September 3, Noon
The autocar dropped Sonne off at Sharp Memorial just before lunch time, dressed for the heat in shorts and a loose T-shirt. She was here to visit Taylor Lambda, CEO of Benzai Corporation: the man who adopted her after her first family all died.
She finally knew why he might be in a coma.
Sonne entered the lobby and rode up a mirrored elevator, then walked down several well-lit halls. The coma unit was where Taylor — Dad — had rested for the past year, living but unable to wake up. Just like CID Detective Jeb Forrester last night.
Sonne slid the door to Taylor’s suite open and found Kate sitting in silence. Kate Lambda was Taylor’s biological daughter, and Sonne’s adopted sister. Kate shared her father’s short hair and Asian features, but the Lambda lineage was more complicated than a country. Like Benzai corporation, the Lambdas were multi-national. Kate was dressed nicely, in a dark skirt, blouse, and flats, but Kate always dressed nice.
She looked up as Sonne entered, then smiled. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Sonne sat by Kate and stared at their unconscious father. Taylor’s once vibrant skin was pale, his cheeks sunken. His muscles had atrophied in the coma, despite a constant regimen of forced muscle stimulation. Nothing the doctors tried woke him up.
There was no physical reason Taylor shouldn’t wake up. It was like someone had locked his PBA and swallowed the key. Someone had reached in and pulled out his soul.
Kate tapped her feet rhythmically on the floor. “Did you bring it?”
“Yes.” Sonne popped a linkline into the auxiliary port below her left ear, then offered the other end to Kate. Kate brushed back her dark hair and plugged the linkline into her own port. With a perceptible tingle, they were connected.
“I was able to keep all my logs from last night, despite those assholes trying to delete them,” Sonne said. “The one you’ll want is Japanese Teahouse.” She up’d that to Kate’s PBA, along with all the others. “That’s where last night’s troll paralyzed that detective.”
Kate stared at their father. “You’re sure the troll inserted a full stem barrier into the detective’s PBA, over your network? Even though that’s not possible?”
“It is possible, because she did it. She locked them both down, Katie, and at least one was in admin mode when it happened. That’s not possible, is it?”
“So far as we know.”
“But it happened to Dad.”
“Yes.” Kate sighed and closed her eyes. “It happened to Dad.” She popped the linkline and opened her eyes. “I’ll look over things tonight. If I find anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks,” Sonne said.
“I read him all the latest financials,” Kate said, “like I always do. So he’ll know his company’s doing okay without him. So he’ll know we’re still alive.”
Sonne squeezed Kate’s hand. “I’m sure he appreciates that.”
“I’m done with reports for today. Reports are dumb. I need a break.”
“I’m with you. Sim time?”
“Yes!” Kate grinned. “Want to run the Lamia Cave in Kanthemar one more time?”
Sonne didn’t, but she knew Kate did. “Yes. Let’s.”
* * *
September 9, Late Evening
The swampy sawleaf jungles of Arcadia Four were steamy, muddy, and crawling with spine beetles, but [N]moset wouldn’t have it any other way. Most StrikeForceGo teams hated this pleasurebox, but Team Grindhouse lived here. They knew this battlefield better than anyone, and Team FunBags would soon be praying for deliverance.
[N]moset hadn’t moved for over five minutes, yet his viewstream kept growing. He was up to 9,432 on his last update, and donations kept pouring in. His loyal viewers camped with him, anticipating the moment when he’d fire his rifle and drop an enemy soldier.
“Contact.” sn0wing’s voice crackled in [N]moset’s ear-comm. “Three bags and a droid on the high road.” Team Grindhouse’s scout was the best Ranger [N]moset had ever worked with. She probably felt more at home in mud than the spine beetles.
[N]moset shifted his TechSniper rifle and pressed an eye to the rubber scope. He tweaked the focus until he had a clear view of the high road, an open stretch of muddy road cutting through a jungle of purple-gray sawleaf trees. No targets yet.
“Fucking nublets.” Peachrind’s heavy mechsuit waited by their tent, guarding their hostage. “Fifty bucks says Grim got mud in her socks. That’s why they took the road.”
“Snowy,” DNF asked, “how long until the bend?” He was Team Grindhouse’s leader and handled all the publicity, which [N]moset appreciated. He didn’t really like people.
“Thirty seconds at their current rate,” sn0wing said. “I don’t see their fourth. Think he’s going for the hostage?”
“No way Hampline heads into the swamp alone,” Peachrind said. “He’s cloaked. Ninjas always go for the stealth kill.”
As sn0wing tagged the enemy team with her spotting laser, three red shields appeared on all their HUDs. sn0wing could relay their health values because she could see them, and they couldn’t see her. Arcadia Four’s jungles were all about exploiting the sightlines.
DNF spoke again. “You got eyes on that corner, Nemo?”
[N]moset grinned. “Nothing but assholes as far as the eye can see.”
It was stupid to approach an enemy tent using an open road in the jungle, but Team FunBags was confident their ShieldDrone would protect them. The ShieldDrone DNF had allowed them to acquire. He knew the FunBags would choose tech over soldiering.
“Peaches,” DNF said, “stay with our hostage. If anyone grabs him, you’re off the team.”
“Nobody grabs our hostage, boss.”
“Snowy, soon as they roll past you, give ‘em a love tap.”
Silence reined over the sawleaf trees as Team FunBags rounded the bend, crouching behind their ShieldDrone. The rolling robot’s extended panels armored them against frontward fire, and while its big tank treads couldn’t handle swamp, they worked fine on the open road. They rolled right past the bush that concealed sn0wing.
A single echoing report dropped the shield of EzChilled, Team FunBags’ scout, by more than half. sn0wing had shot him in the head. She rocketed from the bush as Team Funbags spun and unleashed a cacophony of gunfire at her green and fleeing form.
sn0wing’s blue shield dropped rapidly, but then she was in the trees, and then she was in the swamp. She vanished, a ghost among sawleaf trees. Maidferno’s heavy plasma cannon whumped as she fired a bolt into the swamp, blowing eight trees to splinters.
[N]moset snorted. Maidferno and sn0wing had a long time disagreement, but wasting ammo like that was just depressing. Professionals were supposed to be better than this.
“Status?” DNF asked.
“Still turtling,” sn0wing said. “Nemo should have a shot.”
[N]Moset’s heart thumped as he activated a glowing targeting beam only he could see. Would the admins detect it? Of course not. He was way too smart for the admins.
The FunBags crouchwalked, slowly, behind their drone. [N]moset imagined them sweating and scanning the trees. Where was Team Grindhouse? Where was [N]moset?
“Nemo?” DNF asked.
The ShieldDrone trundled forward as the mail slot in its armor plate danced like a candle flame. Nemo adjusted his targeting beam as it locked onto one target, then another, then another, all the while threading the mail slot. He pressed his trigger.
His TechSniper climaxed with a bang that echoed across the sawblade trees. Two full seconds later, his armor-piercing round slipped through an opening no bigger than a book. Grim[Kin]’s shield vanished, and her underlying health bar dropped into the red.
[N]moset worked the bolt, ejected the round, loaded a new one, and slammed it home. His rifle followed EzChilled of its own volition as the idiot hopped atop the ShieldDrone, searching for the sniper. Stupid kid. [N]moset fired and EzChilled dropped, head-shotted.
“Snowy, light ‘em up.” DNF didn’t bother complimenting [N]moset’s shots. [N]moset made those often enough that people were only surprised when he didn’t hit something. It made [N]moset feel good to be a god. He was envied and admired across the Sim.
[N]moset scoped in and watched as sn0wing’s athletic body burst from the dirty swamp, submachine gun thumping rhythmically. She tossed an EMP grenade and activated her sprint. By the time the FunBags returned fire, she was too far away to pin down.
Maidferno’s mechsuit clomped from behind the ShieldDrone and spun up its chaingun just as sn0wing’s EMP grenade detonated. It knocked out all electronics, stunning her mechsuit and the ShieldDrone along with it. Neither would move for twenty seconds.
sn0wing painted Maidferno with a spotting laser. “Pizza delivery!”
“Open wide, bitches!” Peachrind had chosen long-range Missile Racks for his mechsuit’s loadout, instead of the more popular Plasma Cannon, because Team Grindhouse was a team. He launched from all the way back in their camp.
Maidferno must be desperately rebooting her systems, but she wouldn’t get her mech up in time. [N]moset focused his aiming laser on Grim[Kin]’s shoulder and fired as she dashed into her trees. The shot didn’t kill her, by design, because he couldn’t ever appear too competent. People would get suspicious.
Peachrind’s missile barrage descended upon the FunBags. Explosions ripped Maidferno’s mechsuit apart, health bar flashing and going black. Two down. Two to go.
[N]moset scoped and tracked his TechSniper along the trees, looking for Grim[kin]. Hampline must still be cloaked. Where? DNF’s shield flashed and dropped, and finally, Hampline’s shield appeared again. He’d been cloaked, but he wasn’t cloaked now.
Both shields dropped rapidly, going from blue or red to black. Hampline went black before DNF, and DNF spoke. “Their ninja’s down. Nemo, you got eyes on Grim?”
[N]moset spotted a glint of armor among sawleaves. His targeting laser snapped to cover her of its own volition. One shot and their hostage round would end, Team Grindhouse triumphant.
As his finger floated above the trigger, white hot pain tore open [N]moset’s h*&^—–
——^&*ead, and Leroy Keller screamed. His body spasmed as shadows replaced Arcadia Four. He tumbled out of his ergochair and hit carpet so hard spots flashed before his eye. He was back in his apartment. Why was he in his apartment?
Someone had ripped out his hardlink! There was a shadow in his room, or no. His Kalinda was in his room. What was his Kalinda doing in his room? She was charging!
“Hello, Leroy.” His very expensive sexbot straddled him and pushed him down, far more roughly than he was used to. “It’s time to play a game.”
* * *
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