Two dented lift doors were embedded in a wall of pebblecrete. Between them, the up button looked slightly traumatized, like a punching bag. It was hard to believe that the University of New South Wales had just installed a state-of-the-art, web-based management system to run its elevators.
Cadel was convinced that they had to be at least thirty years old.
"Right," he said, eyeing an indicator panel. "We’ll wait till they’re empty before we give it a go."
Ping! The words had barely left his mouth when one set of double doors slid open, revealing a lank-haired student in a Metallica T-shirt who blinked in sheer astonishment as he surveyed the line of people confronting him. Then he ducked his head, adjusted his backpack, and shuffled off toward the nearest lecture theater.
He must be in my course, Cadel decided, cursing himself for being so slow off the mark. Even after three weeks of seminars, he still didn’t recognize many of his fellow students.
"Do you know who that was?" he asked, in the faint hope that Hamish, at least, might be able to help. But Hamish simply shrugged. He regarded Introductory Programming as an insult to someone who could boast a genuine police record, and had roundly dismissed many of the other teenage hackers with whom he was forced to associate as "a pathetic bunch of script-kiddies."
Cadel couldn’t help thinking that Hamish had an attitude problem. Though the two of them were in exactly the same boat, Cadel wasn’t perpetually bitching about its shape or its color. Like Hamish, he had been forced to attend university; the demanding nature of his computer engineering course work was supposed to keep him so busy that he wouldn’t be tempted to engage in any illegal hacking operations. Unlike Hamish, however, Cadel had been quite happy to enroll. He had always wanted to attend a proper university, with legitimate teachers. And if that meant relearning all his painfully acquired programming skills . . . well, he was prepared to make the sacrifice.
Hamish wasn’t. He had left high school a year before, at the age of sixteen, to pursue his own, very specialized interests. Only the combined urgings of his parents, his lawyer, his psychiatrist, and the juvenile justice system could have pushed him back into a highly structured academic environment. "It’s not like there’s anything they can actually teach us in a place like this," he’d said to Cadel on one occasion. "We’re in a totally different league. We’ve been out in the real world. We’ve fought real b-battles, and you can’t do that without breaking a few rules. We’re cyberwarriors, not schoolboys."
It had been hard to keep a straight face, because Cadel couldn’t imagine a more unlikely pair of warriors. Hamish looked like an archetypal computer geek, with his glasses and his braces and his bleached, knobbly frame, while Cadel had no illusions about his own appearance—which was unthreatening, to say the least. Angelic blue eyes and a halo of chestnut curls had rescued Cadel from more sticky situations than he cared to admit. And despite the rapid approach of his sixteenth birthday, he was still unusually small for his age.
Mind you, he thought, glancing at the three people lined up next to him, none of us are exactly unobtrusive. It wasn’t surprising that the lank-haired fellow in the elevator had blinked at the sight of them. Though Hamish belonged to a physical type that was quite common in most computer engineering classes, he wore a wholly unconvincing "tough-guy" outfit: biker’s boots, ripped jeans, studded belt. Beside him, Cadel looked like a cherub from a church ceiling. Then there was Judith, massive and middle-aged, with long, frizzy gray hair, fluorescent pink glasses, a shoulder bag made of recycled tea towels, and layers of tie-dyed hemp flapping around her ankles. As for Sonja, she was the most conspicuous of the mall. Her cerebral palsy meant that she was racked by continual, eye-catching muscular spasms. What’s more, her wheelchair was an imposing piece of technology that tended to dominate whatever space it occupied, thanks to the huge amount of equipment attached to it.
Not that any of this equipment was as big or as clumsy as her old Dyna Vox machine. Once upon a time, Sonja had been forced to spell out her remarks on a keyboard, which had then transmitted them as spoken language. For someone with unreliable motor skills, it had been a slow, laborious, tiring process.
Now, thanks to Judith Bashford, Sonja was hooked up to a revolutionary speech synthesizer. From one of her mysterious offshore bank accounts, Judith had extracted enough money to pay for the very latest kind of system. "If Sonja’s going to be studying at university," Judith had declared, "then she’ll need all the help she can get." This help included a cutting-edge neurological interface device that interpreted signals sent by Sonja’s brain to her vocal cords. A tiny wireless transmitter resting on her voice box then relayed the signals to a portable computer that decoded them, matching them against a set of prerecorded words in its databank. As a result, Sonja was not only able to utter her thoughts aloud—via the speech synthesizer—but also direct her wheelchair to stop, go, slowdown, speed up, turn, retreat . . . whatever she wanted it to do.
At first, Cadel had assumed that this new system would give her complete independence. He had expected to see his best friend making her own way around town, or at least around the university. Most public buildings now contained ramps and lifts and automatic doors; as far as Cadel knew, it was illegal not to provide access for people in wheelchairs. He’d been convinced that Sonja would soon find the trip to her Advanced Mathematics class just as easy as the course itself.
He hadn’t reckoned, however, on the large amount of push-button technology standing in her way. Sonja couldn’t manage wall-mounted buttons. She would hurt herself trying vainly to hit them as she wrestled with her own wayward limbs. Pole-mounted buttons were almost as bad as the wall-mounted variety. So when it came to crossing roads or operating elevators, she was at a serious disadvantage. Without help, Sonja couldn’t be sure of reaching her classes on time.
To Cadel, this was unacceptable. He found it hard to believe that all the money, effort, and sophisticated research lavished upon Sonja’s new wheelchair could be undermined by something as basic as a little plastic button. It was ludicrous. It was unfair. Cadel knew how hard her life had been. He knew that, after being abandoned at an early age, she had been shunted from one group home to the next. Her only real friends (before her first meeting with Cadel) had been nurses and nurses’ aides. She had fought to speak, fought to move, fought to learn. Every day had been a battle. And despite the fact that she now had Judith to take care of her, Sonja’s life was still far from easy. She couldn’t even tie her own shoes or wash her own hair.
The last thing she needed was yet another obstacle blocking her path to freedom.
So Cadel had decided to tackle the problem himself. After doing a little research, he’d realized that every up and down button on campus could be circumvented, given the right tools. And it just so happened that he had the right tools. He had Sonja’s wireless transmitter, which could be reprog...