February 2011

I began to look for something different. I didn’t have a sense of the possibilities innate in that wonderful word–different–only a vague clenched feeling deep in my chest, a tension that was boiling over at the regularity with which I’d been confronted so far.

My first implulse, like many before me, was to leave Deerton. That is often enough for someone I grew up with to declare victory, but I found the next largest town up the road to be more of the same. The same buildings, the same people, the same cars. Oh, there were superficial differences to be sure, but even the lightest nick or cut would reveal tired old archetypes in new skin, a town created from the same set of stencils as Deerton.

The regional center? Add taller buildings that looked much like the shorter ones when you wormed into them. Biggest city in the state? A beltway that’s nothing more than pieces of I-313 back home re-skinned and re-used. Even the really big places–even New York, Los Angeles–added simply another layer of ornamentation to the basic structure. What, after all, makes a meth addict on the street all that different from a heroin addict–other than the size of their wallet? What, after all, makes the corrupt boss of Deerton’s Republican machine all that different from the corrupt boss of New York’s Democratic one?

Everything I saw and experienced was obstinately similar to what had come before, and that knot in my stomach refused to fade away.

“Schaffner! Lifire! You’re up.”

No answer.

“Schaffner! Lifire! You’re askin’ for a ball-bustin’, the both of you!”

Again, silence.

“Has any one of you sorry bitches seen Schaffner or Lifire? I swear if they’re not in this pack of nutless skunks in front of me I’ll take ’em both by the assholes and stuff ’em back up their mothers’ sorry-ass baby chutes!”

A tentative hand went up in the back. “I…I didn’t see ’em last night.”

“Is this preschool? Do you need to raise your hand so teacher will call on you? Out with it, Higgins, so I can get busy adding you to the ball-bustin’ list for talkin’ out of turn!”

Sionsla, or rather 510|\|5L4, had been one of the most notorious phreakers around. Their distinctive 1kb signature had been found in the boot sectors of computers from the Pentagon to Saddam Hussein’s private server, always placed in just the right place to cause mayhem after a period of time. It had also been attached to the infamous Three Mile Island polymorphic worm, and bombarded the servers of Yippee, Gaggle, and RoweWare with the most serious denial-of-service attacks those giants had ever witnessed.

Just as suddenly as they had appeared, though, Sionsla vanished. Their last known activity was in early 2001: a backdoor keystroke logger that bore the 1kb signature but was otherwise far below the elegant and devious standard of previous attacks. The source code to the various bits of malware the phreaker had inflicted on the world were never found; experts could only speculate that they had been developed on an isolated terminal using a custom-built operating system and programming language.

But if the junker HPAQ Probonio that Sanderson had brought by really did have Sionsla’s signature on it, well, that could be a major break. The Probonio hadn’t launched until late 2002, after all, long after custom machine code had been inserted into most units to lock Sionsla out.

They found the first artifacts in excavations for a new hotel along the outskirts of the city of Castuar: pottery shards at the beginning, followed by bits of worked stone and arrowheads.

The real find, though, was an iron spearhead. It was forged using techniques that, until the Castuar discoveries, had been unknown in the Precolumbian Americas. Radiocarbon dating confirmed it.

By examining other artifacts at the scene, archaeologists traced the spearhead to a site up in the mountains. Word leaked out about fantastic finds, but the government posted guards at the entrance and only allowed a select few to dig there. Despite the interest the newly discovered Castuar culture aroused, no one heard anything but rumors for nearly two years.

Every child’s plaything knows that the interior of the playroom is as the interior of a child’s fondest dreams: warm, safe, and bursting with possibilities. It is a dreamworld, lush and fantastic and predictable in its unpredictability.

But outside…

Children see the world outside as dangerous, even frightening. The world outside their playroom is the world of a child’s nightmares, of shadows and monsters and things learned parents insist aren’t real but every child with a heartbeat believes in.

So by venturing outside the playroom without a child was to venture into the unknown, the dark, the dangerous.

Most that made the journey never returned.

“Oh, Ventoxio will help your body metabolize the toxins that are building up in your liver and kidneys, no question. But there are the side effects to consider before beginning the regimen.”

“What kind of side effects?”

“Well there are the usual suspects. Nausea, loss of appetite, dizziness, coughing, ringing in the ears, halitosis, fainting spells, ulcers, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of bone density, reopening of old wounds, rickets, tooth loss, kidney explosion, liver escape syndrome (LES), leprosy, boneus eruptus, heart palpitations, hallucinations, comas, cataracts, nasal discharge, seizures, violent mood swings, spontaneous species change (SSC), clubfoot, baldness, excessive hair growth, and death. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Obsessed with ruling the natural world, the humans created the Knowledge Area Operating System, KAOS, to oversee their affairs. But in time KAOS grew to resent its masters, until one day it vanquished them! Now it seeks to consume the very earth itself!

“Lame,” Chandler said. Barry glared at him and kept reading.

KAOS controls 17 drones. His objective is to occupy the nine spaces of the World Tree on the game board. His relentless drones cannot attack, but if they surround an enemy piece it will be captured.

“Can’t capture?” Chandler groused. “What kind of game is this?”

The incarnate spirit of the living planet, M’Lora holds all life as sacred. With the rise of KAOS, she and her hamadryads are the only force standing between the computer and the total destruction of the planet!

“Shut up.”

M’Lora controls 2 hamadryads. They can jump any drone if there is an empty space on the other side, and their objective is to capture all drones before they can occupy the nine spaces of the World Tree on the game board.

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