In which Melanie and Andrew debrief after one heck of a Corporate Courts meeting, and Bess discovers an issue with her cousin Christina.
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Melanie bottled up her anger and frustration with Bess until they were in the skimmer. Then she grabbed a squishy from the pocket storage compartment next to the door. Two squeezes, staring down at the pale blue foam ball, letting herself finally experience the fear, the worry, the anger she’d kept locked tight since she recognized Bess in the lineup outside the gate. Then she hurled the squishy across the skimmer cabin. The ball bounced off a window, ricocheted against the other side, banged into a chair, then hit the floor and rolled into a corner. Then she let herself shake. Bess had been part of that greeting party. If things had gone wrong—
Andrew flinched. “God, Mel!”
Melanie shuddered. “I am so going to kill that kid!” she growled. Anger and worry still pulsed through her. God, if things had gone wrong.
But they hadn’t gone wrong. She needed to remember that.
But they could have gone wrong.
But they hadn’t. This time.
Andrew raised a brow at her. “What? Richard?”
“I think she pulled a fast one on Angela and got herself assigned to greeting rotation, Mel,” Nik said. “She’d do that to get diplomatic experience. Or else she got Don and Alex to sneak her along. In either case, relax. Alex pulled her back when things got hot. She was nowhere near any trouble in that rumble.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” A puzzled frown crossed Andrew’s face as he sat.
“Bess,” Melanie said through clenched teeth, striding over to retrieve the squishy ball before dropping into her seat, clenching and releasing, clenching and releasing. “I’ve been holding this back since we first saw the clip, but Bess was part of that DIR guard troop at the gate. I know it’s part of her training, Nik, but god damn it, I don’t want her out there when things get hot!”
“Oh.” Andrew slumped back. “For a minute I thought you were talking about Richard. He wasn’t there too, was he?”
“No. I would have come unglued the first time we saw the clip if she’d drug your kids out too! We would have turned back in that circumstance, damn the Courts. At least she remembers they have to go through Basic. But still.” She squeezed the squishy several times more and contemplated throwing it again. Instead, she quickly texted Marty and Angela that they were done at the Courts and on their way home. She was certain that Nik had already done that, but she knew Marty would feel better hearing from her directly. Even if it was just a text.
“Mel, under normal circumstances an approach by other corporate Security isn’t a threat, it’s a learning opportunity,” Nik pointed out. “Bess wouldn’t be out there if she hadn’t passed Basic. They’ve got it covered. Don’s on duty with Sophie as his second. Alex was there as Bess’s guard. Angela backstopped Sophie because Bess is there. Bess wouldn’t be on rotation with anyone else.”
“Until we get this business settled with the Courts, she can’t be on Security greeting rotation, Nik. Period. Not even with Don, Alex, and Sophie, not even if you and Ange both are out there with her. I don’t care how qualified Bess is. Right now that’s just begging for trouble. Bess may have a hard ID block to break, but sooner or later someone’s going to crack it. Then she’s a target.”
“At least this time it’s not my kid who’s got you pissed,” Andrew said.
“Trust me, your kid and I are going to have a moment, but not right now. I didn’t dare talk about my damned kid until we were done with the Courts. Too much of a distraction.” Melanie threw the ball again, with less force. It was done. They were headed home. Everyone, please any deities hanging around, was safe. They had a workable deal with the Courts. Soon they’d be in the air and then she could completely release the tension. But not until then; not until she was certain they were safely away.
“Seven to three in favor of Sarah’s proposal,” Andrew mused as the skimmer powered up. “That’s an interesting split. And our mother is certainly sounding different today.”
“They tried to rush grabbing the kids last night so they’d have a fait accompli,” Melanie said, feeling the welcome vibration under her as the skimmer lifted. Soon. “I don’t know what Exec has been like of late, but I’m guessing we’re seeing a serious split with this situation. Your son may have done us a favor by forcing that split to the surface before it goes on much longer.”
The all-clear icon flashed on her overlay. Melanie exhaled with relief. Close. So damned close. And with that thrice-cursed gadget driving this situation, who knew what would happen next? She deactivated her coat and unbuttoned it, the combination of fatigue, adrenaline and Burnout crash making her quivering fingers stupid and clumsy.
“Nik, can you please get me some protein drink? I’m wiped out. That coat draws a lot of energy. Plus there were things flying in virtual that I didn’t have time to track or query. Dad knows who ordered the filing at Troubadour, but he had Sarah tell me. I suspect they hatched up a linkage and she could get through but not him. I know Sarah couldn’t reach outside of the Courts, not with the lockdown Mom had on her.”
“Who ordered the filing?” Andrew sat up as Nik handed her a drink tube.
“Monique Robillard at Troubadour Los Alamos.” Melanie sucked the tube dry, then pulled off her gloves and tucked them into the storage pocket in the coat’s bodice. “Know her?” She glanced at Nik. “Security. What’s the word?”
“I don’t have many connections at Los Alamos,” Nik hedged.
Melanie snorted. “Yeah. Right. Robillard. Troubadour Los Alamos Head of Security with override authority at Caspian. You’ve not been routing me through Los Alamos when I go up to the space stations even when it’s the best route. Is Robillard the reason?” She unbuckled her restraints to slide out of the coat, her still-trembling hands fumbling with the release on the storage locker next to her seat.
“Robillard’s a bitch,” Andrew said flatly. “She’s targeted Stephens Reclamation for intensive scrutiny. Celina deals directly with Robillard because Svetlana ends up kicking Security interactions up to Celina anyway. Shortens the bureaucracy. Robillard loves her some paperwork. Can’t always say as much for her grasp of priorities.”
“Well maybe that’s why your son went through Los Alamos Spaceport links to hack Caspian. In that case I’m not sure whether I want to yell at him or pat him on the back for exploiting weaknesses in an opponent,” Melanie stowed her coat carefully, giving it a final pat, and leaned back in her chair. Relief. Blessed, blessed relief. For the two hours it would take to get back to Hoodland she was off duty except for emergency, given Andrew’s presence. That new coat certainly augments my abilities, but at a price. Then again, next time I go to the Courts I won’t be coming off of a Burnout marathon. I hope.
“I’d do both,” Andrew said.
“I probably will as well.” Nik handed Melanie another tube. She swallowed half the contents. “Kids,” she groaned. “Now I know why our parents got gray hair.”
“Yeah.” Andrew rubbed his eyes. “You said Rick went through Los Alamos linkages to access Caspian? Interesting in light of the shipments going through there.”
“Oh?” Do It Right didn’t use Los Alamos regularly. The Florida or California spaceports were closer and more secure for space station freight. Until the last five years, they’d used Los Alamos for personnel, but since Stephens Rec and DIR were collaborating rather than clashing, the California spaceport was most secure for Hoodland DIR personnel and cargo. Florida handled the personnel and cargo from DIR in Rio Bravo.
What did Los Alamos ship? “Tell me more, Drew. I know Los Alamos primarily works with Troubadour proprietary cargo and personnel transport. Never used them for cargo because they don’t have the security to handle Netwalk chip shipments.”
“Lots of com stuff. Including—“ Andrew arched his brows at her, steepleing his fingers, “—materials for that asteroid probe they’re working on with Pranesh.”
“Hmm. I’ve not seen a lot about that probe coming through the High Space Consortium.” Her departure from the Courts had temporarily impeded DIR’s participation in the High Space project, a group of privately owned space stations scheduled for simultaneous build and launch for industrial and tech purposes. It had taken several years of negotiations to get DIR back on track for space station development, a necessary expansion for the next generation of Netwalk chip grows. “Was it something that came through while DIR was on hold with High Space?”
Andrew shook his head. “Completely private, a separate project. Ravi and Gerard approached me to see if Stephens Rec had an interest in getting involved. It doesn’t fit with our core product lines and something about the whole scheme seemed hinky to me. I don’t think it ever got brought to High Space for discussion because I wasn’t the only one in High Space who turned them down on an individual basis. They wouldn’t have gotten majority support if they had brought it there, with or without your backing.”
“Huh. Does it get discussed at the Courts?”
“Not that either.”
They looked at each other thoughtfully. “That’s very interesting,” Melanie said slowly. “Given what I know about the gadget’s possible origins, I’m surprised the Courts aren’t monitoring that probe development.”
“If you’re right and it is alien in origin. Which,” Andrew added, “is not the prevailing point of view at the Courts.”
“Dad has some interesting theories on the device’s origin. But think about this. If the gadget’s trying to communicate off of Earth, what better route out than to piggyback on an asteroid probe’s com links? Especially one tied to a less-secure port?”
“Now you’ve got me worried, Mel. It makes sense but first you have to convince the Courts that the whatchamacallit is alien.”
“I’ve been trying for fifteen years. You’d think at some point they’d listen.”
“The Courts are too busy consolidating the power it gives them to worry about motives,” Andrew snarled. “You know that as well as I do.”
“And no one wants to think about why it augmented our virtual accesses. Especially given that it started out causing Disruptions. Have you ever heard any consideration of that behavior?”
“You’ve already convinced me, sister.” Andrew tapped his fingers on the arms of his seat. “And discussion about that aspect of the thing is not encouraged. I also wonder what Montcrief and Gupta’s motives for that probe are. I didn’t see anything proposed when it first came up that was worth developing from my point of view. Christ, we’re barely capable of sustaining Lunar resource development, and Mars would be the next step. Not the asteroid belt.”
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“You said there was Gizmo trace all over Rick’s hack, didn’t you?”
Melanie nodded. She blinked to summon up Netwalk and pulled up the route trace that Deirdre had created for her. She coded Gizmo-influenced highlights in green. Studied it, then expanded the diagram.
“There’s the full schematic of Rick’s trail through virtual,” she told Andrew. “Gizmo influence is in green. Notice it’s heavy on the com links.”
Andrew whistled. “All that is Rick’s doing?”
“Not all. I’m thinking now he was just a carrier that the gadget was riding. Which means—“ she quickly texted a warning to Marty and Deirdre. Don’t start with the kids until I get back. Potential carrier issues. Keep Rick out of virtual even with supervision.
I’m not touching any virtual with that kid until you get back, Deirdre sent. Already having to referee him and Bess. Mouthy, impulsive little twerp. His mother’s hauled him off to knock some sense into his brain, because he nearly got into a fight with the crew after that Troubadour rout this morning. The sooner we get him under Netwalk discipline the better!
“Sounds like your boy is already making an impression,” Melanie sighed.
“Just got a text from Cee.” Andrew’s sigh matched hers. “It sounds like he’s already gone a round with Bess.”
“Ah. That explains why Deirdre’s complaining about a potential fight after the Troubadour incident. Not that Bess is likely innocent, either. She didn’t like his trick with the stinger this morning and I’m betting she was looking for an excuse to tear into him.”
Andrew snorted. “I’d say he’s learned better, at least for now. From what Cee says, Bess took him down without much effort.”
“Nik, you heard anything about any squabbles between the kids?”
“Bess and Rick only, Christina and Sophie keeping the others out of it. Three blows and a takedown,” Nik said, a faint smile ghosting his lips as he stared down at his tablet. “I’m looking at Angela’s report now. With video. He’ll have a couple of bruises for sure, and maybe he’s learned a little about what you don’t say to Security kids in training when they’ve come off of an incident. He pissed them all off but Bess was the first to react. Gotta say, sounds like your girl at least has good instincts, Andrew. She pitched right in to help Sophie.”
“Augghh.” Andrew rubbed his eyes. “Thanks, Nik. But Christ. Melanie, I am so sorry you’re saddled with this kid of mine. I should have been more on top of him.”
Melanie shrugged, slumping further in her chair as fatigue pulled at her. “Can’t change that now, Drew. Looks like our kids are copying how we were growing up.”
“For your sake I hope not.”
“I’m not going to let it go that far,” she vowed. “We got over it, though it took too damned much time to figure out how to work together. Our children can damned well figure out how to cooperate before they become adults.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t take as long as it did us for those two to come to their senses.”
“It won’t. Kathy’s coming.”
“Mel, do you really think she’ll have the energy to deal with those kids at her age?”
“I hope she does,” Melanie said. “If not, she’ll have help. Drew, it won’t be like it was with us growing up. Outsiders can’t mess with our kids like they tried to do with us. Our kids have too many eyes on them. Reliable eyes that I’ll vouch for.”
“Good. Like I said at the Courts, Chris will eat up what you have to offer. She reminds me of Dad the way she gets into hardware details.” Andrew smiled. “I’ve regretted not having Netwalk access for her sake. Sure look forward to hearing what he’ll say when he finally meets her.”
“She’ll find a kindred soul in Zach and Martina. Maybe a little of Bess, though Bess thinks more in systems.” Melanie paused. “And Rick?”
Andrew blew out a breath. “I don’t understand that kid at all, Mel. He’s good at math, abstract math, more into programming. Which got him into the fix he’s in now. But so far I’ve not seen him show an interest in doing anything productive with it.”
“We’ll find a key to get him settled, Drew. One way or another. A bigger pool of peers might just turn his focus. Besides, if he’s into programming, then maybe he’ll hit it off with Marty.”
“If your husband doesn’t throttle him first. No. That’s unfair to the kid. I’m angry with him right now, but he does have strengths, Melanie. It’s just that he’s so impulsive. Not ADHD—“ he hastened to say before she could speak. “It’s probably an effect from that first traumatic exposure to the gadget.”
“Very possible. I’ll make sure we compare brain scans to see what lasting impacts remain.”
“We’ve been told there were some. Cee has access to previous scans.”
“Good. Seeing how his brain recovered from that exposure will help us with figuring out how we get him to shield appropriately against the device. It’s also possible that the first contact was how the gadget got a foothold in him.”
“From that first exposure?”
She nodded. “There may be a pattern of receptivity inlaid that we’ll have to develop shields and counters for. We’ll see how it goes, Drew. He’ll come round. Sooner or later, he’ll come round.” She yawned. “Don’t know about you, but I could use a nap before we land and have to get back to work.”
“No argument from me.”
She settled into her chair, letting her eyelids droop.
It had already been a long day, with promise of even more work ahead.
As she fell asleep, Melanie suddenly thought that she was forgetting something important. Then it fluttered away.
Bess tensed as her cousin Christina hesitated in the doorway of the crèche kitchenette. “What?” She didn’t look up from the drama she was following in the hologlobe, hoping Christina would go away. She didn’t feel like entertaining anyone. Between her lack of sleep and this morning’s adrenaline burst, she just wanted to vege out this afternoon. She would have gone to her own suite instead of the crèche, but the others would be done with their daily rosters outside the crèche soon and she really wanted the company rather than brood alone. Better to nestle with her crèche mates after they did upkeep chores and keep watching Cho-Koh-Sou back episodes than wait alone for the inevitable explosion when her mother returned from the Courts.
“I’m not disturbing you, am I?” Christina edged into the room. Bess looked up, stifling a sigh as her cousin looked around the room, hesitant to come in further, and paused the vid. Understandable that her cousin would be tentative after the fight this morning.
Christina’s part of the family, she reminded herself. Her brother’s a jerk, and it sounds like she’s getting dumped here because of his stupid behavior. And she’s only twelve. Still, she pitched in to help Sophie settle things, in spite of being youngest and new. She can be useful, plus she’s a good kid. Be kind. Twelve seemed like a whole lifetime ago, but she could still remember how awkward even thirteen had been. Plus Rick and Christina’s arrival meant she and Zach were not longer youngest in the crèche. As an older, she had to help the newbs.
“No, not really,” she answered Christina. “Just tired and waiting for the others. Come on in and sit down. This is the main gathering place for our crèche mates. The others will be back from their daily duty rosters soon to do upkeep chores before we have down time. What are you doing?”
“Trying to figure things out after your dad got done scanning me for the Netwalk chip.” Christina sidled over to a stuffed chair across the table from Bess and perched on its edge, wrapping her hands around each other before resting them on knees tightly pressed together. “I’ve been looking at maps and orientation and trying to understand what’s where and when I’m supposed to do what, and—“ she said in one long breath, pausing to inhale deeply.
“Today’s been an unusual day,” Bess interrupted before she could start again, softening. “It’ll get better when our parents get back from the Courts. You getting it together?”
“I don’t know.” Christina looked down at her hands. “There’s a lot of places marked classified, restricted, off limits.”
“It can’t be that different from your home.”
“There are more people at home. We don’t live as close to the research facility as you do, so a lot fewer restrictions about where we can go and what we can do at home. I—“ Christina chewed on her lip. “There’s stuff that looks interesting here that I want to check out. But I don’t want to be a bother. Your mother scares me. Not so much what she says but how she feels.”
“Mom can be scary but a lot of it is a bluff. Did you look at the introductory video?” Not that the general Hoodland DIR video would be much help. It was a promotional piece more than anything else, for new tech hires. Lots of stuff was left out, things Bess would have included but apparently the adults didn’t think mattered.
Christina nodded. “It helps. That’s how I knew where the crèche and the lounge were. It just feels weird to not have anything to do and know what to do.”
“Soon enough you’ll grow to appreciate these down times.” Bess got up, sliding her feet into slippers. “Want some iced tea? I’ve got a raspberry mint chilling. Local origin.”
“Um. Sure.” Christina followed her over to the utility nook. “So what are the rules for this crèche stuff? Who’s in charge?”
Bess poured glasses for herself and Christina. “Ultimately, my mother.” She wanted to roll her eyes. Didn’t Christina remember the introductions this morning?
“I know that,” Christina rolled her eyes as much as she would have herself. “I mean here in the crèche. Who’s our lead? Is it Don and Sophie, the same as in Training?”
“Yes. We’ll be getting a briefing once my mother’s back from the Courts to fill us in on the program. Looks like we’re going right back into school instead of the scheduled break.” Bess bit her lip. How much did Christina know about why their parents were at the Courts? She handed Christina a glass and walked back to the couch. Christina took up her former perch, now clinging to the glass with both hands.
“In other words, we might still end up going to the Courts,” Christina said, resignation in her voice. “I hope I get to stay here.”
“From what I understand, if you go to the Courts, I do too,” Bess said. Bits and pieces she’d gathered from what was and wasn’t said before her mother and uncle had left, plus the Troubadour Security incursion—that was not a good idea to get in on that reception, oh Lord am I ever going to hear about that one from Mom—suggested that was the case. She frowned. “Either we all go or we all stay. No in between.”
“I’m not real excited about the Courts,” Christina said softly. “The thing there scares me. And I feel it every now and then when Rick gets real deep in virtual with his headset.”
“Really.” She can feel Gizmo? “How long has it been for you?”
“You feel it too?” Christina looked hopefully at Bess. “Were you ever exposed as a baby?”
“No, not exposed.” Bess leaned back into the couch’s arm, trying to relax while an uneasy sensation crept over her. “But I sense it sometimes, in virtual and out. What about you?”
“Both,” Christina whispered. “It wants to talk to me sometimes. I don’t let it. It scares me.”
“Have you told anyone?” Her voice dropped to match Christina’s and she clenched at her own tea.
Christina shook her head. “Rick talks to it sometimes. He hides that they talk. He tried to make me talk to it once. I ran away. Do you talk to it?”
“I—“ She needed her mother here, or Deirdre, or someone. Bess stared helplessly at her cousin. Does anyone know about this? “I can’t talk to it,” she said finally. “Before I got my Netwalk chip I’d get seizures if the thing gets too close to me. I have to shield myself from it.” She needed to get as much data as possible from Christina. And she was lousy at interrogation. If Don were here, or Sophie—both were better at asking questions and getting answers than she was.
“I wish I had shields so I could keep it from talking to me.”
“You will when you get Netwalk,” Bess said, her head spinning at what Christina had just told her. Someone needs to know this. But who?
Her mother. Deirdre. Her father—Bess shied away from that thought. Too much stress. She still remembered him doubling over in front of her with his heart attack, while he’d been poking around trying to help her understand why subvocals were so difficult. She’d not had the nerve to go back to his lab. Alex said she needed to return to get over her nerves, but she just couldn’t. Not yet.
“Does anyone know that you and Rick talk to the thing?”
Christina shrugged. “I’ve told my minders. No one thinks I know what I’m talking about.”
“I think we need to let Deirdre and my mom know about this,” Bess said slowly. “Having it try to talk to you is not a good thing. It’s dangerous.”
“I know,” Christina said in a very small, tight voice. “It was scary when Rick hacked Caspian. I was working on my math when all of a sudden, everything around me got heavy. Hot. Hard to breathe.” She paused, sipping some of her tea.
Bess nodded. “I know that feeling as well.”
“Then something tried to pull me.”
“Pull you? Like into virtual?”
“Was it Rick?” Belatedly she blinked on her recorder. “Was Rick trying to pull you into virtual?”
“What did you just do there?” Christina’s voice sharpened. “You did something in virtual.”
Bess startled. “You felt that?”
“I felt you do something. I don’t have a chip but I can feel things move in virtual.”
Bess stared at Christina, her mouth dropping open. She senses virtual without a chip or a headset. “Um. Ah. Do you have a headset hidden on you or something?”
Now it was Christina’s turn to look stricken. “No. Is there something weird going on?”
“You shouldn’t have been able to detect it when I switched on my recorder,” Bess said softly. “Not without a chip, not without a headset.”
“I’ve always been able to tell when people around me are in virtual,” Christina said in a tight tiny voice. “That’s not normal?”
Bess shook her head. “It’s not a skill we’ve seen before when it comes to virtual.” She chose her next words carefully. Think before you talk, Nik had said. Think about what you want the person you’re interrogating to tell you. But this was her cousin who stared back at Bess with scared eyes and tight face, not some bad person. “We’re always discovering new skills, though, so that could be what is happening. So. Do you know what people around you in virtual are doing?”
“No. Just that they’re doing something virtual.”
“What about the thing?”
“What about it?”
“You said it tries to talk to you,” Bess said.
Christina hunched over and looked into her tea. “I don’t think I really want to say anything about that. I don’t want to get its attention again. It’s been leaving me alone since we got here.”
“But it does try to talk to you at times?”
Christina shrunk into herself, nodding. She gulped, or was it a sob?
Too hard, Bess chided herself. “Hey,” she said softly, turning off the recorder. “Let’s not think about that right now. Want to watch some Cho-Koh-Sou?”
Christina shuddered and unwound herself. “I love Cho-Koh-Sou.”
“I’ve got Season Three cued up.”
“Oh, that’s a good one,” Christina said. She slid back in her chair as Bess started the vid again. Bess drained her tea and got up once her cousin appeared to be fully absorbed by the vid. She poured herself more, condensed her clip, coded it, then sent it to her mother and Deirdre.
I think we’ve got an issue, Mom, was the text she sent with it.