1930 words (7 minute read)

Chapter 2

In deference to Princess Kara I decided to exit through the forest gate instead of using a Port spell. I pulled the circus cart behind me and walked up to the gate trees. The bunnies huddled at the back of the cart, whispering. I stepped between the trees and, with a crackling like static electricity we passed through a shimmering silver curtain of energy into the chaos of the OldWorld MainHall.

Players’ avatars traveled through MainHall on their way to other people’s spaces, or to shop at MarketSquare. At any one time there were thousands of avatars here. Most just passed through on their way between spaces, but many stayed to chat, tell stories or show vids of their adventures, or haggle with bots at the merchant tables and storefronts.

MainHall had a vaguely European style, something like Prague in the 1900’s. Colorful building facades lined a wide central avenue paved with smooth stones and bordered by spacious, brick-patterned sidewalks. The main door of each facade was the entry to someone’s space, set into the wall that stretched to the full height of the ceilinged hall. In OldWorld the design rules required doors and facades to look like pre-21st century buildings. But once you were inside your own space, your imagination was the only limit/

Kara’s doorstep was a simple brick landing in front of a Victorian-style house facade, with a white-paneled front door. A few meters away the central avenue opened onto MarketSquare. Prime real estate. Kara was either very rich or she’d been part of NooSpace for a long time.

Two fur-garbed barbarians on horseback clopped down the road in front of me. One grunted something and they both laughed. Maybe they didn’t like wizards.

Five raucous pirates stumbled along in the other direction, coming from MarketSquare. Their eyepatched and dreadlocked leader brandished his cutlass and scowled, showing metal-fanged teeth. I rolled my eyes and looked away. The unwashed pirates moved on. I was thankful as ever that they still can’t transmit smells in VR.

I checked to see how my bunny cargo was doing in the cart. Not good. Both bunnies lay on their backs, paws in the air, little Xs on their eyeballs. They had logged out, the cowards.

It wouldn’t save them of course. I had gotten their player IDs during that Transmogrify spell. We could ban them from NooSpace forever, or at least until they got some real world fake IDs and created new accounts. But frankly I preferred answers to justice.

I looked back to the avenue. A huge Amazon warrior blocked my view, thick and formidable. She wielded a huge broadsword that she pointed right at my nose.

“Gotcha!” she whispered.

I jumped backwards in spite of myself.

She laughed. “You are such a wimp.”

“Miranda,” I sighed. She wore a classical Greek tunic, dyed crimson, that stopped about mid-thigh. My wizard avatar isn’t tall so the tunic exposed her muscular thighs in very clear view. I was careful to look elsewhere. Miranda was hard to deal with at the best of times, but if she thought you were acting sexist or exploitative you were in deep trouble.

She sheathed the sword in a scabbard that was strapped to her back. A bow and a quiver of arrows also hung there, and a two-headed axe was tucked into a belt around her waist. She peered into the cart.

“You killed ’em,” she said. “Poor widdle bunnies.”

“They logged out,” I replied.

“I saw the vid stream. Why didn’t you call for backup?”

“Thought you were busy over in dinosaur land.”

“Nope.” she said. “Crickets.”

Miranda and I worked in tech support at Ensec, the NooSpace security agency. We were field techs, which meant we helped out paying NooSpace customers when their spaces didn’t look right or their mods malfunctioned. It was the best of all possible jobs for a long-time spacer like me. While most of the work was routine, you never knew what you’d find when you entered someone’s space.We had spotted some patterns that made us think some serious auth breaches would happen today. Actually I had spotted them, but I liked everyone to think it was a team effort.

“Funny how you always seem to know where the action will be,” she sneered.

“Wait,” I said, “you saw a vid? From today, not yesterday?”

“Your death truck battle. It leaked. Up to where you turned the first chrome-dome into a rabbit. Nice one.”

I closed my eyes. I’d stopped an attack on a customer but somehow the bad guys had streamed it. My bosses at Ensec wouldn’t be happy about that.

I must have had a blank look on my face, because I opened my eyes to Miranda’s ham-fisted fingers snapping at me.

“Still with me?” she said. “You should have let me help. We’d have stopped ’em before they could leak it.”

“You just wanted to hit on the princess,” I said.

She shook her head. “Too prefab. Not my type.”

I didn’t need the cart or the dead bunnies anymore so I hit them with a simple Delete spell. They imploded into a tiny glowing star and vanished.

Across the avenue a half-dozen big-eyed anime teens loitered on the sidewalk. One in a Japanese schoolgirl outfit held her hand to her face like she was talking into it, but she was looking at us the whole time.

I grabbed Miranda’s arm. “Come on,” I said, “let’s find those guys.”

We walked into MarketSquare toward the Ensec office, about three hundred meters straight across the square. We waded through the rows of merchant tables that line this side of the square. I jostled a huge brown bear in plate armor who was inspecting enchanted jewelry at a vendor’s table.

“Hey, you’re that guy who jacked up the princess space!” he growled.

I shook my head and kept moving. Miranda growled back at the bear.

“Wait! What’s going on?” the bear yelled. He dropped to all fours and loped after us. “Is my space safe? It’s all I’ve got.”

Miranda yelled, “Come on,” and started jogging, her long legs pounding the stone street while weapons bounced against her back. I lifted my robe like before and sprinted to keep up. The bear fell behind.

We ran around the huge Trevi-inspired fountain that marks the center of the square. Merchants aren’t allowed in the other half of the square—it holds the wide elevator tubes that take you to the other floors—so the crowd there was thin. Except directly in front of the glass and stone Art Deco facade of the Ensec building. A hundred or more avatars crowded around it. We slowed to a walk.

“This’ll be fun,” muttered Miranda.

As we got close, two slow-stepping armored mechs didn’t see us and stepped into our path, nearly squashing an affronted hobbit. Next to them a glowing archangel hovered a few centimeters off the ground and seemed like she was ready to start preaching.

“Let’s Port,” I told Miranda. “Given the circumstances…”

She shook her head. “No. You abuse that spell, you lose it.”

Somebody pushed me from behind. I turned, thinking it an inadvertent bump.

The armored bear rose up on his hind legs and bellowed down at me, “I want answers! I pay good money!”

“We’re investigating every lead --” I started, but Miranda cut in.

“Don’t engage,” she told me. Then she yelled, “Back off!” and pushed the bear backwards.

He hardly budged. He bared his fangs, which of course dripped saliva. “You back off, bing!” he roared.

He swung a fat, long-clawed paw that caught Miranda directly in the face.

The blow should have taken her head off, but she barely flinched. A small glowing red dot appeared above the bear’s head.

His other paw raked Miranda’s shoulder, but to no effect. The violence blockers had kicked in. This was a Community area, after all. More glowing red dots appeared over the bear’s head like a swarm of crimson fireflies as nearby avatars reported him for abuse.

The bear swatted Miranda three more times but nothing connected. He opened his jaws to scream but no sound emerged. He finally dropped to all fours and hung his slobbering head low, crowned by a red cloud of fireflies.

I raised my voice to be heard by the crowd. “I’ll get you some answers! We’re working hard for you—”

Miranda pulled my arm and half-dragged me away to the Ensec entrance. “Coming through!” she boomed, startling the mechs so they stepped aside.

Miranda pushed forward and hastened the rest of the crowd out of our way until we made it to the door.

Ensec has a relatively modern looking storefront: two wide, welcoming glass doors set into a stone facade that’s inlaid with silver Art Deco flourishes. It’s meant to look solid and trustworthy, like a big city police station.

Miranda and I walked through the double doors into a gigantic empty lobby. The babble of the avatars died as the doors closed behind us.

A reception desk stretched the length of the lobby’s back wall. A smiling secretary with a 1950s-style dress and hairdo sat behind the desk, looping a simple breathing animation and staring blankly. A bot. She only activated if you stepped right in front of her.

As we walked to the reception desk I heard the ring tone that goes off when my brother Kaz calls. I waved Miranda on and stopped to take the call.

Kaz is fourteen and sleeps on the sofa in my tiny yet surprisingly expensive one bedroom apartment in downtown L.A. I took him in a couple years ago after Dad’s latest girlfriend kicked Kaz out of the house for messing up her car. He didn’t physically trash the car, but he hacked its pilot to make it pick up cases of beer for him and his buddies from the drive-thru market. This went on for weeks until Dad got the bill. Then they had to send her car for reprogramming, which cost even more. So Kaz got booted.

He showed up on my doorstep right after that, in NooSpace of course, and explained the situation. I told him to book a one-way ride to L.A. and move in with me. He’s only my half-brother—Dad’s had a string of baby mommas—but that’s as much of a brother as I’ve got. So what the hell.

I held up my hand, palm facing me. Kaz’s face projected onto it. He was in our kitchen, about five meters away from me in real life, but he knew better than to bust into my bedroom while I was working.

“Hey,” he said, “you gonna be done soon?”

“Like an hour,” I answered. “You finished school?”

“Yeah. So… what’s happening?” There was an edge to his voice. He had probably been streaming vids instead of studying, and saw what happened.

“I can’t talk now.”


“Can you make food?”

“I’ll scrounge up something.”


I closed my hand and hung up.

Next Chapter: Chapter 3