Tuesday, July 10, 2012


by Fred Warren

Melanie closed the maintenance access panel on the contoured platform that supported Hamsa El-Hashem's--Orca's--swollen body. Swathed in a black simsuit and matching helmet, the nickname was apt. He looked like a baby whale strapped to a slab in some deranged zoologist's lab, awaiting dissection. The two cyborgs keeping silent vigil at the foot of the table only reinforced the mental image. Even the air in the narrow compartment smelled faintly of formaldehyde.

She shuddered as she moved to the control console on the opposite wall and toggled the comm circuit. “All done. You now have industrial-strength surge protection between the network and your sim interface. Nothing short of a lightning bolt is gonna get through that.”

The reply was deep and raspy--and it came from the blob on the table, not the console. Orca reached out toward Melanie with one hand. “Thanks, Mouse. I hope it's enough.”

It took both of Melanie's hands to enfold his. “Enough? Weren't you listening, Hamsa? I told you, nothing short of...”

“You never saw the vids of what happened to Jumbo, did you?”

“No. I didn't. You guys said he took some electrical feedback when he cracked the firewall, and it killed him.”

“It didn't just kill him, Mouse. It cooked him. His simsuit melted into his skin.”

“Don't worry. This mod will give you enough time to bail before anything gets through.” Melanie hoped her voice carried more conviction than she was feeling now. Shells. What's hiding behind that firewall?

He pulled his hand back, giving one of hers a squeeze as they separated. “You better go suit up. Rhino's getting itchy. The Folly's been hot 30 minutes now, and it's never stayed active more than an hour.”

“Keep him on a short leash until I log in. I'm on point for this op. You both promised.”

“Yeah, and we both still think you're crazy. This plan of yours better be something special.”

“It is. Count on it.” Melanie gathered up her tools and moved toward the door of Orca's apartment, taking care not to touch the cyborgs as she passed them. It was totally irrational, but they made her skin crawl.

Orca called out after her. “Hey, Mouse, how's Rhino looking? I mean, for real?”

She didn't turn around. “I don't know. Carson...wouldn't let me in. I had to pass the parts through a slot in his door and upload instructions to his Franks over the net. I'm praying they didn't screw up.”

“That's too bad, but I can understand why he wouldn't want you to see him like this. Like me.”

“Well, I don't understand. He's my brother. I don't care what he looks like. I want to hold his hand. I want to feel him breathing. For all I know, he's already dead, and I've been talking to some souped-up A.I. the past two months.”

Orca chuckled--a metallic, rattling sound. “No, you'd know the difference, Mouse. Better than anybody.”

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