I struggled to my feet, and realized my avatar had changed. An intricate tiger tattoo prowled down my left arm, and a green serpent coiled around my right. My black slacks and T-shirt were clean and pressed. Whoever owned this zen space had done a great job with his avatar conversions. But he’d better watch out—I was Yakuza now.
And the owner clearly wasn’t perfect. He hadn’t changed his access codes since the break-in. Lame.
I stepped forward, looking for signs of activity. The gravel path wound between two gravel gardens, the tiny rocks raked into concentric lines around the large standing stones. It looked as peaceful as when I had restored it, after the golem attack.
I walked the path to the square wooden building in the center. Its broad, open doorway revealed a martial arts dojo inside. Orange light filtered in through translucent multi-pane windows. On the far side of the room another wide door opened to the rest of the gardens.
The room was empty. I stepped carefully across the woven grass mat that covered the floor until I approached the far door. It slid shut in front of me with a thwak.
I heard footfalls behind me, and a voice. “I thought you’d come back.”
I turned. A bald and barefoot monk in a black robe stood in the center of the room a few meters away.
“Did you think it would be so easy?” he continued.
“It’s not what you think,” I said. He might have thought I was the fire golem in a new guise.
Before I could react he took two swift strides, leaped and spun, and delivered a resounding kick to the side of my head. I fell flat and lay stunned. You can’t feel physical contact in VR, but the software does a good job of simulating the effects. My vision blurred and my avatar’s reaction time slowed until the effects of the impact cleared.
“I didn’t tell you to speak yet,” he said. He paced slowly in a circle around me. “Now, who do you work for?”
I struggled into a kneeling position, ready to stand up. I said, “I’m trying to help—” He spun on his left foot and slammed his right into the other side of my head, knocking me flat again.
“So who is it?” he went on. “Currency farmers? But they have a profitable operation. Why stir things up?”
I wasn’t eager for another kick in the head so I stayed down.
“One of the Russian protection gangs? Tired of shaking down the small payers?”
He had stopped pacing and was staring at me.
“Quiet time, huh?”
I racked my brain. Who was he? An early LLC employee no doubt, because of the prime space. Could it be Ishida himself?
“I’ll give you some credit,” he said. “That was a hell of a long con, Axon.”
Whoa. I’d assumed he thought I was one of the break-in guys. But he knew me. In fact he knew that my kid brother’s avatar was me. He had to be Ensec. He didn’t talk like Trevor though—unless he was really good at role-playing. And he had already said more words than Miranda said in a whole day.
I’d just left them starting what should have been a long, boring meeting. It figures. As soon as I’m gone they finally do something fast.
I struggled to a crouch, and then sprang to my feet. “I don’t work—,” I said, but he had already leaped and swung his foot straight at my face.
I pulled the dagger from my belt and held it firm as he impaled his foot on it. He twisted to the ground. Serious injuries slow an avatar down even longer, so that would buy me a few seconds.
I crashed through the multi-paneled back door and sprinted into the gravel garden. The little stone Buddha statue squatted there on its small wooden pedestal. I grabbed the Buddha and pivoted. Now I needed to dash to the exit. But the monk already blocked my way.
“Nice try,” said Garmin. “You’ll be banned for life, you know. Your character, your space, your coins, all gone. Tell me who you work for or Ensec’s lawyers will prosecute the hell out of you. In real life. Grand larceny or at least unauthorized hacking. Good luck after that.”
“You’ve got it wrong,” I said. “I’m on my own.”
“Wrong answer.” Then he called out, “Backup!”
The air next to me shimmered and Miranda Ported in, in all her Amazon glory. “Hey, loser,” she said.
It seemed hopeless, so I did what any other loser criminal would do. I ran screaming for the exit.
I looked so pathetic that Miranda laughed out loud.
“Get him out of here,” said Garmin.
I had made it around the outside of the dojo and could see the main entrance in the distance when Miranda caught up, clamped a huge hand on my shoulder and held me fast. She was way too strong.
Then things got crazy.
A gigantic monster truck from hell burst through the main entrance, shattering the wooden door to kindling. Two other trucks followed it, one after the other. Engines roaring, trailing smoke and flames, they sped straight at us.
A chrome-skulled driver leaned out the window of the first truck yelling, “Daddy’s home, fluffers!”
Miranda released me, unsheathed her sword and twitched it. The lead truck halted inside a blue, floating Stasis ball. The other two trucks steered around the first one. The chrome-skulled monster driving the lead truck aimed straight at her. The third truck sped toward her from the other side. Driven by the Japanese schoolgirl.
This was no place for a level seventeen street thug without security spells. Even one with badass tattoos.
“Clear out!” yelled Miranda. I sprinted back around the dojo, passing Garmin the monk who was going the other direction to help with the battle.
I still carried the Buddha statue but Garmin didn’t seem to care. I ran over and took a better look at its short wooden pedestal. It was a wooden box with a small keyhole at the top. I grabbed the box too and ran into the dojo. I peeked out the building’s front door in time to see the girl’s truck crunch Garmin’s monk to a bloody pulp under a huge knobby tire. A death like that forced a log out. He’d be out of commission for a few minutes.
Miranda was preoccupied with the other two trucks, alternately hitting each one with a Stasis bubble. Then the other truck would vroom toward her again, and she’d drop the previous truck and Stasis that one.
The schoolgirl’s truck careened at Miranda too. Miranda was in trouble but I didn’t have the spells to help her. All I had was Winged Feet. So I cast it and high-tailed it down the gravel path for the exit.
The schoolgirl had already driven past me so she couldn’t have seen me take off. But somehow she knew. I was fifty meters from the exit when I heard a monster truck engine bearing down on me. I’d never make it.
I chanced a look back. The schoolgirl leaned intently over the steering wheel with a sneer of victory. I tossed the Buddha statue to the right and ran to the left side of the path. She took the bait, power sliding the truck on the path. The tires spun up gravel like shotgun pellets. They stung but didn’t stop me. I dived through the staticky shimmering exit door…
…and tucked into a roll on the paved stones of the Floor 2 avenue.
I jumped up out of the roll, still carrying the wooden pedestal box, and kept running. Winged Feet was still in effect so the few avatars in the area saw me like a vid at double playback speed.
I was back to looking like Kaz’s default street thug with bad tattoos, so my own wizard-thief avatar recognized me as I sped past him. “Ax!” he shouted.
It’s a little weird having the character you normally look at in the mirror running after you and calling your real name. I stopped and waited for him even though time was running out. The Buddha ruse had only bought me a minute or two.
“You’re on my rig!” I yelled.
“I want to help. I’ll stay out of the way,” said Kaz.
I shouldn’t have let him get involved, but he was so eager. Plus having my familiar wizard in tow might pay off. “Okay,” I said, “Cast Winged Feet and follow me.”
He nodded and moved his finger in the air, finding and calling up the spell. The waiting was killing me. “Got it!” he said.
“Go!” I said and ran across the square. He followed a few steps behind.
I yelled, “Elevator to Floor One!”
We ran and jumped through the elevator door, passing through two ghostly cyborg-looking dudes on their way out. A short drop took us to the bottom.
“Keep up!” I yelled. I dashed out into the crowded MarketSquare with Kaz right behind. We couldn’t sprint full out here because of all the avatars, but our fast reflexes enabled quick side hops to avoid people and fast bursts of speed when there were gaps. We dodged through the sea of merchant tables, turned onto the central avenue, and then pulled up at the Victorian facade two doors down on the right, just as my Winged Feet spell ended.
I turned Kaz so he faced the paneled front door and gave him his instructions. “Press the doorbell. If she answers say, ‘Might I enter for a brief visit, Your Highness?’ Got it? Emphasize the Highness part, okay?”
He shrugged. “Sure, whatever.” I walked a few paces away and kept watch in case the schoolgirl or her cronies showed up in the square.
Next to the door was an elaborate carving of the Green Man with a doorbell button in its mouth. Kaz pressed the button.
He looked at me and I nodded, so he pressed it again.
He mashed it repeatedly like a five-year-old trying to break it.
Then he stood up straight. She must have answered, but of course to him not me.
“Can I, uh, visit you?” he said. “Your Highness?”
He waited for a response, and then looked at me shaking his head.
“Tell her it’s urgent,” I whispered. In the distance I heard people shouting in the square.
“Please,” he said to the doorbell, “it’s super urgent.” A pause, then he gave me a thumbs up. The front doors swung open. I stepped forward and we walked through the shimmering doorway together.
We emerged from the gnarled wooden gate into Kara’s forest meadow. She sat atop her unicorn in the center of the clearing, her bluebird perched upon her shoulder.
“You entered properly this time,” she called. “You may approach.”
I strode as fast as I could and pulled Kaz along with me by the arm of his robe. I didn’t want to alarm her by running, but I was pretty sure we’d have visitors soon.
“Uh, hi,” Kaz said, waving at her.
“Who is this ruffian?” she asked, pointing at me. In here my avatar looked like a bad-tempered mercenary, with a chain mail tunic and battle-scarred arms.
“Your Highness,” I began, “there’s no time to explain. But I am actually the wizard Axon. This is my brother Kazimir in my old form.”
“Curious,” she said, studying the two of us. The bluebird glided off her shoulder and flew around us in a circle, fluttering back to land on her shoulder again. She listened to him chirp a few notes.
I said, “Highness, please lock down your gate. We might be followed.”
“You led someone here?”
“The ones from before, with the trucks.” I shrugged.
“You fool! They’ll destroy my forest again.”
“But you can stop them. The iron trees—”
“Use your own spells, Ensec wizard. You’ll get no help from me.”
“My spells are gone,” I said.
She leaned to one side and the unicorn turned around. “Stalwart, away!” she cried. The unicorn galloped for the iron trees fifty meters away, carrying away the princess and our last hope for help.