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Chapter 18

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I got this. I got this. Right?

Isla went first as Oleg guided her through the intricacies of interfacing with the metal HT.

‘Is easy to do,’ chided Oleg as a list of terminal code lines flashed in the center of Isla’s screen. ‘You can code, Da?’ No, I can’t code, duh.

‘Well,’ stammered Isla. ‘’I understand basic commands — but I’m going to need some pointers here to make it work. You know, just until I’m up to speed.

Strapped into the Hieronymus machine, Isla shifted uneasily hoping that her lie wasn’t entirely obvious. Who codes… when the AI 'bots would do all the heavy lifting. She flashed back to the syncopated modes her avatar BRTSHNGSTR had used in BERSERKER and knew that it probably won’t take long for everyone to realize what a poseur she really was. The AI had done all the work — once she’d pointed it in the right direction.

‘Is okay, Isla. Is old school way of thinking,’ chimed Ger in a fairly passable imitation of Oleg as he transferred a bevy of terminal commands to her via their interface. ‘Just use this code sheet to help you as you get more familiar.’

Oleg’s scowl onscreen was clear proof that he didn’t approve of the ‘cheat sheet’ Ger had just sent over.

‘Is okay for today. You memorize tonight. Da?’ Oleg steamed.

‘Da!,’ Isla flipped back as she scanned the line commands. ‘These seem pretty self explanatory.’

‘Okay then, Ms. Fast-Study. Hack the code for the HT inserting your IP in place of the host ID. Run a List Files command and change directory now.

Isla took a deep breath, tapping on her keyboard the command code information needed — pwd, mkdir and finally her IP which was listed in bright yellow at the 'bottom of her screen.

Her field of view changed automatically to that of Lucinda’s.

The complexity of the machine’s HUD was overwhelming as a multitude of gyro-scoping and tactical windows popped up. ‘I’m in,’ grunted Isla.

Be cool, be cool, be cool, be cool. You got this.

‘Now try and turn Lucinda’s head,’ Oleg’s voice commanded.

‘How do I do that?’ Isla asked.

‘Turn your head just like you would in real life. Slowly, look left — then right.’

Isla, now psi-encased in the metal body of the HT, turned her head from left to right. As Oleg had promised, it was just like real life. Just amazingly different. Wow, I’m inside the robot’s body. I’m a HT.

‘Dude,’ Ger spat. ‘This is RAD! How do you feel?

Isla shrugged, feeling the metal collarbones of the HT rise up and drop — just like she would have done in her own body. What’s the rest of me doing?

Isla lifted up on her front paws — I have paws — straining to see her body inside the Hieronymus machine.

Just above her, her body lay inert. Just flat. No movement at all.

‘Hey Oleg, what happens when I’m in here? To my — human body, I guess.’

‘Nothing. Is shell,’ Oleg reported. ‘You are in state of limbo, physically sound and monitored by the Hieronymus — but unresponsive to stimuli in world around you.’

‘So, I could like totally bag on you now?’ Ger asked.

Isla couldn’t help but smile. You’re a goof, Ger.

Isla rolled her shoulders and raised up on her back legs assuming a fully mobile position. She gently pushed off away from Oleg and moved over towards Ger. ‘Careful, little one,’ Oleg said as Isla maneuvered her way to Ger.

Reaching up with her front paws, she pulled herself up against Ger’s computer station and smiled at him.

In her HUD display, she could see Ger’s reaction clearly inside the metal helmet as he grimaced at the sight of a smiling HT.

‘Or I could take my time chewing you to pieces while you just lay there, Ger. My own little chew boy-toy.

Why did it have to be dogs?

Ger flashed back on their run in with the HT at the Emporium. Never liked them in real life. Hate them as metal 'bot killing machines.

After Isla had completed her basic training, Ger had been given his chance to link with the HT. Unlike Isla who had limited code knowledge, Ger was a code samurai who ate command lines for breakfast. He established the link and quickly put the canine weapon through its paces. Oleg recognized Ger’s superior handling within minutes and assigned him the HT as his training model for Day Two. ‘We have only two days to get you ready and to go into the field. Back on earth, we have a number of depots available for cybernauts to access. HT’s are strictly limited — but we have a few that might have gone missing from an official manifest.

Once Ger returned from his tour of the HT, Isla asked that they be given a break to use the restroom and get a chance to eat.

‘I agree, Oleg. I’m trashed,’ Ger nodded as both he and Isla unhitched themselves from the complicated neural pathways.

‘Okay,’ said Oleg — ‘But I just want to quickly review your personal units and glasses before releasing you for the night.’

Isla and Ger nodded, both running on fumes. And I get that Isla is probably a little pissed at how well I handled the HT.

Oleg had Isla work on interfacing with a variety of component 'bot parts — arms, legs and heads while Ger rifled through the command codes and weapons allotments on the HT.

From across the room, Isla’s unhappiness at being stuck on remedial 'bot manipulation could be felt. Out of the machines, Isla wasn’t looking at Ger, keeping her eyes focused on the portable comm links and sunglasses. By now, even Oleg had been worn down by the work they had done this day. His final words hung flat in the processed air as he reviewed the portable Hieronymus machines.

‘They’re just like the big machines — only portable. The latest tech from Axiomm, and very expensive. Do not lose or break them. Ever.’

Ger laughed. I’m gonna baby these things.

‘Both are sat-linked to the main units here and allow you to access the processing power of the master terminals. All three Levels are available to you on your HUD and after today, you will be given the passwords to Level 2 for practice tomorrow.’

‘What about Level 3?’ Ger asked. I can’t wait to jack something else. A digger 'bot. Or even a plane.

Level 3 access is only authorized by myself or Major Anderson on an ‘as needed’ basis. No cybernaut ever has full time access.’

‘Why not?’ asked Isla.

Ger stole another look at her. Dark shadows ringed her eyes as she slumped forward in her chair. She looks exhausted.

‘Is too much temptation.’ Oleg looked at Ger. ‘He is probably already thinking about the train or robot he can jump too. Right?’ Busted.

Ger feigned ignorance as he shook his head from side to side. ‘Not me, man. All I want to do is serve. Okay?’

‘Why don’t I believe you?’ Oleg sighed as he stood, stretching the kinks out of his large bear-like frame.

‘You both did good today. Is very impressive. Tonight you take home units and do your homework as requested. Find ten targets — not fluffy girl stuff or stinky bar with rotten music — and detail reports for me. We’ll meet back in ten hours and review and start next set of training.

‘What are going to do tomorrow?’ Isla sighed as she pocketed her new gack. Still not looking at me. Oh man, I done messed up.

Oleg stared at them as Isla’s question hung in the air.

’Tomorrow we get into combat training. Get a good night’s sleep. You going to be fighting all day long.’

Ger gulped. ‘Fighting what?’

Oleg grinned, pointing to each one of them, slowly and carefully.

‘Each other.’

All I want is something to eat, a shower and to go to bed. I can’t believe my Dad just dumped me with these — dweebs. I don’t want to be a soldier. I want to go home. This place sucks.

Isla’s pity party was in full force as she and Ger clumped through the corridors enroute to their separate rooms. Ger hung back from Isla feeling her ‘Don’t F with me’ vibe clearly. At least he’s not totally clueless.

‘Hey GNGR,’ Ger mumbled. ‘I’m sorry about today. I totally PWN’d that HT. I shouldn’t have taken over. That was a dick move. I’m sorry.’

Isla stopped short. Ger is apologizing? WTF? I’m the one who should be apologizing. I was totally useless in there.

‘It’s not you, Ger. It’s me. I’m just tired. I mean, it’s a lot to take in. All of it. My brain feels like melted cheese.’

Ger groaned. ‘Melted cheese. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had anything but soy noodles. Like real melted cheese? It’s been forever.’ Isla smiled as Ger’s good humor buoyed her flagging frame of mind. ‘With real ketchup,’ Isla added ‘…and a big glass of milk.’

‘Chocolate milk.’ Ger smiled. ‘Race you?’

Isla shook her head as Ger sprinted off down the hall. What are we, thirteen?’ 

Laughing, Isla took off after Ger.

 

They ate in front of the observation window, staring off at Earth far below them. The remnants of their dinner lay spread around them as they lay back on adjoining chairs facing their home-world.

‘I keep thinking I’m going to wake up any moment,’ Ger said ‘ and we’ll be back at the Nagatomi in that stinky coffin.’

Isla smiled. It’s incredible. We are now part of this super secret network. And tomorrow we’re going to learn how to fight.

‘Are you worried about the combat portion tomorrow?’

Ger shrugged. ‘Are you kidding? It’s gonna be like BERSERKER — only now we are our avatars IRL and I am going to thrash you.’

‘Right. Like you forgot who beat who on the Leader Board.’

‘Whatev’s’ Ger grunted. ‘I can’t believe we’ve got to do homework tonight. That’s what I’m worried about.’

Isla looked carefully at Ger. ‘Why? It’s easy. A simple research paper — except we’re cracking sites and taking names. Easy.’

Ger stared out of the window, his shoulders slumped. ‘Can I tell you something?’

Isla leaned forward, moving the mess of dinner plates out of her way. ‘Of course, DD, what’s up.’

Ger sighed.

He turned to Isla and she could see the first beginning of tears forming in his rich brown eyes. ‘I have a problem writing — like sentences. I’m aces with code and have no problem understanding numbers and stuff.  I just get sentences mixed up — and words. They don’t come out in the right order.’

Isla nodded. “You read okay, right?’

Ger nodded. ’Sure. I mean, it takes me longer than anyone else. When I was in school, they put me in the slow class. And that helped.’

‘You’re not slow, Ger. In fact, you’re too fast. Maybe, what you got to do is slow down — to go fast?’

Ger cocked his head to his side, trying to understand what Isla was saying.

‘It sounds like dyslexia, when people get words and sentences and stuff all mixed up and then they can’t read or write properly. Where you ever tested for it?’

Ger shook his head. ‘They didn’t do tests in the Projects where Mom and I lived. Drug tests, sobriety tests — sure. All day long. But it wasn’t as if there were like counselors lined up to, like, look after us or do extra brain stuff.’

Isla nodded. ‘Okay, so the fate of the free world is stuck in the hands of a kid would can’t write and a girl who can’t code. Sounds legit. You want some help?’

Ger sat on his bed in the quarters that had been assigned him by Major Anderson. With a contented sigh, he signed off from the portable Hieronymus machine rig and tossed the smart glasses onto the bed.

That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was gonna be.

He sighed and lay back on the thin mattress as he flashed back to the work he had just completed — and his hopes for the next training session. Isla had spent an hour with him after dinner helping him set up a template for his own homework and they sourced possible sites or resources for their reports. They scoured worldwide transport depots, news-outlets, local government branches and couldn’t help but throw in a stinky cyber-bar, The Ellison, that operated on the edge of the legal web. Not that I’m gonna let anyone here know that I’ve gone there before.

One of the benefits of their Level One cyber travels were that, with the benefit of the new Hieronymus machines, the web portals would assemble in a virtual reality environment based upon all available information. Passive websites were reimagined as actual 3D environments where both of them could travel without fear of being seen or even recognized.

‘Thank you Isla,’ Ger whispered as he turned over on his side, still fully dressed, but he wasn’t getting naked here. A wry smile slid across Ger’s face as he swept back to how good his Mom looked already now that she was off the Jolt and being actually looked after properly instead of being dependent of government welfare.

True to form, Oleg had pinged Ger with the coordinates for the new facility his Mom had been transferred to later on that night. It was one of the first places he visited when he was alone and Isla had gone off to get some sleep. Ger was too keyed up at first to rest and had spent a good half hour reconfiguring his HUD and access to the Hironymus motherships, as they had dubbed the larger industrial units, and making his own portable machine a personal toolset. So much better than any computer rig.

Ger had found his Mom up after lunch as it was past Noon back on earth. She was moving about the main common room area in the new rehab center, looking better than she had in months. He pinged her personal comm unit for a quick P2P call and she had accepted.

‘Hey Moms, you’re looking good…’ Ger smiled as he connected with his mother.

‘Thank you, honey. Where are you? You sound — distant.’

Ger shook his head.

He had promised Oleg that he wouldn’t reveal his location so he quickly came up with a small lie to cover the reality. He knew his Mom wouldn’t know the difference.

‘I got a job writing code for one of the Off-World traders and they got me tagging code and errors in one of their main warehouses. That’s how I got the benefits to upgrade your status.

Ger’s heart warmed as his mother’s smile lit up her whole face.

‘I don’t know how you did it, honey. This place is great. They changed my medicine and I started to feel better immediately.

A small cloud passed across her face — ‘I still got the rad poisoning — but they said they got some new tech that might help. Or at least keep me around a lot longer. That’s something, isn’t it?’

 

After the call and the homework, Ger allowed himself to hope. Something that he hadn’t even realized he had forgotten. I’ve been so caught up in hustling that I forgot about living. Now that I’m part of this team, there’s gotta be some kind of credit involved for the work I’m gonna do?

Ger drifted off to sleep, sleeping soundly for the first time in a long while. I wonder if Isla feels as good as I do?

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