Milo had chaotic memories of his early years, most of which had been spent in the large factory room he was now monitoring. His playmates had been the other twenty-four children, who, like himself, had been modified with sockets. Many had visible birth defects. His 'parents' had been an assortment of technicians and doctors who didn't think of the children as people. They were just part of the machines.

He and the other children in his group were raised together from birth. They were referred to as ‘Group Four’, but he didn’t know anything about other groups. The other twenty-four children were his brothers and sisters, regardless of where each of them had come from. They had different theories. Bork insisted they had been grown in artificial wombs, which would have made the installation of the sockets along their spines easy to do, along with the other genetic modifications. Gilbert didn’t like that theory. He thought they had all been purchased from parents who either didn’t want or didn’t have the money to raise handicapped children. All of them had at least one physical disability. In the end, it didn’t matter. Their origins were hidden, illegal acts of genetic modification that were outlawed in all countries. They only had each other, and strange as it was, they were a family.

Life was repetitive. They were given a daily dose of drugs to keep them focused on their tasks and nothing else, along with vitamin and nutrient supplements. Then loaded into the pods and plugged into the computers that let them roam the internet, attacking corporations and research facilities to steal information and shift money to hidden bank accounts.

They were only unhooked from the computers and their pods for two hours a day when they were required to exercise for muscle tone. The computers they were hooked into were their schools. Their classes were in security systems, running manufacturing remotely with Waldos, moving funds in accounts, and, most of all, not leaving a trace when moving about the internet.

This became much easier as the Wildfire virus decimated much of the internet. It trashed security systems, pushed data to the public domain, and erased knowledge. Milo and the others were like scavengers feeding on the leftovers of a predator. Even after AI systems scoured the internet clean of Wildfire, the internet never recovered. The technology to break into systems was now more advanced than the protections. By eight years old, Milo and his siblings were raiding corporate databases and stealing millions each day. But their guards were getting sloppy. The original technicians that had created them and overseen their lives had moved on. They were living well off the stolen funds and turned the job over to underlings that oversaw the dingy warehouse with two dozen children who rarely left their pods and never talked. Or rather, never talked out loud. They communicated constantly with each through the machines, played games, and shared everything they knew. Outside of the pods, they communicated with sign language and codes made up of tapping on the floor.

Milo had learned a lot about the pods that he had spent so much time in. He and his siblings had been hooked up to Mark III medical pods, machines very similar to the pods he saw being uncrated and tested. What was being moved into the empty factory was a mix of Mark III and IV pods. But his eyes were drawn to the one that was much larger and more intricate. A quick trip to the data net gave him the specs on the new Mark VII medical/gaming pod. He wondered why there was only one of them.

The pods were ten-foot-long cylinders, their interiors just big enough to hold a person. A patient was placed into them, and the pod inserted tubes that would feed the patient drugs or sustenance and carry away waste products. Originally, they had been used in hospitals for long-term care. Then the rich and old began using them to extend their lives. Finally, as the cost came down, they were used by anyone who spend long hours or even days online. Workaholics and online gamers purchased millions of them.


By the time Milo was nine, there were only two guards in the warehouse for most of the nights. The children lay in their pods doing their assignments. But they were getting bored. As they became older, they modified the programs they used to break through security systems, creating better and better tools. They finished their tasks faster, and then went exploring on the internet. That gave them the schematics for their pods and they learned how to bypass the locks and programs that kept track of them. All of the logs showed them resting for 22 hours a day in their pods, and no one suspected some of them were going AWOL.

They started exploring the systems of ductwork and maintenance directly around them. They easily bypassed any of the security that would let their overseers know what they were doing. Milo had discovered the security systems for the rest of the building their home was in. He and some of the others wondered about trying to escape the factory, but they didn't know where to go.

Still, just thinking about it was fun. Milo started sneaking out of his pod along with Nimez and Ordo, the other two children in his row. The guards were always watching videos and paid no attention to them. They found an access hatch that led to the ventilation and maintenance systems near their pods and began exploring the areas around them, finding ways to get to everywhere in the habitat. It was tough, as they all had physical problems. Nimez only had one hand, and Ordo had bad eyes. Still, they managed. They were finishing their work in a fraction of the time and hiding the fact. If security cameras were checked, they showed the children comatose in their pods.

Plans were made to escape. Milo still wondered if they could have gotten away with it, but they never got the chance. Something happened. Something changed. The criminals feared discovery and were moving the operation. A dozen people rushed into the old factory one night, surprising the two guards on duty. Pods were locked down, and sedatives were administered to the occupants. The pods were unhooked from other machines and carried one by one out the doors to the waiting transportation. Within a half hour, twenty-four children in pods and one empty pod were gone. Only Milo remained, hidden in the ventilation duct.

Milo had been exploring that night. He wasn't in his pod when it was taken, and when he returned, it was to a room full of half-destroyed machines and nothing else. Hard drives were ripped from the computers. No paperwork remained. Whoever had taken the children had left no clues to incriminate themselves. Later, other men came, sifting the area for clues and sweeping the area clean. Milo didn’t know who they were and hid deep in the ductwork. Milo never found out where his family was taken. He was still looking for them two decades later.

But now someone was back whom he recognized. Facial recognition software gave him a name: Andrew Kominski. He'd been a technician during the day shift when Milo was small. Now he was older, worn, and greying. Milo would have to research the man and learn why he was here. The shiny Mark VII pod on his monitors kept drawing Milo's attention. It would solve a lot of his problems. He made plans and watched. Milo had been curious if he would see another twenty-five children in pods moved into the room and set to work doing cybercrime. He was relieved when that didn’t happen, but also sad. It would have been nice to meet others like him. He was nervous around normal people. They were all bigger than he was, and he rather went into the populated parts of the habitat.


Two weeks later, Milo knew why Kominski and the others were there. Kominski had some scheme involving a new VR gaming world. The Mk VII would give him access. The occupants of the dozens of Mk IIIs would enter the game but bypass some sort of security measures. The Mark VII pod was set up and connected with the data network. All the Mark III pods were in a separate room and slaved to the Mark VII. Milo couldn't care less why this was being done. While it might be interesting to know, it didn’t concern him. He only wanted two things from Kominski: information on what had happened to the rest of his family and the Mk VII pod.

Once all their information systems were hooked to the data network, it was easy for Milo to break into their machines and get all of their information. They were using the communications systems that ran through the habitat that he repaired and controlled. He barely had to do anything. The information was disappointing, though. This was just a way to pull some scam involving a game and nothing to do with his family. But he was able to get one lead: Kominski had been working his entire life for Tricorp Biotech, which was owned by Bio-Solutions Inc that was in turn owned through dummy corporations by the Seimovich Corporation. That gave him a place to start looking. Having learned all he could from watching, Milo decided to pay the old warehouse a visit and go pod shopping.

The first indication that anyone in the factory knew something was wrong was when two men fell to their knees, and the room started spinning. The gas Milo had introduced to the ventilation system worked quickly. They were out cold for hours. The video feeds would show nothing except the two of them sitting at their desks watching pornography. Milo got to work.

Milo had cleaned out this area long, long ago. For the first two years, he had lived in the ductwork near the room and slowly explored the habitat. He tapped pipes for water and the food delivery system for sustenance.When he had started his first workshop and needed materials, he'd begun to raid what was left of his home. He had an idea that maybe he'd find clues to the others somewhere in the defunct machinery and broken computers. He hadn't, but what he had done was create a system for lifting loads of machinery from the room and up to a large horizontal shaft that ran one hundred yards to a Big Drop.

Two ceiling panels moved aside, and Milo lowed himself into the room with a winch. He carefully unhooked the Mark VII and two Mark III pods. Cargo nets enveloped each one, and the winch took each of them slowly up to the horizontal shaft. The final load was a pallet of nutrient sacks and medical supplies used in the pods to keep their users alive.

Getting the pods up to the horizontal shaft was the first step. Milo had to cover his tracks. The ceiling panels were replaced. The winch was retracted. He'd come back and take it out entirely as soon as he could to leave as few clues as possible. The metal sheet he'd removed from the side of the horizontal shaft was replaced. Then came the long slow process of moving the pods and supplies up top. Each Big Drop had a winch and pulley assembly for exactly what Milo needed now: Moving heavy loads up many stories to the top of the habitat. Even if someone figured out how he had stolen the pods, finding out which level they had gone to would be difficult.

An hour after he had finished covering his tracks, Milo was standing on the Mark VII pod as it moved up to level 48, where he would store it. Below him was a drop of many stories, but he trusted his systems. A motorized pallet jack moved each load deeper into the habitat to where he could take them down to the Pipeworks. It took the rest of the night, but eventually, Milo had all three pods and the supplies hidden in the Pipeworks. Tomorrow he would begin the task of moving the Mark VII into his home. The Mark IIIs were just extra salvage. He wasn't sure what he'd do with them, but it never hurt to have more parts.

Back in his home, Milo went ahead and added his modifications to the security tapes. He'd spent hours doctoring a sequence where the two guards slumped over unconscious, and then the doors opened, and masked thieves entered the room. In this tape, the pods were loaded up onto a forklift and taken out of the room. Other security cameras would show the thieves moving the pods to a warehouse with an outside loading dock. No one had used that room for years, leaving a convenient and confusing dead end.

With his heist finished Milo relaxed a bit. He checked all of the systems that he monitored and made a list of repairs to do the next day. His stomach growled; it had been a long day. He sent a command to the food processor, and a moment later, a large container of food appeared in a pneumatic tube. He opened the container, seeing the tasteless cubes of yellow 'food' that everyone in the hab ate. You could order better food, but that took money. And no one had money. Supposedly they tasted like chicken. Milo couldn't judge; he’d never tasted real chicken. Food Cubes were just something you chewed and swallowed to stay alive.

Basics taken care of, he set his alarm. Two hours of sleep would be enough to recover his energy, and then he was going to get the Mk VII pod set up and take it for a spin.