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CYBERSPACE—THE REAL FINAL FRONTIER
The place: New York City. The time: any day now. Tech and Marz are brothers, orphans, and misfits just about everywhere—except on the Virtual Network, where their monster gaming skills leave challengers choking on their datatrails; and their hacking expertise earns them serious cash as freelance cyber-sleuths, running down lost information and missing persons on the Web. The more extreme the cyber-sport, and ...
CYBERSPACE—THE REAL FINAL FRONTIER
The place: New York City. The time: any day now. Tech and Marz are brothers, orphans, and misfits just about everywhere—except on the Virtual Network, where their monster gaming skills leave challengers choking on their datatrails; and their hacking expertise earns them serious cash as freelance cyber-sleuths, running down lost information and missing persons on the Web. The more extreme the cyber-sport, and the tougher the security codes, the better Tech and Marz like it.
A mean game of Death Run is nothing for Tech and Marz. But almost getting killed—for real—on a routine virtual mission is a whole different deal. And that’s exactly what a shapeless, demonic cyber-thing tries to do when Tech accidentally frees a mysterious kidnap victim deep inside a government database. The run-in leaves the brothers with a ton of fried hardware and too many unanswered questions. But they’re heading into the dark and dangerous underbelly of the virtual world to do some extreme detective work—and crack what could be the motherboard of all mysteries. And this death run is no game.
Death Run was not for the faint of heart.
The three frequent flyers who had challenged Tech on the racing circuit were already learning that, and falling far behind as a result.
Tech caught a glimpse of them in the rearview window of his headset visor as he shot the Fireball through an abrupt turn and barrel-rolled through a palisade of shock spikes thrust from a low overhang at the last possible moment.
His trio of opponents were piloting flashy vehicles of the sort any novice flier might design. The one closest to the blazing thrusters of Tech's silver needle-nosed interceptor was a Nighthawk F-117 fighter jet, complete with tinted cockpit canopy and V-shaped tail. To Tech the purple metal-flake fuselage and orange trim said one thing: all show, no go. The pair at the rear of the pack were nearly identical Stormbird rocket sleds—wedge-shaped vehicles straight off the menu Death Run offered when you entered the course. The sleds' maneuverability made up for their inherent lack of power, but only an experienced flier could hope to fly a Stormbird to victory.
Angling for clear space, Tech decelerated slightly and allowed the Nighthawk to come alongside him. As the fighter jet edged into first place, Tech paid careful attention to the data displays in his visor, for there was a precise moment when a skillful flier could borrow speed from an opponent's cybercraft and turn it to his own advantage. When that moment of data drag came, flashing red in the visor, Tech fired his afterburners and leaped back into the lead, surging through a stretch of twitchy S-turns and launching the Fireball over a hidden trap that opened like a yawning tooth-filled mouth.
The Nighthawk didn't fare as well.
Coming out of the last of the tight curves, the sleek-bodied jet overcorrected, tilted up on one wing, and flew directly into the trap. The mouth snapped shut and the teeth gnashed, grinding the ship to fragments, then spit the pieces back onto the course. Mangled jet parts, caroming and careening off the retaining walls, greeted the Stormbirds just as they were emerging from the S-turns.
Tech watched the two rocket sleds attempt to slalom through the tempest only to collide with each other. With loud explosions Tech could feel in his chest, the Stormbirds came apart and disappeared from sight. Stoked on car-shredding, high-adrenaline crashes and multivehicle wrecks, the crowd yelled and hooted. Chuckling to himself, Tech cranked the volume of his speed-metal soundtrack. DisArray blared in his earphones as he entered the final lap of the course full out, whipping through a perilous loop and dropping into a roller-coaster downhill that nearly sent his stomach into his throat.
Even though gravity held sway on the Death Run circuit, you could perform some truly astonishing maneuvers. And Death Run was nothing compared to some of Grand Adventure's other options, where you could log into space combat scenarios or fast-paced action adventures. On many of those courses, pedestrians wandered out in front of you—not people, but aliens or monsters—and your run could be slowed by out-of-control three-sixties on an alien blood slick or end suddenly in a head-on collision with a giant scorpion.
Still more sophisticated runs required you to tear through fantasy worlds, perform power ups at sublight speed, fly by instruments in the dark, or streak through clouds laced with acids that ate away at your craft. The newer courses mimicked actual conditions on Venus or Jupiter or were set on completely fabricated planetscapes, where predatory life-forms could swoop down and pluck you from cinnamon skies.
But weightlessness was for science fiction geeks.
Tech was a fan of gravity if for no other reason than that gravity amplified the hazards, and Death Run was flat-out hard-rock exhilaration. If you weren't lightning fast, you were geek drivel. Add a state-of-the-art motion-capture vest to your flight wardrobe and you could actually feel the effects of your accelerations and hairpin turns, the extreme verticality, big-air barrel rolls, and corkscrew flips—not to mention the consequences of losing control and vanishing from the circuit in a roiling ball of fire.
Tech hadn't been looking for a contest when he signed on to Grand Adventure Park fifteen minutes earlier. His goal then had been to test out a piece of software he and his brother had picked up from a dealer who operated out of the Sushi Warehouse downtown. The dealer—an Asian known only as Tsunami—had called it the soft Subterfuge and had touted it as the latest thing in ghost programs. But a race was a race, and Tech had a reputation to uphold.
With the finish line in sight and the odometer display in his visor already counting down the remaining distance, Tech wove the interceptor through another cluster of spike barriers and negotiated a dogleg without surrendering too much momentum. Fishtailing into the homestretch, he poured on speed until the course and the spectators who packed the arena stands became a blur.
Colored lights strobed before his eyes, and applause from the crowd of onlookers threatened to overpower the mega-bass music that thrummed through the headphones. The fact that some people would have been quick to dismiss Death Run as little more than a cleverly engineered illusion didn't diminish the victory or trouble him for even a second, because Tech lived for such moments.
Those same cynics regarded the whole of the Virtual Network—cyberspace, the metaverse, or whatever you liked to call it—to be scarcely more real than a dream. They thought of the Network's multilevel grid of broad avenues and narrow streets, its geometric constructs and public spaces, as nothing more than computer-generated images filling the visor screens they had strapped around their heads to eclipse their view of the real world. A tool to be used like Stock Watch, or disposable entertainment like satellite TV.
But to Tech the Network was much more than that. It was a brave new world, crammed with awesome vehicles, fantastic sights, and endless opportunities. It was an environment more gripping than the real world, governed by its own rules and requirements, and demanding dexterity, cleverness, and skill on the part of all those who took it seriously. Where else, after all, could you soar at the speed of sound through a city that dwarfed any on the planet and experience thrills that were beyond the imaginings of all but the most talented cyberarchitects?
In cyberspace honor and glory were up for grabs, and if you were good there, you could write your own future.
"Bulletproof, bro," a voice said, intruding slightly on the fantasy. "New course record."
The voice belonged to Tech's only slightly younger brother, who looked nothing at all like lanky, blond-haired, fifteen-year-old Tech. On the Network, and as often as he could get away with it in the real world, Tech's brother went by the user name Marz—short for Marshall. Marz was a decent cyberflier himself, but he was a killer navigator and a hardcore designer. While Tech was in the flight chair, all five-foot-five of nut-brown, multi-taskmaster Marz would be at the controls of the cyberconsole monitoring Tech's actions in the Network while simultaneously refining his cybercraft designs, downloading sound samples, and playing air-keys to Global Synth.
"You just placed on the One-to-Beat ranking," Marz added a moment later. "Fearless, man."
Tech accepted the praise without comment. No matter how much you loved to race, it was important to retain an air of nonchalance toward pretty much everything, except for really obscure Japanese games with names Tech could pronounce. After completing his victory lap, he set the interceptor on autopilot.
Death Run was a big win, sure to become the talk of the chat rooms—for a couple of minutes, at any rate. But Tech would have been the first to argue that skilled cyberflying—dazzling flying—was about more than being fearless. Anyone could be dauntless on the courses when the worst fate that could befall a careless racer was a virtual collision or a harsh reprimand by a game master.
Well, maybe your computer system would crash and burn because you had pushed it over the wall, but that only happened to losers. Sure, a racer needed to take risks. But when it came to winning with style, artistry mattered more than raw nerve.
"You ready to get back to work now?" Marz asked carefully.
"Work," Tech said with derision. "Don't you ever think about anything else?"
"Yeah," Marz said, drawing out the word. "But Felix is going to redline if we don't retrieve that file."
Tech grunted in dismissal. "We can find that file with our eyes closed."
"That's what you told Felix three days ago."
Felix was Felix McTurk, the data detective for whom Tech and Marz did occasional fieldwork, and from whose office on the sixty-fifth floor of the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan Tech was flying.
One of countless finders of stolen or misplaced data, Felix's was a struggling, one-man operation. But Felix was pretty chill for an adult, and Data Discoveries paid better than fast food or convenience store work. The missing file Tech and his brother had been instructed to locate belonged to one of Felix's clients—an electrician—who had recently received a phone bill for $505,204.25. The problem was that the electrician's home computer had crashed, and she couldn't prove that she hadn't placed the calls she had been billed for. Normally the phone company would have been able to provide a backup file, but the company's central computer had been befuddled by a virus.
Felix's client was one of many who had received similarly outlandish bills. But the phone-call log that would establish the electrician's innocence was surely somewhere in the Network, misfield or buried, just waiting for top-gun fliers like Tech and Marz to find and retrieve.
Resigned to his mission, Tech raised the back of the old dentist's chair that was his flight seat and adjusted the fit of his headset visor. He was about to ask his brother to provide him with a craft more suited to a data search when a flying saucer came alongside him, matching the interceptor's speed.
The saucer's unseen pilot hailed him over a Network audio link.
"I've been looking for you," the stranger said.
Tech thought he recognized the voice and took a closer look at the saucer. The opalescent burgundy craft was built for show, but it pulsed with concealed power. It belonged to Bios7, a Network legend with more race wins to his credit than anyone could count. But Tech wasn't about to let his challenger see him sweat.
"Is that supposed to be a flying saucer, Bios7, or a button from the dress you're wearing to the school prom?"
Bios7 laughed. "Actually, it's the bitter pill you're going to have to swallow after you lose to me in a one-on-one."
Bitter pill? Tech thought.
It sounded like a phrase Felix would use, which could mean that Bios7 wasn't Tech's age, but some old dude with a fully tricked-out cybersystem, or maybe even somebody's computer-skilled grandmother logging on from a retirement community in Mexico or somewhere.
You just couldn't help but wonder who some of these people were in the real world, despite what their user profiles stated. So-called experts claimed that the identities people adopted in the Network represented everything they wished they could be in real life. But Tech didn't buy the theory. Network identities were more like funhouse-mirror reflections: the virtual you was just barely askew of the real you. Although in his own case, Tech liked to think that he was the same person in both realms—a born explorer in search of adventure.
"You're getting quite a rep, kid," Bios7 went on. "You think you're ready for the race I have in mind?"
"Try me. I'll understand if you want to keep it private—just so there won't be too many witnesses to your defeat."
"Private's the last place I race, slacker. We run the Ribbon."
The challenge took Tech by surprise. To hackers, cyberjockies, and frequent fliers, the Ribbon was the Network's Main Street, its Times Square and Sunset Strip. You couldn't get more opposite of private than the Ribbon.
"What's the matter?" Bios7 asked. "Afraid of getting ticketed by Network Security and having your wings clipped?"
"The syscops would have to catch me first," Tech said. "And I haven't been caught yet."
"Then let's do it. Straight down the Ribbon, from CyberSquare to the Peerless Castle. Once around, and back to the strip."
"Uh, Tech," Marz interrupted worriedly. "We don't have time for this. We're already late."
"Ah, your navigator to the rescue," Bios7 teased.
"I can beat this guy," Tech boasted.
"No doubt, Tech," Marz agreed. "So why waste time racing?"
"Racing is never a waste of time," Bios7 said.
"This'll take five minutes," Tech told his brother over a confidential audio channel. "Besides, how's it gonna look if I turn down a challenge from Bios7?"
"Who cares how it's going to look?" Marz said. "We've got work to do."
"And we'll get to it, bro—right after I wipe the smirk off this joker's face."
Marz considered making a stronger argument for not racing, but only for a moment. Competitive runs that pitted seasoned fliers against one another were more about pride than victory. And he knew his brother. There was no changing Tech's mind once he had been dared. So instead Marz took a long swallow of Impact soda and called up a detailed map of the Ribbon. While the map was resolving on the largest of the office's monitor screens, he began loading additional software Tech would need for the race—command, control, and collision-avoidance programs—along with a batch of Tech's favorite music files, most of which were fast, crunching, and loud.
This wouldn't be the first time Tech had raced outside one of the closed circuits, but each race had brought him closer to being flamed by Network Security—the syscops—and getting caught could spell serious trouble for Tech, Marz, and Data Discoveries.
Tech reopened the audio link to Bios7.
"I'll meet you on the Ribbon, chump. Just be thankful we're not racing for system passcodes."
Bios7 laughed heartily. "You're the one who oughta be thankful. You get to lose to the best."
Once more Tech muted the audio feed and swiveled the dentist's chair toward Marz's workstation. "Open the garage," he said with more than a hint of impatience. "I'm going to need some Venom."
A database of vehicles designed mostly by Marz, the virtual garage contained more than thirty custom crafts appropriate for everything from racing to off-Ribbon adventuring to certified espionage missions. Some of the ships—like the Fireball Tech had flown in the Death Run challenge—were sleek and aerodynamic looking, while others were deliberately retro and ungainly, intended to attract as little attention as possible. Still others were tributes to ground effect or aerial craft lifted from popular books or blockbuster movies.