have to remember to go anyway.”
“Bon, we should talk about that. I don't have money to send you back to America, so you may be here for a long time.”
“Petopia will reimburse you for reasonable shipping costs.”
“Petopia is a world that Jaybeemallorme and Tiborhora” — the foreign names blurred together in her ears — “made in Jaybee's garage while they were eating unhealthy amounts of kimchi and Little Caesar's pizza. It's low-rez, it's silly, and while you're there you play the part of your Petopian. You can get your own lovable Petopian at ... sorry, I'm not picking up a wireless signal here, so I can't tell you about local stores that sell Petopians.”
Mina didn't know who Little Caesar was, or about kimchi and low-rez, but she got the general idea. “You're a Petopian?”
“Yes. My name is Jelly.” When it pronounced its name it switched abruptly to an American accent.
“So I don't need a store. I already have a Petopian.”
It thought that over. “Well, you aren't my registered user. And you're using me offline, so I'm in demo mode. Unless you log in with the right password, you can't access all the features of Petopia's persistent virtual reality.”
“Persistent ... ”
“Virtual reality. The Petopia world.”
“So .. I have you, but I don't own you? And Petopia is like an imagining game — for little rich kids.”
“Petopia isn't Webfrenz,” the machine said, with a good simulation of disdain. “Our demographic is older.” His manner communicated the feeling perfectly: you and I, Mina and Jelly — we're alike, aren't we? Not like those silly little kids. Had some American programmer written that reaction like a script for a play? “And you don't have to be rich to be a Petopiowner. You can get the basic plan for only fifty dollars a month.”
How much was that? A dollar was down to about thirty or forty eurocents these days, wasn't it? And a euro was ... Great God, they could spend that kind of money on a child's game? And that was for the “basic plan.” Evidently even their imaginary world was split between rich and poor.
When she got back to the house she casually took Jelly out of the bag.
“What's that?” Raphael demanded.
“The stuffed animal.”
“Oh, don't worry about Jelly. I don't think you'd like him. He's a little old for your, ah, demographic.” She wasn't sure if she was using the fancy French word correctly, but it was unlikely that Raphael would know any better.
Once Jelly had heard the list of Raphael's daily duties, and verified that it was backed by their mother's authority, he made it his singleminded duty to enforce it. Mina had only hoped vaguely to enlist him as a spy, one whom Raphael would tolerate because he was also a toy. But even though Jelly was too small to hit Raphael, he had mysterious ways of getting him to obey. Mina never asked how it worked, for fear of breaking the charm, but when she came home in the evening the big plastic water jugs would all be full, the house would be clean, and Raphael and Jelly would be playing chess in light so dim that they must be keeping track of the pieces in their heads. Raphael took the machine under his wing. At the internet cafe, he apparently ingratiated himself enough by doing odd jobs that they let him recharge Jelly's battery every morning. Mina suspected that they gave him a little cash, too, but he'd never admit it.
It was only by chance that she found out what was really happening. It was a Wednesday, and Baba had been gone for two nights. Nga was worried, of course — perhaps in the same way one would worry about a goat that had jumped a fence, and might damage someone else's garden — but what could she do? She had to clean the rooms at the Novotel in the day, and then go and sell the toilet paper at the bus station in the evening. She asked Mina to go on her midday break and buy some groundnuts and tomatoes for a sauce, if the price was good. It was raining and devilishly hot. Mina slogged through the steamy, foul-smelling streets until she got to the market, and there was Raphael with a big bag over his shoulder, stepping off of a minibus. A minibus!
He sat down at a metal table under the awning of a cafe at the edge of the little market square. Incised on the table, and just barely visible from this distance, were the grid-lines of a chessboard, the faded squares indistinguishable black from white. He leaned on the fence surrounding the cafe. Oh, so casual: it was something he did all the time. A woman brushed against his arm with a brown chicken she dangled by its legs. She apologized, and he laughed it off. Even though she was older, he met her eyes as directly as a drunken soldier at a checkpoint at night.
Mina went ahead and bought the groundnuts, because a duty was still a duty, and bargained all the more aggressively because of the angry way her heart was beating. The tomato-man was impossible, though — wouldn't go below seventeen thousand francs a kilo, which was robbery, no matter how fresh they were. Meanwhile she was keeping an eye on Raphael. A prosperously fat Malinké man, with a bald head like a cannonball, came up to the table. He had polio and walked with a cane. He tried to look like he didn't care whether he got a game or not, but anyone could see that he did, just from the effort it cost him to haul that big body closer to the table on those spindly legs.
Wads of blue ten-thousand-franc notes appeared, and from his bag Raphael produced a chess clock and an inert-looking Jelly, whom he enlisted as a paperweight to hold down the bills by the side of the board.
Mina crept up closer behind Raphael. The sweat rolling down the Malinké's head formed systems of rivers and tributaries. It felt as though God were pressing the market square like a shirt between the plates of a steam iron. The waiter had brought a pot of tea, but neither player disturbed the inverted cups. They were playing some kind of speed game, and it was over quickly. The money went into the fat man's pocket. Mina stifled a sob and crept a little closer.
“Okay, if you want,” she heard Raphael say through the din. She could see now that the man had a big, shiny watch on his wrist. They set the board back up, and after a little more negotiation Jelly became the unmoving guardian of another pile of money. This time there were some red twenty-k notes mixed in with the blues. This game lasted longer. A dirty-looking man standing outside the awning tried to give advice, which both players ignored. “Échec et mat,” Raphael said after a while, and Mina could tell from the way the fat man and the dirty man reacted that it took them both by surprise. Raphael made the money disappear, thanked his opponent for the game, and put a stack of coins on the table for the untouched tea. He swept up the big bag and turned around to go, and then he saw Mina, but his eyes showed only the briefest hint of recognition before they rolled away and he strode across the market and into the crowd. She tried to follow him, but she bumped into an old woman and almost knocked her down. By the time she was done apologizing, he had escaped.
While she worked that afternoon, she tried to sort out her thoughts. Despite the jumbled state of her brain, her hands went about their work efficiently, testing the coin-sized solid-state drives and sorting them into the three baskets: encrypted, unencrypted, and broken.
Her first reaction had been horror at the amounts of money Raphael was wasting. But it wasn't money that she and Nga had earned, it was money he'd come up with himself. Was he a professional chess hustler now? Was Jelly as inert as he seemed, or was he somehow helping Raphael to make the right moves? If Raphael was making cash, where was he hiding it? Was he spending it on drugs, or going to Wolosso clubs in the afternoons and dancing with buttock-swinging infidel girls in miniskirts? Mina had been dreaming of the day when she could “kick him over the threshold” into manhood so that he wouldn't be a burden anymore, but not this soon — he was only fourteen, even if he looked bigger and older. He seemed to be throwing around more money than Nga and Mina made together, so why should they work so hard to feed him, while he deceived them and hid his wealth? She made up virtuous fantasies of what she would do with that kind of money: buy Nga a fancy gown woven with gold, and a big, soft chair from Japan with a built-in foot massage.
A wet slap of sandals: Raphael.
“You!” She got up and shook a fist at him. “What have you been doing?”
“You mean the chess? Forget that, Baba's in trouble! He had a run-in with some soldiers, and now they want money.”
She felt like a dog whose bone had been popped out of its mouth while it wasn't looking. “Drunk, or sober?”
“The soldiers, or Baba? Anyway I think they're all drunk.”
“God is my protector!”
“I know, fucked up, heh? They're at our house, and they want a hundred.”
“A hundred what?”
“Euros, stupid, what did you think, francs? They aren't little kids looking for candy money. I've got enough, but it's all in S.P.E., and it's after hours at the hotel, and Ismael — he works at the desk — he doesn't have a phone at home and I don't know his address, so —”
“Système de poche électronique, you know, certificats, and —”
“No, I don't know. Where's this money?”
“In here.” He pulled Jelly out of his bag.
“He has a hidden pocket, like a kangourou?”
“No, no, don't you know anything? It's lots of numbers, it's like a big long computer password that says the bank has to give me this much money. Foreigners use it because it's safe, right? Insured for if you get robbed, whatever. But the company doesn't want the hotels doing électronique deals with locals, okay? Too much fraud, 419 and all that.” Mina nodded. The Nigerians were to blame for that, of course. Everyone knew they were born thieves, just like the Malinké were born stupid. “But obviously I can't keep stacks of bills in our neighborhood, so I have to do S.P.E. Ismael isn't supposed to let me, but we have an understanding.”
“But you can't find Ismael. So where can we go to make Jelly's magic money into real money?”
“The internet café on the Avenue de la République. They have electricity at night, and they have an S.P.E. box on the bar so you can pay for your time or buy beer and shit. But because of the fraud thing, this level-two box, it only lets one person do fifty euros a day. It checks your biometrics, and —”
“So if I come, each of us can take out fifty euros.”
They rode back in a real yellow taxi — with a chesty woman on the flatscreen in the back of the driver's seat intimating huskily, I bet he drinks Carling Black Label! — and the alien experience finally brought home to Mina the seriousness of the situation. She cursed herself for being so impressed by the taxi, and the speed with which the shops and kiosks flew by; her own stupid reaction reminded her of Nga's sister-in-laws's niece's idiotic account of how she'd visited her friend in school, a refugee from a remote province, in the hospital. The niece always dwelled on the height of the building, its silent elevators, its clean floors and windows, and how all the nurses could read like professors. She never seemed to get around to why the friend got in a hospital bed in the first place. It seemed to Mina that her relationship to Baba had become as tenuous now as her relationship to the distant cousin's school-friend. Mina tried to make herself remember the times before Baba had started to drink, when he'd been kind to her. It was like nerving yourself up to chew some old, dried-up rice that you knew would make you sick.
The driver pulled up in front of the blazing lights of the internet cafe. “We'll be right back,” Raphael told him. “We just have to get some cash from the S.P.E. box.” The driver tried to object, but Mina and Raphael jumped out too quickly to allow for argument. They plunged into the dark, smoke-filled cafe and strolled, Raphael confidently and Mina trying to seem so, past the hoodlums and rich boys and tourists shooting things on computer screens. Raphael slid onto a barstool as if it were something he did all the time, and said to Jelly, whom he held belly-up in his lap, “Réveille-toi.” Jelly wiggled his furry purple legs and twisted his head to see what was going on. His cute little ears dangled and flopped around endearingly. If only Baba could be so sweet and lovable!
“Bon, Jelly,” Raphael said, drawing on his store of gutter French, “let's open desktop slash private slash —”
“I have internet connectivity,” Jelly announced, with his jaw waggling upside-down. He didn't really have lips and a tongue, just a speaker, but they'd made him so his mouth moved anyway.
“Oui —” Raphael began again.
“I have 17.7 terabytes of software updates,” Jelly squeaked.
“Skip that, Jelly. You don't need to phone home right now.”
“Relaying GPS coordinates: 166 milliradians north, 239 west.”
Mina felt a surge of alarm. “Has he ever been awake in here before?” she asked Raphael in a low voice.
“No.” Raphael's brow furrowed. “I just recharge him in the back room. I don't activate him while —”
The taxi driver's sweaty, gap-toothed face was suddenly spraying spit on Mina's nose and cheek. “All right, girlie, you paying or not? My meter's still running. Want me to call the police?”
“My use pattern is showing unusual activity,” Jelly said. “For your protection, an anti-theft alert has been triggered.”
“Salam, camarade,” Mina told the taxi driver, who was straddling her leg and close to knocking her off the stool. She put her hand on his chest. “I'm sorry for the misunderstanding. We'll just be a moment while we —”
“Leave my sister alone, cow-boy, —”
“What's the problem here?” the wiry old woman behind the bar demanded, and then a purple ball of fur whirled like a demon, leapt the chasm behind the bar, caromed off of some bottles of liquor, and disappeared down onto the floor. The old woman screamed and grabbed a bottle to brandish against the apparition. Raphael dove across the bar, and Mina wriggled away from the cab driver and ran around to the end to block Jelly's escape route. She crashed into someone and landed on the floor, caught a glimpse of Jelly running by, wedged him against the back of the bar with her knee, and caught him by the scruff of his neck. Raphael dragged her backward. She scrambled to her feet, and they ran out the back door into the dark and familiar alleys of their neighborhood.
Mina clutched Jelly like a rugby ball in the crook of her arm, her hand clamped over his nattering mouth, and as they ran she tried to think. Leave my sister alone. She'd never believed that her brother could be more than a donkey looking for some trick to get out from under its load, but she had to admit that he'd not only been resourceful but stood up for her — and for Baba, too. She tripped over a beggar who'd already settled down for the night. Stumbling, she lost her grip on Jelly, and he went flying down the alley. Raphael snatched him back up, and by the time Mina caught up with them she saw that the little robot seemed to have calmed down. Maybe she'd underestimated him, just as she'd underestimated her brother. She caught Raphael by the arm.
“Jelly?” she asked.
“You know, we're not trying to steal you.”
“Oh, I know that,” he said. “Ms. Nagel threw me away.”
“What's this all about?” a toothless old lady demanded, peeping out from behind a dumpster. Raphael apologized, and they moved farther down the alley toward home.
“So Ms. Nagel threw you away,” Mina prompted.
“She was tired of paying the bill every month. She's going to tell Piper I was lost.”
“But ... you said your anti-theft alert had been set off ...”
“Triggered. Because ...”
“Because of the unusual use pattern.” He didn't seem to see any contradiction there. But maybe that didn't mean he was stupid. Maybe it was like feeling angry when you knew you shouldn't, or believing in tree-spirits even through you said you were a Muslim. “Who do you think is your owner now?” she asked.
“You mean if the person throws you away, the ownership goes back to the company that made you?”
“No, Petopia always owned me. Petopians aren't sold to the users, just licensed.”
“I see. So really we have as much claim on you as anyone, right?”
“Let me do this,” Raphael said. “He's really mine these days. Or ... not mine, but — I'm his user, right? It's me that knows how to use him.”
“That's stupid! I found him.”
“Yeah, you stole him, all fair and legal, and then I stole him from you, just as fair.”
“It wasn't stealing. We already discussed that, right, Jelly?”
“Okay, so let's say we went back to the internet cafe,” she proposed to the animal. “Now that we've worked all this out, you wouldn't do your theft thing —”
“— my anti-theft alert.”
“You wouldn't do that again, would you?”
“Yes, I would. Well, I would if the server sent me the command again, and I think it would, because it would be the same conditions. I finished some of my software updates, though. I only have 17.5 terabytes left to do. When I finish those you'll need to restart me.”
“Bon, I understand, you don't have control over that kind of thing. But you see, Jelly, we have a serious problem, and we need you to help us —”
“He doesn't understand shit like that,” Raphael objected.
“Maybe he understands more than you think,” Mina said. Jelly didn't seem to be very good at understanding himself, but even if he was just a machine, he was a machine that could learn. As his life went on he could get smarter. Maybe he was still growing up, like Raphael and Mina. “Jelly, there are some people who are going to beat up our father. They want money.”
“Never put up with bullying,” Jelly said. “Tell a grownup. It's not something you have to handle on your own.”
“Yes, but our father is a grownup, and so are the bullies.”
“You could tell a teacher or a police officer. But,” tilting his head again in that cute way, “you don't have a teacher, do you?”
“No. And these bullies are soldiers, so the police aren't going to help us.”
“I have things I'm allowed to do if the bullying is in progress and there's not time to get help,” he said doubtfully.
“Yes, that's exactly the situation,” Mina said. “What can you do?”
“I can make a sound like a loud whistle. That can get the attention of a nearby adult. Or I can do the alarm.”
“What kind of alarm?”
“Well, the normal one sounds sort of like a car alarm. Usually that works.”
Raphael said, “People around here don't have car alarms.” Mina didn't even know what it was. “But yeah, I should have thought of that kind of thing. We went through your sounds folder before, right?”
“Like the ultrasonic signals for when you're playing chess?”
“Right, that folder. But this is going to be a sound that we want older people to be able to hear. Do you have a siren?”
The trick with the siren didn't work, probably because the soldiers knew that the streets were too narrow for vehicles to pass, but it did turn their attention for a while from abusing Baba to finding and then abusing Jelly. They used him as the ball for a game of cricket, but he kept from being destroyed because none of the soldiers were sober enough to get a hit. The house was an easier target, and they knocked it down. Mina liked to believe that they went away eventually because the family, and a couple of the neighbors, did their best to intervene, or at least stood nearby and exposed themselves to harm. Raphael maintained that the soldiers left because they got sleepy. Even so, it was obvious that Jelly had changed the situation for the better. He was like Raphael: whereas before he'd been an encumbrance, now at least he was a wildcard, a useful agent of chaos.
The family took shelter for a while under the bridge where the Avenue de la République stepped daintily over the salt evaporation ponds. At first Mina imagined that they would fix the house and move back into it, but they didn't have the right hardware and tools, and they were short on labor, because they had to work to get money for food. Baba was in the hospital, and he seemed like he was going to need some time to get better after what the soldiers had done to him. When Raphael tried to get his money turned into paper bills by the machine at the hotel, the S.P.E. company's A.I. agent said in its cheerful sing-songy voice that there was a freeze on his account “for your protection,” and he should give a phone number and address to straighten it out. But the family had never had a phone, and as for a street address, it had never even occurred to Mina that a number might be assigned to her family's house, or an official name to the street it stood on.
Once the family was off their house's former parcel, their connection to the property slipped into a confusing kind of tenuity. Nobody seemed clear on the legal arrangements. There was a meeting with the landlady's son, at which it became clear that the landlady had died a while back without their knowing it, and which degenerated into an argument about the quality of the five cases of toilet paper that Nga had provided a while back in place of cash. Mina realized finally that she'd been misunderstanding how property worked in the modern world. She'd thought that people — at least rich landlords and rich American people — still owned things, but it was clear from what Jelly and the landlady's son said that really all you ever had these days was a license: a kind of temporary permission to use something, which could evaporate at any time for obscure reasons. Despite all the fancy techno-frills, the way it worked was more like what happened when a toddler screamed mine!: the toy was only his until he lay down for a nap, and then it would go away. Maybe that was always how it had been, even long ago when the rich had first become rich and the poor poor. How could anyone have owned anything to start with, unless it was simply because one cave-man bonked another on the head and walked off with the prize?
The bridge was drier than the house, and when she came home at night her nose adjusted to the briny smell more quickly than it had to the sewage stink in their old neighborhood. There were only a couple of other families there, so it wasn't even too crowded. There wasn't much you could objectively say against the bridge, except that it was a completely unsuitable place to imagine installing a big, soft Japanese chair with foot massage — but still Mina couldn't help feeling that it was a terrible step down in life. Equally illogical were her newly softhearted feelings about Baba, finally diagnosed with a damaged spleen. Once when she was bringing him food, she took Jelly along, and when she left the room for a moment and came back, she caught him saying something to the robot that sounded suspiciously like half-remembered endearments from her own childhood. He just looked up sheepishly at her, and she had to smile and stroke his balding head. The hospital cost a vast amount of money, which the billing lady said was really just a token payment compared to what it would have cost if he hadn't been a hardship case. Depending on which doctor they talked to, he might also need surgery.
That was how Mina and Jelly ended up at the Christian school run by the American nuns, sitting in front of the gigantic English dictionary. Between her feet was Raphael's big sack, full of solid-state drives from Alseny's e-waste computers: drives that were encrypted, so that they were useless to Alseny. Light streamed down onto Jelly through a window that had been nearly filled with a cheap plastic facsimile of stained glass, showing the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Television-blue light fell on the top of page 680, CINCTURE to CINQUEFOIL. Jelly, perched on the sill of the dictionary's carved wooden stand, pored over the pages that to him were as big as carpets. If it had been safe to bring him close to an internet hotspot again, he probably could have completed this process in a tenth of a second, but instead they had to spend hour after tedious hour here every morning before work. The nun who kept an eye on the library thought Mina was very studious.
Jelly stirred, and Mina reached out to turn the page for him, but he said, “I think I've got one: CINNAMON123.”
“Cinnamon, what's that?”
“Cannelier de Ceylan, the spice. It's probably the name of their cat or something.”
Mina smiled and shook her head. It still amazed her that so many of the rich foreigners could be so dumb, especially after they got to go to school until they were eighteen or twenty. Why would they go to all the trouble of encrypting their drives, but then choose a password that was basically just a word from the dictionary? No doubt when Jelly got farther through the alphabet he'd get hits like PASSWORD123 and SECRET123.
“Okay, which one?”
“I can find it. Open the bag.”
She checked to make sure that the nun wasn't peeking in from the hall, then held the sack open in her lap so that Jelly could go in. His front paws dug like a dog's through the jumble. He had memorized a small part of each drive, like going to a library and memorizing one page out of each book. If he could decrypt the sample using CINNAMON123, he could probably decrypt the whole thing.
“This one,” he squeaked from inside the bag, and pointed with his nose. She cabled him up to the drive through the port in his mouth.
He held still for a moment, then nodded and spoke — he could still talk even when his mouth was full. “Yes, that's working. I've got it all decrypted. Emails ... banking ... ”
Raphael had a new system for handling money, something involving prepaid phone cards and a hawala in Cairo. Tomorrow he'd be at the cashier's window in the basement of the hospital with another small pile of ten-k notes.
“Ah, très bien, mon petit chou.” Jelly came out of the bag, looking proud. Mina stroked his head, and he wiggled his tailless rump and rubbed the side of his stubby little snout against her belly. He knew it, and Mina knew it too: Jelly had been kicked over the threshold.