Joshua Clark

Colin Roderick almost looked over his own shoulder as he watched the blue figure on the upper screen of his handheld PDD, or Personal Digital Device. He was sitting on a park bench several feet from the large water fountain. The sun was blazing; birds chipping and chirping; gentle breezes brushed at the tree branches; a perfect day. On his small screen however, it was a different world, literally and figuratively.

Colin’s FAIDA, Full Artificially Intelligent Digital Assistant, was walking down a ‘cyber alley’; a broken down, barely functional section of the Virtunet. Pathways were broken; numerous links severed; bugs and viruses crawled and gnawed on the remaining virtual circuitry; and, worst of all, renegade FAIDAs. MavDAs everyone called them, but a virus by any other name…

“Remind me, why exactly are we here?” Colin’s FAIDA, Cel, asked. Colin mind clicked back into focus.

“Uh, because, there’s a dangerous MavDA reported to have been here,” Colin replied.

“So, I ask again, why exactly are we here?” Cel said stepping over a particularly large group of computer worms. “I hope the micron-defense shields are up.”

“Yes, as is your remote firewall,” Colin reassured. Cel could be so paranoid about germs.

“So why are we trying to catch this dangerous MavDA?” Cel asked.

“Because, he has a large bounty on him.”

“But you’re too young to bounty hunt,” Cel objected.

“Yeah, but we need money,” Colin replied. He had his eye on a few weapon upgrades for Cel, but Mom and Dad barely made enough to make a circuit complete. Colin thought that if he made some easy money on the side, he could buy some of his own things which would in turn, help the family finances. The only problem was explaining how he came into possession of the money.

“So, what’s his name?” Cel asked.

“Hack Coustom.” Colin replied.

“What does he look like?”

“Like zees monsieur,” a voice behind Cel said. Cel turned and Colin could see a black armored FAIDA standing before them. “I preezume you are looking for me?”

“Y-you presume correctly,” Cel replied backing up.

“Well, zince you are looking for zee bounty on my head, I will have to deal with you accordingly.” Two scrambler guns materialized on Hack’s arms.

“Cel, battle mode!” Colin commanded. A pair of light-swords appeared on Cel’s arms and he quickly charged the MavDA, slashing his swords. Hack leaped back and fired a scrambler shot at Cel. It made contact, freezing Cel in his tracks. Colin quickly stabilized him and increased power to the cohesion matrix. “Cel, your reaction centers are damaged; I’m going to initiate the mental control interface.”

“Got it.” Colin pressed a button and closed his eyes. After a few seconds, he could see the Virtunet all around him. “Mental link established, reaction centers at 100%,” Cel said. Suddenly a blow stuck them and they toppled to the ground. Colin rolled backward and sprang to his feet. He ran around a corner trying to get the jump on Hack; the narrow bandwidth of the cyber slums was small so the crisscrossing pathways created a hatchwork maze that was easy to get lost in. Hack apparently anticipated this and almost met them on the other side. Colin dropped a small bomb as he dashed around another corner.

“Zere is no escape for you!” Hack shouted firing a barrage of blasts after them. Then Colin heard an explosion. As he turned another corner he found that the pathway had been ruptured. He turned and ran the other way but another explosion ruptured the pathway in front of him. Colin turned and dashed to the left where Hack stood laughing. Then he brought an axe shaped device down and blew up a line of pathways. Colin immediately ran for the only open side. Hack stood ahead of him, axe raised. Colin threw his sword ahead and shot forward. Just before he reached Hack, the axe came down. Colin was thrown backwards. His head snapped up and he blinked in the bright sunlight. The link had been broken. He looked down at Cel, who was lying on the ground.

“Cel, you ok?” Cel moaned and the screen flickered and blurred as he struggled to his feet.

“Can’t…process…power…cut off…” he gasped. Colin quickly hit the ‘return’ button. Nothing happened. The words: ‘insufficient data link’ flashed on the screen.

“I can’t get you out,” Colin said. “There’s only a few shreds connected to the rest of the pathways; but none of them are big enough to transfer you through.”

“Did…you try…ultra…compressed format?” Cel asked. From the intermittent data link, Colin could tell that the power drain was steadily increasing. The threads wouldn’t hold up for long and when they snapped…Cel would suffocate instantly. Then an idea struck.

“Cel, I’m going to deconstruct you and compress you into text code, and then you should fit through the threads.”

“But…” Cel began.

“I know it’s risky, but I have to get you out of there,” Colin said. “Are you ready?”

“As…I’ll… ever be.” Colin immediately began the process. After several seconds, Cel disappeared from the screen as his data began to stream into Colin’s PDD. He watched as the countdown began. 5% complete…14%…25%…32%…40%…50%…51%…51% Colin sucked in his breath. 51%…70%…81%…98%…100%. Colin sighed in relief. Now he just had to find Terra.

Terra Byet was Colin’s best friend and neighbor. Her FAIDA, Megan, was a specially designed recovery program designed by her mother who had a similar, more advanced version. Terra’s father was a privately employed secret agent, so his FAIDA often took great abuse. Colin figured she would be able reconstruct Cel from the data code. At least…he hoped she could.

Colin pressed the doorbell next to the large oak door. A few seconds later it was opened by Terra.

“Colin, hi,” she gestured for him to come in. “What’s wrong?”

“Your room,” Colin said heading down the hall. Inside Terra’s room, Colin sat down at her computer and plugged in his PDD.

“Ok, what’s going on?” Terra asked coming over.

“We have to hurry,” Colin said. “I don’t know how long he can stay like this.”

“Like what?”

“Cel, I deconstructed him and compressed him into a text data file.”

“You, what?” Terra exclaimed. “Why did you do that?”

“It’s a long story, but can you help?” Colin asked hopefully. Terra frowned.

“Mom would be your best chance of recovering him,” she replied.

“Yeah, but I’d rather not get parents involved at the moment,” Colin said. “I’ll explain later.” Terra sighed and nudged him off her chair.

“Megan, transfer to repair room 2 and prepare for a level 5 text data reconstruction,” she said plugging her PDD into the computer.

“Text data?” Megan asked.

“Yes,” Terra said.

“All right, on my way,” Megan replied. A few seconds later Megan, a pink and white clad nurse, materialized on the screen next to a flat bed.

“Ok, I’m transferring the data packet,” Terra said. Her fingers flew across the keyboard and small box appeared on the table. “All right,” Terra said turning to Colin. “What happened?” Colin quickly explained what had happened in the cyber slums.

“So I figured since text travels a hundred time faster and is smaller, I could transfer him out that way,” Colin concluded. Terra shook her head.

“I can’t believe you actually did that,” she said. “Hack Coustom is one of the most dangerous MavDAs out there.”

“I thought I could get some easy money,” Colin replied sheepishly.

“Get a job.”

“But a job’s hard,” Colin protested.

“And this isn’t?” Terra asked. “I’ve never done a level 5 data conversion; much less a text based one.” Colin sighed. Maybe she was right. Maybe he had gone a little overboard; he just hadn’t figured bounty hunting to be so hard.

“Data conversion complete, finally,” Megan interrupted Colin’s thoughts. “Ready for reconstruction.”

“Good job,” Terra said flexing her fingers. “Now let’s do this.” Her fingers blurred across the keyboard as she began to piece Cel together, code by code, bit by bit.

Half an hour later, Terra and Megan finally had Cel looking like his old self. The only problem was, he wasn’t moving.

“All right,” Terra said, “try the reactivation sequence again.” After a long pause, Cel opened his eyes and sat up.

“Cel? Cel, you ok?” Colin asked.

“I…I think so,” Cel replied. He looked at Megan. “No offense, but I feel like a Frankenstein Picasso put together by a bunch of sleeping chimpanzees.”

“Don’t worry,” Terra reassured him. “It’ll take a few defragmentations for your data processor to sort themselves out.”

“Great,” Cel said.

It took several apologies, two manual defragmentations, and a complete system refresh before Cel would completely forgive Colin. Then he tried to convince Colin to get a job; he was as anxious about new upgrades as Colin was. But Colin was still wary about a job; everyone he knew who had a job worked long hard hours for little pay. Twenty dollars an hour was tops for starting wages at most of the businesses in town. Some of the upgrades Colin had looked at would take at least three weeks’ pay. Colin finally gave however and agreed to check out some of the stores that were hiring for the summer. He found one at the electronics store, Chips n Bits. It was a small store and carried a limited selection of upgrade cards; but it also received some of the more rare ones. First day on the job and Colin was relegated to unpacking boxes, sweeping the floor, organizing and dusting the shelves. Not a glamorous position.

“How did you talk me into this?” Colin asked Cel as he hefted a heavy cardboard box. It was his second week on the job. Monotony had begun to set in and he still didn’t have half the money for the upgrade he wanted.

“Hey, you’re the one who wanted those upgrades,” Cel said from within Colin’s pocket. Colin set the box on a shelf and wiped his forehead. The stockroom needed AC. Suddenly the light flickered.

“What was that?” Colin asked whipping his head around.

“What was what?”

“The lights just flickered,” Colin replied.

“I’m checking the power level logs,” Cel said. “I’m seeing a power fluctuation within the last five minutes.” The lights flickered again.

“We should go tell the manager,” Colin started toward the front of the stock room. Then the lights went out.

“Power levels just dropped to zero,” Cel reported.

“Really? I didn’t notice,” Colin said sarcastically. The room was black as tar. He pulled his PDD out of his pocket and flipped it open.

“Wow, it is dark, switching to night vision mode.” The top screen then displayed a dark, green visual of the room. Using it to navigate, Colin stumbled toward the door. “What are you doing?” Cel asked. “The door is on an electric lock; it won’t open.”

“So now what?” Colin asked. “We’re stuck here?”

“No, there should be an emergency backup power supply by the fuse controls; it should allow us to enter the Virtunet and correct the problem,” Cel said.

“Where’s the fuse controls?” Colin asked.

“Go forward ten paces, then right fifteen and it should be around the corner,” Cel directed. Colin followed his directions and finally arrived at the box. Colin turned the latch and pulled the heavy metal door open. Inside the cabinet were a number of switches as well as a port to plug in a PDD.

“None of the switches are flipped,” Colin said, confused.

“The controls have limited access, plug me in and I’ll see what the trouble is,” Cel instructed. Colin obeyed. Soon the PDD’s upper switched to a view of the Virtunet.

“Do you see anything?” Colin asked.

“Yeah, some of the pathways and power relays are severed,” Cel said.

“Power surge?” Colin suggested.

“No, they’ve been hacked,” Cel said.

“I was afraid you’d say that. Do you see him?” Colin asked. Cel turned in a slow circle. Colin could see the severed pathways; there were several of them everywhere.

“Wait, I’m detecting something…” Cel opened his wrist scanner. “Sentient data signature bearing column 62, section 22dx.”

“Ok let’s go,”

“Right,” Cel said. “Unplug as soon as I’m back.”

“No, I meant go find him,” Colin said. Cel turned and looked at him. “Well, what are we supposed to do?” Colin asked. “You said the power pathways were severed, we can’t escape.”

“But if Hack has cut off most of the electric relays,” Cel began, “he could only have done so for one reason: his operator is attempting to break into the store.” Colin’s head snapped up. If that was true, then his target was probably the new shipment of upgrade cards. Suddenly the lower screen flashed; someone was attempting to call him. Colin pressed the ‘text only’ button.

“What’s going on?” the store owner typed. “Colin, where are you?” Colin quickly relayed their situation and suspicions. He also advised the owner to alert the police and the netcops. Then Colin heard a muffled banging toward the front of the stock room. “You need to get out of there,” the owner typed. “Go and lock yourself in my office.”

“No, I think I know how to stop them,” Colin messaged back. Cel looked at him.

“You do?”

“Yes. Cel, can you lay down a patch on one of those pathways so we can have lights?”

“Yeah, but the damage is pretty extensive; I’ll have to lay down a couple if you want to be able to see anything,” Cel said.

“Get on it,” Colin said. “I’ll try and find Hack’s operator.” Cel looked at him dubiously. “It’s all right, we’ll both be navigating in the dark. Cel sighed and Colin unplugged his PDD, leaving a remote transmitter in the socket in case of an emergency. Using the night-vision camera, he slowly began navigating the aisles of boxes. At the opposite end of the warehouse, Colin turned a corner and quickly jumped back. Cautiously, he peaked around the corner. A man was kneeling in front of an open box of upgrade cards, apparently sorting through them. He was wearing night-vision goggles. Perfect. As soon as Cel got the lights up and running the man would be blinded, completely helpless.

Colin watched as the man pushed the box back on the shelf and stood up. He began walking toward Colin’s position. He pressed himself against the shelves as hard as he could. The footsteps drew closer. Colin’s heart jumped into his ears. The man turned the corner and Colin lunged. With a cry of unexpected surprise, the man toppled to the ground. He turned and pulled out a gun, pointing it at Colin.

“What? Who are you?” Before Colin could answer, the lights flashed on. Colin was momentarily blinded himself after navigating in complete darkness. But the man fared far worse; he dropped the gun and clutched the goggles in pain, trying to bury his head in the floor. Colin put him out of his misery with a solid whack to the head from a large broom. Suddenly the door to the shop burst open and the owner along with several police officers ran in.

“What’s all this now?” the owner asked, surprise evident on his face. Colin plucked the box of upgrade cards from the man’s pocket.

“I don’t think he intended on paying for these, so here,” Colin handed the box the owner.

“Aye, these are the new Feint Recovery cards that go on sale tomorrow,” the owner said. “People have been pre-ordering them for weeks.”

“Well done kid,” one police officer said. “But remember, don’t ever try that again; you may not be so lucky next time.” Colin nodded. He almost hadn’t been as lucky this time. After the police had taken the man away and Cel was safely back in Colin’s PDD, the store owner turned to him.

“Well, you’ve earned your pay for the week; I would’ve lost a lot of business without those cards,” the owner said soberly. Then he brightened. “So why don’t you take the rest of the day off and don’t come back until Saturday.” Colin looked at him.

“But it’s Sunday.”

“I’m feeling very generous today,” the owner said with a twinkle in his eye. Colin rolled his eyes and headed for the door. “Colin,” the owner called back to him. Colin turned. The owner walked to him and held out a small package with a plastic computer chip inside. The new upgrade card.

“But I don’t have enough money,” Colin said.

“It’s on the house,” the owner said, “for all your hard work and for saving my shipment.”

“Are you serious?” Colin asked, hoping his ears hadn’t betrayed him.

“I told you,” the owner said, “I’m feeling generous today.” Colin took the package and thanked the owner profusely before he was shooed out the door.

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