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Other titles in the Hunger Games series:
The Hunger Games (Hunger Games #01)by Suzanne Collins
By Alex London
“Both were being denied their childhoods: the prince by a smothering excess of privilege, [the whipping boy] by none at all.”—Sid Fleischman
“In the… landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software.” —Douglas Rushkoff
Even a perfect machine wasn’t built to go this fast.
Knox knew it, but still he pressed harder on the accelerator. Ripples of heat blurred the air around the car, and the girl in the passenger seat squealed.
Terror? Delight? Did it matter?
He took a turn too sharply, felt the stabilizer engine straining. His windshield lit up with warnings: lane markers flashing red, speed indicators blinking. Sweat beaded on his upper lip, but the car held the road.
“R U glitched?” popped up in his datastream in translucent green letters. He could see through them to the pavement, but they were impossible to ignore.
He glanced at the girl, giggling to cover her nerves.
They curved up the speedway, slicing like heat lightning over the slums of the Lower City, past the blast-barriers and security fences, rising higher and higher. There were parts of the Mountain City you just didn’t go if you were lux, parts you didn’t even see. The city below them blurred. The city beside them gleamed. Knox accelerated.
“srsly?!” blinked double-sized in front of Knox, each letter wiggling and changing colors. The font was chunky; the y swished like a cat’s tail. Very retro. Probably custom made for her by some trendy for-hire coder. Her hands waved in the air in front of the windshield, swiping out another text.“ :) ” she added.
Suddenly, her smiley face vanished.
“Reduce Speed…Reduce Speed…Reduce Speed…” scrolled in front of Knox in an unfriendly industrial font. All the road signs and advertisements now said the same thing: “Danger Danger Danger.”
Knox waved off the Augmented Reality hook up. You weren’t supposed to be able to turn it off, but Knox had yet to find a security system he couldn’t hack. AR driving was for amateurs and accountants anyway. He gunned the car forward. The speed pressed him against the auto-cooled leather seats.
“You even know how to drive?” the girl cried out loud, her voice shrill and excited.
Knox didn’t say a word. He liked to let the growl of the engine do the talking.
He also couldn’t remember the girl’s name.
Something old fashioned. He shot her another glance, his emerald eyes flashing mischief. He smirked.
That usually did the trick.
She was new in Mr. Kumar’s History of Robotics class, a transfer from home schooling. She liked the animations Knox hacked onto the public display on top of their teacher’s scowling face. Sometimes Knox gave Mr. Kumar devil horns or a top hat or made it look like he was lecturing them from a seedy strip club in the lower city. The girl had complimented Knox’s work on her first day at school.
Mr. Kumar never had any idea his image had been hacked. He just talked away from his wood paneled office at EduCorp. He couldn’t figure out why the kids always laughed so hard at his lectures. Not that he could do anything about it. They were all paying customers and could laugh all they wanted. That was a perk of going to a top-tier Patron school. The customer was always right.
Knox had a knack for hacking datastreams, but school wasn’t really his thing. He could do the work when he wanted, when he had the right motivation, but grades weren’t it. A girl, any girl really, now that was good motivation.
Curvy, skinny, smart, dumb, Retroprep or NeoBuddhist, Causegirl or Partygirl, it didn’t matter to him. They all had something beautiful in them. He loved finding out what it was. And they loved letting him.
Knox knew his assets. With a few little hacks of a holo projection or two, a green-eyed wink and a lop-sided smirk, he could get most girls to do anything.
Well, almost anything. Absolutely anything would take this drive in the borrowed silver CX-30 and an after-hours tour of the Patron’s Zoo on the edge of the city. Girls loved extinct animals, didn’t they?
Scare them with a few hairpin turns, show them a live polar bear and some real penguins and then, cue the melting into his arms. This wasn’t his first time down this road.
“You ready to meet a polar bear?” he asked her.
She giggled again.
“What’s so funny? Polar bears were deadly creatures. Carnivorous, fearless, and wild. You have to be careful around them.”
“Sounds like someone I know.”
“Me?” he feigned innocence. “I’m harmless as a puppy dog.”
“Yeah, but are you housebroken?”
Oh yes, Knox liked this one.
Emily? Ann? Sue?
He couldn’t ask her now. If they were at one his father’s parties he could introduce her to people, get her to say her name to the Vice President of Birla Nanotech or something. But it was just the two of them in the car and it would be just the two of them at the zoo. What did names matter, anyway? Knox didn’t plan to do much talking.
He swiped through his datastream, clutching the wheel with just his palms, and locked onto a holo of a long-faced puppy, its tail wagging and its little pink tongue hanging out. It bounded to her side of the windshield and licked her in 3D. She laughed. It was an old stock pic; he’d used it a thousand times before, but it never failed him.
She waved her fingers around the glowing projection in the air and tossed a text back to Knox.
CUTE, lit up on the windshield in front of him.
She wasn’t just talking about the puppy. Knox half-smiled and bit down on his lower lip.
She noticed. He was watching the road, but he knew that she noticed.
Her mother was on one of those Benevolent Committees. Saving the orphans or matching organ donors or something. Maybe both. They’d go well together. Her father was a mining executive for one of the big firms, data not dirtware. The real value was in data. He was a client of Knox’s father’s company, but that didn’t narrow it down much. Everyone was a client of Knox’s father’s company.
Her father was bald, right? Knox thought he remembered a shiny bald head when he’d met the man. Must be nostalgia, like her old fashioned name. No one with money needed to go bald. He was probably a history buff. Or was that the last girl’s father? It was hard to keep these fathers and their hobbies straight. Charming fathers was so much more work than charming their daughters, with so much less reward.
The girl’s family must have some cred. You couldn’t get into their high school without paying for it, no outside sponsors allowed. And you couldn’t get eyes like hers without some serious biotech. They practically glowed purple. Her dark hair also had a hint of purple, probably designed to match. The DNA install for that kind of work must have been a nightmare for the coders who wrote it. Very lux.
Knox eased on the straightaway. He was way above the suggested maximum speed, and he was way below the suggested minimum age. He’d stolen company property from his father’s private lot; he’d violated the restricted speedway, violated driving regulations. He planned to do some more violating before the night was over. In the end, someone would have to pay for it.
But really, who would set the access code to a brand new CX-30 Roadster as 1-2-3-4-5 and not expect his son to take it for spin? If anyone was to blame, it was his father. Knox was sixteen. He was just doing what came naturally.
Like the polar bears.
And look where that got them.
“What’s so funny?” the girl asked, seeing Knox chuckle.
“Just thinking about polar bears,” he said and he reached over to squeeze her thigh.
That was his first mistake.
The next two came in quick succession.
The car swerved slightly toward the guardrail when he took his right hand off the wheel. At that speed, on manual drive, it took both hands to keep the vehicle straight. He’d have known that if he had ever taken a manual driving class.
He overcompensated for the swerve, jerking the wheel toward the center lane. That was his second mistake.
His heart skipped a beat as he felt himself losing control. If he hadn’t shut off the augmented reality driving, it would have taken over right then. These cars drove themselves if you let them.
Instead, he tried to brake.
Mistake number three.
An alarm sounded. The car jackknifed, spun sideways, and flipped over at 162 mph.
The stabilizer engine screeched helplessly at the sky.
Or maybe that was the girl.
He felt the car hit the ground and roll. The entire universe shattered into blinking lights and screaming metal. He heard a crunch, a snap of bone. He felt like he’d been punched in the throat.
There was heat, an intense heat, and an invisible fist pulled the air out of his lungs and ripped the sound from his ears. He couldn’t hear anything now, no screaming, no screeching, just the blood rushing to his head. He thought he was upside down. Twisted metal pinned his arms to his sides. He felt the urge to laugh. There was a warm wetness on his face and he tasted something metallic.
And then darkness.
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