The Card Story

The Technology of Z-G freed us from gravity and ushered us into space. It also gave us the game. Which became our obsession…

"He's coming to - we've got him this time. Open those eyes, BREATHE. You can do it now." Zak slowly rises from a mist-filled cryogenic chamber. Hands wipe the film from his face, and he looks up dizzily.

"Where am I?"
"This is a Sleeper clinic, a hospital. You are cured. But you've been under a long time…"
"How long have I been out? Where's my sister?"
"You've been asleep a long, long time; nearly 100 years. You died twice, so your revival required almost a year of reconditioning. You're lucky to be alive at all."
"But my sister? She was sick too, she…"
"Zak, she is the reason we woke you. Lodetek, holographic computers, gave us sentient helpers, creating the Neutopia. But with them arose new questions of humanity and morality."

Zak drifted away into sleep again. When he awoke, an intense young man sat rigidly next to his bed.

"Well, you're finally up. Excellent! My name is Ice. I'm your legal guardian in this brave new world. You're a curiosity, you know - the only Sleeper who was actually born in the last millennium. The reporters are clamoring for interviews. Things are very different from when you were last around. But let me explain why I am here. We are looking for someone accused of crimes against humanity. Sedition, illegal cloning, creation of Lodes without internal constraint logic. A member of a criminal secret society, but with the talents of a Promethean. The inventor of the Lode, and so the creator of a new age. And with a unique connection to you…
"So let me make this very clear. If you ever want to see your sister again, you'll do exactly what I say and help me find my quarry."

Clones have become the new underclass, doing tasks others refuse to do, denied their humanity and their rights. A Steel door opens, and Roy-Roy, an Omniclone, hesitantly walks in.
"I have been instructed to show you the outside."

The immense city rises around them, reaching into the heavens, teeming with life below. Thousands of skycars fall from the sky, dappled with the silver light of dawn, commuters on their way to work from Orbital suburbs. The Star Rain.

Roy-Roy says, "You must be an important person, Zak. Everyone likes you."

Zak asks Roy-Roy, "But what about you, Roy-Roy? What are you - human or Artifex?"

"I am no robot, but some say I am not human either. They don't see me, or care who I am. I like you, just like I liked your sister before you. But she did not adjust well. They sent her away." says Roy-Roy

"I must find her. She's all I've got. She's my only connection to home in this mad, mad world." thinks Zak-9.

The Ecstasis generator, now outlawed, allows experiences to be shared, identities merged, revelations found. No thought need be private any longer.

As they explore the city, they meet a scruffy-looking Trancer, Mok-Z. "You're that Sleeper they just thawed. Take this - catch the vibe!"

"Leave him alone; he doesn't play your games." says Roy-Roy

"Easy, clone, I'm trying to help." Mock-Z produces two trance caps and seven memory spools. "Take these, but don't get caught with them! This will totally catch you up. Clone, try feeling a real emotion for once."

With these trance caps you can live in someone else's mind, see what they see, think what they think. You become them for a time. Zak places the spider-like device on his head. Roy-Roy stares, then does the same.

"That was exquisite! You're a natural with the claw!"

The neurological component of Z-G can only be fully utilized by the young. You must grow new nerves to to link perfectly to finely tuned zGear. In a large pit in the bowels of the city, Zak and Roy-Roy finally find what they have been looking for. An illegal Shadow League fight.

Blur, an Exotic, nonchalantly defeats all challengers, then looks up at Zak. "Can't anyone here fight?"

Zak jumps into the pit and picks up a defeated player's mock claw. "Oh, it's the caveman! You don't have the reflexes, training, or breeding to beat me!"

Blur charges faster than any human could. Zak swings his claw wildly. Blur connects with a kick, but Zak's untrained swing also connects.
Blur is grappled.
Zak grabs his throat. "Say Uncle!"

The small crowd of kids cheers the rising star. Linkers furiously race to post it on the net. One girl pushes her way to the front.

Earth is a garden, the crown jewel. The roads are being torn up, ecosystems restored. But change is feared; the world becomes static.

Alexandra, a beautiful young Terran, pats Zak on the shoulder. Living out memories not his own, Zak discovers that he is not alone in his loneliness. He begins to unravel the mysteries of this alien world.

"it was just dumb luck, you know. In fact, I hit myself at the same time." says Zak

"I know who you are, you're all over the Vid. You lived in a good time. No clones or genetic freaks. But this is an amazing age. You live in space, on the moon; you have Z-G."
She turns, and pauses, "That's what they want you to think, of course. Old Earth must be restored. If we don't do something soon, the human race will become extinct. Here's my advice - live a long life, stay on Earth." she turns and leaves Zak alone in the arena.
Zak is no closer to finding his sister, and removes the trance zGear. Roy-Roy leads him back to the offices of the Solon, Ice.

While it projects an image of tolerance, the EGS is monolithic and harsh. Above all else, the citizens fear the return of chaos.

Zak approaches the Solon. "Ice, I'm sick of your lies and manipulations. I want to know where my sister is!"

"This is a government operation. You're on a need-to-know basis." retorts Ice

Zak picks up Ice's desk and smashes it to pieces.

Ice explodes, "Don't cross me, zPunk; I know what you've been up to. Your sister had a special purpose, as do you. You belong to us!"

Zak picks up Ice and throws him to the floor. They fight fiercely but Ice summons help.
"Security, Phrensy Alert!"

Lt. Damien, a Monzon agent in full battle zGear, bursts into the room and grabs Zak up off the floor with one arm. "You are under arrest under the terms of the Zero Tolerance Laws. Come quietly."

Citizenship is reserved for those who serve the state: it is a privilege, not a right. Without it, one may be exiled for the slightest infraction. High in a gilded chamber, Zak sits in trial. His attorney, Raphael, a Paragon, shuffles nervously through his notes.

In walks Argus, an Exarch: confident, secure and supremely well connected. Raphael drops his head. "Someone must really want you exiled."

The Exarch begins, "It is disappointing when a youth so privileged, a role model, decides to flout the law."

The Trial begins, then ends swiftly.

The Judge concludes, "We have performed a thorough brain scan and testing regimen, and you are judged to be a danger to society. You have violated the Zero Tolerance Security Act and are hereby exiled from Earth!"

Zak is astonished at this brutal justice. Exiled?

"Furthermore, you are sentenced to three years in the ice mines of Luna. You have seven days to say your farewells."

Having been awake for only a few weeks, Zak has no one else to turn to. No one except the people whose memories he has shared.

The Orbitals are the playground of the rich. As the EGS cleanses Earth of the taint of industry, more and more move above. The spool of Quatro, an Orbital, made it clear he rarely descends from orbit. At home above, a prince of the heavens, he shall never again know the mortal tread. Zak has to take the commute to near Orbit. Fortunately, Quatro grants him a hearing.

"Well, I don't know many Exiles, but I hear it's rough. So I suppose I'll try to help. We are free up here, from gravity if not the hegemony. You may have this. It's an ulster - a survival suit. You might as well get used to it now."
Quatro turns and reaches for a small pillow of cloth before continuing, "This single device - this simple suit - is the key to space. Without it we could not survive in the cold vacuum of the void. It's completely flexible, self repairing, almost a living organ, a symbiotic, self-contained environmental system."

Zak accepts the gift, "It fits like a glove. I can go anywhere now, can't I?"

Many seek escape and find it in the spectacle of Z-G. Nothing matters but the fight. It is the new age of the Gladiator. Zak loves this game they call Z-G. It's his passion. While in orbit, he travels to the Perihelion Arena. Not since the days of Rome has there been a live show this full of mayhem and madness. A twin laser fires, destroying the ulster of a hapless foe. The crowd roars in disdain for the loser.

The zMarshal bellows, "Special guest star, direct from the Grange, Corsair of the Oort Cloud. The woman you love to hate!!"

Sneaking his way backstage, Zak confronts the infamous Skrag, Madame Notorious.
"I have something of yours…very revealing." says Zak

"How did you get back here?! Resourceful boy. But that is a private recording." coos Madame Notorious.

"You want it back? I can understand why. But tell me, as a veteran of this grim game, can you give a beginner some advice?"

"Watch your back, and always have a way out. Give me my spool, and take this indulgence - it has served me well." She hands him a small jewel, a Lode.

As science has progressed, so has the need for people with the IQ to use it. Genius is now designed. Who doesn't want the best for their child? Zak travels to Prague for a match of Quo, a glass bead game of subtle complexity. Krandel, a Savant, battles an Artifex. No one has ever beaten a Lode. The Savant waves his hands in the air.

"It really is quite simple, if you think about it logically and find a way to put your foe off guard. Checkmate!"

Zak approaches. "I have unspooled your thoughts, I know your secrets, and I need your help."

"Impossible! Sleeper, you couldn't handle my thoughts. Ah, perhaps you can, and have… Impressive."

"I am addicted to the game - as you are. It's a passion."

"Clever! I will answer one question."

"How can I find my sister?"

"let her find you. Guard your secrets. Expect the unexpected. This bibliofex belongs to you now."

No theory can ever be proved, only disproved. We possess but the illusion of what could be, based only on what is not and cannot be. Zak finds himself in a rundown neighborhood alley, looking for his next contact. Hands reach from the shadows and pull him in, covering his mouth.

"Shhhh! Are you trying to get us criminalized? I've been in this store for months."

Hunter, a Thesper, crouches. Three orbs whirl around her, recording everything. On her head, a trance cap is barley visible. "You're that Sleeper that got exiled. How about an exclusive?"

"No way. Your reports helped bring me 100 years up to date. You have a way with life, and a story."

"I can see the headlines now - 'Sleeper to Exile in Two Weeks'. Give me your tale and I'll reward you with these wings. Remember, if you control the masses, you control the future. But tell me, do you live by the wire? Do you spool yourself?"

"Why would I want anyone to know my weaknesses? Are no one's thoughts sacred anymore?"

Fame has become the only commodity left of any true worth. Those who know how to use it can galvanize opinions and turn heads. Zak knows the Avatar Euphonous plies in emotion for profit - but what choice does he have? She's making as special appearance at the Bacchanal Guild. The line of pods and camera orbs stretches for blocks, all seeking one glimpse of the star. Zak has never seen a crowd so huge. It's like an ocean of shrieking, shoving bodies.

"I need to speak to Euphonous!"

"You and everyone else on this planet!" the bodyguard scoffs.

"I know who you really are!"

Euphonous is amused. "Let him through, Jake."

"I know whom you emulate, whom you seek to be. We share a past. I need your help."

There is not enough room on Earth for everyone to live forever; extended life is reserved for the elite. But many refuse to accept their natural fate. The Avatar sends Zak off in a private skylimo. A holographic flickers to life inside the car. It's the face of a young woman with a weary look of age in her eyes. Zak leans in toward the screen. "Who are you?"

"We must hurry; they will soon discover the source of my transmission. It has been so long… You look well, It is I, Evelyn Eve - your mother."

"You aren't my mother, you look nothing like her. What do you want from me?"

"I am a fugitive; I must change bodies frequently. There is much you do not know and cannot know. There are great forces at work, and exile is the only way I could find to keep you safe. You must be patient if you want to find your sister. You will discover the hardships of the Void. May it make you stronger. You must persevere. The fate of our family depends on you."

Strange times offer stranger intoxications. A synthesis of music and mania, the Vibe is a melding of minds. A force that cannot be stopped. Zak finds his way to a trancer haven, an impermanent pod formed in the center of a ring of ships.

Empty Space.

The Void.

Upon the whirling, flashing platform hovering over the crowd stands the Sybil and her gathered host. The crowd seethes with tension as the music begins. Each wearing an Ulster and a trance cap, the ecstasis guided from above, their minds slowly fused into one. Suddenly the floor drops away and everyone hangs in space. Then the gravitronics begin to twist and turn the bodies of the dancers. It's a glorious dance, created by and for the music, with each body submitting in whole and part to the spectacle that was. He sees many familiar faces flash before him in a blur, but what was dream and what was real in this teeming mass?

From their dance they conjure a new Chimera. It takes the name Nana. A pseudo-sentient being living in common amidst a thousand minds.
"Soon will arrive a new being, the first of her kind. Artificial, yet thinking herself real. Prepare for her coming."

The most trusted and powerful force in the system, the Armada, protects Earth as diligently as it defends its own honor. Abruptly the music ends and there is only silence. Zak finds himself face-to-face with a wild-eyed Armada cadet, Jett.

"Nana has thrown us together, Sleeper, there is a strange purpose in it. I can feel it. We must leave, the party is over. We've been betrayed."

They left knowing what they should do, but not why. They go to his gleaming space yacht, with the glyph of the Hegemony on its bow. "I'm Armada, but I think for myself."

Once again they don the trance caps and attempt to recreate that which was but would never be again.

"We create the Chimera and they re-create us in turn. The patterns and ideas that flow between us, they are alive, like spirits of thought. Revel while you can - there's no unity in the ice mines, my friend!"

Their trance lasts forever, or no time at all.

"Our time is at an end. I have been ordered to escort you to the prison ship. It is my duty. We must leave now."

The irony of the neuAge is that the one resource that Earth has in abundance is the most valuable element in the Grange. Water. The stuff of life. The prison ship drops Zak on his new home, Luna. Dark, barren surface. Pulsating life in caves below.

Petra, a Consortium lackey, welcomes his Exile group. "Move it, Launchies! Form the line! You've got a fresh start here. Leave the old ways behind. Carve a new identity, in these rocks. Ice is life! You will do hard labor in caves deep below and work your way up."

Under miles of rock, Zak grinds the moons crust. He practices Z-G not only to defend himself, but because he is destined for the arenas.
Three years pass.
Every day he curses those who put him in the mines and is filled with coiling fantasies of dark revenge. A cave collapses, taking all but Zak. He survives for nine days in a tiny crevasse, protected only by his Ulster. The wardens respect him as a survivor and promotes him to Cestus, a trustee. They give him a new name - Zak-9. The Cestus run their warrens through respect heavily laced with fear. Life as a trustee beats the subterranean drudgery of the proles, but one is still enslaved.

As Zak-9 makes his rounds, he begins to know the prisoners, to see them as more than simple numbers. A few proles begin to trust him. At age 16 he has his own crew. Zak-9 becomes intrigued by a beautiful, but frail prisoner. Number 737322, but the others call her Fenn. Zak-9 helps Fenn when opportunity permits. She is grateful, but some prisoners begin to mutter about the "mixing of races."

A bravo by the name of Vito Chi puts the fix on Zak-9. "Don't think you run this crew, I do. The cartel owns this warren."

Fenn warns, "Watch your back. Vito plans to take you out."

That afternoon, in the tunnel, Vito distracts Zak-9, and he's suddenly struck down from behind. Rolling over, covering his exposed Ulster, Zak-9 sees and feels the booted feet of Vito's work detail slamming into his sides and head. Zak-9 struggles to his feet, lashing out with his dual grappling claws and delivering stunning shocks with his ulster.

The riot is quickly quelled.

A cabal of scientists compete to effect the most progress. They, more than any other, are the creators of the new age. Following the riot, Zak-9 rises in rank and respect. He's given authority over an entire warren. As Zak-9 relaxes with a quaff in the Jupiter Haze, he's interrupted by a visitor. She exudes power and mystery.

"I am Ari. We have been watching your progress and know much about you. You are both a scrapper and a destroyer."

"I crush rock to survive. I fight to live. I'm tired of cryptic messages. Stop playing games and tell me what you want me to do."

"Everything is a game. Even your assignment here. Events are set into motion for a purpose. She will be here soon. She is the first, priceless, unique. How we treat her now will establish how her kind shal treat us in the future."

"Tell me who started all this. Who holds the strings?"

"I cannot tell you that; I cannot tell you anything. They are not my secrets to share. You will help us whether you intend to or not."

The EGS was created in the horrifying wake of the second cold war. Never again did Earth wish to be bombarded from above. The leaders of the Cestus gang meet to decide what to do about the situation at hand.

"There are three of them, it's all over the news from earth. Everyone is after them…"

"A outlaw ensign, son of a president. A boy who somehow launched himself into space with an Ulster! And a lode who thinks she's sentient."

"Sentient lode? I've never heard of such a thing, but it sounds like trouble. EGS trouble."

"They are exiles just like us, the enemies of our enemies. We must help them. "

"We can't trust the EGS! This is just an excuse to send their spies up here. We should take the load and use it for our cause!"

"Those methods might be a bit extreme, but in this case, I agree with the sentiment. Luna must be Free."

"If there's going to be a revolution, we're all on the same side. Loonies. No matter what we were on earth."

The ponderous machinery of the EGS lurches into action when the survival of the state is at stake. What if a Lode could be free - would we still be?

"I told you I can slip by any patrol."
Evading his Armada bretheren, Jett touches down his ship in a deep crator on the Dark Side.

"Nice landing, Jett," whispers Lucy.
An Artifex - a lode.

Seren, a rogue Vanguard Trooper, scans the area for danger. He seems older than his 14 years. Ever vigilant, Seren keeps his own body between Lucy and anywhere danger could lurk.

"So…we're here," Jett mutters. "Now will you tell me we're going?"

"Dark Side Station," Seren says. "To do that, though, we'll need a proximity code."

Jett stiffens. "Where are we going to get that? This was your plan, vGrunt!"

Lucy steps between the two boys.

"Save the anger for the tournament. Someone is coming."

Evolution is dictated by that which survives, that which prospers. No less true on Luna than on Earth. The moon is a harsh mistress. On patrol in the abandoned industrial sector on the Dark Side, Zak hears an alarm. He scans the area for heat patterns with his headgear. Zak-9 sees two infrared signatures disappearing around a wall. Loading his shotgun, Zak-9 creeps toward the intruders as stealthily as his clunky safety boots permit. Rounding the corner, he's greeted by the sight of his old friend Jett and two others, one in a white Ulster.

They have their own weapons drawn. It's a standoff. The smaller boy stands in front of his female companion, his jaw clenched.

"Easy Seren!" Jett says. "I know this guy!"

"Jett?" Zak-9 says. He turns to the girl. "An artifex…but so life-like…You're the Lode!"

"Lucy," she says.

Since antiquity diseases have scourged mankind. All have been destroyed. Until now. We ourselves created the most virulent of plagues.

Siren-flashing hovercars announced the arrival of Division A. Cestus troops dismount.

"Great work Zak-9! You have them!" The mercs of Division A train their pulse cannons on the prisoners.

"Just a second, guys, this is…" says Zak-9, waving off the troopers.

Lucy suddenly backs away. "They're not human, at least not anymore…"

Several of the mercs start to transform. Wires sprout from their face and neck; hornlike nodules push through plastic skin. The remaining mercs back away in horror.

One, Rosie, a Freaker fixer, shouts, "Mummers! We've had it!"

The Mummer nanozombies close around the group, weapons raised.

Seren is the first to attack; his backgear thrusts him to the Mummers as he swings his plasma sword ferociously. Seren slags several Ulsters, but the nanotek virus holds their bodies together.

Zak-9 screams, "They're standing over a cave!"

Jett immediately blasts the ground and a massive crater opens, swallowing all of them.

Seren says, "we must head for the Grange, where we can hide. We need a fast ship."

"Darkside Tournament. First prize is Icarus, fastest ship in the system." says Zak-9, "I know a Mavryk smuggler that can get us to Dark Side Station."

Dark Side Station, the shadow of Luna, hovers in La Grange Point 2, invisible from Earth. It hosts the greatest Z-G tournament of them all.

Hours later, Seren, Lucy, and Jett board the Mavryk's vessel. Zak-9 scans the lunar surface one last time, then follows his crew up the ramp.