Addy In My Mind
by Eugie Foster
Here’s a question I never thought I’d ask myself: what’s worse, being on the lam from a guerilla gang, or flying cabin class through turbulence with someone who’s bits to bollocks terrified of being in the air?
The zipper plane pitched again. It was kind of fun, like a motion sim at a rec park. I was betting Adrienne wasn’t big on thrill sims, though. Her fingernails dug into my arm for the umpteenth time.
“Addy,” I said, trying to keep my voice ride-the-mellow while all the nerves were hopping and screaming from my elbow up. “Can you maybe pick a different part of me to claw at? I think that arm’s hanging on by strips of willpower.”
Adrienne’s eyes were bright blue balls of oh-help-me-God.
I extracted my arm from her death clutch and checked to see how many arteries she’d severed. Not even one, couldn’t believe it.
“Since when’ve you been a flyaphobe?”
“I’m not,” she said, her teeth chattering. “Flying’s fine. I’m all good with flying. It’s crashing I’ve got issues with.”
“This little turbulence? It’s just a few clouds.”
Adrienne shut her eyes. “My brain believes you. My nerves think you’re a big fat liar.”
I wrapped my arm around her. “Shh. You just settle back and let Kristof take care of you.” She leaned, although the armrest between us was playing chaperone, and I tilted her head for a kiss. Mushing lips with Adrienne is one of my favorite things. She always tastes fresh, like fruit and cream or angel food. Today, she reminded me of peaches. I felt a bit guilty, distracting her that way, but she was way too edgy for both our states of calm. I pressed a sleepy-patch, the one I’d been saving for myself, against her neck. She slumped against me faster than you can say “relax” and I stuck one of those chiclets the zippers call pillows under her head.
“You can thank me when we land,” I said to her eyelids.
I love watching Adrienne when she’s asleep. Usually, she’s all intense about something, and it’s easy for other guys to miss how beautiful she is. But I get to see her when she’s asleep, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can make her grin, or even laugh. If other XYs could see her then, they’d be pounding down our door, begging for a chance to drool at her feet. I’m just as glad to have her brow-furrowed and scowling. There was enough to stress about with the Blues gunning for me; a little turbulence seemed like overkill.
New Zealand is slowline for my tastes, but things had been powering up there. Adrienne telecommuted and had a regular column on eNet; I’d started a new ad-blip agency. Then eNet poofed offline. No forwarding address, no email. Okay, sure, it’s cause for gridlock when one of the biggest news and information networks shuts down shop without a bleep, but I didn’t think it was our worry. Sure we were out a paycheck, but business was perky. I could’ve done the credit haul for Adrienne and me. But she didn’t think so. She had to order up a flight to Old Atlanta.
Adrienne sighed and cuddled against me. Despite the pain still zinging through my arm, it was nice. But now I was stuck. No sleepy-patch, and no scintillating conversation neither. It was going to be a long trip. I debated watching the in-flight vid, but I think I’d bash myself cold before subjecting myself to that on purpose. Besides, home 3Ds were more my pleasure these days.
Adrienne and I exchange memories through our neural implants — little bits of tech to give our gray matter some zing. It’s sappy, but having a bit of her with me 24×7 makes me feel gushy. I whispered “Gong Xi Fa Cai” to active my NI — the tickle at the roof of my mouth told me it was booted — and became a younger Adrienne sitting down to an old fashioned dinner with the folks while the zipper plunged through layers of condensed water and air.
Adrienne was still groggy when we started the spiral down to Hartsfield-Jackson International.
“Addy, we’re there.”
“Wha?” She sat up. Her hand snapped to her neck and she peeled off the now inert sleepy-patch. “You drugged me?” The sleep fuzz left her eyes, replaced by a freeze colder than liquid nitro. “Without asking?”
“Just to calm you down.”
She glared at me. “What gives you the right?”
People were prairie dogging over the seats. Couldn’t they see the “please fasten seat belts” light was on?
I lowered my voice, hoping she’d get the idea. “Addy, I’m sorry. I thought you’d be happier out.”
She got the idea, but it was going to cost me. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared deathrays.
We filed off the zipper, passed through customs, and flagged a taxi to our hotel. She didn’t speak more than a mouthful of words all the way there.
In the hotel, Adrienne banged drawers open and shut, tossing in clothes and sundries.
“Sweetie, I’m really sorry about the tranq. You were so worked up over the ride; I thought you’d be better napping.”
She continued slamming the furniture.
I stepped up and wrapped my arms around her shoulders, hoping she wouldn’t bite them off. “You know I didn’t mean any harm.”
She stopped flinging my best shirt around and stood stock-still. It was like holding an Addy-shaped refrigerant, until I felt the trembles. I glanced down. She was crying.
“Adrienne!” She went weepy faced against me. I stroked my hands over her thick, black hair, mystified. Rants and raging I expected. But this was off spec.
“I’m not mad at you,” she finally said, muffled against my shirt. “I love you.”
“Of course you do. I love you too.” Okay, it wasn’t the time to get twitchy about the three-word knell. It had to be said, obviously. Although it was the first time we’d uttered those syllables to each other. Not like I’ve never said them to a fem before, but this was the first time it’d meant more than “I’ve got you on my speed dial.”
“I shouldn’t have brought you,” she said. “It was selfish of me to endanger you too.”
Another time, I might have agreed with her. But I was feeling gallant right then. “No way. You and me, we’re melded at the brain. Couldn’t leave me behind.”
She tilted her head up, presenting her mouth for a kiss. Of course, I obliged. She tasted like the New Zealand sea, salt water and soft wind. I felt her hand on my neck. I had a second to pull away, but by then the sleepy-patch had done its work. Ironic payback? Somehow, I didn’t think Adrienne had done it to get back at me.
When I woke up, I thought we were in our little bungalow in New Zealand. The light came in, rosy and golden, through the curtains and I was tucked in warm blankets up to my chin. I reached out for Adrienne to tell her about this funny dream where she had this fear of flying . . . and of course, no Adrienne. Empty bed, me nestled in comfy, and a readme with her siggy flashing on my personal data system on the pillow:
You were right. It was stupid to come back. But I’ve got business I have to take care of. Fly back to NZ on the next zipper. I’ll join you when I can. All my love, A.
I tore through the room. All her ID chips were gone, her PDS, her credit disc, everything.
I had a nanosec of: should I scat out of town on the next flight, or try to link up with her? It wasn’t even an issue.
So, how to find her?
Her instability started when eNet blipped out. Maybe discreet inquiries might open up channels in that direction.
There was a funnel station under the hotel. I reset my PDS for Old Atlanta and streamed up a pass. It was like old times, straphanging downtown.
First stop: Bennie’s. Bennie runs a different sort of club. Somehow, the guy’s made it a place for both the down-and-outs and the slumming partygoers, so he gets freebie ins on everything that bumps and grinds in the city. Maybe it’s the retro campy music — songs from the turn of the millennium, way before the turf wars — or the low tech light shows on his crusty walls. Or maybe it’s Bennie himself with his happy, round face and Day-Glo turbans. Whatever. Club kids and gang bangers make nice there. It’s almost like there’s a truce. Of course, “almost a truce” ain’t nowhere near the same as the real thing.
I didn’t know Bennie well; downtown was never my gig. But as soon as I sat at his bar, he and his hot pink chapeau came over and called me by name.
“Hey, Kristof, been a long time. Where you been?”
I hunched, because yeah, hunching makes a fellow less conspicuous when a guy’s shouting his name. I passed a fifty over.
“Bennie, I’m back short-term. Can you not make it a spectacle?”
He grinned and the fifty disappeared. “Discretion. Gotcha. Heard the Blues were stalking you.”
I shrugged. “Been avoiding them.” Always a good plan when someone big on ultra violence thinks you owe them money.
“What can I get you?”
Bennie poured two fingers of amber gut burn into a tumbler and passed it over. I dropped another fifty. I’m practical about money. It’s for fun and comfort. If a few bills can keep me in a state able to have fun and stay comfy, it’s not quibble-worthy. Bennie seemed like a good investment.
I sipped my scotch. It burned like copper wire on a FleetP processor.
“So,” I coughed. I tried again. “So, eNet went down.”
“Yep. Pretty sudden. Left all their contacts hanging.”
“What sort of contacts?” I gasped. Whatever people say about Bennie, one thing’s sure, he doesn’t water his drinks.
“All the normal ones, media tie-ins, network gurus.”
“Funny thing, even the guys who’re usually twisted up with eNet, they’re knocked over by it too.”
Here we go, insider speculation. “Like who?”
“Undernet. In the tunnels like.”
In the tunnels was street talk for guerilla gang warrens. “Do you know Adrienne McAllister?”
Bennie raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. Had a party club kid sister, regular of mine. Adrienne was in here a couple times, mostly trying to tow little Dina home.”
“Do you know why she’d freak over eNet going down?”
He frowned and I caught the aha going off. Before he could enlighten me, a deadweight slammed into my shoulder and spun me around.
I found myself staring into the face of a mean looking bruiser, bright blue eyes — way bluer than natural, unless metallic cobalt was big in his genes. His hamfists, wrapped in blue gauntlets stamped with little black skulls, knotting my shirt. I didn’t need a newsflash to tell me he was a Blue.
“Am I in your seat?” I asked, hopefully. One thing in my favor, I didn’t see a blinking, red ON light. If he had a neural implant, maybe it wasn’t booted and his gang buds weren’t all logged on, watching me out of his eyes, dangling from his fists.
“Jiggity-jig, Mr. Xiang,” he said. “Bossman wants to welcome you back to Old Atlanta.”
“Not really on a social visit.” I was stalling. Not that I had a plan, but going home with this thug was not topping my favorites list.
I squinted over his head, scanning the room. There were some club kids watching the light show on the walls, probably zoned on syrup, and another table of gangers in the shadows. Not Blues, but it wasn’t like that made them on my side. By the brightly embroidered constrictor on the back of one of them, I figured they were Snakes. Big gang, like the Blues. Last I checked, they weren’t skirmishing with each other.
I’m not sure what happened next. I had a moment of disorientation, and I thought the Blue had defragged me with something. Then things got real clear, and I was shaking hands with a guy in a suit, patterned with scales. A second later, I was out of my flashback and breathing the Blue’s syrup-sweet breath.
Everything was still surreal and fuzzy, but I had a plan. I slammed my fist into Blue’s face. Felt like I’d mashed my fingers into a plascrete wall, but disconnected — the pain all far away and subdued. He let me go and I scrambled away. Now here’s the wonky part, I didn’t streak for the door. I stumbled deeper into Bennie’s club and shouted as loud as I could, “The claw doesn’t rip and the fang doesn’t tear without fire!”
Didn’t have a clue where that came from. Not that I had long to ponder. Blue recovered from my love tap and was not happy. He was on me, slugged me in the jaw. Time went back to real and there was no far-off disassociation from his fist with my face. It felt like my head exploded. I didn’t even notice when I went down, just the big, dark blue boot coming at me.
Being kicked in the gut is not an experience to savor. I curled up tight, gagging on the air lodged between my stomach and my windpipe. Over my head, there was a scuffle and a crash. Maybe my soft white underbelly had thrown off Blue’s balance? When the next kick didn’t come, I tried to relearn how to breathe.
Blue was out. He’d been slammed under one of Bennie’s retro-plastic tables. I was betting the blond kid crouched over him with the still-crispy taser was my savior.
The gang of Snakes from the table had sprung up around me. Aside from the blond (was he even fourteen?) with the hippo zapper in his hand, there was the user with the jacket I noticed earlier. He had short, black, crinkly hair, and a nose that looked like it’d been busted at least once. The guy next to him made Snake-jacket’s dark skin look pale. This guy was black as they get, from his buzzed, ebony hair down to his jet boots. The whites of his eyes almost glowed, set in all that black.
He spoke up. “You sang the anthem.”
“Huh?” Getting the beat down tends to do bad things to my processing speed.
Next thing, Shadow-man had a knee on my chest and a hand bristling with spikes under my chin.
“The claw,” he prompted.
“The claw doesn’t rip and the fang doesn’t tear without fire,” I squeaked.
Over our heads, Taser-boy and Snake-jacket looked at each other.
“And?” Shadow-man said.
There was an and? “And the flame breathes life to our wings,” I whispered. Guess so.
Shadow-man got off me. Taser-boy held out his hand. “Who’s your team lead?” he asked, hauling me to my feet.
“Your sysop. Snake commando uno.”
Lots of answers swarmed up, but call me a brain amputee victim, it was the truth that shot out. “I don’t have a team lead.”
Taser-boy goggled and I wondered if he was going to zap me like he had Blue. Instead, he said, “You packing an NI?”
“Uh, yeah. Why?”
Shadow-man wrapped his hand around my arm and headed out the door, dragging me along. “We’re going down under.”
I didn’t think he meant Australia.
They took point around me like bodyguards, or detention wardens, and hustled me out of Bennie’s. We trooped down Main Street, hung a left onto Peachtree, and moseyed into Cambridge Miles. I was thinking this was some bizarro plan to get me into a quiet ditch somewhere so they could play thump-the-Kristof in peace. But no, they led me to a skinny, sheet metal door, locked up tight with a secureloc panel. Shadow-man typed in something at the digit pad and stood aside.
Guess I was supposed to go first.
The door led to a stairwell lit by green emergency lights. My escort fell in. The stairs spiraled down, not what you’d call wheelchair accessible, but even. They stopped at another door. No secureloc this time, just a speaker grill to one side and a lookie-eye lens that swiveled to scan us.
A voice came from the grill. “Who’s the chippie, Claudius?”
“Microserf here called a red alert with the Dragons,” Shadow-man — apparently named Claudius — said.
I had? Dragons?
“He sang the credo.” Claudius sneered. “But he’s shooting blanks in recall.”
“Comes fully loaded,” Taser-boy added.
The grill voice was silent for way longer than I liked. “Checked,” it said, at last.
Claudius hauled on the door. It swung open slowly, like it weighed a few tons. Military bunks lined the room inside. Three alert guard-types watched us as we came in. Someone had painted a snake on the black metal in reds, golds, and oranges. No blue, big surprise. I looked closer. At first, all I saw were serpentine coils of glistening color spiraling in on themselves, but then I saw the wings hugging the body, the stubby legs curled beneath it, and finally the head with wisps of fire dribbling from its mouth. Not a snake, but a wyrm. A dragon.
Claudius jerked me by the arm, and I saw the dark corridor in the back. I didn’t need to be shoved every step. I marched to it, dignity dinged but chugging.
It led to another room — dark, lit by the glow of computer screens. A guy sat at a console with his back to us, a long, salt-and-pepper ponytail down his back. Data panels surrounded him on three sides, and a virtual reality headset covered his forehead and eyes, trailing wires to a bank of inputs. VR gloves sheathed his hands, and he plucked at air data.
When we came in, he swiveled in his execufoam chair and lifted away the headgear. NI-sized ON lights dotting his forehead continued to flash. His face was gristled; a tattoo of a long, scaled beastie spiraled around his neck and terminated, head in strike rampant, over his left cheek.
“Hola, Kristof,” he said.
“Do I know you?”
“Nope. Wire’s got a ‘looking for’ on you. My alias, Bird.”
He didn’t look like any bird I’d ever seen. “What wire?”
Bird reached and hit a touch screen. eNet’s flashing logo loomed, spinning peacefully in cyberspace.
“eNet’s back up?”
“As of a millimoment ago.”
“Wait. Are you telling me that eNet told you to look for me?” Why would eNet care two microfigs about me? Even Adrienne wasn’t a huge time persona with them; I should have been way under their radar.
His fingers flicked and a vid of me hunched over my PDS and scribbling with my stylus flashed up. I recognized my gear as something I’d picked up in New Zealand.
“Enough consultation,” Claudius said. “Why’s the microserf chirping Dragon credo?”
“Impatient much?” Bird pulled a white speckled I/O wire from his temple.
Claudius clamped his spiky hands around my arms and power walked me to Bird’s console.
“Hey, wait!” I wasn’t so shook that I couldn’t figure their plan. They were going to hack my brain. I’d only networked, mind-to-mind, with Adrienne. I was less than thrilled with the idea of gang bangers I’d just met rummaging around in there.
Bird probed the back of my head. “You buzzed, so we gotta check the big name user in your chips.”
Struggling in Claudius’s grip was netting me a fat null. “No fucking way!”
“Dragon credo or data corruption.” Bird’s thumb dug at the spot behind my ears. “Where’s your porthole?”
“Bite me,” I said.
Bird ignored me; Claudius clamped down harder. Ever get that feeling where you’re the littlest upgrade in the circuitry bin? That was me.
Bird beckoned Taser-boy over. “Stik, inventory.”
The kid, Stik, flicked out a pocket-sized circuit finder. Where’d these guys get machinery like that? Stik passed it over my head. When it went over my mouth, the tattlerod buzzed.
Claudius clamped my nose shut, the point obvious: open up or asphyxiate. I preferred consciousness; I opened up. Bird poked his fingers in. I considered biting him, but his digits pulled out before I finished mulling the pros and cons.
Bird said, “No tactile switch? How d’you boot?”
Bird chuckled. “Kristof, we are search and finding. I got a light touch. I promise not to scramble your O/S.”
“Play tag with us or I hotwire your wetware.” His VR-sheathed fingers flexed in mid-air and the monitor closest to him flashed up code. He opened a drawer and pulled out some low tech. While I watched, he unwrapped a syringe.
That did it. “Okay, okay!” It’s not that I’d turned into a girlie-boy, but I’ve got this thing about needles. “Gong Xi Fa Cai.” The top of my mouth said hello.
Bird snapped down his VR visor, stuck his I/O into my port, and next thing I knew, we were flying down a kaleidoscope. It was way different from when Adrienne plugs in. When we network, it’s like flicking a switch to each other’s perceptions. I’m in her head; she’s in mine. No sparkles, no shinies, no multi-color, high budget, vidshow FX.
Looky, looky. eNet’s special wing. Bird’s voice echoed all around me.
What’re we doing here?
Someone jacked my back door ICE. Neural eNet login fired. You’re a guest.
I felt queasy from the swirling fractals and tried to ground myself. Except there was nothing to ground. I didn’t have hands or legs, or anything.
Coding in a VR.
To my infinite relief, my body coalesced around me. I was standing in a funnel, cruising downstream. Bird clung to a strap beside me.
Just to mind wrap, he thought at me. No promises on a kosher reality. Just body basics.
The funnel pulled up. We didn’t disembark so much as appear on the platform of the station. The stairs shot up as soon as I got two feet onboard. I fell on my face. Bird crouched down and peered at me.
Gravity ain’t a thang here, y’know.
Stick it. I didn’t know what was worse, shutting my eyes, or leaving them open. I settled for squinting between my fingers. When the stairs disappeared completely, leaving us in turbosphere, I was quaking so hard, all I could do was squeak.
Bird signing off. Just received a memo. “Delivery complete, courier to ditch.”
Wait! You’re leaving me here? How do I get back?
When I get the word, I’ll pull you out.
Bird shimmered into a stack of pixels and bled away.
Before I had a chance to spank my inner panic, another stream of data scrolled up beside me.
It was Adrienne. Whatever I’d been expecting, it hadn’t been her.
She tucked her hair back, exactly like she always does when she’s nervous. I’m sorry about all this. I loaded the Dragon’s emergency phrase into your NI, just in case you got into trouble. I was hoping you wouldn’t need it.
You’re a gang banger?
Adrienne took my virtual hand in hers. No, I’m the daughter of eNet.
As hard as I ground my thoughts together, I wasn’t coming up diamonds, just lumps of “huh?”
She sat us down. The VR construct became our bungalow with the sun shining through the window over an incredible ocean-side view. My dad’s eNet.
The CEO? Thoughts of penthouse suites and infinite credit limits flashed before my virtual eyes.
No, he is eNet.
Adrienne looked tired, like she was running on reserves. After my mom died, Dad disintegrated. He was on the other side of the world making a connect with India when it happened. For a while there, he went unstuck. Wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t talk. He snapped out of it to obsess about the data company he founded, eNet. We thought it was a phase, something he needed to do to get over his grief. But then one day he jacked himself in. Gone.
What do you mean, “gone?”
Gone. He stored his body in cryosuspension and his mind went virtual. We couldn’t separate out his consciousness.
I’d heard of people going that deep into a system before, but I’d always thought it was just an ookie story.
So when eNet went down, I had to find out what happened.
But he’s fixed, right? It’s back online.
Adrienne wouldn’t look at me.
What is it, Addy? What’s going on?
I jacked in. Now I’m eNet.
My mind blue screened.
The only way I could trace what happened was to get eNet back online. But it needed organic wetware to get going.
So you volunteered?
I couldn’t leave my dad. I’m on a trail, I think. But eNet is so diversified and massive, I keep getting sidetracked by outside noise.
Can’t you get some techs or code warriors onboard?
It needs a biobrain to steer it, can’t stay online without me. If I jack out, it goes down.
Isn’t there anyone else who can helm it? What if you lose yourself in there? What if you can’t come out?
Who should I commandeer, Kristof? It’s my dad.
I thought about pleading with her; I thought about reasoning with her. But I knew it wouldn’t fly. Adrienne has a noble streak and family-priority. So: Let me jack in with you. Two brains working overtime gotta run better than one.
She gazed at me, a wisp of maybe lighting her eyes. It fizzed out. Your NI’s too outdated. If I hooked you in, you’d overload. We’re straining your capacity just interfacing like this. I’m calling Bird to take care of you. He’ll do whatever is needed to get you safe. The Dragons are allies; you can trust them. Go home.
Her image faded.
Bird appeared at my elbow. He didn’t say anything and I wasn’t feeling gabby. We caught another virtual funnel back to Dragon Central. I felt him extract his I/O wire from my mouth.
“Bird, do you have access to biotech installation?” I said.
“Duh, we are tech installers.”
“Can you upgrade my NI?”
“Top of the line. I need to be able to jack into eNet’s main server, without you to hold my hand or Addy to firewall me.”
“Major hardware that.”
“Can you do it?”
I squelched a moment’s trepidation. Adrienne said to trust these guys. I trusted her, so by default, I could lay my gray matter open to them without hesitating. Right?
“Manual, Stik, boot up med lab two,” Bird said.
Med lab two? What sort of funding did these guys have? Stik and Snake-jacket, a.k.a. Manual, vamoosed.
Bird pulled a syringe and some dope juice out of a drawer.
“Oh.” I hate needles. I mean I really, really hate needles. But what could I do? I let Bird swab me down with germaway and shove the pricker into my arm. When it punctured skin, I got lightheaded and queasy, and not from the meds, either. My legs jelly-kneed and I would have dropped, but surprising me, Claudius was there, rock solid.
“Bird’s tops,” he said. “Got you squared.”
Was he being reassuring?
The injection took effect with a head start, and the room faded out.
I woke up flat backed on a gurney in hospital gear, sky blue plasticloth gown and wads of cotton in my mouth. Bird peered down at me. I felt like something had died, desiccated, and shriveled to dust in my mouth. I leaned over and spat.
The roof of my mouth smarted, like after my initial installation, and I tasted copperware blood.
“Ith it funkthunal?” I lisped.
Bird nodded. “Watch the connections.”
“Canth I uthe your thythtem?”
I rolled off the gurney and nearly smashed my face into the tile. But Claudius was again at my side, picking me up. He carried me to the console.
Bird sorted through VR gear and stuck a pair of gloves on me. He plugged himself in and pulled a heavy-duty I/O cable out of a side panel.
“No piggybacking on me, lone gunman,” he said.
“How will I geth in?”
“I’m bookmarking my passwords and hackware for you, but no guarantees. It’s the best package I can task up. Good for one run only.”
He fiddled in my mouth, plugged the I/O wire in, and shoved a VR visor over my head. My mouth ached, and I was surrounded by a pale blue glow.
“Contact,” he said.
“Gong Thi Fa Thai,” I said. Nothing happened. I tried again, working to enunciate with my sore palate. “Gong Xi Fa Cai.” My mind went whirling down eNet’s highway.
I’d expected the same dizzy colorscape from the first time. Instead, it was gray and featureless. No dipping, no lights, just gray.
The roof of my mouth burned. It felt like someone was filling it with melting plastic. I shouted; I screamed. Something was wrong, terribly wrong, with my hookup. I almost powered down, had the SHUTDOWN switch in my sights, but I couldn’t. “One run,” Bird had said. I wouldn’t ditch on Adrienne. As soon as my resolve stuck, the burn stopped. Just like that.
Okay, I can be a slowmoe, but I’m not a complete dimmy. Something was fiddling with my sensors. I opened my program file, located Bird’s careware, and activated the first ICE breaker. The gray flashed off, and I flew through melting primary colors.
I unzipped an exe, something simple a la Bird. The funnel reality came up. Knowing what to expect, this time the ride wasn’t so freaksome.
And like we had it all set up, there she was.
My Addy, bigger and brighter than life. Way brighter. And more violent. She lashed out at me. I dropped on my ass, or she would’ve smacked me.
I told you to leave!
How do you like that? I sat on my butt, virtual mouth hanging, my feelings hurt. I thought she’d be happy to see me.
Go away! Can’t you see you’re in my way?
I-I came in to help.
She sneered. You think I’m some dumb fem that needs a man to rescue her?
I almost jacked out, but then I remembered the phantom burn. I flicked on Bird’s second ICE cracker. Adrienne screamed and fractured, her body splintering apart and dissolving before my virtual eyes. I was sure my heart, back in Bird’s room, was pounding triple time. But for sure, that hadn’t been my Addy.
Okay, they were leveling ICE at me. Jacked in freestyle, I was a hostile runner to eNet, ripe for intrusion countermeasures. I activated a hackware applet in Bird’s package o’fun. The atmosphere dribbled and warped away. Behind it, Adrienne knelt, knocking aside bouncing wiggleworms that pelted her from all angles. Half of her was shielded by a glowing, yellow nimbus, but I saw a worm careen into the shield and eat a chunk out of it. It slammed into her arm, and she cried out.
My virtual feet double-timed it to her side. I knocked back streaking worms and scrolled through Bird’s menu, looking for worm repellant. I couldn’t find any, so I tried the last ICE breaker. The worms flared up into fiery bands of red and pixilated away.
Adrienne slumped down, holding her arm. What’re you doing here? My resources are down. I can’t firewall you.
Don’t have to. I got an upgrade, courtesy Bird’s Dragons.
She shook her head. It’s too dangerous. It’d be safer if you jacked out now. The closer I get to Dad, the more data spurs come flinging my way. I don’t want you crunched in the crossfire.
Another Addy trying to get me to leave. Call me suspicious, but I am.
Adrienne, show me what I can’t remember.
The thing about our home 3Ds, when I fill up on Addy-adventures I’m actually taking her data, her memories, and when I load up in her, I’m losing my own. It’s intimate and special, and I wouldn’t do it with anyone else. If this was my Addy, and not another ICE program, she’d have a chunk of me with her.
She stared. What’re you talking about?
Show me what I can’t remember.
More blank looks.
I leveled the ICE breaker I’d used on the worms at her. Her features distorted, melted, and liquefied. I was never going to get used to that. But I’d beaten through another defense, and when this one went down, it left a tear in the VR construct. In the rift, I saw another Adrienne. She was crying, talking to someone in a chair.
I pushed the last film of static snow out of my way and stepped through. Office suite, plush carpet, real wood desk.
Her back was to me. Daddy? Talk to me! Please don’t stay in here. Daddy!
She saw me. I can’t make him hear me! He won’t come out of it.
Addy, I want to help you. But you have to show me what I can’t remember first.
She blinked at me with tear-reddened eyes.
Around us, the office suite faded away and we were in my old apartment, the one I used to have before we ran to New Zealand. I was taking a call from an ad-blip client, discussing theme options and color impacts.
“Orange triggers the hunger zone in the brain,” memory-me said. “If we set up the isotonic gizmo against a backdrop of muted orange, maybe with some booth bunnies for the libido effect, it’ll draw clickers—”
I remembered that day, remembered that I’d forgotten it on loaner to Adrienne. That was my big break day, the time I’d landed the sweetest ad-blip of my career. I scrambled my virtual feet and wrapped Adrienne, my Addy, in my arms, and held her.
She squeezed me back. It took me eons to find Daddy. There was so much data to sort through, and I kept getting winged by these ICE worms. Her face tilted to stare me in the eye. Hang it. How are you here?
Bird fixed me up. I tucked her under my arm and did a stocktake. The guy in the chair, Addy’s dad, was the same scaled-pattern suit I’d shaken hands with in my flash at Bennie’s.
He was bristling with tech. Wires streamed out of his skull and flowed into the ether. His hands, resting on the armrests, pulsed with data lines. His eyes weren’t blue, like Adrienne’s, but shiny, twin mirrors. Looking in them, I saw myself, distorted and grotesque.
When I’d thought of meeting her father, this wasn’t how I’d envisioned it.
He won’t respond at all. Adrienne kneeled down beside him.
Sir? Mr. McAllister?
Nothing. No register. I started inspecting his hardware. The wires going into his head I left alone. I didn’t know what pulling on them would do, and I didn’t think it’d be good to start unplugging him at random. He didn’t snarl when I probed his ears and neck, so I figured I was out of his scan. I found several open ports. One behind his ear — a standard setup — one at the base of his skull, again nothing new, and finally, one like mine, in the roof of his mouth.
Adrienne, give up your I/O line.
She separated out a strand of her long black hair and gave it a tug. A needle-thin I/O wire came off in her hand. What’re you going to do with it?
Jack into your dad.
I tried that, but I got massive feedback. It was all I could do to pull out. I think it’s ’cause we’re both plugged into eNet’s central processor.
But I’m not.
VR’s tricky. I knew I was back in Bird’s cage with an I/O sticking out of my mouth. But at the same time, I was here, looking to hook up to Addy’s dad. A system within a system. If I thought about it too hard, my head would pop. I plugged one end of the wire into my mouth.
I jacked the other end into her old man’s mouth.
I opened my eyes. It was murky — a lot of gray, a lot of dark. Someone had maxxed up the volume, playing a single sound byte over and over again until my head echoed with it.
All my fault she’s dead. All my fault she’s dead.
Not what I’d call catchy.
I stepped out, wishing for a mute button. Because I’m such a glutton for pain, I headed to the loud.
The gray was thick all around me, like a haze of fog. If I stood still and stared, I could make out shapes and figures moving around. Not the sort of thing that’s easy on a guy’s nerve. And over it all, was All my fault she’s dead. All my fault she’s dead.
Talk about a guiltfest.
I covered my virtual ears with my virtual hands and it wasn’t enough. Each step I took was like forging against a solid wall of sound. It was pushing me back. Hell, I didn’t want to go; it didn’t want me to come. I was ready to unplug. Except I couldn’t. Adrienne was out there, hoping and waiting.
So I trudged on. The gray got grayer. I stopped being able to make out my own hands, my virtual body. But then I was hooked into a computer, shooting my consciousness to another computer, blah blah blah. I wasn’t seeing anything real anyway. A bit of blind, I could handle that. That’s what I told myself.
I still couldn’t stop the scream that popped out when I tripped and went sprawling. My hands came off my ears and the sound overloaded me. I cowered, battered into a whimpering fetal curl up. Just when I thought I’d kick over and fade out, I found Adrienne’s memory — a little blip of sanity in an ocean of padded walls. I plugged that lifeline in and cranked up the sound and picture.
Addy as a little girl at dinner with her folks. Pass the cornbread, Mommy. I put everything I had into focusing on that fragment and threw it into the gray around me, remembering. It helped. The gray thinned.
I sat up, keeping the replay on. It was a little lighter, and I could make out the shape at my feet, the body I’d tripped over. I recognized him, not from the wired image I was jacked into, but from the screenshots of him from Adrienne’s memory. This was her dad. He lay curled like I’d been, his hands over his ears. My concentration wavered a smidgen, and I was a hair away from losing it again. The sound assault — All my fault she’s dead. All my fault she’s dead — smashed through my defenses.
Little Addy laughed, and I laughed with her. I bent over her dad and shook him.
Snap out of it!
He saw me. His eyes widened, and he unrolled from fetal, but then he shook his head, his hands still clutched over his ears. I clawed my fingers under his hands — the old guy had an incredible grip — and tried to pry them away. It was like peeling off super bond-it. I couldn’t do it.
Wake up! Come out of here! I tried again. Your daughter’s worried about you.
He ignored me.
I pointed at the images, shadowy and faint, all around us in the gray. Adrienne misses her father. She loves you. Are you telling me you don’t love her back?
He shook his head.
Switch off the noise and come out!
He hesitated and started to curl up again. I put the section with Adrienne laughing on replay.
That’s an incredible fem there, and she’s going out on a limb for you. She loves you so much she’s willing to put her life on hold and jack in for good to look for you. But you know what? I love her, and I’m going to marry her whether you snap out of it or not, you selfish old bastard! If it was up to me, I’d leave you in your pit of dysfunction. But Adrienne cares about you and that should be reason enough for anyone.
Slowly, his hands drifted from his ears. The noise increased as his palms came away. Little circular sound boxes were clipped to his hands. He hadn’t been covering his ears; he’d been holding the speaker grills up to them. I got winces just thinking about it. He slid them off and handed them over. No off buttons that I could see, so I just crunched them together as hard as I could.
The absence of noise was a force in itself. I felt like I’d been fighting a hurricane and someone had switched off the wind. My body buzzed and tingled.
Adrienne’s dad blinked. The lights came up in a wash of halogen white, pushing back the gray like it was a curtain. We were in a bright, shiny office building.
You’re marrying Adrienne? His voice was deep and echoing.
Um. To tell the truth, up until that moment it hadn’t been an agenda item, but it didn’t seem like a smart thing to say at the time. Yes?
There was a great push, ejecting me, and I was gone, whirling, spinning, out. I was at Dragon Central, squinting at Bird. My mouth hurt.
“Ith eNet thtill up?” I said.
Bird tapped his fingers over a touch-screen. “Yep.” He swiveled the screen to face me. “Memo for you.”
I read the glowing words:
Pleased to meet my future son-in-law. Adrienne is thawing from her jack-in. She will be fine. I’ll send her to you when she’s up and about. In your debt, Son. — Karl McAllister.
Well, things are normal, in an abnormal sort of way. eNet is up. Adrienne’s dad should probably be in grief counseling, but I don’t know how you get a mind stuck virtual to a shrink’s couch. Here’s to hoping he’s worked through the worst of it. And I’m engaged to Adrienne, but she doesn’t know it yet. Should I buy a ring or pop the question first? And I surefire don’t know how I feel about her daddy being big brother. I mean it’s eNet. My future pop-in-law is eNet. ‘Course, that means there’s mega-money in the family and that’s all good. Life continues to be strange.