And here we are in the New Year. Before we go off to this latest installment, just wanted to let you know a few things.
First of all, CHRISTMAS SHADOWS, my Netwalk Sequence Christmas story, is available for free until January 6 on Amazon! Go here to get it.
But there’s more!
Pledges of Honor, my non-European high fantasy with strong female characters, is marked down to $2.99 for the month of January on Kindle. Get it here.
And if you want to read the rest of Netwalk’s Children, it’s also on markdown for the month of January on Kindle. Get it here.
Now, on to Chapter Seven, in which Bess and Melanie finally have it out over incidents building since Chapter One. Melanie issues a warning, and Bess and Alex consider the potential for upcoming problems with the Gizmo as it affects their crèche cohort.
“So do you know why your mother’s called the crèche meeting?” Don asked Bess as he replaced hologlobe cubes in the chargers as part of their weekly crèche lounge cleanup duty. “Yelling at us about this morning?”
Bess winced as she tested the charger link security, confirming that no one had piggybacked in to bug the globes through the chargers. “That’s part of it, I’m sure. She as much as said so when we picked him up from Dad’s lab.” She jerked her head toward the bunkroom where Rick slept off his cybercrash, Zach attending in case he woke disoriented. “I think the rest of it is about what happened at the Courts. Obviously Rick and Chris aren’t going anywhere.”
“I can handle Chris. Rick’s a different story. He’s going to have to learn some manners.” Don moved on to organizing the vid chips. “Geez, who’s been the pig? Rick?”
“No, you need to blame Phil for that one.” She blinked up the database. “All those chips out of place last ran through his connections before Rick and Chris got here.”
Don rolled his eyes as he flipped the chips into their proper slots, then waved the chip holder back to its designated cubby in the wall. The box floated across the room, powered by a small bot.
“Hope your cousin’s not as chaotic as Phil.”
“We may not know what he’s really like.” Her voice dropped as she looked around. The lounge looked presentable for her mother’s upcoming visit. “Mom said they pulled a poison pill out of him. From the whatchamacallit. He’s got one huge cybercrash going on. Lots of visual effects. Tina and I had to orient him to get him out of the labs. Huge vertigo attack. What I saw of the distortions while linking in was worse than a lot I went through.”
“That’s not fun.” A slight hint of sympathy tinged Don’s voice. “He still needs to learn discipline. The gadget doesn’t affect everything.”
“Mom whacked on him pretty good in the lab so he might be buying a clue or two,” she said. “I got a peep at that memory before I tucked it away for him. Forefront in his cog processes. I think he might be all right once he gets into the routines. We’ll have to make sure he learns them.”
“He’ll learn them, all right,” Don said. “Or else I’m not worth it as a leader. I’ll personally make sure of it.”
Alex, Chris, and Tina entered the lounge, each pulling a small floater carrying boxes and sacks of food. They went into the kitchenette.
“I’ll put things away,” Tina said. “Chris, you hand them to me, Alex, you review the order as we unpack, make sure we didn’t get shorted again.”
“I hear and obey, oh lady Martina,” Alex joked, sketching a quick bow.
Martina snatched a buzzy ball from the counter and threw it at him, flicking the on switch.
“Buzz attack!” Don yelped as Alex deflected the ball toward him. They batted it about, Chris shrinking back, until Bess swiped it out of the air and turned it off.
“Aw,” Alex complained. “Gotta work now.”
“Hey, we’re done,” Don said. “You slows need to speed it up.”
“We missed a buzz attack?” Sophie asked as she, Phil and Teresa returned from cleaning the bathrooms. “Geez, Tina, could you three move any slower? Who got the buzz?”
“Alex got the buzz. And I’m training,” Tina said, rolling her eyes. “I need to take my time so we do it right. Chris is on the supplies and requisitions roster next week, with my supervision. It’s not like cleaning bathrooms or quarters. She needs to learn several steps and interfaces, and she’s doing it straight without Netwalk yet, so give us a break! We’re doing it all by hand—not that it matters because somebody didn’t follow through on his side of the checks on his duty so we came up short on supplies.” She scowled at Phil. “Ought to make you go without breakfast treats for that one. We owe Crèche Three for our shortage this week.”
“Well, maybe we should help,” Sophie said. “Then a sim. No, that’s right, Melanie’s called a meeting. But after.”
“Why don’t you chip jockeys pick out a sim while we finish?” Alex suggested. “Faster that way and Chris walks through the hand check without the whole team breathing down her neck.”
The door chimed.
“And, that’s Melanie,” Don said. “Unpacking and sims later. Seats, everyone. She’s giving us the sketch brief now; more details in the morning at formal briefing.”
The door slid open as they settled into the lounge couches and chairs. Her mother walked in, still wearing Courts blouse and slacks, the tight Security braid for her graying brown hair remaining in place without any stray hairs wandering free.
“Okay,” her mother said, pulling a straight, uncushioned chair over next to Bess. Close up, Bess could see the Burnout redness and a tired glaze in her eyes. “Where’s Zach and Rick?”
“Rick’s still down,” Bess said. “Two more tubes of RecoverAid put him right out. Zach’s attending him.”
“That bad?” Melanie pursed her lips. “Good idea to have Zach there, then, especially if he’s still out. That was a bad vertigo.”
“I saw,” Bess said, wincing at the memory. “I’ve only had a few worse than that.”
“Me too.” Her mother tiredly gave Bess a brief smile. It faded as she refocused on Don. “Zach’s linked in?” As Melanie asked, Bess noted the reflection of text flashes from her visual overlays. “Got it. Thanks for covering that, Don.”
“Anything else needed?” Don asked.
Her mother sighed and leaned against her chair’s back, feet flat on the floor, hands resting on her thighs. “We’re good. Sketch briefing right now. More specifics in the morning. But things need covering this evening. One. Rick and Chris are now part of Crèche 2. They are not going to the Courts. I see you’re already integrating Chris into the duty roster. Good. As Rick heals, he needs to be added as well.”
“How will we know when to do that?” Tina asked. “Or should I just plug him into the rotation with a cover assignment?”
Melanie rested her chin on her thumbs, tapping her lips thoughtfully with her index fingers. “Let’s give him twenty-four hours before we make that decision, Tina. We’ll have to see what shape he’s in when he wakes. I’m sorry I can’t give you anything more specific. That’s just the way the device’s poison pills work.” She dropped her hands and looked around at the team. “I’d better add this. We yanked a you-know-what’s poison pill out of Rick during his scan. No idea how long it’s been in him or how deep that effect goes. While we’ve got monitoring on him, best you keep someone by his side at all times until he wakes and we see what we’ve got to deal with. Longer he sleeps, less likely he’ll wake disoriented, but I don’t want to risk him sliding into a panic attack. This was a deep, well-established pill. One of the worst I’ve managed.”
No wonder Mom looks so exhausted. Every account I’ve read about poison pill extraction talks about how hard it is on the Enforcer.
“Two,” her mother continued. “We’re switching from break mode to light school mode. Sorry, because this last session was a hard one, but we’ll start the full schedule for next school session later than planned. It’s one thing to integrate a single older novice Netwalk carrier like Bess into a full training program, but we now have three older novice Netwalk chip users to train and get up to the rest of the crèche’s performance levels. Plus we’re getting a new teacher. Some of you will have heard of her. Kathy Miller.”
“I’ve studied some of her training protocols,” Sophie said.
Melanie smiled quickly at Sophie. Like her earlier smile at Bess, this one faded as quickly as it came. “Well, now’s your chance to work with the woman herself. I don’t have an arrival time yet, but I expect one by tomorrow. Morning briefing will be more specific about schedules and trainings.”
“What about my programming seminar?” Don asked.
“We’ll meet before you have to leave, and that seminar will be your school schedule for the next two weeks. No need to change those plans. We’re lucky to get you into the University for that one.” Her mother turned her attention to Phil. ”Phil, you’re still off to TechWorlds. But Nik will brief you separately, because you’re going into that convention with a higher Security coverage. I’m assuming everyone is going to be a higher profile target right now and I don’t want to risk it.”
“Three. Bess is off the greeting roster until further notice. Do not put Chris and Rick on it either, at least not until we get the Courts settled down.”
“Mom!” Bess yelped. “I can take care of myself.“
Her mother fixed Bess with a stern glare. “Not in this situation.” She gave her words a small twist of Enforcer compulsion.
Bess set her jaw firmly, visualizing pushing the compulsion back. “We’ve reviewed and rehearsed most contingency procedures before every shift I get assigned greeting. Live fire included. I can do this, Mother.” She gave her own words the slightest pop in return. Not as much force as her mother—no way was she an Enforcer, nor did she ever want to be one—but enough to let Melanie know she could resist.
Brows raised, no faltering of the steady gaze from her mother. “Not this time, Bess.” Stronger emphasis. “I’d prefer to discuss this privately.” Quieter tone, but enough for Bess to see the anger seething underneath. A banked anger but very real nonetheless.
“I’m equally responsible,” Alex spoke up. “We’re a team.”
“I need to discuss some things with you and Bess,” Melanie said in the same quieter voice. Then she spoke louder. “If we could have the room for five minutes, please.”
Sophie motioned to Chris as the others quietly rose and left the room. Bess kept her eyes on her mother as her crèche mates left, not daring to look at Alex on the couch across from her.
“Now,” her mother said once it was only the three of them in the room. “I know you’re capable.” She paused, seeming to pick her words carefully. “I know you’re practiced. You too, Alex. You want to test your skills. But. The stakes are too damn high right now to take these kinds of risks. You damn near gave me a heart attack when I spotted you in that video!”
“There’s always a reason to be more restrictive.” Bess kept her voice at the same quiet level as her mother’s. “At some point I need to go live, Mother!”
“Not yet. Not in these circumstances. We’ve had quiet times for the past few years, but it’s changing.”
“There’s always been a crisis.”
Her mother’s lips tightened. “We’ve not had a device situation like this one is shaping up to be since you were a baby, Bess. You’re right. There’s always been a crisis. But this one is bigger. It’s different. Things could escalate to Diaspora level. We’ve already instigated one Bugout, with your cousins.”
“We’ve practiced Diaspora and Bugout,” Bess countered.
Melanie shook her head. “Practice is not like the real thing when it comes to Diaspora. No more arguing, Bess, not unless you want a knockdown, drag-out screaming argument. I’m pissed. I’m scared. I’m tired. Things could very easily have gone the wrong way for you out there this morning, and with the deal I had to negotiate at the Courts this morning, I did not need that distraction.”
“We didn’t expect that incident.”
“Exactly. You don’t have the experience to expect that kind of situation. None of you did.”
“So how do I get the experience I need? Not by being kept under wraps!”
Her mother’s lips tightened and her fists clenched. For a moment Bess thought Melanie would snap at her. Then her mother slowly let out her breath. “You want a fight?”
“No. But I would like an explanation, please.” Bess kept her own voice calm. You want to be treated like an adult, then don’t throw a kid temper tantrum. “I’m old enough to be explained to, not dictated to. You’ve told me that enough time when giving me a problem to solve. I’d appreciate that consideration in return.”
“Good point,” her mother conceded. “And I’ve been raising you to think and question. So. An explanation. I’ve given you small, controllable scenarios to solve and you do well with them. This isn’t the case.”
“What makes this not controllable? Curious. Not meaning to argue.”
Her mother’s lips tightened until Bess almost couldn’t see them. “Here’s the deal as I see it. You’re fifteen years old. You’re precocious academically and you’ll be taking college coursework soon. You’ve got the smarts. But you’ve had Netwalk for six months. Under normal circumstances you’d be at a higher level of performance because you’d have had ten more years training in Netwalk. Under less tense conditions I’d tell myself to buck up and stop being a protective mama.”
“It’s not my fault I only have six months in Netwalk!”
“I know. Bess, I’m not trying to be mean. It’s just—“ her mother closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m sorry. Tired and rambling. You asked for an explanation. Two things. One. The gadget is trying to grab all three of you. This is a bigger situation than you should try to manage alone because of the whatchamacallit. Better if you walk through it under guidance so you can observe what happens when mistakes get made when that thing gets involved. Which there will be, there’s no way to predict some responses. You need to see how these situations can be handled to build your own toolbox of response resources. I’d sooner not have you learn by trial and error like I had to learn.”
“And the other?” Bess’s throat was tight. These discussions were harder when her mother was reasonable.
<We need to tell her about the probes,> Alex speeched.
<I know. Next.>
“Your father. I—“ Melanie shook her head. “I can’t stand the possibility of losing both of you. Please indulge me right now and be extra careful.”
The stricken look her mother gave Bess hit her right in the gut. She swallowed hard. Mom being protective because she was Mom was one thing. Mom being protective because Dad wasn’t well was another, and something she really couldn’t argue with, not without that inner voice telling her she was being a brat.
“Is Dad all right? He doesn’t look that good, Mom.”
“That’s the other thing. I’m not entirely sure but what it isn’t the gadget causing his problems as well.” Her mother paused, her frown deepening even more. “Oh, hell. Better to tell you now. It’s not just your father. Your grandmother shows signs of being influenced, and I may have to exercise the Option for Sarah’s sake. Not what I wanted to see happening at all.”
“Sarah’s the one blowing the whistle on that potential influence.”
Bess and Alex exchanged glances. <I’ll tell her about the probes,> he speeched. <Less likely that she’ll get super angry with me disclosing us not reporting than you. Be ready just in case.>
<Thanks.> Bess noticed her mother’s scrutiny. She felt her cheeks reddening with a flush.
“We have been noticing some device activity as well,” Alex said, like Melanie picking his words carefully. “There has been some action against Bess. Nine probes in the last week.”
“And you haven’t reported?” Melanie visibly gathered herself for an angry retort and Bess tensed, preparing for it.
“No, no, no, nothing we couldn’t manage on our own,” Alex said hastily, waving his hands in an attempt to defuse her mother’s reaction. “These have been minor incidents. Nothing noteworthy. Bess has been shielding and deflecting without my assistance, because she’s trying to move toward independent Netwalk management of contact with the gadget. She wanted to try dealing with these situations on her own without reporting every minor incident to you, especially after Marty’s situation, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
For the first time in this meeting her mother’s smile moved beyond her lips to soften the hard lines around her eyes. Her body relaxed back into her chair. “Alex, that’s really good news. How intense are these probe contacts, Bess?”
“Minor. Like Alex said, they’re simple probes. A whisper of something here, a poke there. More than I’ve had in the first few months of Netwalk, but nothing I can’t handle.” Bess frowned as she sensed a whisper of Netwalker presence. <Who’s there?> she queried virtual.
The presence disappeared. Alex raised his brows at Bess. <That was Sarah to your mother. Unlikely either will spill it because it’s tight-linked.>
<I can still feel her.> If she concentrated she could distinguish this feel from the gadget’s. Bracing, higher vibration instead of the device’s rumbling heavy heat; a cool sensation like ocean fog with a sharp sense of wry observation rather than thundering malevolence. I’ve not noticed this before. Am I improving my Netwalk perceptions or is this something else?
“Any pattern to when you feel the probes?” Her mother’s focus intensified on Bess. Was Sarah also looking through Mom’s eyes? Sometimes she could tell when a Netwalker was temporarily riding another living person. Surprising that she’d picked up on old Sarah because Sarah usually kept herself well-hidden.
Almost like she wanted me to know she was here.
“Bess?” her mother repeated.
Bess shook her head. “Sorry. Didn’t sleep after that last probe this morning.”
“Been a rough time for everyone, I think. So is there a pattern to those probes?”
“Not really. Gaming. Sleep. Studying. The one similarity between the probes is that they’re happening at times when I’m distracted, but not always that. It can happen when I’m studying.”
“I’ve been recording each debrief,” Alex said. “They’re archived.”
“Please forward them to me. I’ll review them—not this evening, I am exhausted and I’ve more to do on my list already. Tomorrow morning, with Marty and Julia. Maybe one of us can see a pattern in the contacts.”
“Forwarding now,” Alex said.
Her mother sighed. “Good. Okay. Last thing, and Alex, you don’t necessarily need to be around for this one. That vid of you and Chris, Bess. I’m assuming there was more to it?”
Bess nodded, her mouth dry. Alex remained on the couch.
“I think I’d better be here. You didn’t tell me about this, Bess,” Alex said, an accusatory note in his voice.
“There wasn’t time between dailies and the meeting. Plus I wasn’t sure if Mom wanted this as general knowledge.”
“Since I’m Second to Sophie while Don’s gone, I’d better know.” The tension in his voice doubled.
“Drop it, Alex. You’re learning about the situation now. What did Chris tell you, Bess?” her mother asked. “The part that wasn’t on the vid. I get that she sensed when you used Netwalk to turn on the recorder, and that Rick has comparable abilities. That matches the observations I made in the lab with Rick when we were scanning, same for what your father noticed while scanning Chris. But what was that she said about the you-know-what talking to her?”
“It’s tried to talk to her, Mom. Rick talks to it. She can feel when he gets deep into virtual using a headset and he talks to it.”
“Did she sense anything during the Caspian attack?”
“Heavy, warm, sensation. Something tried to pull her into virtual.”
“And that’s when you remembered to switch on the recorder.” Her mother’s voice was more tired than ever. “Not your fault, you probably wouldn’t have gotten that much information if you had turned it on sooner, given her reaction. But that adds another piece to filling in the puzzle. Did you feel anything during the Caspian hack?”
Bess and Alex exchanged glances. “Not during, but after.”
“The probe during the sim,” Alex said.
“Which probe was that?” Melanie sat up.
“Next to the last,” Bess said.
Her mother blinked up an overlay, her focus on that instead of Alex and Bess. She chewed her lower lip thoughtfully as she studied it, and then she blinked it closed.
“Interesting.” She exhaled and rocked forward, rising slowly. “Okay. Don’t mess around tonight, Bess. Consider this a Condition Orange. We’re not in a practice or training pattern, this is the real thing. Be prepared. If the whatchamacallit plays the type of game it has in the past, it may poke at you, Rick, Chris, or any combination of the three of you. Definitely keep watch on Rick until he wakes. If you have any contact with the gadget, any contact at all, let me know.” She fixed first Bess, then Alex, with a hard stare until they both nodded.
“What about the others?” Bess asked. “How much of this should we share?”
“As much as you ever do with your crèche mates.” Her mother patted Bess on the shoulder, her hand tightening with the last pat. “The more of you aware that the device is stirring so all of you can keep watch on each other, the safer you’ll be. The next forty-eight hours will tell the tale. The thing doesn’t take long when it decides to act. Stay safe.”
“I will,” Bess promised. She kept herself upright, watching, as her mother left, now limping slightly, something she only saw when Melanie was utterly tired. Once her mother was gone, Bess pulled her legs to her chest and buried her head in her knees, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. I’ve never seen Mom this tired before. Or heard her admit to being afraid like this. It’s really that bad. It’s like the stories of Netwalk’s beginnings.
“Hey.” Alex sat next to her and reached his arm around her to pull her close. “That bad?”
“Yeah. Me too.” His arm tightened on her and she leaned into him, letting go of her legs. He put his other arm around her as she unfolded, letting herself quiver a little as she settled her head on his chest. She thought she felt him tremble. “We’ve got reason to worry,” he said finally. “And Don and Phil are going to be gone starting tomorrow. We’re going to be short-staffed.”
“You’ll do fine as Second.”
“But that means I won’t be as available if you need help. You going to be okay?”
They sat like that for a few minutes, the two of them worrying together. Then Alex sighed.
“Better let the others know we’re done. Still have to put away the week’s supplies.”
“Hopefully someone picked out a vid for after.”
“I’m all for a nice, quiet one.”
“I think we’ll all want that once we tell them what’s going on.”
They went in search of the others for further debriefing.