00. Foreword
01. Keys
02. Search
03. Downward
04. The Undercity
06. Brain Surgery
07. Matter of Payment
08. Reboot
09. Biohazard
10. Cyberpuppets
11. Links
12. Encryption
13. Queries
14. Debugging
15. Disconnect
16. Downtime
17. Fletch
18. Learning
19. Predator
20. Decompression
21. Kinetic
22. Memory Leak
23. Chronology
24. Lockdown
25. Mind of the Monster
26. Empathy
27. Trojan
28. Reformat

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Free Radical

a novel by Shamus Young


Welcome to my on-line book. Yes, this is a complete novel, and yes, it is free. It has never been published (and for reasons I outline below, probably never will be) and has only been printed on the printers of various fans of the book. If you want a physical copy for yourself, your only choice is to visit the Printer-Friendly version, make sure you have a fresh ink cartridge installed, give the printer about 330+ sheets of paper, and hit "print". I ask for nothing in return, except that you enjoy the work and perhaps drop me an email when you've finished reading, if only to let me know you were here.

This book happened by accident. It was supposed to be a short story. It evolved into a longer one, and eventually into a novel. How it became what it is today may be of some interest. If you'd rather cut right to the story, then now would be a good time to jump to chapter 1.

In 2001 I was re-playing some of my older computer games. This was partly due to nostalgia, partly to see if they still ran. Most did. A few didn't. What struck me most wasn't how primitive the graphics were, but how terrible the storytelling was. Before the days of CD-ROMs, games had a hard time building any sort of narrative. There was no room for voice acting on floppy disks. The graphics where too primitive to show facial expressions, and the characters were too simple for them to emote any other way. The only real means of storytelling was to give the player a bunch of blocky, hard-to-read text to fill in the basics. In a lot of ways it was similar to the days of silent movies, when the action would stop so the audience could read some prose explaining what was going on. In both mediums, there were many cases where the authors did indeed have a great story to tell but they didn't yet have the means to convey it in a compelling manner.

A perfect example of this is the opening movie from the 1994 classic System Shock. It's a simple, two-minute introduction that contains a bare skeleton of a story; more of a premise than introduction. The only characters you see are the protagonist and the villains. The main character has no real identity other than what the player imagines. He eventually does a lot of interesting things, but we in the audience never get to know why. He doesn't even have a name. The various other characters in the story would simply refer to him as "Hacker".

I came up with a short story to give this character a personality, and to explain his behavior. I had no intention of writing any sort of substantial work. I set down what is now the first three chapters of the book, and posted it to my website. I expected to be more or less ignored, since the internet is lousy with fan-fiction (which is in itself mostly lousy) and I had little hope that my story would attract anyone. To my surprise, I got quite a bit of email and encouragement from both friends and strangers, which was enough to keep me going and interested to the end of chapter seven. At that point I had met my initial goal of translating the two-minute movie into prose.

If you'd like to see the original intro movie, you can download it. The file is a 10MB mpeg. The various mysteries of video codecs and media players are unknown to me, so if it doesn't play I'm afraid I can't help you. It should work, though. One final warning I'll give is that the video is obviously going to be a spoiler. I'd suggest waiting until you've finished chapter 7 of my story before you check out the movie.

While I was happy with how the short story had developed, I found the ending very unsatisfying. For anyone who wasn't familiar with the game, it wouldn't make sense to stop the story there at all. It was, of course, the beginning of the game. At the same time, I was getting quite a bit of email from fans who assumed I was going to keep going and translate the whole thing. At that point I wondered if I was capable of writing a book. I decided to find out.

The rest of the book was written and released a chapter at a time over the course of a year. There was a forum on this site where readers would leave comments and bug me to hurry up on the next chapter. Because it was released as a serial, I fell into a lot of habits common to serial storytelling. Notably, I had a number of cliffhanger endings. Partly this was done because it was fun to have the character in a seemingly impossible situation and to see the various posts from readers as they speculated how he might escape. I was also anxious that the long delays between chapters might cause people to lose interest and stop reading, and I wanted to make sure they came back. In the end, I don't think I needed to worry, since readership grew during the project and wasn't noticably affected by the type of ending I'd used in the most recent chapter.

In turning the events of the actual game itself into prose, I found that I needed to take quite a bit of liberty with the story to make things interesting. In fact, it would be a stretch to say this story is based on the game. More accuratly, this story is based on the same premise as the game. This earned me a bit of ire from fans of the original work, although I'm confident the book is better for it. Computer games are exciting to play, but would be hopelessly dull if converted directly into a narritive. This is particularly true for older games:

The marine blasted three more aliens. He turned around and blasted two more. He reloaded his shotgun. He went upstairs and blasted two big aliens and three little ones. He opened the door. He blasted two more. Behind the next door four more aliens (one big and three little) were waiting for him. He shot one, but then realized he'd forgotten to reload! He backed up and reloaded while the aliens bit him, lowering his health. Then he blasted them. He went through the next door and found his goal: The Red Keycard!

And so on. While the above sounds dull, it's actually quite fun if you're the one doing the blasting. At any rate, adding some expository text and a little dialogue wouldn't make the above any more palitable. To make the transition from the screen to the page, most of the story had to be re-envisioned.

Since most readers were patient enough to endure the book in serial form - sometimes with weeks and months between chapters, I would say I've at least met my initial goal of creating something gripping. The fact that many of these fans have never heard of System Shock indicates that I've managed to make something that can stand on its own. I'm very happy to have seen this through to the end. In 2005, I revisited the book and did a good deal of rewriting. Lots of old spelling mistakes and typos were fixed. I'm sure many new ones were added. Much was added to the story and a little was taken away.

This book, like most others, was not constructed in a vacuum. Consequently, there are a few people that I need to recognize for their contributions to this work. Chief among those who deserve some credit are the people that once drove the now-defunct Looking Glass Games, the company behind System Shock. I'd also like to thank my wife, who bugged me mercilessly to continue work on the project, and who endured the long task of proofreading and reviewing the book as it took shape. The project was fueled by my own curiosity and through the encouragement of many fans. I'd like to thank everyone who tolerated my irregular writing schedule, and who sent me feedback. Not many authors get to write in front of an audience like this, and I found it to be very rewarding. Thanks for sticking with me, you're more patient than I.

For those of you new to the book, I'd love to hear from you. After you've taken it in, please drop me an email and let me know. It means more than you think.

Thanks for reading,

Shamus Young

= Keys 8