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Chapter 20

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Every once in a while, I gotta say, this guy impresses the hell out of me. Why doesn’t he like me?

Isla jostled next to Ger as they fought for space in the dilapidated jump unit returning to Earth.  Everywhere, Off-World pilgrims stood, slept or stared forlornly out into — nothing. The transport was a retro-fitted troop carrier and had been press-ganged into service after the migration failure. Hundreds of bone-tired settlers filled the once-spacious army hauler.

Least my Dad could have done is send us back properly. This is going to take double the time and smells horrible.

With this many people crammed into the transport, personal space was at a minimum. Ger had snagged them a small crawlspace over by the escape pods, which Isla noticed, had been used a long time ago. Hope we don’t need to get off this tub anytime soon.

Isla glanced at Ger who was wearing his Hieronymus glasses, replaying the battle with Oleg on his comm unit. The sounds of Isla’s thin cries for ‘a little help’ still rankled her.

‘Jeez, Ger. Get over yourself,’ Isla snapped as she punched him in the shoulder.

‘What?’ Ger complained as he stopped playback and pushed his high-tech sunglasses up on his head. ‘You never saw what I did out in the corridor. C’mon, take a peak. It’s pretty balling.’

Isla sighed, holding her hand out to Ger. ‘Okay, show me.’

Ger smiled at Isla, passing his glasses to her. ‘Here you go.’

Onscreen, Ger’s POV showed  Lucinda honing in on Oleg, the man, seated in an outside chair, manipulating the large KILLDOZER unit.

Ger barreled into Oleg, knocking him off his chair, breaking the connection with the rampaging 'bot in the warehouse. Ger, as Lucinda, climbed on top of Oleg, growling.

<Stand Down> grunted the HT as Oleg showed both of his hands and a wide smile at Ger’s attack.

‘Very good, baby robot. You have me. I surrender.’

Isla sighed and tossed the glasses back to Ger.  He snagged them in mid-air, shooting Isla a cocksure smile as he pocketed the lenses.

‘C’mon, you gotta admit, that was super sweet?’

Isla nodded. It was smart. He took out the real threat. I was concentrating on what was in front of me — not the actual problem.

‘I would have figured it out soon enough.’

’Soon enough not fast enough,’ grumbled Ger in his fair-enough imitation of their Russian trainer.  After beating Oleg, they had broken for lunch with Oleg explaining the rest of the training for the day. He had planned for this fight later in the afternoon once they were up to speed.

‘But you get there fast enough. Is impressive.’ Oleg’s words sounded in Isla’s memory. ‘You both get access to Level 2. Here are your passwords. ‘Memorize and destroy paper.’

Oleg handed both Isla and Ger two identical slips of paper.

Isla glanced at her password and groaned. Next to her Ger did the same thing.

‘Really?’ Isla said.

‘You kidding me, right?’ said Ger.

She could still here Oleg’s laughter here in the transport ship as she quickly memorized her password and tore up the slip of paper.  Glancing at Ger, she saw him pop the slip into his mouth and begin to chew.

‘Do not share you password with anyone. For any reason. Do you understand?’ warned Oleg as he shook both of their hands. ‘Okay, go and change back into your civilian clothes. The Major has arranged to ship you back via a transport of Off-Worlders. You both will be returned to Megacity One and await further instructions. Was pleasure working with you.’

Oleg spun and walked away leaving Ger and Isla standing in the hall.

Isla turned and looked at Ger, gulping down his password.

‘What’d you get?’ Isla asked as she threw her paper scraps into a nearby waste receptacle.

’N00B2,’ laughed Ger.

Isla burst out laughing. ‘I’m N00B1’.

Ger joined Isla as they pushed off to get ready to return to Earth.

Someone has a sense of humor.

Well, it ain’t fancy but it is home - kinda.

Ger sighed as he slid into his bunk in the weather-beaten Nagatomi coffin hotel. He’d taken the same booth that he had shared with Isla forever ago partly out of habit and mostly because being there by himself didn’t suck as much if he thought about her.

Ger flipped through the bolted computer terminal in the room, noticing immediately how ‘primitive’ terrestrial internet seemed now that they have the Hieronymus machines as their primary WMD’s. Spoiled much?

He punched in coordinates for an old-fashioned flat movie and lay back in his bunk, examining the compact Comm link and smart glasses.

There’s serious hardware happening here.

Stamped on the side of the glasses and the comm link were the ever-present Axiomm logo. These guys own everything.

On screen, the sounds of a dramatic car chase caught Ger attention for a moment as he tracked the movie. He’d seen it before, many times, but it was one of his go-to’s when he was looking for background noise. He lay back and breathed deep.

I’ve got credits, a place to stay, some ballin’ tech and a new friend.

After the twelve hour flight back to Megacity One from the satellite, both Isla and Ger were exhausted. They’d staggered out of the main terminal and looked about themselves as the citizens of Megacity One thrummed around them. Business as usual. Everywhere they looked, hundreds of people jockeyed for position on the over-crowded streets.

‘No place like home,’ laughed Ger as he smiled at Isla.

Isla looked beat. Smiling wanly, she pushed back her tangled titian hair and cracked her neck.

‘I feel gross. I’m going home. Where are you gonna go?’ asked Isla as her eyes scanned for an auto-ride to take her back to Homewood.

‘I booked a pod at the Nagatomi. Figure, why not? Where else am I gonna go?’

Isla nodded.

‘Remember when I kicked your butt playing BERSERKER there?’

Ger nodded. ‘Course. That was after we bailed on the HT. Our first date.’

Isla laughed. ‘Some date. You sure know how to show a girl a good time. We nearly died.’

Ger nodded. ‘Sure. But that’s what made it exciting. No pain, no gain, right?’

Isla cocked an eyebrow at Ger. ‘That is so lame. I am so about avoiding pain. And right now everything aches. I need a shower and like a million year’s sleep.’

‘What are you gonna tell your Mom?’ asked Ger as he watched an approaching auto-ride flash its lights to Isla’s frantic waving.

‘That I had a good time with Dad, even though I didn’t spend any time with him.’

Isla scowled as the auto-ride stopped in front of her.

‘We did good together, Ger. As a team. I’m looking forward to working with you.’ She held out her hand. A handshake, really?

Ger shuffled in place, feeling awkward, as he took her hand, pumping it up and down, as he grinned at her.

‘Yeah, yeah. We kick butt. We N00b’s gotta stick together.’

Isla groaned. ‘Can I have my hand back, please?’

Ger looked down to see that he was still holding Isla’s hand, clasped in a formal handshake that had gone on way too long. Awkward.

He snatched back his hand as if it was burning, stuffing it into his back pocket.

‘See ya, GNGR!,’ Ger smirked as she hopped into the auto-ride and slipped into traffic.

Back at the Nagatomi, Ger blushed in the dim room, remembering how stupid he had felt. I am a N00b. I have no idea what I’m doing with Isla. And I don’t think she likes me very much either.

A bright trilling sounded from Ger’s new comm-link as he tore himself from his memories. Snatching up his glasses, he groaned. Don’t tell me we’re already being put to work?

Onscreen, Ger’s HUD lit up with Isla’s face. She looked completely freaked out, eyes wide and panic beating in her voice.

‘Ger, I’ve got a major problem. You gotta help me.’

What is that guy’s problem. I’m clearly into him and he isn’t picking up on any of my signals. What do I have to do to get him to notice me?

Isla slumped back in her auto-ride seat as the 'bot expertly piloted the battered taxi through the streets of Megacity One. Onscreen, a tiny monitor played a news broadcast from earlier in the day. Reporter Linda Oh reported from the front of the Axiomm corporate building as a bold headline flashed underneath. <Jericho Strikes Again>.

‘Cyber terrorist Jericho has struck again. This time at the heart of the business community holding up all online business transactions for the Axiomm corporation, the parent company of this broadcast unit.’

Isla sighed. Really. Can’t I EVER get away from this guy?

Looking out the window as the city slipped passed, Isla dozed, half-listening to the broadcast. What she really wanted was a bath, a few hundred hours sleep and a big juicy meal. She’d raid the fridge for candy and put together a killer tofu dinner complete with braised potatoes and veggies. Real veggies. Yum.

… Estimated loses are in the millions of credits for the Axiomm Corporation as the e-crimes unit continue to investigate the hacking of their mainframe.’

‘Whatev’s’ muttered Isla as her eyes closed.

 

< We have arrived. Please swipe payment.>

Isla woke, startled by the raspy robot voice of the auto-ride unit. Shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, she swiped her new comm link over the payment portal, hearing a cash register chime as she exited the ride. Thanks for the ride home at least, Dad.

Isla was still upset about how distant her father had been after the final training session with Oleg. Even though they had aced their workouts and proven to the stolid Russian that they had what it took, her own father had been the one to caution her about what lay ahead.

‘I just want you to be careful with this new responsibility. There are some seriously messed up people in the darker regions of the web. Please don’t go too far — not without a constant link to me here. Or at least with Ger as a backup. Never ever travel alone in the dark web. Okay?

Isla shook her head. Dad had joined her in her quarters after she had changed back into the clothes she had arrived in.

‘Are you coming back with us?’ she asked. ‘I’m sure Mom would be really happy to see you. She,… uh, fixed up the garden and everything.’

Major Anderson smiled, shaking his head. ‘After Jericho tried bringing down the transport and you got involved, my leave was cancelled. As the head of the Psionics division, I have a responsibility to the public — and to my command.’

Isla nodded, kicking her Chucks absently against the bed frame.

‘Why didn’t you tell us,…me…what was really going on, Dad? I feel so guilty. All this is my fault.’

‘It’s not your fault, honey,’ her Dad said as he smiled, moving to her for one last hug. ‘Go home, tell your Mom you had a good time and that I’ll be back soon.’

 

Isla pushed her way inside her house, calling out for her Mother.

‘Mom, it’s me. I’m back. Dad’s not with me…’

Inside the house, everything was quiet. Isla tracked both house ‘droids in their recharge stations in the front hall.

‘Mom, you here?’

Moving into the kitchen, the memo cube was flashing on the counter. Isla pushed the button to activate playback as she rifled through the contents of the fridge.

A dark, male voice sounded from the playback unit.

<Isla, we have your mother. If you want to see her again, listen carefully and do exactly what we say. This is Jericho.>

‘Okay, play it back again.’

Ger leaned forward in his bed, watching intensely as Isla restarted the memo cube.

Onscreen, an NO IMAGE sticker glowed throughout the playback.

<Isla, we have your mother. If you want to see her again, listen carefully and do exactly what we say.>

Ger could hear Isla in the background trying to control her breathing. I’d be freaked out too if someone did this to me.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ Isla started.

‘Shhh. Let me listen,’ Ger said as he hit a RECORD ALL button on his own interface.

<Come to the Ellison tonight and meet me. I want to share something with you. That’s all. If you do what I say, and come alone, you’ll see your Mother real soon. I’ll ping you the coordinates on your fancy new comm link. Tell no one. Especially your Dad. Later.>

That’s it,’ stammered Isla as she put the cube back on her kitchen counter. ‘I didn’t know what else to do. So I pinged you.’

Ger felt his chest swell in appreciation. Dude said call no one and she calls me. Thats… something.

Are you going to go?’

‘Of course I’m gonna go. That’s a stupid question,’ spat Isla as she glared at Ger.

He nodded to Isla in acknowledgement, his lips twisted in thought.

‘It’s just… you shouldn’t go alone. One, you’ve never gone to the Dark Web before and Two, you’ll need backup.’

Isla crossed her arms, a scowl etched on her face.

‘Backup? What are doing here? Playing it like a vid? This is my Mom we’re talking about her Ger!’

‘I know that,’ said Ger slowly. He carefully chose his next words. ‘You’re good, Isla. One of the best combat fighters out there, a helluva scrapper both IRL and in 3rd Level, but the Dark Web is a little hinky. I’d just feel better if you let me give you some pointers — and be there in case things go sideways.’

‘Sideways, how?’ Isla snarked as she glared at Ger. ‘My Mom’s been kidnapped by a frakkin’ crazy person, I’m totally out of my depth here — and I don’t know what to do. Okay? It can’t get more sideways’

‘Well, you already broke the rules by calling me, and I appreciate it, all I want to do is help. Will you let me help you?’ Please Isla.

Onscreen, Isla nodded, slowing her breathing and closing her eyes to take a moment. Eyes glistening, she looked at Ger and nodded. ‘You’re the only one who can help me, Ger.

‘Now you’re talking sense, Isla. Okay here’s what I need you to do. Go take a shower, get all washed up and try and get a couple hours sleep.’

He held up his finger, already hearing Isla’s protest, continuing on.

‘I need you rested, fresh and ready for tonight. You can’t do anything until Jericho pings you the deets so you gotta look after your self now. You okay with that?’

Isla stared a hole right through the monitor at Ger. She doesn’t like what I’m saying — but she knows I’m right.

‘Carb up. Get as much brain muscle food in as you can. If we learned anything from our time with Oleg, it’s that rocking these units take it out of you. I’m exhausted myself and I need a couple hours down time. I won’t be any use to you unless I sack some ZZZ’s.’

‘You think my Mom will be okay?’ Isla sighed as Ger saw her shoulders slump, resigned to the next few hours being a waiting game.

Ger nodded. ‘She’s Jericho’s bargaining chip. Without her, he’s got nothing. He won’t hurt her at all. I promise.’

Isla nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand as she broke the connection.

‘You’re a good friend, Ger. Okay. I’ll try and sleep. I’ll ping you once I get the information.

Ger shut down his own comm link as he lay back on the lumpy coffin mattress. If I’m such a good friend, why would I lie to her about her Mom being okay. I don’t have a clue if she is or not.

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