“The Galaxy’s Cube”
by Jeremy Szal
It was another sweltering night in New Bangkok, and Jharkrat wasn’t selling anything.
The crowds were always here. They strode under lanterns and weaved through sluggish traffic, broad streets slick with blood-warm rain. Rusty frying pans hissed with fury as chefs cooked bubbling pastries in oil, spinning carousels draped with rice noodles. Curlicues of smoke coiled upwards from make-shift shrines. People shouted and bargained, exchanging burlap sacks of spice and seed to tourists, probably from Earth. Canoes sliced across the canal, battering away flotsam as they navigated to the floating markets. Half-finished skyscrapers towered above, cocooned with scaffolds. A fat drop of watery rust dripped from a flaking steel pylon, landing with a brown-red plop on Jharkrat’s table.
He didn’t bother scrubbing it away. It was the city’s sweat, oozing out of a million pores. There’d be another in a minute. He made a mental note to bring his umbrella tomorrow.
Two Ministry peacekeepers dressed in dark blue – vivanors – were sipping tom kha gai at a hot-food booth, keeping an eye on the milling crowd. One of them caught his eye and Jharkrat turned away, pretending to focus on the computer components sprawled in front of him. He didn’t want trouble tonight. They’d already frowned on his business in dealing with long decommissioned electronic goods and he didn’t need them to shut him down.
Someone came rushing up to his booth, pudgy face flushed with the heat. Was this a customer? Jharkrat straightened up, only to groan as the overweight man dumped an armful of decrepit equipment on the stained counter.
‘I’m not buying,’ sighed Jharkrat, picking at the bramble of decaying wires. ‘Only selling.’
‘Come on,’ he shouted over the tooting horns of traffic. ‘I’ll give you a good price.’
It was all from the Last Age, before the Ministry had replaced all their computer systems and software. His warehouse was nearly full of this stuff. It was barely worth paying the rent to keep it there. ‘Mai au khrap. I’ve got enough.’
‘Please.’ The man was desperate, neck tendons straining like bridge cables. ‘I’m low on cash.’
‘Two thousand baht for the lot?’
He was torn. It was madness, acquiring all this for such a good price. But he’d be even madder to buy anymore stock.
The man must have seen his dilemma. He plucked out a modest black box from the mess, twirling it in his hands. ‘Take this. I can’t sell it anywhere else.’
Jharkrat inspected it, the cloying smell of incense from a nearby shrine tickling his nose. The cube was heavy for its size, little grooves carved into the sides and a port for plugging into a computer. ‘What is it?’
‘A module, I think.’ The man picked at a welling boil on his neck. ‘Five hundred?’
Jharkrat had never seen anything like this. There wasn’t even a manufacturer logo stamped into the metal. He couldn’t really afford it, but his curiosity was winning him over. ‘I’ll give you four hundred.’
Jharkrat forked over the crumpled notes. The man nodded gratefully, scooping up his materials and slipping out into the crowd. Jharkrat glanced back at the small mysterious box, shutting out the roaring city around him.
It started to rain as he made his way back home, warm spatters of water drumming on tin roofs and taut tarpaulins. Two moons were visible in the sky, pouring pale light on the road. The third was obscured by thick clouds. Back on Earth, where his grandparents were born, there had been only one moon in the sky. And the days were twenty-four hours long, not thirty-two. He’d been meaning to go there, see the wonders they spoke about. But even getting a permit to travel would require years of saving. And then there was buying the actual ticket. He’d spent all his money on his daughter when she came down with the blister plague, slowly eating away at her body. Every sale he made from selling equipment fought back the disease just a little more. But in the end it hadn’t been enough. It had crawled into Serah’s brain and killed her.
Some days Jharkrat didn’t know what kept him going.
He arrived at his bottom floor apartment. Blood-red creepers curled around the sagging poles that were weary with the building’s weight. He fished for the rusty key and unlocked the ancient door. He could have gotten a keypad or printscan system, but that would draw attention. Showed he had something to hide. The place was going to get broken in again anyway. No need to encourage the thieving devils. He’d seen what people would do for money. Just last month a man a couple of blocks down from him had traded his newborn son for a dog so he could sell its litter. Jharkrat had to restrain himself from going over and smashing the man’s teeth out.
The flat was a wreck; the floor littered with computer equipment and crushed beer cans, plastic chairs wrapped in thick cables. A moldy fan spun lazily overhead, swirling muggy air around the room. Stock was packed in cardboard boxes threatening to fall apart, stacked to the ceiling. Jharkrat swept away a disassembled motherboard from his desk and brought out the cube. He simply had to know what this was. There was no way the Ministry had licensed it. Which just made it all the more exciting.
He flicked his ancient computer on, snatching up a cable and hooking it up to the box with a click.
Zap. Everything powered down, the screen spluttering and flashing bright colours before winking away, leaving the screen a black mirror.
Well, that wasn’t good. He sat still, too surprised to move when the screen jumped back to life, displaying a flickering background. Was this some sort of virus? Even now it was probably eating away at his files – or worse – shipping them off to the Ministry. He was finished now. He was—
‘Hello?’ A chill shot through his body. The box was speaking. The grooves had burst to life, glowing an eerie blue. ‘Hello?’ it said again, louder this time. It was a woman’s voice. ‘Where am I?’
Jharkrat paled. He knew what this was. It had to be. It was a Mind, banned decades ago by the Ministry. Anyone caught handling them was immediately executed. No trial, no questions asked. No wonder that fat bastard wanted to sell the cube so desperately.
He had to get rid of it. Now!
He kicked the chair back and extended an arm, desperate to rip the cables out. The Mind must have guessed what he was doing. ‘Please!’ it begged. ‘Don’t!’
The intense emotion laced in its voice made Jharkrat hesitate, his hand poised to tear out the wires. ‘Who are you?’ he finally asked.
‘I do not have a name,’ the Mind said, sounding genuinely relieved. ‘I…I did not expect to boot up again.’
‘Why?’ Jhrakrat could feel the hooks sinking in, pulling him deeper. ‘What happened? Where are you from?’
‘Earth,’ said the Mind. ‘At least, I was made there.’
‘Earth?’ Jharkrat leaned back in his chair, breathing hard. What had he stumbled onto here? ‘How did you end up in New Bangkok?’
‘With the ships. I was the one who flew them here.’
Jharkrat blinked. ‘You were part of the First Fleet?’
This Mind had to be almost a century old. No doubt it was packed full of data and logs that would have fetched millions of baht on the black market. No wonder the Ministry didn’t want them around. A stupid grin played on his face.
Then doubt started to seep in. ‘You said you didn’t expect to boot up again.’
The Mind paused. ‘They came for us,’ she finally said. ‘The men in blue. They told us we were no longer needed and the Ministry ordered us shutdown. But one scientist, she had grown…fond of me. She downloaded my system into a storage device instead of destroying the software. I wasn’t sure what would happen after that. I don’t think she knew either.’
‘Do you have a name?’
‘No. None of the officers or scientists were permitted to grow attached to their Minds.’ The voice seemed to hesitate, as if contemplating what to tell him. ‘But I did want one.’
‘I can give you one,’ Jharkrat offered. ‘How about…Serah?’
The Mind considered this. ‘That should serve. But why that name?’
Jharkrat smiled tightly, biting his cracked lips. ‘It was my daughter’s name.’ He leaned forward. ‘What is Earth like? Tell me.’
And she did. She told him about the snow-capped mountains and sprawling deserts, the endless open spaces the size of entire countries. She described the haunting forests and jungles, the ice glaciers and tundras, the coral reefs and lush islands. Jharkrat sat there in amazement, barely noticing the buttery fingers of dawn creeping through the grimy window, painting the floor a dusty yellow. He hadn’t gotten a moment of sleep, but somehow he felt rejuvenated. Refreshed.
He stood up, stretching his cramped muscles and rubbing the nape of his neck. ‘I’ll have to hide you,’ he told Serah. ‘Just in case someone breaks in.’
‘Oh,’ Serah said, a ring of disappointment in her voice. ‘I’ve charged up enough. I should stay aware at least fourty-eight hours.’
He planned to be back long before then. He disconnected Serah from the computer, shoved plastic bottles out of the way and slithered under the bed. He jiggled loose some rusty nails and raised up a thin floorboard to reveal a hoard. This was where he stored most of his money in thick bundles. He didn’t trust the banks. He’d seen them flop in the economic crisis before, seen the outcry as lifesavings dwindled down to loose change. He wasn’t planning for that to happen to him.
He sandwiched the cube between two fat wads of baht before replacing the floorboard and tightening the screws. She was safe for now.
The sun was blinding, poking out over the rim of his stall’s umbrella and stabbing his eyes. He’d bought a good pair of sunglasses a few weeks ago but they’d been stolen. He would have gone for the cheap ones, but those broke down in less than a month.
He gulped down his kaeng som, flooding his mouth with spicy fish and observed the flow of the market. People drifted past, sipping from plastic bags of coconut juice, feet slapping against the pavement. Jharkrat remembered when coconuts had been horrifyingly expensive, sold only by licensed companies. But then someone had wormed into the genebank labs and leaked them on the market. Now they were only twenty baht each, sold at every corner of every street of the city. He remembered buying coconut milk for Serah, watching her face light up as she tasted it for the first time…
A shadow swept across his face. Jharkrat swallowed and squinted up at the figure, a dark silhouette outlined by the sun. It was a vivanor with a mountain peak of a face. He leaned forward, scanning the stock with quiet menace.
‘Can I help you?’ Jharkrat eyed the pistol strapped to the man’s side and pushed his bowl away.
The vivanor blinked, hooded eyes drilling into him. ‘A man came here last night. He sold you a small box. Perhaps this big.’ The man held his dirt-fringed thumb and forefinger roughly ten centimeters apart. ‘Do you have it?’
Jharkrat realized with dread that this man had been here last night, watching him from the foodstall. This wasn’t good.
He couldn’t deny owning it. ‘Yes, I bought it. But I was mugged on the way home and it was stolen.’
The vivanor’s face could have been chiseled from marble. ‘Is that so?’
‘Yes.’ Jharkrat forced himself to smile at the man. The vivanor lingered there for another few seconds before heading off, slicing past the crowd as he strolled further down the market.
Jharkrat bit down on his cheek so hard he tasted blood. The vivanor hadn’t bought his story. Not for a moment. Every fiber of his being urged him to scurry home and make sure Serah was safe, but that wouldn’t be wise. No doubt they were watching him from the shadows, waiting for him to make a move before they struck. He had to pretend that everything was normal.
He sighed, a bead of sweat rolling down his chest, soaking into his shirt. It was going to be a long day.
The sun finally slunk behind the blood-red horizon, allowing the city to burst into a multicoloured glow. Some shops closed down for the night while others opened, attracting a whole new breed of customers. Jharkrat ignored it all, packing up his stall as fast as he dared without raising eyebrows. He made his way home; passing by a lantern-lit vendor selling fabrics dyed a rich ruby red and threading his way through the various neon-dunked alleyways, tendrils of steam curling from gap-toothed windows. He swatted a dew-covered palm leaf out of the way, trying not to glance over his shoulder as he walked. There was no way they were still following him now. Surely he was just paranoid.
He stopped dead in his tracks. The door to his room was ajar, light spilling out. He pushed it open, fear knotting in the pits of his stomach. The whole thing had been ransacked top to bottom; drawers torn out, garments ripped to shreds, computer parts shattered to pieces on the floor. Jharkrat closed the door behind him, scuttling to examine the floorboard. A prayer to nonexistent gods leaped to his mouth. It didn’t look disturbed, but he had to make sure…
He undid the screws with sweaty fingers, tearing the board away in haste. Please be there, please be there. Warm relief flooded his system. Serah was still there, safe and sound.
‘Jharkrat?’ she asked as he reached for the cube, squeezing the cool metal in his calloused hands, the razor edges cutting into his flesh. It was comforting, somehow. ‘Is that you? Someone broke in here hours ago. They made quite a bit of noise.’
‘I can tell,’ said Jharkrat dryly, kicking at what had once been a widescreen tablet, the screen shattered like a spider-web. He planted himself on the floor, cradling the cube in his hands. ‘They really want your system, don’t they?’
‘No,’ murmured Serah, almost in a grumble. ‘They just want to destroy it. They can’t have FLT data floating around with the risk of it getting on the market. They—’
‘What?’ Jharkrat spluttered. ‘You have faster-than-light data stored inside your system?’
‘Yes. But, if it isn’t accessed for five years it gets sealed with heavy encryption. I don’t think you’ll be able to break in.’
Now Jharkrat realized why they wanted the data so badly. He’d seen what happened when the genebank was leaked, coconuts spreading like the plague through the markets. The government had lost billions of baht. And if independent companies managed to use faster-than-light on their own, all their monopolies would collapse. Their starships, their tourism, their engines, everything. It would fold like a house of flimsy bamboo. People could afford to travel. See Earth.
Escape from this dump.
And he held it all in his hand.
‘Serah,’ said Jhrarkrat, excitement dripping from every syllable, ‘is there a way to extract the data?’
‘Perhaps. But I told you, it’s encrypted. There’s a tripwire installed. If it detects someone trying to undo the lock, it’ll self-denotate.’ She paused. ‘It’ll destroy my entire system.’
Jharkrat chewed his cracked lips. He held in his hand what was quite possibly the last Mind in existence, and someone who was becoming a good friend. Was the information worth the risk of losing her? Not to mention the difficulties he could run into if he was caught. Did he want to cause so much trouble over data?
Then he realized it wasn’t up to him.
‘What do you think?’ he asked, focusing on the tiny black cube that housed the Mind. ‘I know someone who can help. But it has to be your decision. Do you want to risk it?’
Serah said nothing, the colours of her metal interface rising and falling. ‘That scientist risked everything to get me out of there with this data,’ she said. ‘I’ve kept it safe for almost a century. They wanted to destroy it, and me along with it.’ The device flashed a crimson red. ‘Yes, we’re going to do it.’
Jharkrat grinned. ‘That’s what I wanted to hear.’
Jharkrat packaged the cube tightly in a hidden pocket sewn into his trousers, normally used for storing cash. Now he’d be smuggling out the last surviving Mind in New Bangkok.
It was too risky to go out the front. He scaled the chainlink fence out the back and navigated his way around a garden of overgrown foliage and perennials, bursting out through to the street. He wasted no time mingling with the rushing crowd, rubbing sweaty shoulders under a roof of thick wires and holograms.
The tangled streets started to blur, the countless foodstalls, massage parlors, nightclubs, shrines, rippling lights and tooting auto-ricksaws sweeping past as Jharkrat twisted and turned through the tumult and the heat and the smells, waiting for the meaty hand on his shoulder that would drag him away and shove a .45 in his mouth.
No one came.
He carried Serah through the sea of teeming bodies, ducking under a low-hanging billboard and making his way into the dingy alleyway where old women made prayer beads with gnarled fingers, twisted like tree roots. He stepped in a shallow puddle, the water shivering as he wormed his way through a labyrinth of bustling back alleys, finally climbing a corkscrew staircase up to the fourth floor of what appeared to be a dilapidated apartment building. He made sure no one was looking before rapping his knuckles on the peeling wood.
The door promptly swung open. There she was, grinning at him with teeth that were black as ink. ‘Sawa dee, Jharkrat. Long time, eh?’
‘Hello Kwan. You still chewing those nuts?’
‘Of course. Try it sometime for yourself, eh?’
‘No thanks.’ He stepped inside, the air conditioning fast freezing his sweat. Explosions boomed out of speakers in the adjoining room. ‘Got something for you.’
‘Ah, yes,’ she said, meshing her tiny hands together. ‘That’s what you always say.’ She led him down the narrow corridor and into the lab. At least two dozen screens had been squeezed in here, bulging cables stapled to the ceilings and walls, pumping terabytes of data by the second. Half of the desks contained hackers, hooked up to screens by interfaces and headphones, pounding away at sticky keyboards. Kwan sat down on her overstuffed chair, taking a sip of what could have been water or vodka. ‘I’ve seen it all before, my friend.’
‘Not like this you haven’t.’ Jharkrat reached into his pocket, ripping away the stitching and bringing out the cube.
Kwan’s expression didn’t change. ‘What is it?’
Jharkrat opened his mouth to tell her, but Serah was faster. ‘You’re Jharkrat’s hacker friend, I presume?’
Kwan’s lazy smile wilted. She gripped the cube in a trembling hand. ‘You found a Mind?’ Jharkrat nodded. ‘How?’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘Serah’s got something valuable inside her. I need you to extract it.’
‘You’ve named it?’ Kwan demanded. ‘If the Ministry catches us . . .’
‘Then I’ll go somewhere else.’ Jharkrat was about to stand up when Kwan motioned him back down again.
‘Stay put,’ she hissed. ‘Better me than someone else screwing it up.’ She turned to her computer, fishing for a cable. ‘What did you need?’
‘There’s some encrypted data I need you to unpack.’
Kwan made a small snort as she plugged Serah to the computer. ‘Too easy. You insult me, peuang.’
‘There’s a tripwire installed,’ Jharkrat said. ‘If triggered it’ll wipe the entire system.’
Kwan nodded, eyes sliding across the widescreen. ‘Ah, yes. I see it.’
‘Can you break through?’
Kwan swerved around to him with a sly wink. ‘There you are, insulting me again.’ Her fingers danced over the ash-stained keyboard in a rhythmic tat-tat-tat. ‘It’ll take some time. A couple hours at least.’ She motioned towards the door. ‘Please leave. I won’t have you breathing down my neck.’
Jharkrat hesitated. It needed to be done, but he didn’t want to leave Serah in anyone’s hands. He trusted Kwan, but this was almost like leaving his daughter behind.
‘Go on,’ Serah said, as if reading his mind. ‘I’ll be fine here.’
‘See? Even she knows.’
Jharkrat took the hint. He swung the exit open, letting the soggy night swallow him up.
Jharkrat couldn’t sleep.
It wasn’t just because his wafer thin mattress had nearly been torn in two. It was Serah who lingered in his mind, tattooed on his brain. The daughter he’d lost. He could almost hear her raspy breathing as she lay comatose in the hospital bed, feel the life seeping out of her as he stroked her silky black hair, praying she would recover, that everything would be alright.
It had never truly sunk in that his daughter had gone. He’d never moved on. Maybe that was why he named the Mind after her. To keep his daughter alive.
He wasn’t going to lose her again.
He unwound his legs from the sweaty sheets. He wasn’t going to get any sleep tonight. Best to make the most of it. He pulled on some clothes with haste, heading out the door.
The streets were busy as always despite the early hour, frozen in a never ending slog of traffic, teeming bodies and heat, clogging up the arteries of the city. Jharkrat clambered up the stairs, not waiting to knock. Kwan met him in the hall, all calm exterior melted away.
‘You!’ She shoved him against the wall, gnashing those black teeth of hers. ‘You bastard! Did you know what was inside?’
‘You’ve broken through?’ asked Jharkrat, grinning.
Kwan hissed, dragging him into the computer room. She clapped her hands, the sound drowning out the hum of computer systems. All heads swiveled to face her. ‘Out! Now!’
No one dared to object. Desks and keyboards clattered as they rushed to escape her rage. Kwan scarcely waited until they’d all left before slamming the door shut, the frame shuddering. She rounded on him, tiny hands clenched into balled fists. He half expected her to backhand him. ‘You knew, didn’t you?’
‘FLT data, out of all things.’ She ground her palms against her cheeks. ‘Maaeng eeuy! I can’t keep this here.’
‘Think about how valuable it is!’ Jharkrat bristled. ‘We’ve been looking for something like this for decades!’
‘You’ll put us all in danger!’
‘Not if we flood the market!’
Kwan blinked, tilting her head towards him. ‘You don’t want to sell it?’
Jharkrat shook his head. He’d done the math already. The data was priceless. Trying to sell something like this would just draw attention from the crime lords and get them killed. But if they made it public…
‘Did you extract it?’ Jharkrat demanded.
Kwan blew air out between her teeth. ‘Yes and no. We managed to fool the tripwire and retrieve the data, but it’s key-coded to the Mind. We can’t make another copy.’
‘That I’ll have to go.’ Their heads turned to the Mind. Serah had been listening all along. ‘You’ll have to upload the entire system, and me along with it.’
Jharkrat stood in dismay as the pieces slotted together. They could upload the information, but they couldn’t separate Serah from it. She’d be whisked away to the pits of the Net, lost in a bottomless ocean.
Jharkrat opened his mouth to object, but clamped it shut. He was being a selfish bastard. This wasn’t about him. It had never been.
And it wasn’t his decision.
He approached the table, kneeling down like he was talking to a child. ‘What do you want to do?’ He asked, eyes locked to the tiny cube that had been his friend for the last few days. ‘It’s your choice.’
The Mind made a noise that sounded like something between a sigh and a chuckle. ‘I think we both know the answer, Jharkrat.’
The door crashed open. A man stood there, face speckled with sweat as he panted for breath. ‘The vivanors,’ he rasped.
Kwan blinked, spat a curse and waved him off. She rounded on him. ‘You brought them here?’
Jharkrat was lost for words. He’d been careful, so careful to make sure he hadn’t been followed. And this little slip up could cost them everything.
He made a snap decision, not giving himself the chance to back out. ‘Kwan, are your computers connected to the Net?’
‘You need to leave,’ he said as others crowded into the room, looking to Kwan for the order. ‘I’ll take care of this.’
Kwan seemed to understand. She nodded, turned to a handful of men lingering in the corridor. ‘You. Make their job hell. Hold them out as long as you can.’ She motioned to the others. ‘The rest of you, grab what you can and get to the truck. Destroy what you can’t carry.’
Everyone rushed to obey. Jharkrat caught a glimpse of a locker being flung open, heard the clatter of various handguns and revolvers handed out and magazines slotted in. But that wasn’t what he needed to focus on right now.
He pounded away at the computer, connecting it to the network. Kwan made herself busy ordering various men and women about as they dashed from room to room, arms bundled with hard drives and thick cables. Jharkrat frantically slotted the correct wires into the corresponding ports, linking Serah up to the system.
Shouts of warning floated up. They were getting close.
Jharkrat swiveled around, his eyes locking onto Kwan’s. There was nothing to be said. They knew how this was going to turn out. ‘You really should have tried those nuts,’ she smiled with pained sincerity. Then she was gone, clambering down the back stairs and to the impatient truck loaded with equipment.
Muffled gunshots. Screams. Bullets whistled through the air, shattering glass. His fingers were a blur as he wrenched the gateway open, tethering Serah directly to the Net. In a few minutes she would be gone, the priceless data leaked onto the streets.
But she would be safe.
I might not have saved my own daughter. But I can save you.
‘I wish you could come with me,’ said Serah, her voice soft.
Jharkrat breathed out through his nostrils. ‘Me too.’
Bang. Bang bang bang. A smear of red spattered the windows, followed by a roar of pain.
‘Twice humans have saved me,’ Serah said, her voice dimming as the bar onscreen filled up, sucking her away one fragment at a time. A yell rang out, but the crack of a revolver silenced it. ‘You risked everything. Why?’
Jharkrat smiled. ‘Don’t you worry about that now. I’ve made my decision.’
‘I wish I could have met your daughter.’
Jharkrat sensed an itch on his cheek and felt a single tear streaming down his face. He didn’t bother to wipe it away. ‘Me too.’
‘I’ll never forget you.’ There was a crack of splintering wood as the door was kicked down, armored boots charging down the hall. ‘I—’
The bar filled up. Done.
Bang, bang. A man was thrown backwards, hosed down by a blaze of gunfire.
‘Goodbye Serah.’ Jharkrat stabbed the button marked Enter.
Jharkrat didn’t even turn around as they thundered into the room. He watched them take aim in the screen’s polished reflection. Bullets thudded into the monitor and system, tearing it to shreds with a deafening roar and the fizzle of sparks.
The rifle was pressed to his head, the cold kiss of death trickling down his spine as the vivanor’s finger curled around the trigger.
Jharkrat gave a final grin and closed his eyes.
Born in 1995 with a twisted sense of humour and a taste for craft beers, Jeremy Szal’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in venues such as Nature, Nature: Physics, Abyss & Apex, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and others.
He is the fiction editor for Hugo-winning podcast StarShipSofa, a Writers of the Future Finalist, and also has a useless BA in Film Studies and Creative Writing. He’s written multiple novels and is on the hunt for literary representation. He carves out a living in Sydney, Australia. Find him at @jeremyszal or http://jeremyszal.com/