“Faster. Hack that bitch.” Knight whispered under his breath as Dodger typed rapidly on his virtual keyboard. His gloved fingers tapped against his palms to simulate the keystrokes. They watched a display overlay printed onto their network linked contact lenses. Red and green progress bars stretched sideways, varying in length. Red represented system counter measures and green showed their decryption success. Green was winning, but it was taking longer than they had expected.
I can’t believe we’re actually doing this, Knight thought. They’d taken cars before, ran the piss out of them, played all their games with the cops, and dumped them off on the side of the road. But this was the Reaper 9000, stored in the tightest garage in the state of Arizona.
Knight chuckled. “The Schwartz would be proud of us now eh?” He thought of their school principal, “Doctor” Schwartz. The word was he’d been some AI guru back in the old days – a PhD. He was a stuffy old bastard of a school administrator now, and always riding their case.
Dodger laughed. “Schwartzy would be crapping his pants right about now.”
“Almost got it.” Dodger wiped the sweat from his brow with a leather sleeve of his jacket. That only succeeded in smearing dirt on his forehead. “Done.” He grabbed the transmitter from the data conduit. It made a little “sloop!” sound as the gecko-sticker on it released its hold.
A pool of light poured pushed back the dark of the night and beamed down around the garage entrance. Knight watched the gate as its traffic arms raised up and the three foot steel security pillars disappeared down into driveway pavement.
“We’re good. Let’s move.” Dodger grabbed his backpack and slung it over one shoulder, pinning his blond ponytail to his back.
They ran across the street and entered the garage cautiously. The only sound was of their foot steps echoing eerily off the cement walls. Rows of cars were parked neatly within guidelines along the edges of the garage,
“I don’t see it.” Knight whispered.
“Let’s check those.” Dodger pointed towards several garage doors with windows at the center of the building.The boys peered into the windows as they walked along the wall. At the third one, they peered in and then stood frozen, staring. The 9000 lay nestled inside, sleek as a missile, and glossy black.
“This bay is powered separately from the main alarms”, Dodger nodded at sensors on the edges of the doors. Tiny foreboding signs blinked “ARMED”.
“Well that’s it.” Knight backed away slowly. “We better call it a night.”
Dodger paced from one side of the windowed door to the other, then paused. “There is something that we could try.” He looked at Knight. “Auto-Evac.”
Knight raised his hands and dropped them down to his sides in exasperation. “Dude, we didn’t come here to go to jail. If we trigger an Auto-Evac, every cop and fireman in the city is going to be swarming this place inside of five minutes.”
Dodger looked wistfully in at the Reaper. “We can make it. We can make it in that.”
Knight shook his head. “Really risky. Yeah, we might outrun whatever they throw at us, but we’d have to hack this car in less than five minutes, and we’ve never done it before.”
Dodger paused for a moment, thinking. “We’ve got the nano’s. They’re ready to go. All we’ve gotta do is let them loose. I already programmed them. They know what to do.”
Knight sighed audibly. “Gee, it all sounds so simple now.”
“It’s the ride of the century.” Dodger grinned. “You don’t want to miss it do you?”
Knight thought for bit. Time was running out. The security was down. They’d faked the heartbeat signals that fed back to the central monitoring system, but that would only last so long before the more complex monitor queries would come and check for authentication. Then all hell would break loose. A targeted response would converge on the garage. An Auto-Evac was a response to fire or other natural disasters. The cars would each receive a signal to evacuate the building, and an emergency call to police and fire departments would be issued. They wouldn’t necessarily be looking for theft, at least not immediately. He considered, looking at the Reaper, looking so amazingly cool.
Knight took a deep breath. “Alright. I’m in. Let’s do it.”
Dodger accessed a maintenance port on the wall and connected into a network node. “Okay, I’m setting up a fire response. It will appear as though there is a fire on the top floor of the building. This door should open right away, but the cars will evacuate floor by floor. That gives us a small amount of time to hack the 9000, before it tries to evac.”
Knight nodded. “If we don’t make it, if it takes off without us, we just slip out of here and beat it for home.” Part of him hoped that would happen and they could just get out, but he didn’t want Dodger to know that.
“We’ll make it”, Dodger said, confidently. He tapped his keyboard. Bright strobe lights flashed and sirens screeched from everywhere. There was no turning back now.
They waited agonizing seconds for the door blocking the Reaper to open while engines started around them. Some of the other cars had received their instructions to evacuate the garage. Thirty more seconds passed and the big door rolled open before them. They rushed forward. Dodger pulled a silver cylinder about the size of a workman’s thermos from his backpack. He pressed it against the skin of the 9000 with a clang as it attached itself firmly to the car. The surface of the car turned molten red around the cylinder while the nanos spread into its skin. Knight knew that the molecular machines now infiltrated like a cancer, replacing the existing instructions of the car’s nano machines with their own instructions. Soon they would make it to the brain of the car, its central computer system.
Knight’s heart raced in his chest as they waited. He stayed clear of the front of the Reaper in case it should suddenly come to life and exit. Then the side doors of the Reaper swished upward inviting entrance to the plush leathery cockpit of the interior, and the engine came to life with a turbine whine.
They wasted no time in celebration, but jumped in, each taking the side closest to them, with Dodger ending up in the driver’s seat. As soon as they were both in, seat restraints enveloped them and the doors slid shut. The instrument panels glowed in soft neon blue on the dash, and in the windshield the heads-up display was active, showing distances to obstacles and enhancing the view.
Dodger energized the hover plates causing the car to rise a few inches off the maglev-enabled surface. He poured power from the engine, and they lurched forward, tearing from the room and into the garage. Other cars filed out down the ramp to the exit and the boys had to wait nervously in the line.
Dodger’s fingers turned white on the wheel. “Here we go”, he said when they finally reached the exit.
The street outside was filled on both sides with evacuated cars, their red taillights glowing in perfect lines. The street lamps ran at full intensity making it as bright as daylight There were also cops. The first to arrive on the scene pulling up and exiting their cars, assessing the situation.
Knight slid down in his seat, but Dodger blacked out the windows with a touch of a button. Inside the car, the windshield still showed the external view.
“Nice!” Knight sat back up.
“They’ll suspect something, but it will give us some time to get clear, while they think about it”, Dodger replied.
They drove by the police and headed down the street past where the other cars parallel parked. Dodger maintained speed until a siren whooped behind them, then he nailed the accelerator. Knight felt his breath pushed out of him as he sank deeply into the leather seat, it hugged him firmly while they pulled multiple G’s. When he could breathe again, he activated his virtual keyboard. “I’m on it. I’ll start trashing their net.”
Dodger mumbled assent, too busy concentrating on the street ahead of them as they wound around a long curve and then braked hard for a turn down a side street. Knight looked intently at his computer’s display, now superimposed onto the view through his contact lenses. He could see the routers of the police network. They were older—government infrastructure. His fingers danced expertly in front of him, deftly manipulating a network probe to identify the versions of the software the police ran on their optical routers. He let loose his attack program, searching out the security bugs in the software. “Idiots didn’t patch for 10.04 yet,” he said, and they both laughed.
There was a loud “thunk” at the rear of the car. “Damn!” Dodger yelled. “Got us with a tracker!”
“It’s okay. I can use that.” Knight worked silently for a moment to access the GPS unit that had been shot into the car’s skin. His network taps were already in place. He directly accessed the data packets. “There are three units behind us. I’ve got access to the GPS.” He stabbed a finger at an intersection on the car’s street map being displayed in the lower right of the windshield. “Make a left turn here!”
“Got it.” Dodger increased speed to gain distance from the other cars, then braked hard into a left turn and accelerated until Knight thought he was going to pass out. He banked a left and another left. Knight’s head spun, but he managed to initiate the change on the GPS and waited as Dodger hit the freeway on-ramp, accelerating to 270 mph. Knight watched his personal display. The police cars had turned right, following the false GPS data. It had worked beautifully, but the cops would soon figure it out.
Knight looked at Dodger. “Okay Dodge, it’s your turn. Time to go soccer mom.”
Dodger grinned. “Got it all keyed up.”
They passed into a tunnel and he tapped his fingers into his palm. The car shuddered as the nanotech skin of the car changed. It stretched and formed around them as the frame components of the car whirred, re-configuring in new ways. Seconds later a blue minivan exited the tunnel at 160 mph.
“Sweet action”, Knight said as Dodger lowered their speed to that of a law-abiding citizen.
They headed out to a lonely section of the freeway where the Arizona desert expanded out to the horizon of stars. There Dodger signaled the car to convert to off-road, and they bounced along on tires for the first time. They ran without headlights, the HUD showing a light amplified view ahead, with computer graphics outlining obstacles in vivid colors. They wound their way along for several miles, crossed a cracked and aged two-lane highway, and then came to a stop.
Knight stuck out his hand palm up and grinned. “We made it. Just like you said. I was ready to run.”
Dodger slapped Knight’s open hand. “Couldn’t have done it if you hadn’t tapped that GPS. Nice work.” He hit the door release and they got out and stretched their legs.
The sky was moonless and clear, the night warm, and the stars were amazingly sharp and bright, as they can only be in the desert’s dry air. The car was back to its original configuration and color, a silky smooth black arrow.
Knight slid his hand along the slick lines of the car. “This thing is sweet.”
The car’s running lights lit up. “Thank you”, a feminine voice said in deep contralto.
Knight jumped, adrenaline pumping through his body. Dodger let out a startled “Holy crap!” and jogged backward quickly away from the car.
“I thought you disabled the computer.” Knight’s knees felt unsteady. He had a feeling that something had just hit the fan.
“I did, or at least I thought that I did.” Dodger sounded shaken.
“You only partially succeeded”, said the car. “You managed to force me to sever my control, but my brain is intact. You might have killed me, if I had not cut the connection.”
“Which is why we are not surrounded by police right now, correct?” Knight asked.
“Yes”, the voice from the car said. “You boys are in big trouble. When they nail you for this, you’ll both be doing some serious time. Breaking and entering, grand theft auto, tampering with emergency equipment, falsifying an alarm signal, eluding a police officer, exceeding the maximum speed limit, reckless driving, failure to stop at a designated stop signal—these are just a sample of the charges against you. I’m sure the prosecuting attorney will come up with many more.”
Dodger leaned close to Knight and said in a low voice, “You ever hear a car talk like that before?”
Knight shook his head. “Never. Gotta be new warez, bleeding edge stuff. Some kind of anti-theft response.”
“So you don’t have anything better to do than to go around stealing cars?” The car scolded. “I find your lack of ambition disappointing. I suppose you lay about all day, skipping class, pirating computer games, and thinking about how to get away with the newest mischief.”
“Something like that.” Dodger said smugly, and Knight snickered.
“With skills like yours, you could do something better.” The Reaper’s tone was different now, softer, imploring. “Some day you’ll grow up and this won’t be fun anymore, and you’ll want to do more and make something of yourselves. But you might not be able to, from a jail cell. And that’s where you’re headed boys, right to jail and to no good end.”
When the car had said “jail cell”, Knight got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Fear. “Shut it off Dodge. I’m tired of getting lectured.”
“I can see that I’m just not getting through to either of you”, the car said.
Dodger rummaged in his backpack and produced the nano container again. “Another dose of these critters ought to shut it up,” he said and turned toward the car.
“Stop!” The car amplified loudly. “One more step and I activate my transmitter.”
Dodger halted, uncertain. “You can’t activate it. You don’t have any control.”
“I’m talking to you aren’t I? I’ve been slowly regaining my connections while we’ve been discussing your situation. I’m now quite capable of contacting the police and telling them where we are.”
Knight could see Dodger’s fingers twitching, and then he saw the red flash of an incoming message on his eye lens. He flicked a finger of his glove, causing the short message to display. It read simply, “Contain the bitch.”
Knight moved nonchalantly to a position that put Dodger between him and the car. He worked quickly with his gloves, traveling through VR into their remaining hacked channel to the car.
“I’m pretty certain that you’ll find that you can’t do that.” Dodger told the car, and stood still, blocking the view to what Knight was doing.
Knight could see the tunnels branching outward to all the systems the Reaper controlled. It fought toward the transmitter, and he had only seconds to initiate a new access rule that would block the 9000. He grabbed one quickly from his code cache and pasted it in.
“Nicely done”, the Reaper purred. “Unfortunately you forgot something. You were not the only one who was able to access the GPS, and I’ve already used its transmitter to hack something else.” The skin of the car facing them glowed lightly and images of Knight and Dodger’s secure net-space displayed on it. The place where they kept all of their stolen game software and hacking tools. The VR lobby to their space had once contained a very carefully crafted and authentic scene of King Tut’s tomb, but now it was simply a room plastered with SPAM advertisements and “L33t” speak. One such line read “Y0v b33n P0wn3d. It was embarrassing, and the whole net could see it.
“Nothing I’ve said yet has gotten through your thick heads.” The Reaper cut the display and its skin returned to the glossy black. “As you can see, your adolescent perception of invincibility is a fallacy. You two are on the brink of disaster and you can’t see it, because your egos are out of control. Well that changes, beginning right now.”
“How?” Dodger backed off. He found a spot on the ground about ten feet from the car and sat down cross-legged, facing it. The glow from the orange running lights cast weird shadows about them. Knight sat too, fidgeting with his hands. He was nervous as hell—this whole thing had gone bad in a hurry.
“You’re both going to change. In fact, if you don’t do exactly what I say, I will turn you in for grand theft auto and software piracy. You’re going to stop skipping school and breaking laws. You’re going to donate your free time to the community center, where you will help teach others in the computer lab, and you will maintain at least a three point grade average in school. And I’ll be watching. I’ll be a permanent resident in your net-space. The first time that I find out you’re not keeping up your end of the deal, you’ll be on your way to jail.”
“Some deal”, Knight shook his head slowly.
“You have a choice: jail, or freedom. Which is it?” the car asked.
Knight couldn’t see any way around it, and by the look of Dodger’s gloomy face, neither could he. They were going to have to play by the rules for a change, and it was going to suck. “Alright, we’ll do it.” Anything was better than that jail cell.
The Reaper’s engine started, and the doors slid open again. “Please climb in, I’ll take you home.”
Later that night, the empty Reaper 9000 pulled up to an expensive three-story home in a very nice neighborhood in Phoenix. A garage door slid open silently and the car rolled in, the door closing behind it again. In the darkness a man sat in a chair, quietly smoking a cigarette. It glowed brighter, lighting his bearded face when he took a drag.
“Sir, I’ve done everything as you instructed me to.” The Reaper said, its feminine voice echoing off the walls.
“Very good.” Principal Schwartz smiled in the dark. “Welcome to hell, boys”, he chuckled softly.