by Fred Warren -
“A cup of tea, miss?”
“Yes…that would be nice. Thank you.”
Anya Sherikov maneuvered John Milton’s cyborg valet to the bar and filled a copper teakettle she found there with water. It was awkward, using this body like a puppet. The interface was anything but smooth, and it was more difficult to multitask. She felt as if she was swimming about in an ill-fitting suit. A portion of her awareness was racing through the Avenir databases, looking for information on this tense, mousy girl who knew far more about the Dreamers than she ought. It was fortunate she’d turned up at Milton’s door before Cromwell found out about her.
Perhaps I can manage to save her life, if she doesn’t know too much.
The valet’s hands trembled as Anya made him pour the tea leaves from a small canister into a mesh strainer. She had to pull her attention away from the database to avoid scattering them onto the floor. She was already tiring—this would have been difficult enough without the added burden of her illness draining her strength. Meanwhile, Melanie Hunt shifted in her chair, crossing her legs, then uncrossing them, her eyes darting around the room, like a caged animal searching for an exit but finding none.
“This…this is a nice room. Is that real wood paneling?”
“Yes. It is an extravagance, but Mr. Milton found it soothing.”
“Who gets his apartment now that he’s dead?” Melanie grimaced. “Oh…sorry, that’s a rude question, isn’t it?”
“Some business associate, I presume. I am not privy to the details of his will. There are no living relatives.”
The water began to burble within the kettle, and Anya found the data she’d been looking for. Interesting. This was no idle Gamer. Melanie was the daughter of third-tier Aristocrats, but she had opted for technical training, graduating near the top of her class and earning an assignment to Avenir Network Control, all without any discernible influence from her parents. She was skilled in computer programming, cybernetics, and simulation theory. Her graduation project…
Chyort. If she was half as good as her resumé, this was going to be trouble.
The teakettle whistled, and Anya managed to pour the tea through the strainer into Melanie’s cup without spilling a drop. She delivered it on a matching saucer with a curt bow, then seated the valet on a chair opposite the girl. “Now, tell me why you’re here.”
“Well, it’s mostly about my brother. He has this obsession with the Dreamers. He thinks they’re real and that they’re using a huge chunk of network server space to run their virtual heaven. One of his buddies died trying to hack through the firewall, and that scared everybody away for a long time. It left a crack that lit up a couple of days ago, and three of us went in to check it out.”
“Check it out? How?”
“I didn’t want anybody to risk their lives on this crazy beetle hunt, so I sent Audrey through the opening in the firewall to recon what was inside.”
Melanie grinned. “Flat Audrey. She’s an AI...a database worm. I created her for my tech school graduation project. She camouflages herself to infiltrate an operating system, then she soaks up every byte of formatted information she bumps into.”
She slipped that thing into Paradise and out again without leaving a trace? This girl was the most dangerous threat to the Dreamers’ security in a hundred Foundings.
No, not a threat. Deep within Avenir, inside her life-support pod, Anya was smiling. An opportunity.
She kept the valet’s expression carefully neutral. “Impressive. What did you learn?”
“Not much. Everything was military-encrypted except user data on the person who had interfaced with the network through the firewall…John Milton. That’s when I figured it out. The stuff behind the firewall was business data, maybe some of it on the gray side of legal, or worse. Everybody knows…knew…Milton was a wheeler-dealer. It makes more sense than a play world for brains in a vat, or whatever.”
“If you’re correct, I would expect Mr. Milton to be very unhappy that his confidential data had been compromised. Why did you come to see him? Did you intend blackmail?”
Melanie jolted upright, fluttering her hands. “Oh, nonono…nothing like that. I don’t care about shady business contracts and I'm not short on money, believe me. I just wanted confirmation. For my brother. If he knows there’s nothing interesting behind that wall, he’ll give up his insane quest to find the Dreamers and go back to gaming. His friend got roasted for breaking that firewall. I don’t want that to happen to Carson.”
“I understand. You must love your brother very much.”
“I do. And I feel responsible for him. I’m the only contact he has with the real world. It’s hard enough to know I could lose him to the Games. Death for real…I don’t think I could bear it.”
There was an insistent ringing in the part of Anya’s consciousness that wasn’t controlling the valet. An emergency summons. She turned her full attention to it, pushing herself into her virtual office space within Paradise.
The valet went slack, eyes glazed, head lolling to one side.
Melanie drained her teacup. “This is really good. Could I have another...” She stared quizzically at her host for a moment, then slowly leaned forward and waved a hand in front of his face. “Hello? Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
No response. She was pretty sure this wasn't normal operation, but there wasn't much in the way of diagnosis she could do without her tool kit. “Soooo,” she said, standing up and edging backward toward the bar, “Maybe I'll just...go ahead and pour it myself.”