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Screens filled the air around Jon’s head. They jostled each other for attention, oblivious to their relative importance, only wanting more time with his eyes on them.
He reached up and dragged a smaller one closer, almost-but-not-quite touching it, causing the others to rotate like stars falling into a black hole. The screen showed the progress of a smaller hack, an information gathering algorithm researching a man’s personal life. Gathering data from social media was easy – the machines could do it in moments – but turning the data into a way in, an entry point, was a skill. He formed the gathered data into a table and sorted it, searching for a key, an oft repeated data point which might lead to the key.
‘Hey man, you have to check this out.’ Artarmon’s voice barely registered, a background buzz from the real world. Jon knew where he was; on a couch, at the office, working late with his boss. It just didn’t matter at the moment.
‘Busy,’ he said. He expanded the screen to get a better look, but it wasn’t there yet. The hack needed more time.
‘And I’m your boss. How about you try paying me a little attention?’
Jon pushed the screen back into the storm above his head and brought the main attack program back into focus. This one was Em’s, a thing of beauty she’d knocked out in a week. It focussed on the company itself, trying to do what none of the other firms had managed yet.
‘Are you listening to me?’ Artarmon said. ‘You’re going to want to see this.’
‘You know we’re under contract, right?’ Jon pointed his finger at the slider in the lower left corner of his HUD, moving it down one level, from his personal realm to off. The vortex of screens waiting for his attention faded away along with the rest of the digital world. He looked around at the office, surprised that even with the chaos of his digital workspace, the physical office was messier. The open plan office was furnished in the hipster-hacker aesthetic the clients expected to see; pinball machines along the walls with neon beer signs above them, couches and futons and meditation mats on the floor, and the smell of weed in the air. Artarmon didn’t actually allow his staff to smoke on the job but he had to include the smell to complete the image.
‘You’re still not paying me enough attention.’ The boss lay on the couch opposite Jon, FeelyGear attached to his balding head. His eyes were closed, the equipment controlling his senses while he was off somewhere playing games. ‘I’m needy.’
‘You’re expecting me to nail this intrusion tomorrow, right?’
‘But you don’t think I should put in the hours tonight?’
‘I think you should do whatever you feel is necessary to make me look good.’ A ghost of a smile escaped through the FeelyGear.
‘Then can I please get back to work?’
‘In a bit. Take a break.’
‘That just means I’ll have to work later.’
‘I’m paying you for it though, right?’
Jon wasn’t sure if the boss was actually asking the question rather than making a statement. He had accountants and an HR suite to take care of the boring parts of running a business. ‘Yes, but at some point I need to get some sleep.’
‘Sleep is for old people like me. Don’t waste your life on unconsciousness.’
‘Waste it on games instead.’
Jon decided to stop arguing. It was only going to end one way and hopefully, if he gave in now, he’d be able to review everything before going home. He removed his Realmware glasses – fancy, feather-light wraparounds – and reached for the box on the desk. Inside was the other set of office FeelyGear, a ridiculous expense Artarmon swore was a tax write-off. Jon wasn’t sure the boss knew what the phrase meant, but it gave him access to something he wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, so he didn’t complain.
A soft pad the size and shape of a yarmulke went on the top of his head, with retractable arms he now pulled into place. The ends of the arms stuck to his skin and hair around his head, twitching a little as they worked to find the right angles on his brain. When they were ready he got a three second warning – a low tone in his ear – before the FeelyGear took control.
There were people who knew how FeelyGear worked; Jon had met them. They paraded their knowledge of the inner workings of technology at parties, possibly in the hopes of getting laid. This never worked. Whatever invisible rays the device used to manipulate a user’s brain were unimportant to the average person. It was safe, it was fun, and it worked on magic. Everyone was happy.
Realmware glasses gave you sight and sound for your own digital realm, but FeelyGear gave you everything else. When Jon’s HUD sprang to life and the screens began to swirl around his head again, he immediately grabbed the nearest one. This time when he reached for it he didn’t need to stop just before touching it; his fingers could feel the texture of the two-dimensional display, like a piece of expensive paper. The screens left trying to grab his attention caused a breeze as they flew around his head which he felt on the skin of his face.
It was fully immersive, and utterly distracting. Nobody who seriously wanted to get any work done, in Jon’s opinion, should be using FeelyGear. But it was pretty cool.
‘Are you still screwing around?’ Artarmon said. His voice carried extra weight now, a low vibration Jon could feel in his stomach.
‘I’m ready. Where are we going?’
‘Omega Gadaffi.’ An invite appeared in his peripheral vision and Jon activated it. A moment later the real world disappeared.
He stood in a large market, the sun overhead an angry giant beating down on him. People swarmed from stall to stall, their avatars in all shapes and sizes. Dwarves straight out of Tolkien rubbed shoulders with space marines and Vulcans, everyone coming from a different region of the game. The stalls sold loot harvested from all over the world, valuable weapons racked beside herbs and flowers.
‘Where are you?’ He asked on a private channel. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Art.’ The boss stood behind him. His avatar looked exactly like he did in the real world, complete with jeans and a shirt.
‘I expected you to be a little more…ostentatious.’
‘It pays to hide your awesomeness in the Market. What’s your name?’
‘Chaos187. The legendary.’
‘Of course it is.’
‘Better than just calling yourself Art.’ Chaos187 was a musclebound warrior, seemingly held together by leather straps and steroids. A giant sword rested across his back and scars decorated his skin. He was proud of the avatar, and it fit into the chaos of the market better than Art did. ‘Why are we here?’
‘Look over there.’
Chaos187 looked over to the edge of the market, the place where paving took over from the desert. A barbarian horde were approaching, marching quickly down the hill leading to the next region. Towering over the avatars, at the edge of the market, was the Knight Protector, a giant suit of rusty armour given life with cogs and steam. It waited patiently, a statue with no sign of life.
‘Are they attacking the market?’
‘Looks that way,’ Art replied.
‘The Knight Protector is going to crush them,’ Chaos187 said. Nobody attacked the Merchant, the owner of the Market. It was a known rule, a reason the place could exist at all. The Market was a safe space, a destination for players the world over. People tried raiding it every so often, but they invariably died in the process. The Merchant was the most powerful player in the game and he’d built the region up from a simple desert map into the centre of the world. People didn’t mess with him.
‘You’re right, they’re dead,’ Art said as the Knight Protector finally came to life. It stepped from its plinth and stomped to the edge of the paving. The barbarians continued marching, oblivious to the death waiting for them. ‘But I think this is just a distraction.’
The crowd was getting bigger. It seemed like anyone with a game saved in the Market was coming to watch the show. Avatars popped into existence at a constant rate as news spread across the real world.
‘You think there’s a larger force somewhere?’
‘There’s only one Knight Protector, but there’s 360 degrees of desert. Come one.’ Art turned and began making his way through the crowd.
‘So we’re running toward danger?’
‘And we’re not going to get a video of the attack we know is actually happening, just in case there’s another attack happening somewhere else?’
Omega Gadaffi was formed from the relics of old MMOs and then procedurally generated from there. There was no governing body, no company in charge, just the general chaos of the cloud. Getting to the central market had taken him months, of bloodshed and violence and mythic quests. His spawn, randomly assigned the first time he logged in, was on the other side of the world. Dying in the market was not an option. He followed anyway, but drew his sword, just in case.
‘Look over there,’ Art said, pointing through the stalls toward the only building. Chaos187 scanned the church – the Merchant’s store – but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
‘The only thing worth looking at over there is the lack of people. Because they’re all watching the fight, which is where we should be.’
‘Look to the left a bit.’
Chaos187 sighed and followed Art’s finger. He had to squint but he finally saw it between the stalls and the church; an army of barbarians, with mammoths and AK47s, marching on the market. The shifting sands covered the sound of their approach and they kept as quiet as they could.
‘I’m dead,’ he said. He brought his pack around to the front and took stock of his supplies. At least he wouldn’t lose much, not counting the time it had taken to get here.
‘Maybe,’ Art said, hurrying toward the church. ‘Follow me.’
‘Toward the army of murder?’ Chaos187 said, resolutely not following. Art didn’t slow down though, running from cover to cover, getting closer to the church without drawing attention to himself. ‘Of course.’
With another sigh he took off, following the path of his boss, moving from cover to cover until the church shielded him from the army. He then hurried to join Art at the large double door entry to the building.
‘Took you long enough,’ Art said.
‘Running toward danger isn’t my idea of fun.’
‘Not when I’m so far from my spawn, no.’
‘Child,’ Art said, pulling a plasma rifle the length of his arm from his jeans pocket. He handed it to Chaos187, smiling at the wide grin he got in return. ‘This is going to be fun.’
‘You’re a god in here, aren’t you?’
‘It pays to hide your awesomeness in Omega Gadaffi.’
‘Noted.’ The rifle now appeared in his inventory and he hit the insurance button immediately. Now, when he inevitably died, he’d only have to find a fraction of what it was worth to get it – and everything else in the pack – back.
‘The Merchant has every defence possible in here, so we’re safer at the church than out in the market anyway.’ Art reached into his back pocket and fished around, eventually pulling out a crossbow as large as his thigh. ‘The army won’t attack him, if they have any sense.’
‘So we take up a position in a spot they won’t attack and kill everything in sight,’ Chaos187 said, his grin now a permanent fixture on his face. He primed the rifle and a shiver went up his spine at the sound it made, a deep electric groan, as though the plasma ached to be unleashed.
‘Yup. Should be pretty good grinding, and we might even survive.’
‘Where’s your spawn?’
‘Like I’m going to tell you,’ Art said, dismissing the question without thought. Omega Gadaffi only allowed one spawn point, ever. You kept it to yourself unless you wanted to be hounded from the game. People took perverse pleasure in gunning down unarmed, freshly spawned avatars.
‘Here they come.’ Chaos187 pushed the church doors open and stepped inside, taking a quick look around before getting ready. The interior of the building looked less like a house of worship and more like a pawn shop, with rows of glass cabinets filled with odd items traded from across the game. While the Merchant owned the entire market, and took a cut of every sale, he would have been rich just with the special items in the church.
Chaos187 took cover on one side of the double doors and Art on the other, each aiming their weapons at the market. They should have a great vantage point for attacking the army, with their view stretching to the knight protector on the far edge. He had just finished with the small band of barbarians and now returned to his plinth. He didn’t know the army was coming, and seemed satisfied with the blood staining the sand dune behind him.
The barbarians stormed into view, smashing aside stalls and making as much noise as they could. They ran directly for the large crowd gathered to watch the first attack.
‘Would you like to do the honours?’ Art said, gesturing to their wide open targets.
‘No, please, I insist.’
They opened fire together, Chaos187’s plasma rifle sending balls of red-glowing death into the enemy while Art’s crossbow fired slow moving laser bolts. They took out five each before anyone noticed what was happening, and another two before the first barbarians reached the crowd and began the slaughter.
‘What’s this?’ Art said, stepping a little way out of the church to look around at the approaching mammoths. ‘They’re not following the others.’
‘They’re coming here?’ Chaos187 said, surprised. Nobody attacked the Merchant, it was suicide.
The bulk of the barbarian army, hundreds strong and still as silent as they’d been on their approach, formed up before the steps of the church. They ignored their dead and the rifle and crossbow trying to thin the ranks.
‘They’re going to attack here.’ Chaos187 jumped at the voice, coming from behind them in the church. He turned to see the merchant, a short, fat man in a toga, standing calmly between them. ‘Will they never learn?’
‘Um,’ Chaos187 said. ‘Sir? Do you need us to do anything?’
‘Just leave me ten percent of the loot,’ the Merchant said as he stepped through the doors and into the bright sunlight. The barbarian army finally broke their silence, growling and hooting at the man they’d obviously come to kill.
The crowd had been massacred and it seemed none of them fancied trying their luck again, as the market was now empty. The Merchant stood at the top of the steps to his church and raised his hands in the air. A few of the barbarians flinched away.
‘This is my region,’ he said, his voice carrying across the market and out into the desert. ‘Here, I am all powerful. No one can stand against me, or haven’t you learned that lesson yet?’
‘They’ve been running raids for weeks,’ Art said. ‘It’s why I was saved here. Great loot from all the corpses.’
Someone stepped out of the ranks and onto the first step. He was smaller than the other barbarians and didn’t look right. He looked more like an accountant or a librarian, despite the leather thong and sword.
‘I wanted to come see for myself,’ the man said. His voice had none of the power of the Merchant and it died on the wind. ‘I’ve decided to take this all away from you.’
‘There is no power here greater than mine, and no exploit that can defeat me. What is your plan?’ The Merchant still had his hands in the air to either side, ready to do…whatever it was he was threatening to do.
‘Then stop us.’ The man drew his sword and stepped forward, moving a step up and closer to the Merchant.
‘I’m warning you,’ the Merchant said, his voice bringing lightning to the sky.
‘Why hasn’t he killed this guy yet?’ Art said to himself. He looked back into the church, as though searching for an exit.
‘What’s the matter?’ Chaos187 said. ‘You look scared.’
‘I think they’ve found an exploit he doesn’t know about. I’ve seen him zap people for far less than this.’
The barbarian leader took another step safely, and another, and soon the Merchant was backing away, almost tripping over his toga in his hurry.
‘Get the doors closed,’ he said as he stepped inside, and Chaos187 did as instructed, slamming the doors closed and dropping the heavy bar across them. Art had moved into the cooler interior of the building and the Merchant followed him. They searched the glass cases, presumably for weapons.
‘What’s going on here?’ Chaos187 said. His voice echoed and nobody paid him any attention. ‘I thought you owned the market? Hello, somebody want to say something?’
A fist burst through the door behind him and he jumped away, squeaking.
‘Very manly,’ Art said as he carefully opened a case and reached inside. He pulled out a hand grenade spray painted gold.
‘What is happening?’
‘Someone has taken the market from me,’ the Merchant said as he opened his own case. He pulled out a scroll and unrolled it. ‘We’re all very fucked.’
Chaos187 wanted to ask how but a sword smashed through the door before he had the chance. The blade pulled back out, smashing through again a moment later. It hit the bar holding the door closed and cut through it.
‘Hold them off until I finish reading this,’ the Merchant said. He began to mumble, running through whatever was printed on the scroll.
‘You’ll owe us,’ Art said, bouncing the hand grenade in his palm, testing the weight.
‘I’ll give you each a thousand dragons,’ he replied without thinking. Chaos187 whistled; a dragon was worth about a hundred quid. This could be a good day after all.
‘Yes, sir,’ he said, turning to the door as it collapsed inwards. ‘Time to die, barbarian scum.’ He turned the plasma rifle to full power and jammed his finger on the trigger. The plasma was now a lightning bolt, a red finger of God, vaporising whatever it touched. He dusted ten, twenty, fifty barbarians before the power light came on, and still they were coming.
‘Step away,’ Art said as he threw the grenade over the heads of the enemy in the doorway. It vanished into the sunlight outside and for a moment there was a calm to the scene. Both sides waited to see what would happen and Chaos187 heard the sound as the grenade hit the steps and bounced. Art turned to the Merchant. ‘It was a dud?’
‘Wait for it,’ the Merchant said, holding his finger in the air as he continued reading.
The explosion threw barbarian parts into the church and rocked the world. Dust fell from the beams in the roof and mixed with the fine spray of blood hanging in the air. The outside world was swallowed by smoke and screaming.
‘That, was, awesome!’ Chaos187 said as he re-primed the rifle while he had the chance. He rushed to the door to take the fight to the enemy, expecting little resistance, and almost ran into the next wave of attackers. They were already coming, swords and AK47s in the air, screaming a battle cry.
He turned and ran away, getting some distance while Art filled the air with his laser bolts, before turning and unleashing the plasma rifle at full power again. He drove the attackers back outside but they kept coming.
‘Sir, I think we’re boned,’ Chaos187 said, his back now almost touching the Merchant.
‘You did good, swordsman.’ The Merchant threw the scroll to the floor. ‘This wasn’t something we could win.’
‘But why?’ Art said, joining them in the centre of the church. Chaos187’s weapon blinked at him to re-prime, but he knew as soon as he let go of the trigger the wave would come through. He wouldn’t have time.
‘Your government took ownership of my region.’
‘They can’t do that,’ Art said. He raised his crossbow, ready for when the plasma rifle was done.
‘They can, just not for very long. Long enough to mount this attack, apparently.’
‘So what’s the plan?’ Chaos187 said. The rifle was warm in his hands. It would explode soon, and though he couldn’t actually be hurt in the game it would be very annoying to lose the rifle. Insurance didn’t cover it if you destroyed it yourself.
‘The plan, swordsman, is to escape.’ The Merchant drew a revolver from his toga, stuck the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. His headless body fell to the floor as the plasma rifle finally died.
‘I think we should join him,’ Art said, but neither got a chance. They were cut down in a hail of bullets a second later.
Jon jerked away from the loading screen before he could spawn. He didn’t want to see the stupid tree he’d be facing. He’d seen it enough when he first started.
‘That was pretty intense,’ Artarmon said. He dropped his FeelyGear to the couch beside him. ‘Thanks, I enjoyed myself.’
‘Yeah, but now I have to walk my arse off to get back.’ Jon was tempted to throw the FeelyGear across the room. He stopped himself though; he didn’t have the money to replace it if he broke it, and was unlikely to ever have it.
‘Console yourself with the glorious video you got of the attack. Should be worth a bit.’
‘Shit. I forgot to record.’ An attack on the Merchant would have been easy to sell. An attack that succeeded and ended with the Merchant running away to his spawn point would have ended in an auction. He’d be set for the rest of the year. He could probably afford his own FeelyGear.
‘Idiot,’ Artarmon said. ‘Get back to work. We’re under contract.’
Jon slipped his Realmware glasses on and brought the main crack screen back into view. It was done, though he’d leave it running until they turned in their findings. A smokescreen was always useful.
‘I got all I need from this an hour ago.’
‘And?’ Artarmon sat at the bar and looked back at Jon expectantly.
‘I’ll stop by tomorrow and break in.’
‘You got something?’
‘Enough. Probably.’ Jon swiped the screen into oblivion and stood, stretching and yawning. His PDA was already getting a cab ready for him. ‘I’m going to go.’
‘Do well tomorrow,’ Artarmon said, turning back to the bar and grabbing a glass. ‘They’re paying us a lot. And I have a reputation to uphold.’
‘I’ll be amazing, of course.’
Jon fell into the cab and let his PDA tell it where to go. He was too busy kicking himself for forgetting to record. He could have made serious money. Now he’d just be the guy who said he was there. The guy who once caught the biggest fish you ever did see, but it got away.
Oh well, he thought. At least tomorrow I’m going to break into the largest corporation in the world and steal their most well-guarded secrets. That’s something.