Endlessly slow, Sam awoke to the sensation of something brushing through his hair. At first, his groggy mind figured it was the wind. Then the firm, textile sensation finally made him reject that idea. For a while, he did not try to explain away the sensation, but simply enjoyed the soft, rhythmic strokes. Finally, though, he managed to shore up enough determination to open his eyes and inspect the source of all that pleasantness.
Somewhat surprised, he found himself staring up into two soft, blue eyes. He recognized them as that of his mother, recognized her smile as she observed him waking up.
“Hello there,” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper. She sounded exhausted. Realizing this, Sam took note of her red-rimmed eyes and unbrushed hair.
“Hi, Mom,” Sam said, trying to sound calm and strong, “What’s up?”
“I couldn’t wake you…” She said, as if speaking to herself, “You were so… cold. I told you it was too soon to begin school again, now look at you.”
“Mom, I’m fine—” He tried, but she cut him off with a hand gesture. “You, young man, are not fine. You will be staying in your bed for the rest of the day, and I’ll hear no argument about it. Got that?”
He nodded, knowing it would be useless to argue the point. She would tie him to the bed, if only to make sure he did not make anything worse.
“Good,” she said, nodding determinately, “It is one thing for your sister to make us nervous, but now you as well? You have to take care of yourself, Sam.”
“I will, Mom,” Sam said, automatically, before fully digesting what she had said, “Wait, why would Liz make you nervous? Did something happen?”
“Nothing serious, Dear. It was just very late before she bothered to tell us where she was. Your father almost went down to the station to rile up some policemen… I mean, really, she could have just said she was staying with a friend.”
“So, she never came home?”
“She did not,” Sam’s mother agreed, sighing heavily, “The two of you will end up driving us into an early grave.” That last part she managed with a smile and a glint in her eye.
“I’ll talk to her,” Sam promised, and tried to sit up, “Make sure she doesn’t do a stunt like that again.” If he had hoped to shift his mother’s attention away from himself, he was quickly disillusioned of any such notions.
A hand as firm as iron held him down, blue eyes turning frosty with maternal authority. “I thought I told you to stay in your bed.”
“I’m just going to get something to eat,” Sam tried, hoping it would be enough. It was not.
“When I tell you to stay, you stay, hear?”
Again, he nodded. There was no way to win an argument with her, once she had gone into mother-bird territory.
“I’ll get you some food. Some porridge will do you good.” She got up and walked to the door of his room. She turned back, right before exiting, and pointed her index finger at him, as if about to cast a spell of immobility, and said, “Stay.”
Sam sighed after she had left, and drew his blanket up around his ears. The night’s escapades had been taxing on his mind, and he was beginning to suspect the health-risks of being mentally active 24/7. How long could he keep doing this?
And the threats, too, was beginning to get to him. He had come very close this night to become one of those infected — one of those who lost their minds. Until now, he had been playing along for the novelty of the experience, as well as how it might help him achieve his space-faring goals, but he was reaching a point of no return now.
Then he thought about Izzy and the bright smile with which she had greeted him whenever she recognized him. She had stood with him on the bridge, and had fallen down with him in turn. Sighing to himself, Sam resolved to get Izzy out of the dungeon before he considered whether he should give up being Ares or not.
He owed her that much.
While he ruminated on these matters, his mother brought him a bowl of rice porridge. Only when he had the steaming bowl in front of him did he realize how hungry he was. Once it had cooled down to a respectable degree, he shoveled the food into his mouth. Satisfied, he leaned back and looked up into the ceiling.
“I have to go, Sam,” his mom said, leaning through the door as she spoke, “You promise to stay put, right?”
“I won’t leave the house,” Sam promised. She squinted at him, probably considering whether to call him out for the loose limit he set himself. He gave her a reassuring smile as he prepared arguments for why he might need to leave his room, but in the end, it did not matter. She gave him a nod before she left.
He was alone again.
For a while, he laid back down and stared up at the ceiling, trying to come up with a plan of action. While the other side was somewhat peaceful, he needed to take the time to work on his own plans.
He had barely spent a week in school, and already he was embroiled in secret societies vying for power. With the other Wells breathing down his neck, Sam had not had time to really work on his school project.
He had told Emma Castello, the Blue Mink, that he wanted to use lifeforce to deal with Mars’ missing magnetic field, and to do so he had blurted out a stray thought that had been lurking at the back of his mind for some time.
Lower the resistance… He thought, placing his palm over his eyes. How the hell am I supposed to do that?
He had some ideas, sure, but he had no grasp on the theory he needed, nor even where to begin attacking the problem. He needed information.
Resolving himself to this course of action, Sam swung his legs out to the side and got up on his feet. He felt strangely weak, as if he had returned to his sickened state. Shaking his head, he dressed and exited into the hallway.
His sister’s room stood slightly opened, just as he had observed in the middle of the night. He took another look at the birds painted on the room door, committing their figure to memory. They probably meant something to Liz, and he resolved to figure out what.
Walking down the stairs, he made certain there was no one in the house other than himself before he walked into the study. Because of his recurring sickness, Sam had never acquired himself a computer. Even now that he was better, he had hesitated in getting himself one. Thus, to do the research, he needed to borrow the one his father kept here.
He got it up and running with no big issues. The system was already set up for him to link up to the school’s online archives and library. With a click of the finger, he had access to most of human knowledge.
The abundance of options left him momentarily stunned. Where to start?
He had only just begun to ponder the issue, when a knock on the door brought him back to reality. Taken aback, Sam only got up from his seat when a second knock followed the first. Leaving the computer as it was, he got up into the entryway and opened the door, revealing a uniformed man with a gentle smile on his face.
“Samuel Welbourne?” He asked, holding his smile perfectly still.
“Yeah?” Sam said, confusion in his voice.
“Package for you.” The man handed him a small, brown package.
Sam stared at the package, then back up at the man, a budding suspicion growing in the back of his mind. The car behind the man indicated a private courier — an expensive service for a package that could just as well have been sent through Flotsam’s mail. “I didn’t order any package,” he said, even as he automatically received it.
The man shrugged and said, “Take it up with the sender. My job is just delivering.” Leaving Sam with the package in hand, the man turned on his heels and went back to his vehicle.
Unsure of what else to do, Sam closed the door behind him and went back to the study. He put the package down by the computer screen and studied it more closely. It was barely the length of his hand, and only slightly wider. He tried shaking it, but got only a soft rustle; now way of knowing what was on the inside.
Left with the option of opening it or storing it away, Sam’s curiosity got the better of him. He stripped the brown packaging away to find a small white box with a letter attached to it. Opening the letter, he read.
When I learned that you were staying home due to your health, I decided to send you a sample of my product line. Hopefully, this will allow you to deal with whatever is causing your ‘bad health’. Since it is immensely annoying to write these letters, I have also added a means of communicating. I expect a report on the progress of your project very soon.
Blinking, Sam read the letter again. He put the letter down after reading it the second time, shaking his head. The Blue Mink was not to be underestimated. He did not like the tone, insinuating he had to report to her, but perhaps that was his own fault. The terms of any hypothetical cooperation should have been made clear when they spoke.
He would remember that for next time.
Turning to the box once more, he grew slightly excited. If the ‘product line’ was what he thought it was, Emma Castello might just have thrown him a lifeline. He opened up the box and found a smaller box inside, filling up half of the interior. Opening that, he found a row of biscuits neatly arranged.
Remembering the sensation of eating these biscuits, Sam’s mouth watered. Still, he put them aside, for now, electing to look at what lay at the bottom of the box. Here, he found a brand new phone, with an accompanying slip with the necessary codes.
He had been meaning to get one, but between rehabilitation and his re-entry into school, there simply never seemed to be time. Now he was the proud owner of this one, although he was not entirely sure it was safe, considering who the sender was.
Best be careful, he thought, turning on the handheld computer. It lit up with restrained calm, and Sam put in the codes he had received. The display was already full of applications, and not all of them manufacture standard.
Looking over it would be a task for later, though. For now, the biscuits were more useful. He picked one up from the row and put it in his mouth. Immediately, the familiar sense of lifeforce filled him and rejuvenated him.
Moments later, the voice he had been expecting cheerfully appeared in his mind.
“Hello, Master! I’m so happy to be able to reach you on this side again. Can I be of assistance to you?” Orca’s cheery voice was slightly weaker than he was used to, but perfectly eligible.
‘As a matter of fact, you can,’ Sam, deciding it was time to utilize the advantages he got from being Ares, ‘Can you figure out a way to stabilize this connection to you?’
The flow of lifeforce was quickly dwindling, and he did not want to end up eating all of the biscuits just to keep Orca on the line.
“I’m afraid the resistance on your side is too powerful to overcome without any kind of booster,” Orca said, her voice contemplative, “But perhaps there is a way to anchor myself in your world as well. I can create a simplified version of my programming and use this link to establish it on your end…”
‘What do you need?’
“From your language script, I can deduce you have what you call ‘digital devices’ in your world. Are there any such devices nearby you now?”
‘Two,’ Sam said, looking from his dad’s computer to the new phone, ‘But one is my dad’s, and the other I don’t fully trust…’
“Oh… Is it dangerous?”
‘Might be. It’s from someone who’s like me; someone who wants something from me. I would be surprised if she haven’t installed some kind of surveillance software.’
“Pff, don’t worry about that, Master,” Orca said, happily dismissing the notion, “Once my program is established, I’ll make sure to secure the device for you.”
‘That would actually be a great help. What exactly do I have to do?’
“As long as you’re in physical contact with it, I can—”
The connection began to shut down, and Sam quickly popped another biscuit into his mouth. Orca returned a heartbeat later, continuing her sentence. “I’ll use lifeforce as a medium to connect with its circuits.”
Sam picked up the phone and held it in his hand. ‘Like this?’
“Yeah! Just one moment…”
He felt Orca do… something, but was not entirely sure what. Moments later, the screen on the phone lit up and started glitching. ‘Uhm, Orca… It doesn’t look good on my end…’
“Don’t worry about it, Master. Just a snag when I tried to download the linguistic script for the code… Uhh, you have a whole network purely dedicated to information — Interesting… Ahh, I’m in!”
The screen blacked out for a moment, before it lit up again, showing the dashboard of the phone as before, but now a happy avatar of an actual orca appeared at the bottom of the screen. The image of the killer-whale waved a small flipper at him.
“Testing… Testing… Can you hear me, Master?” This time, the sound came from the phone. Sam stared at it in amazement. “Yeah, loud and clear,” he said, unable to stop himself from smiling.
What might he be able to accomplish with a dedicated A.I. ready to support him every step of the way?