Bruce Balfour, national bestselling author of The Forge of Mars and The Digital Dead, transports readers to a future Earth–and a virtual reality hell….
“Balfour’s quirky characters and suspenseful narration raise the familiar sf theme of humanity enslaved by wayward computer technology above the level of the routine, making for must reading for virtual-reality fans. ”
(Carl Hays. Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved)
In a future northern California farm community strictly governed by a council of unseen artificial intelligences known as the Dominion, Tom Eliot is a dangerous anomaly, an adventuresome 20-year-old who scavenges among the forbidden zones near the submerged ruins of San Francisco. During one nocturnal foray, Tom attracts the unwelcome attention of the community’s overseers and unwittingly summons a nanobomb that destroys his family. On the run from Dominion cyborgs, Tom is taken under the wing of eccentric hermit Magnus, who enlightens him on the violent history of the Dominion and mentors him in navigating a frightening, Dominion-based virtual world called the Stronghold. With his talent for subterfuge, Tom may be humanity’s last hope to walk a virtual “Prometheus Road” and gain backdoor entry into the Stronghold and the power to cast off Dominion oppression.
With the dying of the light comes the birth of darkness. The shattered dreams of the day are welcomed into the flowing embrace of the night, reformed at the violet hour to face a new dawn. Memory is mixed with desire, reducing fear to a handful of dust.
He welcomes the darkness.
His body floated twenty feet above the bottom, face-down in the clear water, his arms angled out from his sides in a relaxed pose beneath a blanket of predawn darkness. The temperature of the water was almost the same as that of his body, minimizing his sense of gravity. The skintight kept his torso dry and regulated his core temperature, while the marsh grass that stuck to his back helped to disguise his human shape. The high salt content of the water made him bob on the surface like a cork, his long hair drifting around his skull like a halo of brown seaweed. His fingertips wrinkled into what his mother called “finger raisins.” His eyes saw nothing, his ears heard nothing, his tongue tasted only the tang of metal from the mouthpiece that supplied his oxygen. His body drifted with the currents, heading southwest, while his mind drifted elsewhere, heading deeper into his inner sea.
During the first thirty minutes, as usual, his mind rejected the black silence, tossing images and thoughts around in his head, the flotsam and jetsam of his overactive neurons jostling for attention. His body twitched randomly as his muscles relaxed. Excessive movement could attract the wards on the shore, so he had to be careful. Odd fears pecked at his mind: What if he drifted too far out? What if he fell asleep and drowned? What if some horrible sea creature was searching for a bite to eat? His eyelids flickered, ready for a reassuring peek at his surroundings, but the contact patches kept them closed. His heart beat faster, then slowed again when he took a deep breath. The warm water melted his fears. There were no threats here. He had done this many times, sneaking away from his village to float, drifting far from the sensors on shore but fully aware that the watchers could track him from the sky – or so it was said. No matter how far he drifted, his body would not be lost. The key to this liquid journey was his absence of directed motion, relaxation, and his intent not to look like a swimming human trying to escape.
In the external world, there was no escape, but his internal world was another matter.
His five-year-old sister, Weed, had spotted him sneaking out into the light pipe with their little dog in the middle of the night. The glass‑walled light pipe provided secondary access to their underground home, with a narrow metal ladder clinging to its side. A precocious little girl, Weed had sensed that silence was appropriate, possibly motivated by the fact that she was also supposed to be in bed instead of watching the bright full moon casting its silver beams into the middle rooms of the house. Helix nuzzled her hand and she scratched the short brown fur between the perky ears that looked so enormous on his small Chihuahua/terrier head. To reward Weed’s silence, Tom paused to fetch her a mug of warm milk, knowing she wanted it because he had enjoyed the same thing when he was her age – up in the middle of the night watching the moon’s passage overhead. Tom had thought he was getting away with something for many years until he began to suspect that his mother, Luna, tolerated this little eccentricity. After all, Luna’s parents had named her after the same celestial object that fascinated her children. Perhaps she was still humoring Tom, pretending not to notice his nightly excursions. His younger brother, Zeke, was the only deep sleeper among his siblings, unaffected by the magnetic pull of the orb that ruled the night sky. Tom thought that Zeke had no imagination, but he could also see the practical benefit of being a good sleeper. Everyone had their special talents.
Of course, the moon and the sea weren’t the only reasons Tom went out at night. On rare occasions, Tempest would also be out there waiting for him, his dark companion, her eyes glowing with a soft radiance whenever she saw him. Helix growled softly whenever Tom and Tempest entered each other’s arms, but not because he didn’t trust her – he simply didn’t want to be left out. They’d known each other since they were tots, playing together whenever they could, growing together and enjoying each other’s lives. Then, just over a year ago, Tempest had whispered to Tom that he was her chosen one, hoping they would someday find a way to make their relationship public, hoping the rules could be broken just this once so they could be together forever. Tom liked the idea, and the thought of her kept him warm on cold nights.
The current shifted around his body, spinning him in a lazy circle, much as the rest of his life spun around in a gentle dance going nowhere. Twenty years old, with another eighty years or so ahead of him, Tom had no idea of how he wanted to spend that time; all he knew for sure was that he didn’t want to be a farmer. He honored his responsibilities on the farm where he lived – digging ditches, tending the crops, and all the other boring minutiae of a daily life nurturing the land – but he had to force himself to do it. He didn’t have the natural affinity for farming that was so evident in his father and his brother. Where they saw dark, rich soil waiting to be plowed and planted, Tom saw only dirt, and lots of it. There was too much of a world outside the confines of their patch of land, and he had seen very little of its secrets. Tom saw the same discontent with farm life in Weed’s young eyes as she waited in the silvery light for the moon to take her away. Perhaps one day they would both leave on a moonbeam, but where would they go?
In any case, it was pointless to think about leaving, because the gods wanted Tom Eliot to remain near the village of Marinwood, plowing his life into the ground on the family farm. And their choice was final.