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Chapter 16

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Skinjobs. What a gross sounding name. It sounds - dirty. It feels weird too. Someone taking over your body, your mind and piloting you through whatever they want. Definitely mega-gross.

After the briefing, they’d been assigned their official space jumpsuits because they had to wear them in case of an emergency. Isla hated that she had to dress like everyone else. But I got to keep my Chucks, so that’s a small win.

She and Ger had been escorted to their quarters with the understanding that they wouldn’t leave the floor they were on. Dinner was a couple hours away — In space, no one can hear your stomach growl — so Isla and Ger agreed to meet in the observation lounge her Dad had shown them on the way to their rooms. He wanted them to have time to talk about everything he’d shared and the implications of everything. It was just so much to absorb. Not including the fact that my Dad has lied to me about this new spy job and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with that.

 

The observation lounge was like everything she could have imagined from one of the old vids from long ago. Space exploration shows were all the rage back in the day — but today, no one seemed very interested in traveling offworld. After the migration had failed, nobody really talked about the possibility of traveling to the stars anymore — and just how mag-beautiful the universe was.

Isla sat in a soft, grey armchair pointed out towards the big glass windows that surrounded the lounge. Dim pot lighting accentuated each chair with a sofy grey carpet on the floor. She could hear softly in the background ambient electronic music, dialed way down, adding to the ethereal feel of the place. This is so trippy. Beyond the observation windows, the universe beckoned. Clusters of stars spilled in an endless parade before her, clumps of multicolored brilliance and gently shaded clouds of thin whispy clouds undulated outwards. This looks nothing like I’ve ever seen before. This is so…epic.

‘Wait ’til you see the aliens onboard, that will totally blow your mind.’

Isla spun in her chair to see Ger entering the lounge. He’d changed into his space jumpsuit too and was grinning from ear-to-ear.

‘Wait, you mean there are actual aliens on board this thing too?’ Isla asked.

Ger burst out laughing, dropping down into the seat next to her.

‘I’m just kidding, GNGR! Psyche!’

Isla punched Ger in the arm, huffing in indignation as she propped her feet up on the ledge.

‘Dude, not cool. At this point, I’m ready to believe anything.’

‘I know. Your Dad blew my mind.’ Ger shook his head in bewilderment as he glanced out at the infinity space before him. ‘I mean, the Krays provided tech that we hijacked to basically conquer the world — and this sidecar of complete insanity with this whole Psionic deal. Wow.’

Ginger nodded. ‘It’s so creepy that this Jericho was really a dude using a girl’s body to hijack the shuttle my Dad was on.  How many people did he say were on it with him.’

‘Two thousand droids. Fifty-four people. That’s a lot of damage.’

Isla sighed. ‘And it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t given him that first contact with PS 327, none of this would have happened.’ She slumped forward. I’m an idiot.

‘Dude, he used you to get to your Dad. Pretended to be a kid. And totally PWND you from the start.’

A tear slid down Isla’s cheek. Great. I’m that girl. All I do is cry.

Ger leaned forward and held Isla’s hand. She looked up, suprised by the intimacy. What the frak?

‘It could have happened to anyone,’ Ger said. ‘I would have fallen for it as well. You didn’t know about your Dad. And you didn’t know about Jericho, did you?

Isla shook her head. He’s right. I didn’t. I was totally set up.

She pursed his lips, squeezing Ger’s hand in support and grinned at him. I am so going to kick this MOB’s butt. Total beast mode.

A soft messaging ping sounded in the observation lounge.

< Isla, Ger. Please join me in the conference room. Thanks.>

I’m holding Isla’s hand? I’m holding Isla’s hand? How did this happen?

Ger sighed in relief when the messager went off, snatching back his hand as they jumped to their feet. Time for Round Two. What’s he going to tell us now? That dinosaurs were imported from another planet?

‘What do we do?’ Ger asked as he scanned the lounge one last time. This is the most incredible day ever.

They were alone of the observation deck. No one else in sight.

‘Nice of him to come get us’ sulked Isla as she stomped off in the direction of the conference area.

 

The corridors were empty apart from the ‘droids and 'bot moving silently through the halls. Major Anderson had explained how the majority of the satellite was manned by the mechanicals. He was often one of the only bio-life forms on board.

‘Basically, we’re a floating hive,’ Major Anderson stated as he started the next meeting with Isla and Ger. ‘Think of us as a hub for cybernauts to return to after they finish their web jornies. There’s a lot to learn…’ The Major yamned mightily.  He looked more tired than ever and Ger could relate. Apart from the fitful sleep he’d snuck in the interrogation cell, he couldn’t remember when he last bagged Z’s. ‘And that analogy is as good as any to describe the psionic interface that I want to show you. This is the toolset you’re going to be using when you deep web dive into the black.

Isla shook her head, laughing. ‘I remember when you put blockers on all the units at home — and now you’re letting me have free access to everything?’

Major Anderson sighed, ‘You’re not a little girl anymore, Isla. We need… I need your help if we’re going to get to the bottom of this.’

Ger cleared his throat, drawing Major Anderson’s attention.

‘Not wanting to look this gift horse in the mouth, but why would you have me — and Isla, no offense, join up with you on this. There’s gotta be a lot more qualified people to do this. I’m not a spy.’

Anderson nodded in agreement. ‘You’re right, Ger. You’re not a spy — but you are a good tactical thinker. Your BERSERKER scores alone show how strong you are. Your strategic combat battle-plans are good. You have solid instincts.

Ger felt his face redden as he smirked at Isla. ’See, I told you I was good. Your Dad even thinks so.’

Isla huffed under her breath, folding her arms across her chest as she dismissed Ger. ‘I’m still number one on the leader board. I think?’

‘That’s what you think,’ answered Ger. ‘Soon as we dust off here, I’ll see you online.’

Major Anderson cleared his throat, drawing them both back to the mission briefing. ‘If we can refocus everyone. To answer your question more fully, there are multiple operatives out in the aether on our behalf, combatants tracing down leads on Jericho, monitoring our enemy combatants — we even have deep space agents still pinging for the Krays.

Isla perked up. ‘Tell us more about the Krays.’

Major Anderson shrugged. ‘There’s not much to tell. The vessel we found on the moon back in 1969 had been there for a longtime and most of what we know about them is ancient history. Even with the ‘continued’ active sightings and eye-witness accounts, there seems to be relatively little intel that’s conclusive. All I can say definitively is that they haven’t made contact with us directly ever — despite our deep space voyaging and attempted galactic homesteading.’

There is so much going on. I think my brain is going to melt.

Ger yawned loudly, covering his hand with his mouth as he sheepishly shook his head. ‘Sorry, I’m beat. It’s been a long day — or night. What time is it anyway?’

Anderson nodded. ‘It’s easy to lose track of time out here. I can tell you this though. Try and stay awake for a few more hours. It’s time to go to school.

Both Isla and Ger exchanged looks, their eyes widening in surprise.

School?

This is so not like school back on Earth. Out here, if you make a mistake, you die.

Oleg Stavyanska looked them both over with a critical eye. He was a thick-set Russian operative put in charge of bringing both Isla and Ger up to speed. He appeared to be younger than Isla’s Dad — but it’s hard to tell.

Ger and Isla gulped as they met their new teacher.

Not long after Ger had almost fallen asleep in the conference room, her Dad had hustled them into a nearby open large lecture space that doubled as a training room. Desks flanked one side of the room with a bewildering display of tech gathered on the other side.Two cyber terminals complete with elaborate face-masks similar to the one used by Jericho hung next to the computers. Oleg glared at them both as he shook his head in frustration.

‘Playtime is over, children. Now we work.’

Oleg seemed to be the type of teacher that every kid hated. Stern, no sense of humor whatsoever with a sour face and manner to match. Great.

Isla flopped into a classroom seat complete with a half-desk attachment. Next to her, Ger casually flipped the partial desk surface back and forth clearly irritating Oleg who stomped over and firmly snapped it down in front of Ger.

‘We have forty-eight hours to teach you how to cyberjump and no time to waste. Here are your new comm-links.

From a nearby desk, Oleg scooped up two plastic communicators and tossed them to Isla and Ger.

‘This is rad,’ exclaimed Ger as he quickly booted up the unit, diving into the BIOS system quickly. ‘Totally maxed, how many hamsters you got in here?’

‘More than enough… hamsters for what you will need them for. Now observe,’ said Oleg.

He stormed over to the cyber terminals, pointing at the headsets.

‘This is how you access the aether — jacking into the internet and then out into the aether. From there, you can travel anywhere you have an address or GPS coordinate. Is simple once you know how.’

Oleg’s scornful delivery made it obvious that he thought this kind of work was easy. I’m not so sure about that.

‘So, our bodies stay here, hooked up to the computer while we project ourself out into the aether?’

‘Da, that is correct,’ said Oleg as he began firing up both machines. ‘Once you access the web you have three basic levels of introduction — the regular surface web, the Dark web which is totally unsupervised and then the Deep or Black Web, the banned superhighway to human consciousness. You tap in as needed going only as deep as you need to be.’

‘How safe is this?’ said Ger as he stole a quick glance at Isla, his new comm-link forgotten.

‘It depends on how skillful the operator is,’ said Oleg as he examined the first headset, then the second as he continued to talk.

Isla and Ger watched him carefully not knowing what he might tell them next.

‘Basic web travel is safe. You are accessing information, location and destinations are all clearly monitored via IP tracking. In short, we know where you are going at all times and every location has a physical location or internet host entity. Got it?’

Isla and Ger nodded.

‘It gets murky once you go off the grid into the Dark Web areas. Here, the locations are unsecured, meaning that they are not tied to a physical address or they have a serial repeater in use.’

’Serial repeater?’ asked Isla.

‘They’re bouncing their actual location worldwide from place to place or tagging along under another legitimate player’s IP,’ answered Ger.

‘Da, yes. That is correct, Ger. Good.’ Kiss ass.

Ger smirked at Isla. This guy.

‘Munition sales, black market body modifications, drugs, weapons and illicit political groups all have camps in the Dark portion. You access these areas with extreme caution and only with permission.’

‘What about the aether — the deep web?’ Isla asked.

‘Here is where you can cyberjump to a person, place or thing inhabiting their body or dark operating system with your own consciousness. This is what Jericho is doing and what we are going to talk about today. Pay attention or you could die accessing the wrong portal. Like I said earlier, playtime is over.’

You had me right up until the whole dying thing.

You’re kidding, right? ‘ asked Ger as he cracked his knuckles.

Oleg shook his head slowly. ‘In the old Soviet Union, we had developed astral projection technology that interfaced with the earliest text-based web architecture back in the 80’s. As the internet came of age, we quickly learned of the benefits and the downfalls of jacking into the web stream.’ A cloud seemed to drop over Oleg’s bright grey eyes as he spoke about the early experiments. ‘It was an honor to serve in the cyber warfare unit and many brave Soviets gave their lives in defense and service for the homeland before the assimilation.’

‘You mean when the Megacities took over and the old United States converted everything.’ Ger asked.

Oleg rested against the computer desks, his work completed.

‘Da. The Krays technology was something that we had not been able to access and the new positronic brain experiments added to the power of the cybernaut to move into the aetheric realm.’

‘Cybernauts?’ Isla asked. So cool. I’m going to be a Cybernaut. 

‘That is what we call those of us who use this technology to deep dive. This is what you are. Level 1 Cybernauts.

‘N00bs,’ laughed Ger. We’re frakkin’ N00bs.

Oleg smirked, the hard facade breaking slightly, as Isla joined in.

The laughter broke the tension is the room as Oleg pointed at the equipment.

‘Each of you will be assigned a workstation and will be given tasks in traveling across the static internet on the first level. The implants in the helmet allow you to interface with the machinery and project your vision outwards. You are merely observers here. Passengers on existing streams traveling across the world but with the ability to access the IOS and the related peripherals on the host computer.’

‘So basically, we can take control of the video cameras and surveillance machinery seeing the environment and the operators, right?’ Isla asked.

Olag nodded.

Isla stuck her tongue out at Ger.

He smiled at her. She’s adorbs

‘Your personal comm-links allow you to track your progress and can be used outside of the facility with the personal viewers that go along with them.’

Oleg pulled two pairs of matching sunglasses from the nearest desk, passing them to Isla and Ger. ‘Try it out.’

Ger pulled on the sunglasses, noticing how light they were and indistinguishable from regular sunglasses. I would wear these even if they weren’t super jacked in.

Onscreen, a scanning reticle appeared and slid over Ger’s eyes, tapping his genetic information and confirming his identity. In the upper left corner of his vision, a small HUD appeared providing geo-linked information along with a small heart and health monitor. I am in space. Thanks computer.

‘We can track your vitals here and know if you are in trouble. both of you are now in the cybernaut system and will be monitored twenty-four, seven.’

‘Hold on a minute,’ Isla said. ‘I don’t want anyone or anybody having access to me all day and night.’ Yeah, I’m not a big fan either.

‘Is too late, Isla.’ Oleg stated. ‘Whether you like it or not, you’ve been in our system since birth. The Major made sure of it.’ Well, I’m good, then. I only just met these guys.

Ger watched Isla grind her teeth as he flipped through the OS customizing the text and feed information. I can have anything I want up here. This is incredible.

Ger was in the system the minute he entered the Dark Web two years ago. We log all dark visitors.’

Ger snatched off his glasses. ‘It’s supposed to be anonymous, dude. That’s the whole point. You shouldn’t be able to track me. I used a VPN.’

‘Who do you think released VPN’s to the market?’ Oleg asked, smiling at Ger. ‘Okay, take off glasses. It is time for first big lesson. We have only two days to get ready and you can explore first level tonight for homework.’

Isla and Ger groaned. Homework?

‘Now is time for first lesson on Deep Web.’

Oleg pushed a button on the control pad next to the computers.

Across from him, a door opened.

A hulking HT robot dog raced out of the door, mouth wide in imitation of a furious police attack unit, racing directly at Ger.

He threw up his arms trying to stop the metal beast as it thundered down on top of him.

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