Netwalk’s Children Chapter Eight

Arrgh, arrgh, arrgh. Wrestling with CreateSpace and Gimp this morning to get some decent covers through so I’ll have paperbacks for Radcon. The life of a hybrid writer….

Anyway! Netwalk’s Children is on special at Kindle this month–$2.99 for the month of January! Want to read the rest of the story…pick it up here.

And now on to our story. We get to see Netwalker Sarah at work, followed by her first real contact directly with Bess, without Melanie and Diana as intermediaries. Um, is it a good thing that great-grandmother and great-granddaughter appear to get along?




Sarah paced back and forth in the white room, fretfulness and worry spurring a need for steady movement in one of her younger forms as she ran through her search algorithms. As her dataspiders brought her information, she reviewed it for relevancy, then tossed the datastrands into place on a huge chart that shimmered across one wall. Ten steps, pivot. Grab a new piece of data from the waiting dataspider. Ten steps while she analyzed and categorized the information. Pivot. Throw that piece of data into the targeted spot. Ten steps while she related the new material to previous information. Pivot. Draw her conclusion based on this new evidence. Face the datastream pieces her searches had put together for an overall analysis. Check her deductions. Study the data. No change in the ultimate summation. Pace ten more steps. Get another strand from the dataspiders. Pivot. Place that piece in the chart. It could almost be a stately dance.

She had lost track of how long she’d been working the data. All she knew was that it was early morning and those she’d typically contact about her findings were sleeping off a long, hard day. So Sarah kept setting the pieces together, with the same results. Conclusions she couldn’t trust without someone else to review them. Too simple, too pat—and yet so close to probability to make them likely. There had to be a flaw in her logic somewhere. Something she was overlooking that would explain the anomaly. Anything other than what her instincts told her was the real cause. After all, she’d been in digital life for seventeen years. No senses except as filtered through Diana and occasionally Melanie. She knew she overlooked nuances of thought common to living flesh, and sometimes that missing element changed circumstances entirely.

She needed a data review from someone still living and thinking as flesh did as opposed to digital. Someone to tell her just how on earth Pranesh and Troubadour snuck this Stellar Reach asteroid probe project through to approval in full view of High Space strictures and limitations which shouldn’t have allowed it to develop this far.

Because otherwise the only justification you can find for the continued existence of this project is that Gizmo cloaked it so that they could hide their objectives in plain sight. All her evidence pointed to that explanation, and it had to be wrong. The answer couldn’t be just that simple.

What kept her hesitating was her perception that the Gizmo explanation was a cheap out. Look away from her data wall, step back, and it all fell apart. Gizmo exerting that level of influence, after all the years the Courts had spent constructing means to restrain it? Overtly, the Courts Protectorate was effective. It restrained the Gizmo’s physical capabilities and controlled its explorations into virtual. Years had gone by since the world had seen a Disruption. Years since Netwalkers had acted as assassination tools, not serving as virtual extensions of living people as they did now. Years since wireless chip implants like Netwalk were at risk from rogue Netwalkers.

The events of the last twenty-four hours suggested that the status quo of the past twelve years had changed with regard to Gizmo’s activity. But no matter how Sarah looked at her reasoning to explain what she saw, she still had too many holes she could flag as coincidence. No hard connections. Enough to make her question whether she should wake Diana or Melanie yet, especially after yesterday’s events. Both daughter and granddaughter had collapsed into exhausted sleep after another acrimonious com including Andrew. Melanie’s disclosure of the poison pill that DIR had removed from Rick put an entirely new twist on what had happened at Caspian, especially as Sarah kept investigating Stellar Reach. Diana’s children were thoroughly angry about her original reaction to the situation, and rightfully so, in Sarah’s opinion.

If we’d done what you wanted, Mother, Rick would be right next to Gizmo with that poison pill in him doing God knows what by now, Andrew had said, tone scathing. You and Montcrief both. In spite of everything Melanie recommended.

Sarah still could not yet discern why the Gizmo wanted to use Rick to hack Caspian. What was it planning to do? Communication outside of Earth? Then to who and for what reason? Escape? What were its goals? All these years, and the only identified purposes for Gizmo was that of an elaborate war machine with the capabilities of augmenting human presence in virtual. But who really controlled it? Years ago she would have sworn it was Francis Stewart whose will now drove the Gizmo. Sarah wasn’t so sure of that conclusion now.

Reading through Marty’s notes from his scans of both of Andrew’s children as well as a preliminary analysis of the poison pill made it clear that Rick’s pill was a long term Gizmo placement, possibly even as old as Rick’s first and only formal contact with it.

One piece of the puzzle had to do with the kids. Fitting Caspian into the mix led to more reasons to consider Montcrief and Gupta compromised.

So. Retrace the logic trail once again, make sure to the best of her ability that she wasn’t missing any holes.

She started by running her own traces through Caspian to find a reason for Gizmo interest. Caspian as a Gizmo target didn’t make sense. Yes, it was a transport hub, but as far as actual physical damages and processes that could be significantly disrupted went, Caspian was a small priority. Do It Right’s manufacturing space stations would have been a more significant target for sabotage, communication, or escape. The same held true for Tobai and Mei-lein manufacturing stations. The only other stations that could possibly be more obscure as a Gizmo target would be a couple of stellar observatories operated by European and South American consortiums, or the smallest of Stephens Reclamation stations that they shared with Mexico, StephensPharma.

Then there were the Stellar Reach linkages in conjunction with Troubadour and Pranesh. When Melanie had mentioned it, Sarah realized she had seen that proposal in rougher, earlier development format. She scanned back. It was a minor proposal rejected by the Courts five years ago, followed by a similar initial turn-down by the High Space Consortium, followed by a later acceptance. At the time, when she had reviewed the proposal for Diana when it had come to the Courts, Sarah had dismissed it as poorly sketched out with insufficient reason to support the expense. Other analysts, both living and Netwalker, had concurred. But Stellar Reach had gotten eventual support from High Space. What had changed about it?

Sarah pulled the Stellar Reach file off of the wall, frowning as she contemplated it further. This piece. This piece explained the anomaly. The file size was bigger than she remembered. A later format that came from studying the rejections from the Courts and the first trial at High Space? She hadn’t run that trace yet. Maybe now was the time. She set a dataspider crawling through the records to report back to her while she studied this file. What on earth had Montcrief and Gupta done after she’d last studied this proposal?

Bright green and gold flash signaled the dataspider’s return. Sarah skimmed through this data. No question, the proposal had been expanded but the shoddy framework she’d originally rejected still continued. And there was more. This dataspider had discovered coms between Montcrief and Gupta detailing alternative approvals for less-than-stellar financial backers. One financing scheme had ties to a Libertas Corporation, a corporate schismatic splinter group off of the Freedom Army, the anarchistic technology organization Francis Stewart had gone over to when he had come under the influence of the Gizmo.

The Freedom Army. Sarah shuddered. Was Libertas any less toxic than its parent? Half domineering of its members like the fundamentalist churches she remembered from childhood; half quasi-Libertarian anarchotechnological rebels, the Freedom Army defied easy analysis. A personality cult, she’d called it years ago before she knew about Francis’s link to it. But who had been the original personality shaping the Freedom Army? Francis himself or the shadowy religious figure who predated Francis’s involvement? She couldn’t even figure out exactly what religious branch that mystery person came from. Some sources suggested a splinter Islamic group, another an isolated, self-contained Christian group, and a third suggested common ground between those two facets and elements of a failed Zionist Jewish group as well. The truth of that origin was buried deeply in the Freedom Army’s past and none of it appeared to be available in digital form.

More worrisome, Stellar Reach showed the most evidence of Gizmo snooping and tampering that she had encountered in tonight’s research. Why is it interested in an asteroid mining probe? Rick hadn’t dinked around with a lot of other projects when hacking Caspian; coms related to Stellar Reach had been the primary target of his hacking. Just about every link coming out of the project was filthy with Gizmo databits.

Diana needed to know about this. Melanie needed to know about this. But Sarah wasn’t certain it was worth waking either one of them up, not after the day they’d gone through. Diana had—finally!—taken sleeping meds. Lack of sleep was one of the Gizmo’s effects Sarah well remembered, the buzzing need to keep moving to keep the heavy rumbling backdrop of Gizmo’s dominance of her daily life at bay. Sarah kept trying to persuade Diana to get more sleep. Diana’s own doctors wanted her to sleep more.

But she wouldn’t give into it. Until tonight, after Melanie and Andrew’s harsh words and the confrontation with the possibility that she was being played by the device. Then Sarah had been able to persuade Diana that perhaps tonight was a good night to rest and gain perspective, with the promise that she would work all night and come up with reports about the Montcrief filing and further implications of Rick’s hack.

Melanie’s situation wasn’t much better. Sarah had looked in on her, when Melanie was deep in discussion with Bess and Alex. She’d seen the worry about Marty forefront in Melanie’s thoughts and ducked out, recognizing the agony her granddaughter was going through as she contemplated the potential loss of the man she loved. Sooner or later she’d have to talk to Melanie. Just not tonight. Let her rest. But still—

How much did Melanie know about this Pranesh scheme, if anything? Had she rejected it as a problem? God, she’d give anything to know right now what Melanie thought about Stellar Reach. Such a neat little explanation for the rationale for Rick’s hack—except for why Gizmo had an interest in it. Or rather, she didn’t want to think about why the Gizmo held an interest in the Pranesh expedition. What’s out there in the asteroids besides minerals?

Operation Stellar Reach. A grandiose title for a com company and a transport company sending out a mineral probe to the asteroid belt. How had it ever missed notice before now? She could see red flags all over it. Caspian Station. Caspian typically didn’t run probes like this. Monique Robillard, the head of Caspian Security, also serving as project Security. While that explained why Robillard had been the one filing Contract, it still didn’t give her the authority to do so without Montcrief’s approval. If the approval had come from Montcrief, then he had hid his participation very well.

Then there was Rick’s actions. He had headed directly for Stellar Reach data. But instead of taking data as one would expect from a typical hack, he’d added data. What, she couldn’t tell.

There was always the alternative of waking a lesser Enforcer or talking to William. Again, though—Melanie and Diana needed to know it first. From her, not from Deirdre or Cat. And William was busy, ignoring all her lesser signals once she’d decided she wanted feedback. This wasn’t sufficient to classify as a greater emergency worthy of triggering her special link to him—and she really didn’t want to risk triggering whatever that element of Parker Landreth was in him by using the Landreth codes.

If she had something more definitive tying Rick’s hack to Stellar Reach and a link to Gizmo trying to escape or communicate, she could be more aggressive in contacting William. She could wake Diana and Melanie. But with the pieces she’d puzzled together so far? Not good enough. Not proven. All speculation. She had to wait. Eventually Melanie or Diana would wake. William would emerge from his self-imposed exile where he was doing his own version of processing whatever data pieces he was finding. Until then, Sarah kept combing through the data, sorting and tracing, adding pieces, building her argument.

Back to the Freedom Army’s involvement in Stellar Reach. She wasn’t rational about the Freedom Army, couldn’t be after it had taken Francis from her. Why did it have an interest in that mining probe? The Freedom Army piece was the one chunk that refused easy categorization. Libertas seemed much more reasonable than the typical Freedom Army cell, had gone public in part as a minor national political corporation party in the New North American Federation. Was it truly a splinter off the usual Freedom Army nonsense or was it simply a whitewashed version for public consumption? Make no mistake, Paul Leyden, the leader of that splinter, had political potential. His party had won a few seats in the New Feds parliament, enough to gain him recognition as a political leader. The old pol in Sarah recognized Leyden’s charismatic speaking ability as good enough to take him much, much further than one would typically expect from a fringe politician.

But there were absolutely no Gizmo traces around Leyden or Libertas. Not what she expected, based on past connections between the Freedom Army and the Gizmo.

Think. She stared at her data wall as extraneous thoughts distracted her. Why had Francis defected to the cause led by the Freedom Army three years before Diana and William captured the Gizmo? What attraction had it held for him? Even after all these years, the memory ached deep inside of her. She’d loved Francis and his betrayal still bothered her. Even though she still had Anne’s love—Anne hadn’t been Francis, lacked his deep playfulness combined with ruthlessness.

Lucifer has fallen, he’d said to her on that fateful last night together. Playing the playboy drunk to the hilt, waving a big goblet full of red wine around and talking in pseudo-apocalyptic Biblical jargon that she understood better than he did from her years of fundamentalist upbringing. He’d been acting as a caricature of his popular image as a drunken playboy, scolding her for her lack of awareness. Had she been less distracted and annoyed by his behavior, worrying about the latest Disruption caused by the Gizmo, she’d have recognized he was stone cold sober and playing a role. His last trick on me.

It hadn’t been until later, when she’d begged him to return that he disclosed his secret wife and child, hidden within the Freedom Army. And then, at the Gizmo’s capture—

She shook her head to try to dismiss that memory of how Francis had died. Or had he, really? He existed as a virtual digital entity within Gizmo, much as she did within Diana’s chip. And fretting about Francis was a distraction from her current project. Think. Think. Why is the Gizmo so interested in Project Stellar Reach? What’s out there? Communication or a chance to escape?

A delicate pale blue paper airplane sailed between her and the data wall, sending out a contact request code. Relief flooded through Sarah. As she touched the airplane, it transformed into a link request from William.

<Link in,> she sent. <Come look at this data wall. I need a check.>

William appeared about five paces from her, casually attired in long, baggy orange and yellow floral shorts with a matching shirt in green. Blue flip-flops snapped and slapped at his feet as he walked over to the wall.

<This what you need checking?>

<Let me return this section.> Sarah tossed the Stellar Reach piece back into place on the data wall.

William leapt up to the top of the brightly shimmering wall to trace through her links from the beginning. Sarah materialized a glass of remembered Macallan Scotch and sipped on it as William dove in, shrinking in size as he proceeded through the linkages and connections she had made. In virtual, the Scotch had no effect but still the remembered taste brought a mild pleasure, recalling old habits when she had been grinding through analyses like this while still alive.

Old memories. The flavor seemed a little off. Was her memory of that lovely sherry/spicy/fruity bite of the Macallan fading? She wasn’t certain if the memory was as strong as it had been a few years back. Diana didn’t drink Scotch as a rule so Sarah didn’t have any recent taste reference to ensure her seventeen-year memory was correct. Oh well, sooner or later she’d get to ride a host amenable to tasting Macallan. Melanie wasn’t adverse to a sip or two of Scotch herself, and perhaps once things settled she could beg a quick visit to renew her acquaintance with that sensation.

<Hmm,> William slid back down to join her at the café table she’d manifested. <That data about Stellar Reach is very interesting.>

<In what way?> She wanted to say more, but god, she also didn’t want to bias his conclusions any more than he might be leaning already.

<I see possibilities which make your case for Rick’s choice of Caspian more reasonable than it first appears. Haven’t seen this pattern emerging for a long time.>

<Which pattern?>

William was silent, uncharacteristically unmoving, for what seemed to be forever. She bit back an impulse to prod him into speech. You want his honest opinion, you need to wait.

<The Gizmo traces following Rick,> he finally answered. <The Gizmo traces all along those data pathways. They aren’t active traces. Sleepers. Ready for a live version of the Gizmo, either independently or with a carrier, to come along.>

<Like if the Gizmo’s trying to escape?> Her arguments were making sense to someone else. Good. Sometimes in Netwalk isolation it was possible to build a whole huge case that came crashing down because of internal bias when revealed to a live person. Sarah especially had to watch out for that possibility due to Diana’s tendency to keep her locked down so much.

<That’s where things hang up. I see the possibilities for either communication or escape in that construct. I need a carrier myself to investigate any further. Data has limitations.>

Disappointing. If any Netwalker could dig deeper into those traces without a live human, it would be him. <I didn’t see the type of Gizmo trace it was. I knew something was there, just not what. You think the Gizmo’s running a com link prototype?>

William manifested a skateboard and rode it around her, seemingly focused on popping over jumps she couldn’t see. He did that for several hops, then came to rest, sitting on clear air. <The Gizmo didn’t grab at the opening to do something with this opportunity. That’s the biggest problem with any conclusion that postulates escape. Why didn’t it go roaring through Rick? It could have ripped him open to exploit for energy to escape in virtual, or got a com off and left him shredded. If it could leave those sleepers, it could have done much more. But it didn’t. That doesn’t fit how the Gizmo treats those it decides to ride. Like Francis. Or Liam. Or the ones we don’t know because it swallowed them whole, like tiny gnats.>

Sarah shuddered at that thought. <It didn’t destroy Rick because it’s building a greater linkage? Would that lack of action point to a sentimental connection through Francis?>

Hesitation from William. Then, finally. <What reason would Francis have to respect Rick’s integrity? No, I think the lack of action is strategic. The Gizmo wants something and that required leaving Rick whole. Francis’s only tie for sentiment would be through you, and he’s already shown us what he thinks of that connection.>

There was another possibility but she hesitated to bring it up to William without an Enforcer backing her. More than ever she had to wonder if the reason for the Gizmo’s behavior wasn’t a linkage through Francis but a linkage through William himself.

There’s been no proof that Parker Landreth ever went Netwalker, she reminded herself. What you saw in William might just be an element of the father in the son.

But what if William eventually became more like his father as Netwalk isolation separated him more and more from meat life? There were a very small handful of people that Sarah didn’t want to see as Netwalkers, and Parker was one of them.

That’s material for a very private chat with Melanie.

<I wish I could figure out that piece,> she finally responded. <I had hoped you could see a linkage I’m missing.>

<I’m missing it too. I think it’s time for a review from someone in the flesh. I do agree that we need to follow up further on the Stellar Reach connections. Pranesh and Troubadour won’t like it, but I think you’ve made a solid case for further consideration.> William stretched.

<Glad I’m still decent at putting these things together. Now to make it persuasive. I wonder how much the kids know about this project?>

<Not had time to talk to Melanie about it.> William shifted to his Buddhist monk shape. <She’s been having me trace what happened to Marty because she thinks it’s Gizmo influence. I’m not sure if that’s the case or if she’s just engaged in wishful thinking because she doesn’t want to admit he’s dying. My data wall on that topic is nowhere near as solid as this one, Sarah.>

<Maybe I should take a look.>

For a moment the Parker presence seemed to flit across William’s self-projection. Then it cleared. <Julia’s been reviewing the data wall daily. It’s all bio stuff, Sarah, not pieces you would understand.>

<Then maybe Ness should take a look at it. If anyone besides Marty himself or Julia and Reiko could trace the links, it would be her. You need someone outside perhaps.>

The sense of Parker Landreth grew stronger. <No,> William finally speeched. <Ness is too close to Marty. Not a good idea at all.>

Now isn’t that interesting? She had to find a time and place for that talk with Melanie about the Landreth influence. <Anything else you can see? Should I wake someone up? They had a rough day, and I want Diana to sleep. Maybe she’ll see the Gizmo effect with clearer eyes.>

<I hope so.> William didn’t sound convinced. <Looking at what you’ve got here, I’d say it’s better to go with Melanie than Diana. Something urgent enough to wake her? No. But definitely Melanie for any further communication. Until we know how deep the Gizmo’s got its fingers in Di, it’s safer.>

<Okay. Thanks. Let me know if you want me to look at your wall.>

<I’ll keep it in mind.> William abruptly disappeared.

Sarah kept staring at her wall. At last she decided to wait until Melanie woke. She snapped her fingers, first to save the current configuration. Then she activated a storage pocket for her dataspiders and sent the link to them. Might as well keep the research going. But now what?

She had a limited freedom right now, and Diana was asleep. Maybe she could go for a Netwalk stroll, get a feel for how the dataflow was streaming. It had been a few years since she’d had anything close to this amount of freedom and that was likely to change once Diana roused. Sarah set a trigger to alert her to Diana’s sleeping brain waves so she could get back in the chip before Diana was aware of her absence, then plunged into a handy datastream.

She roved through the outer layers of the Courts, not spending much time on examining what was there. Nothing she couldn’t see on a daily basis, and Cat had sensors set up so she couldn’t probe too deeply (keep Sarah away from investigating what Francis was doing in Gizmo? She had to wonder if that was the rationale). High Space was equally buttressed, with Cho Kuong’s simple but thorough alarms against unauthorized Netwalker exploration. Hmm. Maybe that focus of Rick’s wasn’t as deliberate as we thought. Maybe he just went for the easiest target.

She sniffed around Caspian’s servers, then discarded that option and decided to scout around Do It Right to see who she could kick up. Worst case, she’d encounter Deirdre but then she could ask Deirdre to message Melanie. She really hoped to run into her great-granddaughter—but Bess was strictly hands off, by Melanie’s order. Sarah could not initiate contact. But if she sensed Sarah snooping around, wouldn’t she check and then initiate a connection?

She did pick up on my quick link with her mother. Let’s see if she’s awake and pings me. Sarah switched datastreams away from Caspian, first toward a current headed toward Do It Right’s servers, then hopped streams twice until she was riding a drift between Stephens Rec and DIR. The datastream between the two companies flowed broader and swifter than she anticipated. More cooperation between Melanie and Andrew? Not unexpected, considering that Melanie had custody of Andrew’s kids. But she hadn’t expected this much sharing between the two companies.

Not for the first time she wished that Andrew still had ties to virtual that would give her easy com access so she could query him about this stream. On the other hand, he was just too reactive to negative influences and easily managed by whoever rode him. When she and Peter had used him as a charging host, back at the beginning of Netwalk life, either of them could manipulate and manage him without much effort. Touching him again would be too great a temptation for her. Just as well he was shut off from virtual ties.

So. She jumped off that datastream at the Do It Right systems walls, gliding around the systems without penetrating, a digital ghost prowling the hallways, checking what she could without being obvious. Nik Morley and Angela Garcia were still awake, skateboarding in DIR’s private park. They were the only people of consequence awake at this hour of the morning, the other live signatures Sarah sensing coming from regular night shift workers.

<Who are you?> A sudden data dart caught Sarah high in her back as an unidentified entity challenged her, freezing her in place. It took a moment to track the code, something she could throw off with doubled force back to the challenger with ease. A crude data dart, not produced from the skill that Deirdre or Melanie would wield. Someone she could subtly influence not to report this ghosting, avoid the distraction of this problem with Melanie should she find out that Sarah was snooping around DIR. Sarah reached to her shoulder, wrapped her fingers around the dart—and hesitated as she identified the thrower.

Bess did this.

Opportunity. To be seized.

She pulled the dart, turning toward the cloaked being lurking in a node that shadowed her, and with a twist disarmed it.

<Next time you need to ensure your data trap works before you speak,> she told her great-granddaughter. <This is basic enough that I could twist it, turn it back on you, take over your will and intentions for my purposes before you could react. If you hadn’t said anything I’d still be looking for you.> Sarah broke the dart. <Now this won’t hurt either one of us. Come on out, Bess.>

<How do you know who I am?> Her great-granddaughter slid out of the node, a shadowy form that appeared to be wearing a cedar bark skirt and conical hat. The faded red Do It Right Security t-shirt didn’t match the Native attire. <Who are you?>

<I am your great-grandmother Sarah,> she answered, holding her hands wide. <I didn’t expect to encounter you.> But I am oh-so-glad I did.

Datathreads flashed around her as Bess ran a confirmation check. Her form solidified. <What are you doing here?>

<Hoping to find someone awake,> Sarah answered truthfully. An opportunity. A possibility of positively influencing her future host. An ally. <I have information I need a live being to check—and to pass on to your mother.> Quickly she reviewed what she might want to share with Bess. The Stellar Reach, yes. Her concerns about William?

If it’s what I think it is, she needs to be prepared, because she’ll have to deal with him eventually, not Melanie.

<So why not directly wake her?>

<You know why.>

Bess scowled. <Pretend I don’t. Tell me.>

<Your father.> Honesty. If she meant to create a good relationship with this child she had to be straightforward. <Many other issues that we’ll share throughout the years.>

Bess studied her silently. Then she nodded. <So what do we do now?>

<You’re awake now. Feel like talking?>

<Can you keep it away from me?> Bess hesitated as Sarah sensed another presence. <Alex. It’s all right now. My great-grandmother is here. It fled when she showed up.>

Alex Jeffreys edged into clearer focus, wearing the guise of St. Michael the Archangel. He gave Sarah a sharp glance then concentrated on Bess. <How bad was it this time?>

<Worse, until she came.>

Another piercing look at her. <Can you show me what happened?> Turning his attention to Sarah. <This needs to be private.>

<Wait. Alex. She knows it as well as Mom. She drove it away. Maybe we should take advantage of that.>

They’re talking about Gizmo.

<You’re having problems with the gadget poking at you?> she asked. <I didn’t feel it at all.> That worried her.

<So what were you doing here?> Jeffreys’ tone edged into half-Enforcer, half-Security. <This isn’t where you’re supposed to be.>

Arrogant little pup, isn’t he? He doesn’t have authority over me. Sarah peeked at his ID to determine his rank, here unconcealed, unlike outside of DIR. Security trainee, she knew that. Direct report to Nik Morley, private tag she identified as signifier of potential successor in his role as Do It Right black operations leader and—news to her—he was Morley’s Optioner, designated to take Morley on as Netwalker when he died. What is Melanie training this kid to be? Bess was designated as his Primary client, had been ever since he’d been admitted for Security training. Not usual for assignments in Security to be this specific this young.

Melanie’s raising Bess’s personal Security with her for greater bonding. Had to be the case.

Need to be straight with him as well, then. Not being arrogant but doing his job as Bess’s guardian. <Like I told Bess, I have data. I need live human input to confirm my conclusions. I was marking time until Melanie woke up. Then Bess challenged me.>

<I want a scan.> The shields represented by his Archangel armor thickened as Alex strode toward Sarah.

She extended her right hand, palm facing up, waiting, offering no resistance. His hand dropped on her, and she jerked at the shock. This kid was stronger in virtual than he appeared.

Liam’s son. Francis’s grandson. Oh God, Melanie, what are you doing?

She let him see that thought. His mouth quirked and he ducked his head, a sour taste flitting across her tongue before fading.

<I know who I come from.> His speech was bitter and hard. <I live with that reality every day.> He stabbed her hard with a probe, twisting it inside her, pushing it deep into her inner personality core. She could have thrown this insolent pup out of her for taking this liberty, but he meant well, he was doing his job and she wanted someone like this guarding her great-granddaughter.

Still, time to show him her teeth. He needed to learn caution. She blocked his probe, countered with a needle-sharp one of her own, driving it deeper than he could ever get within her had she not allowed it. <I’ve permitted you to go this far because of who you are to my great-granddaughter,> she whispered to the inner core of his self, so that only he could hear her. <This is the only chance you’ll ever get to touch me, unless you beat me in open battle. Keep in mind that I can strike back if provoked without good reason. Understand?>

<As long as you don’t harm Bess, we’re fine,> he answered without flinching, reacting with his own counter and failing to push her out. But she saw how he recorded, how he adapted, how he prepared for a future thrust from her. A finely honed weapon, indeed, even at this age. Melanie’s ultimate vengeance on his father Liam—to make Liam’s sons the protectors of Melanie’s daughter, the daughter Liam would have killed. Sarah approved.

<Then we are in agreement.> She withdrew, signaling compliance, her private, shielding thoughts whirling at what she’d seen, the intensity of his devotion to Bess.

Does Melanie know what she’s created in him? she wondered again.

Alex pulled free. <All right. Link in to Bess’s probe recording with me. You can’t do it alone so I’ll show you how Melanie accesses, but these links can only be used with my permission. Understand?>

<Completely.> She followed his guide step-by-step, now operating completely under Netwalk politeness rules. Observed the link, relived the overwhelming pressure Bess had just experienced.

The intensity of the Gizmo probe shocked Sarah. <This is bad,> she speeched when they were done, separated out from each other.

Bess and Alex eyed each other quizzically.

<Great-grandmother, this is the eleventh contact I’ve had with the device in the past week. It’s hardly the strongest of the lot.>

<Call me Sarah, it’s shorter. And if that’s one of your weaker probes, you’ve got serious issues with the whatchamacallit.>

<Actually, it’s about medium strength,> Alex speeched.

<And you deal with these on a regular basis?>

Bess shrugged. <Since I was very small. It’s gotten better since my Netwalk implant.>

Oh. My. Damn it, Melanie, I should have known about this! But no, she couldn’t blame her granddaughter, not when her own contact had been triggering for the child. Melanie had been open about Bess’s problems with virtual contact all along, but if she had only shared what her daughter experienced with Diana and Sarah…and then there’s the long-term problem of trust between me and Melanie. Probably why Melanie didn’t share it.

No wonder the Gizmo wanted to devour her great-grandchildren. If Richard and Christina were anything like Bess in ability, its secrets would fall before these children once they had the maturity and skill to confront and study it directly. Were there other kids like them amongst this next generation of Courts children? That becomes need-to-know research.

<What you call a medium strength contact would devastate most Netwalk chip carriers I’ve encountered. You two are very strong.> she speeched to the kids.

Again, Alex and Bess exchanged glances. <All right,> he speeched finally. <That’s a data point good to know. But now. You’re poking around here. You say you want help analyzing data to share with Melanie. Feel like sharing some of it with us?>

<I’m always up for learning new things I can use in the future,> Bess added. <Data analysis is a lot of our training at the moment. We might see patterns you aren’t because we’re new to your data. I know I’m not going to be able to go back to sleep for a while. What about you, Alex?>

<Same here. I want to learn more about the device from all sources.>

<Yes. I want to understand it better.>

Sarah hesitated. Why not? she decided. <Come with me. Ever been inside a Netwalker’s chip?>

<Ness Ryan,> Alex answered.

<Not yet,> Bess speeched.

<Then welcome to my chip.> Sarah showed them the trail. <I’ll give both of you a link for quick access. Never know when you’ll need it, and with what I’ve come across—that need could come sooner rather than later. No matter what you’re told about me, remember this—when it comes to the device, I am always in favor of keeping it under control.>

<That’s why I want to learn from you,> Alex speeched.

<Me too,> Bess added.

<Good.> As Sarah created accesses for them, she subtly laid the groundwork for easy transfer to their Netwalk chips should she need it.

Novices or not, the more choices she had should she need to exercise the Option, the better. She felt better knowing that Melanie was not her only out, should things become intolerably toxic with Diana.

Besides, I think working with these kids could be fun.

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