BURNED • by Lee Budar-Danoff

The scent of charred flesh stung Vaughn’s nose. His father’s body lay crumpled on the floor of the office. He knelt to console his sobbing mother, then examined his father’s hands. The pad of each finger had blistered around the embedded sockets, destroying the nanochips inside. The rumor mills would grind out scandals about the death of Markus Biener, founder and CEO of OneNet. Would they dare report he was attacked while linked to the digital array of his online communications empire?

Vaughn stood, jaw clenched, and noticed his old nanochip case among the souvenirs his father kept on his desk. Memories flooded back. Mind-racing amid infinite streams of data, nerves pulsing with each flash of genius, his mind sliding like silver mist into any site or system on the new array just because he could. His father had been so proud of his son, the prodigy. Vaughn shivered. He’d long since denied himself that intimate connection with the array.

Like the unlucky few, he’d fought the addiction, the constant lure of the drugs required to meld human and computer intellects. After losing himself in the array for three days while his parents vacationed in Cabo, his mother yanked him back by destroying his equipment. Vaughn gave up the direct link, embarrassed by his weakness, and limited himself to external hardware interfaces.

Crime scene investigators arrived to catalogue the evidence. Medics popped the blackened nanochips from Markus’ fingers and dropped them into an evidence bag. They lifted him onto a stretcher, tightened the straps, and covered him with a white sheet. Vaughn helped his mother to stand, but when she followed the medics and detectives for the inevitable interview, he remained behind.

“Vaughn?” Her voice was ragged, and broke.

“I’m coming. I need a moment.”

She nodded and walked out. He locked the door behind her. A soft knock followed, which became an insistent pounding.

“Don’t,” she pleaded, muffled by the heavy wood.

Vaughn swallowed against the pain in her voice. He had to act now, before the digital trail cooled. Before he changed his mind. From the desk he grabbed the plastic case, scratched but intact. Fabricated with outdated fiber optics technology, the nanochips inside would give him an edge — he couldn’t be burned through them.

With a deep steadying breath, Vaughn slid his finger-sockets open and blew into them as if a couple years of disuse would allow them to gather dust. He inserted the nanochips into his fingertips, closed them, then sat at his father’s desk. Vaughn shifted in the old leather chair until he reclined in comfort, and dragged the touchpad across his lap.

He rebooted the array control panel with his own programs. A soft whirring filled the room as the fans started up. Vaughn concentrated, flicking his fingers across the slick surface of the touchpad in a series of intricate microsigns to reconfigure virtual drives and alter identities. The equipment accepted his control as if his father had never existed in, much less controlled, binary space.

An amber bottle rested on the desk. Vaughn took a sterile dropper from a desk drawer. He drew up liquid from the bottle and lifted the dropper to his mouth with a shaking hand. Six whiskey-like drops slid under his tongue. Double the usual dose. In seconds his hand steadied and his skin chilled. Crackling fire rushed along his nerves. The room blurred. He tossed the dropper in the trash and closed his eyes. Wave-like sensations rippled through the bioconnects to the implant in his brain. Ecstasy engulfed him. Brutally, he clamped down on the feelings, rewriting his code to dampen what he couldn’t eliminate. Vaughn now operated in the array from his drug-enhanced mind.

He dictated commands in rapid bursts with his accelerated thought-signals, the thought-code splitting to stream through ten fingers as he slipped into his father’s digital domain.

Time to burn some crackers.

To find his father’s murderers, Vaughn had to track down the remnants of OneNet’s competition. As fast as he developed them, Vaughn deployed tracker bots to follow the electronic trail left by worms. Micro-apps scanned for malware signatures. Vaughn infiltrated the array, spread the news, demanded help. His brain reveled in the flood of data returned to him.

He ignored insignificant companies which had withered or folded under the shadow of OneNet’s monopoly. A flicker caught Vaughn’s attention — the red flash of a hunter. He created and placed honeypots. A knocking sound distracted him. He blocked the sensory input from his ears and focused on the tracker bot leading him along an older codepath toward the one major competitor OneNet had crushed in the free market.

Virtual lightning blazed but Vaughn deflected each bolt toward its origin. He tasted rust, copper, and switched off the nerve signals from his tongue. The memory of scorched flesh sprang up. He shut down his sense of smell. His father’s vacant face came at him like a spear of agony. Vaughn cut out his visual recall. As his analog world darkened, his digital one lit up like fireworks. He obliterated the weapons aimed toward him by the ancient software company. The final, desperate attacks he laughed off before retaliating with a cascade of viruses. Fear magnified into a fractal bloom. Three signal sources crashed then blacked out. In complete control of his mind, he erased his own digital traces, left the array and returned to reality.

The late-night attack against his father would only be the first. Others would attempt to take OneNet down with Markus Biener eliminated. Vaughn gritted his teeth but his hands were steady as he returned the touchpad to the desk, his nanochips to their case, and the amber bottle to a drawer. He pushed the chair against the desk and rested his hands on leather worn smooth by his father. College would wait. OneNet was his responsibility now.

“Please, Vaughn, you mustn’t… Let the police handle it,” called his mother.

Vaughn licked blood from his lips and opened the door.

Lee Budar-Danoff sails, plays guitar, and writes when she isn’t reading. Lee volunteers as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and is an alum of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. A former history teacher, Lee spends that energy raising three children with her husband in Maryland.

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