Warped & Wired: Chapter 3

Chapter 2

Chapter #3

Mlina gazed out across the island from her rocky perch. She still couldn’t believe all that had happened. More like she didn’t want to believe it. She didn’t want to be an orphan; she didn’t want to have a computer in her brain; she didn’t want to die when she turned eighteen. She wanted a normal, happy life.

“Um, NICI, are you…there?”

Of course.

“NICI, is there a— You know, that’s a really awkward name. Can I just call you Nikki?”

It is not my official designation, but if you like you may refer to me as such.

“Okay, Nikki. Isn’t there any way to fix this… error? Or remove the matrix somehow?”

Only your father would know that. And I resent the suggestion of removing me. I highly doubt anyone, even your father, could remove me without causing permanent damage, as I am completely integrated into your neural system.

Mlina groaned, putting her face in her hands. Her father was dead, as was her mother. “Are you sure there isn’t another way? Someone else who would know something, anything, about this…about you?”

Possibly. It would have to be someone extremely close to him or his project.

Mlina snapped her fingers. “My uncle. They said in the message that I was supposed to be staying with him. He would have to know something, wouldn’t he?” Her vision flashed and seconds later, a picture of Albert Kihd appeared next to a complete bio.

Is this what you’re looking for?

Mlina nodded, studying the text. For brothers, twin brothers according to the article, the men looked about as similar as a toucan and a chimpanzee. Daven had blond hair, was as thick as a gorilla, and wore a beard. Her uncle Albert on the other hand was bamboo thin with dark hair only on the top of his head.

When Mlina finally read down to the section on occupation and accomplishments, her heart hit the seabed. Albert Kihd was a renowned geneticist and had several degrees in biology, genetics, and chemistry. There wasn’t a solitary mention of anything related to computers or cybernetics. Not even as a hobby.

“Okay, so now what?” Mlina leaned back against the rock.

Nikki was surprisingly silent. Let me work on it, she said finally. Is it all right if I work in the background?

“Just so long as I don’t have to see what you’re doing,” Mlina said. “It’s sort of distracting.”

Nikki’s reply was a dull hum in the back of Mlina’s head.

Trying to ignore the hum, Mlina got up and began climbing down the mountain. She had to figure out something to do or she’d be spending her eighteenth birthday in a box. Maybe she should go to New World Corridor. If it was true her uncle couldn’t help, maybe he would know someone who could. If not, she would still have a much better chance of getting help in New York City, Washington D.C., or one of the other metropolitan states that made up the conglomerate. The problem was getting a ship. The nearest port was on Quapoint Island and much too far to swim. Her parents had a small boat that they used to motor around the island and the occasional trip to Quapoint, but Mlina had never operated it by herself.

Mlina took a deep breath. The first thing to do was find out when the next cargo ship was leaving. If she could sneak into her room, she was sure she could find a timetable on the internet. She hoped her parents would be out looking for her; she still didn’t feel like facing them and hearing all of their lame reasons for why they had lied to her.

*****

Mlina peered out from behind a fern leaf at the multi-tiered bungalow. It appeared to be vacant, so she crept closer. Sidling up to the wall, she carefully peeked in. There was no one in the main room. So far so good. She rounded the corner and quietly opened the front door. The house was silent except for the outdoor noises of the jungle. Careful not to step on any of the loose bamboo tiles, Mlina tip-toed into her bedroom. Sitting at her desk, she pulled the web browser up and started searching for ships leaving Quapoint Island. She soon found a cargo ship departing in only a few hours for California. That didn’t give her much time. It would take her nearly that just to reach the island. Plus, California was still a long way from New World Corridor. Then of course there was the problem of just getting on the ship. There was no way she could book passage on it, it was too last minute and she had no money. Mlina blew out a deep breath. That left stowing away.

Mlina slumped against her chair. This was getting way too complicated. Though if she planned on living awhile, she didn’t have many other options. Her parents weren’t likely to help and probably wouldn’t even believe her. She wasn’t even sure she believed her. But in a weird, bizarre way it all made sense. And death wasn’t something she liked to play around with when she could do something about it. She also wanted to find her real family, if she had any. She had to at least try.

Mlina inhaled, then exhaled again. Now that she had sufficiently psyched herself up, it was time to start packing. She grabbed her waterproof duffel and began cramming clothes, food from the kitchen, and a pair of shoes from the closet into it.

When the bag was almost bursting, she sealed it shut and dashed out toward the palm-sheltered dock in the nearby inlet. After jumping into the boat, she stared at the console. The wheel, buttons, knobs and levers looked foreign to her. She had driven the watercraft before, but never started it. A small black hole stopped her cold.

The key.

She didn’t have the key. Her parents had the keys. There wasn’t a spare key as far as Mlina knew. She searched for an extra key in the boat, but found nothing. She didn’t have time to run back to the house and search.

“Okay, now what?” Mlina asked aloud.

Problem? Nikki’s voice made Mlina jump. She hadn’t really expected an answer and she still wasn’t used to having a strange voice in her head.

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that I don’t have a key for this thing.”

Maybe I can help. Does it have any type of wireless access module?

Mlina shook her head. “Uh, I doubt it. It’s just a boat.”

All right, find the main computer; it should be under the console there.

Mlina knelt down and, following Nikki’s instructions, removed the panel beneath the console. She stared up at the mass of wires and circuits.

Okay, now press your hand against the main computer. It should be that center box there.

Mlina obeyed, pressing her palm against the cool plastic surface. Her fingers began to pulse rapidly and her heart went into double time.

“What’re you doing?” She jerked her hand away from the box as if it was on fire, which was putting it mildly.

Using your electromagnetic pulse to communicate with the central processor on a base level. The sooner you put your hand back, the sooner I can get this watercraft started.

Mlina reluctantly placed her hand back on the box. After several agonizing seconds of heart-pounding vibrations, the boat’s engine hummed to life. Mlina immediately pulled her hand away. She adjusted the throttle and carefully maneuvered the boat out of the cove and into the open ocean.

After she had moved some distance away from the island, she shifted the lever to full throttle and engaged the second and third propellers. Her hands gripped the wheel as the boat bounced, shot, and crashed over the waves. Her only thought was trying to keep the boat upright; she’d never driven it this far out into the ocean and was more than a little nervous about what to expect. She strained her eyes to see the large island that lay on the darkening horizon.

As minutes dragged to hours, she thought she could see the cargo ship in the distance, which meant it either hadn’t left or was just leaving. She hoped it wasn’t the latter.

When she finally reached the island, she beached the boat onto a secluded stretch of sand and quickly roped it to a large tree. Then she raced through the underbrush toward the large village where the port was located.

The ship leaves in only five minutes.

“Instead of telling me how much time I don’t have, why don’t you start figuring a way I can get on?”

I’m afraid I cannot offer any suggestions without seeing the situation.

“Then start looking.” Mlina burst out of the foliage and into the darkened village. The sinking sun cast long black shapes along the sand and rock-paved paths that connected the straw and concrete buildings. Large spotlights cleared some of the shadows and clearly lit the few people hanging around the dock, apparently waiting for the ship to leave. To Mlina’s relief, the cargo ship was still docked securely and didn’t appear to be making ready to cast off. She quickly walked toward the automated gate that connected the boarding ramp to the large ship all the while looking around for some way to sneak aboard. Climbing the anchor chains would be too conspicuous; all the pallets and crates had already been loaded.

A voice, outside her head, shouted from somewhere in the shadows. “Hey, I think that’s her!”

Mlina darted her head to the side and saw three men quickly jogging toward her.

“Mitchellina Kihd! We need you to come with us.”

Mlina responded by making a dash for the boarding ramp. The men instantly quickened their pace behind her. Who were they? Why did they call her Kihd? How did they even know her name? Mlina threw the questions aside and concentrated on running toward the ship. Unfortunately, a steel bar gate guarded the partly enclosed walkway.

“Nikki, if you can open that gate, do it fast!” Mlina commanded.

Certainly.

Mlina’s vision was immediately cluttered as windows, pictures, and symbols began to play in front of her. The distracting images almost made her trip. The gate was only a few yards away and the men sounded dangerously close.

As a few yards became a few feet, the gate began to lower into the ground. Mlina dove over the sinking gate, rolled, and came up sprinting. “Raise it!” she shouted. Almost immediately she heard the reassuring clang of metal followed by halting footsteps.

Now Mlina had a new problem: hiding somewhere on the ship before anyone found her. A large pallet of crates and boxes offered good temporary cover. She ducked behind it, grateful that the deck was nearly empty of deckhands. She spotted an open hatch and darted through it, stepping behind a large pipe when footsteps sounded ahead. After the footsteps passed, she ran down the hallway until it split into four directions. She blew out a breath. “Okay, now what?” Her vision flashed and a diagram of the ship phased in before her.

You are here. Nikki illuminated a red dot on the map. Your best option for concealment is here. A red line traced a path through the corridors. Mlina took a right and ran down the hall. She had no idea where she was going, but the deeper down, the less people, the better.

She stopped at the door Nikki signaled. It opened into an enormous cargo hold filled with an infinite variety of stuff; and if the size of the room wasn’t astounding enough, the smell more than made up for it. Everything from coconuts and bananas, to bamboo and cheap plastic, permeated the stagnant air.

Mlina found a secluded corner and crouched down behind a crate of overripe bananas, dropping her bag beside her. She didn’t realize how tired she was until a yawn nearly snapped her jaw. She flattened her duffel bag as much as she could before laying her head on it. “Wake me if somebody gets close,” she said closing her eyes.

*****

Mlina woke to a conversation in her already pounding head. Groggily, she sat up. Why was it everyone had to talk in her head? What was wrong with her ears?

“We’ve searched all decks and no sign of the stowaway,” a man’s voice said.

“What about the lifeboat?” a deeper voice asked.

“It’s too far out now, but we couldn’t tell if there was anyone aboard.”

“Check the security cameras again, just to make sure,” the deep voice said. Then both voices fell silent.

Mlina rubbed her head and covered a yawn, despite the alarming nature of the conversation. “What was that?”

I took the liberty to scan the radio waves for any conversations pertaining to our position. I also managed to drop one of the lifeboats.

“So it would look like I escaped,” Mlina finished, almost laughing aloud. For a computer, Nikki was pretty clever. Incredibly annoying, but clever. “So is there anyone nearby now?”

See for yourself.

Suddenly Mlina was looking down an empty hallway. She turned her head and her vision swiveled to look down the connecting hallway. Then her vision flashed and she saw the deck of the ship, now drenched in sunlight. Seabird calls and the waves slapping the side of the ship made her homesick for her island. Her vision flashed again and she saw what looked like the bridge. The captain, the deep voice she had heard before, was busy giving orders over a small headset. Another flash and she was in the engine room; the deafening roar and grind felt like it was blowing her eardrums.

“Okay! That’s enough!” Mlina shouted over the noise. She immediately clamped her mouth shut, hoping no one had heard her. “How did you do that?” she asked in a low whisper.

Merely linked up to the ship’s server and then accessed the security cameras.

Mlina shook her head in disbelief. “You bypassed all the ship’s firewalls?”

Of course, Nikki replied nonchalantly. I operate so far above them that I was not even detected.

Wonderful. Not only did Mlina have a computer in her head, but a computer hacker. She hoped Nikki was right in that she wasn’t detected. The last thing she needed was someone snooping around trying to find who was hacking their system.

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