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About the Author

Jak Koke

Jak Koke's most recent novels are Stranger Souls, Clockwork Asylum, andBeyond the Pale the trilogy of books which make up "The Dragon HeartSaga." Stranger Souls and Beyond the Pale both reached number one on theLocus Magazine bestseller list for game-related fiction.

His first novel, Dead Air, a stand-alone book in the Shadowrun® world, waspublished by Roc books in 1996 and it hit number four on the Locus list.Koke has also written a fantasy novel, Liferock, which will soon bepublished by FASA Corporation as part of its Earthdawn® series.

Both solo and in collaboration with Jonathan Bond, Koke has also sold shortstories to AMAZING STORIES and PULPHOUSE: A FICTION MAGAZINE, and hascontributed to several anthologies such as Rat Tales by Pulphouse, YoungBlood by Zebra, and Talisman, an Earthdawn® anthology.

Deep Outside SFFH 1998-2002 pioneering online professional SFFH magazine - we made history!

Dead Air

by Jonathan Bond and Jak Koke

Back before flight school, Tawny and I would drive for miles to see a house on fire. We never wanted the houses to burn, but if it happened, we weren't going to miss the action.
     Now, years after our short stay in prison, we were the action. The attraction.
     We were Tollrunners -- gladiators of the open road. Pirates of the asphalt rivers. They paid us to race, to destroy, and -- mainly -- to entertain.
     Every time I prepped for a Tollrun, slipping into my flex-armor and sliding behind the controls of my Nikitoan hovercraft, images of all the vid-slugs came into my mind, lounging in their homes, wired into their sets with helmets and hardware. When I jacked myself and Tawny into the satellite, I imagined them watching the game through our eyes and hearing through our ears. They didn't want to miss the action.
     I know because I used to be just like them. Used to plug into the vidset and punch up Tollrunner, honing in on Slammin Sammy Dougan's feed. He was my childhood hero -- the baddest Kenworth pilot in the game since I was twelve.
     He's why I was so nervous when our team finally made the second round of the Tollrunner finals, and I found out we had the bad fortune of being up against Dougan and The Crew -- top runners for nearly a decade and always a big ratings draw.
     Eddy, Tawny and I had made it a good seven hundred and fifty klicks out of the L.A. starting gate, just to outer fringe of East S.F., without seeing chrome bumper or flashing tail light of The Crew.
     Eddy was fairly new to our team, only been driving with him a couple months. He drove the huge Peterbilt cargo tractor, and he was good. More guts than brains, and the nerve to back it up.
     So far we'd come across nearly four hours of rocky coastline and were headed up the spiral, making the cut over to I-5. The twisting narrow roads, cliffs, and ocean made for pain terrain. No room for speed moves or take-outs.
     Ratings were at an all-time low; we were falling in just behind the Mormon network. I should've known Tawny was prepping for something risky. Something dangerous. Anything for a few more points in the ratings.
     At that late hour of four in the morning -- or early hour depending on which side of midnight you'd woken up on -- time stood still for me. I hadn't slept and was on my third hit of FIM. Fuel Injected Motivation is a racer's drug which boosts reflexes and speeds up thought processes. Highly addictive. That's the good news. It can do really bad things to your body with extended use. Like frying whole sections of your nervous system.
     Despite the late hour, we hit heavy traffic coming off the turnpike next to 101. Running scout, I took point, my mind blazing at a thousand klicks per hour, my body feeling like a sack of shit in the snug interior of my Nikitoan. My eyes hurt from being open so long and my legs tingled with a numbness which even the custom-fit seat couldn't alleviate.
     Tawny rolled behind me in her SuperTrooper interference rig -- a fast sturdy four-wheel-drive with fat knobby tires and reinforced shielding all around. Eddy waited with the cargo tractor and trailer about twenty klicks back, hidden at a truck stop in case we spotted one of The Crew.
     With the traffic so heavy a tangle seemed unlikely. Smooth cruising for a while, not much for me to scout. I felt the FIM-induced boredom creep in, and I decided to eavesdrop on Tawny. I punched the feed, and Tawny's thoughts rumbled through the wire. Into my brain.
     She was thinking about Eddy. Eddy and his fail-safe -- a brick of plastique he kept under the seat in the Peterbilt. The brick was wired into a five second timer in the dash. One false move during the ignition of the Peterbilt, and goodbye thief.
     Tawny liked that. Liked what it meant. It meant Eddy was dangerous, crazy. Tawny liked crazy.
     She's the one who convinced me to join the game after we got out of prison. "Running'll be the next best thing to flying," she'd told me. And to a point, she was right. But the truth is, Tollrunning didn't come close.
     I settled into the warm comfort of her familiar thought processes and felt her remembering Eddy's soft black hair under her fingers, the way he had moved beneath her the night before the race. Her mind smiled at the remembrance and I smiled with her. Then she was thinking of me and wondering, as she always did when we were on The Road, why nothing had ever happened between us.
     I pushed a subtle thought through the connection, trying to disguise it as one of her own. It's because we love each other too much. I could feel laughter bubble up through her as she became aware of my presence. I never could fool her.
     In my hovercraft speedster, I dodged between a civilian cargo bus -- its sides gleaming with an ad for Echo Cosmetic Products -- and a taxi station wagon.
     Andrew, she thought, four cars ahead, center lane. Jonny Nile.
     Jonny Nile was The Crew's front speedster driver. I slipped discreetly in and out of his lane, trying to see without being seen. I looked, recognizing the telltale slope of Jonny Nile's orange Porsche hovercraft glowing dimly in the headlights of the vehicle behind him. Tawny was right.
     Andrew, draw and strike like Brazil. It'll get us ratings.
     Wait. It could be a trap. Let me scout. I gunned the Nikitoan, speeding smoothly into the outside lane to hide behind an electric minivan. I remembered Brazil -- draw and strike.
     Back in flight school, after making the frightening decision to undergo the complex and extensive neurosurgery which let us interface with each other and our crafts, Tawny and I flew tandem ground-skimming jets. Our common assignment was to survey huge sections of Japanese-owned Brazilian rain forest, blazing so close to the tree tops that I could feel the tickle of leaves on my wing tips. If we found any poachers or farmers or burners or anyone at all not transmitting the requisite permit code, we gunned them down and informed reconnaissance to pick up the bodies.
     Once in a while we'd come across an armed party with anti-aircraft missiles. With them we used a simple draw and strike trap. We didn't have to take the armed ones out ourselves, but Tawny had this thing about ratings even then. Tawny flew over and provoked an attack, drawing all their fire, while I waited out of range just long enough to surprise them with a battery of concussion missiles and a spray of neurotoxic gas.
     Meanwhile, Tawny outran the missile fire. Not really difficult in those skimmers; they were as fast as the missiles and far more maneuverable. One time, however, the plan backfired. Tawny accidentally led some missiles near a civilian airport. The heat seekers destroyed three jets and killed over two hundred people. We got two years in the slammer and permanent ground.
     Now, in my Nikitoan speedster, I crept up on Jonny Nile's Porsche. I needed to make sure none of the other Crew members were near. Either way, ratings were about to jump.
     I remember flying, Andrew, she thought to me. I'm sorry I took that away from you.
     It's not your fault. We were a team. You know that. We always will be.
     Jonny Nile looked isolated. Alone. Neither Dougan nor T-bone were in the vicinity. I was about to tell Tawny when she sped ahead of me to draw him out, reading my mind. Just like in Brazil.
     Wait, Tawny, let me check the other side.
     Too late. She was already making her move, and no doubt Jonny Nile had already seen her. Just be in position Andrew. She glanced up at her ratings monitor, and through her eyes I saw they were already climbing. She smiled. You'd better punch out for a minute. I'm about to take a hit.
     It's bad enough being on FIM and having your own brain go into light speed. It's ten times as bad to be in someone else's brain when it happens. Like being rocketed through a tunnel with broken-mirror walls, force-fed shards of someone else's reality so fast they choke you.
     I reached to disconnect, simultaneously steering my speedster into the outside lane to get in optimal position to take out Jonny Nile, when it happened. He was a draw -- a trap. The hunters became the hunted. Tawny never stood a chance.
     A flash of metal sliced into my FIM-enhanced subconscious. Reflex took over. I spun the hovercraft left, slipping down into the lane divider, and watched as Slammin Sammy Dougan's monster Kenworth loomed out of the dark, blazing across three lanes of traffic, right through the space where I had been . . . to smash Tawny's SuperTrooper into scraps of twisted metal, fractured plexiglass.
     I was still buried deep into her consciousness when her life shattered into a million frozen moments. Pain. Shock. She blasted toward the blackout fringe of death. Anger. The rig exploded into a spray of fibermesh and safety glass, and her scream hit me.
     Then, Andrew, I love --
     Over the blackout fringe.
     Death clawed at my brain, digging, scrabbling to take me along. Darkness came like sweet molasses to my mind.
     I woke about three minutes later. My speedster had switched to autopilot when the sensors felt me lose consciousness. My first thought was that it had all been a FIM-induced hallucination, but as I came more fully awake and shook myself upright I realized I was still wired through to her.
     The spot where Tawny's thoughts had been just minutes before was now a low hiss. Static.
     I punched in the code to cut myself off from her, but the static crackled on in my head. I punched it again, cutting off all feeds except the vid linkage. No change; just hiss like dead air in my mind.
     All along it had been me and Tawny, from before flight school to flying skimmers to prison to finally: The Road. The most insane rush of all time was jacking through our vehicles into each other and then jointly into the subjective consciousness of half the vid population. I'd thought it was always going to be that way. Me and Tawny.
     Now she was gone and it was only me and the sparkle of static in my head.
     Something dripped down my chin, and I reached to wipe it away. Blood. I'd bitten clean through my lower lip. I cruised that way for the better part of an hour, drifting in and out of the pre-dawn traffic, listening to the hiss, blood on my mouth.
     A single scene came to me of my childhood. The poster on my bedroom wall was a life-size pictogram of the original Crew. Dougan was younger then, no beard, less gut. The Crew all sat on the front fender of Dougan's Kenworth with the huge "Slammin" arching over their heads in purple neon. Dougan held a baseball bat over his shoulder, and they all looked deadly. The caption read, "Don't screw with The Crew."
     I knew then what I had to do. This wasn't about winning anymore. To win, he could have taken her out without killing her. No, this had become more than just a championship to me. The static in my head told me I had to face Dougan. Had to take him out.
     I flipped the bi-levels on my Nikitoan speedster and pulled back on the throttle. Within moments, I was back in the game, accelerating in the direction I had come. As the speedster hit 250 klicks per hour, I opened a frequency for Eddy. He wasn't wired with me like Tawny'd been. He only had the basic video-satellite connection. "Eddy," I said, "Stay put, I'm returning to cover point."
     Eddy's voice filled the Niki's interior. "Andrew, what's happened? The ratings jumped about ten points a few minutes ago. I can't reach Tawny; is she all right? Where are -- "
     I cut him off. Shut the hell up. Tawny's dead. There's no changing that.
     Years on The Road told me something like this would happen eventually. Law of averages. I just never thought it'd be Tawny. And now, I needed something back, some payback for the empty space in my head. Even though I knew it went against everything I'd learned from The Road. The Road told me not to take it personally, told me Tawny was a hotdog and would have bought it eventually. None of that mattered now. Not The Road, not the game, nothing mattered except seeing Dougan's life bleed away until his blood covered the static in my head.
     After fifteen minutes of barreling down the long dark corridor of pre-dawn freeway, just as I was entering the truck stop, Eddy came back on another frequency. "Andrew, I've been found out. It's T-bone. Dougan'll be here any minute. I'm moving out . . . Holy Christ!" Eddy cut off in the familiar crash of twisting metal.
     I blasted into the truck stop, cautious but quick. I needed to survey the damage without risking being taken out. They'd be expecting me.
     As I rounded the building and rocketed toward the big truck, its silver sides glistening with dew in the dawn, I saw the damage with painful clarity. There was an gaping black hole in the door of the Peterbilt, and T-bone's SuperTrooper interference rig idled just to the side.
     T-bone himself was walking towards the semi. When I saw T-bone's SuperTrooper, I knew what had made the hole. His trademark steel I-beam was welded to the top of his interference rig. It was at the perfect height to take out the driver of a stationary cargo tractor. T-bone was notorious for it.
     The Niki's turbine whirred into high-speed, shooting me towards T-bone's lanky figure as he swaggered across the asphalt. I was halfway there before he saw me.
     He paused for a second to judge if he could make it back to his rig, but he was too far. He took one step for the Peterbilt. Two.
     "Your funeral," I whispered. I had him. It would be close, but I had him.
     He jumped after the third stride, reaching for the truck's ladder as I swerved to graze the side of the big trailer, sending sparks and chrome in a shower behind me. The Niki' caught T-bone's legs mid-jump, spinning him like a cock-eyed Ferris wheel to slam his head into the pavement.
     I reversed blowers and spun the speedster around.
     T-bone lay next to the big tractor trailer with a puddle of wet crimson, darkening the asphalt under his face.
     I whipped the Niki' around to the passenger side of the Peterbilt and stepped out. No time to spare. Dougan could get here at any moment. I popped the hatch, stepped out on numb rubbery legs, and moved as fast as I could to the cab of the truck.
     Eddy's lifeless body lay inside, blood in his dark hair -- the hair I remembered feeling in Tawny's mind. The left side of Eddy's flex armor was a blood-filled dent where the steel beam had hit, crushing his rib cage, twisting his spine.
     I pulled his body out, guts and blood streaking the seat, and let him fall to the ground next to the Nikitoan. "Sorry, Eddy," I whispered.
     Then I jerked the door closed, taking shallow breaths of thick air, rich stench of fresh blood. I slid across the wet, red seat and strapped myself in behind the console. I had driven the big rigs when I was first on the team. That was years ago now, but even so, the controls felt friendly and comfortable. I punched in the code to deactivate the fail-safe bomb and thumbed the engine to purring life.
     I cracked the window to let in some necessary fresh air, and engaged the drive, glancing to the rear-angle screens to see the two vehicles on either side of the rig, and the limp bodies of T-bone and Eddy sprawled on the cement. One left, one right. Each mirrored the other's death -- brutal symmetry in the early light.
     I moved out onto the spiral and called up a frequency directory. I found an open channel, and transmitted, "Dougan, I'm waiting for you. Moving down the spiral. I'm waiting." I put a personal signature on it and dialed a transponder setting so that he'd know where I was.
     His reply was quick. "I'm coming."
     I shut down the transponder and rolled down the interstate, watching the traffic flow around me in the early morning light, feeling the wind through the hole in the door and listening to the static in my head. I glanced up at the rating display above the shield glass. Word must have gotten out to vid land that I'd issued a challenge. Ratings were sky high.
     Over the next ten or fifteen minutes the traffic in front of me thinned to almost nothing, but the lanes behind me packed in heavy with vehicles wanting to see the confrontation live.
     The morning light was a red and yellow glow in the sky when I saw him. I came to the crest of one hill and looked out across the deep valley to the opposite side. There he was, parked on top of the distant hill. His huge Kenworth glittered black in the early sunlight, the bright neon "Slammin" scripted across his front grill.
     I slowed to a halt and we sat facing each other.
     Over the open frequency, "I see you've changed vehicles, Wingman. You think it will help?"
     I remembered a time just after prison, in my early Tollrunning days. Tawny and I had plugged into the vid to go over some recordings. To learn the techniques, practice the moves.
     In one clip, we sat behind the wheel of Dougan's older style interference rig -- big tires, roll bar, double steel-plated grill. Dougan's rig was dwarfed by a massive Mack tractor on our left as both vehicles blasted side by side at over a hundred and eighty klicks per hour. The Mack was nearly to the finish line in Seattle and Dougan was The Crew's last chance to stop it.
     Suddenly, we felt Dougan press down on the accelerator, speed past the Mack, and make a wide outward curve away from the truck. Dougan then swung his rig back around, simultaneously pulsing the nitro.
     His rig shot at the tractor and smashed into the Mack's trailer joint. A suicidal move under normal circumstances. This time it worked.
     I remember feeling the windshield explode inward and the rig flip. Pain flickered through the vid-linkage for a second before the automatic editing kicked in and cut it off. Dougan's rig was demolished, but not before the Mack had jackknifed and rolled.
     A successful, game-winning move on Dougan's part. Amazingly, he wasn't killed; he was hardly even hurt. Suicidal moves were his trademark. Whether it was fate or luck, he came away from the wreckage every time.
     Now, sitting in the cab of Eddy's Peterbilt, my mind was screaming. What the hell am I doing? He has never been beaten, even by experienced big-rig drivers. Then I felt the crackle of static rise in my head. Tawny. And I remembered, Andrew, I love --
     I reached into dash compartment, and pulled three hits of Eddy's FIM and downed them. As the drug's fire began to boil my brain, I opened a channel. "Dougan, you're the baddest of the bad, but I don't think you've got what it takes to party with me."
     I gunned the engine and the tractor lurched forward.
     His reply came like a curse in my own words as he, too, moved. "Your funeral."
     The drug dampened the hiss in my head and I went into reflex mode, my brain burning at the speed of light. But as I plowed down into the valley towards Dougan's death machine, things slowed down.
     I remembered my early teens, sitting awake at night and dreaming of being Slammin Sammy Dougan -- the best of the best, a legend in the game.
     All of a sudden, my feet and hands turned to ice. I didn't want to die for this. Dougan and I were barreling down each other's throats at a hundred-plus klicks per hour, neither vehicle giving an inch in this ridiculous game of chicken.
     My brain crashed into hyperdrive and everything became a blur as I snatched off my safety belt and kicked open the door. Wild gusts of wind rushed into the cab as I prepared to jump, alternately watching Dougan's truck and the freeway below me, rushing past like the belt of a power sander.
     I stopped for an instant to start the timer on Eddy's five-second fail-safe -- the block of plastique Tawny had liked so much. Then I took one last look at the Kenworth headed towards me, huge and close.
     Dougan sat comfortably in the cab with a fevered look on his bearded face. An insane smile of delight. Deathrush heaven.
     I jumped.
     The explosion caught me in midair and lifted me up. And up. It seemed like a full minute before I came crashing to the ground, bouncing off the cement like a limp doll. Spinning through the air.
     Like flying.
     When I finally scraped to a rest, I lay there, feeling my brain race and listening to the hiss in my head and the crackle of burning trucks. Dougan had swerved at the last instant, but too late; the blast had caught him at point blank. The heat from the flames seared my hair and skin, but I couldn't make my limbs move me away from the pain.
     A huge crowd of people gathered in a wide perimeter to watch the fire, and all I could think about were those times with Tawny, before flight school when we would've been among the first onlookers to arrive. Wouldn't want to miss the action.
     The attraction.
     Finally, the parameds flew in and lifted me out to a hospital. They told me I'd been lucky. Mostly just third degree burns and a fractured spine. My head and internal hardware was undamaged.
     Dougan had burned to death.
     Later that day, a couple of Tollrunner's producers came by to tell me that they were going to have me patched back up. Free of charge. Ratings, they said, phenomenal ratings. In a few weeks, I'd be on my feet. A couple of months, they said, and I'd be back in my speedster. They even had an ad campaign in the works. I was getting a new identity -- The Wingman.
     Now they say I'm the biggest thing on vid since Dougan in his younger days. They say that I should be happy; little boys all over the world want to be just like me.
     Every time they say that, the hiss in my head gets a bit louder.

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