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Net Riders

A Virtual Life Adventure

 

Dare to Ride!

 

 

 

 

Giorgio Marino

 


Also by Giorgio Marino

 

Dread World

Net Wars

 

 

 

Some reader feedback:

 

 “It is quite an interesting book. I think a lot of people will read it.” Amy, Age 14

 

 “I love the people in the book. I thought they were perfect. I love the whole book.” Devon, Age 12

 

 “The detail and description of the story made me feel like I was actually in the book, which is a hard thing to achieve.” James, Age 14

 

 “Mum had to tell me off for reading too late.” John, Age 12

 

“I think it is an outstanding book and hard to tell what will happen next.” Lewis, Age 14

 

“It’s one of the most interesting story plots I have ever read because I like computers and that sort of stuff.”  Tyson, Age 14

 


This is a work of fiction.

Characters, names, incidents, places and organizations mentioned in this novel are either fictitious or if real, used fictitiously.

 

First published 2013 by Lapis Books in Australia

 

Lapis Books

PO Box 20

Greenacres SA 5086

Australia

 

Text copyright © 2013 Giorgio Marino

Cover design by Lapis Books

 

The right of Giorgio Marino to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him.

 

ISBN 978-1-4839685-2-0 (CreateSpace Edition)

ISBN 978-0-9874209-1-6 (Kindle Edition)

 

All rights reserved.

This book is copyright and no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission from the publisher.

 

www.lapisbooks.com


 

For Rebecca, we dared to dream.


Table of Contents

VRIS Corporation - Press Release

Hacksteria – Latest News!

1.01 Access Denied!

1.02 Droid

1.03 Vaxine

1.04 Dread World

1.05 Haxta

1.06 Videophone

1.07 Spyware

1.08 Slave Labor

1.09 Access Granted

1.10 VRIS Corp

1.11 Busted!

1.12 First Download

1.13 Virtual Life

1.14 Net Rider

1.15 Second Download

1.16 Infiltration!

1.17 Third Download

1.18 Virus-killers!

1.19 Traced!

1.20 Sabotage!

1.21 Fire!

1.22 Ambush!

1.23 Fatal Error!

1.24 First Rescue

1.25 Kill Strike!

1.26 Second Rescue

1.27 Cyber Terrorist

1.28 Defcon!

1.29 Power Surge!

1.30 Face Off!

1.31 Permanent Damage!

1.32 Access Terminated

Acknowledgements

About the Author

 


VRIS Corporation - Press Release

 

El Segundo, Los Angeles, CA: VRIS Corp launches new network.

 

After five years of rolling out fiber optic cables across the world, the world’s most “secure” network—the Secnet—is finally a reality.

 

VRIS Corp’s Dr. Myra Tresivo said, “People will no longer need to remember different passwords, as users are identified by the unique ‘biocode’ password of their irises. And as Secnet computers have protocol addresses based on their physical location, Secnet connections are guaranteed to be genuine. So all hacker activity of spoofing websites and infiltrating systems with malware will be relegated to the old Internet.”

 

Dr. Tresivo made an ominous warning to the hacker underground. “The new Department of Cyber Security monitors all Secnet activity! And any unauthorized users caught will be punished with jamming bracelets—wrist mounted devices that disable electronic equipment within a six foot radius.”

 

VRIS Corporation is a private company with interests in virtual reality equipment, networking and defense systems.

 

VRIS Corporation

Hughes Way

El Segundo,CA

Contact: Myra Tresivo

 

###


 

Hacksteria – Latest News!

 

Hacksteria—a free and safe community to expand your skills.

Log into our IRC server: lrc.hacksteria.org SSL port 6089

----------------------------------------

[Latest Forum post: January 18, ]

----------------------------------------

Since the launch of the Secnet three months ago, Cybercops have arrested hundreds of your fellow hackers and punished them by denying them Web access for life.

 

The Department of Cyber Security has had little judicial oversight and their actions contravene the First, Fourth and Sixth amendments. It’s outrageous! Our Government’s collaboration with military contractors like VRIS Corp has dealt a serious blow to YOUR freedom of speech!!!

 

We refuse to let our GOVERNMENT control us in a POLICE STATE!!!

 

So we challenge everyone to disable VRIS Corps’ Jamming Bracelet server. And any hackers who achieve this righteous goal will have the Hacksteria’s main meeting room renamed in their honor.

 

Hack safe!!!

 

Your Hacksteria Team

----------------------------------------

 

1.01 Access Denied!

 

 

 

THE OLD RED brick doorway had been filled in with a stucco wall and double-glazed windows. In this Brooklyn neighborhood, that usually meant a garage had been upgraded into a game room. But instead of reclining sofas and a plasma screen, behind this wall was a Cyberpod virtual reality system.

Inside the room, the curtains were drawn and the light was off. The computer’s cooling fans hummed noisily in the dark. And its login screen lit up the hacker’s face with an eerie ashen glow.

He took a steadying breath and clicked the mouse button.

A login box activated with a message prompt:

 

Dr. Peter Preston

Verifying iris password …

 

The hacker glanced at the portable iris scanner in the cradle on his desk. It was shaped like a small hairdryer with a lens inside a rubber eyecup. The lens flickered …

But his cracking program ignored the device and displayed a fake green eye. He nodded slowly as the iris shifted every half a second. Just like a real eye.

Then an image was grabbed and white dots began covering the iris. The twin cabinets buzzed under the desk. The computer was identifying the eye’s blue and black spots to create a biocode password.

“Come on, come on …” the hacker urged.

The login box winked out. Then a pale desktop window materialized with a row of program icons along the bottom edge, and Dr. Peter Preston in the menu bar.

“Shame on you, Doc,” he sniggered. “You just hacked my computer.”

He maximized a Browser window and loaded his target netsite:

 

BROOKLYN UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL

SSL VPN Infonet login

Please enter your username and stand by for iris password verification

 

The hacker typed in the doctor’s name and hesitated with his hands poised over the keyboard.

Getting busted meant having a SWAT team smash in his front door, confiscate everything and attach a jamming bracelet to his wrist. Forget about gaming or social networking—he would be denied Web access for life.

His eyes gleamed. If he cracked the hospital’s Virtual Private Network server, he could use the same technique to infiltrate any Secnet site. And that meant free gaming credits for life!

He eagerly pressed enter—

But a message flashed in bold red text:

 

Access Denied!

 

The 13-year-old hacker groaned through gritted teeth. “Oh, not again!”

He should’ve quit. By the end of the day, his cracking program would be responsible for the worst cyber attack in US history.

<> 

In a Los Angeles garage, another hacker began her journey to cyber terrorism.

She activated a Cyberpod’s login box and picked up the iris scanner off the desk. She pressed the rubber cup against her right eye socket and stared fixedly as the flashing lens recorded her eye. Twitching in discomfort, tears welled and flowed down her cheeks. Then she returned the scanner to its cradle and wiped her face with the back of her sleeve.

A JPEG of her blue iris appeared in the box. The computer overlaid the image with 128 white dots, compared the result with the biocode file in its data registers …

And a desktop window materialized with Megan Steinberg in the menu bar.

The hacker inserted a thumb drive into the monitor’s USB port. An icon labeled ‘BrowserX’ appeared on the screen. She opened the icon to reveal columns of program files. Scrolling down, she located the file ‘browser.exe’ and double-clicked. A false Browser window zoomed out.

The girl nodded. Being a Guest user prevented her from altering system software in her dad’s computer. But not from running a cracking program inside an executable shell.

Leaning forward, she entered ‘VRIS Corp VPN’ into the Search box. Her BrowserX connected with the company server and the screen lit up with her target’s login box:

 

VRIS CORPORATION

SSL VPN Authorized Users Only

Username …

 

The hacker smirked. It would be wicked cool, if the first person to infiltrate the Hacksteria’s most despised organization was a 13-year-old girl!

She quickly entered ‘Richard Gredlich’ into the username field—

And the response was immediate.

 

Access Denied!

 

The hacker slammed both fists onto the desk. “This sucks!”

<<>> 


1.02 Droid

 

 

 

ZANE WALKER GLARED at the ‘Access Denied!’ message taunting him in the screen.

The Brooklyn hacker lived in East Flatbush, just a few blocks south of the hospital he was targeting. He had light brown eyes and arched dark eyebrows on a lean face with a slightly crooked nose. He wore a black hoodie, gray track pants and a black bandana with a motorcycle logo. And around his throat was a simple black leather cord.

Zane logged out the phony doctor and used the iris scanner to log back in under his own username. He opened his computer’s Users folder, then the Preston subfolder. He scrolled down hundreds of system and Dynamic Link Library ‘.dll’ icons. All the files were genuine—except for his cracking program and an image ‘prestoneye.jpg’.

He opened the JPEG in a Picture Viewer and studied the fake green iris. “If the eye was good enough for my computer, why didn’t the hospital server like it …?” He shook his head. “I dunno.”

Zane turned to his notebook and brushed the touchpad. The screen lit up with the Hacksteria Home page. Hacking sites were banned from the new Secnet. So he still needed a Windows PC with Internet access to connect to the hacker underground. He logged in with his handle ‘Droid’ and his domed robot user icon appeared in the menu bar.

He read the usual rant against VRIS Corp and sighed. “Nope, nobody’s cracked the Secnet yet.” Then his gaze dropped to the latest comment:

 

[Comment #11 by: Haxta on January 18, ]

To hack secnet is imposible. Is much better to blow up server to free comrades.

 

“Blow up the server?” He snorted.“That Russian guy is a jerk.” He quickly wrote his own comment asking for collaborators and posted it on the website.

Zane sat back and checked the time in the screen’s menu bar: Sat 3:15 PM. His mom wouldn’t be back from the mall for ages. There were heaps of things he should do, like cleaning up the game room …

He pushed back his wheelchair and swiveled around. The rubber tires squeaked on the vinyl floor. Next to the computer was another desk with a lamp, tools and a soldering iron. A nearby bookshelf was overflowing with circuit boards, power supplies and cables. More boxes of spare parts—mostly junk cannibalized from older Vmacs—were stacked up on the floor. A pair of old brown curtains hung over the front windows. And in the gloom sat a dome-shaped cage as big as an SUV.

Zane grinned at the Cyberpod. Everybody in the underground hated VRIS Corp. But the company did make the most awesome gaming machines. “Yeah, I’m up for another kill.”

Leaning on the desk, Zane stood up on quivering legs. Six months of regular gaming had strengthened his upper body. But the legs inside his track pants were skeletal.

He grabbed the nearby crutches leaning against the wall. Then frowning in concentration, he shuffled across to the Cyberpod. The control panel next to the hatchway had three pushbuttons: a green On button, a black Reset button and a red mushroom-head Off button. He thumbed the green button and the entire cage buzzed with a slight hum.

He opened the hatch, leant the crutches against the cage and carefully stepped inside. He pulled the hatch shut and panting from the effort, hauled his body up into the padded harness. Then inserting his useless legs into a kneeling position, he tightened the straps around his waist and across his thighs.

The Cyberpod’s Locomotion Harness was in the center of an orientation ring as tall as a doorway. The ring’s inner part rolled the user left and right. The outer part was connected to twin columns that pitched the user forward and back. And the columns were bolted to a rotating base that yawed left and right. All movements were continuous, giving the user the same six degrees of freedom as an avatar in virtual space.

Zane removed his bandana and shoved it into his back pocket. Most VR gamers crop their hair to improve the sensitivity of the brain-computer interface. So Zane’s scalp was completely smooth—except for an ugly indent with ridges of scar tissue on top of his skull.

He unhooked the black plastic Cyberhelmet from behind the harness, pulled it on and adjusted the strap under his chin. Then clicking the visor down, the built-in optics scanned his right eye.

<> 

The Cyberpod verified his iris and logged him in. Then the visor lasers beamed virtual reality images into his eyes. He observed the computer’s workspace shimmer into life—a light gray rectangle as wide as his outstretched arms—and start-up text began scrolling:

 

Cyberpod Brain-computer Interface:

Building virtual desktop …

 

A menu bar materialized with File, Edit, View and Help buttons in the top left corner, and his username and a clock in the right. Next, his computer’s programs emerged like playing cards—flit, flit, flit—and formed a row of windows: Desktop, Browser, Videophone, Email, Picture Viewer and Dread World. The graphics were slightly blurry, like viewing underwater through goggles.

 

Energizing primary cortex sensors …

Rendering virtual limbs …

 

His scalp tingled as his brain synapses reacted to the helmet sensors powering up. Then a pair of virtual arms appeared—liquid metal constructs with elongated fingers.

 

Testing servomotors …

Centering Locomotion Harness …

 

The harness jiggled as the electric motors switched on and off. Then the twin columns hummed to lift his body to the center of the cage. This feature totally blew VR gamers’ minds—the columns raised and lowered the harness to give the illusion of flying and falling.

A final message flashed:

 

Cyberpod Active

 

Zane rocked back and forth to check the harness straps were tight. Then tensing his stomach muscles, he punched out with his left fist.

<> 

Inside the cage, the Cyberpod motors whined shrilly as the harness pitched his body sideways.

<> 

Zane observed his virtual workspace rotate 180 degrees then opened his left hand.

The mechanism jerked to a stop, leaving him upside-down in front of the application windows.

He punched behind his head, and pitched backwards for another two revolutions. Another hand gesture and he returned upright. He grunted in satisfaction; his left ‘locomotion’ hand worked perfectly.

Reaching out with his right ‘action’ hand, he smacked the Dread World dragonhead logo. The virtual reality gaming program window zoomed out into virtual space:

 

Freaking Arts, Inc  presents …

DREAD WORLD - The game of the future past

Welcome back Zane Walker  New Game  Exit  Credits: 3

 

Zane cracked his knuckles. “Let’s kick some dragon butt.”

He pressed the New Game button. An hourglass cursor rotated while the Freaking Arts server downloaded gaming parameters of animal movements, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Then the dragonhead logo expanded around him and materialized into an earthen cave.

His silver virtual-arms morphed into a dragonslayer—a heavily muscled warrior with long black dreadlocks, a protruding brow and a battle-scarred torso. Avatars fly in the Dread World sim so instead of legs, he was rendered with a stubby tail girded in a black boar skin.

The burly slayer turned right to the cave wall. A recessed shelf held a black leather holster with the game’s only weapon—a laserblade!

He grabbed the bundle, buckled the belt around his waist and withdrew the weapon. It was a golden sword hilt with a knurled handle and a solid disk-like guard. But instead of a blade, a crystal sat in the center of the guard. He thumbed a small diamond recessed in the handle.

A white-hot beam erupted out of the crystal.

The slayer twirled the weapon in a figure-8 and the laser buzzed and crackled with energy.

A primeval roar bellowed outside. A dark shadow flew past with a powerful whumpf, whumpf of huge wings. Then a whoosh of flames was followed by a high-pitched squeal.

The slayer dashed to the entrance. He grinned at the game’s starting sequence of a dragon pouncing onto a gigantic slimeworm. “Hello beastie,” he breathed and launched out of the cave.

<<>> 


1.03 Vaxine

 

 

 

MEGAN STEINBERG SCOWLED at the Cyberpod’s screen. “My program should’ve worked.”

The Californian hacker was an elfin girl with black eyeliner around her pale blue eyes. Her dark eyebrows tapered to fine lines, and silver ankhs hung from both ear lobes. She wore a black mod cap, a purple cardigan over a white T-shirt, and black leggings. If her hair hadn’t been cropped, she would’ve looked like any other Californian teen.

Except her mind was wired very differently. Instead of following celebrity gossip and fashion, this Westchester schoolgirl preferred the hi-tech pursuits of gaming and hacking.

Megan closed her BrowserX program then delved into its folder. She located the ‘hrcillib.dll’ file and opened it in her dad’s VRML Developer program:

 

<vrml>

<meta sttp-equiv = Virtual Reality Modelling Language v2.18>

<hRCILLIBDLL Remote Checksum Identifier DLL module>

{

<exec_dataImport (biocode) = Richard Gredlich; hibsllib.dll>

<exec_dataImport (remote_netsite) = Richard Gredlich; hrnsllib.dll>

<set_RCI = exec_dataMerge (biocode; remote_netsite)>

}

</vrml>

 

She checked the lines of code for errors, but they all seemed fine. “I must be getting the wrong netsite …” Then dropping down the desktop’s File menu, she selected the Command Prompt function.

The display flashed a red warning:

 

Access Denied: Guest User is not authorized

 

“Oh, this is nuts!” she snapped. Without administration rights, hacking the Secnet was like trying to break into a house with both hands tied behind her back. She glanced at the clock: Sat 12:55 PM. Time to stop anyway; her parents would be home soon.

Megan logged out of her dad’s Cyberpod computer. Both her parents were design engineers who regularly worked at home. So the family garage had been converted into an office with desks, Vmac computers, shelves full of technical books—and a Cyberpod system.

She removed her thumb drive and strode out of the garage and trotted upstairs.

Her bedroom had plain white furniture. And instead of the usual clutter of fluffy toys and boy band posters, her shelves were crammed with circuit boards and programming manuals. She headed straight for her desk. On the right was a brand new 20-inch Vmac with a portable iris scanner. But she ignored the Secnet computer and picked up her old tablet PC with a wireless connection to the Internet.

She sat down on her bed and brushed the screen to reveal the Hacksteria home page. The menu bar displayed her ‘Vaxine’ handle and pill bottle user icon. She scanned the latest post and her nostrils flared. “We are becoming a Police State!”

Megan jabbed the screen’s keypad to upload her response:

 

[Comment #13 by:  Vaxine on January 18, ]

Yeah down with the stinking cesspool guvment. Got a checksum exploit to test but need someone with ROOT!!

 

Then she read the most recent comment:

 

[Comment #12 by:  Droid on January 18, ]

Just set up a fake usr account but cant log into SECNET. Anybody wanna help??

 

“How did Droid set up a fake user account …?” Her gaze dropped to the next comment from Haxta. “Sheesh, I thought you got busted!”

Megan skimmed the rest of the page but nobody had anything new to add. She scrolled back up to Droid’s comment. She didn’t know the hacker, but a fake user account definitely needed checking out.

She located Droid’s domed robot icon in the Hacksteria Contacts list. All users were anonymous. So the hacker could be living across the street or across the world.

She pressed the Voicelink Connect button and her cheeks dimpled in anticipation.

<<>> 


1.04 Dread World

 

 

 

THE DREAD WORLD dragon is a terrifying sight.

It had a wedge-shaped head with a long snout, twin horns atop and a back bristling with spines. Its reptilian body was covered with dark maroon scales, and enormous bat-like wings extended from its front shoulders. The muscular hind legs and smaller forearms had long raking talons. And its serpentine tail was equipped with a single lethal spike.

It was like facing off against a T-Rex that can fly and shoot flames.

But fluorescent red blood bubbled out between the dragon’s teeth, and seeped from wounds in its chest and shredded wings. For the hunter had become the hunted, and this dragon had met its match.

The heavily muscled dragonslayer hovered in front of the wounded beast with a buzzing laserblade.

The dragon hissed and stumbled backward, each step causing fresh blood to spurt out of its wounds. Its limp wingtips dragged along the ground, filling the furrows with the bright crimson liquid. And the fire in its eyes dimmed with every heartbeat.

The slayer aimed his weapon at the kill zone under the beast’s lower jaw. “Death to the dragon!” he declared and swung the laser straight through the thick sinewy neck.

A glistening red line appeared in the maroon scales. And a fine mist of superheated tissue sprayed out. The jaws opened to roar but could only manage a sickening wheeze. Then the dragon’s head toppled off—

And thunk, impaled its twin horns into the ground.

But instead of collapsing, the dragon’s headless body remained upright.

Grinning broadly, the slayer backed away. This was the best part of the game.

A geyser of arterial blood erupted out of the dragon’s neck and morphed into a fiery red plasma that pierced the sky. Billowing black clouds gathered overhead and swirled into a monstrous vortex around the plasma stream.

“Yeah!” the slayer shouted at the screaming winds pelting him with forest debris.

A howling funnel snaked down, enveloped the entire dragon …

The slayer squinted.

And with a massive whomp, the dragon disintegrated into a stream of red-hot particles. They spewed up into the center of the vortex, forked out across the sky and exploded into mushrooms of multi-colored sparks.

The funnel retreated abruptly. Leaves, twigs and pebbles cascaded around the slayer. The dark clouds dispersed, revealing a gray sky ribbed with orange and yellow streaks.

“A righteous kill,” the slayer crowed as he deactivated the weapon and dropped the golden hilt into the holster at his right hip.

The surrounding landscape dissolved into the cave entrance at the start of the game. The slayer unbuckled his belt, rolled it up and returned the weapon bundle to the ledge in the cave wall. Then his buff physique morphed into a pair of silvery virtual-arms. And the 3D cave entrance collapsed into a Dread World window floating in virtual space.

Congratulations Zane Walker,” said a British accented female voice. “You have conquered 118 dragons and your current Dragonslayer ranking is number twelve. Thank you for playing Dread World and we hope to entertain you again.”

“Awesome!” Zane smirked. “I’ve almost cracked the top ten.”

Although the sim wasn’t the most popular in the world, it was the most elite. The island construct was frighteningly realistic. And the thrill of hunting and killing the mythological beast was exhilarating. But simulator sickness in a Cyberpod was often worse than the island’s deadly creatures. So only a few dozen players had scored more than 100 kills.

Zane reached out to the desktop’s menu bar with a metallic virtual-finger, scrolled down the options and selected Logout. The helmet lasers switched off and the virtual workspace vanished.

<> 

The Cyberpod’s electric motors orientated the harness into the Park position facing the hatch. Zane unclipped the strap under his chin and eased off the Cyberhelmet. His eyes were tinged with broken blood vessels. And perspiration dribbled down his nose and cheeks.

He hung the helmet behind the harness. Then stretching upwards, groaned loudly. The harness only supported the body from the waist down, so VR gaming was murder on the lower back.

He retrieved his bandana from his back pocket and pressed the cloth against his eyes. The manual stated that diode laser output was too low to do any damage—but try telling that to his irritated corneas.

Zane wiped his face and tied the black cloth over his ugly head scars. There was nothing wrong with his nerves like a true paraplegic with a spinal injury. He could still activate his leg muscles. But the boating accident had fractured his skull and damaged the primary somatosensory cortex in both hemispheres of his brain. He had lost all sensation below his waist. And without sensory feedback, walking or even just standing up required total concentration.

He released the Velcro straps, eased his legs out from the padded harness and leaned against the cage for support. He opened the hatch and carefully stepped backwards down the two steps. Holding on to the cage mesh with his right hand, he used his left hand to thump the red Off button in the control panel.

The panel lights dimmed and the humming cage became silent.

Then reaching out for the crutches, he glanced at a soccer trophy poking out of a box on a shelf. His expression soured at the memory of the ball blasting into the back of the net. “I should throw them out.”

Zane’s legs wobbled. “Uh-oh …” He tensed his thigh muscles to steady himself. The wobbles worsened. Then feeling himself fall, he lunged for the cage.

But his flailing hand missed and he collapsed onto the vinyl floor.

“Oh, man …” He rolled into a sitting position and examined a scrape on his elbow. “The real world sucks.”

Zane hauled himself upright against the cage. He managed to get a crutch under each armpit and shuffled back to the computer desk. The Cyberpod computer’s huge LCD monitor dwarfed his compact notebook. He leaned the crutches against the wall and transferred to his wheelchair. Then deftly spinning the wheels around, he slotted the chair neatly between the desk’s twin computer cabinets.

His notebook triple beeped.

Turning to his left, he jabbed the touchpad. The screen lit up with a Hacksteria call from a ‘Vaxine’ identified by a brown pill bottle icon. Another hacker was responding to his post. “That was quick,” he murmured and clicked Connect.

 “Hey Droid, I’m Vaxine,” the caller said with a distinctly West Coast twang.

“You’re a girl!” Zane blurted.

Is that a problem for you?

“No, um. I haven’t met any girls in—”

Look, if you’re one of those guys who think girls can’t hack—”

“Jeez, I’m not saying anything like that …” His voice trailed off as he pictured an angry nerd with thick glasses.

She harrumphed. “You sound like you’re over east. Can you talk about stuff?

“Sure, nobody’s here.”

How did you set up a fake user account without a live eye?

“I um …” Zane hesitated, reluctant to reveal too much to an anonymous avatar that could be anyone. “I changed a DLL file to accept an animated JPEG.”

Oh man,” she lamented. “I’m only a Guest and don’t have any system access.

Zane was puzzled. “How can you hack the Secnet with no root?”

I know!” She snorted in disgust. “I’m trying to exploit a weakness in an RCI file.”

“Remote Checksum Identifier …” Zane mumbled and turned to his computer’s LCD screen. He switched to the Preston subfolder he had opened before. He scrolled down to the files with ‘rci’ in the name and frowned. “Who are you targeting with an RCI?”

VRIS Corp.

Zane whirled back to her pill bottle icon in his notebook. “No way!”

Yeah, I wanna kill their Jamming Bracelet server! You saw the Hacksteria post! That server has taken out hundreds of hackers!

Zane whistled. “But VRIS Corp has server firewalls with sentry software.”

We can crack them if we form a virtual team …

Zane’s guts convulsed. “But that means videophoning each other?”

It’s the only way I can find that server!” she snapped, then paused to regain her composure. “You did, like, want help, right?

“Yeah, but in the Hacksteria.”

She snorted. “You mean copying a file to your notebook, emailing it to my Hacksteria account, so I can copy it to my Vmac, and send it back the same way … it’ll drive me nuts!

Zane remained silent. She was right; it would be tedious.

She gave him an exaggerated sigh. “Here’s the thing, Droid. If I can’t get remote access to your computer, then I’m wasting my time.

Zane glanced at his thin legs. “But hackers don’t videophone each other …”

Sheesh, what kind of lame hacker are you—trying to crack the Secnet, but too scared to use a vid ?

His mouth tried to speak, but his throat had tightened.

Forget about it,” she said resignedly. “Bye.”

Her pill bottle icon vanished. She had disconnected.

Zane smacked the notebook lid shut and pushed back from the desk. He gestured rudely at the notebook. “I’m not videophoning anybody from this freakin’ wheelchair.”

Then keys jangled in the front door and labored footsteps walked into the house.

He groaned inwardly. Mom’s home! He swiveled his wheelchair towards the door to wait for her reaction.

<> 

“What a scared little geek,” Megan grumbled at her Hacksteria window.

Her cell phone buzzed in her cardigan’s pocket. She pulled it out and seeing the caller ID, sighed, “Hi Mom.”

Hi honey,”her mom said with road noise in the background.“We’re still looking for Todd’s school shoes.

“Are you serious. You’ve been gone, like all morning.”

I know, so you’ll have to fix your own lunch, okay?

You’re a big girl now,” a voice rumbled nearby.

“Oh, you’re hilarious dad.”

See you in a few hours, bye,” her mom said and killed the call.

Megan smiled slyly. “Cool. I can call Haxta …”

She tossed the phone and picked up her tablet. She scrolled down the Hacksteria’s Contacts list and found Haxta’s cracked monitor icon. She glanced at her menu bar clock: Sat 1:10 PM. The underground’s most notorious hacker lived somewhere in Eastern Europe, so his time was almost midnight. She chewed her lip, debating whether to call him or not.

“He’s always up late,” she decided and pressed Connect.

<<>> 


1.05 Haxta

 

 

 

RUSSIA’S BIGGEST INDUSTRIES once lorded over the Black Sea shoreline of Odessa, Ukraine. Now most of those mighty factories have been cleared, leaving behind a wasteland of empty space dotted with new smaller factories and shabby Soviet era buildings. At the end of an icy dirt road off Chornomors’koho Kozatsva Street, stood a group of tired workshops, straining to support their snow covered roofs. It was after midnight, so nobody was around to hear the screams.

But the cries weren’t human.

In the middle workshop were two Gamepod cages—arcade Cyberpods painted with monstrous Dread World dragons. Both hatches were crossed with strips of yellow tape to indicate the machines were faulty. Inside one cage was a gamer. And the nearby Vmac screen displayed his game view—a mutilated dragon retreating from a white laser.

The laser thrust left.

The dragon lurched to avoid the deadly beam—

Then the laser whirled right and lopped off the beast’s tail.

Spasms undulated up the dragon’s body as it shrieked and tottered backwards.

The dragonslayer’s view dropped to the severed tail writhing like a cut worm. Then switched to the blood streaming out of the tail stump. Then up to the ragged shoulders to observe blood squirting out of the wing stumps.

The slayer’s beefy forearm raised the weapon. “Smert’ drakona!” ‘Death to the dragon’ he declared in a deep Ukrainian voice.

The wheezing dragon coughed and meekly lowered its wounded head. The once proud horns had been reduced to bleeding lumps.

The slayer chopped down. But instead of applying the kill strike through the neck, he changed the angle and smote the right forearm off the body.

The dragon screeched and reeled back.

Smert’ drakona!” the slayer snarled and removed the left forearm.

The beast screeched again and craned its neck, begging for the final cut.

Now mad with bloodlust, the deranged slayer slashed wildly. His laser buzzed and crackled as it gouged chunks of red flesh from the bloated belly. Until green-gray intestines spooled out and formed a steaming pile between the beast’s trembling legs.

The dragon tottered sideways, crashed with a mighty thump and lay still.

The slayer’s chest heaved as he floated above the mutilated beast. His leather tunic was covered with blood splatter. He peered into the reptilian eye. And seeing the red fire was almost spent, he raised the humming laser.

Smert’ Pyotr Shevchuk!” he hissed and swept the weapon down.

The dragon’s head fell away. Its plasma life force erupted out of the neck and shot up into a sky billowing with black clouds.

But the gamer reached under his chin. He had no interest in watching the sim’s closing sequence.

Inside the Gamepod, Yakov Petrovich unclipped the strap and removed the Cyberhelmet to jack out of VR. He sullenly released his waist and legs and stepped out of the domed cage.

Although the young Ukrainian had the build of a wrestler, his shoulders were already stooped from being hunched over computer screens. His Slavic face had pronounced cheekbones, heavy eyebrows and close-set dark eyes. His scalp was cropped. And the pasty skin was riddled with acne scars from a poor diet and insufficient sunlight. His downturned mouth made him look older than his 14 years.

Yakov slammed the hatch shut. Then he ripped off the yellow tape and tossed it onto an overflowing box.

The dimly lit workshop looked like a hi-tech rubbish dump. The floor was littered with the carcasses of old pinball machines, arcade gaming consoles and piles of LCD screens. One side of the workshop was wall-to-wall shelves with dusty boxes of cannibalized spare parts. The other side had been set up with a sagging cot, chest of drawers and an old misshapen wardrobe. In the corner, a partitioned area had a filthy toilet bowl and an ancient kitchenette.

Yakov picked up a heavy coat and traditional fur-lined Ushanka hat off his office chair, and pulled them on. He stomped his feet against the cold. He wore a thick woolen polo neck jumper, jeans and lined boots but still shivered. He glowered at the decrepit gas heater hanging from the ceiling; it barely managed to keep the temperature above freezing.

Wrapping the heavy coat tightly around his body, he glanced at the front windows covered with heavy iron bars. He loathed January; even though Odessa was by the sea, every night was below freezing. It was snowing. But the cascading flakes did nothing to improve his view of gas storage tanks, lighting towers and container cranes. He scowled and shuffled to his desk in the center of the workshop.

On the right was a Vmac with the usual keyboard, mouse and iris scanner. The screen displayed a Gamepod window with the Dread World dragonhead logo. The menu bar clock displayed the time: Sat 11.11 PM. On the left of the desk was a notebook PC with a Hacksteria page. The remaining space was strewn with food wrappers, crumpled paper and empty soda cups. Blue network cables trailed along the ground between the Vmac, wall-mounted Vhub server and the repaired Gamepod.

Pulling out a drawer, Yakov grabbed the maintenance logbook and tossed it onto the desk. His gaze lingered over a folded paper. He picked up the note and his bottom lip quivered as he read his mother’s cursive script:

 

My dearest Yakov

I decide to go to Kiev to live with Pyotr Shevchuk.

Now you work for Igor Zlotnyk, you not need your maty any more.

love, Tetyana Petrovich

 

Yakov’s eyes glazed over as he recalled his mother’s shrill voice. It is your father Viktor who make problems for us!

But he had no recollection of his dad. Not even a photograph. All he remembered was a series of different homes. Different schools. The blur of different faces shouting at him. And especially the beatings that taught him to stay in his room. Now that pig dog Shevchuk had taken her to Kiev. And she never left a cell phone number.

YA nenavydzhu tebe, I hate you, Pyotr Shevchuk,” he muttered darkly.

Yakov returned the note and grabbed his old leather wallet. Then flicking the Ukrainian currency he shook his head in frustration. “Eight hundred and seventy Hryvnia. Bah! Ninety euros!”

He tossed the wallet back into the drawer and slammed it shut. He opened the maintenance logbook, grabbed a pen off the desk and began filling in the columns in the next available space. He wrote the repair number ‘28’, the date, Gamepod serial number, details of the repair, and ticked the ‘Tested’ box.

He flipped back through the pages. They listed the repairs he had completed since December last year. The first two weeks with repairs 1 to 10 were crossed as paid. But repairs 11 to 27 from mid-December to mid-January were unpaid.

Yakov jerked to his feet. “Is not fair!” He paced the workshop, clenching and unclenching his fists as he kicked out at parts and panels and whatever junk was closest. “Zlotnyk must … pay me my …” He ended up near the kitchenette and unleashed a thrust kick with the heel of his right boot. “MONEY!”

But instead of bouncing off, his boot smashed straight through the wall.

Ow, ow, ow,” Yakov hopped awkwardly on his left foot, each movement causing splinters to lacerate his right leg.

He steadied and wrenched his foot out of the wall. He lifted his trouser leg to inspect his shin. But the grazes were only superficial. He peered into the hole and jerked back in alarm. It was freezing outside. “Hole will drain heat out of workshop!”

He grabbed some old rags and shoved them into the hole. The wood panel crumbled. The entire wall was rotten from leaking pipes behind the kitchenette’s basin.

Then his notebook triple beeped.

Yakov shuffled back to his desk and raised his eyebrows at the caller’s handle—Vaxine! He clicked on Connect and her pill bottle icon animated in his screen.

Hey Haxta,” she said in her Californian accent. “Is that you?

He grunted. “Is long time, since I hear you.”

I’ve been busy. The holidays have been like, pretty crazy.

Yakov stiffened at her response. His Christmas day had been spent alone in the workshop. “So why call now?”

I just saw your post. Where have you been? I haven’t seen you online for ages.

Yakov snorted. “You not only one who is busy. I have job.”

A job? But aren’t you still at school?

“Bah, this is not America,” he sneered, then tapped his chest proudly. “I not need school, to be Gamepod technician.”

Oh, so you don’t have time to crack the Secnet?

He burst out laughing.

What’s so funny?” she asked testily.

Vybachte, sorry,” he said with a hand on his chest. “You make good joke. You can’t crack Secnet. Webmeister, Crood and Sintax already try. And now Jamming Bracelet fix them good.”

But those guys were our friends! I’ve got an awesome cracking technique. And if we can work together—”

“Virtual team is very bad, leetle girl,” Yakov interrupted. “Your Cyber Warfare department watch all Secnet traffic. If make one login mistake, they trace you.” He snorted. “Forget crack Secnet. Is much better, find server location and blow up with C4.”

But a hacker called Droid set up a fake user account. Check out his post!

“I not know this Droid.” Yakov minimized the Voicelink window to read the Hacksteria comments. His upper lip curled. “Droid is idiot. Server must see live eye for biocode scan. It stop criminal, take man’s eye from head, and use on scanner, like Hollywood movie. What he say is impossible.”

But he used an animated eye. So he must’ve found a security hole.

Yakov’s eyes narrowed. “A security hole in Secnet …?”

She sighed heavily. “Look, do you wanna help me or not?

“Bah, I never give up netsite.” He waved dismissively. “Do pobachennya, goodbye Vaxine.”

No wait—”

Yakov clicked the Disconnect button and stared at the screen. “If this Droid, find Secnet security hole, I must find out what she knows.”

He switched to desktop and opened his hacking software folder. He scrolled through titles and highlighted a simple gray icon labeled ‘Shpyhuns’koho’. He copied the icon to the desktop and renamed the Spyware program in English for its next target.

“Okay Vaxine, I make nice surprise for you.”

<<>> 


1.06 Videophone

 

 

 

MRS WALKER PAUSED at the game room’s doorway. A handbag was slung over her right shoulder and she carried a shopping bag. Her auburn hair was pushed back behind her ears, revealing a light dusting of freckles on her cheeks and neck. She wore a cream coat and scarf and black knee high boots that were wet up to mid calf. January had been unusually warm and most Brooklyn streets were covered in slush.

“Hey, are you hungry?” she asked cheerfully.

“Nah,” Zane mumbled.

“I’ve got fresh bread …?” She switched on the overhead light and proffered a baguette out of the bag.

Zane lifted a forearm to shield his eyes from the sudden brightness. “Aw, Mom. Did you have to?”

Mrs Walker frowned at her only child. He had inherited her ex-husband’s athletic build but too much time indoors gave him an unhealthy pallor. Then her gaze dropped to his legs. “Oh, you’re bleeding!”

Zane lifted his elbow to inspect the scrape. “Nah, it’s not that bad.”

“No, your left leg!” She pointed. “You’ve hit your knee again.”

Bending forward, he saw a fresh blood stain in the gray track pant over his left kneecap. “I fell out of the cage.”

“That’s the second time this week. You could fracture a bone.”

“So what. It doesn’t hurt.”

She pursed her lips in disapproval. “Just wait here and I’ll clean it for you.”

Mrs Walker hurried back into the house and returned with a first aid kit. She attended to his elbow scrape first. Zane winced as she dabbed it with gauze and pressed on a Band Aid. Then she pulled up his left pant leg to reveal a broken scab oozing fresh blood. She picked off the old scab and scrubbed the raw wound to remove fibers from his track pant.

“You can’t feel this?” she asked hopefully.

Zane shrugged. “Nope.”

She pressed another Band Aid onto his knee and dropped down his pant leg. She stood up with the first aid kit and gestured at the Cyberpod. “I don’t like your obsession with this game.”

“But Doctor Preston told me to play Dread World.”

Mrs Walker locked eyes with her son. “Because he said VR stimulates your motor cortex function! It’s the only reason I let your father give you this equipment in the first place.”

“I’m doing what the doctor said,” he shot back.

“For goodness sakes Zane, look at how weak your legs are! How can you build up your strength if you spend all your spare time tinkering in here?”

“What else am I supposed to do?”

“Try getting out of the house!” she cried, exasperated. “Catch up with your friends—”

What friends?” he raged. “I was in hospital for four months and they all stopped seeing me.”

“Excuse me, but you weren’t exactly welcoming!”

“Do you know what one of them said?” Zane yelled, eyes blazing. “He couldn’t stand to be around crippled people!”

She grimaced. “Please don’t talk like that.”

“Well sorry to break it to you Mom, but that’s what people think.” He gestured wildly to encompass the entire world and sat back fuming.

“But Doctor Preston said the injury might not be permanent—”

“How can he say that when he doesn’t even know what’s wrong with me?” Zane yelled, brandishing both hands. “What if I lose feeling in my arms too, Mom? Do I sit in my wheelchair and talk to Vaxine like some kind of puppet …?”

Mrs Walker blinked. “Who is Vaxine?

Zane flinched at his mistake. “Just a girl I met on a tech site.”

“You don’t know her real name?”

“Aw, come on Mom. Everybody uses handles online.”

“Have you told her about your accident?”

“Why should I?” he retorted. “If people don’t know about that stuff, they talk to me like I’m normal.”

“How involved are you?”

“Jeez Mom!” he screeched. “We just met!

“Zane,” she said firmly. “You have to be careful online—”

“What do you know?” he spat. “Since Dad left, all you do is go to work or hide at home …” Too late, he realized the words had stung. He hung his head to avoid her wounded expression.

Mrs Walker bit back the tears. “You’re right. Hiding at home is something we both have in common …” She turned on her heel and tramped back into the house.

Zane scowled at her disappearing back. “You’re not the one stuck in a freakin’ wheelchair …”

Mrs Walker returned wearing a blue uniform and black shoes. “I’m filling in for a colleague at the hospital,” she said, pulling on her coat. “I left the baguette on the bench and—”

“I can look after myself.”

She took a breath. “Of course you can!”

She strode out of the room and Zane’s anger evaporated. He opened his mouth to apologize, but she had already slammed the front door. Then her car reversed out the driveway and motored down the street.

He sighed and wheeled up to the light switch. He flicked it up to restore the room to its customary gloom, and returned to his desk. The screen still displayed the Preston subfolder with columns of ‘rci’ system files.

“Remote checksum identifiers …” he muttered to himself. “Is that why my login failed …?” He counted the files and swore softly. “Thirty-two! Oh man! It will take me forever to check them out …”

He drummed his fingers on the desk as he considered his options. “I should call Vaxine back …”

He tapped the computer’s Camera icon. The small window activated and displayed a live image of his upper body—including the wheelchair’s backrest.

Zane frowned. Then grabbing the LCD monitor with both hands he tilted it back so the window displayed him from the shoulders up. “Yeah, that’ll work.”

He closed the Camera program and turning to his notebook, tapped the Voicelink button next to Vaxine’s name.

<<>> 


1.07 Spyware

 

 

 

A FURIOUS MEGAN tossed her tablet onto her bed. “Who are you calling a leetle girl?” She paced the room, clenching and unclenching her fists. “I’ve hacked heaps of sites without you Haxta, so I don’t need your help!”

Then spotting her reflection in the dresser mirror, she stopped to scrutinize her short slim body. Her purple cardigan hung limply off her narrow shoulders.

Puffing her chest out, she pulled down on her T-shirt to outline her small bust. “I bet boys would team up with me if I had big—”

Her tablet triple beeped.

Megan picked up the tablet and checked the screen. The Voicelink ID was a cracked monitor icon. She pursed her lips. Haxta had called her back. She went to toss the tablet again, but her hand wavered. Maybe he changed his mind …?

So she made another fateful decision and jabbed the Connect button. “Wassup Haxta?”

The icon quivered as the rogue hacker began talking in his gruff Russian accent. “I think about your problem. I have special program, to bypass iris scanner …”

Her mouth twitched at the prospect. “What program?”

It work like normal Email. You send message, and when person reply, Trojan recover biocode file.”

Megan cocked her head at the screen. “Are you sure …?”

<> 

Yakov frowned at her pill bottle icon. She wasn’t buying his story. He leaned forward and spoke in a hoarse whisper: “Is very secret. I get from friend in Russian Security Service. And because we friends, I give to you …”

A Russian hacking program!” she blurted, then added coolly. “Um okay, sure. I’ll check it out.”

Da, I send now,” Yakov said sweetly and emailed her the Spyware program.

Got it,” her pill bottle icon replied. “Thanks, bye.”

He disconnected and sneered, “Idiot.”

<> 

Haxta’s message appeared in Megan’s Webmail. The attached icon was labeled ‘Iris Identity Collector’ and had a zip feature.

Megan dragged the icon to her desktop and double-tapped. But instead of unzipping files, a shadow flickered. Puzzled, she repeated the action. Still nothing!

“It doesn’t even work!” she groaned and dragged the icon to the Trash. “Your program sucks!”

<> 

Yakov stared avidly at his notebook screen. “Yes Vaxine. Open program …”

Then a small window appeared with a prompt to connect to her IP address.

“Good girl,” he sniggered and clicked OK.

The window expanded with a live view of a desktop: icons, an open Hacksteria program and Megan Steinberg in the menu bar.

“Hah!” he chortled. “Now I control PC.”

Then his notebook speakers hissed as the connection became live.

It doesn’t even work,” her voice cried.

“No Vaxine,” he crowed. “It work perfectly.”

Your program sucks, Haxta!

Her computer triple beeped and the Hacksteria window flashed a domed robot icon. Another hacker was calling Vaxine via Voicelink.

Yakov snickered at the username. “Is Droid!”

<> 

Vaxine sighed at the caller’s icon. “What does the geek want?” She connected the call. “Wassup Droid?”

Hi um, I’ve been thinking about what you said and um, wanna work with you.

“Oh yeah?” she asked warily. “What’s with the back flip?”

He paused. “I’m kinda stuck. I can’t crack the Secnet, and I think your RCI idea might help …”

Megan smiled at his response. No boys had ever asked Vaxine for help before. “So tell me more about your exploits, Droid. What have you cracked so far?”

<> 

Zane shifted uncomfortably in his wheelchair. Admitting exploits to a total stranger was risky. But she didn’t sound old enough to be a Cybercop. He cleared his throat. “I um, only started hacking about six months ago—gaming sites, web pages, stuff like that. But after I joined the Hacksteria, I started on harder sites, like Freaking Arts to get free gaming credits. But the Secnet happened and stopped everything.”

I know,” she snorted. “VRIS Corp sucks!

“So now I’m playing around with VRML code and using my Cyberpod to—”

You have your own Cyberpod?

“Uh-huh. My dad bought me one a few months ago.”

My dad has one at home too. But I’m only a Guest.

“Do you shave your head?” he asked.

You have a problem with that too?

“Hey, I’m just asking if you’re a VR gamer …?”

Her pill bottle icon harrumphed. “Yeah, I play Dread World. But when you’re a girl with a shaven head, people like, assume you’re sick or something. It’s so annoying.

“I’m hanging out for the next version,” he enthused. “It will have multiplayer support, a force field option and giant spiders—”

Easy, champ. Tell me more about this fake user account—who are you targeting?

“A doctor’s computer in Brooklyn …” Zane winced, realizing he had just revealed his location.

She giggled at his error. “Relax Droid, I already figured out you live around New York. So why the doc?

Zane relaxed. “He’s got a Cyberpod in his office and has gone to England for a while. So um, I’ve been trying to crack it while he’s away.”

That means you’re a bit of a VRML whiz, huh?

Zane shrugged. “Not really. The code seems pretty straightforward. But I’m still getting to know the DLL functions. What about you—when did you start?”

<> 

“Oh, I’ve been hacking for years.” Megan bit her lip as the emotions flooded back. “But my first real exploit was when I trashed a school server in the sixth grade.”

Whoa, that’s extreme,” said his robot icon.

“Yeah well,” Megan grumped. “My teacher sabotaged my science project and made me look stupid in front of my class.”

A teacher did that?

“Uh-huh! She didn’t believe I wrote my own Java program. So she deleted a line of code in my computer when I wasn’t looking. And then when my robot arm didn’t work, she told everybody I cheated! And that my engineer parents did all the work …” Her breaths came in short sharp gasps. The injustice of it all was still infuriating. “So I hacked into the server and deleted all her files.”

<> 

“That’s a wicked first hack!” Zane murmured. “You must have been stoked.”

No, I got suspended. And that’s when I joined the Hacksteria.

“Wow!” He did the math. “You were only eleven?

Uh-huh. It was so cool. I got to hang out with the Mad Hatters crew of Webmeister, Crood, Sintax and Haxta. We hacked heaps of mainframes all over the world …” She paused to take a breath. “But since the Secnet, most of those guys have been busted. So I’ve been trying to crack that Jamming Bracelet server ever since …”

Zane nodded slowly at her pill bottle icon in his screen. His impression of Vaxine had just gone up a notch. Cracking the Secnet wasn’t for the glory of getting the Hacksteria hall renamed in her honor—it was to free her buddies who had been burned.

I can’t do much without root, so I need help too,” she continued softly. “And you seem to be the only hacker who’s interested …

Zane’s stomach lurched. A virtual team with her suddenly seemed like a pretty cool idea.

<> 

Megan cocked her head at his domed robot icon in her screen. “Hey Droid, I think we can work together.”

Did I pass some kind of test?

“Yeah, listening! I hate it when guys talk over me. Drives me nuts.” She checked the time: Sat 1:25 PM. “Hey, my parents will still be out for a while. Do you want to start now?”

<> 

Zane gulped. This is really happening. “Yeah, I’m good to go.”

So spill the beans, Droid. What’s your netsite?

“Zane Walker, East Flatbush, New York.”

And I’m Megan Steinberg of Westchester, California. I’ll call you back on the vid.

<> 

Megan disconnected the Voicelink call and smiled slyly. “Let’s see who you are Droid …”

She used her iris scanner to log into her Vmac and entered his details into her Address Book. She straightened her cap and fussed with her cardigan before clicking the Connect button.

<<>> 


1.08 Slave Labor

 

 

 

THE SPYWARE REPLAY ended on Yakov’s notebook and he sniggered. “Ah, now I know your names. Megan Steinberg and Zane Walk—”

He froze as tires crunched the icy ground outside. Then car doors slammed and heavy footsteps tramped towards the workshop.

That is boss!” Yakov croaked as he shut the notebook and jerked to his feet.

A key rattled in the lock and the heavy front door swung inwards. A burly red-faced man in a fur-lined coat strode in. He carried a brown paper bag and trailed a flurry of snowflakes and two heavyset bodyguards.

Yakov forced a smile to say hello. “Pryvit, Mister Zlotnyk.”

Igor Zlotnyk was an Odessa mobster who ran various businesses, including a lucrative gaming arcade near the main train station. The bodyguards shut the door and positioned themselves on either side of the doorway.

Zlotnyk grunted as he plopped the paper bag on the desk. “I bring you supper. Is borscht.”

Spasybo,” Yakov replied, warily nodding his thanks. Nightly suppers were usually delivered by Zlotnyk’s men, so this visit was unexpected.

Zlotnyk gestured at the domed cages. “You fix Gamepods?”

Yakov nodded. “Da, I fix this one. And tomorrow I start on other one.”

The mobster’s face pinched in disapproval. “I want both Gamepods ready tomorrow. I lose two thousand Hryvnia a day while these sit here.”

Yakov nodded again. “I can work all night to finish and …” He steeled himself for the response. “So you can pay me …”

The big man stiffened and slowly turned around. “Pay you …?

Yakov pointed at the maintenance logbook on his desk. “For all these repairs. I not leave workshop, since I move in.”

“Bah, because Gamepods are like women! Always with the software problems.” Zlotnyk draped a fatherly right arm over the youngster’s shoulder. “But I have you. You make problems go away.”

Yakov’s back stiffened. “Is not fair. You should still pay me.”

The two bodyguards exchanged wide-eyed looks. Nobody talked to the boss like that.

Zlotnyk’s right hand tightened on the boy’s collarbone. “Yakov, Yakov, Yakov,” he began as he guided the youth to the nearest cage with the Dread World dragon. “When I find you hacking my Gamepods for game credits, I not call police. I give you job, eh?”

Yakov nodded weakly. “Da but—”

“And when your mother leave with Shevchuk the Shiv, I take care of you, eh?”

An involuntary tremor coursed through Yakov’s body. He wished his mother had never got a job as a hostess in the mobster’s arcade restaurant; she never would have met the Mafiya gangster.

Zlotnyk continued. “I give you bed, roof over your head, and feed you from my restaurant …”

Yakov flinched at the outright lie. His meals were stale leftovers from the arcade’s snack bar. “But you promised, to pay me for every repair.”

The mobster spun the boy around and slammed him against the Gamepod cage. “I do pay you! With food and board!”

Yakov’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “You mean, I work for nothing?

NEMAYE! NO!” Zlotnyk jabbed the boy’s solar plexus with a stubby forefinger. “YOU … WORK … TO … LIVE!”

Oeuff,” Yakov wheezed as the last blow emptied his lungs and made him hunch over in agony.

The two bodyguards exchanged sneers.

Zlotnyk raised his right fist and his spreading coat lapels revealed the pearled handle of an automatic pistol. “YOU FIX GAMESTATION FOR ME! THAT IS YOUR LIFE NOW!”

Bud?laska, please …” Yakov cowered with his hands over his head. “Don’t hit me …”

Zlotnyk lowered his arm. “Stop crying like girl! These Gamepods must be moved tomorrow, to make room for another three. Capish?

Yakov groaned inwardly. Another three …

“Don’t disappoint me,” the mobster growled, and turned on his heel.

The bodyguards opened the heavy door and Zlotnyk tramped out. They gave Yakov a menacing glare before slamming the door and locking it.

Yakov scurried to the front window. He watched the huge black Mercedes purr away, fishtailing as the tires churned up mud and slush. “The devil takes back his gifts,” he muttered sullenly. “I am that pig’s slave!

His stomach rumbled and he shuffled back to the paper bag. He pulled out a large cup of cola, a packet of limp French fries, a plastic tub and a fork. He drank some cola and popped a few fries into his mouth. He grimaced as he chewed. The potato strips tasted like cardboard. He finished off the packet and washed them down with more cola. He removed the lid off the tub and sniffed at the gloop. It didn’t smell like borscht. He scooped up a piece of beetroot with the fork.

And the vegetable moved.

He held it up. The beetroot had a smooth shell with spindly legs—a cockroach!

“Argh!” he yelled and threw the tub across the workshop and splattered it against the wall.

Yakov turned to the broken wall near the kitchenette. “I can make hole bigger, escape this dump …”

But his shoulders drooped. “Where can I go, with ninety euros …?”

He shuffled over to the repaired Gamepod, pulled out the blue network cable and plugged it into the other faulty gaming machine. Checking inside the cage, he saw the harness was stuck at an angle. He thumbed the On button on the control panel, then pressed the Reset button.

The cage juddered. The motors hummed as they attempted to drive the harness to the Park position then switched off.

Yakov sighed in resignation. Another software glitch.

He slumped down in front of the Vmac. And with his long face miserable, he typed the instruction to access the faulty Gamepod’s operating system.

<<>> 


1.09 Access Granted

 

 

 

ZANE FUSSED WITH his computer while he waited for Megan’s call. He checked the monitor was tilted back to avoid revealing his wheelchair. And resized his Videophone window to the right side of his screen.

His computer chimed with the caller’s netsite address:

 

Secnet STTP:// California USA / Westchester / Nathan Steinberg Server / Megan Steinberg

 

“It’s really her!” Every Secnet user was identified by a physical location so she was definitely in California. He set his face into a cool, casual expression and clicked the Connect button.

A petite girl appeared in the Videophone. She had striking oval eyes, pale blue like a tropical sky and highlighted with dark eyeliner. A black cap covered her cropped scalp and she wore an oversized cardigan. In the background was a white bookshelf with electronic parts and programming manuals.

Zane blinked. Seeing her for the first time made his chest flutter. “Um, Megan …”

“Hi Zane.” She smiled, forming dimples in both cheeks as she appraised his image in her Videophone window. His screen was tilted up so it only displayed his face. But she was relieved to see he was a kid about her age, wearing a black bandana on his shaven gamer’s scalp.

“Are you, um …” His voice crackled with higher pitched tones. “Ready to start?”

“Anytime.”

“Um, um …” Zane’s mouth lost control again. The curve of her lips and a million other crazy thoughts were very distracting. She’s nothing like I thought she’d be.

Megan prompted, “You make me a remote user.”

“Yeah, um, give me a sec,” he muttered gruffly. Come on, dude. Stop being a doofus!

Zane put on his game face. He maximized a Remote User box to the left of screen and entered Megan’s name and netsite. “You can log in now!”

Megan resized her Videophone to the right. But with Zane watching her, she flushed and averted her eyes. Then shifting the cursor down to the row of program icons, her wobbling fingers accidentally clicked on the Email icon. “Oops.”

She pursed her lips to concentrate and managed to activate her Browser. She resized the window to the left of screen, and entered his netsite. The Browser connected with Zane’s computer and prompted her with a biocode request. She placed the iris scanner against her eye, the lens flickered …

And Zane’s desktop materialized inside her Browser. She returned the Vmac scanner to its cradle and declared, “I’m connected!”

“Cool,” Zane said and furrowed his brow. “I’ll show you what I’ve done.” He closed the Remote User box and switched to his Picture Viewer with the ‘prestoneye.jpg’. “First, I found the doctor’s face and cropped his eye …”

Megan studied the JPEG of a green iris flecked with blue and black spots. “Resolution looks good.”

“And then I changed this login module …” Zane switched to desktop view to reveal the Preston subfolder. Then opened the ‘hibsllib.dll’ file with his computer’s VRML Developer program. “It’s weird. The module will let me use a fake eye to log into my computer,” he explained. “But it doesn’t work with the hospital server.”

“Hang on a sec,” Megan said and leaned into her screen to examine each line of code:

 

<vrml>

<meta sttp-equiv = Virtual Reality Modelling Language v2.18>

<hIBSLLIBDLL Iris Biocode Scan Login DLL module>

<hIUNLLIBDLL Dr. Peter Preston>

{

<text = ‘Verifying iris password …’>

<exec_image = c:/ System/ Users/ Preston/ prestoneye.jpg>

<t = set (var_x, 500)>

<var_x =1; var_h = 8; var_w = 8>

<exec_scan = image; size (h,w)>

<var_x = x+1; h = h + 0.01; w = w – 0.01>

<if var_x < 6 then goto exec_scan>

<set_biocode = exec_Algorithm (get_scan)>

<if biocode_ver = 1 then set_access = 1>

<on error goto MessageBox = ‘Access Denied!’>

}

</vrml>

 

“Oh, I get it,” she murmured. “You animate the eye by changing its shape every half a second.”

Zane nodded. “Uh-huh.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “And this is the only DLL you changed?”

“Uh-huh.”

Megan smirked. “I know why you can’t log into the server.”

He waited impatient seconds for her to continue. “Come on, you’re killing me!”

She giggled at his reaction. “I’ll show you.”

Zane sat back and let her take control of his computer. He watched the cursor delve back into his Preston subfolder and open a file ‘hrcillib.dll’:

 

<vrml>

<meta sttp-equiv = Virtual Reality Modelling Language v2.18>

<hRCILLIBDLL Remote Checksum Identifier DLL module>

<hIUNLLIBDLL Dr. Peter Preston>

{

<exec_import (biocode) = Zane Walker; hibsllib.dll>

<exec_import (remote_netsite) = Zane Walker; hrnsllib.dll>

<set_RCI = exec_dataMerge (biocode; remote_netsite)>

}

</vrml>

 

“You have to change this module if you’re already logged into your computer,” she explained. “You don’t need to do another iris scan.”

“But the server prompts for a scan,” Zane protested.

“Yeah, it will for a new user. But not for registered users like your doctor.” She circled the cursor around ‘dataMerge’ function. “See, this module does a merge thing. If your doctor is already logged into your computer, you need to send the Remote Checksum Identifier to the hospital.”

Zane stared at her. “I didn’t know that.”

“I told you I needed access to your computer,” she added smugly. “Give me a sec and I’ll fix it.”

Megan’s fingers flew over her keyboard as she quickly altered the ‘Zane Walker’ references to ‘Dr. Peter Preston’.

Suh-weet …” Zane muttered in awe. This girl is doing my head in.

Her eyes sparkled at him. “We should check this out.”

He sat up. “Let me switch user first.” He closed the two DLL modules, logged himself out and then back in as the doctor.

In Megan’s Vmac screen, a new desktop materialized with ‘Dr. Peter Preston’ in the menu bar. “That’s so cool.”

Zane nodded at the compliment. He activated a Browser, selected History in the menu bar and reloaded the hospital’s VPN login page. He cocked an eyebrow at her. “It might not work, you know.”

“Just do it,” she breathed.

He grinned as he entered the doctor’s name.

And the two hackers observed a login box zoom out with the fake green iris.

But this time, a pattern of white dots began covering the eye.

Zane’s jaw dropped. “It is working!

Then two computer screens on opposite sides of the country displayed a new page:

 

BROOKLYN UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL

SSL VPN Infonet

Welcome back Dr. Peter Preston   Departments  Help  Sign Out

 

<<>> 


1.10 VRIS Corp

 

 

 

“WE DID IT!” Zane blurted at Megan’s image in his Videophone window.

“So I can do the same thing to VRIS Corp?” she gasped.

“Uh-huh. Do you have a target in the company?”

“Yeah. A friend of my dad’s. He’s one of their design engineers.”

“Cool. But you’ll need a photo of his face.”

“I know where to find one online.”

“Okay, give me a sec.” Zane logged the doctor out of the hospital and his computer, then switched to his genuine username. He tabbed a new Browser window for her. “Go for it!”

Megan entered the keywords ‘Richard Gredlich’ and ‘VRIS Corporation’ into the Search box. The Browser responded with a page of results and she selected the most recent title.

A Media Player maximized with a video panning across a large stage with a backdrop: International Congress of Brain-Computer Interface Technology. Then the camera focused on a woman in a dark suit standing at the podium. To her left were a stocky ruddy-faced man, an older man with thick black-framed spectacles, and a slim African American guy. The men had cropped scalps and wore charcoal suits monogrammed with the VRIS Corporation logo of a V overlapping a C. Behind them, a huge white screen displayed the company logo, names of the three speakers and a Cyberhelmet model.

The host said: “Our next speakers will briefly discuss some incredible new research. Please welcome: biomedical engineer Richard Gredlich, neuroscientist Seymour Morisset, and computer programmer Lorentz Basset.”

The host stepped aside and the hall filled with applause as the three men stepped up to the podium.

“Richard Gredlich is my dad’s friend!” Megan confirmed.

“Look for a close-up of his face,” Zane said.

Gredlich stood at the lectern and began speaking. “Nanoparticle Organic Field-Effect Transistors, and Virtual Reality Modeling Language, have led to the development of parallel processors that mimic the human brain’s synapse connections. These processors are at the heart of our brain-computer interface systems that permit users to control machines with virtual reality …

He paused while the screen flipped to a cutaway section revealing the helmet’s fine wire loops.

Cyberhelmet sensors conduct a continuous Electro-encephalogram or EEG of the user’s brain. Any cognitive state generates brain waves in the cerebral cortex, and these can be detected as microvolt signals of specific amplitudes and frequencies. The helmet software then amplifies and filters these signals, allowing a user to interact fully with a virtual world—by pushing buttons or typing on a keyboard. However, an unfortunate lag between expected and visual cues causes kinesthetic dissonance …

The audience buzzed in acknowledgement.

“That’s motion sickness,” Zane explained.

“I know,” Megan replied. “My mom hates it.”

The engineer continued: “The main cause for this unpleasant nausea is a lack of sensory feedback. Therefore to fully utilize virtual reality, the man-machine interface needed to evolve to another level …

On the screen, a new slide displayed the header: ‘Brainlink: Brain Reprogramming And Immersive Neural Link’. In the center was a gray scale Magnetic Resonance Image of a brain.

Mr Morisset discovered that when external stimulation is applied to the brain, the cerebral cortex reprograms itself to function as a translator, that can convert external signals into sensory input. This brain plasticity can be observed in this MRI scan …”

Gredlich switched on a laser pointer and circled a red dot over the rear part of the brain.

You can clearly see the formation of new synapse connections in the occipital lobe. In fact, these new circuits act like a slave computer to the Cyberhelmet computer, giving the user enhanced virtual vision, virtual hearing and even virtual touch …

Now a video rolled of a blindfolded man wearing a Cyberhelmet with a camera atop. The man walked into a kitchen, made a cup of coffee with boiling water, then sat down to watch television.

The audience rumbled in amazement.

The engineer continued in a droll tone: “The Brainlink Interface program is presently being beta tested, and if successful, it will give users the unprecedented realism of true Virtual Life mode …

The female host stepped forward and asked, “How do you maintain the cerebral connections?

Then the camera zoomed in on the engineer’s face. “I’ll let the system designer, Seymour Morisset explain—

Zane paused the video. “Hey, I can grab an eye from this.”

He quickly saved a screen shot of the Gredlich face to his desktop.

“Whoa,” Megan breathed. “Virtual vision and virtual touch …”

“I’d love to see that,” Zane laughed as he opened the saved image in a Picture Viewer. “That’ll make Dread World even more extreme.”

He cropped the engineer’s face to a right gray eye and saved the file as ‘gredlicheye.jpg’. Next he created a Gredlich subfolder and opened the scanner and checksum DLL files. The two hackers worked side by side to modify the code. Then Zane moved the subfolder into his Users folder, and authorized Richard Gredlich to be his computer’s third user.

He looked expectantly at Megan in his Videophone window. “Wanna try this now?”

She glanced at the time: Sat 1:55 PM. “Oh yeah, but we better be quick.”

“Okay, let me switch user.”

He logged himself out again, then back in as Richard Gredlich. He activated a Browser and—using the fake identity—navigated to VRIS Corp’s VPN page. He paused to smirk at Megan. “Now it’s your turn.”

“Yes please!” she beamed and entered the engineer’s name.

The login box zoomed out with the gray JPEG eye, began a biocode analysis …

And both hackers gawked at the result:

 

VRIS CORPORATION VPN

Welcome back Richard Gredlich   Divisions  Help  Sign Out

 

“We’re in!” Megan gasped.

“And that makes it official!” Zane crowed. “We’ve cracked the Secnet twice!

Her eyes narrowed. “Now let’s find that Jamming Bracelet server.”

She selected the Divisions button and scanned the menu options:

 

VRIS CORPORATION DIVISIONS

Administration  Consumer  Industrial  Secnet  R & D Projects

 

“Must be Secnet!” She tapped the button, but her face fell. “It’s not here!”

Zane suggested, “Check out R and D.”

She clicked back and displayed a list of Research and Development Projects:

 

> Project Armybot: VR controlled soldier drones

> Project Cyberarm: Compact Cyberpod

> Project Drive: Vehicle Drive Systems

> Project iSight: Virtual Life Vision

> Project Net Rider: Virtual Life Navigator

 

“Not here either,” she lamented.

“Hey!” Zane squinted at the last line. “What’s a Virtual Life Navigator?”

She shook her head. “Never heard of it.”

“Is your Mr Gredlich authorized?”

She grimaced. “I dunno. He only talked about virtual-vision.”

“Let’s check it out,” he said and tapped the button.

A login box overlaid the window with bold warning text:

 

PROJECT NET RIDER SERVER

This server is a classified site!

Authorized VRIS Corp and DCS personnel only!

Username …

 

The blood drained from Zane’s face. “It’s for the—”

“Department of Cyber Security!” Megan finished for him.

“Get out!” he gasped and lunging for the cabinet’s power cord, he pulled it out the wall.

His screen went black.

Zane put a hand over his thumping heart. “Oh man, that was close.” Then he turned to his notebook to call her back via Voicelink.

<> 

It was midnight in the cold Odessa workshop. And a morose Yakov was slouched at his desk, idly scrolling through Gamepod code.

His notebook triple beeped.

He lifted the lid and the screen lit up. It was his Spyware program relaying an incoming call to Megan’s Vaxine address. He raised an eyebrow at the caller’s handle. “Ah, is Droid again.”

<<>> 


1.11 Busted!

 

 

 

MEGAN CONNECTED THE Voicelink call in her tablet’s Hacksteria window.

That was no ordinary navigator!” blurted Zane’s domed robot icon.

She snorted her disgust. “I bet you a zillion dollars it’s some kind of spying tool.”

The two hackers paused for a few moments, then chorused, “Awesome!

Her eyes gleamed. “If we can download the navigator, it will help us find the server.”

But we don’t know the authorized users,” he protested.

“What about the other guys in the video? If it’s a Virtual Life program, maybe that scientist invented the navigator too?”

The robot icon groaned. “Yeah, but if I enter the wrong username, Cybercops will—

“Hang on a sec.” Megan cocked her head to listen to voices downstairs. “I better go. My parents have just come home.”

Okay. I’ll have a look around. See what I can find. Bye.

“Um, Zane!”

<> 

Zane stared at her pill bottle icon in his notebook. “Yeah?”

That was fun, working with you,” she said softly.

He smiled. “We make a pretty good team.”

Hey, if you find anything, call me back.”

“Sure.”

And if you don’t, call me back anyway …”

That comment made his heart do a somersault. “Uh-huh,” he managed.

Gotta go. Bye.

“Okay, bye.”

Zane disconnected the Voicelink and sat back, a warm glow filling his chest. “She is an awesome hacker …”He sighed as he recalled her lively eyes and the curve of her mouth. Finding more info on Net Rider will be a cool excuse to call her back.

He plugged the power cord back into the wall socket and pressed the computer’s power button. The three usernames appeared in the Login screen.

He frowned. “No point making another scientist a user, if I can’t protect my netsite …” He stared blankly, his mind sifting and sorting through options. “I can make one of the scientists another remote user … nah, that won’t help …” Then he sat bolt upright. “But I can set one up on the doctor’s computer!”

Zane clicked on his username and logged in with his iris scanner. He reloaded the conference video and began searching for the other two scientists’ faces.

<> 

The relayed conversation ended on Yakov’s notebook and he sat back, puzzled. “What is navigator, spying tool …?” He switched to the Hacksteria page and tapped the Voicelink button next to Vaxine’s name.

<> 

Megan bit her lip as a sly smile dimpled her cheeks. “Zane’s a really cool guy.”

Her tablet beeped in her hand.

She glanced expectantly at the screen. But seeing the cracked monitor icon, her face fell. “Oh, it’s Haxta.” She tossed the tablet onto her bed.

Then frantic footsteps dashed upstairs and a shrill voice shouted, “Megan!”

She jumped and turned to the doorway. It was her little brother. “You don’t have to shout, Todd!”

“Mom wants to talk to you!”

“Why?”

But he ran off.

“Little brat,” she sighed and trotted down stairs.

<> 

Yakov stared avidly at his notebook until his call timed out. “Bah! The leetle zadyraka ignore me.” He gestured rudely at her ‘Vaxine’ username in the screen. “But Spyware program will tell me everything.”

He turned back to his Vmac screen and resumed scrolling through the Gamepod code.

<> 

Megan’s parents were waiting in the foyer.

Angela Steinberg was a short slim woman, dressed casually in dark slacks and a long knitted top. She wore a cream cloche hat pulled down over her cropped scalp. Nathan Steinberg had the physique of a pro basketballer and wore a casual jacket and jeans. The baseball cap on his shaven head was embroidered with the ‘CRRI’ logo of the Californian Robotics Research Institute. Todd was being his usual hyperactive self, hopping from one foot to the other. While she had inherited her mom’s figure, Todd had gotten their dad’s genes. He was only nine but already as tall as her shoulder.

Then through the garage doorway, Megan caught a glimpse of the green LED on her dad’s screen. Oops, I left his computer on.

Mrs Steinberg looked up. Her eye sockets were puffy and the lines on her face were deeper than usual. Their giant robot project had been plagued with technical problems. And both parents had been clocking long hours in Cyberpods trying to fix the bugs.

“We have to take Todd to Crenshaw Mall to get him some new school shoes,” her mom said tiredly.

“They have to be costume made,” Todd said proudly.

“That’s custom, you idiot!”

“You’re the idiot,” her brother shouted back. Then his eagle eyes spotted the green LED on the screen. He darted into the garage and smacked the keyboard’s space bar to activate the screen. “Hey, Megan’s been playing Dread World.”

She stared daggers at him. “No I wasn’t!”

“Yes you were!” He pointed at the screen. “The Cyberpod is still on.”

She stomped into the garage. “It was just a virtual encyclopedia.” She grabbed his arm to usher him out.

He wriggled out of her grip and mimed slashing with a laserblade. “I want to kill dragons too.”

“The helmet doesn’t even fit you,” she retorted, and assisted him out the door with a shove in his back.

“Stop pushing! Mom!

The parents strode in to separate their squabbling children.

“Cut it out you two,” Mr Steinberg growled, picking up his son and holding him under his arm.

“But she pushed me!” Todd yelled in outrage.

“Want to see how a dragon kills!” Mr Steinberg declared and made horrible crunching sounds as he walked out to the car. Todd squirmed and giggled in delight.

“Nathan, you’re such a worry,” Mrs Steinberg chastised her husband with a smile.

Then glancing at the screen, she tapped the File menu and scrolled down to the Recent Applications function. She raised an eyebrow at her daughter. “Virtual encyclopedia, huh?”

Megan flinched. The drop-down list revealed the computer’s last applications: BrowserX and VRML Developer. I’m busted!

“So what’s this BrowserX program, hmm?” Mrs Steinberg asked. “Something to impress your Hacksteria friends?”

Megan gasped. “Are you spying on me?”

Her mom snorted. “Heavens, no! But we do pay the bills. What else would you be doing on the Internet for hours and hours—shopping for designer clothes?”

Megan lowered her eyes. “I was just playing around with some VRML code.”

“Why bother? The Secnet is impossible to hack.”

Megan bit her lip to hold back the smirk. Sorry Mom, you’re wrong.

“This isn’t funny! You know the penalties for cyber crime!”

Megan jerked her head up. “Yeah, you get a jamming bracelet for life but what do you care? You’re just a puppet who works for them!

Mrs Steinberg reeled at the venom behind the words.

Megan averted her eyes, cringing for the nuclear reaction. Then after a few seconds of silence, she looked up to see her mom with a pensive expression.

“Yes those bracelets are cruel,” Mrs Steinberg said quietly. “Fractal and Demon didn’t have to worry about them in their day.”

Megan blinked. Fractal and Demon?

Outside, a car horn blared.

“He’s so impatient,” her mom sighed. “If it wasn’t for me, the FBI would’ve arrested Demon a long time ago.”

Megan’s mouth did a fish impersonation.

“Honey …” Mrs Steinberg continued. “When Nathan and I started in the tech business, it was way before you were born. Yes, we work for a Government funded research institute now. But when we met in college, we cut our teeth on hacking the Internet. We resource mapped systems, breached government websites, created botnets—we did everything except trash mainframes and steal data.”

“Seriously?” her daughter blustered.

“So we get your need to hack. It’s in your DNA! Which is why we’ve ignored your Hacksteria activities.”

Megan was stunned. “You never said anything?”

Mrs Steinberg raised an eyebrow. “And take away your fun? Part of the thrill of hacking is being subversive, right …?”

Megan had no response.

Mrs Steinberg adopted a serious tone. “Look, hacking the Secnet might sound exciting but there won’t be a happy ending going down that road. Your dad and I had some close calls with the FBI. And when some guys we knew got sent to prison, we quit hacking for good. So please leave the Secnet alone. If Cybercops tag you with a jamming bracelet, there will be nothing we can do about it.”

The horn blared again.

Mrs Steinberg paused to appraise her daughter. “You know, I wish I was more like you when I was in middle school.”

Megan made a face. “Why? Everybody thinks I’m a freak.”

Mrs Steinberg straightened her daughter’s cap. “Oh, no. You are a clever, independent girl who is a brilliant programmer. How many girls in your school code in VRML, hmm?”

Megan lifted her shoulders. “So what, nobody cares.”

“Don’t worry about what they think. You are creating your own path, and believe me, that isn’t easy to do. Yes, you will make mistakes—like when you trashed your school server. But life is like a trial and error process. It’s how you learn about yourself. And the things that are important to you. Because you will always meet people who help you, and people who will hurt you. And the real trick is working out how to tell the difference …”

Megan arched her eyebrows. “Are you talking about boys?”

Mrs Steinberg gave her daughter an exasperated sigh. “Not just boys—”

Outside, Mr Steinberg leant on the horn.

“I better go!” Mrs Steinberg pecked her daughter on the forehead and dashed to the car.

“Bye Mom,” Megan mumbled as she closed the door. She pressed her thumb against the biometric sensor glass to engage the electric locks.

The mini LCD screen displayed the time: 2:15 p.m.

Megan walked back to the kitchen, shaking her head. “Mom? Dad? Hackers …

<<>> 


1.12 First Download

 

 

 

ZANE SAT BACK from the screen. He had located the other scientists in the conference video and created two new subfolders: ‘Morisset’ with a hazel eye, and ‘Basset’ with a dark brown eye. Now the VRIS Corp programmer was his computer’s fourth user.

He glanced at the menu bar clock: Sat 5.15 PM. He hadn’t eaten anything since lunch. “I’ll just check out my proxy idea,” he promised his growling stomach.

Zane logged himself out and switched to the Preston username. Then he navigated to the hospital server and logged into the doctor’s computer. The desktop displayed a standard menu bar and columns of files labeled with medical terms.

He opened the doctor’s Control Panel and activated the Remote User function. He carefully entered ‘Lorentz Basset’ and his own netsite into the fields. Then before the iris scanner could activate, he jabbed Ctrl-Alt-Del on his keyboard.

His computer reverted to its login screen.

He switched to the Basset user, activated a Browser and entered the doctor’s netsite.

An hourglass cursor rotated …

Zane held his breath.“This better work or I’m dead.”

Then the hospital Remote User box appeared followed by the fake dark brown eye. White dots scattered across the iris and the doctor’s desktop materialized.

Zane punched the air. “Yeah!” Doctor Preston had just authorized Lorentz Basset to use the hospital computer.

He clicked on the doctor’s Browser and—using the fake Basset identity—carefully navigated to the VRIS Corp VPN page. Seconds later, ‘Lorentz Basset’ logged into the company’s Virtual Private Network and opened the server page he had found with Megan:

 

PROJECT NET RIDER SERVER

This server is a classified site!

Authorized VRIS Corp and DCS personnel only!

Username …

 

He entered the programmer’s name to open a standard login box.

Zane grimaced at the screen. “If this doesn’t work, Doctor Preston is in big trouble …”

But the cracking programs did their job and logged ‘Lorentz Basset’ into the server:

 

PROJECT NET RIDER SERVER

Welcome back Lorentz Basset   Help  Sign Out

 

Zane chuckled in delight. “Megan will be rapt when she sees this!” Then his gaze dropped down to the available options.

 

> Seymour Morisset

> Lorentz Basset

> Cyberpod

> Deployment Server

 

His eyes narrowed on the last line and a shiver of excitement ran up Zane’s spine. “Does this mean …?” He tapped the option and generated a new page:

 

NET RIDER DEPLOYMENT SERVER

Database Manager          Download Launcher

 

Zane’s heart rate went ballistic at the download option. “They have a launcher … ”

But as he reached out for the button, his guts squirmed in protest. He had always been a meticulous hacker. It was the main reason he had never been caught. Downloading like this was crazy. He had no idea how the database functioned.

But what if the real Lorentz Basset saw the fake login and disconnected the network? I’ll never get another chance! Then he imagined telling Megan he had infiltrated the site, compared to actually showing her the Net Rider program. He looked up at the Browser’s menu bar with the doctor’s name and smirked. “I can always find another proxy computer.”

And oblivious to the traumatic outcome of his decision, Zane tapped the Download button.

A progress bar tracked the file transfer.

He checked inside the doctor’s Downloads folder. And saw a small shuttle icon labeled ‘Net Rider Launcher’. “I’ve got it!” he whispered hoarsely.

Zane dragged the icon out of his Browser window and into his desktop. He waited anxiously for another progress bar to conclude the copy transfer. Then he quickly deleted the Basset user from the doctor’s computer and logged out of the hospital.

Switching to his desktop view, he double-tapped the shuttle icon to expand its dialog box:

 

NET RIDER LAUNCHER

Virtual Life Navigator vb1.18

For Cyberpod Locomotion Harness

Username: Lorentz Basset

RUN                        CANCEL

 

Zane nodded slowly. The software only worked with his Basset username. If Megan wanted a copy, she needed the other scientist’s identity. He used a thumb drive to copy the Morisset subfolder to his notebook, and emailed it to her Vaxine account. Then he eagerly activated the Hacksteria Voicelink function. “This will knock her socks off.”

But the call to Vaxine timed out. “Oh man, she’s not there.” He turned to the Net Rider Launcher and groaned inwardly. He was starving but the program was begging to be tested. “I have to see if it works,” he pleaded to his grumbling stomach.

Zane stood up, retrieved his crutches and shuffled towards the domed cage. He climbed into his Cyberpod, shoved his bandana into his back pocket, and pulled on his helmet.

<> 

The Cyberpod’s workspace appeared followed by a row of application windows: Desktop, Browser, Videophone, Email, Picture Viewer, VRML Developer, Dread World and … Net Rider Launcher!

He examined the dialog box. It had no pull-down menus, or even a Help function. Just the two buttons Run and Cancel. “Must be Run …” he murmured and pressed the button with a silvery virtual-finger.

A soft female voice announced: “Initiating Brainlink Interface …”

Zane gasped as his vision suddenly corkscrewed. Electric arcs erupted in his brain and coursed down his spine. His convulsing back muscles shook his body in the harness. The whirling colors intensified, becoming a brilliant white light that burned behind his eyes. He grabbed his head, terrified his brains would burst out of his skull—

Then the light disappeared and the voice stated: “Virtual Life mode activated, Lorentz Basset.”

<> 

Megan didn’t hear the single ping of her tablet receiving an email. She was in the lounge eating a sandwich while watching a program on the NetTV. She also missed the triple beep of an incoming Voicelink call.

<> 

But her pinging notebook did interrupt Yakov Petrovich.

Bleary eyed, he dragged his eyes away from the VRML code and focused on the smaller screen. Megan’s Vaxine account had received a new message with an attachment labeled ‘Morisset’. It was from Droid!

Then he observed a Voicelink call from Droid time out. Excellent! Megan was away from her computer.

Yakov used his Spyware access to forward her email to his own account, and delete the record in her Sent box. He opened the message and read it aloud: “This is to download, your own Net Rider program …”

The puzzled hacker grabbed a thumb drive and transferred the Morisset folder to his Vmac. Opening the folder revealed columns of Dynamic Link Library files.

Yakov’s eyes flew open. “These are DLL modules for Secnet login!”

<<>> 


1.13 Virtual Life

 

 

 

ZANE’S VISION WENT in and out of focus, then sharpened into a giant computer workspace with huge application windows.

“Oh man, the helmet lasers are faulty.” He closed his eyes and gaped in astonishment. The lasers weren’t even on! “I’m seeing with virtual vision …”

Then he noticed his arms were rendered in a natural skin tone instead of the usual metallic sheen. And glancing down, he had a virtual body that tapered into a stubby tail. He shook his head in silent wonder. The Net Rider program had upgraded his user interface into some kind of avatar.

Zane punched out with his left fist.

His avatar soared past the windows.

He opened his left hand and slowed abruptly. “It’s just like a sim!” he laughed.

Looking up, he realized his application windows formed one side of a giant glass cube. “Hey, I’m inside my computer …” His gaze tracked along to a liquid disk in the center of the cube’s ceiling. “That’s my network port …”

Outside the workspace, he spotted another three similar cubes. Each represented a networked device in his house: the Vphone in the kitchen, his mom’s Vbook in her room, and the wall mounted NetTV in the lounge. The cubes had liquid disks in their ceilings. Fluorescent tubes rose up from the disks and connected to the circumference of an overhead sphere. “And that’s the house Vhub server …”

The server sphere was transparent and had a bright red pyramid atop. From the pyramid’s apex, a fluorescent tube rose up into the dark void of cyberspace. It was the fiber optic cable connecting his house server to the nearest netport.

Looking out, he saw hundreds of similar netport tubes and server networks. Lightning flashed inside them, indicating data traffic zinging back and forth. The tubes all converged on a distant orb twinkling like a golden balloon in the sky. It was the East Flatbush Secondary Netport—the router responsible for all his neighborhood’s Secnet communications.

Looking down, Zane marveled at the tangled web of brightly cultured lines extending out to the false horizon. They were infrastructure devices that had been ported over from the old Internet—traffic cameras, power circuit breakers and water solenoids.

Then turning around, he was stunned by an enormous viewscreen opposite the desktop windows. It displayed a black desk below and part of a domed cage in a dimly lit background. He waved and saw a body in the cage mirror the action. “That’s me!”

That’s me!” his voice echoed in the room.

Zane chuckled. The echo was his avatar’s virtual voice booming out the computer’s speakers.

He turned back to the application windows. The launcher had created a Net Rider program with a simple menu bar:

 

NET RIDER v b1.18 [Lorentz Basset]             Exit

 

Then he spotted a translucent craft in the center of the window. “Whoa!

He punched out with his left fist. Then as his outstretched hand touched the program, the window expanded and enveloped him in a cylinder.

He cautiously approached the now three-dimensional craft. It had a long nose, an open cockpit and twin stubby wings that swept back into a streamlined tail. Along each wing edge was the VRIS Corp logo and the model name: Netbike. The entire surface shimmered like jellyfish skin.

Zane brushed the wing. His fingertips prickled with sensation. He pushed down. But his arm muscles refused to respond. As if the craft was real! “Virtual touch,” he breathed.

Inside the cockpit were handlebars on an airplane-style yoke. And a concave seat to accommodate an avatar’s tail. He grabbed the cockpit rim with both hands, vaulted inside—

And gasped as an electric tingle coursed up and down his legs. He hadn’t felt anything below his waist for over a year.

A canopy engaged overhead, enclosing him like a fighter jet’s cockpit. Then a small screen between the handgrips lit up with his username ‘Lorentz Basset’.

He tapped the screen.

A synthesized female voice declared: “Please state your target netsite.”

“Ah, voice control. Do you um, take me to a destination …?”

No response.

He felt along the sides of the screen, the steering yoke and the dashboard, searching for a Help function. Nothing!

“A target netsite …” he muttered to himself. Then a smile tugged the corner of his mouth. “I know a good one!” He tapped the screen again.

Please state your target netsite.”

He cleared his throat. “Target netsite is Megan Steinberg, Westchester, California.”

The Navigation screen displayed her address and the voice declared: “Target acquired. Netbike ready.”

He settled into the seat and wrapped his fingers around the handgrips. He could actually feel a lumpy rubbery texture. He twisted the right handgrip slightly.

The netbike thrummed forward.

Zane leaned with the craft as it motored out of the Net Rider program and into his workspace. Behind him, the cylinder collapsed into a flat Net Rider window. Glancing at the viewscreen, he saw his real body crouching in the cage like a motorcycle racer.

The steering yoke tilted towards his chest. Cyberpod motors whined as the harness orientated him onto his back. And the netbike soared up towards the liquid disk in the ceiling.

Zane tensed. “Uh-oh.”

But the streamlined craft simply rippled through the disk and cruised up a network tube. It passed through another portal and entered his Vhub server.

The sphere had a desktop and viewscreen pair in the center. Four gateways were spaced around the perimeter, each displaying a camera view: the game room from his Cyberpod, the kitchen from the Vphone, his mom’s bedroom from her Vbook, and the lounge from the NetTV. Network tubes emerged from the gateways and dropped down to the workspace cubes below.

Then a stream of white data capsules startled Zane. They zigzagged through the server, entered his mom’s gateway and shot through to her workspace cube. A distant chime echoed in the house. He chuckled. “Mom just got an email.”

The netbike floated up into the open base of the red pyramid he had noticed earlier. Its walls merged into a liquid disk—the server’s Input/Output portal to the Secnet.

“Must be the firewall,” he murmured, then glancing across, he recoiled in horror.

Suspended on each wall was a glossy red creature. Each had a spherical head with two bulbous black eyes, a ruby-red jewel in its forehead, and an X-shaped jaw. The bodies were lobster-like with a red carapace, tapering into a segmented tail with twin fins at the end. And crossing over their torsos were articulated arms with curved grappling claws.

“Virus-killing sentries,” Zane croaked and waved his left hand.

But the ominous faces remained impassive.

“They can’t see me,” he breathed in relief.

The netbike exited the portal and entered the right side of a fluorescent netport tube. Another group of data packets zinged past him.

“Can’t this thing go any faster?” he grumbled, and spun the throttle all the way.

<<>> 


1.14 Net Rider

 

 

 

CYBERSPACE BLURRED AS Zane rocketed up the tube. His outstretched arms quivered at the wild buffeting. And a screaming banshee roar filled his ears. The illusion of speed was so real, he felt his eyeballs retracting into his skull.

The end of the tube came up fast.

The net rider gritted his teeth—

But the craft shot through the liquid gateway and entered the East Flatbush Secondary Netport.

The globe was formed from thousands of curved gateways of all different sizes. Each window was labeled with the name of its connected server and organized in alphabetical order. They flickered with Secnet traffic—images, data and sound being transmitted to and from the servers below. White data capsules streamed between the liquid disk and the gateways like electronic ants. The background noise was as raucous as a rock concert.

His netbike swooped past a desktop and viewscreen pair in the center—

And up into a portal teeming with data packets.

The craft merged with white data packets heading up the right side of a long netport pipe. On the left, more data streamed down in the opposite direction. The two-way traffic looked like a futuristic freeway.

Looking out, Zane saw more pipes rising up from other netport routers. They were all converging to a massive globe …

The New York Primary Netport.

He gawked in amazement. It looked like a monstrous mother ship. Hundreds of umbilical-like cords drooped down to all the neighborhood netports below. Atop the globe was a circular hub. Thick fiber optic pipes extended out from the hub and disappeared into cyberspace. They connected New York to other states and the world.

The netbike burst into the router’s cavernous space.

The primary netport had four desktop/viewscreen pairs and a cluster of four portals overhead. Huge gateways lined the interior in alphabetical order, each labeled with a secondary netport name. But the windows were formed from thousands of mini windowpanes displaying the data traffic for every connected server. Billions of data packets streamed back and forth between the overhead portal and the gateways.

The intense multi-colored images—and the roar of millions of conversations—overwhelmed Zane’s mind. He shut his eyes.

But it didn’t make any difference. The Virtual Life software injected data directly into his brain. Bile shot up into his throat. His head felt like it was in a microwave and about to explode—

Then his netbike soared up into a portal, jerked horizontal—

<> 

Inside the Cyberpod, the harness pitched Zane’s body forward.

<> 

And the netbike exited the hub.

Zane swallowed the foul liquid as he roared down a pipe. Glancing back, he saw the East Coast Secnet network diminishing rapidly.

A group of white capsules jostled his netbike. They contained video fragments of a lady’s videophone call. His eyes bulged. She was in her underwear.

He headed towards another gigantic globe. Below it was a glittering network of orbs and silver threads. He spotted ‘Pennsylvania’ as he veered into the hub—

Another violent jolt and he exited down a netport pipe. He swerved straight through the Midwest hubs of Illinois and Missouri, followed by Colorado and Utah …

Then the west coast loomed up on the horizon like a galactic star system.

Cold sweat beaded under his helmet.

He was heading towards a trio of primary netports, floating above hundreds of secondary routers and millions of servers. The two on the right were huge. But the one on the left was gigantic. Interconnecting their hubs were thick bundles of pipes. And spreading out below was a dense neon carpet of colorful workspaces. His netbike raced towards the biggest globe.

Zane didn’t even have time to scream.

And he hit the California Primary Netport hub like a missile.

His netbike arrowed down into virtual space. He cringed at another intense barrage of color and noise, before veering into the Westchester gateway. He raced down a long pipe to the Westchester netport and—after a series of sickening harness changes—came to a shuddering halt.

Target Megan Steinberg, infiltrated,” his netbike’s female voice reported.

Zane remained hunched in the riding position, breathing deeply to settle his spinning mind. “What a rush …”

He slowly sat up and checked out the workspace. It was a transparent cube with a desktop on one side, and a viewscreen on the other. The viewscreen displayed a white bookshelf in the background with programming manuals. “This is Megan’s bedroom!”

But she wasn’t there. He peered up at the other cubes floating in nearby virtual space. “Where are you?”

Zane motored straight up through the network port, along the tube and entered the Steinberg house server. Seven gateways were spaced around the sphere. Each was labeled with names of family members, a Vphone, a NetTV and a Cyberpod. But none of the gateways revealed any movement.

“Cyberpod,” he decided and gunned his netbike down into the workspace. But the viewscreen displayed an empty garage. “She’s not here either.”

Then turning to the desktop window, Zane checked the four usernames in the login screen. Megan Steinberg was a ‘Guest’ and the only Administrator was her dad. “Oh man, she can’t use a netbike anyway … unless …”

Zane punched overhead. He emerged from his craft and soared up to the menu bar. A couple of taps, and he managed to open the Control panel and activate the User Accounts function.

Suh-weet!” he laughed. “I can set her up …”

<> 

Having finished her dinner, Megan placed her plate in the dishwasher and trotted back upstairs to her room. Checking her tablet, she noticed a missed call and a new email with a ‘Morisset’ attachment. She read the message: “This is to download your own Net Rider program …”

“Has Zane cracked it already?” she gasped and jabbed the Voicelink function to call him back.

<> 

Zane dove into his netbike and returned to the server sphere. Then spotting movement in Megan’s gateway, he gunned his netbike back into her workspace.

He parked under the viewscreen. It displayed part of Megan’s head and right shoulder. She was obviously sitting at her desk, on the Vmac’s left. His gaze lingered on the curve of her ear and soft skin of her neck until he averted his eyes. I shouldn’t be watching her like this.

He heard a Hacksteria triple beep. Zane tensed. Another hacker was calling her via Voicelink.

The triple beep continued.

“Why isn’t she answering?” he muttered gruffly. Then hearing the tones again, he stifled a chuckle. The sound was coming from his own notebook. “She’s calling me!

Zane launched out of his netbike and shouted at the viewscreen: “Hey Megan!”

<> 

Yakov nodded slowly as he studied the DLL code on his Vmac screen. “Ah, Zane Walker change input subroutine, to accept animated image of eye.” He sniffed. “If I have more time, I find this security hole.”

His notebook triple beeped. Vaxine’s Spyware program had been activated again. Then a tinny voice crackled, “Hey Megan!

<> 

“Hey Megan!” a voice echoed in her room.

Megan jumped up from her desk and yelled at the doorway: “Is that you Todd?”

“No, look in your Vmac!” the voice said behind her.

She whirled towards the virtual figure in the LCD screen. “Who are you?”

The avatar gestured with both hands. “You told me to call you back.”

Zane?” She put down the tablet and frowned. “Why are you an avatar?

He gestured with both hands. “It’s the Net Rider—”

“You’re using the software?” she squealed.

“It’s totally awesome! You get virtual vision. And there’s this incredible netbike navigator, that you kind of net ride across the Secnet. But you need a Cyberpod to use it. So you have to download a copy to your dad’s computer …” His voice trailed off as he ran out of air.

“I can’t load any software on his—”

“But I can! Just transfer the folder I sent to your Vaxine address. But we have to log into VRIS Corp now. Before they find out they’ve been hacked and disconnect their server! I’ll see you in your dad’s computer.”

“In his computer?”

“I’m in yours aren’t I?” He laughed. “Come on, hurry up.” The avatar flew off screen.

Megan picked up her tablet, disconnected the Voicelink call and switched to Webmail. She transferred the Morisset subfolder to her thumb drive and dashed down to the garage.

<> 

The Spyware conversation ended on Yakov’s notebook. “They find netbike navigator … to infiltrate Secnet,” he whispered hoarsely. “And to download, I must log into VRIS Corp before company shut off server!”

He whirled to his Vmac and began setting up the fake ‘Seymour Morisset’ user account.

<<>> 

 

END OF SAMPLE

 

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