Netherwoodby Michele Lang
A young woman desperate to prove her worth in her family's dynastic company travels to a faraway colony and finds herself joining the Robin Hood-like rebels outside of civilization. See more details below
A young woman desperate to prove her worth in her family's dynastic company travels to a faraway colony and finds herself joining the Robin Hood-like rebels outside of civilization.
Read an ExcerptNetherwood
By Michele Lang Dorchester Publishing Copyright © 2008 Michele Lang
All right reserved.
Chapter One The audience in the Amphitheatre screamed for my blood. I loved it.
I hid a smile as I strode forward, feeling the glint of the hot cyber-sunlight on my bare scalp, along my long, muscle-packed thighs. The last time I came here, I was in search of connection; this time I hunted an outlaw. I'm a sheriff, and tracking down and deactivating lawbreakers is my job. The quarry I hunted today could make my career, wreathe me in glory. But I couldn't make the collar here. Not now. Not in the Netherwood.
The Amphitheatre was a locale, an entrance to a virtual sub-plane of existence that people called different names, a reality whose very ambiguity was one of its charms: the Netherwood, Netherworld, the Inferno-a shadowy place with varying levels of descent. Most people-and by "people" I mean natural-born, biologically derived; not droids, medical clones or alien intelligences-avoided slummy places like it, and instead contented themselves with ordinary lives on the grid. But now I clutched my ionic mace, and I knew the grid's illusion of safety was a lie.
The grid, to make things simple, was the main virtual world. It grew from humble origins, the PC revolution and the development of the Internet in the twentieth century by DARPA: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development arm of the old American military. But the grid grew beyond the ordinary surface world, overtook it in size and importance. Now the grid-this virtual world that also housed the real one-was where all of us lived most of our lives. This was where I hid from death. We could assume cyber identities, avatar personalities like my own Amazonia. It was where we could live our fantasies. Believe me, life on the surface, in the so-called real world, bored most of us out of our minds. Taxes, pollution, cancer, world wars-if all of that didn't scare you to death, it mired you in ennui like a dinosaur sinking in a tar pit. I preferred the grid's illusions.
The grid cancelled all of that mind-sucking, grownup stuff out. You could get food and directions and ... well, everything. And the Netherwood, part of the grid, this bad neighborhood in that computer-generated world, titillated me with its virtual and yet very real dangers. It always had.
The Netherwood started out as an ordinary virtual landscape, funded by a gaming guru, Geoff Provocateur, about twenty years before I entered the Amphitheatre as the warrior queen Amazonia. But the Netherwood unraveled pretty quickly, with gambling, cybersex, synth-trading, hacking and computer sabotage becoming the entertainments of choice. Under the cover of the "games"-the virtual arena matches-in the Amphitheatre, illegal and dastardly acts were committed on a regular basis. And crime was my drug. I was sworn to smell it out and obliterate it. No matter how much it sometimes appealed.
Now I was back in the Netherwood, hunting. I was seeking out the people here illegally sating their dissatisfaction with their carbon-based lives on the surfaces of the worlds owned by Earth in the waning days of the twenty-second century. Hackers. Criminals. They were clever, yes, but they were dangerous, because their games led to real-life consequences. As I knew from my schooling, they hacked into sensitive material not part of the general grid and released it to public view-and war or revolution could result. Nobody could predict the unintended consequences of truths set free. Holocaust. It had happened in the past, but would not happen again. If the government traced an illicit avatar back to an actual identity, that person would be "disappeared," or even worse, replaced by a government agent cloaked in a familiar face.
The criminal denizens of the Netherwood had to be good-better than the government workers, better than WorldCorps security, better than anybody-to survive. And that expertise carried its own set of dangers. It was so easy to get lost in an avatar, to never leave the Netherwood. Like most of us almost never left the grid.
The roar of the crowd refocused my intention. I risked a glance at the stands and saw something I had missed last time; my blood turned to ice in my veins. A senator sitting under the awning-my eyes met hers and I saw through the avatar. It was nothing admissible in a court of law, the things that helped one see through an avatar-a nervous tic, an idiosyncratic speech pattern, a posture-but my intuition told me I was staring into the consciousness of my grandmother, Violet.
Violet. My life depended on her ignorance. I'd gone too deep without official sanction, and my presence here-my avatar, my whole existence-was illegal. Whether or not I was a sheriff, whether or not my intentions were good, there was no way for me to prove it, and there was no one I could depend upon to listen. So I bowed and smiled wickedly in the senator's direction, as if daring her to enjoy the spectacle of combat she was about to witness, all legal, harmless. She nodded back, evidently pleased by my attentions. And I saw that I was safe: she hadn't recognized me. My cover had held.
In the mundanity of the Real, I went by my given name and lived in the skinny little alabaster body of Talia Fortune. I had the usual bio-mods for people of my rank, but that was it. Here at the gateway to the Netherwood, I was over six feet tall, my skin of darkest ebony, my strength and power unmatched. The denizens of this place knew me only as Amazonia. My secrecy meant my life.
My adversary entered the arena, and I relaxed as I turned toward him, ionic mace in hand. I knew it would be the Avenger. I had come back here to find him.
His long black hair whipped in the breeze, and he bowed to me, his lips curling in a smile. We had fought many battles here together, the Avenger and I. I won or he won; in many ways it didn't matter. Because we would descend lower after our superficial encounters in the arena, and heal each other's wounds.
I nodded in response, shifted my mace into my left hand and reached for my sonic knife with my right. Kept my center of gravity low. The Avenger had a talent for catching me off guard and throwing me off balance. I studied his face as he drew closer, but avoided a direct gaze into his eyes. I didn't want him to see too much revealed there. Didn't want him to see anything.
"I need to talk to you." His voice, barely a whisper, carried through the stale air and touched my ear in a caress.
He bowed again, a laugh rumbling deep in his barrel chest. "Yes, you fight more eloquently than you speak, my dear Amazonia."
His accent-cultured, the proper tones of twenty-second-century England-coaxed a smile onto my lips. I winked at him, and simultaneously slashed at his chest with my knife. He jumped away, and my blade only grazed his skin, leaving a tracer of red. The crowd screamed at the early sight of blood. I pressed my advantage, but he lunged backward, keeping lower than I could get without exposing my own flank to his attack.
His mouth moved again, but the bellowing of the crowd drowned out his words. I reached to my belt, pushed pause-
The entire scene froze in place. This was a holo-recording, a six-months-ago visit to the Netherwood. I considered the tableau in which I stood, looked for clues I had missed in the initial thrill of battle.
I looked up at the stands to check out the senator first. Why had she stopped by to view this particular match? We were no superstars of the Netherwood fighting circuit; both the Avenger and I fought only to gain access to the deeper levels of the place, so that we could descend. So that we could uncover secrets. So that we could take pleasure together in the shadows. Or that was ostensibly why we came.
The senator I thought was my grandmother leaned forward, her purple robes looking almost wet in the deep shade of the awning. My body hummed with tension, and I tasted acid in my mouth, like something had crawled in there to die on my tongue. My grandmother had found a miraculous reprieve five years ago upon her death, when her consciousness had been downloaded onto a psy-chip-the first human mind to "reduce down." Now wealthy people reduced down as a matter of course, but it had been Violet, the founder of megaconglomerate FortuneCorp, who had famously led the way. My magnificent grandmother had cheated death, and people with enough money and power followed her lead and shifted to life only on the grid when their bodies died.
Of course, Violet wasn't just my grandmother; she was my employer. And she had the right to do more than fire me if I bungled a job or disgraced the family name.
I had to content myself with the knowledge that my cover had held. If she knew I was Amazonia, Violet had the right and the power to break up the fight and arrest me immediately. The government of the United States still nominally held jurisdiction over the WorldCorps, but as a practical matter CEOs like my grandmother used the government's authority to suit their corporate purposes. If she'd thought I was a threat to FortuneCorp, I wouldn't have made it to the end of the match without govbots marching out onto the field and taking me into custody-as cops on the surface hauled my carbon-based body to jail. Yeah, my grandmother was that much of a hard-ass.
But the govbots weren't on their way. It hadn't happened. For the moment, at least, I was safe from my grandmother's intervention.
I shifted my attention to the Avenger, who crouched in the sandy dirt at my feet. I left my recorded body and walked forward, played with his thick rough hair, stroked his big shoulders, rippling biceps. Because he couldn't see me, I dared a look deep into his eyes. Usually such an intimate gaze revealed the artificiality of the avatar construct: you could see the deadness there and kill all illusion of reality. A direct, lingering stare was considered the height of rudeness down here, even among lovers.
But I really wasn't staring into him, because he couldn't stare back and complete the connection. I studied him like a beautiful piece of sculpture, and a sudden realization hit me. His eyes, electronic as they were, glinted with unshed tears.
I reached down to the handheld remote strapped to my belt, tracked the session five seconds back. Leaned in to hear what he'd whispered to me under the roar of the crowd:
"... all of us are going to die ..."
My fingers shook as I fast-forwarded through the battle. That one whispered sentence put our encounter into an entirely different light. I already knew how I'd won this particular fight in this surface-level arena, but I had avoided the Avenger's message out of fear, and had lost a greater war in the darkness below.
I recombined with my avatar, reactivated the holo where I found the Avenger after the battle-in his chamber, nestled in the caves of a cyber grove that mimicked the sacred forests of the Druids and the ancient Greeks. He lay on a fur-covered pallet, his body covered with bruises, slashes, and thin tributaries of blood. As I remembered it happening, I strode into the room, knelt beside him.
"Poor Avenger." I stroked the scratched, battered expanse of his chest with my fingertips. "Your Amazonia broke you bad today."
He tilted his chin back and half-laughed, half-moaned. "Kiss it and make it better."
I knew his pain sensors must have been turned down during the battle, so the wounds wouldn't feel as bad as they looked. Still, I fought back an absurd flare of regret, and stroked the bruises and cuts with my palms. He trembled under my touch.
Our sparring had improved my fighting skills in the Real as well as in this cyber world we haunted together, but I was grateful to the Avenger for more than this. Much more. I kissed along a weal raised by my sonic knife, traced it with the tip of my tongue. I paused to kiss one nipple, long and lovingly, and then the other.
He made some little sound, and I raised my head. "Feel bad? I can ice you ..."
His laugh lit up his entire face: he remembered as well as I did our last encounter in a virtual tub of ice water designed to soothe enflamed muscles-which in our case had only heightened the heat.
"My warrior queen, you promised me talk after battle."
"Pleasure first." Again, in retrospect, I had the feeling I'd made the wrong choice. I'd thought that pleasure ruled me, but no. I was afraid-of what the Avenger had to say about death.
His bare stomach rippled as he pulled himself up to a half-sitting position. "Your command is my wish, delicious one."
His lips closed over mine, and I let myself float on currents of electric delight, trying my best to ignore the purple undertone of loneliness pulsing in my veins. Despite my fervent wish to surrender to him, I hadn't let myself go; not here. I never fully had. I couldn't. There were too many illusions too deadly to ignore. Too many hidden dangers camouflaged as simple desire. Our electronic coupling was a falsity. And yet, while this pretense of "lovemaking" made my reality all the more unbearable, I clutched the fantasy to me all the same, was living it again, replaying it. My life in the Real sometimes seemed impossibly banal and gray. It was so much easier to take refuge here, to disappear into my alternate self. To forget why I'd originally come.
I rode the waves of the Avenger's rocking hips and roving hands. As my breath quickened and beads of sweat tickled down my sides, my heart pounded with self-betrayal. My entire life revolved around my job as a law-keeper, around my status as chief shareholder of FortuneCorp. These encounters with the Avenger threatened everything I had achieved in the Real. But I couldn't help coming back to him, time and again. His cyber body felt too good against mine.
His hands slid down the length of my back, cupped my lush, rubber-encased butt. He squeezed me up onto his hips, and my long legs wrapped around him. Grief hunted me close, but I held its gleaming fangs at bay. Barely. Sorrow could swallow me later, leave me an empty shell. For now I kept my eyes closed and traveled deeper and deeper into this personal garden of earthly delights, trying to ignore the fact that the Avenger tempted me like the apple ... or the snake.
"Can I trust you?" I'd shocked myself with the words escaping my tingling, swollen lips.
"Can you trust yourself?"
It was maddening, how often the Avenger answered my questions with questions of his own. "No," I finally replied. "'Trust nobody ... not even yourself.' The first rule of this place."
He sighed. "Our beloved Netherwood, oh yes. But remember, the place is only a means to a larger end."
I nodded. "But there's the puzzle: Who in this sad, mad world shares a common end?"
His hands slid up to my shoulders, massaged the knots and kinks with strong yet gentle fingers. "We are not supposed to speak of such things-why we come here. And yet ..." His words were hesitant, as if he silently dared me to follow him into the abyss.
I abruptly didn't care about any dangers, didn't mind how close I was to giving my true self away. All of my surface plans and goals seemed suspect in this hidden place, and I found myself speaking truths I'd never before uttered-though not all of them. I said words that were both pretense and dream, lie and hidden truth.
I felt his body shifting under my arms, and I pulled him close, looked over his shoulder into the darkness. "Why do you come here, Avenger?" I asked. "I'm here for pleasure, for knowledge. I want to understand how the World Corporation System hangs together, where its back doors are located, where I can sneak in and do a bit of damage if I so choose. And I want to find out what the corporations and the governments don't want the common people to know." I opened my eyes and drew back, half-gazed into his face. His features had gone completely still, like my words were weapons brandished inches from his face. He knew as well as I did that I'd been careful to avoid keywords that could trigger a security sweep: virus, hacker, assets, data trees, destroy.
And I'd meant what I'd said. I was a citizen of FortuneCorp first, the old government second. The secrets and many weaknesses of the old, corrupt governing system held valuable clues to how I could uphold the law in the new. I was bending the rules in service to a larger cause-at least, that was what I told myself. But the Avenger wanted to do more than bend the rules. He wanted to break them.
Excerpted from Netherwood by Michele Lang Copyright © 2008 by Michele Lang. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >