Netwalk’s Children Monday–Chapter Six

Before I dive into more jam and jelly making…here’s Netwalk’s Children Monday!

Hoping that people are staying safe and warm today. Be careful out there!

In which Melanie discovers that Gizmo has its claws deeper into her nephew Rick than they previously suspected…

And as always, if you want to read the whole thing, the books can be found at Amazon, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, and etc. Or if you’re not already signed up for my newsletter, do so today and you’ll get a chance at getting a free copy? I’m giving away two copies of Pledges of Honor and Netwalk’s Children as a part of my New Year’s newsletter. What a way to start out 2016! Message me or send an email to jrw at aracnet dot com.








“Well, it’s been an interesting visit,” Andrew said as they stood in the landing pad shelter yet again, waiting for the Stephens Rec skimmer to land. This time it was just Melanie with Andrew, Celina, and the Stephens Security waiting to board.

“Wish it had been under more pleasant circumstances.” For once she was starting to enjoy her older brother’s presence. Why had it taken so long for them to develop a friendship instead of a rivalry?

“Me too. I’d stay here longer, but—“ He shrugged. “I’m wanting to access Netwalk. Another day and the craving would make me unpleasant to be around. Something about being back here triggers the longing.”

“You still miss it, then?” Another data point to pass on to Research.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be done with the desire. In spite of the brainburn. Once you’ve had Netwalk you always want it.”

“That’s what Deirdre says.” But we gave Netwalk back to Dee. Should we do the same for Drew?

“Yeah. And I won’t go back to Netwalk, no matter what the craving.” Andrew winced. “I remember that brainburn at the end far too well. But wanting it back does drag pretty nastily at me all the same. So better that we go now.” He put his arm around Celina, lips tightening.

“I’ll keep the kids in contact,” Melanie said. “No reason for them not to call you.”

Celina laughed. “I predict Rick will spend the first month calling to beg his way get out of here.”

“Ah, darling, he’ll be so obsessed with Netwalk that Mel will have to pull him out of virtual to make him call us, and he’ll complain all the time about not being able to speech and message with us because of the sanctions.”

“He’s not going to get that much of a free rein,” Melanie said. The soft whisper of repulsors drew her attention to the pad. “Sounds like your skimmer is here.”

“Back to California.” Andrew dropped his arm from around Celina and to Melanie’s surprise, took two steps forward to hug her. “I appreciate your help with the kids, Mel. I’m going to miss both of them pretty badly. At least here I’ll get to see them regularly. Who knows what would have happened at the Courts if Mom had gotten them?”

“Probably not directly for at least six months,” she warned.

Andrew blanched. “That long?” His face sagged and he shook his head. “Dear God.“

“You can talk to them,” Melanie hurried to add. “Celina can visit. But if you’re having Netwalk cravings, it won’t be safe for you to see them in person once they’re chipped until they can shield effectively. Not a good idea until they get some control.”

“Any chance you and Marty can find some way to speed it up?” God, the sudden hope in his voice almost broke her heart. Children.

“I’ll try to make sure they get shielding figured out fast. If they’re like Bess it won’t take that long. Maybe two-three months. Drew, we’ll try. Might only be one kid at a time, but we’ll do our best to make it happen. I swear to you on my word as an Enforcer.”

“Damn it.”

Celina hugged him. “Honey, it’s for the best for all of us. Rick needs the control in virtual, and Chris will benefit from Netwalk access.”

“I know.“ He swallowed hard. “You’re right. Both of you. Probably for the best.” He sighed. “Well, Cee? Guess it’s time to go.”

“I’ll be up to visit in a few weeks, since I don’t have Andrew’s restrictions,” Celina told Melanie. “That might help with Rick.” To Melanie’s further surprise, Celina also hugged her. Then Andrew and Celina headed for their skimmer. She watched as they climbed in, and the skimmers rose and turned, gliding away.

Back to work. First stop was the lab, where Marty was running tests with Rick. En route, she mulled over Andrew’s disclosure. There wasn’t a lot of data available about former Netwalk chip users, especially someone like Andrew who had been manipulated by several strong feral Netwalkers during his short period as a Netwalk host. Celina had once carried a Dialogue implant, a lesser command and control wireless com chip that DIR had discontinued in favor of Netwalk, but she didn’t appear to miss it.

And then there was that short clip with Christina. Melanie had forwarded it on to Marty. What did it mean?

Too many things going on and they’re all about the kids. And Gizmo. And that one nagging thing I keep thinking that I’m forgetting. Which was a worry in itself. Aging or a side effect of the amount of time she’d spent in Netwalk and past exposures to Netwalker toxin? The Gizmo itself messing with her mind, just like it was doing with her mother? Or a combination of all those factors?

I need to have an Enforcer conference with Sarah and Dad, preferably both at the same time. They might be able to help her figure this out.

Which raised more questions. Since when had those two been collaborating to the degree she’d just seen in the Courts? She didn’t ever think her father would willingly work with the Netwalker who had killed him and forced his upload. But there the two of them had been, cooperating without Enforcer coercion. What had changed?

Too damn much going on. Things are unfolding almost like they did before Bess was born. The Gizmo had tried to escape then, but it had been quiet for the past fourteen years. What’s changed?

Ah well, here she was at Marty’s lab. Melanie looked into the retina scanner and pressed her palm to the ID lock. Melanie, Angela, and Julia were the only ones besides Marty with independent access to this lab, the home of DIR’s most far-reaching and confidential research. Anyone else had to be escorted by one of them or have the door opened from inside.

As the door clicked open she heard Rick and Marty arguing.

“I don’t want to put that headset on,” Rick whined. “I don’t like the way it makes my head feel.”

“We’ve got to complete this last scan,” Marty insisted, a rare irritated note in his voice as he spoke. “You’ve already drug this out longer than needed.”

She remembered what Andrew had said. It’s impossible to get Rick to do something he doesn’t want to do. Well, she wasn’t going to put up with that. Time to be the mean aunt. Melanie drew herself up to her full five foot three height, the better to project Enforcer command tones.

“Stop.” She strode toward the reclining tech chair where Rick sat up, glaring at Marty. “You’ll put that headset on and finish the scan. Now.” She punched half-level command pitch in that last word.

Rick flinched back from her. “Don’t wanna.” His eyes widened as she picked up the headset from the floor where he’d thrown it and thrust it at him. He let it drop on the chair rather than take it. She glowered at him.

“You will do it.” Three-quarters tone, softer voice. Why was he so resistant?

“I—I—I don’t like your voice.”

“Get used to it. Put the headset on.” Maintain three-quarters because she could see how he fought against the Enforcer compulsion pitches and dear God, she did not want to go full out on this kid from the start. Not if she didn’t have to. It didn’t give her anything else to use with him if she needed another tool, and after some of her experiences with Bess, she just didn’t want to use up her most powerful option. Not yet.

“I don’t—“

“I don’t care what you want. Everyone who gets Netwalk has to do this. Put. The. Headset. On.”

Rick blinked and she could see wetness forming. Defiance or fear? She remembered that clip Bess had taken with Christina. The kids can feel Gizmo without a chip. So. No more words. If he could sense Gizmo without a chip, then likely he was also sensitive to the nonverbal presence she could project and that influence might be less directly confrontational. Melanie intensified her Netwalk presence, just like she would do with a resisting Netwalk chip holder, pushing.

Rick shrunk back against the chair arm furthest away from her.

“Your first lesson at Do It Right,” she said softly, ratcheting down command pitch to fifty percent, glad to see that reaction to her virtual influence. “When I tell you to do something with this tone and this presence, you do it. Especially when you’ve gone into virtual world. It’s too risky otherwise because stuff happens too fast to deal with arguments. Now. What’s the issue with this damned headset?”

“I—“ His gaze darted around the lab, looking at everything but her and Marty. But she could see his resistance wavering. “It scares me,” he finally gulped, voice quivering.

“Why?” She sharpened her focus, blinking open virtual connections. There was some truth to the fear but he held something back. What?

Once he’s chipped I’m going to have him go through a session with Dad. She couldn’t reach those deeper levels but Netwalkers could. She could ask Ness, Marty’s Netwalker, to do that now but she didn’t want to do that to Marty. He had Ness tucked away and that was probably good with this kid. Digging into the deeper planes of a persona would blow back on Marty if Ness hit a hard pocket that would take too much energy from him. Will would be a better choice.

“The—thing.” Said slowly, reluctantly, both words choked out as if forced. Leftover compulsion from the Gizmo riding him?

“This lab is one of the safest places away from Gizmo that you’ll ever be in,” Marty said.

Rick paled at the outright mention of Gizmo and started to scramble out of the chair. Melanie put one hand on his shoulder and he flinched back into his seat, staring at her wide-eyed.

“If Gizmo can get into this lab then there’s no safe place,” she added. Why was he so skittish when his sister claimed he spoke to the gadget all the time? A sick feeling trickled through Melanie. Did Gizmo already possess Rick? If so then they had to adopt some new tactics, fast.

<Any signs of Gizmo in this kid?> she speeched to Marty.

<Not that I can see,> he speeched. She could hear the weariness even in virtual.

“You’re—sure it’s safe from the thing?” Rick whispered.

“Yes.” She projected every bit of confidence she possessed to him. Fear or subterfuge, it didn’t matter. She wanted to see this kid’s scan now, figure out why on earth he was so scared of Gizmo when it had been riding him through that hack and he’d been talking to it. Or did this mean that his contact had been unwilling?

With shaking hands Rick picked the headset up and put it on, hands steadying as he tapped on the com linkages in familiar patterns. Kid knows headsets for sure.

<Watch that he doesn’t try to hack it,> she cautioned Marty.

<Teaching grandpa to suck eggs?> was his rejoinder. <I’ve got alert systems at highest level with potential hostile alert.>

<I’ll monitor them for you. Focus on the scan.>

<That helps. Thanks.>

She linked in to the hacker alert systems, watching as Marty began the process while she monitored Rick’s virtual activity. When Rick tried to block the scan she moved in to stop it, noting that his reaction appeared to be subconscious and not deliberate.

Shielding already partially present. He’s been tampered with. Not surprising given what we’ve seen about the Gizmo riding him during that hack. She sent wordless reassurance, then tweaked here and here to temporarily disable his protections.

<Kid’s traumatized,> she told Marty. <Autoshielding. Good God, how long has Gizmo been poking at him? Any signs of this in the sister?>

<Strong shielding but no trauma,> Marty answered. <She responds more like Bess. He’s got strong defenses—ah. Here we go. Getting good recording now. Keep him calm, Mel. This one panics easily.>

<Now who’s teaching whom to suck eggs?> Even so she projected as much reassurance as possible as Rick tensed up. Just like she’d had to do with Bess when Gizmo exposure threatened to trigger seizures back before she was chipped. Most of the time Alex could calm Bess faster than she could, but he wasn’t always around. Physical contact worked faster to calm the Gizmo-traumatized than verbal and virtual, and Alex had possessed the ability to soothe Bess even before she was born.

Glad the worst of those seizure days are past. That reminded her to talk to Alex and Bess about the lack of Gizmo contact reports. She didn’t think for one second that the Gizmo was leaving Bess completely alone. Bess needed to do more contact reporting than she was doing. Three things to talk to Bess about. God. Not something she really wanted to think about. Her next conversation with her daughter had the potential to be unpleasant, especially as short-tempered as fatigue and too much Burnout coupled with worry about Marty made her.

Both of us have reasons to be on edge. Age, hormones, and precocity all contributed to Bess being prickly when caught out in something like her presence at that Troubadour attack. But were you much different at her age? No. And as Nik pointed out, they didn’t have reason to believe it was anything out of the ordinary. Still, there’s so much at risk right now…

“Link your breathing to mine,” she said out loud to Rick, bringing her focus back to the teenager in front of her, not the teenager who was her daughter. “The more you relax, the faster the scan goes.”

“I can feel you in my head,” he said. “How can that happen?”

“Enforcer in the lab environment. It’s okay. It’s a normal thing with Netwalk, nothing like Gizmo. You’ll learn the difference between Enforcer and Gizmo as we work. Don’t worry. The Gizmo is not going to mess with you here.”

<Aha. Gizmo’s planted a trigger in him with poison pill potential. Better shield, Mel, and let him know what’s going on before I pull it.>

<Will do. Let me tell him out loud before you start.>

<Waiting on your confirmation.>

“Rick.” She might not like this kid based on his spoiled brat behavior but he deserved every consideration she’d give any other Netwalk prospect. Especially since Gizmo clearly had been influencing him. God, how much of his behavior was driven by that?

He startled. “What?”

“You’re going to feel me shield myself. What will happen is that your sense of my presence will go away.”

“Why?” Was that fear in his voice?

“We’ve discovered that the Gizmo has been interfering with you. It’s a poison pill. Marty is going to remove it. I have to shield because of my past exposures, but I will still be with you.”

“I don’t want to lose it,” he whimpered. “It helps me in virtual.”

Her blood ran cold but she kept her voice steady. “You’re trading it for Netwalk. You’ve allowed Gizmo to transport you into virtual and you’re dependent on what it wants. With Netwalk, you’re the one in control, not the Gizmo.”

“Really?” His voice squeaked, half-tenor like Andrew’s, half little kid high pitch.

“Really. But you have to give up that piece of Gizmo in you.”

“Taking it out won’t change me?”

“No.” God, she hoped she was right. Andrew needs to know this. Oh God, the Gizmo’s gotten its claws into this kid deeper than we thought. Oh God. She met his eyes steadily. “Anything you find that is gone after we’re done will be what Gizmo did to you and are not things you want to remain, for your own sanity. I say this to you on my word as the head Enforcer of Netwalk and Netwalkers. I will not lie to you. You’ve been influenced by it. We need to pull that poison pill, otherwise Gizmo will control you. Giving you Netwalk will give you control over the virtual world and the Gizmo.”

God, she hoped she was right that the poison pill was Rick’s major problem. She also needed to question him about Caspian because now she wondered if the hack was his idea or Gizmo’s.

He stared at her for a few seconds more, then sighed and nodded. Fear still tightened his face.

<Let me do a relaxation sequence with him,> she speeched to Marty. <Kid’s a mess.>


“All right,” she said. “I want you to focus on my eyes. Ever work on breath control?”

Rick shook his head.

“Then this is your first Netwalk lesson. I want you to breath out for a count of five. Breathe in for seven. We’ll take the count up to ten. I’ll count for you this time, but eventually you’ll have to learn how to do it for yourself. This is the first step toward shielding. Soon it will be automatic.”

He nodded. “I’m ready.” A faint tinge of confidence crept into his voice.

“Good. Breathe out. One. Two. Three.”

She continued counting, meeting Rick’s eyes steadily, watching both in body and virtual.

We have got a big job ahead of us in training this one. Talent, but what has Gizmo done to him? Too soon to tell. Maybe once he was clear, had a Netwalk chip, had gone through some recovery time, and training, she’d know more about the impact of Gizmo on this kid.

But that was going to take a while.

Rick finally calmed, laying back and breathing slowly and steadily, his eyes fixed on her like she was his lifeline. She signaled to Marty to begin the scan.


The chip grow scan took a full hour longer than normal thanks dealing with to the poison pill. Over the years Melanie had developed techniques to quickly defuse Gizmo poison pills, but the process wasn’t easy and required the most delicate of touches. Normally she’d ease the subject into a sleep but she sensed that wasn’t the right thing to do with Rick. Keeping him awake might be traumatic, but for him sleeping, then waking without the presence of the Gizmo pill might be even worse.

Rick developed virtual vertigo before they were done, thankfully after she had delicately conveyed the poison pill to an isolation chip for Marty to study further. Melanie held the catch pan while he puked, murmuring soothing reassurances as he tried to keep from crying. Mercifully, Marty called Ness out of her chip to help ease Rick through the rest of the process, something they hadn’t wanted to do until then because of the potential drain on Marty. Between Melanie and Ness they were able to keep him calm through the rest of the scanning process.

“Done,” Marty finally sighed. “I’ll call up a floater.”

“Better assign a couple of kids to stay with him in the crèche until he’s better,” Melanie said, appraising Rick’s shakiness and color.

“No!” he gulped. “Not—they won’t want to help!”

“You have got to get over this fighting with your team,” Melanie snapped, sharper than she intended. “You’ve had a hard scan session. You’re going through cybercrash. You need RecoverAid and rest.” She picked up the tube Marty handed her and held it up to him. “Get used to using RecoverAid. It’s a fact of virtual life. Scans usually aren’t this tough, but we had to pull that Gizmo pill to get a good one. Cybercrash is inevitable in these circumstances.”

“I don’t like it.” His voice wavered.

“Nobody likes crashing. It happens. The key is to learn the tricks you need to do to avoid it, and what works to speed up your recovery. Marty, get Bess and Christina in here to handle him. Martina, too, with Zach for reserve. Not the boys or Sophie. Let’s minimize the Security presence.”

“Bess? But she—“

“She’s not going to hurt you unless you piss her off further,” Melanie said. “She’s gone through this before herself. She’s had a lot worse crashes than the one you just had, so she’s the best person to assign as recovery monitor to you right now.”

“But we fought this morning.”

“Guess what? You deserved it for getting into the face of a Security team coming off of an action. You’re lucky it was her and not Don or Alex. They’d have hurt you worse than she did. Don’t do that again. Bess isn’t going to argue with you during recovery unless you don’t listen to her, and I’d advise you to listen to her because she’ll get you through this cybercrash faster than anyone else. She’s the kid in the crèche with the best cybercrash experience, except for Alex, and you and Alex are not a good combination right now. Understand?”

He nodded and took the tube from her.

“Drink the whole thing,” she said.

The door chimed. Marty checked IDs, then clicked it open. Bess, Christina, and Martina came in with the floater, Bess tense and tight as she looked around the lab before focusing on Marty.

What’s her problem—oh. She was in here when Marty collapsed. Damn it. Alex told me she was resisting coming back.

She felt Marty sending wordless reassurance to Bess and their daughter relaxed slightly. She went over to Marty and hugged him before refocusing on Melanie, standing next to her father, half-leaning on him as they stood together.

“We’ve got a bad cybercrash to deal with, Bess,” Melanie told their daughter. “Rick had a Gizmo poison pill in him.”

<That bad thing?> Melanie had to think for a moment to translate that Bess was asking is that a bad thing? Her speeching wasn’t quite what it should be yet, because her subvocals lacked a consistent tone which led to dropped words. It wasn’t for lack of effort but there was nothing that easily suggested why Bess would have subvocal issues. Maybe Kathy Miller could work with her on it. Kathy had always been good with subvocal training.

<Very bad. Treat it like an extreme seizure.>

Bess nodded.

“Okay,” Melanie said to Rick. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to be dizzy as hell when we move you. Bess, can you orient him through virtual or do I need to do it?”

“We’ve been practicing orienting others after a cybercrash,” Martina said. “Alex won’t let Bess do it with him because their link is too close, so she’s been doing it with me.”

“Good. Can you run a backup for Bess in virtual, Tina? Rick’s going to need a lot of support from her and at your experience levels, I think you need backups.”

<Can you show us?> Bess asked.

<No problem.> She opened a floater hologlobe and set it around Rick, Tina, and Bess. Then Melanie projected into virtual and walked through the orientation protocol with the girls, slowly withdrawing her own control and supervising as Bess and Martina carefully moved into place, using fingertip access to take over orienting Rick from Melanie. Bess led, adding her visual perceptions to Rick’s, steadying his spatial awareness and settling the visual distortion that often followed a cybercrash. Melanie noted that Rick appeared to calm and orient more quickly with the link to Bess than he had with her. All those years of cybercrashes and seizures she suffered were good for something after all. But still, why did she have to go through all that? Tina fed Bess more energy as she needed it to maintain the connection with Rick, enhancing Bess’s ties and strengthening them.

Melanie monitored Rick’s reactions as the girls worked. Even without a chip he projected a small presence in virtual world. Few people were capable of doing that without at least one of the lesser Dialogue chips as a minimum platform for digital access. Bess had been another one with that talent, along with Christina if what she had said on the video clip was true. All three of the next generation. What does that mean? Gizmo was supposed to have been modifying the epigenetic expressions of their genes—the original rationale for exposing the children of Courts members to it. She wondered if Marty knew how other second-generation Gizmo children presented themselves in virtual world. Or were these three different because they’d only been exposed in virtual and not in person? What is Gizmo doing to the next generation?

“Okay,” she said aloud, cutting off her speculations. Melanie eyed the sister who’d been hanging back. Like Rick, Christina projected a virtual presence, but hers was more stable. “Chris, can you come over here and mirror what I do to help Rick off this chair? Tina and Bess are supporting him virtually. We need to physically help him into the floater. Zach will be waiting back at the crèche to help get him out of the floater and into a bed.”

Chris nodded and took Rick’s other hand. Together, they helped Rick sit up, steadying him when he wobbled, Chris quickly joining hands with Melanie across his back to keep him stable.

“Under his arms,” she said to Chris. He didn’t resist as she pulled his arm over her shoulders. Chris copied Melanie on the other side. “One, two, three.”

Rick swayed when they got him on his feet. Bess and Martina guided the floater to them. Melanie and Chris shuffled Rick around until they could ease him into the floater without making him walk. Melanie strapped him upright so he wouldn’t fall, and put a clean catch pan in his lap in case he got sick again.

“Get two more tubes of RecoverAid into him,” she told Bess. “The sooner the better. You know the drill.”

“Anything else?”

“Not right now. Once he’s stabilized we’ll talk. Three things.”

Bess winced. “Mom—“

“We’ve got several things to cover, and I’m only going to yell at you for one of them. But right now, you have a cousin to monitor. Everything else can wait. This has to be our highest priority at the moment. Understand?”

Her daughter nodded. Still, Melanie held her breath until the entourage of cousins plus Martina exited the lab. Then she turned to Marty. He slumped in his chair and for a moment she froze, afraid it was happening again though why Ness wasn’t yelling for help—

Marty sighed and sat back up. “I didn’t expect to find that in Rick.”

“Neither did I.” She sank onto a stool across the lab table from him, her own heart rate slowing, realizing how tired she was. Long day. And she wasn’t done yet, because she had to talk to Bess before she could relax. “How much of that hack was of his own initiative, and not Gizmo?”

“Not going to be easy to figure out.” Marty rubbed his eyes. “From what I saw that poison pill’s been in Rick a long time. He’ll have to relearn behavior habits. Good thing he’s young. Just afraid he might not be young enough to overcome some of those patterns.”

“Andrew thinks the very first Gizmo presentation could be a factor.”

“I’ll know after Reiko and Will look at the scans.” Marty dropped his clasped hands to the table. “That would make a lot of sense. God, Mel, what does a Gizmo influence do to a personality from early in childhood?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “And I’ve not dealt with the other Courts kids in virtual. None of them are crèche-raised, they’re all protected and isolated because of their families’ wealth.”

“Like Rick and Chris.”

“Yeah. Maybe we’ll get some idea from working with those two. That’s not a perfect comparison, though, because Rick had only the one deliberate exposure to Gizmo that went wrong.”

“You’re right, that’s not a perfect comparison. But it’s what we have.” Marty pushed himself up and slowly started putting his equipment away. Melanie joined him, glad to have something routine to do with her hands while they talked.

“Andrew still has an attraction to Netwalk,” she said as she cleaned the headset leads.


“One reason for his leaving so quickly today. He says it makes him irritable. I imagine that’s just the early stages. He describes it as a craving.”

“Would match what I’ve heard from Dee. I wonder if he’d benefit from a couple of sessions with her?”

“I don’t know that he’d do it.”

“It could help him around the kids once they’re chipped.” Marty studied the vial that held the poison pill’s isolation chip, holding it up to the light. “He never did have post-removal counseling and rehab, and even at this late date it might make a difference in how he tolerates being around Netwalk.”

“I’ll mention it to him. I need to let them know about this.” She gestured at the vial. Finishing with the headset, she found the specialized containment box and carefully tucked it away.

“Does he know that the kids can sense Gizmo without a chip?”

“I have no idea. I want to talk with Bess and maybe Chris further about it before we bring that subject up to Andrew. I know they project into virtual without chips.”

“Rick especially can project, but it’s wild and uncontrolled. Not consistent output.” Marty tucked the vial into a safe and activated the shielding which kept it isolated from physical or digital intrusions. “What bothers me is why Caspian for his targeted hack? Samir’s no slouch in virtual and Troubadour makes no secret that he’s got top protections running there. Even though Robillard’s slack on her end, Samir’s not. He nailed Rick hard. I can see elements of brainburn in Rick’s reactions and on the scan. So why Caspian? Did he or Gizmo think they’d get somewhere using Caspian as a hub?”

“If it’s Gizmo driving, then who knows—“ Melanie stopped. Oh. That was what she had forgotten. “Marty. Pranesh Communications and Troubadour are working together on an asteroid probe.”

Marty looked up from closing down his work hologlobe. “Not a High Space thing? I don’t remember any asteroid probes on the project list.”

“That’s because it’s not in the High Space project database. This is a Troubadour/Pranesh contract.” Melanie frowned. “We mentioned it in passing, and then the news of Bess and Rick getting into a fight after the Troubadour team showed up this morning distracted us. I forgot about it until now.”

“Where’s it based?”


Marty’s brows shot up. “Now that’s interesting.”

“There’s more. Sarah and Will are collaborating. Will found who in Troubadour ordered the contract filing for this morning’s incident, and it’s Robillard. Sarah relayed the data to me in the meeting while Will tracked down the filing. They used that new backchannel link he created.”

“Wait a minute. Robillard ordered the filing?”

“That’s what Sarah told me. She and Will linked up during that Courts meeting so he could track what was happening.”

“That’s interesting.”

“I’m also worried because I keep forgetting about that probe and links to it.”

“This feels like it has Gizmo’s mark all over it.” Marty sighed. “Kids, Caspian, that probe. Something’s going on and I don’t like the feel of it at all. Throw Kathy into the mix—how soon is she getting here?”

“Sometime in the next day or so. I’ll be getting a confirmation from her directly.”

Marty looked around the lab. “I’m calling it a day. Early but I’ve been going since four-thirty and you’ve been up—how much Burnout have you had?”

“Too much.” Melanie grimaced. “I still have things to do. I’ll contact Andrew and talk to him about Rick and Gizmo, plus ask about the Pranesh probe.”

“Pranesh getting into asteroid probes. Doesn’t make sense.”

“Well, that’s better than the other thing I’m doing. I’ve got to have a chat with Bess. I’ve put her on restrictions. No more Security greeting rotations until we’re past this latest mess with the Courts. If something had gone wrong, you know damn good and well they’d have grabbed her. Plus I want to know more about this conversation with Christina. Add to that my suspicions that she and Alex aren’t reporting Gizmo contact defense actions. Then I need to brief the whole crèche on what the adapted break schedule is going to be. We need to focus on virtual training for a couple of weeks, get the basics into Rick and Chris and Bess. If Gizmo’s going live then the kids are possible targets. They need defenses quickly.”

“Don’t hammer her too hard,” Marty said quickly. “She’s trying to make her own way. Mel, she’s growing up. She needs to be able to make her own choices.”

“She needs to make safe choices,” Melanie insisted.

“Don’t push it right now.” He squinted at her. “You’re riding the dragon pretty hard and it’s going to turn to Redline on you if you’re not careful. Don’t say something you’ll regret later because Burnout’s driving your reactions.”

“So what would you recommend I do?” She sounded prickly even to herself. A good indicator that she should take Marty’s advice.

“Give the kids a sketch briefing, full tomorrow. Minimize your putting the hammer down on Bess.” He rose again slowly. “Honey, I don’t want you working yourself into a heart attack like I just did. You’re too old to Redline out on Burnout. We’re neither of us kids any more, and you’ve got too much to do to manage a bad crash.”

“You’re the one I’m worried about.”

“You’re the one working yourself to a frazzle, not me.”

She bit back her possible rejoinder, certain now from her irritable response that Marty was right. We just might not have the time to take breaks, and the kids are too young yet to take over.

“I’ll keep it short with Bess,” she finally said, voice low. “You’re right, I’m riding that ragged edge and it makes me a right royal bitch.”

Marty smiled and reached across the table to squeeze her hand. “Want help with the kids?”

“I’d feel better if you rested. You’re not looking so hot.”

“Tell you what. You do your sketch briefing with the kids ASAP, come back to the suite to call Andrew. Be better to talk once he’s had time to get back home, and I can fill him in on what I’ve seen. We might have some scan comparison results by then. We can call it an early evening, have a light dinner, kick back with some holovids, crash early.” He winked at her. “In the middle of chaos we still need to carve out time for ourselves. These issues aren’t going to get settled in one day, Mel, no matter how much focused ADHD energy you throw at them. Okay?”

She smiled back, bringing his hands to her lips to kiss, then lean her aching forehead against for a moment. Marty unwound his fingertips from hers and gently rubbed her temples. She closed her eyes, savoring his touch and the wordless support he projected to her through virtual. The ache eased.

Just another Netwalk crisis. We’ve survived plenty of these already.

At last she pulled away from his hands. “You’re absolutely right and that sounds like a great idea. The sooner I get to it and take care of these kids, the sooner I can stand down. At least for tonight.”

“Atta girl.”

She kissed him, then left the lab.

Now to deal with the kids.


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