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The Labyrinth Key

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The Labyrinth Key

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Author: Howard V. Hendrix
Publisher: Del Rey, 2004
Series: The Labyrinth Key: Book 1

1. The Labyrinth Key
2. Spears of God

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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In a secret war waged in worlds both virtual and real, the fates of nations depend on the definitive weapon. And that weapon is knowledge-knowledge to die for. . . .

The race is heating up between the U.S. and China to develop a quantum computer with infinite capabilities to crack any enemy’s codes, yet keep secure its own secrets. The government that achieves this goal will win a crucial prize. No other computer system will be safe from the reach of this master machine.

Dr. Jaron Kwok was working for the U.S. government to build such a computer. But in a posh hotel in Hong Kong, a Chinese policewoman sifts through the bizarre, ashlike remains of what’s left of the doctor. With the clock ticking, alliances will be forged-and there are those who will stop at nothing to discover what the doctor knew. As the search for answers intensifies, it becomes chillingly clear that the quantum computer both sides so desperately want will be more powerful, more dangerous than anyone could have ever imagined.

For in the twenty-first century, machines become gods, gods become machines, and the once-impossible now lies within reach. The key to unlimited knowledge will create the ultimate weapon of mass destruction-or humanity’s last chance to save itself. . . .





The annual Pilot's Festival was well underway at Don Sturm's and Karuna Drang's place, though their "place" was a DIVE— a deep-immersion virtual environment—and their DIVE wasn't a place at all. Sturm and Drang weren't their legal names, either, and they hadn't physically cohabited for months.

Not that it mattered much. At the moment Karuna Drang was discarnately embodying herself as spritely Sally Hemmings, slave and mistress. Though her portrayal was relatively accurate, Don Sturm's morbidly thoughtful and conflicted Thomas Jefferson was quite different from the historical founding father, and his halo of neon blue hair wasn't exactly "period." But blue hair was one of Don's personal signatures in meatlife, and he hadn't been able to resist.

All around them, virtual party people—likewise electronically embodied in eighteenth-century drag—danced and cavorted about the grounds of a mimetic Monticello. Alternating between the forms of an aggressively ambiguous nymph and its counterpart satyr-o- maniac, Medea ?rate chased bewigged men in breeches, then pursued women who proved surprisingly light-footed, given their voluminous dresses and titanic coiffures.

Normally Don's default virtualscape was Easter Island, so his Jeffersonian estate boasted moai, the great-headed statues, as lawn and garden sculptures around which the laughing would-be orgiasts darted, disappearing from view—only to reappear as a tangled ball of licking, sucking, nibbling, stroking, rutting sexual gymnasts, Medea lodged in their midst.

Don/Thomas shook his head.

"I know that's how they pull off their grand data exchanges," he said to Karuna/Sally. "And I'm sure what they're doing in virtual space is only a metaphor, but I still wish they'd make use of a more subtle metaphor."

Karuna/Sally laughed

" 'To hack is to explore and manipulate'," she said, imitating Medea's lyrical-as-Pan, shrill-as-Bacchante manner of speaking. " 'To enter and be entered. Like foreplay and sex, like parasite and host, n'est-ce pas?' "

Don frowned. Music sounded around them. The Jed Astaires, a retro-urbane bluegrass group, played danceable new arrangements of works by Revolutionary War–era tunesmith William Billings. In the sky above them, sunset's salmon-colored clouds flickered and transformed into shoals of swimming salmon, then morphed back to clouds again.

"You look preoccupied," Karuna/Sally said. "Even e-bodied, I can tell. What's on your mind?"

"Just looking over what we've wrought," Don/Tom said, gazing out at their Colonial Williamsburg-meets-Polynesia surroundings. On their personal channel, he turned down the volume of the Astaires' musical variations. "Not to say that it's overwrought, mind you. Just that the nature of this event is somewhat paradoxical."

"How so?"

"Well, it feels as if I've usurped a public event just to celebrate a personal success, and either way the celebrants don't know what they're celebrating."

"Don, you have every right to celebrate! Prime Privacy Protocol is a winner. It's on its way to becoming the most popular encryption software in the infosphere."

"Even if no one associates my name with it...."

"Yes, but you, 'Mister Obololos,' you're the one who made it happen."

"Maybe that anonymity's a good thing. The law enforcement types are getting really shrill in condemning it. Today there was an op-ed piece in the New York Times that accused P-Cubed of catering to the privacy interests of the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse. The consensus seems to be that its primary users will be drug dealers, terrorists, organized crime, and pedophiles—"

"—along with about a billion other ordinary citizens. Come on, don't let it get to you. Nobody falls for that shtick anymore."

"Maybe. But that's not really what's bugging me, you know? It's this shindig, this construct."

"And your point is—?"

"This whole virtual space is called Cybernesia. But what is Cybernesia, really? A space that's not a place? An event without a time? Both?"

Sally/Karuna frowned, then gestured, and a palmtop oracle appeared as a first edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language.

"Here—let's consult the word of a higher authority. The great dictionaries and encyclopedias refer to Cybernesia as 'the semipermanent archipelago of "pirate islands" located in the net.' Or this: 'DIVEs whose stability amid chaos is created by the same forces that produce the turmoil around them.' Kind of like the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Islands offshore, neighbors to the conventional continents of the infosphere. Freer spaces, like the Bahamas or the Florida Keys. Good enough?"

"I guess it'll have to be," Don's faux Jefferson said with a shrug, "but what has me most worried is this program you wrote, that lets everybody here fuse their own separate islands into a single, temporary continent. Doesn't that change the rules? Or break them outright? What if we've altered the structure of the infosphere to such a degree that we come up on the authorities' radar? They might check into it, and find out that I'm the one who put together P-Cubed...

"Are we putting everybody here in danger?"

"Honey, I'd never be naive enough to tell anybody, 'You think too much,' " Karuna said with a wicked little smile, "but sometimes the life of the mind—"

"—is a pain in the ass. I know."

"Snap out of it!" she said, smiling and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, a whisper of electrons brushing his face across the void of simulation. For an instant Don deeply missed being with her, until he remembered the painful last months of their romance. "Quit pattern-phreaking and enjoy yourself a little." she persisted. "Look how well the party's going. That patch you wrote for the clouds looks great, and no matter what you say, the breakthrough that allowed everybody to fly their islands here was a work of genius. Straight out of Gulliver's Travels! You should be proud."

Don/Tom allowed himself a small, reluctant smile, but he still worried. The flying islands were just an expansion of the Besterian jauntbox program, really. Besterboxes allowed participants to step fluidly from one virtual reality to another, but no one had used the tech to combine such large and disparate elements into a single mass before—not even temporarily. Despite the fact that things were going well, he wondered what complex and unpredictable dynamics might be generated by the impromptu experiment they were conducting.

The Jed Astaires launched into their rendition of "The World Turned Upside Down"—a march played by Cornwallis's troops when they surrendered their arms at Yorktown in 1781. Don/Tom looked up at the clouds again. A new, perfectly pyramidal island flew toward them.

Odd. Everybody who had been invited had already shown or sent their regrets. A party crasher? Or was this some unintended side effect of toying with Cybernesian dynamics? He hoped it wasn't the infocops, come to bust their party.

No sooner did the island land in the bay and fuse with the rest of the temporary Cybernesian continent than the pyramid opened and some sort of holographic broadcast filled the sky. As if the entire world were, in fact, a stage, two characters appeared.

Don frantically searched his infosphere links, even checking Cybernesia's South American backup servers in Tri-Border, in an effort to determine what the hell was going on. As he searched, his guests watched a gun-toting parachutist land in a garden among the clouds, listened to the parachutist and his paramour exchanging banter overloaded with allusions. The Cybernesia party ground to a halt.

The intruder-program and its characters morphed chaotically into heavily armed superscientists casually talking shop amid attacks by ninjoid commandoes.

Don's searching yielded no answers.

"Isn't this simulation a bit unusual, honey?" Karuna/Sally asked Don. "This doesn't seem like you."

"It's not me."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I'm not doing it. In fact, I'm trying to jam the holo-cast. Block the signal, somehow."

"Any luck?"

"None whatsoever."

In the sky above, Biblical garden imagery collided with laboratory milieu. Don, meanwhile, attempted to filter the broadcast out of Cybernesian virtuality, but found himself thwarted at every turn.

In the intruder holo-cast, high-tech death accompanied talk of "wellness plagues" and population-ratcheting. Speculative scientific scenarios were punctuated by explosions.

Soon the pair who had crashed his party were caught up in a chaotic, apocalyptic maelstrom of eclipsing suns and rumbling thunder. Nightmarish fighter aircraft screamed above, firing missiles and dropping bombs in a battle among the clouds.

"Great sim-within-a-sim!" said a Medusa-haired Medea ?rate, sidling up to Don and Karuna in the party zone. "A bit anachronistic, though, isn't it?"

Copyright © 2004 by Howard V. Hendrix


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