2149 words (8 minute read)

Chapter 3

I walked past the reception desk, staying far enough away so I wouldn’t trigger the receptionist bot, and went through a door on the right into the security office.

As I entered, my wizard avatar faded, replaced by a very real likeness of me, circa six months ago when I was first hired: jeans, faded blue t-shirt, and all. In the field a tech support avatar adapts to match its environment, but in the office they want you to look like yourself. It’s a good policy. Otherwise the employees with the scariest avatars would tend to get their way.

The security office was a big open-plan room with a dozen desks around its four walls and a long conference table in the middle. The far wall held two doors to private offices.

As usual, most of the on-duty techs were out in the field. The only others in the room were Miranda, at one of the desks, her real life avatar nearly as formidable as her Amazon persona, and Dina Salazar our data analyst, who sat at the conference table.

Dina’s the smartest quant in any room and fresh-washed pretty. Her avatar wore glasses, like in real life, but she just did it so people would take her seriously at work. No one really needs eyeglasses in VR. Her teeth were straight in here and her makeup was always perfect, both things that didn’t apply in real life. She lived in L.A. too, and we hung out a few times after I first joined Ensec. She was a sweetheart but too meek for my taste, so I broke it off.

“Hey, good work?” she said, sheepishly.

“Thanks,” I said. “Could have gone better.”

A door at the far end of the room opened and Trevor Craft stormed out. Trevor is the head of Ensec operations. He’s one of those guys whose premature baldness stems from too much testosterone. His shaved head resembled a hard-boiled egg, which makes it hard not to snicker when he spouts orders like a drill sergeant. Which he does a lot.

“Debrief! Now!” he spouted.

Miranda and I took seats at the big table. I thought this would be a simple incident report, but the other private office door opened and Rhys Garmin sauntered out to join us.

Garmin always strutted around like a mixed martial arts brawler looking for a fight. He’d ranked pretty high as a battle player in the early days. He was a co-founder of NooSpace LLC, the company that originally created the NooSpace world. After the LLC went under and open-sourced the world, Garmin founded Ensec—short for NooSpace Security—as the official support company for premium players. His partner, Ono Ishida, the game’s initial designer, got bought out or something and left. No one here knew the details except Garmin, and he wasn’t telling.

Now NooSpace was owned by its players, decentralized across a hundred thousand processing nodes and funded by the NooCoin cryptocurrency. There was no more central governing authority, but thousands of other businesses thrived in the NooSpace economy. They ranged from artists you could hire to beautify your space, to party planners who designed spectacular real-time weddings and events, to mod coders who could change how your physics worked, or build AIs to tend things when you were gone. Ensec was the biggest of all the ventures, because of Garmin’s celebrity status and because it had access to the Overrides, a set of code “cheats” that granted exceptional powers in case of emergencies.

Garmin rarely attended our incident reports in person. It made me wonder again if Kara was someone important. No matter. I was confident Garmin would be impressed when he saw how I’d handled things.

“Talk, Brennan,” Trevor commanded. Drill sergeants use last names.

I related the basic facts of the incident. Garmin listened without expression. Trevor paced around the table, then cut me short.

“Yeah, yeah, we saw that in the vid. Tell me again how you knew this space would be hit.”

“I didn’t know, exactly,” I said. “With Dina’s help I sifted a ton of data about recent door auth failures. Looked for patterns matching the signatures of the previous two breaches. We saw new attempts hitting Princess Kara’s space, and also at that dinosaur park on level 14. So Miranda and I split up to cover those.”

There had been two similar auth breaks a few days before the death trucks dropped in to play unicorn hunt. The first victim was a ten-year-old girl whose Candy Puff Girl avatar was forced to watch while three lingerie-clad vampire seductresses sucked the life from each of the kid’s little fluffy pets. A vid of the incident went viral. Ensec escaped without liability since the girl had lied about her age when she joined NooSpace. The youngest allowable age is thirteen so her contract with us was void. But it was a scare.

We hoped it was a fluke, a one-time door-breach that would somehow self-correct. It didn’t.

Garmin spoke up. “Can we see the second incident? Not the little girl. The other one.”

Trevor stopped pacing. He raised his arm and created a huge virtual screen in the air then slid it over to one wall.

The video showed a serene and exquisitely designed zen garden meditation space, a series of perfectly raked gravel gardens surrounded by Japanese maple trees, dotted with standing stones, with a large wooden building in the center. A pebbled path led to a front entrance gate made of stone. Flames appeared at the front gate and a fire golem burst through. He looked like a thickset man made of molten lava. He swiftly enlarged to about 10 meters tall and stomped along the path. He kicked down every standing stone. He smashed a fiery lava-crusted fist upon the building, crushing it and igniting its remains. He drew obscenities in the gravel, bypassing the censor algorithms.

On screen I saw myself port in near the entrance, wearing a black salaryman suit and mirror shades to adapt to the Japanese theme of the space. The shades had been a good touch because that fire golem was nova bright.

By then the buildings and the gardens were all flattened. The only thing left standing near the center was one little Buddha statue that had somehow been spared.

The golem was torching a line of gorgeous Japanese fire maples around the perimeter. It touched its burning hand to each tree, one by one, and sent each canopy of red leaves up like a match.

Then the monster saw me. He bellowed, uprooted a flaming tree, pitched it at me, and ran for the exit.

You get used to strangeness in NooSpace, but it’s hard to prepare for everything. Something about a giant ball of flame plummeting onto my head made me panic and I cut loose with the only spell I had queued up: Restore Time.

The video cut to a serene and exquisitely designed zen garden, every pebble raked just so, surrounded by Japanese maple trees, dotted with standing stones, and me standing near the restored wooden building in the center. No signs of destruction, or fire, or molten golem prints. Everything was just as it had been before.

“That video didn’t leak?” I asked.

“No,” said Trevor. “We got it from the space owner. Anonymous.”

“We believe,” said Garmin, “that the Restore Time spell interfered with the assailant’s recording process, so he had nothing to leak afterwards.”

He studied me across the table. “That might have been inspiration on your part, but I assume it was really accidental?”

“I’d just finished cleaning up the Candy Puff space,” I admitted.

Trevor interrupted. “So it was the only spell you had ready. Not good.”

Restore Time is destructive. It had wiped out thirteen hours of mods to that zen garden space, and could have destroyed expensive items the owner had just bought, or erased some irreplaceable experiences.

“Damage was limited,” Trevor said, “but it could have been ugly.”

“It killed all the break-in data too,” Dina added, “so there’s not much evidence left.”

I didn’t like the way this was going. Working tech support at Ensec was a prestige gig, by far the best legitimate job I’d ever had. Plus I needed the salary something awful. I had done some pretty impressive work, all things considered. One slip-up after six months of flawless performance shouldn’t warrant this kind of scrutiny.

“Could these guys be using the Overrides?” I asked. “Or… God Mode?”

Dina audibly gasped. Miranda gave me that You idiot look again. Everyone watched Garmin.

“The Overrides are as safe as ever,” he said. “Ensec has exclusive access, as always. We’ve seen no evidence that these guys can Port or Cloak or Restore Time. And God Mode, that’s just a myth.”

“But these break-ins were too easy,” I said. “The auth hack techniques we discovered don’t fully explain them.”

“Or maybe they do,” Trevor said, stepping a little too close to me. He looked down at me as I sat. It’s funny how even in VR it’s uncomfortable having your personal space invaded.

“That was quick thinking,” he said, “during the battle of the bunnies, or whatever you want to call it.” Trevor wasn’t normally one for praise. This didn’t sound bad yet.

“But you screwed up,” he continued. “The second offender delayed his entry to make sure the first one’s vid was streaming. It was short, but enough. Death trucks hunting a princess on a unicorn. Not as bad as vampires slaughtering little pets, but close. The fanboy streams have hyped that these accounts are all Ensec customers. We’re getting cancellations.”

Garmin spoke up. “Daily revenue’s down over a million. If we can’t stop these attacks, it’ll mean pay cuts or layoffs.” He let that sink in.

Trevor said, “I had Dina debrief me about the pattern-matching technique you used.”

Dina lowered her head and shrugged Sorry.

“It’s clear you didn’t just look at the patterns from the other two breaches. You did your own auth-breaks—”

“Only against my own space!” I protested.

He went on, “Using hacks that are bannable offenses, even for us.”

“How else could I match those guys? I tried similar techniques again my own door until—”

“I told them it was stupid to hire an ex-hacker. You’re reckless, a wild card, and you’re fired. Security clearance revoked as of five minutes ago. Get out. Now. The rest of you, reconvene in ten to talk next steps.”

He stomped his hard-boiled egg head back to his office and slammed the door.

That wasn’t very smart of them. I was the best chance they had of catching these guys. Sure, I hacked a little to figure out how they were breaking through doors, but it had paid off. He should have praised me, not sacked me.

Garmin stood up and walked to his office door, with a brief wave. Dismissed. He went in and the door closed behind him.

“Oh Ax,” Dina said, “I’m so sorry.”

Miranda glared at me with her arms crossed, like I had let her down.

I could have logged out right then. My avatar would have stood in place looking stupefied for a minute and then disappeared. But even though I felt catatonic I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing me that way.

“I don’t get it,” I said, “we’re so close to nailing those guys.”

Miranda just shook her head. “We are,” she said. “Message me their IDs?”

I nodded and sent the message. Then I swooped into a bow, as I’d done for Kara. “Farewell fair damsels. See you in the ’Space.”

Dina offered a sad smile. Miranda glowered. I knew the word “damsel” would bug her.

I strolled out of the office and past the reception bot, acting as cool as I could. When I got to the glass front doors my cool evaporated. Angry avatars lingered outside the door, craning to see inside. They thought I was still a tech and that I had answers. Or they wanted to kill me. Either way I wasn’t up to facing them.

I walked back to the reception desk, just out of range of the bot’s trigger. I took a moment to send a message to my brother Kaz’s account. Then I logged out. For the next minute the receptionist and I would make a cute catatonic couple.

Next Chapter: Chapter 4