"Beyond The Network" is a short story (about 25 printed pages' worth) that I wrote back in March of 2009. It is a science fiction story set sometime in the future. After numerous urgings from readers asking me to publish it, I decided to post it online for the world to enjoy.
DISCLAIMER: This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblances of names, locations, or persons (living or deceased) is purely coincidental. Additionally, the beliefs held by any of the characters in this story do not necessarily reflect those of the author, Lyosha Blinnikov.
Use the links on the left to navigate through the story. You may leave comments on the last page.
John52fe walked down the gray street, his shoes squelching in the muddy ground. He was a man on a mission: get to the school on time or else. Satch3r would be angry. Very angry with him indeed.
Ever since the Mandatory Education Act of 2230, all persons ages 6 through 24 were enrolled in a mandatory schooling program. School began with grade 0 (for now, in the age of computers, many more things started from 0 than from 1) and ended with grade 18. Thus John52fe, age 18, was in 12th grade... 12 down, 6 more to go.
It had rained the night before, and the street was full of mud. BioTurf helped to keep lawns nice and uniform, but step on someone's lawn and prepare to be immobilized with a stun gun or similar. People nowadays sure didn't like trespassers in their front yards.
John52fe's name was derived from his family identifier. Last names were obsolete; families were now defined by a 4-digit hexadecimal number, allowing 65,536 families to have unique names. A newborn child was given a 4-digit number in addition to his family identifier; at the age of 7 or 8, he or she could choose a name of their choice. When one turned 24, he could drop the family identifier from his usual name. It did not matter, as their legal 8-digit number was what identified them in The Network.
The Network was where John52fe lived. Where all of his friends lived. Where every member of the human race lived. It was a blend of reality and unreality, an illusion so perfect that one simply did not realize he was in any sort of unreality at all. Made possible by the computing advances of the 23rd century, and made practical by the energy advances in the early 24th, The Network was now a part of daily life.
Humans interacted with The Network via a low-level techlepathic bond – Network generators created data fields throughout the entire area of The Network, which would interact with a tiny chip embedded in the brain of every child born. This chip would send sensory and control signals into the brain, thus bringing a new level of interaction to the world.
John52fe came to the end of the lane and turned north. The school was one block away, a large beige-colored building with many square windows. Other students were entering the building, some in groups, some alone. He was just on time: invoking the clock, he noted that the time was 7:58:03; he had exactly 2 minutes, 57 seconds to enter the school building before he was counted tardy.
He passed through the doors. Transparently to him, he was being scanned by the school's security system. Security in the 27th century was tight, effective, yet unobtrusive – there was no more need to lock doors, for example, since The Network kept track of access rights and simply blocked access to unauthorized persons.
John52fe entered classroom #28, waited a few moments while he was analyzed by the system, and sat down at a desk. Along with 60 other students in the room, he waited until the teacher arrived.
The Network made standard teaching obsolete, so the function of a teacher at school was more that of an overseer and guide. One could access vast amounts of information simply by walking around... every object was recognizable to some degree, and information such as make, model, name, and pronunciation of the name, could be obtained simply by power of will.
The first few years of school, grades 0 through 4, were spent teaching the student how to interact with objects in their everyday lives. One could, for example, find out whether or not an item was edible, or even whether or not a particular food product contained an ingredient to which the observer was allergic.
Grades 5 through 8 were spent teaching how to use various functions of The Network, and how to apply them to one's life. It was no longer necessary to spend long hours studying mathematics or grammar; these were made readily available by The Network, but the student needed to learn how to use these tools properly and build knowledge from them.
Grades 9 through 12 – secondary school – were for the perfection of skills taught in earlier grades. Building knowledge from known sources was especially reinforced. Grades 13 through 18 were spent preparing the students for life on their own. All the while, more and more tools available through The Network were explored... for The Network was vast, and even old men of 160 years could still learn something new.
Satch3r was a middle-aged man who enjoyed teaching, though he hated it when students arrived late. He entered the classroom and began.
Today's class was, as usual, about The Network. John52fe had heard this very same lecture before, many times. He already knew all of this... after all, mastering the basics of The Network was not an arduous task in any respect, at least not for him.
John52fe was proficient with the many tools The Network had to offer, often doing things that most 18-year-olds did not know of. However, as per regulations, school was taught by age and not learning ability. Thus, although he was on the level of 14th grade or so, he was still required by law to attend 12th.
His thoughts wandered as he dozed off in his seat. Suddenly, he sat bolt upright, for Satch3r had asked him a question.
"John52fe, if you think this is boring, have you any idea what life was like without The Network? So sit up and pay attention."
It was intended as a reprimand, but had a different effect on John52fe.
All through the lesson, John52fe listened, more intently than he usually did. For Satch3r was talking about the many benefits of The Network to humanity. How it had curbed violence, allowed humans to communicate better... how the ancient humans, with their primitive technology, could not enjoy the many conveniences of society that they did today.
What was life like without The Network?
This question plagued John52fe's mind as he walked home from school. He had never thought of it like this before. After all, there had been a time before The Network was in existence, before everyone could access all of these tools by will alone.
In school, he had been taught that, and only that. No tools, nothing. Nothing but each human being, all alone, unable to communicate except through a primitive audio-only portal. Thus, the Age of Knowledge did not begin until humans could communicate on a higher level than simply audio...
He decided to take a detour to the Library. Library #8913 to be exact. Although one could access vast amounts of information from any location, it took skill and effort, and often involved lengthy load times. No technology was perfect. At the Library, on the other hand, one could simply talk to a Librarian and obtain the information almost instantly.
The smiling Librarian greeted him, and he returned the greeting, knowing full well that she was not a real human being – as could easily be seen by the name displayed above her head, "library-daemon-ff03". If it weren't for the name, one could easily mistake her for being alive.
"Welcome to Library #8913, John52fe. Please enter your request."
"Get me information about The Network. Life before The Network came into existence."
A small spinning globe appeared above the librarian's head. Data was being streamed through The Network from the central repository in an unknown location.
"56,703,244 results found. Would you like to view as a composite?"
The walls of the Library faded away. John52fe felt slightly queasy, even though he had done this plenty of times before. Images appeared at the fringes of his vision, and thoughts began to flow through his head.
The world before The Network was a dreary place, where nobody could communicate. Humans built cities, civilizations... but due to lack of communication and understanding, other humans would destroy each others' creations. The only language used was auditory, hence the misunderstanding.
For an instant, John52fe caught a glimpse of a beautiful Landscape – for that was what it was, a Landscape, similar to the one his mother had in the kitchen. Only this one was more... more real than real was the only way he could explain it. It stirred something deep inside of him. Then it was gone, replaced by more gruesome imagery of wars, famine, and disorder. Almost as if... as if the system didn't want him to see it...
"Thank you. Your session has cost 67 UCU and has been deducted from your account. Have a nice day."
He was outside. A wind was blowing from the south, and the sky was cloudy and gray.
His mother was calling him over the OmniLink, asking where he was.
"I was at the Library."
"Well, get home now, it's almost curfew."
"Invoke: clock". The time was 8:53:09, almost curfew indeed. Law stated that all persons aged under 21 could not be out on public property, without a valid permit, after 9 o'clock. At precisely 9:00:00, all who were outdoors would be checked and, if found to be under age 21, would be immobilized and sent to the Public Safety Authority (PSA).
He had to hurry. It was a 10-minute walk home, so he had to run, being careful to avoid breaking the speed limit. He wished he could run free over the lawns and fences, thus saving up to five minutes of precious time. But he knew that he couldn't. As soon as he put as much as one foot on a private lawn, he would be found to not have a permit to be on that property, and be almost instantly immobilized and sent to the PSA. He did not want to try.
Almost there. He could see his house in the distance, with its windows lighted. With a burst of speed, he ran towards the open door. His mother was waiting for him.
Suddenly, he tripped and sprawled face-down on the sidewalk. The time was 8:59:42 and the only thing he could think of was missing curfew – and like all others of his age, he had heard the many horror stories of what the PSA did to those who stayed out past curfew.
Not noticing what had tripped him, he got up, dazed, and ran towards the house.
John52fe ran as fast as he could, ignoring the speed limit, and ran through front gate of his house.
8:59:59. He had made it.
The Landscape plagued him all night. He could not sleep. Could not put the image out of his head.
Even though he had all but forgotten about it when he was running home earlier, he was reminded of it by his mother's in the kitchen. Most everyone had Landscapes – 3-dimensional models of scenic vistas in some imaginary land – but the image in his head was different.
He was standing on a hill of sorts. Before him, he could see a river of clear blue water. Trees surrounded it on either side. Large animals – for that is what they must be, the animals from fairy tales told to children – stood munching on the green BioTurf. He could see several houses – inefficient constructions, all shaped differently and awkwardly.
In the distance, he could see another hill, this one covered with taller buildings. Closer to those of the day, but still awkward and mismatched. A thin pall of smoke hung over them.
This scene inexplicably elicited a feeling of longing. Longing for what? He had never seen such a place, not in another Landscape, not in a Movie. Yet somehow, it felt more homelike than the house he was in right now, the house where he had grown up ever since he was born.
"Control: open Ana."
Ana was an old program in The Network. Her name came from ANalytical Application; she was one of the first programs for analyzing and compositing data. Despite her being written a whole 90 years before, she was amazingly fast and efficient; that is why John52fe preferred her over AdvA, which everyone else seemed to be using.
"Ana is online. Please enter your request."
"Analyze data in short-term memory." He subconsciously gave Ana access rights to the image currently in his short-term memory.
After a pause (for this wasn't the Library and data was being streamed a considerably larger distance), Ana responded. "It's a scene from before The Network came into existence."
"Get location of object just analyzed."
"Location unknown. 00000000:f.g__--"
"Get creator of object." Why had Ana just thrown garbage data at him?
"Access denied for user John52fe. You do not have the proper credentials to access this information."
John52fe was confused. Ana had never acted like this before. Must be a glitch, for Ana had never given him the dreaded "Access denied" error.
"Ana: disconnect. Control: EnterSleep."
It was 1:07:32 AM, and he dozed off, waiting for the wakeup signal for the next morning. It was a Day 7, thus no school, so he could sleep in.
John52fe awoke at exactly 8:00:00, feeling refreshed. The Network's built-in wakeup signal, configurable via thought, made alarm clocks, caffeine, and drowsiness obsolete. He got out of bed, enabled cloaking mode, and went across the hall to the bathroom. After he came out, he disabled cloaking mode and put on his real clothes – they had been cleaned in the middle of the night by the service bots.
His family was downstairs, sitting around the table, eating breakfast. Synthesized proteins, vitamins, and minerals, all in tasty packages resembling ancient foods such as pancakes and sausage links. Real meat had stopped being grown way back in the 2200's, due to the considerable amount of space, time, and waste involved.
From where he stood, he could hear bits of weakly-encrypted conversation going on between his father and someone at the door. Your typical business-related talk. John52fe groaned inwardly; he did not understand business. It was difficult and boring to him.
He sat down at the table, and the SmartFood serving mechanism tastefully arranged the food on a plate and placed it in front of him.
As soon as he had eaten, John52fe left the house, and went over to the transport station. Anyone ages 6 and up could ride a transport module, provided they had the money. He entered one now, waited until the system identified him and charged him the fee of 50 UCU; then he was whisked away across town at a terrific speed.
He couldn't wait until he had his own car. His parents promised to get him one when he turned 21, the legal age to own and operate one. Driving was almost paradoxically simple – an 8-year-old could do it – but laws were laws, and he could do nothing about them.
The transport module stopped at Station 6f3e:09 and John52fe got off. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. John52fe began walking down the street of Sector 6f3e. This was the business and commerce section of the city; here were the myriad office buildings, shopping malls, climate-controlled relaxation rooms...
Presently, he found himself in an alley of sorts, hemmed in on both sides by two large buildings. This was a more decrepit part of the sector: stores that had lost their business were closed, with antitrespassing fields erected around their perimeter. A few scraps of litter blew across the ground. He found himself in a dead end. As he turned around to go back, something caught his eye. He picked it up.
It was a data card. A thin piece of plastic that contained embedded data which was read by a computer terminal – quite outdated in the present age of The Network, one would think. There was no marking on it, save for one name: N3ox.
He put it in his pocket and went on.
Jeremy1449 was waiting for him where he had promised: at the corner of Cloud Café, a lone place in the midst of silent office buildings. John52fe did not have very many friends, and despite them not hanging out together much, Jeremy1449 was the one person he trusted more than anyone else in the world.
"I've got something to tell you." John52fe needed to get this out, and quickly. "You know Satch3r yesterday... he mentioned something about life outside The Network. You know, like, before the world around us was created."
Jeremy1449 listened intently.
"Well, I got carried away and went to the Library and looked it up."
"I found a bunch of stuff and it all seemed really boring and everything. But then I saw this thing, like a Landscape, but it just felt so... homelike, I don't know how to explain it. Thing is, I've never seen this before."
A new light shone in Jeremy1449's eyes. "Heck, yeah! I know exactly what you mean!"
John52fe looked at him, bewildered. "You mean you've seen it too?"
"No. It's just that I..." He broke off, staring into space. John52fe followed his gaze and noticed that he was staring intently at a beautiful girl sitting in front of the Cloud Café.
"Uhh... sorry. As I was saying, I've felt like this world here just doesn't seem quite right. Like, that humans were never meant to be in some augmented reality like we're in right now."
This all made sense to John52fe. Jeremy1449 was one of those with a somewhat different philosophy on life. John52fe had always seen The Network as a normal part of life, while Jeremy1449 lived as he chose and couldn't care less what others thought.
Jeremy1449 stood up. "Wanna go to a Movie?"
"Sure." He had had enough philosophical thinking for now. A Movie – a fully-immersive 3D experience, similar to the composite in the library, albeit not as involved – would be the perfect thing for him. It would put his mind off of the many thoughts that plagued it.
The two walked down the otherwise-empty street. A business district was generally not known for its bustle of traffic at this time of the day. They had a good amount of ground to cover before they reached the Theater; they went by foot to save money.
As they walked down a dark, narrow tunnel between buildings, John52fe almost ran into a somewhat elderly man, who was holding out something that shone faintly, and muttering under his breath. John52fe leaned forward to get a better glimpse.
"Ya want sum?"
"What is it?"
"It's the sh*t man. Gonna f*ck ya up reeeeal good." Suddenly, the man lunged forward and plunged a syringe into John52fe's exposed neck.
"NO!" Jeremy1449's warning came too late. John52fe had barely had time to cry out, and he was hanging limp. The man let out a raucous laugh.
"What did you DO to him? Hey, come back here, you jerk!"
But the man was gone.
Chels9b01 was sitting in front of the Cloud Café, sipping her UltraProto shake and reflecting on her life. She loved sitting out here, in front of the Cloud Café, gazing down the street. Not many people passed through this way, except those who worked in the office building.
Suddenly, a dark-haired boy burst out of the tunnel down the street, with a panic-stricken expression on his face. He ran towards her. "Help," he panted. "My friend's been drugged or something. In that tunnel."
Chels9b01 looked at the person in front of her. Jeremy1449. Age 18. In 12th grade at School fb2:03. Same school as her. He seemed genuine enough. And what more could she do? She stood up, tossed her UltraProto in the nearby trash receptacle, and followed Jeremy1449 as he ran off in the direction of the tunnel.
John52fe was right where he left him, lying motionless. Jeremy1449 and Chels9b01 lifted him gently and proceeded to carry him through the tunnel. "I know where to take him." Chels9b01 led the way through the streets and alleys, until they arrived at the door of a ground floor apartment. She pressed her hand to the access panel on the door, and it swung open.
They entered and laid John52fe down on the air sofa. "Andy2ddf, you there?"
Andy2ddf, a stout, middle-aged man, came into the room. "Who have we here?"
"Some friends. Listen. John52fe got drugged by some guy out in the street. Can you do anything about it?"
"I'll see what I can do." Andy2ddf, a doctor by hobby (though doctors were virtually unnecessary in these times), took out his Medical Kit, a palm-sized box with a sensor on a thin wire, and placed the sensor in John52fe's mouth. He allowed the device to probe into John52fe and detect anything abnormal.
After a seemingly excruciatingly long wait, the device glowed green and displayed a long list of statistics. Andy2ddf laughed. "Ah, it's your typical brain-screwing crap that just knocks you out for a bit. Nothing serious at all. He'll be back to normal within an hour."
And sure enough, not long after, John52fe stirred, opened his eyes, and sat up slowly. "Where am I? Jeremy1449?"
"Yeah. You got drugged by that guy in the street. Andy2ddf said it was nothing serious though." John52fe got to his feet. He felt almost completely normal now. "Well, I guess we'd better get going." He went towards the door and opened it.
"John52fe! You can't! It's past curfew." Indeed, it was past curfew. 9:30:06 PM to be precise. "I guess you guys will have to spend the night here."
"You guys are probably hungry." Andy2ddf went into the kitchen and opened a package of synthesized protein and placed it in the InstaCook oven.
They ate hungrily.
"So... do you live here?" John52fe asked Chels9b01.
"No. Andy2ddf is just an old family friend."
"I overheard you guys talking out by the Cloud Café. What was it that you were saying?"
"Was it about going beyond The Network?" Andy2ddf's voice pierced through John52fe's thoughts.
"Y-yes," he stammered, not knowing what to make of it.
"Me and Chels9b01 have been contemplating on that, I'll be honest. And I believe there is a way of getting out of The Network. It just won't be easy, cause it requires you to get out of it mentally as well as physically."
John52fe felt like he was in a daze. Here were three people who believed that one could get out of The Network. Yet he himself had thought about life outside The Network, life before The Network came into existence.
"So you want to go to a place beyond The Network?" John52fe suddenly felt a thrill he had never experienced before.
"Oh." John52fe extracted the data card from his pocket. "Do you have any idea what this is?" Andy2ddf looked at the card carefully. "It looks like one of them old cards you'd stick into a terminal. Though they're obsolete."
"Wait... didn't you have one of those old terminals lying around somewhere?" This time, it was Chels9b01 who felt a thrill inside of her.
"Come to think of it, I do."
"Come on, let's get it!"
The four went down the smooth hallway and came to a miniature storage rack. After pressing his finger to the access panel in front of it, a storage daemon appeared. "Please enter the item you'd like to extract from storage."
"Item: terminal, model number: f03029df201010"
"Item found. Micrologix Ultra Terminal."
"Extract and quit."
A panel opened in front of them, and the terminal arrived, moving atop a conveyor belt. It was an old Micrologix terminal from the 2300's, from back before the time that The Network was fully developed. It was a 1-foot by 1-foot square, 4 inches or so in height.
Jeremy1449 carefully connected the terminal to the auto-sensing SmartPower socket in the wall. "Terminal: start." He had to use interop mode when speaking, as a Terminal this old was not connected to the human communications channel of The Network. The terminal booted up almost instantly.
John52fe inserted the data card into the front of the machine. "Terminal: get card info, format as text."
The image projected by the terminal now looked like this:
Come to me with all of your hacking needs
Location: Town 429, Sector 0322
Available on OmniChat
THE NETWORK DOES NOT STOP THE HACKERS
"The last line sure looks promising." They had never heard of hackers before, except in Movies and the like.
"So what are we gonna do, find this N3ox?"
"Yeah, why not."
"End of file reached (0 bytes.)". There was no more data.
Andy2ddf wanted to know more. "Control: open AdvA. Analyze terminal information."
AdvA took a long time, but eventually the information was displayed to Andy2ddf. "N3ox will help you do what you may otherwise think impossible."
"So that's that."
After putting the terminal back into storage, a unanimous decision was made to leave the next day. First, they would try to find N3ox. Then, they would try going beyond The Network, with N3ox's help. After all, he made the impossible possible.
John52fe, lying awake on the floor of Andy2ddf's apartment, could not sleep once more. So much had happened today. He was going to do what he once thought impossible: go beyond The Network. His new friends wanted to, and so did Jeremy1449. And quite frankly, he had no point in staying right here. His life was not particularly great as it was.
"Control: open Atlas." Atlas was a mapping program that contained a map of the entire world.
"Atlas is online. Please enter your request."
"Get directions from here to Town 429, Sector 0322."
After a somewhat lengthy pause, Atlas responded with an easy-to-follow scale map, complete with estimated route times. 3.5 hours by skycar, 19 hours by standard transport module, 27 days 5 hours walking. He would need a permit to use a skycar without accompaniment by an adult, as he was under age 21; someone like Andy2ddf sure was helpful in these situations.
Oh well. Tomorrow was a new day. He would be counted absent from school, but so what. This was more important than school, especially considering that he was ahead. Plus, N3ox would likely allow them to get past the mandatory attendance patrol.
John52fe, Chels9b01, Jeremy1449, and Andy2ddf woke up early the next morning. It was around 4:00 AM; they were to leave within 15 minutes so as to get to the skycar station by 4:30. Curfew was lifted at 4:00 AM.
John52fe made sure to leave a message for his mother over the OmniLink: "Mom, I'm going on a little trip, see ya in a week or so. Don't worry bout me. Love you!" He hoped that would be enough.
They packed light, for they knew they could buy food and such on the way if necessary, and they probably wouldn't need it in the first place. After all, the first mission was to find N3ox. Andy2ddf made sure to lock the door and activate the anti-trespassing field as well. And they were off.
The group arrived at the skycar station, where they paid their fare and went aboard. The trip would take only 3.5 hours. They were the only passengers aboard the large skycar save 3 others, for nobody wanted to go to Town 429 from Town fb2 at 4:30 in the morning.
The skycar was a fairly spacious affair, holding up to 60 people at a time. Soft, comfortable seats lined the length of it, and one could simply connect to the skycar's wireless interface to invoke the robotic service system that could bring water and snacks.
The skycar began its takeoff procedure. First, it rose vertically in the air to a height of about 500 feet; then, it quickly accelerated, until it was flying in a direct line to the city in which it would land.
Three and a half hours later, they arrived in Town 429, Sector 0322. There was something different about this town, something they couldn't quite place at first. John52fe and Jeremy1449 had never been outside of Town fb2, and this whole experience was new to them.
"Control: open Fido."
"Fido is online. Please enter your request."
"Search 'N3ox' in '429:0322 residents', find address".
John52fe knew Fido: it would take a bit of time to find the necessary information. Also, Fido only performed searches on public information, and by far not everything was public; thus John52fe did not have huge hopes of getting anything. He was surprised at the result:
"N3ox: last of the hackers. Address is Street 32, Building 882, Apartment 45."
"Fido: disconnect. Control: open Atlas. Display directions from here to Street 32, Building 882, Apartment 45."
It was about an hour's ride on a transport module, according to Atlas. They boarded a module and were taken to Street 32. Andy2ddf and Jeremy1449 went to buy some things, while John52fe and Chels9b01 went to find N3ox.
Chels9b01 and John52fe walked down the street. It was similar to those back in Town fb2, with its line of office buildings. After they passed an intersection, the office buildings gave way to apartment complexes, similar in design to the office buildings, but with a slightly homier feel to them. They talked about life back home. Chels9b01 lived with her mother in a smaller house; her father had been killed in a fire after the office building where he worked had been burned to the ground thanks to an improperly connected electrical device. This was why she would often sit in front of the Cloud Café; her father's office building, now rebuilt, could now be seen.
N3ox, a blond-haired young man of 25, was standing outside of his apartment, waiting for them. As he saw John52fe and Chels9b01, he smiled and extended his hand in greeting. "Hello, John52fe... I've been waiting for you."
"Wait... how did you know we were looking for you?"
"I'm a hacker. I know things." This response made everyone feel better for some reason, and all three burst into laughter. "Well, we'd better come in. Where are the other two?"
"They went to get some things. I don't know what."
"Oh, OK." They went inside, waiting for Jeremy1449 and Andy2ddf to arrive.
Presently, the others arrived, and the five sat around the table, talking and eating a snack. Andy2ddf was the first to bring up the subject of their meeting here in the first place.
"So, N3ox... how much do you know about The Network?"
"Oh, me..." N3ox smiled broadly. "I think I know more than any man alive. But," he added, his smile fading, "it's not much."
"What exactly does 'hacker' mean?" Jeremy1449 asked.
"A hacker is simply someone who knows enough about something in order to be able to manipulate it in various ways. That's why people come to me – they want me to do something that they ordinarily can't."
As an afterthought, he added, "That's why AdvA will say that I can make impossible things possible."
The five made their plans for the next day.
"Probably the best place we can go to is the Edge of Civilization."
"The Edge of Civilization?" John52fe had never heard that term before.
"It's where the outer cities come to an end, and after that, there's nothing, or at least that's what we've all been told. Maybe something there will give us a clue. The closest city to the Edge is Town 00a."
Judging by its relatively low number – the tenth city founded – Town 00a must be fairly old. Thus, The Network must have started somewhere around that area. It all made sense: if they wanted to find their way out of The Network, they must come to its source.
The five set out early in the morning and boarded a skycar for Town 00a. The trip was estimated to take 9 hours – this was farther away than any of them had ever gone.
The skycar ride was uneventful. The group talked about their plans using strong encryption – one could never be too careful in a public skycar. They could see cities beneath them. Large, sprawling cities covering everything. There was barely any empty ground. All was in shades of brown and gray.
As they went on, the cities seemed to get older and more decrepit. Buildings were less packed together. Less cars and transport units could be seen on the streets.
They arrived in Town 00a, Sector 001f, and the skycar landed. The feeling of unusualness was even stronger here. People dressed differently, walked differently. After all, this was almost halfway across the world from where John52fe lived.
"Control: open Atlas. Find boundaries of Town 00a."
Atlas displayed a map of Town 00a in its entirety, with glowing borders. It was nearly semicircular in shape – the straight area was labeled simply as "The Fence".
"Get directions from here to The Fence."
Atlas gave them an approximation of the path by foot, car, and fixed-route transport module. But N3ox had other ideas. "Get directions by free flight." And Atlas did after some concentration on N3ox's part: he was, after all, a hacker.
"Atlas: disconnect. Control: open Ana."
"Ana is online. Please enter your request." Ah, good old Ana.
"Get information about The Fence."
After a pause: "The Fence marks the end of civilized area. Travel beyond The Fence is highly unadvisable. Additionally, you may be prosecuted for trespassing."
Meh. They didn't care if Ana considered it "unadvisable"; after all, she was just a program.
N3ox led the way as the five walked the streets of Town 00a. People, dressed in unusual clothes, bustled about their business. Shops with brightly-colored displays were everywhere. Office buildings intermingled with apartments, unlike the more well-defined building layouts they were accustomed to.
They came to the nearest skycar terminal. N3ox walked up to a door marked "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY" but he did not touch his finger to the access panel. He muttered something under his breath; evidently, he was communicating with The Network in some way, but they could not determine how.
The door opened, and N3ox beckoned for them to follow. He walked stealthily down the corridor, with the rest of the group following closely behind. They came to another door at the end, which was unlocked.
They found themselves in the hangar. About a hundred skycars stood parked in their berths, connected to their power lines. When a skycar was needed, a signal was sent via wireless and the skycar would float down the center aisle of the hangar and out the exit on the other side.
N3ox pointed to the nearest skycar, Car 83b9:2fd0, which was about 150 feet away. "Go for it." They ran stealthily across the open ground. N3ox knew what he was doing.
As with all skycars, authentication was required before the driver could enter, and a driver could not enter while the power line was connected and charging the skycar's fuel cell. N3ox simply walked up to the pilot's door and it opened. "Jeremy1449, cut the power. Hop on in."
"One thing I gotta admit... I can't drive or pilot anything. One of you will have to do it."
"John52fe could do it." Jeremy1449 knew of John52fe's desire of getting a car of his own.
"Sure." John52fe sat in the pilot's seat, and the rest piled into the front four seats reserved for persons of authority and the like. Normal passenger seats were located behind.
Flying these things was easy as heck. All one had to do was place one's hand on the steering globe in front of him and make the slightest motion in the direction he had to go. One could not legally pilot a skycar until he was 30, but John52fe did not care.
Car 83b9:2fd0 rose from its berth and floated down the aisle. As it neared the exit, the gate was automatically lifted, and the skycar rose up into the air. John52fe guided the car on its way out of the terminal, and as soon as they were clear, gunned the engine in the direction of The Fence.
They flew over the city at an astonishing speed; none of them had ever experienced a skycar ride like this. John52fe sure could fly this thing. And he was enjoying every minute of it.
Within 10 minutes, they were outside of the main part of the town. As they floated above the buildings, they noticed that they were in a decrepit state. More than once, a column of smoke could be seen, from where rioters had set fire to one of the older buildings. Chels9b01 cringed.
They flew on. They saw buildings beneath them, but something about the buildings told them that they were not inhabited, had not been inhabited for a long time.
Suddenly, the skycar began to swerve; a red light appeared on the heads-up display and "POWER LOW" flashed across.
"Oh, crap... why..." N3ox looked distressed. He had neglected to check the power level before picking out a skycar. Plus, they had been going at max speed. "You're gonna have to land it."
John52fe lowered the skycar slowly. It was not as easy to control any more. He found a clear space between two buildings and pushed down on the steering globe. "Careful there. Don't hit the building."
The first part of the skycar to go was the back, fortunately for them. It simply broke off the moment it hit the side of the building. The rest of the skycar hit the ground with a thud. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
"Let's get going."
They clambered out through the emergency exits and surveyed their surroundings. They were in a decrepit part of the town. Nobody had lived here in decades. The buildings – or what remained of them – were of an older construction. These had been here long before Town fb2 came into existence. This was a hostile place. The occasional criminal, gangster, or drug addict might find himself here, though these types usually concentrated in the less-inhabited regions of large cities. This was the outskirts of one of the first cities. The outskirts of civilization.
They arrived at the Fence. The Fence was approximately 20 feet high and stretched off in both directions, though there were quite a few gaps through it, as if someone had taken a car or transport module through it. They went through one of the gaps to the other side.
The ground was pock-marked with holes, and strewn with various forms of garbage. The gray light seeping in through the clouds gave the area a decrepit look. There was not a soul in sight, and all was almost completely quiet.
The five trudged onwards. Despite what Ana had told them the night before, they were not immobilized automatically. Perhaps it was because The Network simply did not "see" them. Or, perhaps, this was yet another of N3ox's many tricks.
Suddenly, Jeremy1449 cried out: "Look out!" But it was too late. Andy2ddf had caught his foot on a trip wire, and had fallen face down into a razor trap. Blood was already flowing from his severed jugular vein.
John52fe turned Chels9b01's head away. He did not want her to see the gruesome sight. "We must go on without him. Be careful now." N3ox pointed to another such trap a distance ahead. "There can be more of those ahead. Watch your step."
They moved on. Already, the light was growing dimmer, and a soft breeze was beginning to blow. On and on they walked. How long, they did not bother to check, though it felt like hours.
John52fe could see a structure looming up in front of them, with a gaping hole in its side. Behind it was a wall, stretching out as far as the eye could see to the left and to the right.
N3ox stood before them. "If my guess is correct, that is the edge of the Network user boundary. On the other side of that wall is the maintenance area of The Network." He had never sounded this excited before.
They went down the long tunnel. Faint lights glimmered in the air around them, magenta and purple and blue. They could sense a tremendous amount of energy beyond.
John52fe came through the end of the tunnel. The others followed. Silently, they surveyed the scene before them.
They were in a sea of lights. "Packet storm," N3ox pointed out. "Stick close together."
John52fe passed through the packet storm. Magenta, purple, blue, and white lights flitted around him. The ground was a moving mass of lights. He could not see anything more than a few feet away. Thoughts floated into his head – random, incoherent thoughts, seemingly belonging to other people.
Chels9b01 held his hand tightly; he returned the gesture and pushed on.
N3ox seemed to be having trouble passing through the packet storm – he was stumbling, falling. They could almost see light passing through him. "I... can't... "
He was fading out. Disappearing. "See ya... Oh... network field generator... under... go under, not over..." And he was gone.
Presently, John52fe, Chels9b01, and Jeremy1449 passed through the packet storm and arrived at a sloping wall. A strong hum emanated from within; evidently, this was one of the Network field generators that N3ox had mentioned. True to his word, there was a small, dark opening beneath it; there was also a ladder leading up to the top.
"So now we go under. Who's first?"
"No way! I'm not going under that thing!" Before the others could stop him, Jeremy1449 had climbed up the ladder and was standing atop the generator. "Hey, guys! Come on up!"
Suddenly, there was a loud zap and a scream. Jeremy1449 was nowhere to be seen.
"No!" John52fe could not contain his grief. His best friend, Jeremy1449, had been taken from him... all because of a stupid mistake. He should have been more careful, should have held him back. Oh, if only he could somehow bring him back... but there was no use crying yet. He, John52fe, was still alive.
Carefully, he climbed up the ladder up to where Jeremy1449 had disappeared. He could now see where Jeremy1449 had gone – his weight had simply proven too much for the thin carbon-based cover of the generator, and he had fallen straight through. A blinding yellow-white light shone out of the hole, though it did not light up the air around it. John52fe climbed down, knowing well that there was no hope for rescuing Jeremy1449.
"We go on." John52fe pulled Chels9b01 down into the opening with him.
They climbed through the low opening on their stomachs. It was dry, empty. More empty than they could have imagined. There was no information being broadcast by these walls.
On and on they continued. One hand and foot forward at a time. They could feel the tunnel sloping upwards – not too steeply, but steep enough to make their climb all the more difficult. But they kept at it.
They could feel the mouth of the tunnel nearby. John52fe pulled himself out first, then helped Chels9b01 out.
"We made it." Chels9b01 put her arms around John52fe, breathing a sigh of relief.
They were on high ground, with a wall before them. There was a door directly in front of them. Only 2 out of 5 who started on the mission had made it this far; they must finish this last stretch.
"You first." She kissed John52fe on the cheek and motioned for him to open the door. John52fe felt that this was the moment he had been waiting for all of his life. It was all fitting together now. He must walk through the door and see what lay beyond.
But opening the door proved to be more difficult. He placed his hand on it, but it did not open. He tried sending the "open" signal subconsciously, but the door did not respond. There was no access panel – only a lever on one side. He pressed down on it, but it wouldn't budge.
"Here. Try this." Chels9b01 held out the metallic object she had picked up off the ground. "I think it goes into the little hole on the front."
John52fe stuck the object into the hole. Nothing happened. Then it dawned on him that this was one of those primitive doors where one had to manually turn the key in the lock – back when mechanical locks were still widely used, hundreds of years ago. Sure enough, the key turned, and they could hear an audible click.
Yanking the lever down, he managed to get the heavy door to swing open. Fresh air blew through the opening, and a dim gray light shone.
He was standing on a hill of sorts. Before him, he could see a river of dirty gray. The remains of trees surrounded it on either side. The ground was covered in some sort of yellow-gray-brown BioTurf, though far less perfect, and in a decrepit condition.
In the distance, he could see a heap of ruins. An occasional building stood tall amidst the wreckage. A thin pall of smoke hung over it.
This all looked vaguely familiar to him. It looked... it reminded him of the Landscape he had seen.
No human being had been here for hundreds of years.
He could see many pipes leading away into the distance along the river. Some large, big enough to fit a house; others the size of his index finger. They all led away from the hill where he was standing. Some went over his head; most were below. A faint hum rose from within each pipe; evidently, much energy was being transferred through it.
"Control: open Ana."
No response. Something wasn't right. Control did not respond. He had never experienced this before. He felt blind, deaf, and numb. He could see, hear, and feel... yet he could not. Everything was grey and flat. He was helpless.
Everything was fading away. He slipped, fell, and landed on one of the larger pipes about 10 feet beneath the ledge. With all his might, he raised himself up on all fours, climbed farther and farther across, trying to get to the end.
Chels9b01 stood aghast, watching John52fe making a feeble attempt to climb across the horizontal pipe he was on. She felt a certain dizziness herself. It was a strange feeling – everything was so gloomy, dreary, and decrepit. And she could not tell the time of day, the temperature of the air...
"John52fe! You OK?" Her voice sounded strange. She suddenly realized that she could only speak in an unclear babble coming from her mouth alone; after all, speech had been transmitted through The Network. Audio alone could carry only so much information.
John52fe was almost at the end of the pipe, where it bent downwards. It was a drop of about 100 feet. He saw a ladder above him, which he could grab ahold of. He lunged towards it, his mind reeling, his body disobeying his will.
He had miscalculated the distance – for no guide lines had appeared at the edges of his vision, no red indicator stating "danger". He slipped. Fell. 100 feet down. He lay motionless on the ground.
"John52fe!" Chels9b01 stared downwards, leaning precariously on the ledge. Suddenly, she too, slipped, but caught herself just in time. She was going to save John52fe, even if it was the last thing she did.
She found the ladder John52fe was trying to climb up, and went down it. She was now lying atop the pipe from which John52fe had fallen. There was no way of getting down, save by jumping, and that would be suicide.
She felt even dizzier by the moment. She couldn't think; everything was so empty. Perhaps this is what John52fe had felt? A wind blew across the plain, and the door on the hillside clanged shut. But Chels9b01 could not feel it, did not care. She closed her eyes, lying motionless on the pipe. She felt herself getting weaker and weaker...
So they had made it. They had made it beyond The Network.
 Satcher: pronounced "SATCH-er". A "3" within a name (not counting those within the family identifier) is pronounced like the letter "e"; a "0" within a name is pronounced like the letter "o".
 Universal Currency Units, enacted in the 23rd century. 1 UCU is of comparable value to $0.10 in today's currency.