11. Airbird Sevens

Back in Blush, in my attic bedroom on the tenth floor, on the evening after Plum showed up at the investiture, I sat in front of my thaumascope and stared at the screen. I had my chair pushed as far back as it would go, my feet up on the seat, cramped beneath the slanting ceiling as if I were afraid the screen would lurch forward and bite me. My breath was coming in short, tight bursts, and my hands were trembling a little. I hadn’t eaten since waking up that morning. I couldn’t. I wasn’t hungry. There was too much to think about to bother.

I had the Hero Trotter forums open to airbird77’s chat window, scanning row after row of the same, repeated message.

What did it mean? I had thought it was nonsense, a scramble of words spat out from some glitch somewhere in the Crystic. Candle thought I was crazy, but I’d come to enjoy the words. They were something to count on, something rhythmic and simple, like the ticking of a clock, measuring my day.

But now I knew there was an intelligence behind them. It wasn’t a random spammer whirling through the Crystic. It had targeted me. Specifically. Airbird sevens wanted something of me. He wanted to—to what? Save my life? That’s what my gut told me, but how did I know who to trust? Plum could be the good guy.

It felt like a betrayal. Something simple and comforting had turned out to be complicated and stressful. I would never have grown so attached to the words had I known they were intended for me.

With careful movements, I lowered my feet off the chair and scooted forward. My hands hovered over the keyboard, and I tried to clear my mind. Finally, knowing I would never be able to stop thinking about it unless I got some answers, I typed:

Hello?

Nothing, for twenty minutes. I got up from my chair and paced my room, my hands on my head, kicking aside empty weybisk boxes.

Then, my scope pinged. I darted to the screen, hunched over, and clutched the edges of the desk. A notification from airbird sevens. The words were different this time.

Did you get my message?

With a rattling breath, I lowered into my chair and responded.

I got it. Seventy-two times.

A pause.

Then: Eoea’s staff, that many? Whoops. Hold on, don’t send me anything more until I get back to you.

I waited in front of the screen for three minutes, hardly daring to move. It didn’t seem real, and for some reason I felt like if I just didn’t move I could hold reality in place with me. Keep things normal.

Eventually, another message came through: Okay. I need you to type out a certain code to secure the line and verify it’s you. The code is the first line of a poem Fogwillow told you once. I hope you remember.

Of course I remembered. I typed with shaking fingers.

You never know what you’ve never known.

After another brief pause: Good. Thank you, Nova. We’re set. It’s good to finally talk to you. Sorry about the golden plum message. I meant to just send it once, but I’ve been having trouble getting through.

Through the Hero Trotter forums?

Things are set up differently on my end.

What do you mean?

I’m manipulating the Crystic so my messages are untraceable, and for all intents and purposes non-existent to anyone who might be watching. I had the plum message on a loop to see if it was working, to scope things out. It kept saying the message wasn’t delivered. It’s still saying my messages aren’t being delivered, but I guess we know better now, don’t we?

I couldn’t bring myself to reply. I put my hands on my head again, sucking in a deep breath. Something told me I should stop now. Shut it all off and pretend it never happened.

Hello? airbird sevens wrote.

I thought of Plum and his sharp silhouette against the investiture wall.

Why was the message so cryptic? I replied.

Heh. Well, I’m not exactly a tech wiz, and I wasn’t positive my message would reach the right person. Had you responded, I would have been more clear.

I started to type a response, but another message popped up before I could finish.

Not that it’s your fault, Nova. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s certainly not your fault.

I paused, then deleted what I had written. I sat back in my chair, my chin lowered, deep in thought. Finally, coming to a conclusion, I leaned forward.

I have two questions, I wrote, and then I would like you to stop contacting me. My first question is, who is Plum?

It took a while for the response to come through.

It’s difficult to say, airbird sevens finally wrote. I can only tell you what I believe.

Which is?

That Plum is the leader of a Ferrenwide syndicate that’s been kidnapping young people from Trill to Kelefen.

Suddenly, I remembered something that Candle had said a few days ago, during our hike through the woods.

The Diosec, I wrote.

You know your criminal empires. Plum is cunning and dangerous. Brilliant enough to hold power and not draw attention to it. The Shift Patrol has been searching for him for years without even knowing who he is.

If you’re so sure you’ve identified him, why not take what you know to the shifties?

A longer pause. Then: I have my reasons. Good ones, too.

Another pause.

I want to help you, Nova.

Unexpectedly, something soft opened up inside of me, and a strange feeling made me want to reach through the screen and pull airbird sevens out of it. I blinked, trying to get a grip on my emotions. My shoulders dropped a little, and with shaking fingers I typed, Why?

For whatever reason, I believe Plum is targeting you.

How do you know?

I make it my business to track the Diosec’s activities. Over the past month I’ve seen them take a deep interest in Blush. Enough of an interest to move their prime cell into the city. Their trail is everywhere, if you know where to look.

Impulsively, I turned around and stared out the wide, slanting window. It was nighttime, and the stars were blocked by clouds. I could see nothing out there but a flat, endless black, and below it the soft glow of the skyline. It was all very quiet. I turned back to the screen.

That was more than two questions, Nova, airbird sevens wrote.

I didn’t even ask my second one.

What was it?

Who are you?

The longest pause of all. I watched the lightscreen so closely it burned a square in my vision. Then my thaumascope pinged, and another message popped up along the bottom of the chat window.

You’ll always know what is ever known. Be careful, Nova.