Aron was close, so close he could almost taste it. In fact, he could taste it. That was the beauty of the ExtraLink – you could see, touch, hear, feel or even taste virtually anything. He laughed at his pun. Virtually anything. This was not real. None of it. The violet sky with navy blue clouds was not really there. He looked at a screen that appeared next to him with a thought. At home in Luxor, it was raining. He had no memory of the old days when his part of Egypt was a desert. He had seen pictures and done the whole virtual experience, but it was ancient history to his late twenty-first Century mind.

No matter how much his grandfather went on and on about the times before PicoTech, Aron knew he liked his modern world better. It wasn’t his fault that Gramps had to live in a time when you had to carry your connection around in your hand. He laughed again as he considered using a tiny screen to find out what was happening on the old Internet. It would take anywhere from a second to minutes to get information. How did they not get bored waiting for that? Yesterday, Aron had almost gotten caught destroying virtual property because it took too many nanoseconds to get the new VR from Synchronics. Aron was an expert at hiding his traces so he was pretty sure no one had a view of him trashing the vert for the new ProtPot flavors. Who would want roast beef and potatoes? That sounded so medieval.

Today was going to be different. In his twenty-five years, he had become what used to be called a hacker. He still called himself the archaic term to make people think he was older than he really was. If you wanted to be literal, he was virtually older than 99.99% of those on the Link. He had accidentally been given his first picobots in utero. His mother claimed she didn’t know she was pregnant when she had received her first picobots. They quickly spread throughout her body and recognized that she had another life growing within her. Even that early PicoTech knew to leave the baby alone… unless there was a problem.

Being an early test subject meant that his mother had signed waivers that she didn’t totally understand. Anything within her body became the intellectual property of the PicoTech Corporation – including the information gathered about her unborn son. That information was where the problem reared its ugly head.

His development was normal for the first trimester. Nothing unusual. Aron was a normal floating embryo with all the requisite parts. During the second trimester, a heart defect was detected. There was a substantial hole in his heart that was not responding to normal treatments. He would not survive to full term if the hole continued to grow. The picobots were not programmed for in utero work in those days. The PicoTech was tiny – smaller than nanotech – but still very experimental.

His mother, Rehema, had a decision to make. The normal procedure was to terminate the pregnancy and try again when she was ready. But with the picobots, there was another option. One scientist, Kazue Murai, wanted to push the limits. She had lost a child of her own years before and knew the emotional pain. She lobbied and cajoled everyone from her coworkers all the way to Errol Casmack trying to convince them to let her try. When the word came down from Casmack that the ethical ramifications were an unprecedented risk, Dr. Murai did what any megalomaniacal scientist would do in her situation. She went ahead anyway.

Rehema officially withdrew from the PicoTech program to “recover from her loss”. Kazue resigned in protest of the decision. Both women concealed the fact that her picobots had not been removed. Kazue faked the removal procedure before her departure. Both women met in secret as the doctor reprogrammed the picobots to repair the embryonic heart defect. Within days, Aron’s heart was repaired and functioning normally. That was when the real problems occurred.

Even though she was a skilled medical doctor and brilliant pico-technician, Murai was not aware of all aspects of the early picobot tests. Unbeknownst to everyone else, one of the other scientists had programmed a sub routine into one out of every ten thousand picobots that would look for ways to improve the subject’s health. Since nearly all of Rehema’s one million picobots were used to save Aron, there were hundreds of these viral bots rushing through the system of a fourteen-week fetus.

These picobots had sacrificed memory space for the new programming so they were never programmed to distinguish between adult and fetal tissues. Based on their analysis, the child in the womb needed assistance. Its body was not formed properly, it was far too small and its brain was underdeveloped. Working in concert, these viral bots went to work on repairing the “damaged” person while recruiting and infecting other bots to assist.

Both the women knew something had gone terribly wrong when Aron began growing at an alarming rate. They had prepared for this eventuality. During the early stages of PicoTech, killbots were added into all batches. They would seek and destroy all other picobots and then initiate a self-destruction protocol. After ensuring that Aron’s heart was fully repaired, Kazue activated the killbots. They sought out and destroyed almost all of the PicoTech in both mother and child. Almost.

Two thousand of the viral bots were working within the brainstem of Aron when the order to destroy was received. All picobots – including the killbots – had programming that forbid entrance into the brainstem of an infant. All but the viral bots. The PicoTech was flushed from the systems of the two as Kazue and Rehema agreed to meet again after the birth so the doctor could examine the child and make certain no lasting effects could be seen. That meeting never occurred.

Doctor Kazue Murai was arrested and charged with theft of picotechnology by the PicoTech Corporation. Rehema was investigated but any evidence to implicate her with the stolen tech had been destroyed by the good doctor. Murai received a ten-year sentence for the theft and her reputation was ruined. She committed an honorable suicide on her first night in prison. Rumors circulated that she had been killed to keep her silent, but that was only one of those stories that always floated around mega-corps.

When he was born, Aron had no visible effects of the PicoTech other than being a month early. He was at a full-term weight and size. Rehema was watched carefully, as was Aron, but neither showed outward signs of any of the things that had happened. Aron was sent to live in Luxor with his grandfather when Rehema disappeared. Aron had been three when she failed to pick him up from the daycare after work. In the Twenty-First Century, people did not suddenly disappear without a trace. There was always a trail. An electronic footprint. Something. But not this time. Searches were made and the police did the best they could. Interpol even tried to discover what happened. Everyone assumed she had either fallen in with bad people or had met someone and run away. Aron didn’t believe either of those.

Everyone assumed he was too young to understand what was happening. Being a three year old, he would not likely even remember her. No one knew about the picobots that still worked within his system or that he was smarter than anyone else around him. Aron had learned to read and talk before he was four months old – even though he didn’t talk to anyone until he was ten months. Watching vids of other children with their parents, he did his best to imitate those around him. Instinctively, he knew that he was different but needed to blend in. The strangest part of all was the ExtraLink.

Before he was a year old, Aron’s rogue picobots detected the newly forming ExtraLink. It was growing out of the old Internet but was so much more. He explored all parts and discovered far more than his child-like mind could comprehend. The most unusual part was his presence. He didn’t have one. Everyone on the ExtraLink had an appearance that may or may not look like themselves. Most people had a TrueTar and several Avatars. Aron didn’t have either. He was there but not. No one could see his presence. His picobots did not have the programming for a visual presence. He was a ghost in the ExtraLink.

The picobots had helped Aron’s mind grow far faster and stronger than any other person in history. His I.Q., if he had ever taken a test and really tried, would have been off the charts. He had access to portions of his mind that were closed off to most other people. His multitasking ability was involuntary. Aron could not single task if he wanted to. He didn’t understand that concept. At the age of three, he knew his mother was gone but still went on the ExtraLink to search for her. He found nothing.

On his fifth birthday, Aron received his first official dose of picobots before starting school. Both Aron and his rogue picobots were concerned that his original PicoTech would be discovered and his ghostly wanderings through the ExtraLink would end. He had developed an instinctual relationship with his tiny friends that he didn’t want to lose. While the twelve-hundred remaining picobots hid within his cerebellum, he received his first official dose of PicoTech. All his fears were unnecessary. The new tech recognized the older bots as part of themselves. Individually, picobots are dumb. As a unit, they can be scary smart. The rogue-bots were fully entrenched into Aron’s body and the new tech recognized them as the lead bots. The virus was shared from bot to bot until the entire system was operating in ways that were never intended. Aron was so much more than anyone knew.

Cyber-school was easy for Aron. He had already learned everything to be taught in the five years of initial training by sitting invisibly in several classes at once when he was four. When school began for real, he created an avatar that everyone thought was his TrueTar to sit in school, answering remedial questions, while he ghosted all over the ExtraLink. He was looking for something, someone. Aron needed to know what had happened to his mother. The woman who had risked so much to save him before he was born would have never left him alone that day. Something had happened to her. The more he looked, the more he became convinced that someone had done something to her. People did not just disappear like Rehema did. That did not happen. There had to be some trace somewhere. Being a tenacious five-year-old, his mission to find his mother soon became an obsession.

Twenty years later, Aron was one of the most sought after cybengineers in the world. He had four doctorates and was infamous for discovering hidden things on the Link. No one knew his secret. No one would ever find out. Most of what he did on the ExtraLink was either borderline illegal or completely illegal. If his ability to ghost was ever discovered, he could face prison time with no PicoTech. That would be a fate worse than death.

Every day was a possible day to find new information. As talented as he was, he had never discovered any clues to his mother’s fate. When he had turned eighteen, he had traveled back to St. Petersburg to look for clues in the real world. He spent six months and a million cyber-dollars trying to find clues with nothing to show but tired feet and a dented bank account. When his body would rest, his mind would explore the ExtraLink for clues in the virtual Russian city. The four hours he slept, his subconscious would still be seeking information. It was a very efficient system.

On his twenty-fourth birthday, everything changed. A ThoughtShare message appeared in his mind. The message was from an old friend who had helped him in his investigations from time to time. He claimed to be Kim, a twenty-eight-year-old from Seoul, United East Asia. Years ago, Aron had ghosted him back to his source to discover she was a forty-two-year-old mother of three from Gary, Indiana, United North America. People were never who they claimed on the ExtraLink.

The ThoughtShare was more than a simple message. It shared emotions as well. Aron still remembered the first one he hacked when he was twelve. That was how he learned about sex. It was overwhelming. This time Aron was sure he could handle whatever came along. He was wrong.

The message began with the Korean avatar of Kim showing up in his mind. The excitement she was feeling overflowed and caused a mirrored reaction in Aron. “Hello, Aron. I hope you are well. I have something for you. If this turns out to be true, I hope this will make us even. You never hold it over my head, but I do not like owing you so much.” Aron smiled to himself. He had recovered some data that she would not want her husband seeing. The young hacker would never blackmail or extort her. That was not his style. He did like the disproportionate power structure, however. There were tens of thousands of people who owed him favors all over the ExtraLink. It came in handy.

The ThoughtShare continued. “While tormenting some Bulgarians who claimed to be part of the ShadowLink, I came across a name that you had flagged: Rehema Anna Jordan. It may be nothing. I discovered that there are ninety-three Rehema Anna Jordan avatars worldwide.” Aron began to calm himself having been down this rabbit hole too many times. “The strange thing is this one has never had an avatar. This version of the name stopped showing up about twenty-two years ago. There was a missing person case back in 2052 that has some kind of link to the file. I can’t crack it.” Aron’s pulse began to race. What could Kim have found that he had missed for the past twenty years?

The emotion Kim shared in her message was lost on Aron. His own hope began to blossom leaving all the shared emotions far behind. There was a link was attached to the end of her message with her voice saying, “Happy hunting!”

The information she found was in the ShadowLink. It was a place that didn’t officially exist. It was a place of illegal dealings done by criminals or, more often, governments who did not want their dealings known. Aron knew it well. He had created it during his second year of school. He was bored one day and couldn’t find anything to interest him on the EL, so he created a basement in a cyber-shop he owned. Aron was the only one able to get into the basement because it was technically inside a branch of LinkPol – the ExtraLink police force. His store was one level above the cyber-cops, so he used a worm program to burrow into the walls of the virtual building and added first one, then ten, then hundreds of hidden rooms all within the walls of the LinkPol offices throughout the EL. They were all connected but only existed if you knew about them. Aron liked the idea of hiding among those who would have hunted him if they knew. It also gave him a way out if he were ever taken into custody.

Over time it became a legend that only a few of his closest hacker friends were able to use. Even they didn’t know he had created it. No one ever would. The legendary Ghost had created the ShadowLink. But everyone claimed to know how to get in. Less than fifty thousand did. But it had grown and housed all kinds of information. People would tuck away their secrets in rooms within rooms of the ShadowLink, thinking no one would ever find them. Aron always did.

He traveled quickly and invisibly to the room within five other rooms inside the ShadowLink. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to hide this information. Opening the window, he immediately saw why. It was a CCTV video showing his mother being shoved into a waiting truck. The image jumped and the truck was gone. Aron played back the video, but this time it only showed an empty alley. No truck. No Rehema. No clues.

Something felt wrong. The file had changed as he watched. He had to get out of this room. It was a trap. Aron turned to find the door was gone. He was enclosed in a room that did not exist. Most people would have two choices: leave the link and whoever had set the trap would know where you were or stay in the trap and they would find your avatar and hack it until they knew where you were. Aron chose option three. He made a new door and left the room. Then he removed the door to leave whoever had tried to trap him wondering. Few hackers could do what he had just done. And no one could have done it as well.

This changed everything. Someone had taken his mother and she may still be alive. Plus, whoever had taken her knew someone was looking for her. He was glad he had an avatar at a VirtuaCon giving a lecture. When his would-be captors discovered he had an alibi, they would be wondering who was really looking for Rehema Anna Jordan. The Ghost would be the first suspect.

Now, one year later, after more deadends than he could count, Aron was finally close to the truth. He had tracked and hacked that room until he knew everyone who had ever entered it. He discovered only one who had the skills to hunt him. The hunter had become the hunted. Pausing outside a door in this virtual world, he wondered if he really wanted to know. If his mother was still alive, where had she been? What had happened? Who had taken her and why? His TrueTar opened the door.

Aron had expected many things. He was prepared for files of information as he had discovered many times before. There was a vague hope that his mother would be sitting in the room waiting for him to rescue her from some super-cyber-villain. An empty room was his worst case scenario until he saw what was waiting. A man was reclining on a couch, smiling.

“Aron! So nice to finally meet you. I have been waiting for this meeting for a couple of decades.” The man was not what he expected. Aron could see it was an avatar. It was a good one. Customized. He looked like a very fit man with light blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. “Please have a seat. I’m your dad.”

Those were the last words he expected to hear. His father had died before he was born. Or so he had been told and all the records said that. It was too much to take in. He stood there with his mouth hanging open, looking like a lost little boy.

The man arose and walked up, offering his hand. “My name is Olavi Jarvi. You have no idea how excited I am today.” Aron limply took the other man’s hand. His mind slowly began to kick into gear. Olvai Jarvi? There was no way some Scandinavian guy was his father. He was Egyptian and looked the well-tanned part.

“Who are you?” asked Aron, finally finding words. “Where is my mom? Where is Rehema Jordan?” The last question came out more forceful than he had intended making it sound like a demand.

The man sat down and motioned for the younger man to join him. Aron stood. Jarvi sighed. “I knew it was going to be like this. Those bonus bots in your noggin? They’re mine.”

It all became clear in an instant. This was the man who had created the original viral bots that had changed him all those years ago. Sitting before him was the man who had added so much to his life and taken something even more valuable. Jarvi was the man responsible for his mother’s disappearance.

His thoughts must have shown through on his TrueTar’s face. Jarvi spoke quickly, “Your mother was not taken, nor was she harmed. She never existed.”

Aron watched the man seated in front of him and wanted the scream at him. What he was saying was impossible. He remembered her. The news reports were all over the EL. She had a past and a history. He had to be lying.

“Rehema Anna Jordan is a fiction. The woman who gave birth to you was named Carla. She was a surrogate. Aron, you are an experiment. And a very successful one. You were given picobots in utero on purpose. Kazue and I never thought it would turn out the way it did.” An avatar of a Japanese woman Aron knew as well he as knew his mother appeared in the room. The deceased Kazue Murai walked in and sat down beside Jarvi.

For the first time in his life, Aron was only focused on one thing. His mother had been a lie. This man and the woman he thought had saved his life had made him into an experiment. All the data that he had sifted through in the past twenty years was merely a trail of breadcrumbs to lead him to this confrontation with a virtual father and mother he had never suspected existed. It took all of his considerable intellect to process it all without an emotional meltdown.

Kazue spoke, “I know you must have questions for us. You have been very close to discovering all of this more times than you know.”

Jarvi smiled. “True. It has taken a lot of work to keep you in the dark. You are quite the Ghost when you want to be.” Aron realized this man was aware of most, if not all of his activities in the ExtraLink. “Don’t worry. I’m a proud papa. You have done very well.”

“Why?” asked Aron, trying to come to grips with the illusion that was his life. “Why did you do all this? Why did you go to all this trouble?” The moment he asked, he knew the answer.

Kazue answered simply. “Because Casmack said no. But we needed to find out.”

“So you created a life without knowing what would happen to me? Not knowing what I’d be like?” Aron was becoming angry at the thought. How careless? What kind of sociopathic scientists would do something like that?

“Do you regret who you are?” asked Jarvi. “You are spectacular.”

Aron was stunned at the man’s arrogance. “That’s not the point–” he began.

“Isn’t it?” asked Kazue. “You exist within a system that you helped create. Without you, the ExtraLink wouldn’t be near as incredible and powerful as it is.”

Jarvi added, “Or near as interesting. I have to be honest. I did not see the ShadowLink coming. You really threw me with that one. It was a stroke of brilliance!” His arrogance morphed into pride in his creation.

Aron paced around the room, trying to wrap his mind around what was being said. “No,” he stated softly. “I don’t buy it. You are trying to trick me. This is all a scam to make me stop looking for her.”

“Aron, Carla died giving birth to you. The woman you think you knew was a virtual reality program that we ran from the bots in your baby brain.” The Japanese scientist seemed sincere. His pacing grew more and more frantic as he tried to understand.

“No! I don’t believe you! Lies!” screamed the young man as his TrueTar evaporated and the Ghost left the room. Once he was out, he spun around and destroyed the room and all traces of its existence. Aron soared through the ExtraLink, trying to distance himself from those who claimed to have created him.


In the real world, Jarvi turned to his colleague, saying, “That went as well as we could have hoped.”

Kazue grinned. “Yes. And he still has no clue. Good night, Aron,” she said, patting the back of a sleeping infant.

Copyright 2015 by Doug Romig


Next: PicoTech – Virtual Death