There are very few problems that can't be solved with a little help from your friends and the proper application of high explosives. Fans of Speed Racer will enjoy this fast paced adventure.
Ace mechanic Ethan Hayes had risen to the top of the computer gaming circuit as the Scarab. When he invented a device that made him rich over night, he and ex-girlfriend, Mary Ann, were able to enter SimCon, the simulated European road race.
When Ground Effect Vehicles became common, prototypes were too dangerous and expensive to build outright. Instead, each year, major designers competed in the Super Bowl of virtual races – SimCon. The vehicles needed speed, skill, and weapons to get ahead. The winners in each class got millions in production contracts and advertizing.
Ethan made a lot of enemies in his first professional race, including a cyber-criminal named Kali. The challenges of a week-long trek across
Europe are nothing compared to the dirty tricks, murder, and kidnapping that took place off the track. When someone kidnapped Mary Ann, it was up to the Scarab to save her.
This was the first full-length novel I ever wrote, from 1998.
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SAMPLE from The Scarab
Copyright 2011 Scott Rhine
I closed my eyes and listened to the squad car’s engine run. I liked fixing cars because there’s always a right answer if you pay attention. My dad used to say, “An engine problem comes down to a simple matter of fuel, air, and fire.” Of course, these days, there’s a lot of software added into the mix, but that’s pretty black and white as well. Sometimes, I wish people came with manuals.
I scratched my black, scraggly beard as I thought. I tell my boss that I wear it to look more credible to the customers, but the main reason I don’t shave is that I hate razors. I’m a hemophiliac, and the last time I cut myself, I ended up staying a week in the hospital. The blood they gave me had been tainted. I know I could use an electric shaver, but then the scar on my jaw would show.
Closing the hood, I announced, “Your harmonic balancer is broken.”
The regulars from the barber shop next door nodded, and a few dollar bills traded hands. It was a small town. The officer whose vehicle I had diagnosed wasn’t convinced. “You can’t tell that just by ear!”
I kept my mouth closed. Police usually rub me the wrong way. I’d inherited just enough swarthy complexion from my Mom that I reminded authorities of whatever group they were profiling now.
Sam, the owner of Sam’s Floater Physicians, backed me. “There’s a reason he’s the head mechanic after only five years, Deputy.”
Mom didn’t have money, so I did all her repair work growing up. I started wrenching here at sixteen and had to learn a little aerodynamics. Floaters are ground-effect vehicles (GEVs) that hover close to the ground.
The officer pointed to the uniformed picture of Sam’s son, Nick, behind the cash register. Nick had died in action a year after high school. “He was your boy’s friend.”
Sam got cold and civil. “You’ve had two other shops stumped. Your engine isn’t mounted properly anymore. It fits all the symptoms you told me.”
The deputy grunted, “Just a bolt? That doesn’t sound too bad. How much?”
Sam asked, “Ethan, how long will it take?”
I replied, “It’s a three hour job, minimum. He’ll need new belts, too. If you want us to take care of that vacuum leak while we’re that deep, I can probably do it for just another half hour.”
The deputy had a small aneurism when Sam gave him the estimate. He stood nose to nose with me, but didn’t think about shoving into my personal space. In high school, I lifted weights instead of participating in contact sports. Eventually, I could bench press my own weight, and people started leaving me alone.
“I can run it without a stupid bolt for another month.”
“That could be fatal, sir,” I explained. “Follow me.” The whole gang shuffled into the shop behind me. I brought up the high-resolution surround-screen diagnostic simulator, punched in the police car’s make and model, and a three-dimensional schematic appeared. The car frame was transparent in the rendering, giving it the appearance of blue-tinged glass. I rotated to show the undercarriage and then removed the balancer connection with a click. “The ‘bolts’ remaining aren’t strong enough. If you hit another car or telephone pole…” I entered a school-zone speed and hit the collision button on the screen. The cam shaft on the screen detached, and the engine was totaled within seconds.
The deputy deflated. “I’ll leave the keys up front.”
Sam clapped me on the shoulder. “Good job, Mr. Hayes. I didn’t know our simulation rig had a collision button.”
“It didn’t. I learned to program in sim language a while back. I borrowed most of the code from a program at MIT,” I said, failing to mention it was from a massively interactive game site.
Excitement over, Sam helped me pack up the tools and sweep up. Promptly at seven, I turned off the lights and locked the doors. When I was alone, I rolled my chair back to the simulator, and started my second life. Slipping on the data gloves, I pushed another button on the console. On nights and weekends, to hundreds of gamers, I became the mysterious and deadly Scarab.
This close to MIT there is an enormous net community connected around the clock, and the college version of GEVSIM is popular for spectators and players alike. As the name implies, GEVSIM involves players designing their own ground-effect vehicles and racing them at high speeds on a simulated obstacle course until only one of the combatants remains. Aside from the laser targeting systems, entertainment really hasn’t changed that much since the Roman chariot races.
My boss and his parent company Exotech don’t know I play, and to help keep it that way, nobody on the net knows my real name. Exotech has strict rules about unauthorized use of its computers by indentured servants. Under the Credit Repayment Act, they give me minimum wage, and all the rest of my salary goes to pay off my own medical bills and the debts my mother accrued during her terminal illness.
I wouldn’t call the game an addiction. I have frequent insomnia during the summer, and the garage had air-conditioning that my squalid apartment across the street lacked.
I didn’t start out trying to design the ultimate driving machine; I just got a little bored with winning. I started by making obvious improvements to stock vehicles and eventually designed my own.
Tonight I was entering a radical new prototype into a small side game in Finland, and I had to clear the model with the expert system referee first. Colleges had pirated the simulator code from SimCon, a yearly event which involved all the major car makers. The official simulator cared about streamlined appearance, passenger comfort, fuel economy, safety, noise pollution, blind spots, and average time till repair—all the facts usually monitored by Consumer Reports. This thorough simulation has pointed out several design problems and prevented several recalls before vehicle production even began. The simplified pirate version cared about only one thing—what on-line manuals do your parts and weapons come from?
The three-panel display for the simulation looked like a normal windshield and control panel. The overhead GPS map view plotted all the other race vehicles just like real cars do, using the FedNet global positioning system. FedNet uses the transponders under the front and rear bumper of every vehicle to track its location, speed, and direction. This technology was great for autopilot steering and avoiding traffic jams. Mandatory transponder use was viewed by many as a colossal violation of privacy. Unfortunately, two teenagers joy-riding in
Florida broadsided a bus full of school kids
and the legislation got railroaded through without debate.
After twenty minutes, I convinced the Finnish referee that I could keep my engines running at almost a constant speed. Any energy not being used for movement would be channeled into rotating the hull of the vehicle, much like a 1960’s UFO. This greatly simplified my fuel consumption, engine design, and autopilot software, as well as giving me the ability to accelerate in almost any direction, seconds ahead of the competition. Most GEVs steer like airplanes, with fast forward movement and slow, wide turns. My design would handle like a helicopter; whichever way I leaned the joystick, that’s where I’d go.
The one disadvantage I foresaw was that if I braked too fast, the torque from the suddenly spinning hull would pop me up in the air like a champagne cork. To turn this unwanted height to my advantage, I hung a machine gun from the underbelly of the craft. That way, if anybody was hot on my tail, I could brake fast, and strafe them as they passed under me.
I picked this out-of-the-way game so that I could work out the kinks without anybody discovering my design. Looking over the roster of logins, I only spotted two from the
United States and one from Germany likely to give me grief. By
e-mail, I offered twenty gallons of fuel from my reserve tank to “Gandalf” from
if he could eliminate any of the three.
The course was composed of two intersecting ovals with sharp embankments for high-speed turning. The center had light posts, oil slicks, and tank traps for slaloming and pits with ramps for jumping. One complete lap was required every five minutes to avoid disqualification. The first player to reach twenty-four laps or ten kills would win.
The virtual race started around eight. For the first twenty minutes, I hung around the perimeter of the track, avoiding conflict and pointing out kill opportunities to less experienced players. I was running in non-rotation mode in order to calibrate my controls and get a feel for how all of the other subsystems performed. This vehicle had a revolutionary suspension, improved altimeter and banking indicators, and idiot-simple pilot controls.
By the time the other players caught on, I was one of the final four. A vicious Berkeley student calling himself “Metallica” made a truce with “Red Dwarf” and “Red Oktober” to see who could dust me first. No one had scored me in the past thirty-seven games.
“Gonna squash you bug man!” Metallica broadcast.
I sent back a digitized video clip from some old Mummy movie with a scarab necklace killing a tomb desecrator. I can’t send voice on the garage rig, but it adds to my air of mystery.
The kid had a point, though. Without the secret weapon, my GEV wallowed like an elephant in quicksand. When the others were about fifteen seconds away, I started rotation. At forty km/h, I noticed the first glitch. My satellite velocity indicator read forty, but the direction indicator had me traveling northeast! The period of rotation was such that when the simulated satellite guidance system looked at the front of my vehicle, it was always pointing the same direction. Holding at this rate of revolution, I tried an experiment. Nudging my joy-stick west, I watched the velocity indicator jump to forty-five, but still in the northeast direction.
The other three players fired their long-range weapons at where my icon appeared on the strategy map. The shots passed harmlessly through my shadow; in fact, someone’s rogue missile locked onto “Red Oktober’s” vehicle and blew it to pieces. And then there were three.
Now that they were all in close range, I began to worry about how my camouflage would hold up under scrutiny. Someone was bound to notice my blip slowly creeping in the wrong direction once the scale changed on their overhead displays. Stopping cold would make me dead meat at this point, since both enemies were behind me. Because my pilot was always facing forward and at the same angle, I couldn’t see back to target my machine guns. This was a serious design flaw I would correct once I got out of this mess.
“Metallica” fired a salvo of incendiary shells. Without thinking, I increased engine output to the red line and tried to evade. My heading indicators went insane for a moment and then the compass needle vanished entirely. I disappeared from the screen. I was rotating faster than the screen refresh rate and had made myself effectively invisible.
“Red Dwarf” immediately assumed I had been vaporized and was out of the game. Sometimes the computer was a few seconds late in registering the kill, especially with overseas phone lines. With the truce officially over, “Dwarf” took the opportunity to lay impeller mines in an arc around the area. “Metallica” blew himself up while turning to avoid my presumed wreckage.
“Red Dwarf” slowed to a halt, waiting for the traditional virtual blonde to come out and crown him with laurel leaves. Unable to resist the bait, I slapped the prototype into reverse. I could run over the smug geek and he’d never know what hit him.
Design flaw number three surfaced about then. Reverse gear also tried to reverse the direction of the hull spin. Have you ever slapped your car into reverse while going 100 km/h? Chunks of simulated engine block shot half a meter into the asphalt. At the last second, my icon flickered into existence again, and my red “self-destruct” symbol came on. It was a feature most racers had. If you were just crippled, the simulation would eject your pilot and blow the car so that no one else could cannibalize your equipment.
Since “Red Dwarf’s” pilot was outside his vehicle’s armor, he got caught in the blast radius from all my unspent fifty caliber shells. Technically, the game ended in a draw because I had killed the winner before being eliminated myself. I was still undefeated. I told the other guys on the net that my new self-destruct feature delayed until another player was within a certain range. Nobody suspected that I was lying to keep bigger secrets.
For the next several months, each night or so, I began refining the various subsystems of my design, toying with only one or two new features per game to preserve secrecy. With a modified spin model, I could be totally invisible while standing still but completely visible at full speed. At half speed, the satellite could show me at any speed in between, going any direction. The more forward motion I had, the easier it would be to fix my position. I was able to stay hidden longer by painting my hull to look like the track and using terrain creatively.
In working out the design kinks, I would often drop into games under an alias, and sometimes leave before the end. Players that figured this out would have a contest to see who could “spot the Scarab” first. If they caught me, I had to stay for the whole race to protect my reputation.
Since I couldn’t rely on satellites for my own direction and speed, I installed tiny solid-state accelerometers like they use in jet fighters for backup. As a pleasant side-effect, I wasn’t instrument-blind whenever my prototype went through a tunnel. Most of my controls now had double safeties. This was good because when any GEV system fails, you’re going to crash, it’s just a matter of how hard. This principle, along with the high expense of building a real prototype, was the primary reason new vehicle testing had moved toward simulation.
Next I noticed that, at high speeds, my oval hull would rotate too slowly, and the craft would wobble too much to be controlled by human reflexes. It was a matter of balancing the power. Since all the tiny elements in the grid were computer controlled to begin with, I programmed the air-cushion system and the small canard wing on top to compensate for these instabilities 32 times a second. This arrangement limited my peak speed, but made me unbeatable in a dog-fight.
I also beefed up the cockpit armor, and searched for a means to halt the hull spin in an emergency situation. I rigged the radial armor to blow off at the touch of a button. It still took over fifteen seconds to spin down to a dead stop, but if anyone were close enough to hit me, the shrapnel would put them out of commission too. Afterward, my GEV would be a traveling skeleton, but it would survive.
Now my prototype was no longer just a one-trick pony.
This week I had repeated nightmares about my childhood in
With no local games over the semester break, I began playing with variations of
the invisible transponder effect. I was particularly interested in the results
from the FedNet satellite traffic monitor.
One quirky variation traded the front and rear bumper transponders between two vehicles. As long as the pair stayed in the same sample grid, on the same road, the two would appear to be moving side-by-side. No matter how fast they went, the velocity indicator would be an average of the two. This glitch wasn’t of much practical use for the game, but might be a slick dodge for smugglers. The trick wouldn’t be easy to spot, but on any curves, there’d be a slight lag time between the ghost position and the real. On a whim, I down-loaded some public-access data from around the State Park system for a period of ten days. Overnight, I crunched through the numbers looking for vehicle pairs that strayed from their lanes on turns.
I don’t know what I expected, but on the scan for last Friday night, I found a distinct double image signature that snaked into the beach area and then back toward the city. The signature repeated itself at 2:00 AM this Friday, just before my data snapshot ended. What should I do about it? Something obviously illegal was going on, but I didn’t have any concrete vehicle identification or destination. Since the multi-state superhighway system, the national parks, and the satellite guidance system were all under Federal jurisdiction, they required a special type of Federal Marshal to police them—the Hover-way Patrol. This was also necessary because local police often couldn’t accelerate fast enough to catch perpetrators before they left city limits. The only member of the Hover-way Patrol I knew on a first-name basis was Mary Ann Anselm.
She was a no-nonsense kind of gal with long legs, shoulder-length, brown hair and three older brothers. Mary Ann played Lady Macbeth in our high school Senior play in a performance that sends sado-masochistic shivers down my spine to this day. She could also smell BS a mile away, and wouldn’t tolerate a lie.
I met Mary Ann again just after high school graduation when she brought her cruiser in for a maintenance check-up. I mustered the nerve to ask her out, and we ended up dating steadily for over a year. She’s in great physical shape, knows as much about vehicles as any guy, and is one of the outright best friends I’ve ever had. Being with her felt like home.
Eventually, I had to cut it off. Things were getting too serious. She wanted to get married, and I couldn’t do that to her. You see, she’d be legally responsible for my debt, too. I couldn’t see dragging two people through that misery. The final straw for me was that any kids might inherit my hemophilia. I could barely afford my own medication. One male in ten-thousand has my severe problem with clotting, so I try not to take it personally. But I had seen first-hand the constant worry my condition could cause a mother.
I decided to show Mary Ann the FedNet tricks I’d found and see if she could get any mileage out of it. Because of the potential for misuse, I hid my files on the university Meteorology department computer. After taking a few days to get my courage up, I made a lunch date with her at “the Oasis,” a Mediterranean food joint that had been one of her favorites. I figured at a worst-case scenario we’d talk about SimCon, which was coming up in another three months. Maybe at best, I expected her to be grateful enough to spend the weekend with me over Labor Day. I wasn’t counting on anything, just enjoying the fantasy.
Thursday afternoon, on a tan cement patio with white iron lawn furniture and huge umbrellas painted to look like palm trees, I watched traffic whiz by for half an hour till I saw her walk through the gate.
My heart raced like a teenager. Dry mouthed, I finally managed to say, “Hey, Mare. I got you a shwarma and Dr. Pepper, just the way you like it.”
She said, “What do you want, Hayes?” Suspicious? No, just cautious. Her chair made a grating sound as she pulled it out.
I hastened to clarify. “Call me Ethan; I’m not selling anything, and I haven’t clubbed any baby seals. I’ve stumbled across an abuse of the law, and I thought you might be able use the information. Hell, it might even get you that promotion you’ve been waiting for.” I signaled the waiter.
“Bring the Lady a fresh set of everything, and a Baklava for me.”
Mary Ann mellowed a little. “Are you sure you can afford it, Ethan?”
I shrugged, “I skipped a meal yesterday, so I’ll have two today.”
“You look tired,” she said, genuine concern creeping in. “Have you had a check up recently? What your mom had could be hereditary.”
“I’ve just been up late programming. Forget about me. How’s your life been going? How’s the patrol unit running?”
“Fine,” she said in a tone that sounded exactly like the word lonely. “Ethan, spit it out. I have to be into work in less than two hours.”
“We might go in together,” I hinted. She said nothing, but raised an eyebrow. She plucked one of my cold fries and put on her “convince me” face. I started explaining. After I told her the whole thing, she had finished eating and was even beginning to smile at the right places.
“I didn’t want to leak the secrets—partly because I want to use them myself in the game—but mainly because ignorance of these loopholes is preventing a lot of crime.”
She snickered. “Don’t worry. Even the smart crooks are still pretty ignorant. I appreciate what you’re telling me, but how many busts can we make? We can’t afford to link our computers into real-time satellite feed for a week at a time to catch just one speeder.”
I shook my head and snatched a little of her drink. “Let me run the pattern detectors for the five sure-fire dodges I’ve come up with, and I bet you I’ll find a dozen regular offenders in this city alone.”
She gazed at my left shirt button for a full minute, and in a soft, almost apologetic voice, she said, “I’ll give you a chance. Tonight. I’ll get permission from my shift chief, and bring a CD of data over from the last two nights. You show me something concrete, and we’ll owe you some reward money.”
Again, I shook my head. “Sorry, babe. No money. I’ll never see it; the Credit Recovery Bureau sucks it like a leech. I wouldn’t mind, but with a debt that big, throwing in a measly hundred is like spitting in the ocean.”
My mother ran up incredible credit bills in the year before she died, the year I turned eighteen. It was also the year that several major banks pressured Congress into making credit debts pass on to the beneficiaries of the debtor. I can’t blame them. Ever since hospitals started taking plastic, people have been taking advantage. Technically, I could have fled to
to pursue my citizenship there. They don’t recognize debts from the United States.
But I like this country. A servant here is richer than 95 percent of the people
in the third world, plus the water is safer.
“Okay. No money, your favorite charity, anything. Hell, we have a few lawyers who owe us big. I could give you your reward in free legal visits.” Mary Ann got a lopsided grin as she considered the ramifications. “You may help me catch more than one slippery customer.”
Later that night, in Sam’s place, she looked over my shoulder at the color-enhanced read-out. “I don’t believe it. That came from a high-speed chase that stretched out across three counties. The Masserati just vanished.”
“He didn’t vanish. His twin car was this station wagon, which means he really disappeared about... here,” I said, pointing to a stretch of rural road just off the main Hover-way, three miles from where the trace stopped. “Masseratis can’t swallow dirt in the intakes for long. If the driver’s any good, he’ll pull it off into a barn or under a bridge. Then tomorrow, after they’ve switched their rear transponders again, they can drive off in broad daylight.
“This wasn’t much of a challenge for the package I put together. All in all, I found twelve loopholes in FedNet. When I plotted the reply addresses for all guidance queries, I found hundreds of scattered points with inactive or incorrect transponders. Some of those are just defective, but if we filter out the ones we see every day in the same residential speed zone with this button here, we’ll see the people who are traveling illegally. If you hit the animation button here, you can track...” I wanted to impress her with the interface I’d designed, but she wasn’t listening any more.
“Stop. Go back!” I hit the button to return to the Masserati example.
Mary Ann gawked for a minute, looked over at me, and then back to the map again. “Is this time stamp from the data or when you processed it?”
“I process it in real time. The time stamp is from the satellite,” I explained.
“This data is less than five hours old. We can still get him.” Quick-drawing her police mobile-phone from its holster, she dialed dispatch. All four units in the area were told to converge discretely on
On her way out, Mary Ann surprised me with a quick kiss that gave the promise of many more. The faint taste of raspberry lingered. It was the same lip gloss that she’d worn when we kissed for the first time.
“As soon as we nab the bad guys, I’ll be back! If you can give us a couple of these gadgets, we’ll get you all the
Philadelphia lawyers you
can handle. The police have an edge again for the first time since radar.” She
barely finished her sentence before the shop door slammed shut behind her.
Dazed from the kiss, I waited three hours before shutting down the glowing
screen and taking the wine coolers back to my apartment.