by Fred Warren -
John checked the door locks twice, then ripped off his tie and loosened his collar. He was drenched in sweat, and his hands were shaking. Had to be a trick. Gamer’s stunt. The fat slugs are probably laughing at me on the sim-net right now.
He flinched as his cyborg valet slipped into position behind him and began to remove his jacket. “Did you enjoy the party, sir?”
“Shall I turn down your bed?”
“No!” John ran clammy fingers through his hair. “No...All I want right now is a drink.”
“Very well. Your usual vodka?”
“Never mind. I’ll get it myself. Just...go. You’re dismissed.”
He pushed past the valet, who watched with an expression of mild interest as he opened the liquor cabinet. “As you wish. Good night, Mr. Milton.”
“Good ni...Hold it. Wait. When was the last security sweep of my quarters?”
The valet froze and his eyelids fluttered. “Two days ago. No microphones, cameras, or other surveillance devices were found.”
“Good. Has anyone else entered since then?”
“No one but you, sir.”
“Excellent. You may return to your alcove and cycle off for the night.”
“Thank you, sir.”
John shoveled ice into a glass and began to pour. There was a musical tinkling sound as the bottle rattled against its rim. Some of the vodka splashed on the floor. The blue-eyed woman’s final words were still echoing inside his head...
I'm dying, John, and I have no heir. I'm inviting you to take my place. Join us. Become a Dreamer.
No one had ever directly interacted with a Dreamer. No Dreamer had ever manifested an image within the living space of Avenir. Maybe one of his competitors had arranged this little show to trap him somehow, make him look ridiculous. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d tried. He gulped his drink and stared through the window at the bilious face of Eclectia as the liquor burned its way down his throat.
“The invitation has a time limit, John.”
He whirled around. The valet was still standing there, smiling at him.
“Yes, it’s me again.”
John rubbed his eyes. It usually took several drinks for the alcohol to disorient him, but he’d had a few at the party. “I told you to cycle off. Get out of here!”
The valet didn’t move, but his smile widened. “I’m not finished with him yet. I need to be sure you understand what I’m offering you.”
That voice. The wistful lilt and soft soprano tone. Hers.
The glass slipped from John’s hand and shattered on the floor. “Who are you?”
“I am Anya Sherikov, direct descendant of Mikhail Sherikov, Avenir Communications Officer. My family holds command authority over the information systems of this colony. I have unrestricted access to every computer, every commlink, every camera, and,” the valet tapped his head, “every electronic and cybernetic device on the Avenir network, including Eclectia’s undersea cities. Even among the Dreamers, it is a formidable power.”
“But if what you’ve told me is true—and I’m still not convinced this isn’t an elaborate prank—I’d have to surrender my humanity to accept your offer.”
“Only the inconvenient, tiresome parts. You will, of course, have to be integrated into the network, but your body will be kept in perfect health, and you will experience a life infinitely more rich and meaningful than this dull, enclosed existence. You’re languishing here, John. Tell me it isn’t so.”
“I’m not...It’s just that...” John took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He’d been on the defensive long enough, and he knew better than to negotiate from a position of weakness. “I need proof. All you’ve given me is a fairy story and a few parlor tricks.”
The valet beckoned with a crooked finger. “Follow me.”