Cairo is how Alycia remembers it. Twenty million people sit at this hub of the Arabic world, at the doorway between past and future. It inherited the crown of power from Alexandria during Egypt’s conquest in the 600s, and over the next thousand years, human habitation turned it from a military base into a sprawling labyrinth of life and color under the watchful eye of the Pyramids.
She also remembers how confoundingly difficult it is to navigate, especially if you’re not fluent in Arabic. English is like catnip to the street hustlers. SNOWMAN can get by on attitude, and Alex and Emma both have the presence of mind to watch themselves. She settles for wrapping Nono up in a shawl and telling her to keep her mouth shut, no matter what.
She finds the group a little hole-in-the-wall motel in Manshiyat Nasser, “the Garbage City of Cairo”. While the smell is bad, Alycia appreciates two things. First, this is an even less conspicuous spot than Khartoum, and it has clean water for bathing. Second, the people here have taken up a municipal function - trash collection and recycling - that the city was unable or unwilling to handle, and she admires that sort of collective spirit.
“Sleep in shifts,” she directs. “Nobody does nothing with a mobile device without Alex’s permission. And nobody speaks English outside this room.”
She’s met with grumbling and half-hearted protest, but no open revolt.
Nono finds herself in the company of Alex, having her phone vetted for use. The others are resting.
“Hey, um, can I ask you? You seem to know all this stuff. How do you uh, get good at being this super-spy type person? I feel like everyone but me is just so cool at it, and I feel lost.”
Alex looks up from their laptop. “Me? I’ve been a hacker most of my life, and queer all of it. With parents like mine, you learn how to keep secrets by instinct.”
“That doesn’t sound very fun.”
Alex’s eyes fall back to the laptop. “It wasn’t.”
Nono feels awkward. “Well, if it helps, I don’t like my parents very much either. They fight and–”
She notices Alex staring at her again and realizes that more stories about bad parents is not what they want to hear right now. She switches tracks. “So, you’re like me, like your gift is hacking and mine is chemistry, huh?”
This gets a grin. “Yeah. You could say that. Hey, I wonder, have we both had a building blow up because of our hobbies?”
Nono blinks in shock. “You hacked a building to blow up?”
Alex sighs, and Nono feels dumb again. “No. Actually, it was a big corporate hit squad that blew up the building I was in. Because I was hacking them.”
Nono starts to get up, but Alex puts a hand on her arm. They smile up at her, and Nono can tell they’re trying, and she’s grateful and embarrassed.
“The way you get good at this stuff is to have a shitty life and be a survivor. That’s the formula. I hate to say it, but there’s no secret, it’s just having to keep yourself alive and going at any cost. I mean, plus some really intensive AEGIS training I got. But mostly, it’s just that li’l ol’ mammalian instinct to scurry away from danger, and leap at the face of anyone you can’t run from.”
Nono doesn’t like the sound of that. “It sometimes feels like you all don’t accept me, because I don’t have all that stuff. I’m just a normie.”
Alex laughs, but quietly for the benefit of the sleepers. “Nah, it’s not that. Shitty parents or not, I think we all kinda envy you because you’ve had a good life next to ours. And we wanted to protect you from having to go down the path we did.”
SNOWMAN and Emma are up at the same time. Both seem content to busy themselves inspecting their gear, checking a map of the city that Alycia obtained, and just generally being too cool for conversation.
That’s why Emma’s question comes out of nowhere to SNOWMAN, and startles him just a bit.
“Hey. Space cowboy. How d’you know Nono?”
He doesn’t, really. The question is a little weird. “She knows my original, Leo Snow. I don’t have those memories, so it’s a little one-sided.”
“Basically ya woke up from a years-long coma, is that it?”
“So you’re the youngest of all of us.”
SNOWMAN growls. “Push me if you want, but I’m fireproof.”
Emma rolls her eyes. “Not insult-proof though.”
From her sleeping spot, Alycia calls out. “The both of you shut up.”
Emma being Emma, that’s not going to happen. She plops down next to SNOWMAN and lowers her voice instead. “Listen. I know you’re just so dark and brooding and shit, whatever. But you were nice to Nono. I can’t always be there, and she trusts ya because she knows Leo Snow, I guess. And I’m grateful for that. So just. I dunno, just remember that it’s lonely being us, the kids who have nothing left but to fight back. The boss and Nono help anchor me. Get yourself an anchor too, okay?”
She stands and punches him hard in the head. “Later, li’l boy.”
“Eat my carbon co–” SNOWMAN’s return curse is interrupted as Alycia throws the motel room’s ashtray at him.