Rose only met her father once, the first time she’d passed through Heart Station, and his voice had sounded strange to her.
Her mother was shepherding Rose and Amani along the space station’s broad passageways, the crowds of passersby parting around them in a perfect teardrop. Rose was amusing herself by toggling her network connection on and off. On—and she could see the overlay of network visuals. Off—and she could see the faces of the crowd of station workers, House affiliates, and visitors from downwell. Amid such variety, though, their expressions were almost all the same: abstracted.
They were focused on the dynamics of the real world as their bodies moved through fleshtime, their fingers flicking the air around them as they coded messages of communication through the network.
Amani, who hadn’t had her implants done yet and so couldn’t plug in, was not nearly as interested in their surroundings, and she kept imitating the dull-eyed networked expression, sidling close to Rose and looking through her with a thousand-meter stare. After the second time Rose had unplugged, turned towards her, and jumped, she took a swipe at the younger girl, who dodged away, giggling.
“Girls!” In the hush of the networked crowd, Rose’s mother wouldn’t shout, but she seized them both, reserving a special shake for her daughter, “This is hardly an appropriate—” She broke off and her fingers tightened painfully on Rose’s shoulder.
A man had pushed into their space, heedless of the proprietary boundary clearly marked in network overlays, and stopped directly in their path. Rose stared at him in surprise. He had no implant nubs at his temples and he looked old. His skin was worn, his form slight. Rose was twelve standard, and already her mother’s height; he was barely taller than that, with a hollowed-out, wiry frame. He reminded her of the screen feeds she sometimes caught her mother turning off, the ones that showed crowds of protesting asteroid miners or families squeezed into narrow quarters close to a station’s outer hull and the harsh radiation of the vacuum.
“Cyn.” The man said her mother’s name, but he was looking at her. His voice was loud in Rose’s ears, loud enough that he might actually compete with the network inputs of those around them. The sound had a coarseness to it, and an urgency that she hadn’t heard before.
Rose looked at her mother for explanation, but Cynthia Demian serf Albu’s face was masklike. She answered the man’s question with one of her own.
“Why are you here?”
The guard who followed in their wake hadn’t stopped until she was beside them. Now she reached for her sidearm, but Rose’s mother let go of Amani—who was silent and wide-eyed—to tap a code into her bracelet-screen. It must have been on the guard’s private line, because she stilled but continued to loom impressively.
The strange man glanced at the guard, and then finally looked at her mother, waiting stonily.
Rose tried plugging in when she looked at him, but without a connection of his own he had no stats to offer up, nothing beyond a labor contract stamp on the shoulder of his coverall, with an expiration date from two weeks ago, and his simple bracelet-screen, which was broadcasting a pass-code for the inner corridors.
Finally, Rose’s mother made a noise that was louder than a sigh, and said, “I won’t apologize, Will.”
“Not for leaving, you mean?” The man’s voice rang with emotion. “Was this worth it?” He pinched the wrinkled skin over one cheekbone, just below where an implant would have lodged, in the derogatory gesture that indicated fleshbound life. “You teach their brats,” he jerked his head at Amani, and she pulled herself up in child-sized affront, “to play at life in fleshtime for the novelty of it—”
“Enough, Will!” Her mother’s tone had the tiniest fracture, more frightening to Rose than all of this stranger’s ranting. Her mother never let emotion master her. She took a breath and went on more quietly, “You made all these points a long time ago. What could be different now? Look at yourself, Will.” Her last words were gentle, but the man still flinched.
“How could you think that I wouldn’t find you?” He asked, “That I wouldn’t at least try to see my daughter? Let her know she has a father? And now I see what you’ve done to her!”
A father? Rose stared. Like any child, she had asked her mother about other parents when she realized that most of her age-mates had two or more, but her mother had always turned the questions away. Now Rose’s blood pounded in her ears, and she didn’t know if what she felt was excitement or horror. Her mother’s voice came from far away.
“It’s what I’ve done for her. She’s one of the youngest successfully networked ever—she can move through fleshspace and the real world with equal ease. I looked after my daughter; I gave her a future.”
“You made her a pet,” the man spat. “Is it her future to make her masters happy? In whose real world? This, child,” her father reached out to her, “this is our reality—” His hand almost touched her face.
It happened so quickly that Rose wasn’t aware of more than a jolt and a swing of perspective until after the fact. Her mother had pulled her back sharply, and as she stumbled the guard surged forward. There was a muffled sound and a cry, and then the man was knocked to one side, stumbling and almost falling among the people who moved beyond the property line. He caught himself, pushing off of the crowd, who shied out of the way with vague noises of irritation and disgust. Rose’s mother set off as if her engines had fired, dragging Rose and Amani after her, with the guard jogging in their wake.
Rose felt as if she should look back, but she was too afraid. In the flurry of the moment, the glut of stimuli from the networked world was too much for her. Rose cut her connection. Amani was jabbering questions but getting no response. Rose’s mother’s grip was adamantine. Rose looked at the familiar face, one of the few adults she had ever known that lacked the reflective points of implant nubs, and felt her mother’s distress more clearly than she could have read any data feed.
“Who was that?” Her whisper cut across Amani’s words.
Her mother didn’t look at her. “No one real.”
Rose was twice as old before she traveled to Heart Station again, and she did it then as a governess with her own charge.
The shuttle ride from Station Albu was two days, and Rose decided on the second one that Djamon needed at least a few hours more practice in fleshtime communication before they were reunited with his parents.
As usual, he resisted when she shorted his network access.
“Aww, Rose!” If he had been in a bed, he would have flopped over and pulled the covers over his head.
Rose stifled a sigh. She knew his frustration. With detachment, the world became flatter, greyer, empty without the data overlay of news, alerts, stats, apertures, contacts, advertisements, and more. Still, she couldn’t let him slip.
“Come on now,” she remonstrated. “Is that any way to communicate? I know you know better than that.” She put a hand on his shoulder. Silent communication: affection, authority, social contract. Would he remember her lessons?
Djamon groaned, but his frown faded. “All right, fine, Rose—but why did you pull me out so soon? We’re not nearly there yet.”
Rose nodded at the fingers of his right hand, which had been twitching as he spoke. “Because of that. If you go too long without practicing in fleshtime, you will slip back into old habits, and then what will your parents say when they see you? Your first instinct is still to code your responses, rather than speak them aloud.”
“Oh,” Djamon said in a much smaller voice. He looked down, balling his traitorous fingers into fists.
Their stateroom was as luxurious as any available on a public-transport shuttle, with two recliners equipped with optional sustenance support (for those passengers whose immersion in the network was so all-consuming that physical movement was too much of a bother) and a deceptive screen impersonating a window on the depths of space for those members of the elite who, like Rose’s employers, preferred the old-fashioned styles that accompanied fleshtime.
Rose levered herself up from her recliner and reached across to pull Djamon up as well. “Don’t worry.” She ducked her head to ensure full eye contact. Silent communication: evoking empathy and care. “You’ll work on it. I saw children from another House boarding ahead of us with their attendant, and I imagine they’ll be taking their meals on station time. You shall practice your semi-formal manners with peers of your rank over a light lunch.”
Their stateroom was only two corridors away from the mess-hall at the heart of the passenger deck, insulated from the crew work areas by the luxury of House Albu’s minors’ expense account. Shuttle security was tight enough that Penner, the House guard who was their detail for the trip’s duration, hadn’t felt the need to post himself outside their door. Rose considered plugging back in for a minute to send him an update on their location, but it seemed ridiculous. Penner could monitor them from his second-class cabin just fine—should he find the risks inherent in lunchtime conversation worthy of his concern.
The real risk, she knew, was all for her, and hinged on whether her work with Djamon had been successful.
It turned out that the scions of the other House were already seated for lunch. There were four of them, all with a few years on Djamon—not only old enough to have past mastery of subtle fleshtime communication, but also to recognize an advantage when they saw it, and feel no compunction about bringing damning stories back to their family.
All four stood politely and called out a chorus of decorous greetings. Djamon started forward towards them. Rose’s stomach clenched, and she tugged for a moment on the elbow of his sleeve. “Don’t forget eye contact!” She hissed. “Respond to the feeling of the question, as much as the import, and don’t use your dessert fork for the salad!”
Djamon pulled out of her grasp with a muttered, “I know, I know!” but he moderated his pace.
Reaching the table, he nodded politely. “Excuse me; I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I am Djamon Albu, and this is my governess, Rose. May we join your lunch?”
All the young people’s eyes turned to the woman at the head of the table, who was wearing the colors of House Cloughdar. Her smile at Djamon was perhaps genuine. “It would be an honor, young Master Albu. Please sit with us.”
Rose took her seat warily beside Djamon. He had practiced fleshtime communication with others on Station Albu, although mostly with the few proteges of aspiring or social-climbing retainers, never with members of rival Houses. Should he make any truly miserable gaffes—well, this was a moment his parents would hear about. Rose’s years of service, and her mother’s before her, wouldn’t matter.
This was your idea, Rose reminded herself. He’s got to start sometime, and there’s less pressure now than there will be in his parents’ drawing room.
Rose’s seatmate on her other side was the Cloughdar governess, who had introduced herself as Nicia Alcarn.
“Tell me, Miss Nicia, are you and your charges travelling on beyond Heart Station?” Rose asked.
It took the other woman a moment to respond, and when she did it was with a slight jerk and an apology. “—I’m sorry; I didn’t realize you were addressing me. It happens so seldom these days…. Yes and no.” She lowered her voice and turned half away from the others. “Master and the Misses Cloughdar are going down the gravity well to join their parents on HeartWorld, but my contract with House Cloughdar is terminated at the station. I will be looking for work in orbit.”
Rose blinked in surprise. “Are the Cloughdars raising no more unplugged children, then?” The powerful Houses usually enforced limited networking for at least one or two in each generation, to allow them to display the luxury and refinement of traditional social communion, even if it meant a handful of scions who were less adept at navigating the realm in which the majority of humanity dwelt. The more likely possibility was that Miss Nicia was being replaced and set adrift.
She looked as if she could interpret Rose’s silent speculation. “I’m sure I don’t know,” she replied distantly. “I am not in my employers’ confidence—No, no,” she added, as Rose made noises of apology for any perceived indelicacy, “I meant more that their future plans are distinct from mine. I am giving up fleshtime work.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Rose spoke softly, “For me, the prospect of being unmoored from service, without House status and protection, is, well, daunting. Has life with Cloughdar been so unforgiving?”
Nicia shook her head. “Not that. It’s true that these,” a brief eye flick towards the House Cloughdar teens, who were still turned away from them, “have not been rewarding charges, but it’s more that I’m losing time. To spend so many hours unplugged, teaching them to ‘converse’—I feel as if life is going on without me. Every time I sync back up, I’ve missed things, I’m behind, I’m slow to readjust…. I know that I won’t be good for much else, but I’d rather spend my time in the real world.”
Rose opened her mouth, and then closed it again. How could she argue with that? Money, power, and influence all agreed with Nicia.
“Rose?” Djamon tapped her arm, bringing her attention back to him. “May I be excused?” A quick glance showed that he’d cleaned his plate, and laid his napkin across it. “Rani asked if I would like to play Go. Can I?”
“‘May I.’” Rose corrected automatically.
Djamon heroically did not scowl or roll his eyes in front of Nicia’s outsider stare. “May I, Rose? You told me I need to practice fleshtime strategy games.” Rose eyeballed him for this indiscretion. “Well, you did, and now Rani Cloughdar says that this is one of the best, better than any plug-in, she says, and she can teach me.” he gestured to a set of two-seater booths at the end of the narrow mess, with a black-and-white game board set into the table. It was another amenity that spoke to the elite customer base of this shuttle service.
Rose saw that two of the other children had set up at one of the booths and were already starting another antique strategy game, the built-in table screen mimicking a board pattern. It was an eminently appropriate activity, and Djamon did need the practice. It was actually a small miracle that he was pestering her to do something she might have forced on him herself. She nodded. “Remember the differences.” Djamon had heard the admonition often enough that she didn’t need to finish it. Fleshtime games are about reading your opponent, not just mastering the strategies.
Djamon grinned. “I will!” he hurried over to the booth, and slid in across from his new acquaintance.
Nicia nodded after him. “He’s very engaged in fleshtime.”
Rose felt a little swell of pride. The House children were all out of earshot, so she let herself brag for a moment. “He is, especially considering he didn’t unplug at all until two years ago.”
Nicia’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed?”
“Yes. They networked him young, and then they decided when he was ten that they wanted another child that could mingle in ‘traditional society.’” Rose thought of the solipsistic and nearly wordless creature he had been, a child completely acclimated to the stimulation and immediacy of the network system and untrained in any interactions not governed by calculated variables or randomized response.
Nicia frowned. “What made you agree to take such a risky position?”
Rose tried not to feel offended. Nicia’s question was a practical one: failure was a contract breaker that could leave her without references. “Experience—I grew up networked.” Most governesses either had no implants, and were like her mother, pulled from the outer dregs of society to serve the elite families, or were what Rose suspected Nicia must be, poor relations of those same families, brought up in that world but not of it. “It puts me halfway between two realms.”
“And he’s fully unplugged right now…?” Nicia looked over at Djamon, who was chattering with Rani across the gameboard. Rose didn’t reply. She saw Nicia’s eyes widen as the other woman plugged in, trying to glimpse Djamon’s connection to the network.
Rose bristled again, but anything she might have said was lost forever when the floor and walls of the mess hall resounded with a terrific bang.
Rose pushed herself from her chair, reaching for Djamon. The lights flickered and the gravity dipped nauseatingly, and there was a single, panic-inducing whoop from the air-system’s failure alarm. Her movement became a brief, accelerating flight in the moment of null-grav, which then became a bruising tumble to the floor as down reasserted itself. She scrambled to her feet, reeling, and practically collided with Djamon, who had, it seemed, made a beeline for her as well. Clutching him, she scanned the room for the closest emergency suit storage. Children were crying and holding tightly to the table or tumbled chairs as if they feared gravity would cut out again at any moment. Nicia had also fallen to the floor, but unlike Rose, she showed no signs of moving.
There was a suit closet by the hatch to the crew-levels—but the lights embedded in the case’s front panel were flicking from amber back to green, and the alarm had stopped blaring, so maybe they were not about to lose atmo after all.
Rose spared some attention for the others. One of the oldest Cloughdar children was crouched beside Nicia, shaking her shoulder. “Nicia? Nicia!”
Rose pushed Djamon to arms’ length, scanning him for signs of injury and, finding only an expression of confusion tinged with fear, let him go and hurried over to the unresponsive Nicia. Nicia’s charge was still calling on her, with a voice spiraling up into panic. Rose dropped down beside her. “Hush, girl—let me look.”
Rose rolled the other woman onto her back and felt for a pulse under Nicia’s throat. It was beating—fast and erratically, but that was still something. She turned Nicia’s head between her two hands, looking closely at her implant nubs. Then she used a cautious forefinger to lift one of Nicia’s eyelids halfway. The woman’s pupils were dilated so far that the iris was almost obliterated, and they danced as if tracking a series of fast-moving objects.
“What’s wrong with her?” the girl quavered.
“Someone’s torching the network,” Rose answered. “It’s a type of data-weapon. Anyone plugged in within the signal range gets a stimulatory overload, enough for them to lose touch with their physical senses.” Or go into seizures, she didn’t add.
“But if this is happening in the network,” the girl asked, “who’s flying the shuttle?”
Excellent question. All five children were looking at Rose, seeking reassurance. She took a deep breath, and hoped they couldn’t see her fear.
Then, with a hissing whisper, the door connecting the passenger and crew decks opened, and Penner came lurching through them.
“MissRose…you’kay?” She so rarely heard Penner’s voice, so rough from disuse that it took her a moment of staring to parse his words. By the time she nodded, he was already at her side, looking down at Nicia. His fingers twitched before he caught himself, grunted in irritation, and spoke again. “Don’t…plug in.”
Obviously, Rose wanted to snap. Instead, she drew on calmness like armor and asked, “How are you managing it?” Penner, who existed as most people did, enmeshed in the network, should have been felled by the torch as quickly as Nicia.
He took a deep breath, fighting the impulse to respond digitally. “Shielding…code,” he managed, “for…House-valued assets.” He jerked a chin at the children, who were now clustered together silently, “Scions have it, if networked. Protection. In case.”
Governesses aren’t of sufficient value. That wasn’t a revelation, but it was bitter. Her armor slipped. Good thing Penner couldn’t read faces without stats and amplifying feeds. Rose turned to her charge. “Djamon. I need you to plug in and find out from Penner what is going on.”
His eyes were wide and overwhelmed, but he must have initiated his connection instantly, because his fingers flew into action. Penner’s form lost a modicum of its tension as he responded in kind. A distant, unreasonable part of Rose’s mind noted that this was a teachable moment she could have pointed out to the other children. There was so much she could read and understand about Penner through physical presence, the language of their shared humanity. All knowledge that was lost in the real world. She shook the thought away.
Djamon batted away whatever information the guard had supplied and focused again on Rose. “He says there’s been an attack on the shuttle. All of the crew are—like her.” He glanced down at Nicia. “The, the torch-thing, while it was happening, these guys—Disenfranchised something, their signs are all over the local network—tried to board, but the automated defenses got them. They’re slag now.” The soldier’s slang must be a direct quote from Penner.
Rose felt sick. “And the pilot?”
“The ship’s on a straight trajectory, and we’re locked out of the control system, but Penner’s already sent out a distress call, and the House bought this ship off the shuttle company. He says agents are working on it from our Heart Station quadrant. They should be able to crack the lock-out in a couple hours and then they can restart the local network hub and fly us remotely. He says we just need to wait until then.”
There was a pause while everyone digested this information, and then all the children started talking at once.
“What do you mean, we were almost boarded by who now—?”
“Why can’t we all just—?”
“Quiet!” Rose commanded, “and don’t plug in! Security code or not, don’t risk yourselves with unnecessary exposure. You, too, Djamon; that’s all you need to get from Penner.” They quieted, looking at her warily.
“What about Nicia?” Rani asked finally.
Rose sighed. “We can make her comfortable, but I don’t imagine you can short her access?” Rani Cloughdar shook her head.
Rose turned to Penner. “Is there anything we can do for the crew?” She imagined them sprawled across the ship like scattered refuse, insensible and unreachable as Nicia.
He blinked at her, and managed a “No,” before moving to place himself in front of the door, a barrier to their egress as much as to any further intrusion.
Rose did the best she could to make Nicia comfortable, wrapping the woman in the hastily-repurposed cloth from their lunch table and dimming the mess-hall lights, knowing that her efforts were almost assuredly useless, yet wishing she could do even that for the others struck down. The children pulled away from the sight of the other governess’s body, squeezing themselves into a single gameplay booth.
When Rose turned to them, they were all staring down at the surface of the table, which must have doubled as a viewscreen, because it was projecting a light that painted their faces luridly in the dimness. Rose frowned and hurried over.
The source of the light was revealed as a lettered message, brilliant in red and black, which seemed to have taken over all pages of the screen system, judging by the way Djamon was fiddling with the controls.
DISENFRANCHISED ACTION FRONT, was blazoned in largest type, and below it, We have control of this shuttle and its passengers. We hold the scions of several powerful Houses. You must listen to our demands. We have been forgotten by the complacent networked masses. No longer! The children of the Houses grow up playing at the only life we’ve ever known, we exiles from the network. Fleshbound life is not a relic of the past, an imagined state of innocence. We are fleshbound—we who cannot afford implants are not history, not forgotten. We demand access to the real world. No one should have to live like this….
The manifesto went on. Rose supposed that part of the data weapon had included code to blanket every screen in the ship. Nola Cloughdar must have just gotten to the end of it because she frowned, and struck the screen with her hand. “Bastard plebs! Trying to…” her voice wavered. “I’m glad they’re slag in space.”
Empathy was the hardest thing to teach, and there was no empathy in the network—the only meanings that could be quantified and calculated, the decisions driven by appetite and intellect.
“Please listen to me for a moment.” They looked up at her, a ring of shadowy forms framing the light of the message that proclaimed them enemies. “What do you think their lives were, those plebs, that they were driven to this?”
Nola scoffed. “Who cares? They’re not real.”
Rose felt cold. She remembered her mother’s tight face, hurrying her away from unplugged demands. It’s no one real.
She used all the fleshface skills at her disposal, earnest eye contact and cautious tone, to project that she was assured, trustworthy, and worth heeding. “Because truly, really, they move through the same world we all do.” She looked at each one of them in turn, gaze lingering longest on Djamon. “I know you’re scared. This is a terrible thing to experience. But you are all powerful—and you will lead your Houses someday. You need to remember what you share with the unplugged. With everyone.” She reached out and touched Djamon lightly on the cheek, marking the reality of flesh. “Slagging won’t end this.”
“That’s crazy.” One of the other boys was glaring at her. “Who are you? They just tried to kill us, and you say we should share with them?”
They were all reeling from fear and assault, and they were children. She couldn’t force them to see. But she couldn’t not try, either. She sighed. “I just want you to try to understand.”
There was a pause. The Cloughdar children looked at each other blankly. Djamon, who was sitting closest to the edge of the booth, scooted out and away from the huddle to stand beside her. He pointed to the space he had just vacated, looking up at her with eyes that were wide with concern.
“Rose,” he said hesitantly, “you look so tired and worried. Would you like to sit while we wait?”
It wasn’t the depth of empathy she was reaching for, but it was a recognition. Rose had to close her eyes against their burning.
It took two hours for the House Albu agents to retake control of the ship’s piloting system, and twice that time for them to bring it to dock at Heart Station. Rose spent much of the final leg of the trip, once the network was rebooted, trying to help Penner and the two House Cloughdar guards to find and tend all the other people on board, those who had fallen across the ship when the torch attack began. Most of those people were still insensible when a combined neurotech and medical emergency crew bustled on board as soon as the airlocks synched. Rose had shared what little she had been able to do with the head medic as soon as he made network contact with her, and the group, in typical networked fashion, didn’t even acknowledge her as she stepped back from Nicia’s body one last time. They swept past Rose, focused on the error messages blinking in Nicia’s personal stat display, conversing rapidly via private channels.
Rose’s own private feeds were overflowing with updates and directives from her employers, and the public data streams were blazing with news about the thwarted attack, overlaying the usual vibrant mass of inputs. Staving off a wave of exhaustion, she unplugged and looked around for Djamon.
He was still sitting in the same booth. The Cloughdar children had returned to their cabins—presumably to be retrieved by agents of their house—but he had waited here, watching stiffly. He hadn’t even plugged back in since his conversation with Penner.
Rose beckoned, and he made his way over to her, face still tight with tension. Rose wished that she could reassure him as easily as the network could erase the distances of space. Even the empathy of fleshtime couldn’t cross the gulf between minds.
“Let’s go,” she told him. “Penner is staying here to liaise with station security, and there’s a House guard contingent meeting us dockside.”
When they emerged into the Heart Station corridor, Rose directing her own and Djamon’s luggage, the House Albu group was immediately visible: not only was there a group of five armed guards—a glaring, emergency-status exception to Heart Station’s disarmament rules—but a familiar figure stood among them.
“Amani!” Rose cried aloud, but the other didn’t answer. She tapped the implant at her temple with one hand, and then flicked impatiently. Rose stifled a moment of surprise. Of course—Amani had been networked for ten standard now, and, despite her fleshtime training with Rose’s mother, she was now a working member of the House, with little time for elite-style socializing. Naturally she would rather communicate via the network, even with her own governess’s daughter.
Rose called up her own network, blinking through the shift in perspective. ::Hello, Amani::
::It’s good that you’re safe,:: Amani’s response had the terseness of those who were constantly networked, dividing their attention among the array of inputs and stimuli. She turned and began walking, forcing the entire group of guards, along with Rose and Djamon, to fall in with her. ::Why didn’t you stay with your charge while waiting to reach the station? The distance pilots said you were all over the ship, wasting your energies on non-House personnel.::
Rose was so thrown that she stopped walking, and the House Albu property line, that had appeared around them as soon as they began moving, passed over her before the rest of the group, realizing she wasn’t with them, came to a stop. Djamon made an abortive movement towards her, but then stopped, looking up at his cousin.
Amani frowned at Rose. ::What is it?::
::You wanted me to sit by Djamon, and not even try to help the victims of the attack?::
They looked at each other with mutual incomprehension. ::They weren’t our people.:: Amani finally said. ::They weren’t your concern. Your job is to look after and school our scion. You were in a position of risk, one you should not have had to face, but your actions were unnecessary.::
Rose groped for words and found none. The flow of data all around her was suddenly disorienting, despite her lifetime of plugging in. She let the connection go, and stared at the group in front of her, huddled within a line of ownership that she could no longer see. Djamon was staring at her puzzled—he could see the distress on her face in a way that Amani—Amani who had known her as a child, who had been trained in fleshface communication, who hadn’t been networked until adolescence, did not register from within her networked existence.
“How is House Albu going to respond to the DAF?” Rose asked. She had to reconnect to get Amani’s answer.
Amani’s communication telegraphed surprise. ::Those plebs have no real power. That they were able to stage this unsuccessful attack was an alert to all the Houses. The screen access points for any unplugged workers are already being shut down here on Heart Station, and across all our holdings. I am sure the other Houses are taking similar actions.:: She addressed Djamon directly for the first time, ::you have no reason to fear for your safety now.::
Rose felt as if the gravity was slipping again, and her head was kilometers above her feet. She could feel Amani’s attention wavering, drawn by competing flows within the network, and two of the guards shuffled, ready to move their group forward, towards House Albu quadrant where, long ago, Rose and her mother had brought Amani on a visit.
Rose thought suddenly of the defiant, worn stranger, her father, whose voice had been ragged but clear as he dismissed the networked life with such scorn and proclaimed his own reality. She thought of the envious, dead terrorists, who only wanted the reality of the networked world and its privileges. Djamon could move through both worlds, now, but what part of her efforts to school him were just puffing her fragile, human breath into the vastness of the void waiting to swallow it?
She pulled up her House Albu employee access codes on her public feed, and then deleted them, before unplugging, so that she couldn’t hear Amani’s reaction.
“Madam Amani Albu,” she said, her voice loud in the hush, “I am deeply indebted to the generous sponsorship of House Albu. However, I am taking this moment to tender my resignation of services.” She heard Djamon’s gasp.
She stepped among the motionless guards and bent to look him in the eye. “I’m so proud of you, Djamon,” she told him. “Remember everything you’ve learned. Remember everything you’ve seen, even if it’s painful and doesn’t always make sense. Remember to look people in the eye and try to see them.”
Djamon’s face was stoic, but tears were standing in his eyes. “Why, Rose?”
Rose hugged him, pressing her face to the top of his head. “You can speak the language of shared humanity,” she told him. “The Houses don’t see how valuable that can be. Come find me when you reach your majority. I’ll be where people are talking.”