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The contrived sky of the Virtual Network had been gouged by the swift transit of an unidentified intruder. The rend ran straight as a jet's contrail, but yellow as the peel of a sun-ripened banana. At moments the intruder was a dazzling sphere outfitted with radar dishes that might have been giant ears, and at other moments a silver-hulled spacecraft, blunt nose aglow and rear thrusters blazing, sporting a pair of long-lashed cartoon eyes.
The transformation from one to the other was neither a trick of the virtual light nor evidence of sloppy programming, for clearly the intruder was intent on sowing confusion. Why else would it have announced itself with such a bold calling card and affected such obvious disguises? Like all the crafts and constructs and highways that made up the Network, the intruder was only an amalgam of complex codes, but that didn't mean it wasn't capable of wreaking havoc.
Faced with the possibility of cyberterror-ism, Network Security was quick to respond, launching tight formations of pursuit programs modeled after buzzsaw blades. Spinning energetically, the saw-toothed disks gushed fountains of disabling code that lit the false sky like metal filings flung from a grinding wheel. But the intruder merely held to its course, knocking cybercrafts violently aside or deleting them entirely as it plummeted like a meteor, deeper into the Network.
NetSec upped the anty.
From shield emplacements tucked into the elaborate crowns of the Mitsuni Spire and the IBM NeoDomethe Network's tallest constructscame powerful salvos of defensive fire. Lime-green hyphens of corruption poured upward, striking the intruder repeatedly, and tearing loose segments of programming that trailed behind the dual-natured ship like colorful streamers.
The whirling pursuit programs converged, adding bursts of minimizing code to an already furious light show. Forced to grow more calculated in its movements, the intruder began to perform more like a piloted craft than a free- falling rocket. Narrowing its cartoon peepers, it executed abrupt swoops and dog-fight rollovers that left the security buzzsaws foundering in its wake. Then it veered sharply, hurtling toward the cityscaped heart of the Network with the unbridled enthusiasm of a child racing for a playground.
By then it had attracted the attention of a dozen or so daring cyberjocks flying custom crafts, all of whom were attempting to plot the intruder's course and match its speed. The pair of fliers at the head of the pack were all but nipping at the intruder's tail.
"It's heading straight for the Ribbon!" the male pilot slightly in the lead told his wingmate over their dedicated audio link.
"Wild!" she said. "I've never seen such a speed junky!"
Their user names were Tech and Isis, and they were piloting the hottest crafts in the pack. Tech's was a modified, bubble-canopied AirSpeeder 6000, bristling with infoscanners, uplink arrays, grappling hooks, and harpoon launchers. Isis' was a serpent-prowed skiff, replete with contoured wings and billowing sails, that would have been right at home in some fantasy writer's version of ancient Egypt. She called it "The Prowler." Bulging aftermarket turbodrives were allowing both crafts to keep pace with the intruder, although their repeated attempts to actually come alongside the thing had failed time and again.
"I'm getting all kinds of chatter from the fliers at Ziggy's," Isis said.
"Shut it down. This is our case."
"Can we catch it?"
"Hello! I thought I heard someone question the skills of the Vega brothers. What do you say to that, Dr. Marz?"
"Take some MaxBlast 4.7 and call me in the morning."
Tech's younger brother, Marz, was navigating for both fliers from the office of Data Discoveries, a cybersleuth agency devoted to tracking missing or misplaced data. It was Marz who had customized the crafts, and it was thanks to his ingenuity with software that Tech and Isis were managing to mirror the intruder's maneuvers.
"We need a solid kick in the butt, bro'," Tech said. "What else you got running besides MaxBlast?"
Programs scrolled down a window in Tech's visor: Turbo 7.5, Speedfreak, Mondo Gonzo . . .
"Here's something I haven't tested yet," Marz said, "an upgrade of Ripper."
"Beautiful," Tech said.
He could almost picture the sly grin on his brother's face. If there had been even a moment to spare he might have peeked out from under his data visor to throw Marz a knowing wink.
Marz sniggered. "Hang onto your headgear."
Tech and Isis did just that as the bootleg software loaded. Then, instantly, their separate crafts streaked forward, with g-force acceleration their motion-capture vests let them feel deep in their chests. Aware of its pursuers the intruder dove, but to no avail. Soon Tech and Isis were flying side by side slightly above the ship, whose big, round eyes tracked them with exaggerated apprehension.
Isis ramped up her craft's code descrambler. "I'm getting audio."
Tech isolated the intruder in a readout window in his data visor and magnified the image. Using his joystick, he realigned one of the AirSpeeder's side-looking scanners and boosted the audio gain to his earphones. What he heard made him sit up straighter in the old dentist's chair that served as his flight seat in the real world.
"Sounds like it's laughing," he said.
"Cackling's more like it," Isis said a moment later.
Tech listened more closely. "I swear, I know that laugh from somewhere . . . Marz, is this thing piloted or glitched?"
"No one knows," his brother said, "or at least CiscoSoft's not saying."
"CiscoSoft?" Isis said. "They produce entertainment soft, don't they?"
"TV shows, movies, Netcasts . . . you name it," Marz said. "Cisco sent out the SOS to Felix, but if we don't hurry, every flier in town is going to be in on this."
Data Discoveries owner and head cybersleuth Felix McTurk was ever on the alert for jobs that could catapult the agency to the big leagues.
"I just wanna nail the thing," Tech said.
Chasing the intruder had been thrilling enough to allow him to forget, even temporarily, his lingering concerns about Harwood Strangecomatose as a result of having helped unravel the mystery of Cyrus, the artificial intelligence who had partnered with Data Discoveries only two weeks earlierand about the dire warning Tech had received from unknown parties on the completion of Cyrus' reassembly.
A warning he had yet to share with anyone else, including Cyrus
"Maybe this rogue has something to say," Tech suggested. "Is Grappler running?" Grappler was a data link that wouldn't harm the rogue program.
"Locked and loaded," Marz said.
Returned to big-earred meteorite mode, the intruder had flattened the angle of its descent and was closing on the Network's principal thoroughfare, the Ribbon. But instead of making straight for CyberSquare, at the head of the Ribbon, the intruder had turned east to avoid the heavy traffic around Grand Adventure, the Network's premier race course construct. Tech, by contrast, knew those traffic patterns by heart, and so simply pitched the AirSpeeder 6000 into the thick of the snarl, weaving the craft from lane to lane and from level to level, and in the end managing to gain a few precious seconds on his fire-tailed quarry.
By the time Grand Adventure's entry gates were looming in the near distance, Tech had the intruder centered in the visor's targeting reticle. While the fingers of his right hand tapped positioning code into the joystick's bat-wing control pad, his left hand enabled the AirSpeeder's grappler function.
Flooring the interface rig's accelerator pedal, he fired a triple-pronged data-hook.
It was a clean, precise shot, aimed for the rim of the largest of the craters that pitted the intruder's dorsal surface. But who or whatever was responsible for defending the intruder hadn't been caught napping. In the blink of an eye the intruder transformed from rough-surfaced sphere to gleaming spaceship. Shrugged off by the now seamless craft, the grappler flailed ineffectually in the false wind.
"Guess it doesn't like attachments," Isis said, coming alongside Tech.
"It's smarter than we are," Marz muttered in the melodramatic voice of a mad doctor from a 1950s SF movie. "Only science can conquer it."
"Science or a harpoon," Tech was quick to counter. "That'll take some of the flight out of it."
"Just what Captain Ahab said before Moby Dick bit off his leg," Isis said.
"Skip it. I keep forgetting you only read comic books."
"And proud of it."
"Harpoon's up and running," Marz broke in. "Target one of the thruster ports."
Unlike Grappler, which allowed a flier to attach him- or herself to a program, Harpoon carried a compressed packet of crippling code that could stop a program dead in its tracks.
Tech called on Ripper for added velocity, then threw the AirSpeeder into a power dive. Falling in behind the intruder, he opened Harpoon and launched a barbed quill straight into the intruder's right thruster.
The intruder went wide eyed and yelped angrily. Issuing what sounded like cartoonish backfires, it streaked away.
"Heads up!" Isis said.
Tech instantly saw the reason why. Perturbed by Tech's sting, the intruder doubled back and tried to ram him off course. Tech climbed out of reach. He was on the verge of firing a second harpoon when the intruder commenced a steep corkscrewing descent for the cluster of buildings that surrounded CyberSquare.
The first construct to feel the intruder's wrath was Atomic Music. Punctured, the construct loosed a storm of musical notes and stanzas, all of which began to waft down toward the wooded park. The intruder joined the shower of icons, activating short-lived sound bites as it powered past the dislodged musical signatures, ultimately fashioning them into a familiar theme song.
"Hey, I know that tune!" Tech said, as the intruder tore into the labyrinth of paths that wound through CyberSquare.
Tech followed, careening through an obstacle course of suddenly airborne fliers, many of whom were bounding above the treetops as if pinched in the rear by surprise. At the far end of the square, the intruder was nosing upward toward the inclined face of InfoWorld, dropping bulbous data-bombs from bays that opened in its belly.
Below, cartoon stars and chirping birds were pinwheeling around dozens of bomb-struck cybercrafts. Eruptions of short-lived balloon onomatopoeia accompanied the bombs: Boom! Bamm! Thwack! . . .
Tech laughed in astonishment. "Hey, how'd it do that?"
"Target's changing course," Marz updated. "Headed back for the Ribbon, all speed."
Tech and Isis veered for the highway, launching harpoons without success. Rolling its eyes at them, the intruder touched down on the Ribbon with a nerve-jangling screech. Thrusters flaring out, it barreled on, gradually assuming the polished roundness of a bowling ball, and flattening countless vehicles under its heft.
Tech could feel for the flattened fliers. Almost every visitor to the Network had experienced a hard delete or suffered through the brainaches that were the consequence of being thrown off-Network. But it was pain of a whole different caliber to learn that not only had you "tossed your bytes," as fliers said, but also that the craft you'd spent long hours assembling or purchased at great expense had lost all its attached enhancements and been reduced to a basic vehicle. It was like entering the Net at the controls of a Maserati and suddenly finding yourself peddling a tricycle.
The now squinting spheroid intruder was barreling south at a good clip, fast approaching the fairy-tale castle of Peerless Engineering, where Network Security had erected a massive firewall. Multi-barreled batteries resembling surface-to-air missile launchers began to range in. But the intruder was not to be outsmarted. Well short of the anti-intrusion moat that surrounded the castle, it bounced off the Ribbon and disappeared into the warren of Network sites that lined the Peerless Underpass.
"Gutter ball!" Tech shouted, as he and Isis accelerated to keep up.
"Enable ScatterShot!" she shouted back.
Weapons concealed in the AirSpeeder's bow and the skiff's serpent head peppered the intruder with prolonged bursts of minimizing code and little by little the retreating bowling ball began to lose mass. But at the same time it was gathering speed. With security gates snapping closed behind it like overwrought pinball machine flippers, the intruder rampaged on, slamming into site after site, and igniting each like struck bumpers.
Isis hooted. "Who programmed this thingMarty Morph?"
"That's it!" Tech said. "That's who this is! I knew I recognized that laugh and theme song!"
"But Marty Morph's a cartoon character."
"A CiscoSoft Entertainment cartoon character," Marz chimed in.
"And he's loose in the Network," Tech said.
"Surprised you didn't recognize him right away," Isis said, "seeing how cartoons are your thing."
"Ha," Tech said flatly.
"Seriously, how could Marty M get loose?"
"All the more reason to catch him and find out," Marz said.
"So, what's the problem," Isis said, "isn't this what you guys are supposed to be good at?"
"We're on it, Isis," Marz said harshly.
Tech and Isis continued to trigger fusillades of disabling code. Assailed from all sides, Marty Morphspinning like an Englished cue ball and loosing the modulating, contagious laugh that had earned him legions of fanspulled yet another trick from his bottomless bag. Self-compressed to an even more compact orb of chaotic energy, "the morphing maniac of Mainstream" flew up the tailpipe of a double-decker tourist bus, standing the zebra-striped thing on its rear wheels, then propelling it forward, whooshing great puffs of steam from cone-topped whistles it sprouted on each side.
Passengers began to bail out, springing in panic from the windows and making graceless exits to the real world. Again, Tech winced. The out-of-control vehicle had to be sending scores of cybersystems into overload, rushing fliers from site to site without design, like the advertising loops that could sometimes ensnare hapless Net-surfers.
No sooner had the archaic bus emptied than it became a bug-eyed, big-wheeled monster truck, emitting blasts of noxious exhaust as it trundled over every obstacle in its path. Swerving to avoid another roadblock, it clambered into Sony Plaza and started to scale the inclined face of Sony's pyramid-shaped construct.
"Throttle back," Tech warned. "He's going to jump!"
Isis banked acutely in the nick of time.
Marty, the topsy-turvy pickup truck, wheelied and leaped, sailing straight through the transparent roof of Create-a-Creature. In seconds, a menagerie of exotic cyberbeasts was stampeding out into the Network. Tech and Isis zigzagged their crafts through packs of two-headed giraffes, troops of goat-monkeys, flocks of crow-men, prides of lion-beetles.
Last to exit the ruptured construct, and plainly eager to separate itself from the pack, scurried a nearsighted rabbit, tugging a pocket watch from its vest and muttering, "I'm late, I'm late."
"Get that wacky wabbit!" Tech and Isis said in unison.
Marty Morph saw them coming and hopped. Rebounding from the Ribbon as if it were a trampoline, he vaulted the security firewall at the base of the Peerless mountain and soared straight between the castle's tallest turrets, as if they were goalposts.
Tech and Isis decelerated, as much to avoid being knocked off-Network by the castle's code- corrupting weaponry as to keep from venturing any closer to Peerless Engineering than was necessary. Two weeks earlier Tech had gone up against Peerless, and he had no desire to engage the powerful corporation a second time. Marty, however, showed no fear. Deftly evading the worst of Peerless's flaming-arrow barrages, he shot over the top of the castle and vanished from sight.