Thorn of the Rose Issue 23: Petal’s Spark
If you know what you can not trust, can you know what to trust?
Thorn and Stem loved to delve into the old computer books and learned Basic at a glance. They used it almost as a secret language, giving each other the instructions to cook breakfast, determine the most efficient way to water the gardens in the Greenhouse without wasting a drop, or find the way to the secret treasure (usually a scrap of paper with another cryptic code scrawled on it). Morse code, Cobol, Fortran, tic-tac-toe codes, Stem and Thorn loved them all.
Yet every time they tried to get Petal to be at all enthusiastic about a Spark that dealt with computers, she frowned at them and told them to concentrate on physics or chemistry—and to leave computers well enough alone. They could not help themselves. Stem dreamed of search algorithms that could learn, using memory and content analysis to become ever more refined, ever more accurate. Thorn memorized computer languages, everything from the ancient Ada** to C to **. He spoke in code only to Stem, who laughed at the cryptic jokes when everyone else just shook their heads. Petal told them to drop it, to just concentrate on something else. Anything else.
Finally, she took them up to her loft, her sanctuary, under the eaves of the solar panels. There, she cautioned them, “Never create a spark that changes computers. A search algorithm, perhaps, Stem. You still need to be extremely careful, though. A new object-oriented code that is more straightforward and elegant, Thorn, maybe. Maybe not. But never ever propose to change the fundamental nature of computers. Or the way society is. Or nanotech or gene splicing or anything else that might change the status quo. If you do, the Agency will be on you so fast it will make your head spin. And I may not be there to save you.”
Petal’s own spark, she confessed to Stem and Thorn, was developing an internet protocol that anyone could use, even the illegals, even the unregistered without the proper fingerprints, the appropriate patterns of their eyes, the correctly noted spirals of their genes. They asked Petal what happened to her Spark, and she shook her head and put her finger to her lips. “The Agency got it first,” she said. “And so it went nowhere.” When they pressed for further details on the Agency, Petal merely shook her head again and handed them another book on physics, another exercise in calculus.
The Agency was nowhere to be found in these books, and Thorn and Stem had nowhere else to look. Thus the Agency became the boogeyman, the shadow they used to frighten themselves and the other kids. “Don’t let the Agency get you!” they would taunt each other as they scavenged old buildings for computer parts, books, anything that would help the Greenhouse keep the Invisible children alive. Thorn particularly haunted an old office building, where a tiny window would grant access to the basement, which housed every computer the office had ever used—or so it seemed to Thorn. Stem would hover outside the window, catching whatever came through it.
Together, they would haul the loot back to the Greenhouse and set it up in their “computer repair shop.” They managed from old books, to gain access to the Ports, and would look longingly at the screen: Enter Identity here: Biometrics required. Select: Retinal Pattern/Fingerprint/DNA scan. For since their bodies were unregistered, their minds were stopped at the gate. They consulted Petal, who came down to the shop and saw their set up. After going through each cable, each wire, and noting how they had solved the problems of the computer programming, Petal relented. She showed them how to use different internet protocols, to “change the manner of the net” as she put it. To reawaken dormant accounts and have them live again. To bypass the Identity requests. To fool the system. She showed them some tricks to help ensure the Agency did not get them.
“Stay low, stay under the data stream. Don’t poke your heads out. Don’t be different. The Agency is always watching. Never think otherwise.”
“But what if the Agency does get us?” Stem asked.
“Then all you can do is pray,” Petal answered.