Sunlight, white as silver, filling the vast space between sky and forest covered mountain backdrop. Sun like a warm hand pressing lightly down, nicely balanced by the coolness from the breeze of my own passage.
I jump the bike over the curb and wheel up the footpath's white concrete centre path, through the spider web of light and shadow and fallen leaves under the paperbarks, and swing into the side driveway, scattering feeding parrots from the flower laden bottlebrushes.
Now for the moment of truth, glide smoothly up to the doors, slowing almost to a stop, and they open just in time for me to slide in. The furtive adjustment of their sensor yesterday was just right.
Across the carpet, a nice lazy turn in the arch formed by the reception desks, and prop the bike between the thriving umbrella tree and the struggling palm.
"Hail the naked hero" says Cathy, looking up from the intense little group she forms with Liz and Anne. Maybe they're planning the day's struggle in the one-world market, as well they may; a firm can prosper or fail in a single trading day. Probably not, more likely discussing their roles in their favorite VR soap.
This year the fashionable theme is the classical world, hence the reference. Though I shouldn't knock soaps, the best are well made, and probably give a real feeling for what it must have been like to be an ordinary citizen of, say, ancient Greece.
"Funny" I reply "I distinctly remember dressing this morning. Anyway, good morning all."
"If you call that dressed." Cathy does not approve of my loose cotton trousers and T-shirt.
"And you know what I mean. You arrive from God knows where with nothing but a backpack and that bike, and they pay you a fortune."
I sigh dramatically. "Now Cathy, everything I need is on the Net. Besides, they don't pay me for my equipment, or even what I know, they pay me for what I can find out."
That is not entirely true. The real work is done through the great machine minds back at The Mountain by the Sea, but Cathy is not to know that, definitely not.
Liz looks amused and Cathy annoyed. "May wants to see you, right now" she continues, brightening at the though of me in trouble. "She has been trying to get you for half an hour, but couldn't get past your secretary."
Down the hall and into May's office, a real honest to goodness
office, no open plan nonsense for her.
She is at her desk, framed by her big window with its views of loading bay, timber stacks, and an opportunistic, mixed clump of paperbarks and sheokes. She looks up from her monitor, a rather short, thick woman of middle years, just coming into the glory of her well-earned power and confidence. I love her dearly.
"Don't you ever knock, or answer your phone, or bring your own lunch?" she says, looking pointedly at my empty hands.
"But I prefer your cooking" last things first, and it gets the expected smile. "And if it was important Cecil would have put you through."
"That bloody AI of yours" she begins, then halts when she sees my disapproval, "a right, all right, I know, 'Thou shalt not make a mind in the image of man's own'. It's an artificial personality not an intelligence, or so you tell me."
'But are you all right? Are you up to taking Julie? You looked terrible last night, like Julie when she used to get night terrors."
I know how I would have looked, sprawled on the fighting couch, twitching limbs, blank face made grotesque by eyes open just enough of a slit to show spooky REM movements, perhaps a little drool. When things get hectic the connected are not an attractive sight.
"I'm ok" I assure her, though I'm not, really. Still, I couldn't disappoint Julie. "It wasn't as bad as it looked and I got what we wanted, but thanks for driving me back to the motel and staying till I was ok."
She looks embarrassed, hard working, upwardly mobile parents who managed to combine the worst of the Asian and Protestant work ethics have left her uncomfortable with emotion. "Couldn't have my best Net warrior wobbling his bike under a truck; it'd take ages to find a replacement."
"Anyway, you should be staying with us, then we wouldn't have to worry." We both know why I'm not; I won't expose the Peng family to the social stigma that attaches to associating with the connected.
"Yes you should." Julie, hearing us talking, has popped out of the Net bunker. She is twelve; quick intelligence not yet muddied by the hormones of puberty, with her father's sweet nature and Celtic good looks, and her mother's brains. Lucky that, because her father, great guy though he is, certainly has none.
She is as excited as though it was her first scuba dive. This will be her first time away from the safe, heavily controlled areas, into the depths of true Net Space where the real wealth and power are traded, or often enough, just taken
"Is Cathy still picking on you?" she continues with a slight smirk.
"Now she only does that because she has a thing for you" chides May, urging me to be patient with Cathy.
"That's disgusting! I'm old enough to be her great grandfather. Besides, we don't do that sort of thing." I protest, nevertheless, deep in my male core something is still flattered.
"But the connected do, even you Brothers, just not very often." May corrects. "And it isn't obvious you're that much older than her."
"Yep, that's me, a triumph of cosmetic medicine" say I, trying for safer ground.
"You! Cosmetic medicine!" May is contemptuous. "You spend a fortune changing your designer chromosome pair every time an update comes out, but all you're worried about is trying to live forever. You don't give a damn about appearance."
"Are we going or what?" interrupts Julie, no longer able to contain her impatience and annoyed with my hang-ups. A child of the thirties, she has only ever lived in a world where age combined with seeming youth signal the wealth to afford advanced medical and genetic tinkering, and the power to ignore government limits. As ever, power and wealth remain aphrodisiacs.
General move to the Net bunker.
There is an impressive amount of gear for a small firm, but most is just for show. It wouldn't do for the staff to suspect what I was, or where the real work was being done. Still, the broadband cable with its secure link back to The Mountain is real enough.
Apart from that, the only things we actually use are the high-performance remote modem that connects the cable to my implants, and Julie's VR harness and computer. That, by the way is superb.
May has spent wisely and generously and her daughter's equipment is top notch. No clumsy exoskeleton and helmet for Julie, just a handful of slender rods ending in skeletal hand or foot attachments or body harnesses, all sprouting from a low base.
Julie is already wearing her body suit so it is just a matter of unclipping her short skirt and buckling up. She goes through the standard test procedures; pea sized video projectors in front of each eye darting frantically around to stay centered in her visual field.
Suspended in mid air on a few slender rods she looks like some kind of dancing stick puppet.
From across the room I have already opened the links to my home space back at The Mountain. An old diving hand signal and I slide awareness to the local home space as I relax on the fighting couch.
This home space is modeled on the real Net bunker to prevent disorientation, but in a carefully cartoonish style. Julie's character fades in just after mine, modeled on her real body, but not closely enough to betray her identity. May is a presence at the edge of perception, monitoring from her desk screen.
"Please centre yourself" I order. Now is the time for obedience.
She does, shifting her awareness between her real body and her character until she feels herself in two, connected spaces at once. Then, without being told, she checks her agents, weapons and tools. She would not be here if she were not at least that competent.
Now I open the way to my home space at The Mountain. It appears as a tunnel to another room, at once immensely far away, yet taking only a few steps to reach.
It is in the form of a plain white room in the Spanish style. There are a few pieces of polished timber furniture, a rack of weapons, two doors and two large windows, one showing a tropical beach and lagoon, the other a virgin, subtropical forest.
She turns slowly, admiring the reality of the scene, and the feeling of raw power that seeps from the walls.
"Please centre yourself" I remind. She looks guilty at having neglected a prime procedure, but does so. It takes her a little longer this time; she must feel herself extended across three spaces.
Good. Quite good. Most people never learn to handle even two properly.
I smile encouragement while sending a thumbs up back to May. "Now use The Mountain to find something interesting."
She looks nervous. "But will it accept me, and what is the password please?"
"It knows you. There are no passwords at this level, just use it as you would your home system and we'll teach you the more advanced features later."
She makes the standard gesture and to her surprise, a control panel snaps into existence. She settles in quickly, sending agents scurrying across the net and sweeping the financial, legal and news systems for anomalies.
At first the sheer vastness of the systems she commands make her nervous, then the exhilaration of power takes hold. "I think I have something." Her voice is horse with excitement.
She has. Somewhere in the night something big has made a kill; a great corporation is down. She has picked up the characteristic patterns in the share and financial markets.
May was right! She has the instincts of a Net warrior.
"Want to go have a look? It won't be pleasant, or safe" I ask, knowing the answer already.
I link our utility belts with a surreally glowing safety line, throw a sphere of defenses, and summon my demons.
My systems find the way and open it. Across twisted Net Space, far away, yet close at hand, powerful scavengers swarm over the carcass and wealth flows like blood, the snarl of squabbling legal systems shake the Net, and circling all, waiting, the banks.
We go, warrior and apprentice.
The material herein is copyright.
Reproduction is not permitted without the author's permission.
Copyright 1997 Stephen Heyer