1912 words (7 minute read)

Chapter 4

I ripped the VR rig off my head. My eyes adjusted slowly to my dark and tiny bedroom. I felt behind me for my swivel chair and dropped into it. My legs ached from being on my feet all day.

Afuton mattress was propped up against one wall and a pile of laundry occupied a corner. All good padding in case I got disoriented and strayed outside the motion sensor circle. I felt like flopping the mattress onto the floor and sleeping on it for a week, but this wasn’t a good time.

I couldn’t believe they’d fired me. I had run some unauthorized tests, but I’d still stopped two crazy attacks on paying customers. In style. With me gone the crooks would attack more people, and Ensec would lose more business. Something didn’t add up. But I had more pressing things to consider. NooSpace had been my life for the past seven years. I had mad skills and could make great money in NooSpace, but in the real world I was just an unemployed 20-year-old with zero experience.

My shoulders slumped as I thought about all the real-world jobs I could never get. Before long, my thoughts circled back to NooSpace. Maybe Garmin would re-hire me if I could solve these break-ins on my own. Something I’d seen in the golem video had given me an idea.

My leg muscles complained when I stood up and opened the door to the bright half of the apartment. They called it a one bedroom but it was just a glorified studio with a glorified closet that I slept in. Still it sucked most of my salary. Without income the daily rent debits would drain my crypto wallet in a week.

In the kitchen corner of the main room, Kaz hunched over a one-burner stove frying grilled cheese sandwiches. He’d become a decent fast food cook in the months since he’d moved in, which was good because I worked crazy long hours.

He was a little shorter than me but just as skinny, with a darker complexion and close-cropped black hair.

“Smells good,” I said.

He turned. “You’re back! Just in time.” He slid the sandwiches out of the pan onto a couple of plastic plates. We didn’t have a table. We sat on the droopy sofa that doubled as Kaz’s bed and ate with the plates in our laps. Kaz’s portable VR glasses sat between us.

“That was a crazy fight!” Kaz said. “Who were they?”

He wanted to know every detail so I gave him the recap. I stopped before the getting fired part. No point worrying him. The poor kid hasn’t lived in the same place for more than a year, ever.

“So I don’t know exactly who they are," I concluded, "butI think I know how to find them.”

Kaz waited for it.

“I have to go undercover.”

“What do you mean?”

“I need your rig.” I put on his VR glasses and stood up. “And your account.”

“No way!”

I tapped the side of the glasses to activate them. Unlike my opaque headset goggles, VR glasses let you see the real world faintly in the background. I saw Kaz, faintly, get up from the sofa and then felt him punch my shoulder.

“Give ’em back!” he said.

I held him off with one hand. I said, “NooSpace,” to the glasses.

“Wait,” said Kaz. “I can explain.”

I stood beside a long infinity swimming pool overlooking a distant white sand beachthat ringedan ocean cove below. I had trouble focusing on the landscape though. Three gorgeous young women reclined on chaise longues in front of the pool, sunbathing, their eyes shut. They were nude and oiled up.

I stepped closer to them. The closest woman had dark skin and impossibly large breasts. She opened her eyes and sat up saying, “Hey stud, ready for a dance?”

“Kaz,” I asked, “where’d you get the funds?” Detailed models like these weren’t cheap.

I could barely hear Kaz thanks to the rig’s noise cancellation. “I told you, I can explain…”

“No time. Where’s your gate?”

“Around front. Don’t go in the house, okay?”

“Fine.” I walked away from the pool and around the huge, low-slung mansion behind it. Mostly glass held together with white-painted wood, Malibu style. Luckily there was a clear path around the house. I didn’t want to know what adolescent fantasy scenes Kaz had concocted inside.

I walked around to the front. A supercharged blue 1970s Mustang sat in the driveway. Kaz always liked racing games. He must have built a race course around here somewhere. I hustled past the Mustang and down the driveway toward a wrought-iron gate.

I took a look at myself as I walked. My forearms were tattooed with bloody daggers and broken hearts. I wore dirty blue jeans and a wife-beater T-shirt, a small dagger holstered on my belt. I checked my stats. Only level seventeen, but good strength and great speed. Even so I wouldn’t want to get in any serious fights as this guy.

My own personal avatar was a level ninety-five wizard-thief, but if I used him then Ensec could track my every move. It had taken me seven years to build up a level ninety-five character. Kaz’s guy was only level seventeen, but he had gotten him there in just four months. The kid had skills.

I pushed open the iron gate and, with a crackling sound like static, left Thug Porn Mansion behind.

Kaz’s door opened onto a remote cul-de-sac at the end of Avenue 1 on the 383rd floor of OldWorld. The avenue here was deserted.

After Kaz came to live with me, I looked hard to find an affordable OldWorld space for him. The newer dimensions are cheaper but they don’t have OldWorld’s history. Plus most of them are themed, so you have to commit to role-playing in FairyForest, DungeonCrawl, WildWest, or another theme all the time. Boring.

The only reasonably priced spaces left in OldWorld were the remote ones. Even so it had cost me a couple weeks’ wages.

It would be a long walk to the central square, and then a fast drop down the elevator tube. At least this avatar had great speed stats. I checked for spells and he only had one: Winged Feet, which doubled your speed for two minutes. I cast it and raced down the hall like a track star on amphetamines.

I ran for a full ninety seconds, which actually tired me out a bit. Back at our apartment the real me was jogging in place.

No other avatars walked this street. I passed buildings with closed doors right and left. Most of these spaces had simple wooden doors set into a grey stone wall — the default setup for a vacant space. It didn’t cost much to maintain a space once you owned it, unless you paid for security. Some people in these remote areas bought spaces and abandoned them.

I arrived at this floor’s deserted central square, which corresponded to the Floor 1 MarketSquare, 382 floors below. The elevator tube was in the same location up here. Its broad entrance allowed about a half-dozen large avatars to enter at once. Once you were inside, the tube could hold a lot more than that. I jumped into the floorless tube like it was a pool and dropped like a streamlined stone.

Inside, the elevator tube was dark, punctuated by orange rings of light at each floor. As the rings flickered past I requested a stop at Floor 2.

I usually didn’t look down in the elevator — I’m not that great with heights — but I heard screams below me getting louder. An Eastwood-style gunslinger in a longcoat shouted and flailed his arms as he fell. Must have been his first tube drop. I was falling much faster. On a normal day I’d have slowed and helped him out, but I was in a rush. I tucked my arms in and shot down through him like a ghost. Avatars are incorporeal during elevator rides. It’s the only way everyone can fit. His “Aaaah!” trailed away above me.

I stopped at Floor 2 like I’d hit the end of a rope. I swaggered out of the elevator, role-playing my street fighter now that other avatars were around. There were a few dozen milling around in Floor 2’s square, not nearly as packed as the main floor below. This was where’s I’d shop if I needed something, since it was much easier to get around. I walked through the square pretending to consider items on the merchant tables, and then strolled off onto a side avenue. A few doors down on the left I saw the entrance I wanted. A simple but elegant dark wooden door set into a pale wooden wall.

I kept walking like I was going past it. I called up the message I’d sent to Kaz earlier. It granted access to one of my private behavior mods, and included the private key it needed. I invoked the mod with a one minute delay and kept walking. It would effectively make an invisible avatar tap on the wooden door with a secret knock pattern. If the door didn’t open, it would try again a minute later with another pattern. I was pretty sure it would work the first time.

After thirty seconds I pivoted and walked back to the wooden door. I strolled up to it right as the mod triggered. I shifted my weight to one foot, ready to dive through the doorway—

And stumbled, nearly hitting the still-shut door. I righted myself and kept walking. None of the avatars passing by seemed to notice. But a warning would appear back at Ensec, if anyone was watching. I was betting they were busy now though. It had only been about twenty minutes since I was fired, and Trevor’s meetings could last longer than a good night’s sleep.

I was about to turn back, to be at the door when the mod triggered again. Then I saw her. An anime schoolgirl leaned against the wall ahead of me, looking away and pretending to smoke a cigarette. She hadn’t been there when I walked past the first time. Was she the same girl as before? It was a fairly common avatar model. She couldn’t be following me. I was playing a whole different account.

I hustled back to the door. If it opened and I missed it, this was all over. When I was still ten meters away, the mod triggered and the wooden door shot open to show a shimmering silver rectangle. I lurched forward, legs churning, and pitched myself through the doorway as the door slid closed.

I sprawled with a thud onto a pea-gravel path.

At home I sprawled on the living room floor. This was why we didn’t own a coffee table.

I raised my head. The perpetual sunset here lent its orange light to the raked gravel and standing stones of a perfect Zen garden — the one I’d saved from the fire golem two days before.

Next Chapter: Chapter 5