And now we’re getting into it. Netwalker Sarah reads the riot act to daughter Diana, and then the next generation gets into it when there’s a big showdown at the Corporate Courts meeting. Long chunk, but fun. And if you’re in a hurry to read the rest of it…you can find Netwalk’s Children at Kindle, CreateSpace, Nook, Kobo, iBooks…choose your favorite source!
[We’ve got a situation, Sarah.] Diana’s speeching tones were edgy, on guard, vocal only with no virtual guise that would make it simpler for Sarah to figure out Diana’s current frame of mind.
Damn well better be on guard after the way you shoved me in here. Sarah wanted to gloat though. For all the problems Diana had given her over the years, Diana had less control over Melanie than Sarah ever had over Diana at this age. Note to self: warn Melanie not to hold onto her daughter as tight as Diana and I did ours, especially as Bess matures. My mistake and Diana’s mistake. Maybe we can stop it with the fourth generation. Bess is like me. She’ll be more rebellious than either Diana or Melanie if she’s reined in too tight, and Melanie’s at risk since Bess is an only child, not one of two—no one to keep her distracted.
[Melanie went ahead and grabbed Richard, didn’t she?] Sarah kept to vocal only, matching her daughter. Diana didn’t need to see the bright colors and draperies Sarah had been hanging in the white room since William left.
[She told you.] Diana’s speeching mode went from edgy to resigned.
[No, nobody’s been able to reach me since your lockdown last night,] Sarah dissembled. Technically, William was a Netwalker, not a person. No persons had contacted her last night. Could Diana see any of William’s traces?
[How would I know?] Irritable now, more typical of her daughter’s behavior of late. [You get around me to do what you want whenever you feel like it.]
Dangerous. Get Diana back on track before she started poking around in Sarah’s records. Unless William had wiped his virtual traces, even Diana might be able to find something. [What happened?]
[Andrew and his family are currently at Do It Right Hoodland,] Diana speeched. [Nik Morley and a DIR Security team picked them up from Stephens Rec HQ about half an hour before the Courts team showed up to get the kids.]
[So what the hell did you say to Melanie that made her decide to take preemptive action? You did kick me out before that happened, obviously.]
That comment brought Diana into full virtual, a guise reflecting her current body. [You expect me to tolerate open defiance from you in a meeting where we should be showing a united front? What did you expect? Of course I locked you down. You know better than that.]
[A united front against Melanie? Against Melanie, your daughter? Who happens to have the right approach to the situation? How are we going to contain a kid like Richard? No one at the Courts has the skill to manage that sort of developing talent.] Sarah deliberately pulled up one of her younger selves to wear, the Sarah who had been the young ranchwoman running away from politics to hide in the world of kids, horses, and cattle. The Sarah Andrews self she rarely evoked.
[Put him in with that pack of hers and we’re creating something worse than we could imagine,] Diana scowled at Sarah and crossed her arms. [Too much power in one place.]
[So what happened after you booted me out, Diana?] Sarah wished she had William’s skill to manifest skateboards and snowboards. If she could she’d recreate the old Mocha mare, ancestress of Diana’s beloved Kokanee and foundation of Dan Andrews’s line of top reined cowhorses. Maybe she needed to try doing something like that sometime just to see if she could bring up a faint shadow of Kokanee or Mocha. Shake up Diana’s expectations, maybe shock her enough to see what was going on with her and Gizmo.
[That’s really not important.]
[It was enough to trigger Melanie into sending Nik Morley out to collect the kids. Doesn’t sound like anything really not important. So what happened? Last I heard, you were wanting to send both of Andrew’s kids into virtual exile.]
Diana flinched. [Nothing, really,] she speeched at last. [We kept haggling over that point. Melanie finally cut off, saying we weren’t getting anywhere and that isolating Richard wasn’t going to solve the problem.]
[And she sent Morley to gather Andrew and his family right after that. Huh. I think whatever it was you said triggered Melanie’s protective instincts, and girl, let me tell you, that is something you don’t want to do! I spent seven years dealing with protective Melanie. You won’t get anywhere with that mode.]
[Stop lecturing me! I’m not a child!]
[You’re acting like one right now! Look at the results. Melanie took in Andrew and his family. That wouldn’t have happened even five years ago. The kids are starting to work together. It’s only taken, what? Forty-five years to get them to stop trying to kill each other? Congratulate yourself. I don’t think I ever succeeded in doing that with you and Peter.]
Diana stiffened and her lips tightened, visibly trying to keep from reacting. [Mother, really. It’s one thing for Melanie to do what she wants with Bess. She left the Courts completely except for consults. But Andrew still is sworn to the Courts, even though he’s resisted the Gizmo requirement to present his heirs. We’ve let that ride because of his Netwalk restrictions.]
[We? Don’t you mean you?]
[It’s not just me. Zoë. Gerard. Ravi Gupta. Others in the Courts are starting to talk about how we’re letting Andrew slide on that presentation requirement. There’s resentment. The Gizmo isn’t happy with Andrew holding out. And with Richard managing a high-level com hack from a headset alone—that means we’ve got to do something. He’s far too talented in virtual to let go unsupervised. I’ve been willing to let some of his past exploits go, but not this one. Gerard is furious and for good reason.]
Sarah noted Diana’s open reference to the Gizmo instead of a common nickname. Not a good sign. More evidence of the device’s gaining influence over Diana’s thinking?
[Again, Melanie’s the best option for controlling Richard. It’s her tech now. She’s head Enforcer, she’s been carving out the frontiers for live bodies in Netwalk.]
[Too much power in one location,] Diana repeated. [Melanie isn’t running as open a shop as she used to, as well. I want to monitor what’s done with Richard.]
[I told you that activating Melanie’s protective instincts is a bad, bad idea. She is not someone you want to be on the defensive with you. Even more so since she’s family.] Should she remind Diana that Melanie was William’s daughter as well as her own, and that both Melanie and Andrew showed more than a few Landreth traits under pressure? The Landreth-Stephens cross is a perfect recipe for creating bright paranoids.
Diana frowned but didn’t answer right away.
That one hit home.
[You’re a fine one to talk,] she speeched. [You and Melanie fought the last seven years you were alive.]
[And I learned from my mistakes. I openly admitted I wasn’t in my right mind at the time. It was obvious in retrospect.] Come on, Diana. Do you remember what made me insane? Connect the dots!
For a moment Diana’s scowl softened and Sarah hoped she finally, finally, saw how the Gizmo was influencing her. Then she shook her head and her expression hardened. [This is different from what you and Melanie were going through.]
But you’re on a fast track to creating the same sort of situation, and I’m not the one to tell you. Not while she was still based in Diana’s chip. William? Melanie? Andrew? All three? Figure this out, Sarah. Got to be done, for the sake of keeping Gizmo confined.
[So what are you going to do?] Sarah asked. [Melanie’s got all three kids at Do It Right. You’ll have a fight trying to take them. Do you really want to push the situation?]
[The Courts have demanded Andrew and Melanie’s presence at a meeting this morning to explain their actions and to discuss what we’re going to do about the children.] Diana hesitated. [Gerard had suggested we send a force to take the kids while Andrew and Melanie are here.]
[Now that’s a stupid idea if I ever heard one.] Good grief, was Montcrief also under Gizmo’s influence?
[That’s what Zoë said. There are legal sanctions we can apply instead.]
Well, thank the gods above that at least one of those damn elderly kids possesses a modicum of sense. Thank you, Zoë Wright.
[I hope that means you’ve ruled out taking the kids by force.] Do It Right no longer controlled the dead man’s switch nukes that Melanie had used as a bargaining chip eighteen years ago. But Sarah wouldn’t rule out the likelihood that Melanie and Andrew both had something similar available to each of them now. Grabbing the children would push Melanie and Andrew into a reactive use of whatever defensive tech they had set up. If her grandchildren were shoved into reacting against the Gizmo Protectorate and the Courts to take their kids back, the resulting chaos could only help the Gizmo’s long-term goal to escape confinement.
[We may need to resort to that as a final option.]
[Good god, Diana, are you listening to yourself?] Sarah blurted. [Do you want to bring about the kind of mess that would create? You want to take on both Andrew and Melanie?]
[Too much concentration of power,] Diana insisted.
[By doing that you shove not just Andrew and Melanie into a force against you but you’ll split the Courts.]
[Then they’ll show themselves to be as much renegades as their children!]
Sarah bit back what she wanted to say and focused on her daughter. Diana looked haggard even in virtual. Stretched. The way she kept focusing on that issue of concentration of power was worrisome.
She’s going to keep pushing until she gets some sort of handle on the kids. What did William say—the key to making Diana aware of the degree of Gizmo influence is to work through the kids? Okay. We need someone who can be candid with Diana and not a sycophant, someone who can see what’s going on with Diana as this situation evolves. Someone she trusts. Have that person work with the kids as well as Melanie’s people and Diana’s people. So who does Diana trust that wouldn’t be too disagreeable to Melanie?
Sarah flipped through her mental catalog of Diana’s closest supporters and advisors. She kept coming back to one, reluctantly. Kathy. Kathy Miller. Kathy had retired for good as one of Diana’s top advisors—and more—three years ago, when she and Diana abruptly ended their relationship. The reason Kathy had given for leaving the advisory position was that she was getting old, tired, and wanted to enjoy her isolated Grouse Creek cabin while she was still able to do so. Nothing about why she was no longer Diana’s lover, and, except for that final argument, no cause Sarah could puzzle out. Not that she was privy too much when it came to Kathy Miller. Diana locked her down hard whenever they had been together. Kathy had killed Sarah back in meat life and still bore enough dislike for her that Sarah tiptoed around Miller whenever she was around.
Was fatigue Kathy’s only reason for leaving Diana? It had seemed abrupt as hell to Sarah. She’d seen no indication that their relationship was failing. Still. While Diana hadn’t cited Kathy as a supporter of her plans for the kids, Sarah was willing to bet that Diana had discussed this situation at some point with Kathy last night while she was on lockdown and couldn’t spy. She couldn’t imagine Diana not doing so even now unless the estrangement between the two of them was more than just two elderly strong-willed women tired of each other’s quirks.
Kathy had also delivered Bess. Had been Melanie’s doctor throughout her pregnancy. While Melanie might still be suspicious of Kathy’s presence because of her connection with Diana, she had positive experiences with Kathy. Present this option to Melanie with the open statement that Kathy was working with the kids to satisfy the Courts’ concerns. Be open that Kathy would report back to Diana about what the kids were doing and whether the situation at Do It Right was adequately under control. Melanie probably would welcome Kathy’s assistance in training two rank novices to chipped virtual access, especially since Kathy had developed many of the early protocols for new Netwalk chip implants.
Can’t hurt to bring up the idea.
[You know, there is another possibility,] Sarah speeched. [Maybe instead of trying to get Melanie to turn over the kids, you request that Melanie allow someone you trust to be part of the kids’ training team.]
[Melanie wouldn’t agree to that.]
[Not if it was Kathy Miller?]
Diana frowned. [I hadn’t thought of Kathy.]
[She can work with novice Netwalk implantees, remember? What she was doing for Melanie before you brought her back to the Courts?]
[Would she do it? And would Melanie accept her?] Diana seemed to perk up at this suggestion. A good sign.
[All you have to do is ask. It would avoid a confrontation with Melanie and Andrew.]
[That would be good. I’ll contact Kathy now. Thanks, Sarah. I’ll need you at the meeting. Perhaps you could put together a proposal to Melanie for me?]
[Gladly.] A lie because she hated writing proposals, but never mind that aspect. Defusing the situation with their descendants was more important at this point in time. It wasn’t the first time she’d been asked to write a compromise proposal.
Of course, not many people remembered that aspect of Sarah’s reputation any more.
Now Diana and Kathy could collaborate in a scheme to expose the kids to Gizmo outside of the Courts. Melanie would want some sort of protection against that possibility. However, Sarah trusted that Kathy was sufficiently professional to resist anything that could be too harmful to Bess. If Kathy pushed Bess too hard, she’d see what too much unprotected Gizmo exposure did to the kid. Even now, that was frightening. Sarah still remembered a brief glimpse of Bess in a Gizmo-induced seizure during a Christmas gathering. Why didn’t Diana? Maybe she should require that Kathy view vids of Bess’s seizures before she joined the teaching crew at Do It Right. I can write that provision into the proposal.
Most of all, she had to count on the fact that Kathy Miller had been an intimate part of Bess’s early life.
She delivered Bess. She won’t hurt her.
At this moment, Kathy Miller was her best compromise option.
Two hours later Sarah had escaped, locked in a hologlobe instead of running freeform. Still, it was freedom from the white room. Diana pulled Sarah’s globe behind her, hurrying to reach the meeting space before Melanie and Andrew. In concession to Melanie’s current advisory only status at the Courts, the Executive Council was meeting outside of the Gizmo Chamber, in one of the lesser meeting rooms.
Diana halted abruptly as they ducked into the boardroom.
“Damn it,” she growled.
[You can say that again. Likely to push Melanie into full defensive mode.] Someone had gone to the effort to arrange the seating and tables to mirror the formal layout of the Gizmo Chamber, the usual meeting site for full Executive Council meetings. Twelve chairs with matching oak desks sat on wood-framed risers paralleling an open space in the center with two chairs. Zoë Wright’s chair as Courts Judge loomed over one end of the open space, facing the chairs, while the Courts Chair’s seat was next to hers. The only thing missing was the big generator for the Gizmo containment field. Not a good sign. They were planning to overwhelm Melanie with the apparatus and power of the Courts. Big mistake.
[I’m going to talk to Gerard. For once you’re right about this. I told Gerard I had an option I wanted Melanie to consider. We’ll be lucky if she doesn’t blow up instead. Damn him.]
Diana tethered Sarah’s hologlobe to her desk and stalked over to talk to Gerard Montcrief. I think I’d better let William know what’s going on. Sarah activated their link, watching Diana for any reaction.
[Test com channel and Diana detection,] she speeched to William.
[What’s it doing to her sensors?]
Sarah studied Diana. She kept talking to Montcrief, no change of expression, no glance in Sarah’s direction, nothing to indicate that the connection with William had triggered a warning.
[No sign of a reaction,] she reported.
[Good. Where are you?]
[Courts meeting with Melanie and Andrew. They aren’t here yet, which is good. Outward trappings make it look like the Exec wants to throw its weight around.]
[Good God, what kind of idiots are they?]
Sarah stifled a chuckle. [At least Diana sees the issue and is trying to fix it. We had words before she got reasonable, though. You able to link in?]
[Sorry. No. Shielding on the virtual channels. No Netwalker can get in unless someone conveys them. Melanie offered, but—better she not be overtly carrying virtual assistance. I didn’t want to tweak your link if Diana was still keeping you locked in the chip.]
[She’s got me out but in a globe. Limited accesses.]
[If you had words with her before the meeting I’m surprised you’re out, given the mood she’s in.]
[I came up with a possible solution as part of our talk. She wants me out to present that proposal to Melanie.]
[Kathy Miller as monitor of the kids’ training, if Melanie finds her as an acceptable Courts surrogate.]
[That could work. I definitely want to see this discussion now.]
[Thought so. Can you com through this?]
[Not reliably. Lemme try something.] William’s connection faded.
A few seconds later a small pale blue paper airplane glided into the globe. Sarah picked it up. William’s presence was a small pressure against her fingertips.
[What is this?] she asked.
[Very faint remote linkage,] William answered. [Auditory only. Tell me anything good that doesn’t get said.]
[Perfect.] Sarah materialized a short silver chain and hung the airplane from it, then tucked the airplane under her shirt. [Think you can still hear?]
[So far so good. I catch Diana’s voice but not who she’s talking to. What’s she doing?]
Did she imagine his voice softened slightly?
[Arguing with Gerard Montcrief.]
[So what else is new?] William snorted. [Di’s fought with him from the founding of the Courts. Man’s a pompous ass. Wish he’d been around to give my father a headache or two instead of Leclerc as head of Troubadour.]
[If you knew the images that gives me.] Sarah smiled to herself. [Wait, something’s happening.]
The door opened. Sarah watched, alert, then relaxed slightly as Zoë Wright bustled in, the remainder of the Executive Council behind her. Diana kept arguing with Montcrief as the others settled into their seats. Wright stared at Diana, scowling.
Diana doesn’t miss meeting clues like this.
[What’s happening?] William demanded.
[Everyone on the Exec is in and seated. Except Diana. She’s still arguing with Montcrief. I’m going to ping her.]
Damn it, if she wasn’t in this hologlobe she could brush against Diana to get her attention.
[Diana,] she speeched softly. [Meeting’s starting.]
Diana startled and looked around.
“Sorry,” she said to the Exec, voice sounding oddly shaky. Montcrief shook his head and sat. “This isn’t the best setting for what we want to do today.”
Wright looked annoyed. “You did say this was urgent.”
“Yes. I did.” [Thanks,] Diana sent to Sarah. “However, we’re putting ourselves into a difficult position if we try to intimidate both Melanie and Andrew with a blatant power demonstration like we’re doing here. It’s not like they’re unfamiliar with Courts trappings. They’ll know we’re trying to make a statement.”
“I disagree with Diana. We need a formal power assertion. Both of your children have had things their own way for too long,” Montcrief grumbled.
[Don’t forget that Andrew kept Gerard from expanding into cargo shipments to High Space,] Sarah told Diana. [Gerard holds grudges.]
[I’m not an idiot, Mother! Of course it’s a factor. But we have to be careful because Gerard will frame Richard’s behavior as deliberate sabotage on Andrew’s part and I’m not ruling that option out yet. My son is no angel.]
Now she’s sounding like her old self! [Melanie would be the one to issue a verdict on that possibility. Gerard’s got a Netwalker team on staff, doesn’t he? Have Melanie show them the evidence to defuse that argument.]
“You wouldn’t be saying this because Stephens beat Troubadour out of the heavy cargo space station shipping contracts now, would you, Gerard?” Diana said archly.
“Why—I—I—“ Montcrief stuttered, face reddening. “Of course he beat me. He’s got his kid spying on my coms!”
“Accidentally and not on purpose,” Diana said smoothly. [Damn you, Sarah, you’d better be right!] she added. “Once we get the sanctions determined for Richard’s behavior, I’ll have Melanie show your Netwalker team the evidence that Richard lacks the equipment and skills to do that level of industrial espionage. Furthermore, my son is smarter than to use a fourteen-year-old kid to do his spying for him!”
[And that is exactly why this is accidental and not Andrew using the kid,] Sarah told her. [Andrew wouldn’t turn a snooping project like this over to anyone less than his high-level Security. He doesn’t work that way.]
Whereas Melanie would turn spying over to a skilled kid for training purposes but it would be smoother than this and the kid would have high-level Security support and supervision, she thought. Didn’t dare give Diana that idea, however. Thinking of that possibility could swing her back to the notion of having the Courts take custody of the kids.
“What’s done is done,” Wright interjected. “Diana, we’ll abstain from the formal swearings. Settings remain for logistics later on. Melanie and Andrew are not the only ones on today’s agenda.”
“I’ll make it clear that we’re in executive session,” Zhao Tingfeng, the current Courts chair, said. “Zoë, if you can make a statement as Judge that this isn’t a formal Courts session but executive session, that may help. Won’t it, Diana?”
“How do I know?” Diana shrugged. “Twenty-four hours ago I wouldn’t have thought that either of my children would have disobeyed a Courts directive. I have no idea if they’ll even listen to us now.”
“You make it sound like they’re working together,” said Satou Hisuko from Tobai Heavy Industries. “That would be a change from the past.”
“Considering Andrew went willingly to Do It Right Hoodland from all reports, I think that we’re dealing with a new alliance between my children,” Diana said.
“Enough,” Wright said. “They have arrived. Do we at least agree on the agenda?”
“I have an addition,” Diana said. “I have a compromise proposal for custody of Andrew’s children.”
“Do you want to discuss it before we let them in?” Wright asked.
“No,” Diana said. “Any considerations and changes need to be discussed in their presence with their input.” She frowned. “At this point we need transparency.”
Good girl. You read my executive summary. Sarah quickly zapped a copy of her proposal and the summary to William. [This is what I came up with. Let me know if you see any problems.]
[Input from Melanie and Andrew is going to be important to get them to buy-in to any proposal,] William said.
[Which I pointed out in the summary. Diana’s following my lead, thank God.]
The doors opened. Andrew and Melanie entered, arm in arm, shoulders back, heads high, their Security following in rows behind their respective leaders. As always, Andrew wore his formal black Courts coat, equipped with the codes and keys that allowed him access to most Courts structures. But Melanie—
Since Melanie had left the Courts shortly after Bess’s birth and given up her personal Courts blacks, she had resumed wearing a dark forest green Security Adjunct formal coat. That way she had very restricted access to Courts resources when she attended meetings as a consultant. The Courts coats had tools originally designed by William to augment the early versions of Netwalk’s predecessor implant, Dialogue. Sarah had passed a file to Melanie with the specs for the current Courts coats shortly after she split from the Courts. She hadn’t known whether Melanie had followed up on that information.
Now she did. Melanie also wore a tailored long black formal coat, swallow-tailed with a fitted bodice and Mandarin collar like the Courts blacks, but the edges and bodice were lined with blue and green piping. Do It Right insignia patches replaced Courts insignia on her shoulders, and instead of the dull solid black of Andrew’s coat, Melanie’s glowed with blue and green schematics under the black.
[William. Melanie is wearing a black coat that looks like Courts blacks, but it isn’t.]
[Blue and green piping with visible schematics of the same color?]
[That’s my girl,] William cackled. [I wondered when she would bring that out. Took her long enough.]
[What is it? I passed on the file with the specs, but either she’s made her accesses visible or there’s more to the coat than what Courts blacks have.]
She sensed a wordless hesitation. Then William sighed. [Okay. Need to know only. It’s weaponized and much more powerful than a Courts coat. If the Courts go against her—you’d better warn Diana. Not until then.]
[Need to know. I’ll tell you if it’s an issue.]
[William, you’re not reviving Landreth weaponry, are you?] She wasn’t going to bring up bloodbonding. Absolutely not. Still—how much Landreth tech had William passed on to Do It Right under various guises? Diana wouldn’t admit to any, and Melanie was a rule unto herself when it came to following tech development strictures. Like her father. Another concern.
[Let’s just say it’s a new edition. Melanie needed physical and virtual defenses, and she’s not getting any younger.]
Melanie and Andrew ignored Wright’s clerk gesturing at them to stop and be announced. They marched straight ahead to the chairs and stood behind them as they faced Zoë Wright. Both dropped their arms to their sides and nodded to Wright.
“Melanie Landreth Fielding present for the Corporate Courts Executive Session as requested.” Melanie’s voice rang out clearly in the chamber, and Sarah shivered at the layers of Enforcer control tones she was using to suppress anger. Diana straightened, and even the Exec members who had rarely dealt with Melanie in this role looked guilty.
“Andrew Landreth Stephens present for the Corporate Courts Executive Session as requested.” Unlike Melanie, Andrew didn’t cloak the anger in his voice under control tones.
“Watch your tone—“ Gerard Montcrief began.
“No. You watch your tone!” Melanie retorted, throwing an Enforcer silencing emphasis into her words. The lines in her coat glowed more intensely and blue-green light flashed.
Montcrief startled back as Melanie glared at him. His mouth worked but garbled noise was the only sound he made. He fumbled for a bulb of water and popped it down his throat, looking more panicked after he swallowed and tried to speak.
[What the hell?] Diana demanded. [Sarah, can you contact Will? Melanie’s created an Enforcer amplifying device that works on non-Netwalkers. What does he know about it?]
[You need to lighten my lockdown.]
A corresponding easing in the restrictions surrounding her felt good.
[Just one warning. I doubt he’d tell me much.] Sarah speeched to Diana.
[Anything is better than nothing and nothing’s what I’ve got on that coat right now.]
[Diana’s asking questions about the coat,] she told William. [Calling it an Enforcer amplifier. What should I tell her?]
William snorted. [That’s the least it can do. No, don’t tell her that. Tell her it’s need to know and she isn’t on that list.]
[Do you want her to get pissed off and lock me down again? She just reduced my latest lockdown! No.]
[You’re right. Tell her now is not the time, and those are my exact words. Use that phrasing.]
She suspected it was one of the code phrases they had used when William was alive that Diana would recognize. [He says to “tell her now is not the time, and those are my exact words. Use that phrasing.”]
[Damn it. Okay.] Diana sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Okay,” she repeated out loud, her voice softer. “I think you’ve made your point, Melanie. You still have fangs. Let Gerard go.”
Melanie focused on Diana, and Sarah flinched back against the hologlobe wall to avoid her angry gaze. “Have I, Mother?” she said quietly, gesturing with one black-gloved hand that flashed blue and green before fading. “Sometimes I wonder.”
God, she’s pissed. Something else has happened. And it affects both of them because Andrew’s equally pissed. What idiot tried to grab the kids? Montcrief? Melanie focused on him. He’s not that stupid, is he?
Montcrief sagged into his chair, rubbing his throat, glowering at Melanie.
“My apologies, Montcrief, and to the Exec.” Melanie said, turning her attention back to him, her voice sharpening with each word. “I am fully aware this is disrupting your typical agenda. But. These are circumstances that call for interrupting the agenda. When my Security informs me that a squad of Troubadour Security has tried to break into my compound while Andrew and I were on our way here, and is claiming Contract has been filed on both my family and my brother’s family, I’m not about to tolerate petty arguments about my brother’s fucking tone.”
Diana slammed her hands down on her desk. Sarah choked back her own anger. Let Diana lead. That fucker Montcrief. He’s done it. She’s had time to think about the implications if Melanie and Andrew take on the Courts. I couldn’t have scripted this better if it had been my own plan. So why is Montcrief doing this?
“Montcrief, is this true?” Diana demanded. “Zoë, has he filed Contract on Melanie and Andrew?”
“See it for yourself,” Andrew spat, flipping a hologlobe cube in the center of the room, where the Gizmo control console normally would be. The hologlobe shimmered open to display an armed Troubadour attack squad confronting Do It Right Security at the first entrance to the Hoodland compound. Gestures with no sound, and then the sound came up.
“We demand entrance to Do It Right under Contract,” the lead Troubadour Security said.
“Entrance disallowed.” The lead Security bristled. Male voice. Young? Sarah couldn’t identify the speaker. Not someone she heard very often.
“Then Do It Right is in breach of Contract Filing.”
“Who’s the filing against?”
The Troubadour lead flicked a globe to the lead Do It Right. The DIR lead tapped it open, showed it to a second lead.
“No Contract filing has been released to us and it damned well better be when it involves family,” the second lead said. Female. Angela Garcia, Melanie’s overall Head of Security. Must have gotten out there when Security IDed the incoming as Troubadour Security.
“This is a Concealed Filing,” the Troubadour lead insisted.
“No it’s not,” Garcia snapped. “Or if it is, it’s highly illegal in format and application. Now are you going to tell me why Contract’s been filed on the families of my boss and her brother?”
Who is that leading the DIR troop? Not Nik Morley but it sure moves like him. Male. He and Garcia had a daughter only. Who is that? He’s not wearing an open ID. Sarah jumped time, slow-moing the clip so she could study the DIR players in more detail. Garcia was next to the lead, yes. Looking closer, the woman on the other side of the lead was Morley and Garcia’s daughter, openly IDed. A training troop, then. That was why Garcia was out there; she probably had backup within easy deployment. And then there were the two behind the front group of three. Something familiar about that woman. She ventured a small datastring to see if she could tease an ID out of the clip.
Before the datastring got halfway there it slammed back at Sarah, hard.
Oh my God. Very few Netwalk chip holders, dead or alive, had ID blockers strong enough to do that. Sarah scrutinized the two in the second rank as her suspicions rose, fear tugging at her. Male, similar in height, build and movement to the DIR lead. Neither IDed. Helmets blocked the facial features so she couldn’t distinguish them. One of the Jeffreys boys? Fit the body descriptions. Then that female in the second rank, almost as tall as the male, lanky like Diana had been as a teen—oh my God, Melanie, are you so damned foolish as to let your daughter work the front gate with all this blowing up?
The Troubadour Security troop lunged forward. DIR engaged, with DIR support popping out behind Troubadour from blinds in the landscaping around the front entrance. Several blasters fired but most of the action was hand-to-hand.
Just as suddenly as chaos had erupted, it was done. One DIR and three Troubadour Security were down, but Sarah noticed they were moving slowly as the DIR team quickly restrained their companions. The injured DIR person wasn’t any of the kids. Stun and capture Contract, not kill, thank God. Montcrief. You idiot, to file Concealed against Melanie. You fool.
[Holy Mother of God he did do it,] William speeched. [Idiot. Fool.]
[Montcrief should know better.]
“Then I demand—“ Diana began.
“Mother. Stop.” Melanie raised her left hand again, blue and green lights flaring. “We’re the ones offended against.”
“We demand full sanctions for unauthorized Contract actions,” Andrew said. His voice dropped lower, full of menace. “Or has the Executive Council declared war on Do It Right? Because if it has, then I tell you, I will consider any action you take against Do It Right to be an action against Stephens Reclamation as well.”
Go, kids, go, Sarah thought. This is— She couldn’t find the words to express her anger. God! All those years she’d put into creating the foundation for the Corporate Courts, along with Montcrief, and the senile old fart had to do this, do something that could utterly destroy the delicate agreements he’d helped create.
They thought I was power-mad before I died? What do we call this action by Montcrief, then?
“I didn’t order that! I wouldn’t act on a Contract Filing until it’s authorized and I didn’t file anything, Concealed or not!” Montcrief blurted, his eyes wild as he looked from Wright to Melanie to Andrew to Diana and back again.
“If you didn’t, then who filed using your authority?” Melanie snarled, hands clenching into fists as she stepped past her chair. Nik Morley moved forward and rested a hand on her shoulder. She let him guide her back next to Andrew but she kept her hands clenched and her lips parted to bare her teeth. She is pissed, pissed, pissed.
William whistled. [Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Sarah. I’ll be back with you. Let me run a check.]
“Yes. Who did it, Gerard?” Diana growled.
[Monique Robillard did the filing in Troubadour’s name,] William speeched. [Head of Security at the Troubadour Los Alamos Spaceport. Not hard to find at all. Can you get that information to Diana?]
[Not without blowing this link. I’ll tell Melanie.] Sarah switched links.
Her first tentative probe got thrown back almost as hard as Bess’s ID blocker had reacted. Sarah changed tactics and sent a formal request.
[What do you want?] Melanie snapped.
[Monique Robillard, Head of Security at Troubadour Los Alamos ordered the Filing and kidnapping.]
[How do you know that?] Still suspicious.
[Your father told me through our private link.]
[He’s watching through you?]
[Listening only. Limitations. Tell your mother but not where you found out if you can.]
Melanie nodded. “So, Montcrief. Did you order this or do you have so little control over your own people that someone acted on their own initiative?” Her eyes darted to Diana and Sarah saw the quick flash of text on Melanie’s visual overlays.
Diana knows now. Sarah noted matching flashes now happening in the overlays over Diana’s eyes, followed by flashes in Wright and Zhao’s overlays. She’s passed this information on to Courts leadership. Good.
“Meanwhile,” Andrew said. “Melanie and I have cause to insist that Montcrief be excused for the rest of this meeting. I certainly don’t want his input on what’s to be done about my son and daughter. He’s shown his true colors and I don’t trust him.”
Melanie nodded curtly. “I agree with Andrew. Shall I start citing codes and sections to make our case for his exclusion?”
Wright sighed. “That won’t be necessary, Melanie.” She looked around the boardroom. “Does anyone disagree with Gerard’s expulsion for the remainder of this meeting? I’ve just been given data which supports this request.”
“Then please escort Montcrief out,” she told her clerks.
“When we’re done I want a report from Gerard about how the person within his organization who instigated this action was able to do so without his knowing,” Diana said through tight lips. “Complete with an accounting of the consequences for that person.”
“Agreed,” Melanie said. Andrew nodded.
“I’ll do my best to find that data.” Montcrief gathered his things as the clerks hovered next to him. A tense silence held as Montcrief and the clerks left the room.
[Interesting,] William speeched. [Looking more closely at the dataflow, Robillard’s accesses were affected by Rick’s hack. There’s Gizmo codes all over her links.]
[When we’re done here I’ll agitate to go look at them with you. God, William. The thing is going for broke. Will it cover for Robillard?]
[Has the gadget ever covered for any of its human patsies?]
It did for Francis.
[Sometimes,] she speeched slowly. [But rarely.]
[It’s not doing that now. I didn’t have any problems tracking down Robillard’s filing. Others should find it without help. We’ll know how reliable Montcrief is if he turns her over.]
“All right.” Zhao broke the silence. “Before we open with the official business of this meeting, Melanie, Andrew, on behalf of the Corporate Courts, I want to issue an informal apology for this incident. That doesn’t reduce the seriousness of the situation with your son, Andrew, but Montcrief’s reaction was completely and totally uncalled for.”
“I do not think there will be any objection to any apology, formal or informal,” Wright said quickly, looking around. “Do I hear any?”
All but one of the other Courts members shook their heads.
“A majority of the Courts agrees,” Zhao continued. “We formally apologize to Do It Right and Stephens Reclamation for the unapproved filing of Contract against the families of Melanie Landreth Fielding and Andrew Landreth-Stephens.”
“Thank you,” Andrew said stiffly.
Melanie remained silent, glaring at Wright until Andrew nudged her.
“I’m not exactly in the mood to let bygones be bygones,” she said. “The option of forcibly removing the children from their father was openly discussed amongst the Council in com session in my presence last night. A Courts-certified team from you, Mother, showed up at Stephens Reclamation to take Andrew’s son and daughter just minutes after my team left for Hoodland with the entire family. I refuse this apology as being a mere token since individual Courts members have clearly shown intent to take not just Andrew’s children but now my daughter. That is unacceptable.”
“My acceptance of your apology does not lessen my complete agreement with Melanie,” Andrew added. “My response is shaped by the reality that my son is the offender here, not either of our daughters. Were Richard not involved, I’d have the identical response to hers. I have to acknowledge that he has offended. But beyond that, no.”
“We are dealing with different situations between Diana’s action and Gerard’s,” Wright said. “As the children’s grandmother, within the Courts Diana can assert certain custody rights when the security of the Gizmo is at stake. Montcrief made a mistake.”
“For my part,” Diana said slowly, “I’ll now admit that my action in sending my people was wrong, Melanie.”
“Good. Then we have no further reason for this meeting. No need to call it to order.”
“We still need to determine what is to be done with Richard Stephens,” Zhao said. “Therefore, I now call this Executive Session to order. Are there any objections to the agenda?” He paused. “Hearing none, I will entertain discussion on the first item, the disposition of Richard Stephens given his actions in the interference in Caspian Station communications systems. Melanie, Andrew, please sit.”
Andrew sat but Melanie strode forward, her hands still fisted. “I wish to speak to this issue first. Permission?” She glared at Zhao, her jaw tight as if she were daring him to say otherwise.
“Granted. You have the floor.”
Melanie took a deep breath and spread her hands. “We have a kid doing what kids often do, pushing boundaries dangerously. It doesn’t matter whether the venue is virtual, or real life, adolescent kids often push boundaries for pushing’s sake, and we plan for such contingencies in the Do It Right crèche. In Richard’s case, what he did could have disrupted space station communications and traffic. We’re fortunate nothing major happened. In order to prevent further issues, however, Richard needs to come under intensive Netwalk supervision, as does his sister. Since he can’t receive a Netwalk implant and remain with his father under the current Courts sanctions, then either my mother or I have to provide the necessary supervision to keep him with family, which I think is the best thing to do. Do It Right is the most reasonable option. Not only do we have the best secure Netwalk training monitors, the kids will be able to learn appropriate Netwalk behavior in the presence of their peers.”
“You leave one element out. The Courts need to monitor his training and control sanctions need to be in place as a result of his behavior,” Ravi Gupta from Pranesh Communications said. “I want to see control sanctions on this young man. Otherwise, how do I know that my company won’t suffer the next attack? Or anyone else’s company here?”
[Proposal. Now.] Sarah sent to Diana as Melanie bristled.
“Ravi, to address this issue, I have a proposal which I hope the Courts, Melanie and Andrew will find acceptable,” Diana said. “I suggest that we place a monitor within Do It Right to report back on Richard’s behavior and progress. I recommend Kathy Miller as the monitor.”
“That’s an interesting thought,” Wright said. “Melanie, Andrew, would such a proposal be acceptable to you?”
Andrew shrugged. “Other than my role as Richard and Christina’s parent, I don’t have a lot of say. It’s Melanie who will have to deal with Kathy Miller in her systems. I’ve no problem with it, but Melanie may. I support whatever she decides.”
“Define Kathy’s role. How intrusive do you intend her to be in my systems?” Melanie’s jaw tightened.
[Sarah? You ready?]
[As much as I’ll ever be. Volume on?]
[Yes.] Diana gestured toward the hologlobe. It expanded to full size, hovering above Diana’s desk as she moved next to Satou. “Sarah will explain.”
Sarah shifted into the guise the Courts was most familiar with, Sarah in her last years, white pantsuit and all. “Distribution to all present,” she said out loud, throwing a big copy of the overlay up in her globe, pausing until she recognized the gold flicker of her proposal’s text in all the overlays she could see. “After talking to Kathy herself this morning, what Diana and I propose is that Kathy Miller is onsite at Hoodland and any other settings where the children will be present as a Netwalk novice trainer. The chips for Richard and Christina Stephens will be linked to Kathy as Supervising Trainer, unlimited access.” God, she’d fought with Diana to keep Bess off of that restriction.
Melanie frowned. “Kathy’s not an Enforcer.”
“If Deirdre Conley is agreeable, then she would be the Enforcer Supervisor link.” Diana had wanted Cat to come with Kathy. But Cat didn’t think that Melanie would be agreeable to changing their assignments and she’d managed to persuade Diana. The other option, Reiko Kamura, Will and Julia’s Enforcer Supervisor, was too tied into their research work to be spared.
“Deirdre and not Cat.” Melanie’s voice was flat, unreadable.
“Deirdre is a training supervisor at Do It Right, correct? Then she’s the most appropriate Enforcer Supervisor for Richard and Christina.”
“That’s all very good,” Melanie said slowly. “So what would Kathy be reporting back to the Courts? She would have access to proprietary material in a training position, and I’m not open to sharing that with anyone outside of Do It Right.”
“We can negotiate those definitions,” Sarah said. “Do you not trust Kathy’s discretion?”
“Oh, I trust Kathy’s discretion. I just prefer to have things clear before I commit to this proposal.” The edge crept back into Melanie’s voice and she glared at Sarah.
Sarah met her eye for eye. God knows, they’d had seven years of practice arguing like this. “I know you do,” she said, keeping her voice soft, non-threatening. “I’m not disputing that. You have the right to keep proprietary secrets proprietary. Do you really think Kathy Miller would commit to spying on you for the Courts?” Careful, Sarah, you both know Kathy would do it for Diana if she asked. Or at least Kathy used to be that way. Who knows what’s really going on now?
“I reserve the right to review Kathy’s reports, and define what she can and can’t transmit to the Courts,” Melanie said.
“That’s good,” Sarah said, over someone’s protesting squeak behind her. Probably Satou, too low-pitched for Diana. “I’d suggest you get your team going on setting up parameters.”
“My daughter is off limits for Kathy’s reporting.” Melanie’s voice hardened. “Kathy can work with her, but Deirdre reviews what Kathy’s teaching Bess.”
A small exultation. She’d read the situation correctly. Melanie needed training support for three teenaged Netwalk novices. Fifteen, fourteen, and twelve were far too old for the five year olds who’d be in the classes at their level. Not that Sarah expected her great-grandchildren to remain at a low level for very long.
“What kind of controls will Richard be subjected to?” Gupta asked. One of Montcrief’s allies; he’s probably archiving messages to relay to Montcrief now once we’re done with the security lock on the meeting.
“He will be under the same level of supervision and control the rest of that age group cohort is under at Do It Right.” Melanie tensed, virtual world agitating around her. “That’s no minor level since this group is dominated by Security trainees. He will be undergoing physical training, virtual training, survival training, in addition to programming, academics, and adjunct Security training. He will not have a lot of free time and what free time he does have will be supervised. He’s not getting a pass, if that’s what you’re thinking!”
“I’ve reviewed Melanie’s program,” Andrew added. “Believe me, Richard will not be enjoying himself. Christina will, but Richard?” A small, tight smile briefly touched his lips as he shook his head. “Does that satisfy you, Ravi?”
Gupta nodded. “Restitution?”
“I’ve already sent a proposal to Troubadour,” Andrew growled. “Though with that attack at Hoodland, maybe I should reconsider.”
“You would be within your rights to withdraw your proposal for restitution,” Zhao said. “Zoë?”
“It fits the parameters for withdrawal.”
Andrew nodded. “I reserve that right dependent on what Montcrief finds in his investigations, and ask that it be officially recorded.”
“Objections?” Zhao asked.
“Recorded. Melanie. Do you have further questions or concerns?” Wright asked.
“I’m worried about how quickly you want to implement this program,” Melanie said. “It will take a few days to set up the parameters for Kathy Miller’s reporting, plus we won’t be able to implant the Netwalk chips until DIR1 finishes growing them. Richard and Christina will also need a recovery period post-implant before they’ll be ready for Netwalk instruction.”
“How long?” Zhao asked.
“Depending on shipments, seven to ten days. Is that an acceptable timeline?”
“Will you be able to constrain Richard until he has his implant?”
“He’s not getting his hands on any headsets in that time period, if that’s what you’re asking. Independent virtual exploration is off limits for that boy until he’s implanted and gone through some basics.” Melanie scowled even more and Sarah smiled to herself. Boy’s going to meet Melanie as full Enforcer. That should put the fear of God into him, at least momentarily. Between Nik Morley and Melanie, her great-grandson was about to find out what limits really were.
Zhao looked at the Council. “Is this time frame acceptable? Formal votes.”
Sarah watched as the tally went up. 7 to 3 in favor.
“The Courts have approved this agreement. And you, Melanie and Andrew?”
“Yes,” Andrew said, voice rasping suddenly.
“Yes,” Melanie said firmly. “I do believe that our business with the Council is concluded, is it not?”
“Yes. You are dismissed.”
Andrew stood as Melanie rejoined him, pausing to give each Courts member a fixed glare for a three count. “I do assume that your further business today will not address the issues surrounding my son, my sister, and our families, correct?” he asked.
“That is not your concern,” Zhao said smoothly.
“Then as a Courts member, I request permission to be present for any and all discussions relating to Stephens Reclamation, Do It Right, myself, Melanie, and our families.” Andrew’s lips tightened.
This isn’t over yet. [For Christ’s sake, Diana, can you get Zhao to unbend a little? You know damn good and well the rest of the agenda doesn’t have anything else about Caspian or Richard.]
[Andrew’s pushing here. You know Zhao doesn’t like to modify protocol!]
[Good God, Andrew and Melanie are dealing with a recent attack from an Exec member. Don’t you think he and Melanie have reason to be worried?]
[True,] Diana conceded. “Chair Zhao. May I suggest that we offer an exception to our usual confidential Exec Session agenda protocol and offer assurances that our other topics for official consideration and action will not address this emerging situation?”
“There is the possibility that information may come in which may affect this action,” Gupta said.
“We can provide com access if that happens,” Diana said. “Given the nature of this incident, I think we should be flexible. Wouldn’t you want that for your families?”
Zhao paused. “Given the unusual circumstances,” he said finally, “I would agree.”
“Then we will take our leave.” Andrew bowed, followed by Melanie.
Diana minimized Sarah’s globe as the siblings left the room. Whiteness with only a trace of the bright hangings from before surrounded her.
[Do you need me for anything further?] Sarah asked Diana. [There’s a couple of things I want to check. I’ll maintain a link.]
[You told Melanie about Robillard, didn’t you? How did you find that out?]
[That’s one of the things I want to check.]
[Sarah, I don’t have time for this.]
[We don’t have time to squabble. I don’t want to wait until you’re out of this meeting.]
Diana sighed. [Okay. Fine. I want to see that data. But I want you working with someone, not alone, and I want reports.]
[I’m certain William will have an interest.]
Diana hesitated. [All right,] she finally agreed. [But Cat’s putting a trace on you.]
Better than nothing, and maybe if Cat monitored the trace live, she’d understand the Gizmo factor in Diana’s behavior herself.
[Accepted.] Sarah waited. A golden bracelet attached itself to her wrist, and then the shadowy pale features of the white room dropped away.
Sarah grabbed a strand of dataflow, coding in an access point to scurry free from the restrictions of her chip before Diana changed her mind.
Limited freedom was better than none.