Chapter Two, in which we get a look at the interior life of Netwalkers (post-death digitally uploaded personalities), plus Netwalker Sarah becomes aware of a new issue above and beyond the Gizmo….
God, Sarah was sick to death of white above her, white around her, white below her. The faint hissing of a simulated white noise generator droned in her nonexistent ears. All those years alive and white had been her default for clothing, why hadn’t she cultivated more of an interest in other colors?
Wouldn’t have done it if I’d known I’d be stuck in a white world after death. Sarah snarled soundlessly at the white around her as awareness returned after getting shoved into her chip refuge. She waved a half-formed appendage to silence the white noise and bring up some music. Her first choice, Willie Nelson, died out after a few chords. Damn, Diana must be really pissed. Normally she didn’t lock down music.
Did she reset me again? Resetting made it hard for Sarah to keep track of event sequences in Netwalk world. Had she managed to maintain the digital memory workarounds? How bad the memory loss was this time depended on how much force Diana had used to exile her. Worst of all was when Diana yanked her virtual head off, creating a complete reset. That hadn’t happened for a few years, though. She traced through—ah. There. Memory. No, this wasn’t too bad. Level 3 exile code, and she’d responded to it rather than resisting. The lock just reflected Diana’s degree of anger, not Sarah’s degree of resistance.
Workable. Important pieces of memory still intact. To be certain, Sarah saved them yet again in the one digital pocket Diana couldn’t fiddle with. Then she played with a few more tunes in folk, rock, electronic, exploring the limitations Diana had set. All of them rejected. At last Beethoven’s Ninth stayed on. Sarah cranked the bass, hoping that perhaps some of the deeper notes might resonate through to Diana. Unlikely since the chip didn’t carry sound—but still, Diana had too damn much control in this white room these days. This was supposed to be her place and her daughter was supposed to be her host, not her jailer. Had been years since Sarah needed a jailer in Netwalk world. She was nicely tame, not a feral predator these days, thank you very much.
It’s your refuge, Sarah. Don’t let my mother set the default. That’s what Melanie had said a couple of years ago. Maybe she should follow up on Melanie’s recommendation to do some virtual interior decoration. God knows, she could plaster the place with faintly remembered images. “Starry Night” might be just the thing for this space.
And perhaps not. Sarah shuddered, remembering how tears had sprung to her eyes the first time she’d seen “Starry Night” at the Orsay Museum, that time she fled to Europe with Francis after the chaos of the first Disruption. He hadn’t understood the tears, had been confused about why she stood transfixed in front of the van Gogh for ten minutes, didn’t realize how it evoked memories of that dark, dark period in her life while healing those memories at the same time. She didn’t think she could stand that level of visual intensity again, after all these years of bland Netwalker existence. Not when savoring the rare scent of bacon was enough experiential input to swamp her processing.
Then again, any “Starry Night” Sarah might conjure up right now would be more Munch than van Gogh. Not what she needed. Besides, the few times Sarah had managed to change the default setting to something less stark than this world of white, somehow Diana always managed to set everything back to white.
Do something, she told herself. Not blob around in the chip, sulking after being kicked out of that important conversation between Diana and Zoë Wright about Andrew and his kids. Avoid the trap of retreating into memories. Avoid the craziness that being locked down from all sensation induced. Do something, and her surroundings wouldn’t be so white. She wouldn’t be fretting about what might have been. Even in deepest digital lockdown she could keep colors and shapes that served a functional purpose. But what could she create that would be keepable?
Dance. Systematic, rhythmic, help her focus into patterns for clear thought. Sarah changed from shapeless self to a younger version from her twenties, and visualized a ballet barre, complete with a mirror. Barre and mirror materialized, satisfyingly real in the white space. Long-sleeved black leotard, pink tights and pink slippers formed on her younger body. But the face that stared back from the mirror as she went through her warmups didn’t match this body. Lean, drawn, haggard with wrinkles, white hair spiking wild around her temples like it had been shortly before her death, hint of red in her eyes.
Okay. No wonder Diana had banished her this time. Red in the eyes meant Sarah was struggling with control, flirting with the edges of restraint as a digitally uploaded personality. Too much red and that would mean Enforcer sessions to bring her back in line to keep from turning into a feral virtual predator again. Bad sign. She hadn’t realized she’d gone that far down the trail of forgetfulness.
Then perhaps getting banished from that conversation had been a good choice, even though this time Diana and not Sarah herself was to blame for the situation causing the red tint. Not that Diana would acknowledge that. She was being damn stupid about her grandkids and refused to acknowledge that.
Like you weren’t stupid about your grandkids, Sarah, she chided herself. What would have happened between you and Melanie and Andrew if Francis hadn’t gone over to the Freedom Army? If you hadn’t let the Gizmo suck you down like it’s trying to do to Diana? Would things be this bad? God, though, to watch my daughter make the same mistakes I did…
And here she was, getting sucked back into the very might-have-been fretting she was trying to avoid, which only led to anger and frustration. Better that she find a means to tone down before Diana decided to do it to her. So. Dance it was.
Sarah placed one hand on the barre. First position pliés. First set in each direction without arm movement, second set with arm positions. Remembered ache in her knee as she glided into second position, the digital patterns falling into a memory from a rehab when she had this sort of body. Even without breath, the structured ballet exercises in their traditional progression brought a clearing of the mind, allowing Sarah to concentrate on flow and channel away the might-have-beens.
Flow. Improving flow was important. Flow was everything to Netwalk, how one channeled and rode the tide of data. Recollected patterns of the body helped manage dataflow.
Not that the dataflow she worried about right now could be easily managed.
Gizmo’s stirring again. Damn machine. And that kid of Andrew’s found a way to play with it. Melanie’s right, the only way to control his access to Gizmo is to stick him in the crèche with her Bess and Bess’s cohort.
The Gizmo discussion was what had driven her to the edge of predation. But it wasn’t just the argument, it was the deep feel of the Gizmo poking at her in a way she couldn’t completely identify. From Diana. So was she compromised?
Not here, she thought. I don’t think Gizmo can get in here. Yet.
As she moved from pliés to tendus, a cool sensation brushed through her. Strong impression. Another Netwalker requesting contact. Powerful Netwalker, masking identity until it knew how sane Sarah was at the moment. Not good news for what Diana was telling others about her state of mind, although it was also a sign that her daughter hadn’t put up full lockouts. A slip on Diana’s part or a conscious choice?
Encouraging, even if she couldn’t reset the surroundings. She could talk to others. Not something she had wanted to investigate on her first reaction to being caged again for fear of rejection. Sarah pinged back an ID request.
The ID returned was for William Landreth. Her late son-in-law, Diana’s dead husband. One of Sarah’s victims before she’d been tamed. Nearly equal in strength to Sarah, hosted by one of Melanie’s researchers, Julia Hawkins.
Wonder what he wants?
[Enter,] she speeched. She proceeded to dégagé, focusing on pointing her toe as she arched her foot off the floor, concentrating on pointing her foot correctly and leading with her heel while swinging her leg smoothly forward. William manifested in her space, attired in colorful baggy knee-length shorts and long t-shirt. He rocked back and forth on an orange and green skateboard. Sarah grimaced at the bright colors but kept moving through the exercise, concentrating on rotating this body’s hip during the side elevations. Ouch. She’d forgotten about that bum hip in this body.
[Ought to get some furniture in this place.] William flipped his skateboard up, waving it away as he transformed into Buddhist robes, floating cross-legged in lotus seat. [But I can work with the stark look.]
[What do you want?] She disappeared the barre and joined William in lotus, floating at an equal level. Relax. Relax. Leftover Gizmo edginess crept back into her awareness and scraped at her barely-gained patience.
[Easy.] William raised his hands. [Just making talk.]
[You don’t normally want to meet in my chip space. What’s brought about the visit?]
[Things are moving.] William’s hands gracefully shaped an intricately folded origami Gizmo, waiting for Sarah to make eye contact before nodding. [I’m curious about the Courts reaction to the latest manifestation.] He gestured to the construct. [Besides you being shut off, I wanted some screening to talk freely about—that. Your chip’s still secure, right?]
[About the Courts, your guess is as good as mine.] She could feel her eyes reddening again as her anger tried to surge. Patience. Patience. You’re more or less immortal now, girl. Long perspective. Patience. [I got locked out of that discussion. I won’t guarantee any privacy in my chip these days.]
[Locked out of the discussion. So that’s why you’re cooling your heels in here.] William seemed unsurprised. [Okay. As for privacy, well, I can do something about security.]
Sarah tensed as William snapped his fingers. He whistled as he transformed once again into a skateboarder, riding the board in a big circle around her, a green light shimmering in the skateboard tracks. Once he completed the circle, he stepped inside of it, waved his left hand, and trilled a four-note sequence. The skateboard expanded into a green and orange iridescent curtain that arced over them, bordered by the green tracks. Another snap of William’s fingers coupled with the same trill, and the curtain sparkled with power. Sarah relaxed.
Wonder what I’d have to trade to William to get this tool for myself?
[We’re good for about ten minutes before Diana notices,] William speeched. [So what do you know about young Richard?]
Other than he shouldn’t have been named that—Sarah locked the thought away, buried it hard and fast. Certain things were best never thought of and the ancestor young Richard had been named for was one of them.
[For a kid without Netwalk access, he’s pretty damned talented,] she dissembled, trying to find the right words. He’s my great-grandson, a rogue and a trickster, and I should like him. But I don’t. Is it the name?
William snorted. [Talented enough to spoof Caspian Station control coms to access datasets for a couple of minutes with just headset linkages. I’m picking up waves of drama in virtual in reaction to what he did. Troubadour and Montcrief are pissed. Got any idea what Diana and Melanie are planning to do about him? He’s got to be brought to heel fast. Otherwise he’ll blunder into something he shouldn’t. That damned Gizmo is trolling hard for that kid.]
Sarah shuddered at the thought. Just what does Gizmo want with my descendants? [Diana locked me out of that discussion. Melanie’s threatening to take charge of Richard. Diana wants him at the Courts instead. I agreed something had to be done, but I sided with Melanie. So here I am. That argument’s why I’m banished.]
[But the Gizmo element in what that kid did means he probably should be under Melanie’s supervision. Otherwise if he comes to the Courts he’s likely to get too close to the gadget. Why does Diana have objections to Melanie taking him on? Seems the best solution.]
[Diana won’t acknowledge that Gizmo is a factor in what he did. Plain as the nose on her face but she can’t see it! Or that it’s waking up and getting stronger.]
[Does Melanie know there was a Gizmo influence in the hack?]
[Yes. Melanie tried to tell Diana. But Diana got so caught up by Melanie’s revelation that Richard was the hacker that she wasn’t listening to anything else.]
[Not good.] William’s form shifted into snowboarder mode. He rode through an invisible jump while Sarah watched, struggling with her own impatience. She had learned this was how Netwalker William processed information. He switched back into robes in mid-jump, settling again in front of Sarah. [Gizmo shouldn’t be riding the kid with just a headset. But that’s what I saw from the trace Melanie and Julia sent me after. He’s got too much of a Gizmo aura about him for the tools he’s got available, at least from what I’m getting. You get the same feel?]
[Haven’t had an opportunity to scan him.]
[Well, maybe you’ll get your chance. This incident’s given Diana the excuse she needs to drag those kids into the Courts, if she won’t let Melanie take them on. If that does happen, you’ll get access.]
[Maybe he’ll make it to the Courts.] Sarah gave up the struggle to maintain her calm guise, sliding into a shape from her political and corporate days. [Other possibilities exist. I think Melanie’s up to something. The argument ended with her warning Diana off of bringing Richard to the Courts, that she should be the one managing him. At least as far as I know.]
[That’s my daughter all right.]
[And Diana’s reaction was all too much my daughter as well.] Sarah considered before continuing. [Had much extended contact with Diana of late? Noticed anything different?]
That got William’s full attention. He straightened up and now resembled his father Parker Landreth, squinting suspiciously at Sarah just like Parker used to. [I’ve been rather busy with Julia and Bess,] he speeched. [Diana doesn’t go out of her way to be in touch with me, hasn’t for the last ten years. What’s changed that you’re asking?]
Sarah stared down at her hands. Wrinkles formed. She wished them away. Skin smoothed. Wrinkles formed. Netwalker control practice 101. She looked at William.
[I’m having problems with the Gizmo influence again,] she finally answered. [And I think Diana’s the source. It feels like she’s letting it dominate her again.]
William stared at his hands as they wrinkled and smoothed, just like she’d been doing.
Then change rippled over him, his form shifting so that he wore the stealthsuit he had on when they finally captured the Gizmo, back when they were alive. [I was afraid of that possibility,] he speeched carefully, precisely. [I’ve tried not to think about it.]
William spun and hurled something at the white wall. It splattered red. He threw another projectile, continuing to throw things until the wall was solid red. Then he turned to her, his eyes dull with same gaunt stare he’d had after his rescue from torture in the Petroleum Autonomous Zone, when his father had abandoned him there. Only now, red glinted in his pupils. [How bad is that influence, Sarah?] He shuddered. The wall faded back to white and the glow went out of his eyes, though he kept the stealthsuit. [The way our communication has faded out over the past few years, I wondered. She’s never been comfortable with me as a Netwalker, but at least she used to talk to me at meetings. Not even that for at least two, three years now.]
[I honestly don’t know. Bad, but it could be worse. I think the Gizmo has had a deeper level hold on her than any of us realized, ever since Melanie left the Courts. It’s been ratcheting up slowly. We’ve just not noticed because the gadget’s been quiet. Now that’s changing.]
[We’ve got to stop its influence over her.] William shook his head. [If I were still in the flesh, I could be more persuasive. Could still do it. Julia would let me use her body.]
[Don’t think like that. Dangerous pathway. Take my word on that.]
[It would help,] he argued.
[That road leads to feral exile,] she warned, uneasiness rising in her. She’d never had this type of conversation with William before. Was it because of Diana? He’d loved her deeply when he was alive, no question about that. At times she wondered if Diana would have been happier if William was the Netwalker she hosted instead of herself.
We can’t change that, she reminded herself. And she was responsible for William’s bond to Julia Hawkins. If she hadn’t attacked him when she was still a feral Netwalker—no, that was another memory path to avoid.
William frowned hard. [It’s appealing.]
[It’s too easy. A temptation we can’t afford. We have to find another means.]
[Agreed. But how?] William changed form to the snowboarder. He whipped through several jump sequences. At last he coasted to a stop and changed back to the William who had barely survived the PAZ exile. [I think I see it. The kids are going to be the key to waking Diana to the Gizmo influence on her. All three of them. But how are we going to do it?]
[I think we’ll have to improvise as the situation evolves.]
[Not my favorite mode.] William speeched disapprovingly.
[A political skill.]
William pressed his lips together tightly. [That’s why I never did that well in politics.]
[Ride with me, my boy, it’s how I did my best work,] she speeched flippantly. [Diana knows your patterns. She’ll be able to predict you. Me, on the other hand—Melanie predicts me, but Diana can’t, not since I went Netwalker. We’ll want Melanie to pick up on our patterns, notice that we’ve changed how we com, how we interact.]
[Then we need secure coms to coordinate.]
[That’s your job. We’ll also need to set up a com backchannel to alert each other even through Netwalk lockdown.] Sarah thought through logistics. [I don’t have the accesses to set that up, and Cat is thorough about checking new links I develop.]
William arched a brow at her. [I’m not setting up escape back doors, Sarah!]
[I’m not asking for that! It’s just—if I get locked in here, there’s no link out. My Netwalk interface is too old, too different from yours. I don’t have the emergency button the rest of you Netwalkers do. If there’s a way to code a link so that it’s acceptable to Cat without cluing in Diana, that would work.] Sarah shuddered. The other thing is that now I can’t predict Diana. I used to trust that she would think about family first, not the Courts.
William frowned. [Sarah, are you that worried about Gizmo influence on Diana? Should I talk to Melanie about this?]
[I–—don’t know.] She hesitated. [I’m not ready to exercise the Option to Melanie.] I’d much rather wait for Bess to be ready. But she couldn’t tell anyone that yet. [I do think we need to have a Netwalker inside here at the Courts,] she offered instead. [I just need a back door panic button in case things go bad.]
[Melanie needs to know about this Gizmo influence on her mother.]
[And I’ll find an opportunity to tell her.] There. That was an option she could use to convince William. [You can tell Melanie about the panic button. She needs to know about it anyway, so I don’t surprise her if I have to come bashing into her chip.]
Only a few more years until Bess is ready. Then I’ll exercise the Option.
William nodded. [Okay. I can do that. Give me a minute to program your button, and then I’ll shut this process down.] He hesitated. [Want access to this?] He waved a hand at the iridescent bubble protecting them.
Longing tugged at her. She could have privacy, and no more white.
Reason won out. [Afraid it would attract too much attention. The panic button’s more important and will be less visible when Cat pokes around my linkages.]
[Got it.] William transformed back to his skateboard self. A programming screen popped up in front of him and he focused on it, typing on a keyboard she couldn’t see. A few moments, and then a bright red button appeared above his programming screen, PANIC flashing on it in green-outlined orange letters.
William waved a hand and the colors faded in intensity. [Stash it in your core. Don’t leave it lying around here.]
[Can you install it?] He made it; he was the best one to know where to place it. Plus she could demonstrate that she wasn’t afraid of his touch, that she didn’t worry that he might strike out at her in vengeance for killing him.
Sarah braced, not knowing what to expect as William picked up the button. Just because she trusted him not to harm her didn’t mean he would make this process comfortable. A pointed, translucent tip protruded from its back, and she wondered if he was going to impale her with it. Instead, he gently pressed the tip against her chest. A peculiar vibration quivered through her as he screwed it into her center. The pulsations twinged at a higher and faster frequency than what she felt emanating from the Gizmo device. He finished twisting it, then tapped three times on the button. Sarah looked down to see the colors fade, until she couldn’t see the panic button.
But she could feel its dampened down rhythm deep within herself. She extended a string of data inquisitors and probed around the button, identifying connections. One went to William. Active channel. A second channel with emergency activation went to Melanie. There was a connection for a third channel, but no linkage.
[What’s that one?]
[For Bess, when it’s time.] William stepped back. [Need to drop the cover. Getting close to our time limits.]
[It’s for the grandkids. Look, I’ll be in touch.] A second link popped up. [I’ll tell Cat and Julia about this second link. Here’s the story. You and I are in direct communication not managed by our hosts for research purposes. To avoid detection from Cat, use the old Landreth codes for open speech to signal a lockdown if you get into trouble not big enough to push the panic button. I can initiate coms from my end. Also might be the quickest way to send alerts.]
[Landreth codes?] She’d not spent much time collaborating with William’s father Parker Landreth. All except for—no. William wouldn’t know about that. Would he? [Wouldn’t they be more Stephens codes, and known to Cat?]
William grinned, once again looking like a clone of his father. A strand of worry skittered through Sarah as she noted the resemblance. Parker Landreth had died pre-Gizmo. She had thought he was one shadow that wouldn’t come back to haunt her through the Netwalker digital upload process. He couldn’t be part of Netwalk; no, he died before Netwalkers started existing.
[You know what codes I’m talking about.] The smile widened and became even more like Parker’s fangy, feral grin.
She did, indeed. But William shouldn’t have known those codes. Christ. Was William compromised as well?
Oh shit. I know how it happened. William and his father had been bloodbonded to the Landreth war machines that no longer existed. The last one had died in the capture of Gizmo. Had Parker’s core self passed through to William through bloodbonding? She knew that Do It Right used some form of the Landreth bloodbonding protocols to grow their Netwalk chips. Had Parker ghosted his way into virtual or was she just being paranoid as a result of too many betrayals over too many years? No way around it. She had to trust William—but be careful.
She flashed him the sign for understand, acknowledge.
William countersigned correctly. [We’ll be in touch. Let me know if things turn weird.]
William disappeared, taking the green and orange iridescent shelter with him. Sarah stared at the furthest white wall.
Perhaps there were influences other than Gizmo that she needed to be worrying about.