Monday, November 26, 2012


by Fred Warren -

Anya Sherikov's virtual office was a tidy environment with a wide desk, high-backed leather chair, walls lined with video monitors, and a collection of fragrant flowers in terracotta pots at the corners. A little ceramic dog with a bobbing head adorned the desk, and she gave it a nudge out of habit before unlocking the door to grant entrance to whoever was leaning on the visitor’s chime.

Security Officer Nigel Cromwell came bustling in, followed by Victoria Remsen, who was looking uncharacteristically professional in a white lab coat. Vicky slammed her hands onto the desk and leaned forward until she was nearly nose-to-nose with Anya. “Miss Sherikov, we’ve got a big problem! Somebody broke quarantine, and there are spiders running loose on the station!”

Anya gently pushed her back a few inches. “The pest-control systems will deal with them. This happens occasionally. Some gourmand lets his delicacies incubate a day or so too long, and…”

Cromwell waved her off. “No, Anya. This is a large-scale infestation. Some stupid gaggle of meat-bag revolutionaries have brought up fertilized eggs from Eclectia in quantity, and not just the small species. The hatchlings are moving through the ductwork and in the gaps between decks. Lasers and microbots are getting some of them, but not enough. I can keep our habitat safe, but the colonists are in for a fight like none they’ve seen since the original Founding. They’ve brought Hell onto Avenir. Again.”

Vicky nodded. “I’ve been reading up on what history we have about the first time this happened. It isn’t pretty. They grew fast, and some of these things were huge. The spiders’ venom caused hallucinations and psychosis before it killed. Most of the casualties were from poisoned colonists attacking each other.”

“Any help we provide must appear to spring from a routine order issued by the Avenir leadership,” Anya replied as she did her own historical search. “What do you think, Victoria? Is there anything we can do that won’t stir much attention?”

“I can direct a nanofactory to accelerate production of the standard antivenins we manufacture for Eclectia, so there’ll be more on hand once they figure out what’s going on. Until then, I can cycle pesticide into the ventilation system, but it won’t work on all the bugs, and it could make a lot of people sick on the lower levels where there’s no filtration.”

“Better than them dying, I suppose. Have you informed Captain Aziz?”

“Yes, but he doesn’t seem very worried. He said something about ‘acceptable losses’ and ‘facilitating the Plan.’ He smiled a lot.”

Anya sighed. “When is he not smiling? I’ll monitor the situation and try to identify the conspirators. Victoria, dispense the pesticide, but begin with small doses, so we can gauge its effects.”

“I’m not stupid. You think I’d just dump it all in at once?”

“Yes. Despite your many wonderful qualities, dorogoya, you have an affinity for mayhem.”

Vicky’s self-righteous ire dissolved into a sullen pout. “Okay, I would have, but now I won’t. You’re no fun at all.”

“Off with you, then. Nigel, let me know if there’s anything you need in support of our habitat defense.”

“Hmph. I can’t imagine needing your help, but thanks for the offer.” Cromwell scanned the displays covering the walls of Anya’s communications nexus, and jabbed a finger at one of them. “What were you doing when we came in? Who’s that girl?”

Anya didn’t look up. She began typing commands on the keypad set into her desk. “She’s one of the Gamers I’m watching until you finish repairs on the network firewall. She seems to be oblivious to our presence, so all’s well.”

Cromwell glared at her. “Just make sure she stays that way. I’ll have no time for anything but spiders for the foreseeable future.”

Anya paused her typing and smiled affably at him. “Of course.”


It took a few moments to make the transition back into the valet. Melanie was poking him in the shoulder and squinting into his vacant eyes. “Sir? Mr. Butler? Are you okay?”

Anya shook his head and blinked his eyes. “Ah, I’m sorry. Software update. They happen at the most inconvenient times. However, we must end our conversation, and you must return to your quarters immediately and secure all doors and vents. I’m told there is a security problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

“One that will become your problem if you don’t hurry. I enjoyed our chat, and I think I can help you, but we must meet again later.” Anya clamped one of the valet’s arms firmly around Melanie’s shoulders and ushered her outside. “I will make what arrangements I can in the meantime to ensure there are no negative repercussions from your excursion into the private network. Until then, farewell.”


Melanie lingered in the corridor a moment, still shivering but elated that she’d accomplished her mission. Carson would stop chasing the Dreamers, and things would return to normal.

Something skittered across the toe of her boot. She looked down to find a small, red-striped spider lifted up onto its hind legs a few meters away, forelegs waving in the air, fanged mouthparts working rapidly and drooling viscous slime. She stared at it in fascination—bugs weren’t supposed to be able to get onto the station, especially not the upper levels. Where did this one come from?

It looked like something out of ArachnoHunters. She hated that game. When one of the spiders caught someone, it wrapped them in silk and then slowly sucked the life out of them. Whatever sadistic method the game employed to simulate internal organs being liquefied gave her diarrhea in real life for two days afterward.

She backed away from the spider, trying to keep her body as still as possible. Without warning, it hurled itself at her, leaping a half-meter into the air and nearly closing the space between them.

Melanie screamed and sprinted down the corridor, not daring to look behind her.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pot of Gold

by Travis Perry -

Mayor Edard Jonzn looked over to the left and sighed. Toward the left, on the east side of Adagio bay, lay his office, the center of all things he controlled.

His cousin Burt had him out on the old upper fishing pier on the other side of the bay, about as far as you could possibly go within the confines of the city away from his office and his personal sphere of influence. He had friends among the fishermen, of course, but naturally he was the best of friends with the biggest commercial boat captains—none of whom docked at the old pier.

He turned his head back to meet his cousin’s eyes. “What in the whales do you have me out here for, Burt?” He chewed an unlit cigar, unlit, because he knew his cousin’s Holiness background and that he frowned on smoking. Not that he really cared what Burt thought, and it so happened he was really hankering for a smoke at the moment, but you never know when you might need someone’s help someday, especially a relative’s. A good politician couldn’t go about offending people without any purpose—if you’re going to offend someone, it should be for a very good reason…

His cousin must have had some kind of bug up his behind. He didn’t have any of his fishermen with him and he looked both ways before he lifted the corner of the tarp that covered something that looked like an enormous disk of some kind in the back of his fishing boat. Or maybe a portal cover for some Sheba-sized ship.

Under the tarp lay a disk alright, covered grime in between the lines that seemed to show some strange pictures—or maybe a kind of writing. A bit of whaleshine hit the edge of the disk as the fishing boat rocked with a gentle harbor wave. Grit covered parts of the disk, but the glint of light shone with an unmistakable golden hue.

Edard reached out and touched it. It had a heavy, smooth feel. Metal, but not too hard…obviously in the sea for some time, but not corroded to speak of. He knew what that meant. “Burt…I think that’s solid gold!”

“Well I think it idn’t,” replied Burt, his lips a bit puckered as if he were chewing lemons. “A solid gold disk would deform under its own weight—curve down in the middle when lyin’ flat. This disk doesn’ do that, so it has some stiffer metal its middle, so is only coated with gold. Granted, the coat is no electroplate job—it’s real thick, I figure about a centimeter on each side.”

“Well, well, cousin Burt, I’m impressed.” Edard felt a rush of relief that he hadn’t lit his cigar. “Cousin, you’ve come to the right man. I don’t know where you got that thing, but I’m sure we could get a pile of platinum for it…I’ll take only a modest commission, since you’re my cousin and all; you won’t regret this, Burt, you’ve come to the right man, your good ol’ cousin Edard will hook you right up!” He barely noticed how he’d started talking faster.

“I regret it already,” said Burt, looking more puckered than before. “You don’ understand. I want to find out what it says.

Edard sighed. “Very well…the science types probably won’t pay as much as a private collector, but there are a few teams of science types working around here. I could connect you with them…granted, they might have to request some funds from up in Avenir to cover it purchasing it…which might mean you’d have to take payment in credits.” He found his own lips puckering like his cousin’s.

Burt sighed. “No, I don’t mean to sell it to the science jonnies either.”

“You want to keep it? Why? To sell it later? I doubt the price will go up over time, if that’s what you’re thinkin’. Demand won’t rise for somethin’ nobody’s seen before.”

His cousin pulled the tarp back down, covering the exposed portion of the disk. Eyes down at the tarp he said in a low voice, “You don’t understand. I intend to give this away—as long as I’m givin’ it someone who’ll try to figure out what it means.”

For several pounding beats of his heart, Edard had no answer to this. But then his natural poise poured back in a flood. “Burt, look, that’s just crazy talk. I can see you’ve found something special here and probably think that God or something wants you to make this bigger than just yourself—”

“That’s exactly what I think.”

“And it certainly can be even if you sell it—think of your men, Burt. The men who must have helped you haul this up. If you don’t feel right in taking money for yourself, consider that you should take the money for them—think of what it would matter to their families.”

“And maybe my cousin?” said Burt, scowling.

Edard removed the cigar from his mouth and gave Burt the sincerest glassy-eyed stare right into the eyes that he could muster. “Is it a crime to help a relative?”

Burt snorted and looked down again at the tarp. Voice quiet, he observed, “Yeah, the boys could prob’ly use some help…” His voice trailed off. Then he looked up again at Edard, square in the eye. “Get me someone who can really read this and we’ll talk about sales after that. All right?”

“Of course, of course,” blinked Edard innocently, grinning in triumph within.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


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.”