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Chapter 17

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Isla adjusted the chinstraps to her computer helmet as she tried to orient herself in space.

In front of her, an endless array of windows floated out into the horizon stacked neatly in a fanned hi-tech display. Whoah, there is a lot of stuff here.

The Hieronymus machine that was hers was one of the industrial units she and Ger had been assigned to. Oleg had explained that for now, access to Level 3 was restricted and the portal to the Dark Web, Level 2 was encoded with a password that they had to earn once they successfully navigated through the Level 1, standard public-facing web portals.

‘It’s always some kind of test,’ Isla muttered to herself as she found her hands poised over the dual keyboards she had access to.

No way Ger is going to beat me here. I’ve got the mad skills needed to dominate this.

An insert window popped up to her immediate left under her HUD display.

Ger, smiling widely, gave Isla a thumbs up as he connected with her.

‘This is totally balling, GNGR. Have you had a chance to drop in yet?’

Isla groaned. He’s already jumping ahead of the program.

‘Oleg told us to just get oriented. Not go ahead. Remember what he said?’

Ger grinned. ‘Not really. I tuned him out after he said we were going to get access. It’s a piece of cake. Drop in, configure a browser bar and them type the name, locale or addy and — booya, you’re there. Just like a regular browser.’

Isla quickly opened a browser window and saw that it was indeed similar to the type of web work she would do on her portable or home comm links.

She tapped in the addy for the Ramones archive, a fan-based German museum of concert footage, memorabilia and clips from the band back in their heyday.

Isla was instantly ported to CBGB’s, the Bowery dive-bar where they got their start. The smell of stale beer and urine overwhelmed her as she looked about the packed tiny room.

Onstage, very young versions of her favorite punk rock band were going through their paces as the audience, a mixture of starving artists and poseur rockers went crazy beside her. The music level was overwhelming and she quickly dialed down the room ambience with a flick of her wrist.

She felt a tap on her shoulder. WTF?

Behind Isla, Ger stood, dressed in 1970’s era punk clothing complete with a vintage Talking Heads t-shirt that looked hand painted.

‘Ger?! How are you here?’

An insert window winked into life next to the avatar that Isla had assumed was Ger. He looks so real!.

‘We spawn avatars when we travel, and can make them of anything we wanted. I’d seen this t-shirt in the search I did on punk bands of the 1970’s and figured it would be a cool way to surprise you. You can make yourself look like anything, wear whatever you want — and record all of the footage from your time in world. It’s kinda like that old Second Life game where people lived online in jinky characters. Here, we are fully free range chickens.

Isla looked at her own arms and legs. In this world she still sported the space jumpsuit they’d been issued. She flipped open the avatar window and browsed to vintage Levis, a Blondie shirt and decided to keep her Chucks as they were period enough.

With the virtual click of a button on her hud, she spawned her new clothes and dashed to the bar area. Tada! There, in the cracked mirror above the bar, she could see herself just like she’d imagined — with her new outfit in place.

She turned back to Ger, smiling widely.

‘This is FANTASTIC,’ she screamed at Ger who shot her a thumbs up.

The room crashed to black in an instant. Isla’s breath hitched as her heart started to pound, fear grasping her with icy fingers.

‘Ger, what’s happened? Where are you?!’

Isla was blind, alone in the dark — sour spit pooling in her mouth.

I’m gonna die.  I’m gonna die!

‘Halten!’ Oleg barked as the HT lunged towards Ger.

The metal attack unit slammed to an immediate stop inches from Ger.

‘This is your first lesson,’ Oleg stated flatly.

He moved to the metal 'bot and ran his hands down the flank of the cybernetic beast. ‘These were our earliest ‘droid successes as were quickly introduced to the police and military ranks. Undeterred by most everything, the HTs continue to prove to be an effective attack unit driven by a fully functioning positronic brain.’

Ger nodded weakly, trying not to let his terror show. I don’t want Isla to think I’m a wimp.

‘Jeez, Oleg, give the guy a heart attack, why don’t you,’ stammered Isla as she reached out to Ger. ‘You okay?’

Ger nodded, trying not to overact to Isla’s touch. She’s just concerned. Like I would be. It’s cool. She doesn’t mean anything by it. Or does she?

‘Sitzen,’ commanded Oleg to the HT which dropped back on its rear haunches.

The canine 'bot scanned the room slowly in rest mode, its metal head swiveling slowly from side to side.

‘Ruhig,’ Oleg spoke and the HT dropped down onto its front paws, powering down.

Oleg dropped down next to the HT and gently probed at the back of the skull of the 'bot.

With deft fingers despite the size of his hands, he quickly found the release catches and popped open the protective steel plate that covered the dog’s positronic brain panel.

Multicolored LED lights and diodes were exposed for Isla and Ger to see.

‘The brain of the HT is a self-contained artificial intelligence system designed to make strategic decisions and evaluate the level of action required. All handling instructions to the HTs are given in German as this was the language of the original programmers and allowed us a degree of autonomy as most people today speak English universally. Foreign dialects and languages are largely forgotten in the Megacity worlds.’

Ger marveled at the complex super computer housed in the terrifying machine.

‘How does it power up. Does it have to be charged each night? Or does it run on a nuclear cell?’

‘Good question, Ger. The HT uses both a recharge station at base camp and can work autonomously in the field for as long as thirty days without powering. Of course, depending on the armaments they carry or the type of engagement they are involved in, battery time may vary.’

Isla nodded. ‘Can I touch it?’

‘Her,’ grumbled Oleg. ‘I like to name them. This is the only one we have here on station. We use her for training. I named her … Lucinda.’

‘Hey, Lucy,’ smiled Isla as she reached down to the HT. ‘How you doing?’

‘She is not a dog, Isla. Lucinda is a very capable WMD capable of taking down a room full of insurgents. As you know, once activated, they are relentless hunter/ trackers rarely deterred by anything.’

‘Except fire escapes,’ quipped Ger as she shared a secret smile with Isla.

Oleg sighed, closing up the HT’s head and motioning for them to sit.

‘Yes, your escape using the fire escape was ingenious. I checked the footage from that encounter and I was impressed. It seemed to be blind luck overall — but being lucky is a very helpful commodity to have as a cybernaut. You’re going to need all the luck you can get.

‘When do we start training, Oleg? What are we going to do first?’ asked Isla.

Ger glanced at her, seeing her Chucks bouncing on the floor. She’s itching to go. I am too. Let’s go already.

‘Okay,’ said Oleg. ‘Let’s get you both hooked up.

He pointed to the computer workstations with the oversized headsets. ‘Let’s get you into the Hieronymus machines and start slowly.

I’ve broke the machine already. This is so not good.

Onscreen, Oleg’s scowling face appeared as a live comm transmission from the classroom direct from Lucinda’s eye.

‘I told you to not do anything until I was ready. Why do I find you in stinky beerhall with horrible music?’

Ger and Isla let out bursts of protest as Oleg continued.

On the right, a new inset window popped up and Isla could see Ger from inside his Hieronymus helmet. Like Isla, he was strapped inside the bulky metal headgear, his eyes shining brightly in anticipation.

‘Hey, DD,’ smiled Isla as she saw him. ‘Do I look as sweaty as you do?’

Ger smiled at Isla, shaking his head in the machine. ‘You look great as always, GNGR.’

‘Okay, young lovers. Enough play. Now we work.’

Isla felt her cheeks redden as Oleg implied that she and Ger were — something. She started to say something as Ger blurted out, ‘We’re just friends, Oleg. We’re not into each other or anything.’

Isla felt her heart ache as Ger quickly dismissed Oleg’s mistaken jibe. Why? What’s wrong with me? Am I not good enough? You think you can do better, Ger?

‘Okay, whatever,’ Isla snarked as she turned all of her attention to Oleg, ignoring Ger as he gold-fished in her onboard monitor. Fine.

‘You’ve already initiated first level interaction. Stinky punk rock band - ‘

‘THE RAMONES!’ Isla and Ger yelled as one.

‘Yes, yes, stinky punk rock band, The Ramones, web portal was at least good example of web interfacing. The content is transformed in three dimensional imagery that you can navigate only in. It is strictly one-way, you observe materials but have no P2P contact with operator. You can however flip behind curtain and review code — observe.’

Instantly, Oleg transported Isla back to CBGB’s. Onstage, the band had launched into ‘Beat on the Brat’ as the audience went wild. Beer bottles rained through the air as audience members pogoed up and down in frantic abandon.

And then they all stopped. Dead.

‘What happened?’ asked Isla as she spun three-sixty.

All around her, the rundown bar was stopped in mid-action.

The bartender was frozen, the customers stopped — everything was in total lockdown.

‘I stopped the material stream so you can observe how this is constructed.’ Oleg said as the world flipped green and white, comprised of small cascading bytes of information that made up the cellular matrix of the club and people around them. This is like that old sci-fi movie with Keannu Reeves.

‘They are all just zeroes and ones, mathematical notations of the material — the building blocks of the simulation. And if we flip the switch, we can go behind the curtain and see the operators.’

The world in Isla’s viewport shimmered for a moment as the entire scene spun on its axis. Isla’s stomach lurched as she tried to process the effect that Oleg’s manipulations created.

In front of her now, were strings of code cascading downwards on the left hand side of her viewport while a live comm feed dominated the viewing port in front of her.

‘We are in what was Germany, home of the largest Ramones museum and the host of the virtual reality experience we just left. I can pull us back to see the IP information — ‘

Onscreen, a small Geomap showed that the Museum was located on Oberbaumstraße 5, 10997 Berlin, MegaCity Nine and was open until 10pm that night.  This is so cool. I can go anywhere. Find out anything.

‘The creators are in the Kreuzberg borough of Berlin, Megacity Nine.’ If you toggle on the links next to the IP owners you have their home addresses, contact information and the like. It is all rabbit hole after that. You can have anything you wish by digging in there.’

‘Hey Oleg,’ Ger asked. ‘Can we go see my Mom? I’d like to check up on her?’

‘How about it, Oleg? It’s a government facility. We have access to that right, right?’

Onscreen, Oleg frowned, changing the subject. ‘We go sight seeing later on, Ger. Right now we have to keep working. If you want, you can do as part of your homework assignment. Okay?’

Yeah, sure. ‘Okay, Oleg. Whatevs.’

‘You have seen that you can generate play doll clothing and avatars for online interaction. Is not needed in Level 1. Since no one can see you, you can just be ‘selves and not have to dress up like poppets.’

Neither Ger nor Isla said anything at Oleg’s remark.

Ger chanced a look at Isla as Oleg’s words sunk in. He’s too old. He doesn’t get it.

Isla’s face looked just like Ger’s — sour and pissed at Oleg’s dismissal of their choices of avatar and clothing. She’s steamed.

‘This all changes with Level 2. In Dark Web, there are both public facing portals like the game stealers and pornographers who dominate there — but there are also embedded portals of deep or black web hosts complete with neural psionic portals. This is why we are very careful about your access here right now. I don’t want you going to any of these sites until you have passed basic training here. We have password restricted your comm links and glasses for use at home once you leave here. Those units will not allow you access to Level 2 until you have earned our trust and my approval. Do you understand?’

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll crack that PW no problemo. That’s what I do.

Oleg’s scowling face filled Lucinda’s viewport as he leaned in to emphasize his point. ‘And you can’t crack it Ger, and no VPN is going to give you access because, remember, we are the one’s that created VPN’s so we could monitor all of the illicit activity. You pass fair and square here or you stay stuck at Level 1.’

‘Won’t that defeat the purpose of our training?’ Isla asked as she questioned Oleg. ‘I mean, my Dad, Major Anderson, wants us to be part of this program, right? Wouldn’t he want us to get up to speed as soon as possible?’

Oleg smiled, shaking his head at Isla.

‘I know what you try to do, little Miss. You try and play Oleg. I am from MegaCity of players. You cannot trick me. Major Anderson asked me to help train you because I am the best. I trained all of our top cybernauts.’

‘About that,’ Ger asked. ‘When do we get to meet the other members of this super secret spy club?’

‘Is not my decision,’ Oleg shrugged. ‘I have my orders. I have forty-eight hours to train you and then determine your effectiveness for use in the field. The rest is all up to you.’

Oleg flipped them out of the museum and back to the main interface showing three distinct quadrants onscreen. On the left, Level 1, the dark web — Level 2 — with a lock on it in the middle and a third, Level 3 sitting to the right. Like Level 2, this area also had a lock icon fixed firmly on top of it.

‘Here is interface. Is obvious at a glance and where we start today. Tonight, you will visit ten Level 1 facilities and map the information needed for each site and upload written report on them for my review. Names, locations, contact information — all of these details are imperative. I will be grading on depth of analysis and strength of your intel. Please try and pick interesting sites and not silly fashion or music hosts with no strategic value. Avoid all government and military sites until I authorize.’

‘What about my Mom?’ Ger asked.

‘I give you access to clinic tonight for your review.’ Oleg said.

‘But now, we are going to finish day with Level 3 exercise. I will be unlocking Level 3 so you can each take a turn piloting Lucinda.’

Ger gulped. What? Taking over the HT? This is CRAZY!!!

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