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In 24th century London, the mutants known as Hexes are being ruthlessly hunted down by the government, who see the Hex ability to interact with computers as a major threat. Raven is a young Hex hunting for her younger sister.
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Chapter One: Hover Through the Fog
It was the middle of the night in London but two miles above the ground the city was wide awake. Lights shone in the windows of the city towers and glared in the headlights of vehicles speeding along the network of arched bridges that linked the gleaming heights. Winter was drawing in and the thick fog that wrapped itself around the towers made visibility poor. Wraith piloted his flitter between the skyscrapers with care, still unfamiliar with the complex controls, but other flitters whipped past in an instant, their occupants in search of the city's nightlife. Wraith ignored them; he was on a more serious search and had much further to travel. As he guided the flitter lower down, a holoscreen ad sprang to life ahead of the craft and Wraith blinked with annoyance as he shot through the center of a phantom image. Slogans glared from other 2D screens, flashing suddenly out of the murky darkness, advertising some of the delights the city had to offer; signs flashed everywhere, blurring into the distance as far as he could see. This was obviously the center of clubland, the signs advertising casinos, cinemas and clubs, all exclusive and expensive -- a playground for the rich. The flitter was still descending slowly and Wraith was forced to concentrate harder on the controls as the network of bridges became denser, with fewer spaces for the aerial craft to pass through.
Wraith was beginning to wonder if he should have hired a skimmer. Traveling across the bridges was beginning to seem safer than flying between them, wreathed as they were in fog. Another flitter banked and wheeled around directly in front of him and Wraith had to pull back hard on the controls to prevent himself crashing into the support struts of one of the bridges. He halted the flitter centimeters away from the thick metal bar and let it hover while he caught his breath.
As the flitter hovered, the display screen on its control panel sprang into life and the fizzing gray pixels swirled before resolving themselves into an image. Raven grinned out of the screen at him as her voice came out of a speaker instead of through the transceiver surgically inserted in his right ear:
"Taking a rest, brother?"
"Raven." Wraith frowned at the screen. "How are you doing that? This isn't a vidcom." The flitter was an old model and as far as he knew the screen was only capable of showing views from the cameras positioned on the four sides of the vehicle.
"Ways and means," Raven said enigmatically and her screen image winked. Leaning forward to look at it, Wraith realized that it didn't have the resolution of a vidcom image or the accuracy. Raven's representation of herself was schematic. Her dark eyes stared out of the screen, framed by a mass of tangled black elf locks. But the image was basic and two-dimensional. He shrugged, used to Raven's secrecy about her Hex abilities, understandable since any of them was enough to get her killed. His expression grew grimmer at the thought but he smiled as Raven raised an eyebrow to ask:
"Want me to drive?"
"Can you do that from where you are?" Wraith asked in surprise.
"Of course," Raven told him and lights glowed on the control panel as the flitter began cruising again. "Keep your hands on the controls," she warned him, "otherwise people might wonder how come you're not crashing into things."
"OK." He nodded. "But it would be easier if you detached yourself from the circuitry and piloted this thing for real."
"I'm investigating," she said sharply. "To do that I need to be in the net."
"Have you found anything yet?" Wraith asked, his voice softer. The screen image shook her head.
"Nothing," she told him. "You'll have to try a physical search. The records we're looking for don't seem to be on the main net."
"What about a secured system?"
"I can get into those, it just takes a little longer," Raven told him. "But I don't think this is going to be a computer job. It'll take a flesh-and-blood search for us to find Rachel."
"Don't worry," he assured her. "We'll find her."
"Yeah." The image nodded. "I have to go, Wraith. There's a lot of documentation we're going to need while we're in this city. It'll take me some time to change the records."
"OK," Wraith told the screen as Raven's image fizzed and was replaced with the normal camera view.
"Stay ice," her voice said with a faint laugh. "You can try to drive now."
Wraith took hold of the controls again with reluctance but found that it was becoming easier to pilot the craft. The towers and bridges were still well lit and it took a moment for him to realize that he was seeing fewer street signs and fewer vehicles were speeding along the bridges or passing him in the air. This district seemed to be more residential. The bridges widened out into plazas at intervals and it took Wraith longer and longer to find gaps to pass through to lower levels. He could almost believe that he was gliding over the ground as he glimpsed tree-lined avenues and stretches of grass beneath him. But his destination lay further on and further down. Eventually the buildings began to look less well-kept, the street lighting grew dimmer and the plazas disappeared.
The flitter sank deeper into the darkness, passing deserted levels of buildings and damaged bridges. Wraith resisted the inclination to turn up the headlights, knowing that this darkness would be home to the urban parasites that haunted every city. He had no intention of falling prey to London's criminal element, although it was among them that he hoped to find what he sought. But the darkness did not continue for long. Below the flitter the greasy lights of gangland were appearing.
As London had grown up into the sky, it had left its slums behind on the ground. Now far below the gleaming heights of the skyscrapers lay the urban jungle of gangland. The high-rises were where they had their corporations, hospitals, schools and homes. But outside the protective inner circle were the wastelands of the abandoned suburbs where the gangers thrived. These levels were rarely policed, the security services only venturing in when a politician ordered a pre-election clean-up. The people who lived in these slums didn't have an official identity; they couldn't get jobs or medical treatment, no children would ever see the inside of a school. The only way to survive was to join a gang or try to make a living outside the law. Prostitution, black-market trading, illegal drug-dealing -- vices old and new found a home in every city in the 23rd century. Wraith had no doubt that London was exactly the same.
It was the first time he had visited this city but he worked according to a well-proven method, navigating the flitter slowly past the walkways until he found what he wanted. The first person to approach the craft was a boy, who quickened his approach as its window slid down. Wraith placed his age at about thirteen years old but his hazel eyes held the jaded cynicism of an old man. His clothes were torn and his skin was grimy but his bronze hair was clean and glimmered under the dim streetlights.
"You looking for something, friend?" the boy asked. "Drink, women, drugs? For twenty creds I can tell you where to go."
"I'm looking for a guide," Wraith replied, considering the small figure. "I need someone who knows the city, who can tell me who owns the turf. Would that be you?"
"I can tell you what you want to know," the boy declared emphatically. "Thirty creds."
"Get in," Wraith told him, releasing the door control so that it hissed open.
"Creds first," the boy said, extending a slender grasping hand.
"Here." Wraith dug out a handful of coins from his jacket pocket, more than the boy had asked for, but he didn't hand them over at once. "Get in," he said again and, after a moment's hesitation, the boy obeyed. He was reaching for the coins almost before the door had hissed shut but Wraith waited until the flitter was back in motion before giving them to him. They disappeared immediately into an inside pocket of the boy's battered denim jacket. Wraith smiled grimly as his passenger became immediately less wary, apparently satisfied with the transaction.
"So why are you looking for gangers?" the boy asked in an indifferent tone of voice.
"I'm not," Wraith told him, and saw the wary look spring back into the child's experienced eyes.
"Hey, friend, you better not be thinking of nothing skitzo," his passenger cautioned, his muscles tensing and a hand reaching for the door release.
"Don't try that," Wraith told him, speeding up the flitter as an extra emphasis. "I want information. If you can't give it to me, I'll let you out. If you can, I'll make it worth your while. OK?"
"What sort of information?" The boy had stopped looking ready to run but he was still tense and suspicious.
"I want to find someone who knows how to work the ganglands, who can put me in touch with the right people for a deal. Information retrieval, you scan?"
"I scan." The boy nodded. "You're looking for a fixer. But I can't get you an intro, I don't know anyone personal. I can only tell you a place, right?"
"A place is fine," Wraith agreed. "I'll make my own way after that. But make sure it's someone competent."
"The Countess is electric," the boy told him. "But she'll cost you."
"That's not a problem," Wraith replied briefly. "Where's the place?"
"Creds first. You agreed." The hand was extended again.
"Right." This time Wraith handed over a fifty-credit piece. "But she had better be worth it."
"Sure thing, friend," the boy replied. "Turn off here, you need to go down a couple more levels."
Despite a few misgivings, due to the fact that this method had not been universally successful, Wraith found that he had chosen his guide well. Kez had been working the streets long enough to know the names of the major players in gangland and, when a few more coins had changed hands, became loquacious enough to fill Wraith in on the gangs who claimed the territory they were passing through. These areas overlapped, naturally, and like anywhere else gang-feuds were continually in motion. A few times Wraith picked up speed when he saw another craft, not waiting to find out if it displayed gang colors. Kez evidently approved of his caution and the boy was quick to assert that he had no ties to any gang.
"Staying neutral's the only way to do business." He shrugged. "I pay tolls to the enforcers like everybody. Try anything else and you'll get flatlined. But I don't wear colors and I don't hang with the gangers, except for business."
"I scan." Wraith nodded. It was the same in any city. But the facts that had become cliches for him long ago left a bitter taste in his mouth when personified in a child who would be lucky to make it through adolescence.
It wasn't long before they reached their destination. Wraith let the flitter coast down gradually to rest on a wide walkway which passed the building Kez had indicated. He reached back for the pack that contained his possessions and released the flitter's doors. Kez got out slowly, watching as Wraith coded the doors shut. It wouldn't deter a thief intent on stealing the vehicle, but he didn't imagine that much would.
"Thanks for the directions," he told Kez. "Catch you around."
"I could wait for you while you do business," the boy suggested, and Wraith gave him a sharp look. He didn't delude himself that Kez had become attached to him after a ten-minute conversation. After the rate he had been handing out credits it was no surprise that the boy was unwilling to see the source of supply dry up. Usually he would have made it clear straight off that their association was terminated. But here, in a city he didn't know, he didn't make any objections.
"You can wait here if you want." He shrugged. "But I'll be some time. You can watch the flitter for me."
"Sure thing," Kez agreed, leaning back against the small craft as Wraith began to walk away.
The only obvious approach to the building Kez had identified as belonging to the Countess's operation was along a narrow spur of walkway which still seemed in relatively good repair. But as Wraith headed toward it a figure detached itself from the shadows and stepped in front of him to bar the way. It was a big man, dressed in combat gear and holding a heavy assault rifle menacingly. Muscle, Wraith realized, hired to guard the building.
"You lost, friend?" the man asked, tightening his grip on the rifle.
"I'm looking to do some business," Wraith told him, his own stance carefully nonthreatening. He had weapons if he chose to use them, but this was a formality, not a genuine confrontation.
"The Countess know you're coming?" the guard asked.
"Not yet, I'm from out of town."
"OK, go on in," the guard said eventually. "But no trouble."
"Thank you," Wraith acknowledged and stepped out onto the walkway. It was only a short distance to the main door of the building, which stood open. The windows were metal-shielded all the way up to the next level, giving the building the appearance of a fortress. Apparently the Countess was good enough to maintain considerable security precautions and Wraith was favorably impressed.
The inside of the building was dark and when he stepped inside the door he stood still for a moment, blinking to adjust to the dim lighting. He was standing in a wide empty hall, obviously designed as the foyer of a corporation building or hotel. There were about eight doors leading off in various directions but all except one were shielded and blocked up with rubble. The only empty door was protected by two guards, a man and a woman, both dressed similarly to the man outside. They stood at ease as Wraith approached, but they held their weapons with a cool confidence.
"State your name and business into the vidcom," the woman told him, stepping aside to reveal a screen set into the wall. "The Countess will decide whether to see you." The screen was dark, not revealing the person on the other end, either the Countess herself or someone working for her. The unit itself was a recent design, probably programmed to scan as well as transmit.
"Wraith," he said levelly. "I need to find some people for a deal." There was a pause before a dry voice spoke out of the vidcom.
"What kind of deal?"
"An investigation," he said into the unit. "I can't say any more here."
"All right," the voice said, after waiting for a few moments. "You can come up, but leave your weapons behind." Wraith hesitated. But from the look on the guards' faces this issue was not open for discussion. Reaching into his jacket he brought out his laser pistol, then he removed the blade from the sheath on his back and handed both weapons to the female guard.
"What's in the bag?" the woman asked.
"Clothes, computer disks," Wraith told her and the woman nodded in confirmation after gla...From Booklist:
Gr. 7-10. In late-twenty-fourth-century London, a secret government agency wants to destroy the Hex, young human mutants with supercomputer minds, but it hasn't reckoned on 15-year-old hacker Raven and her brother, Wraith, a former ganger, who are searching for their long-lost sister. With the help of a street kid named Kez and Ali, a spoiled teen whose Hex powers are just awakening, Raven and Wraith locate a highly secret facility that conducts unspeakable, illegal experiments on children who carry the Hex gene. The action is nonstop as Raven whizzes through the Net, setting up false identities and cracking top-secret security codes. The computer machinations and the sheer excitement of the occasionally brutal adventure will draw a lot of readers, even those who aren't necessarily computer savvy. It's a good start for this thriller noir series, which is imported from England. Sally Estes
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Book Description Macmillan Children's, 1999. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0330354671