by Fred Warren -
Melanie swayed as her equilibrium adjusted to the sudden transition from prehistoric jungle to corporate briefing room. Carson was standing beside a tri-D map of the Avenir cyberspace projected in midair, arguing with his buddy, Orca. He hadn’t even changed out of his camouflage battlesuit.
Wow, this must be important.
Orca was stabbing at the diagram with an index finger. “Don’t do it, Rhino. It’s a really bad idea. There’s a reason we call that place Jumbo’s Folly.”
“Jumbo was my friend. I have to follow through on this for him, or his death won’t mean anything.”
Melanie staggered around one arm of the U-shaped conference table and grabbed her brother’s arm. “What are you talking about, Carson? What’s Jumbo’s Folly?”
“It’s the big one, Mouse. The ultimate access…the door to Paradise.” His eyes were shining with an excitement she hadn’t seen for a long time.
“Paradise. You mean that storybook land where the Dreamers are supposed to live?”
“It’s real. Here, look at the map.” He flicked at the image with two fingers and it spun slowly clockwise. Nodes and connections illuminated. “Avenir is only using 40% of its server capacity, but we keep bumping up against storage limits. Where’s the other 60% going? The network addresses are indexed, but we can’t access them.” He pulled the image to a halt and waved a hand across it. A thick, black line lifted up, encircling a large sector of space. “They’re protected by the thickest firewall anyone’s ever seen, right here. Jumbo tried to hack his way in, and he almost made it.” Carson pointed at a red dot glowing at an edge of the black circle. “That’s it. Jumbo’s Folly…and it’s active again.”
“He died there?” Her brother’s lean, chiseled avatar towered over her. It bore little resemblance to the genuine article. She wondered if his real body could still stand at all.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to pound through this idiot’s thick skull,” said Orca, who must have jumped in from a sports simulation. He was wearing a blue uniform with thick shoulder pads and a silver helmet with bars across its face. There was a blue lion stenciled on the helmet, and the number 74 was emblazoned in white on his jersey. “Whatever lives behind that firewall caught Jumbo when he broke through, and it fried his brain.”
Carson slapped Orca’s helmet. “But the point is, he broke through. And if what’s behind that firewall is important enough to defend, it’s important enough to investigate.”
“I think Orca’s right,” Melanie said. “I don’t want you going anywhere near that place.”
“Listen, guys…I loved Jumbo like a brother, but he only played the games one way: full power, straight ahead. I don’t intend to go pounding on that wall where he left off. I’ll take a look, assess the break in the firewall, and if it looks promising, we’ll come up with a plan to exploit it without killing ourselves.”
Orca took a step back. “Hold on a minute. Who’s this ‘we,’ Rhino?”
“You, me, and Mouse. She can rig our hardware to give us more protection against power surges. We still don’t know what’s behind the wall, so can’t risk taking an army in there. Not yet.”
“No way, Carson.” Melanie shook her head. “Mom would never forgive me if I let you do this.”
“I’ll go in with or without you, Mel, but I’d rather have you watching my back. Come on, Sis.” He gently squeezed her shoulders. “This is important. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t ask you. Please. For me.”
She squirmed and pushed her brother’s hands away. “All right, already. But we do the recon together, and I take point.”
She grinned. “Because I have an idea how to poke the beast without waking him up.”