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Chapter 7

Luckily, Kaz saw me flying past. To my eyes he stood sideways on the wall near the archway. He stretched out and grabbed my flailing arm and pulled me down into his local gravity. We both hit the floor, and he lost his hold on my arm. I skidded a few meters before coming to a rest near the exit.

Kara was already outside. She ran back to me. “Ouch,” she said. “Get up. When we get to the castle, we can hold them off.” She helped me up and out the door, and I took in our new surroundings.

The door behind us was in a blocky wood building perched on a grassy hill. Below us an impossibly lush and colorful valley stretched into the distance. At the base of the valley, a wide silver-blue lake was encircled by rolling hills that were carpeted with wildflowers and grass and dotted with copses of trees. A small island jutted from the center of the lake and held a tall, multi-level castle, high ramparts climbing up from the ramparts below, turrets rising out from other turrets, capped with red peaked roofs and red and gold banners billowing in the wind.

The detail and clarity of the scene struck me dumb.

Two oak trees flanked the doorway outside. I examined the oak leaves near me. They looked as perfectly formed as any I’d seen in the real world. Better even. Every leaf was a lush dark green and all the dangling acorns seemed plump and ready to drop.

I’d seen a thousand other spaces in NooSpace in my career, but nothing came close to Kara’s world.

“How?” I asked.

She smiled. “I have worked hard to better myself.”

Kaz had joined us by then. He stood next to me gawking at the view.

Kara motioned toward the archway. Its opening filled with a solid stone door, with a resounding thud.

“Do you have a Port blocker?” I asked.

Kara smiled and nodded. She motioned in the air and Stalwart the unicorn materialized. She leaped onto his back. They trotted away on a dirt path leading down the grassy hill.

A dentist’s drill started up somewhere inside the maze building.

I said, “Feet!” and cast Winged Feet. Kaz did the same, and we ran off together at double speed.

Until the schoolgirl Ported into my path and clocked me with a gloved fist to the face, slamming me backwards to the dirt.

“You’re pretty lame without your cheats,” she said.

I struggled to my feet. “All you have is cheats, Trevor. How about a fair fight? Just you and me.”

“Oh right. I’ll give up my hard-won edge so you can beat me. If you win I leave everyone alone, blah blah blah?”

She Ported right behind me and pummeled my back with punches. “Give—me—the—box,” she said between blows.

Kaz and the Princess had halted a short distance ahead. Kaz ran back to help. He ran a few steps and fell on his face in the dirt, for no apparent reason.

I turned around, still taking body punches, blocking the ones I could with my forearms. Trevor’s schoolgirl was level ninety-nine for sure, but my thug was fast, so not many punches landed. But when one did my vision blurred and I stalled.

I wasn’t grunting but I heard grunts and thuds and screams in between her blows. I blocked a punch with one hand and surprised her with a sharp uppercut to her chin. She fell back into the grass.

I heard a crash of furniture somewhere to my left. Back in my apartment I focused through the VR glasses for the first time in a while. The front room seemed normal. I stepped forward and looked left into the bedroom.

In NooSpace I saw Trevor the schoolgirl climb back into a fighting stance.

In my bedroom two tall, bearded guys in black motorcycle leathers had Kaz up against a wall and were punching him in the face and stomach. His face was a bloody mess.

“You slags,” said Trevor in his schoolgirl voice, “you’re hitting the wrong guy.”

The two assailants turned to look at me. One of them let go of Kaz, who slumped to the floor.

“No wait,” said Trevor. “It’s better that way.”

These must have been the two chrome-skull guys. After Miranda had booted them from NooSpace, Trevor sent them to my apartment.

“The box,” Trevor said, “and I’ll send them away. Save your real lives.”

Kara knelt beside Kaz the wizard, checking on him. She couldn’t know what was really happening.

I realized how naive I’d been. I’d thought grabbing the Overrides would be fun, a real challenge, and once I had them I could get re-hired, or even start my own security firm, and make a really good living. But the Overrides were worth millions to the wrong sort of people. People who didn’t care who they hurt in the real world to get their big score.

I tossed the box to the schoolgirl.

“No!” Kara cried. She waved and the box stopped in mid-air, suspended.

The schoolgirl Ported and appeared in the air next to the box, grabbed it, and Ported again to the archway about twenty meters away.

“Ha ha ha!” Trevor said with a cute girlish laugh. “Get out of there quick guys.”

Kara’s bluebird shot at Trevor like a rocket, but Trevor just waved and disappeared.

The two real-life thugs pushed past me. One of them pushed me back and spat on the floor. They bolted out the apartment’s front door.

I knelt down next to Kaz. His nose was bloody, an eye bruised closed. He opened his other eye. My rig was a boot-smashed mess on the floor beside him.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

“My fault,” I said. I grabbed a shirt from my laundry pile and held it to his nose. He seemed okay for the moment. “Hang in there for a sec,” I told him.

Kara was talking to my motionless avatar on the dirt path. “Axon. Earth to Axon.”

“Sorry,” I answered.

“Do you know what you did?” Her face reddened. “The Overrides! She’ll destroy everything. Ono and I could have stopped her.”

“They just beat up my brother,” I said, “For real.” Kaz’s wizard avatar faded away as we watched.

“Oh my god.” She put a hand on my shoulder.

Cerulean butterflies with wing patterns like Celtic knots flitted around nearby flowers. A fresh breeze stirred the trees around us. I took a deep breath but it smelled like sweat and blood.

“Wait,” I said. “Ono Ishida?”

Kara’s bluebird returned to its perch on her shoulder. “Yeah,” twittered the bluebird. “I’m kinda keeping a low profile.”

“Tending our garden,” said Kara.

“You were LLC too?” I asked her, and she nodded.

“Lead artist. We live together.” She inclined her head toward Ono.

“Then you have the Overrides too?”

“No,” said Kara. “They’re exclusive to Ensec. That was the only way the deal could work.”

“Now Trevor has them.”

“But she, uh, he’s Ensec, right?” Kara asked.

“Not for long,” I said. “Someone will pay millions for those. Tens of millions.” Or, I thought, he’ll keep them to do what I was thinking of doing: start a new security company.

“We’re screwed,” Kara said. It sounded funny from a perfect princess.

“I’ll be banned any second,” I said.

I took a last look around. I envisioned a leisurely walk with these two legends — co-creators of this whole universe! — through pristine woods and fields on the way to an impossible castle. It might all be destroyed before I could return.

“I need to take care of my bro. We’ll find a way back. We can help you defend.”

“It’s hopeless.” Kara’s shoulders sagged. “You saw what he could do already. Breaking in, Porting through blockers. Now the Overrides.”

“Yeah.” The log out process had started, and the scene started to look hazy.

I had a brainstorm. “God Mode! Is it real?”

“Hee hee!” chirped Ono, “God is dead.”

As the pastoral scene faded I faintly heard, “But I might know where he’s buried...”