Happy New Year! The time has truly flown by, because it feels like just yesterday that we were entering 2017. Hopefully everyone had a wonderful holiday season and is ready to start the new year with a bang.
Getting right to the point, I know that many of my readers are anxiously awaiting the next Kid Sensation novel. I really hate talking about progress and estimated completion dates because it always seems like doing so jinxes things. That said, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I'm really close to finishing and hope to wrap it up by the end of January. However, my publisher still has to work her magic on the manuscript afterwards, so that an actual release date probably won't be until February, at the earliest. (And that's not accounting for the time my formatting guy needs to do his thing.)
Anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to publish an excerpt from the new book, with the usual caveats, of course (ie, my editor hasn't seen this yet, etc.):
Despite having gone up against bad guys before, this was officially my first mission, the first one where my presence was actually sanctioned by the Alpha League. However, because of the individual we were about to face off with – Dream Machine – putting me (or someone like me) on the mission roster had almost been a foregone conclusion.
Technically, Dream Machine wasn’t a person. He had started off as an artificial intelligence – a set of complex computer programs designed to help people with dementia through direct interface with the human brain.
Initially, the project was considered a roaring success. Somehow, however, the AI not only outgrew its original programming but also became self-aware. Moreover, through its incipient work with those suffering from dementia, it had somehow developed to the ability to manipulate human perception. In short, it could cause people to see hallucinations, among other things. Taking on the name Dream Machine (and a masculine persona), the AI had decided that it could best fulfill its original purpose of helping people by conquering humanity. Thus, since escaping several years ago from the computer network where he was housed, Dream Machine had made world domination his top priority.
All of this flitted through my mind as we got closer to the elevator. Phasing through the roof, we found the interior of the elevator just as arenose and cobwebbed as the shaft we’d just left. Changing direction, I now moved us forward, taking us through the rusted-shut elevator doors.
The first thing I noticed when we emerged was light. Previously, we had been making our way through the subterranean tunnels and hallways in almost complete darkness. Now, however, there was a fair amount of illumination.
Glancing around, I saw that we were in a sizeable chamber that seemed to extend about a hundred feet ahead of us, as well as rise several stories in height. The light I had noticed apparently stemmed from two sources: electric bulbs that seemed to have been placed haphazardly throughout the place, and steel drums being used as burn barrels.
Much to my surprise, there were people scattered throughout the place – some old, some young, some alone, some with families. I had no idea where they had come from or how they’d managed to find their way this far underground, but one look at their threadbare clothing, well-worn footwear, and the multitude of sleeping bags made it clear to me that they were homeless.
Picking up a minor twinge of surprise from Mouse, I leaned towards him and whispered, “They’re real.”
Mouse merely gave a solemn nod in response as he removed his goggles. Like me, he had clearly not expected to find people here, and my statement was an indication to him that these people actually existed, as opposed to being illusions fabricated by Dream Machine.
This was the real benefit of having me on this mission. Basically, Dream Machine’s illusions only appeared within the visible light spectrum. In other words, they only manifested within the range of the spectrum that was visible to the human eye. Ergo, people with normal vision were susceptible to the hallucinations he created, but someone like me – with my vision currently outside the visible light spectrum – couldn’t see them at all. That meant I could tell what was real and what wasn’t. Moreover, my empathic abilities also served as a differentiator, since illusions don’t have emotions.
At the moment, I was picking up the usual emotions that one might expect from people dealing with homelessness: worry, fear, dread, and so on. At the same time, however, I picked up on feelings of comfort, hope, friendliness, and the like. Basically, on an overall basis, it wasn’t much different that the sentiments I’d pick up from any random group of people. Thus, convinced that we were in no immediate danger, I placed Mouse and myself on the ground and made us substantial again. By that time, however, our presence had been noted.
Up to that point, there had been a multitude of conversations going on, but they quickly ground to a halt as those assembled became aware of strangers in their midst. Slowly, like the tide inexorably crashing on the shore, a wave of silence seemed to wash over those around us as all eyes turned in our direction.
I didn’t pick up on any indications of malice, but the sea of staring eyes made me wary. Then, almost simultaneously (and so closely in unison that it might have been choreographed), everyone around us pointed towards the far end of the chamber, where another set of double doors was located. Quite plainly, they knew who we were (or at least why we were there).
Taking our cue, Mouse and I began heading towards the doors. As we walked, I couldn’t help but feel a slight bit of guilt as I noticed those around us huddling close to the burn barrels for warmth. Although we were on the verge of spring, it was still cold outside. Assuming there was some kind of ventilation system down here – and there had to be for these people to get air (not to mention preventing the burn barrels from filling the place with smoke) – it was probably cold air that was coming in. Thus, while not as wintry as being on the streets, it was quite likely that it could get cold enough down here to get uncomfortable.
For Mouse and I, the League uniforms that we wore were not just well-insulated, but also loaded with so much technology that getting a chill was the last thing we had to worry about. Needless to say, we hadn’t done anything wrong, but I felt guilty all the same about being warm and cozy.
In addition, I noticed that the space we were in wasn’t actually designed to be the huge chamber I initially took it to be. Upon closer inspection, I saw that Mouse and I were actually on the ground floor of what had been a multi-story facility of some sort. (In retrospect, I actually remembered floating past several floors as we had come down the elevator shaft.) From all indications, some portion of the structure had collapsed, leaving several rooms on multiple floors open and visible, thereby creating the semblance of a large space. Frankly speaking, it put me in mind of a wrecking ball that had smashed into the side of a building, leaving much of the interior exposed to the outside.
We were about a quarter of the way to the double doors when everyone – again, in synchronized fashion – dropped their hands. Presumably we knew which way to go at that juncture, so the chamber’s occupants (at least those on the same floor as us) busied themselves with hurriedly stepping out of our path, as if we had a disease they might catch. They still didn’t speak, however; they merely continued to watch us in stony silence.
We had almost reached the double doors when a young girl – about eight years old or so – dropped a doll she was holding as she stepped out of our path. I had just come abreast of her at the time, so I bent down to retrieve her plaything at the same time that the girl herself did. Our simultaneous action resulted in us almost bumping heads, but our comic timing was slightly off. Thus, although we didn’t inadvertently head butt each other, her face did wind up close to my ear.
“Watch the shadows,” she hastily whispered, at the same time taking her doll (which I had reached first) from my hand.
I stood up, frowning slightly over what I’d just heard and trying to discern the meaning. I glanced at the girl, who had just been gripped firmly by the arm, pulled back, and shushed by a woman who presumably was her mother. Still pondering her words, I stepped forward to join Mouse, who was already at the doors (which appeared to be locked). My mentor looked at me expectantly. Knowing what he wanted, I phased the doors and we stepped through.
We now found ourselves in a spacious tunnel. The place was modestly lit with a few incandescent lights, which provided enough illumination that Mouse didn’t need his NVGs. A couple of darkened, recessed spaces in the tunnel walls indicated the presence of several corridors that presumably led to other areas.
“There,” Mouse said, pointing at what appeared to be a metal post with some blinking lights that stood in the middle of the tunnel. He ran towards it, with me right on his heels.
As we approached, I realized that the flashing lights were actually diodes on a small black box about the size of my palm. It was attached to the pole at a height of about four feet. The pole itself was about nine feet tall and was not just in the middle of the tunnel, but also centered between two railway tracks.
“This is it,” Mouse said, pulling a thin cable from a pouch at his belt. “One of the computer hubs connected to Dream Machine.”
“That’s a computer?” I asked in surprise as Mouse used the cable to connect his tablet to a port on the black box.”
“Yeah,” Mouse assured me. “Why?”
I shrugged. “I guess when I think ‘computer’ I envision things like a keyboard and monitor.”
“Dream Machine is an AI. He doesn’t need that kind of interface to interact with a computer program or software.”
“So why have lights down here? He obviously doesn’t need those either.”
“That’s for our benefit - so we can see whatever he sends at us. Now get ready. Even with the distraction provided by the others, we can’t expect to go undetected.”
I nodded in agreement. Mouse’s last statement alluded to the fact that the two of us weren’t the only Alpha League contingent currently engaging with Dream Machine. Somewhere well above us and miles away, another team was making a direct assault on an isolated warehouse that had been identified as the AI’s main base of operations. With any luck, he’d be so preoccupied with the main team knocking down his front door that he wouldn’t pay close to attention to us slipping in the back. In short, what Mouse and I were doing could be generally construed as a sneak attack on Dream Machine’s unprotected rear.
What we were hoping to do, of course, was put a stop to the AI’s current machinations, which included uploading a malicious code to an orbiting communications satellite. Basically, in order to manipulate what a person was seeing or hearing, Dream Machine usually had to be in close proximity to the affected individual. However, if he could take control of the satellite in question (which is what the code was designed to do), it would give the AI a much broader reach – global in fact. In brief, he’d be able to influence the perception of almost anyone, anywhere on the planet. And if Mouse’s calculations were correct (which was usually the case), the upload would be complete in about fifteen minutes.
Needless to say, the easiest way to stop Dream Machine would have been to simply shut down the satellite. Unfortunately, permission to do so hadn’t been forthcoming. Apparently the satellite in question had certain military applications, and making it go dark – even temporarily – would have compromised several sensitive operations. (The requisite bureaucratic decision makers had pretty much dismissed the suggestion out of hand.) Thus, we had been forced to employ our current stratagem.
I thought about all of this as Mouse went to work typing on his tablet. In addition to giving us access to Dream Machine’s systems, hubs like the one Mouse had connected his tablet to were used by the AI as an escape hatch – a means for him to make a quick getaway to the internet when necessary. Thus, we were not only hoping to use it to disrupt his current plans, but to also trap him but shutting down his exit route.
Without warning, I heard a noise like the growl of a large predator coming from somewhere nearby. Quickly, I spun around in a circle, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound, but couldn’t see anything. Moreover, I wasn’t picking up any emotional vibes from anything other than Mouse.
The growl sounded again – closer, and in a way that hinted at anger…or hunger.
“Polar bear,” Mouse announced in answer to my unasked question.
“Where?” I asked still looking around.
“Right in front of me,” Mouse stated, continuing to type without missing a beat. “Just took a swipe at my head with a massive paw.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“Good,” Mouse declared. “That’s the entire reason you’re here.”
I didn’t respond, but his words reminded me of why I had been included on this mission: my ability to see outside the visible light spectrum, which meant that I would be unaffected by any hallucinations that Dream Machine might employ. Being able to separate fact from fantasy was absolutely critical at this juncture if we were going to stop him.
Unfortunately, although I wasn’t visually vulnerable to Dream Machine’s illusions, I was affected on an auditory level. In essence, I could still hear them, even though they weren’t visible to me. Thus, when I looked to where Mouse indicated the polar bear was located, I didn’t see anything other than mentor’s shadow cast against the wall. With his fingers flying across the tablet as he typed, the image on the wall gave the impression of a mad composer trying to complete his magnus opus within the span of a few minutes.
After a few seconds, the sound of the growling polar bear melted away. It was replaced almost immediately, however, by an ominous creaking, followed by the sound of numerous heavy items thunderously striking the ground.
“Cave in,” Mouse said by way of explanation.
And so we continued for the next minute or two, with me hearing an odd new sound every few seconds, and Mouse identifying it for my benefit. It would almost have been a game of sorts, were the situation not so serious, because Dream Machine obviously knew we were here and was trying to run us off. But if this was the best the AI could do, we probably didn’t have much to worry about.
A deafening, animalistic roar suddenly sounded in front of me, catching me off guard.
“What was that?” I practically demanded.
“A dragon, by the looks of it,” Mouse replied.
“A dragon?” I repeated, unable to hide my surprise.
“Yeah – a fire-breathing one, at that.”
Okay, this I have to see, I thought. I cycled my vision back to the visible light spectrum, and sure enough – just as Mouse had said – there was an enormous, fire-breathing dragon right in front of us. It was winged and covered in gold-and-green scales, with a long, supple tail that whipped back-and-forth. As I watched, the creature’s nostrils flared and its diaphragm expanded; a moment later, its mouth opened and a stream of fire shot out, bathing me and Mouse in flames.
I had to give Dream Machine credit: his creation was beautiful and incredibly life-like. Even knowing that it wasn’t real, I still half-expected us to get burnt to a crisp. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and when the flames died down the dragon was gone.
A moment later, however, I heard an odd clicking noise coming from overhead. Looking up, I’m sure my eyes bulged as I saw a bloated, man-sized spider descending towards us on a silky line of webbing from its spinneret. Almost completely black and with mandibles clacking together spasmodically, it reached towards Mouse with long, spindly legs. Unexpectedly, it lunged in an apparent attempt to bite my mentor’s head off. It was all I could do not to shout out a warning, but just before its fangs made contact, the spider disappeared.
Mouse gave me a quick sideways glance, but didn’t say anything. It was a sure bet that I’d given him some non-verbal cues that I’d switched my vision to the visible spectrum. (Plus he was no longer giving me a play-by-play overview of Dream Machine’s illusions, which suggested he knew that I could see them myself.)
A light suddenly began shining at the far end of the tunnel directly ahead of us. As I watched, it seemed to move closer towards us, like someone with a flashlight walking in our direction – except the light seemed to be held in a steady position. A moment, a noise like an airhorn reverberated through the tunnel.
No, not an airhorn, I thought. A subway horn!
As if in confirmation of this, the rails on either side of us began to vibrate, and I heard the sound of a train car in motion – metal wheels grinding on metal tracks. Dream Machine’s latest illusion was headed right for us.
With the light shining in our faces, I wasn’t able to get a good look at the AI’s latest fabrication, although I imagined it was a full-length subway train. However, as it drew closer, the lights in the tunnel caused the train’s shadow to form on the wall, and I was a little disappointed to note that it was seemingly just a single subway car.
With klaxons going off in my head, the word leaped to the forefront of my brain – along with the dire warning of the little homeless girl. Thoughts racing, I reflected back on the illusions I had seen and suddenly realized that neither of them had cast shadows. That meant…
I immediately – almost simultaneously – did three things: I cycled my vision away from the visible spectrum; shouted a warning to Mouse that consisted solely of the word “Real!”; and phased the two of us.
The subway car – which was in no way an illusion – was almost on us at that point. The fact that he sent something real (and capable of causing us grievous harm) was a sure indicator that Dream Machine was no longer fooling around. He was intent on stopping us by any means necessary.
Thankfully, I had phased us in time for the subway car to pass through us harmlessly. Unfortunately, in my haste, I forgot to phase the metal post with the computer hub attached (although I had phased Mouse’s tablet). The train hit it at ramming speed, ripping the post up from the ground and dragging it along with it down the tracks. Mouse, who – to his credit – had never stopped working even when I’d shouted that the train was real, merely turned and watched as the post, now caught beneath the subway car’s wheels, spewed forth a bright shower of sparks. A moment later, accompanied by the squeal of grinding metal, the train derailed and crashed into the wall of the tunnel with a sound like a bomb going off. The tunnel shook for a moment, causing the lights to flicker briefly as dust came cascading down from the ceiling.
A slight popping noise drew my attention to the floor, where I noticed some exposed wiring from several cables that had snapped when the post was dragged away. The popping noise sounded again, in concert with a few sparks from the wiring.
“Please tell me that you stopped the upload,” I said as Mouse and I stepped back from what was obviously a live wire and I made the two of us solid again.
“Not enough time,” Mouse said solemnly.
I let out a sigh of disgust, furious with myself. I had failed miserably. The entire reason for me being here was my ability to differentiate reality from illusion, and I had allowed myself to get so distracted that it affected the mission.
“So, that’s it,” I said, feeling wretched. “Dream Machine wins.”