Netwalk’s Children Monday

So I’ve decided that I’m going to try putting up a chapter a week of Netwalk’s Children and Pledges of Honor for a while. Children will go up on Monday and Pledges on Friday. I’ll be working on the website and putting up a Paypal button for people to donate as they desire.

Or, you know, you could also write a review (when done), or go buy the books at the Usual Places (now including iBooks and a few other sources through Draft2Digital as well as Amazon, Nook, Kobo, etc).

And now, for Chapter One, in which Problems Arise With the Children.




Bess Fielding surveyed the simulated urban war zone in front of her. A 20th century-era tank lumbered around a blocky gray wall as her sensors warned her that their foes crept up behind them.

“Block it, block it, block it!” she yelled at Alex Jeffreys. “Don’t you dare let Don and Sophie beat us to this one—ah!” Alex wheeled to lay down a warning fireline behind them to back off pursuit. Bess found the shortcut code in her visual overlays that she had been seeking that would allow her consciousness to integrate fully with the virtual digital world without uploading, as long as she stayed in the dataglobe. She twisted, stretching into virtual, and traced the links through digital space to locate their target, yanking Alex after her as she jumped virtual space to reach it. Centered her sights. Clucked to crank up the volume of both the pew-pew-pew shooting sound and the bass-heavy speed death metal background music. Then she fired her blaster. The 20th century era tank exploded with a satisfying BOOM, momentarily drowning out the music. Virtual shards spilled past Bess and Alex and faded as they intersected the limits of the hologlobe. Several pieces clattered harmlessly against Bess’s armor, disappearing as they hit. Bess pulled herself and Alex out of virtual and back into their bodies.

GAME OVER flashed around them. The globe faded away to reveal the stark lines of the practice room around them as well as their opponents.

“Yes!” Alex gave Bess a rare grin. “Take that big bro!” he added, smirking at his older brother Don. “Worth a little vertigo at the end when you yanked me outta body, Bess. But you’ve gotta smooth out that virtual transition. Your Security backup won’t be any good if we’re dizzy and puking on arrival in real life.”

“Bess, you slime, you’re cheating!” scolded Sophie Morley-Garcia, pushing back an unusually errant strand of black hair that had worked free from the tight French braid favored by the longer-haired Security staff of Do It Right. “You went into Netwalk, didn’t you? That tank’s not supposed to be this easy to find and blow otherwise.”

Bess shrugged. “In a real fight there’s no rules. Especially in virtual. Isn’t that what you told me last week?”

“True,” Sophie conceded. “But you’ve got to work your way through the steps without resorting to Netwalk tricks first. Netwalk can backfire on you fast, so you need to know what to do without it before you try stuff like this with it. That’s what your mother told me when I was first training.”

Bess opened her mouth to object and then thought better of it. She had been shortcutting because the sim was getting boring. Usually, she followed the rules, simply because by now she knew the truth of what Sophie said.

Today just didn’t feel like a day for following rules, though. She worked her head from side to side to loosen her neck muscles. Something was making her tense. What? She had no new reason to worry. Her mother had murmured a surprised comment at how high her end-of-semester scores had been—Bess’s scores outstripped her mother Melanie’s at the same age—and her father’s health was improving after his heart attack. She had a couple of weeks free before the next high school session started up. Plenty of time to work on practical applications of her studies. Just not the application she’d wanted. Her crèche cohort had planned two weeks shadowing Station Ops at Do It Right 1, Bess’s favorite of the DIR space stations, a 300-person chip production facility in high Earth orbit. All this semester she’d been training for the DIR 1 shadow command, the first step toward her future goal of leading Do It Right space operations.

Then today’s hack at Caspian Station had wiped out those plans entirely. At least it hadn’t been because her father’s health had taken a turn for the worse. Maybe they could still salvage part of that training exercise if the all clear came soon enough. With any luck, the all clear would come soon so that she and the rest of her crèche cohort could still do some of the shadowing they had planned. Mom hadn’t ruled that possibility out entirely. So why did she suddenly have that far-too-familiar jangly edged impression of wrongness, a sense that everything could go suddenly sideways?

“Netwalk or no, that’s one of the best scores ever for all age groups,” Don said, frowning as he studied an overlay scrolling in front of him. “Bess didn’t use Netwalk to speed up tracking until the very end, and not full virtual, either.” He snapped his fingers to close the overlay. “Damn, Bess, you sure you’re not gonna try to swing a Security major when you finish high school instead of Management? There’s qualified Security who can’t score this well, and you’ve just started the Netwalk mixed training sessions.”

“As if.” Bess refocused on her blaster, skimming through the shutdown checks and protocols for renewal and recharging. “Security won’t get me to space. Management will.”

“There’s Security routes to space,” Sophie said. “You think we’re going to let you go up there alone?”

“Not for me because of who I am,” Bess said. “Any more Security training and they’ll find an excuse to tie me down here.”

“True,” Sophie conceded.

Don looked unconvinced. “You could combine the two.”

“I am doing that,” Bess said, rolling her eyes. “It’s just the minor. Besides, I’ve got a year to go before I finalize it. Plenty of time.”

“You think Melanie and my mom would let Bess go to space if she trains in Security?” Sophie scoffed. “Don, love you but you’re dumb about some of this stuff.”


“It’s not Melanie that would keep Bess back from going into space,” Alex said quietly. “It’s Diana.”

The mention of Bess’s grandmother silenced them for a moment.

Then Bess forced a laugh. “Come on, how much does a game score correlate to real action? Training game, true. God knows I don’t have the detail skills to swing Security in space.”

“You and your space.” Don shook his head. “Think your mother will ever let you off the planet again after what happened at Caspian today?”

“Caspian’s not DIR 1,” Alex said. “I doubt Melanie would let any of us fly Troubadour to the space stations, even before that com failure.”

Thank you, Alex. Bess tapped the storage code into her blaster. It faded away, ready for further virtual use should she need it. Habits. Patterns. Routines she needed to practice for space.

Routines she needed to practice for days when the world babbled and spun around her because of the gadget, though that hadn’t happened often for the last several months, after she got her Netwalk implant. Oh, the whatchamacallit—one of the many roundabout terms they used for the Gizmo—had poked at her. But nothing too frequent until this past week, and certainly nothing as strong as what she had just felt. Could be a warning that today could be one of those times when her world needed frameworks to separate meat life from virtual life.

“That’s assuming only Troubadour shuttles running through Caspian were affected by the hack,” Sophie said. She tapped her fingertips and an overlay in yellow text popped up in front of her. She ran her right index finger down the overlay. “I’d have to wonder.”

“Caspian is the only station that’s affected, not the others,” Bess sighed. “Targeted. Look closer at the tracks.“ She called up her access to Sophie’s overlay and scrolled down to the intruder link. “Damn it, I’m locked out. Saw more details when I looked earlier today. Maybe it’s because I’m not globed right now.”

Alex leaned over her shoulder. “No, not a globe issue. See that code? Your mother’s lockout. You’ve not studied that code level yet. I’d say they’ve put a Netwalker on it with that lock level. Sorry, kid.”

She frowned at him. “Since when did you get the right to call me kid?”

Don laughed. “Somebody’s getting notions above himself at the ripe old age of eighteen and a half, bro. There’s only what? Three and a half year’s difference between you two?”

“Three years, two months, one week, three days, ten hours, thirty-five minutes and two and nine-tenths seconds,” Bess answered, distracted as the wrongness poked at her again. More than tension. Her skin crawled and she fought back an instinct to run. Patterns. That’s what is real. Focus on your patterns. But she needed to identify this wrongness to be certain. She tapped her wrist controls to bring her datasuit to full power and expand a hologlobe around her for protection.

“Bess?” Alex’s voice sounded very far away as she twisted into virtual again, blinking up her personal Netwalk virtual links. A metallic taste spread across her tongue. She wasn’t imagining this. *Bess?* he speeched, using digital Netwalk subvocal communication protocols which were a virtual version of oral speech.

*Something’s wrong,* she answered back in Netwalk subvocals, concentrating on that tiny thread of wrongness. Belatedly, she called up her virtual guise for better protection, half-formed as yet. She wanted her central avatar to reflect her Kalapuyan Native American heritage, which required getting non-digital family pictures from her father’s family records. Once she was sixteen she could petition for tribal recognition in her own right using her DNA, and gain access. He had agreed to the enrollment process for Bess, but his health interfered. Without those images, Bess chose to wait to do more than the basics. It was worth delaying to create what she wanted for her base.

*Show me.* His virtual voice strengthened and his chosen virtual guise, that of an archangel with sword strapped to his side, appeared next to her.

She took his hand to show him her trace. The coppery flavor grew stronger in her mouth as they began to traverse virtual space and she started to quiver. No. I will not let that—thing—do this to me again!

But even as she and Alex focused on that one small wisp, it disappeared, leaving a bitter tang in her mouth.

*What was that?*Alex asked, surveying their virtual environment.

She took her time to answer, scanning the bright multi-colored flashes of dataflow around her. The vague sense of menace faded away, leaving only the sour aftertaste that followed these incidents.

*Nothing. I guess.*

He nodded. *Stand down?*

*I’d say so.*

*Lead us back.*

She noticed that despite her comment about standing down, Alex wore his archangel guise as they retreated back to their bodies in the hologlobe, rather than returning to his non-Security guise.

Wasn’t just my imagination. He picked up on the trace too.

That wasn’t a comforting thought about the device she dared not think about by the name it had been given. Report as an anomalous phenomenon? she asked herself.

No, she decided. “I’m not going to say anything about that last bit,” she told Alex as she stretched, reminding her consciousness of the parameters of her meat self. Not everyone had to reorient themselves as aggressively as she did when returning from full-body Netwalk, and maybe after a few more months getting used to her chip, she’d be the same. “Not until we know more.”

He frowned. “You sure?”

“At some point we have to manage these situations ourselves,” Bess said, trying to project a confidence she didn’t really feel.

Can’t always go running to Mama when things go wrong in virtual, especially after Dad’s heart attack. I don’t want to worry them. It’s not that bad.


“Hey! You two are gonna be last to dinner if you don’t get moving!” Sophie yelled. “Shut off the hologlobe and let’s go! Real steak tonight!”

Alex snapped the hologlobe closed. “Won’t be last to dinner if I can help it,” he said, switching off his datasuite.

Bess tapped off her datasuit and slowly followed Alex into the hallway that led to the cafeteria which served all the crèche cohorts.

The gadget shouldn’t have reached her here, in the training wing. Supposedly the wing was heavily shielded. That she’d felt its presence didn’t bode well for her future plans. At the moment, its reach didn’t extend to space, but who knew if that would continue to be the case? She’d never get off of Earth as anything more than a tourist if she didn’t develop better shielding and better protection strategies independent of external shields and the protections of others. Everyone had to cope with the Gizmo, but not everyone had her extreme sensitivity to it. She had to fix that reactivity, or accept the limitations of Earth.

Not an acceptable alternative.


Later that night, Melanie Fielding rubbed her eyes and leaned back in her office chair, snapping down her hologlobe to energy saving mode while she took a break to consider what she’d just discovered. I’m getting too old for this Security save-the-world crap. She blinked up the clock. One A.M. Far too late to be tracking down that rogue hacker who’d spoofed Caspian Station communications guidance systems, even though she now knew did it. Certainly not the optimal time to have to think about the politics this finding had just uncovered.

The Caspian Station hack wasn’t malevolent, fortunately. Just a kid playing games. Still, any interference in a com control system like Troubadour’s meant problems. Despite the warnings from Melanie and her husband Marty, Gerard Montcrief kept insisting that Troubadour didn’t need the secured arrangements Melanie required for her Do It Right com programs.

He might have a different opinion after this incident.

And the identity of the kid hacker was hugely problematic, even more volatile than the hack itself. For once the hacker wasn’t one of the Freedom Army anarchists seeking to shut down the High Space consortium of high Earth orbit industrial stations and free the destructive machine known as Gizmo that also empowered the digital online advances of the past forty years. This kid was harmless, had apparently ventured beyond the bounds as part of a game or a dare.

Correction. The kid would be harmless, if it wasn’t for who he was.

Richard Stephens. My nephew. Andrew’s boy. Her mother Diana, well established as the New American Federation ambassador to the Corporate Courts for the past fifteen years, would blow a gasket once she knew this. Would argue to the Courts that something had to be done to restrain Richard in the future. Would advocate for removal of the special circumstances that kept Richard from the Courts and the resulting required exposure to Gizmo’s influence. Might even argue that such treatment be extended to Richard’s sister Christina and Melanie’s daughter Bess. For a very brief moment Melanie flirted with the notion of signing off and telling her mother about her discovery in the morning, after a few hours’ sleep. Curl up with Marty and reassure herself that he was all right.

No. By morning Mom’s pet hackers will have fingered Richard. She couldn’t leave her mother to develop her own conclusions and a solution to this incident without input. Like Melanie, her brother Andrew had chosen to resist the dictates of the Corporate Courts which required the leadership of its corporate members to expose their infant children to the thing—the Gizmo—that the Courts had been created to guard. Ostensibly the exposure was required to ensure epigenetic modifications that would allow for more effective digital communication links as well as control over Gizmo.

Bess hadn’t received that exposure. After Gizmo tried to kill Bess before she was a week old, Melanie had pulled out of the Courts except for technical consults. After his son’s first Gizmo exposure resulted in temporary behavior and language regressions, Andrew chose to follow Melanie’s lead, refusing to expose either of his children to it. As a result, his Stephens Reclamation participated in the Courts as a lesser entity, despite their mother’s high position. Diana had reluctantly accepted their withdrawal.

Richard’s actions threatened that acceptance.

And then there’s our Netwalker grandmother, who’s found a way to pester us after death. Sarah probably knew that Richard was the culprit. Would she tell Diana? The Netwalker-host relationship between Sarah and Diana was particularly poisonous. Sarah might tell Diana that Richard did it, or she might not, depending on her mood and whether she was angrier with Diana or Andrew at this particular moment. Or Melanie.

Melanie tapped her fingertips in a four beat rhythm on her chair arms, as she thought through her recommendations before calling her mother. Andrew had further been able to exclude Gizmo exposure for his children Richard and Christina because Netwalk exposure had been prohibited for him. Under normal circumstances children of the Corporate Courts had Netwalk chips implanted at age five. Bess’s Gizmo-caused virtual problems had kept her free from the implant until she was fourteen and a half. Andrew’s restrictions had kept Richard and Christina free from chipping until now, since they couldn’t live with him if they had a Netwalk-type implant. After Andrew had experienced a form of Netwalker possession, the Courts’ ruling had restricted him to headsets and remote operations.

This incident would change that status. Diana would want Andrew’s children chipped. Andrew’s restrictions meant the kids would need to stay with either Melanie or their grandmother. Placement with Diana meant they’d be exposed to Gizmo and its potential dominance. Worse, since Bess now had the Netwalk chip to protect her from Gizmo, Diana would want to bring her into the Courts along with her cousins. That couldn’t happen. Bess’s Netwalk implant had only been live for six months, and despite her talent in virtual, Bess’s current control wasn’t sufficient to protect her from the seizures that the Gizmo provoked in her without external support.

If Do It Right chips the kids and provides training, then that gives Mom no reason to push for Bess’s exposure to the damned thing.

They’d have to move quickly to ensure that the Courts didn’t gain custody of Andrew’s children, Melanie decided. She didn’t trust anyone at the Courts to wait for a discussion before acting. Better to move first.

Melanie clicked up her com to contact her head of Security. Before she could call Angela, a link pulsed green in her visual overlays from Deirdre Conley, second only to Melanie herself in the coalition of Netwalk Enforcers that supervised Netwalkers and Netwalk chip carriers in virtual world. She had been running independent traces on the hacker at Melanie’s request.

Melanie opened Deirdre’s link. The small blond woman scowled, looking as tired as Melanie felt. *The hack traces back to Stephens,* she speeched.

*Confirms what I discovered. It’s his kid Richard. How close do you think my mother’s people are?*

*When did you ID?*

*Just now. How close are Mom’s people? Cat know yet?*

Deirdre shook her head. *I obscured a couple of traces to give us some time when I saw how things were going. But they’re close. Couldn’t do too much concealment because Cat will have to disclose tampering if it’s too big. I’d say we’ve got a couple of hours before they figure it out.*

*Damn.* Melanie’s fingers stopped tapping on the chair arm. More complications. Cat McCauley, the Enforcer assigned to monitor Diana and her Netwalker Sarah, Diana’s mother and Melanie’s grandmother, was no fool. She was almost Deirdre’s equal—had to be, to manage Diana and Sarah. She’d ID Deirdre’s traces and realize that Melanie and Deirdre were protecting someone close. *I’d better contact Mom and let her know,* she conceded. *No alternative because they’ll find it pretty quickly once Cat breaks through what you’ve done. Was hoping for some sleep first.*

*Ain’t no one sleeping tonight. And there’s more.* Deirdre fingersigned the code for the gadget. *That’s involved. Tracks and traces woven throughout the hack. I thought Andrew’s kids didn’t have contact with it.*

A chill trickled down Melanie’s spine. She hadn’t been looking for Gizmo trace, leaving that deeper tracking to Deirdre while she traced the top link layers. *They’re not supposed to have anything to do with it.* Worse and worse. She wondered if Bess had felt any surge in the device’s activity. Her daughter—and Alex—were supposed to report any possible contacts with Gizmo. Bess’s Gizmo contact reports had faded in frequency since her chipping, and Melanie didn’t think it was just because the Netwalk chip obscured Bess’s presence in virtual world so that the Gizmo couldn’t find her. Bess wanted to be independent, even more so since Marty’s heart attack. She risked trying to do too much too soon—my daughter, all right.

She choked back another sigh. Daughters. Too much to do to fret about Bess at the moment, not with Marty’s condition lurking at the back of her thoughts constantly. She’d take Bess’s silence with both relief and worry. But sooner rather than later she’d need to check in to make certain Bess wasn’t taking too much on herself without help beyond her crèche mates.

*I’ll have Angela contact Andrew’s Security and implement Bugout before I talk to Mom. Then I’ll contact Andrew myself,* she speeched. *Gonna be tough. Mom will want to chip the kids. Andrew won’t. Maybe if I offer to do it through DIR he’ll feel different.*

Deirdre nodded. *Prep the labs for investigation and possible implant?*

*If you would. Make less work for Marty.* Melanie allowed herself to think wistfully of Marty, now peaceably sleeping, she hoped. He’d had to slow down since his heart attack. Since then he always seemed frail to her, and it brought back bad memories of her father’s last days.

*On it. Give me an ETA.*

*Once I know. Thanks, Dee.*

*Good luck with your mother.* Deirdre signed off.

Melanie fumbled in the top desk drawer for a small box covered by twining red and black dragon images. She pulled out a small tab of Burnout and popped it under her tongue, then clicked up the link to Angela.

No one’s sleeping tonight, she thought sourly. Damn kids.

She wondered just how much Bess wasn’t telling her. At least if Bess was doing anything comparable to what her cousin had just done, she was covering her tracks better than Richard had. So far.

Then again, given the manner in which the crèche worked as a whole, if one kid did it, everyone else was involved as well. Don and Sophie kept the younger kids under wraps as the elders of their cohort, and that tended to discourage solo youthful craziness. Another good reason why the crèche would be the best possible place to park a difficult kid like Richard, who already had demonstrated that he could push virtual limits.


Bess’s eyes snapped open as her body jerked. Coppery flavor in her mouth again. Faint vibration. Sharp, cold prickles that burned up and down her arms and legs as the cold retreated. It’s reaching for me.

Panic grabbed at her. Her muscles twitched. She couldn’t hear anything through the pounding of her heart. She almost lashed back at the gadget.

No. Moving toward virtual triggered the warning memory of Deirdre Conley’s soothing voice. Gizmo reflects thoughtless strikes. That’s what causes your seizures. Shield, not strike.

Shield, not strike, Bess reminded herself. Much as it went against her deepest instinct to retreat, she visualized slamming down steel doors around her, top, bottom, and sides, until she was boxed in steel. The jangling vibrations retreated, bit by slow bit, leaving only a trickle of bitter aftertaste. The tingles took longer to fade.

Time for the next level. In. Out. In. Out. Bess focused on the flow of her breath, inhaling for a two-count, exhaling four. Inhale three, exhale five. Control her breathing. Steady her mind. Calm. Calm. Even, steady pattern. Her heartbeat calmed from its racing throb. No more metallic taste on her tongue.

She was clear. Safe.

*Record incident,* she subvocaled to her Netwalk chip. *Access to Alexander Jeffreys only.*Then she tentatively released the shielding visualization, tensing in case it was waiting.

Not this time. She opened her eyes, staring at the faint twinkles of the reflective stars she and Sophie had painted on the ceiling when they were little kids. The crèche sleeping room, not her suite. Not alone tonight. Now she remembered. They’d gone for another round of gaming after dinner that had run late, and she’d bunked with the rest of her crèche mates so they’d get an early start on tomorrow’s skiing. Since her pulse no longer throbbed in her ears, she could hear the soft breathing of her female crèche mates around her in their bunks. Sophie. Martina. Teresa. On the other side of the wall, where Phil, Don, Zach, and Alex slept, she heard two separate snorers harmonizing. Not alone.

Tina flopped over in her bunk and started snoring. The rattle of her snores punctuated a higher note between the rumbles of whoever was snoring on the other side. Bess grinned and let her breath out again. Not alone. Safe. Shielded. She could go back to sleep.

Except now her brain buzzed, and a trickle from digital world tempted her. She wanted to reach for it, to explore the brightly lit dataflows she was still discovering since her chip implantation.

Not alone. Not tonight. Not after what had just happened.

Bess sighed. No good to stay here with her thoughts jumping around. Trying a virtual excursion would be more tempting if she lay here. She slid out of her bunk, careful not to make any noise so she wouldn’t wake anyone, and slipped out of the sleeping room, making certain the door shut quietly behind her before tiptoeing down the hallway to the common room. She glanced around the kitchenette and lounge. Watch a vid? Drink some tea? Maybe pick up a hard copy book and read for a while? During school semesters she could count on a nice soothing calculus refresher session to banish insomnia because there were always assignment extensions to follow. But between sessions those links went inactive to enforce a study break.

Tea and review of DIR 1 production specs, she decided. Or at least as much of those as Mom will let me see. Her mother had recently suggested that Bess study the history of some chip development lines now in production. Almost like she knows about these nights.

Bess brewed mint tea and activated a hologlobe on the coffee table next to the soft sofa. She settled in with pillows, wrapped a throw around her, pulled on her datagloves for better access, then called up the DIR 1 primary Netwalk Version 3 chip development stats. She clicked open direct auditory comlinks to her chip so that she could listen to the introduction by Julia Hawkins, the lead developer, without waking anyone.

After Julia’s introduction (with annotations by Julia’s Netwalker Will, Bess’s late grandfather), Bess dove deep into the schematics of the Dialogue side of the Netwalk 3 chip. She had lost track of time, using fingertip contact to follow the chip patterns that were part of the virtual pathways, when someone rested his hand on her right shoulder. Alex. Even halfway in virtual she recognized the pressure of his fingers, the faint spicy scent that meant Alex. She paused her trace, leaving a marker inside so she could find her place.

Alex circled around the coffee table as she pulled off her datagloves. He sat on the other end of the sofa. She blinked the hologlobe away.

“I got the alert. You okay?” he asked, frowning. “A dream?”

“Yeah and yeah.” She reached for her now-cold tea on the coffee table, sipping it.

“The gadget?”

She nodded. “Almost reacted to it without thinking.”

“But you didn’t.” His voice was confident. He would have known if she had struck back. Their link would have roused him long before she filed the report.

“No.” Bess stared down into her cup. These post-event interrogations were much better with Alex conducting them than her mother, but still—uncomfortable. “The initial reaction was there. I wanted to strike back but stopped before calling up virtual.”

Alex nodded, approving. “How deep did it get?”

“Taste, vibration. Sharp icy-hot prickles.”

Alex raised a brow. “You’re getting better. I wouldn’t have known except your incident record tag woke me. Not urgent. Recorded?”

She nodded. Setting her cup back on the coffee table, she leaned forward and stretched out her palms. These reviews seemed to make her settle easier after an encounter with the gadget. Alex bent over and lightly rested his hands on hers. Bess closed her eyes and whispered the code that transferred the memory to Alex, shivering slightly as she remembered how it had felt.

Alex lifted his hands, leaning back. She settled into her pillows, opening her eyes to watch as he studied the memory in a small, shielded hologlobe. His lips tightened.

“Legit. Something made it spike and reach for you. That’s two tonight.”

“Nine this week,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Low-intensity until now, just brushes.”

“Maybe it’s time to talk to your mother.”

“If she has time away from this Caspian incident.” Bess swallowed hard. God, she wanted to talk to her mother, but after Dad had collapsed with his heart attack in front of her, in the labs, she was afraid of stressing her mother too, at least for anything that could just as easily be managed through her crèche mates.

“They could be related.”

“You’ve heard news through Security?”

Their eyes met. He grimaced, and finally looked away. “Clearances, but—yeah.”

“Tomorrow. If she’s not buried in urgent matters,” Bess said.

“You might want to make it an urgent matter because things are escalating.” His voice dropped even more. “That was the other thing that woke me. Nik sent a cancellation for training tomorrow. Level 4 callout an hour ago. I should have been part of that team, but I’m on call for reception instead. As are you.”

“I hadn’t checked my messages.”

“Now you know. Alarm set for two hours from now, five am, Don and Sophie as well.”

“What kind of reception would have us as part of the team?” she asked. “I’m not Security. Must be family, but Grandmother wouldn’t be coming in that early.”

Alex shook his head. “No idea at all. But it’s you, me, Don and Sophie.”

“What’s going on?”

Alex shrugged. “That I wasn’t told.”

Bess shivered. A mystery reception at five am, for family? The—thing—becoming more active? The nameless dread she’d felt earlier settled on her again. She rearranged her throw to wrap around her as tight as possible while Alex stared at his hologlobe. What she really wanted was to be held.

Three or four years ago, Alex would have taken her in his arms and held her long enough for the world to steady around her.

No longer. Not since she’d turned twelve.

Bess sighed and returned to her Netwalk 3 schematic traces. At least she could learn these patterns.


No putting it off. Melanie frowned and tapped up the com link for her brother Andrew. She had to get in touch with him, now. Nik and his team were en route for Andrew’s compound at Stephens Rec in Los Angeles, and Angela was rounding up the greeting party. She couldn’t count on her mother Diana’s restraint, not after the big argument she’d just had with her mother and Zoë Wright. At least Sarah supported Melanie’s plan for managing Richard, but she had disappeared quickly after that agreement. Melanie suspected Diana had locked Sarah down in her Netwalk chip. Not good. What on earth is my mother thinking?

That meant Diana wasn’t tolerating any disagreements with her schemes. So they needed to act, now. Glad I got Nik and Angela started before I talked to Mom.

“You’re monitoring my communications,” Andrew grumbled, opening his link faster than she expected “I was just punching in your link.” He looked as tired as she felt, face sagging with fatigue. He knows.

Of course he’d know. Samir at Caspian isn’t gentle when booting out hackers. Kid probably got hit with a ton of blowback. Serves him right.

She sighed, sympathetic to her brother but not his son. “Blame Mom for this one. Mom and Sarah. For once they’re partway on the same page and it’s not pretty, Drew, even if they don’t agree on how to handle it.”

“Richard?” he said harshly.

Melanie sagged into her chair. “I’ve been doing major damage control, bro. Consider yourself lucky that a Courts team hasn’t shown up on your doorstep demanding Richard yet. I just got off a link with Mom and Zoë Wright, with Sarah chiming in. They had traced the interference at Caspian to a Stephens origin.”

Andrew winced. “Rick didn’t cover his traces that well. I am surprised that they’re not pounding down the doors. Samir hit him hard, fried that headset Rick was using. If Rick wasn’t so damned hard-headed he’d be in a lot worse shape.”

Melanie almost said like father, like son but bit that retort back. Andrew was trying to cooperate these days. She needed to honor that. “Like I said, I’ve been doing damage control to slow down their tracking, once I figured out the origins of the Caspian hack. Deirdre obscured some links. Lucky that Mom keeps a tight rein on Sarah, else you would have someone pounding on your door by now. Both Deirdre and I are faster than anything else the Courts have.”

“So you knew before you talked to them. Did they know?”

“No. They were talking about Courts sanctions for Stephens overall. Cat had traced back as far as Stephens. I shut that talk down by telling them it was Richard, just a talented kid, not a threat from your company. Otherwise they were ready to descend upon Stephens, put the company under Interdiction, lock you up, the whole shebang.”

A sick look crossed Andrew’s face. “What about Rick?”

“They want him neutralized. Wright’s solution is to drag Richard off to the gadget’s complex, for further interrogation and to scare him off of any virtual activity.” While she talked, she signed in the shared Stephens-DIR handcodes they’d developed for those occasions when the two companies worked cooperatively in the field. Need face-to-face meet. Security issues.

“I won’t agree to that,” Andrew said. How soon? Courts for me today.

“I tried to tell them that. They wouldn’t listen.” Cancel Courts, she signed back. Come here. You and Celina, both kids. ASAP.

“What the hell do they want? Lock him up forever?” How cancel? He scowled.

“The discussion involved extreme measures,” she said flatly. “They’re panicking.” I’ll cover. Only option.

“Mel, this is fucking ridiculous! He’s just a kid!”

“I know that!” she snapped. “I also know that this next generation of kids scares the pants off of the higher ups in the Corporate Courts. Your kids, my kid. They can’t get Bess, so they’ll take Richard and Christina. Convenient for them that he’s a loose talent without training.”

“Chris too?” Andrew swallowed hard.

She nodded. Bring both, she signed.

“Damn it, Mel. Both of them?”

“Mother plans to call you at six, before you’re scheduled to leave for the Courts. If you don’t already have a Security escort at your door by then.” No time. Leave now.

“Thanks for the warning.” That bad?

“Yeah.” That bad. I may have pushed their schedule by arguing. Nik at your door in fifteen.

“Thanks.” Half an hour to be ready.

“I tried to talk them out of it. At least now you’re prepared.” Best if no delays. Rush.

“I appreciate it. Thanks, Mel.” Andrew signed off.

Melanie slumped back even further in her chair. Maybe she should just spend what was left of the night right here. She might get some sleep that way.

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