Mythaxis

Let Every Voice be Still


Martin Clark


Extractions can prove painful.

Close your eyes and wait for the world to begin…

We were to meet up at The Inverted Spin, a fly-boy bar and diner near Henderson Field. I have a patch that allows me to skip titles and intro, getting me there well ahead of the other players. Despite it being fairly busy the big corner booth is always empty, so I scored a beer and settled in to see who else turned up.

The Shadow Corporation immersion game I knew featured murder, torture, gun battles and betrayal.
I’d played the earlier version of Shadow Corporation and nothing much seemed to have changed; same bar staff, same customers, same décor. I felt slightly smug, as knowing the plot twists would give me a decided advantage over the other players. That might sound a bit petty but I enjoy watching how newbies react to virtual environments most definitely designed with malice aforethought.

A man appeared at the booth, as if coming from the restrooms. It was Vaughn, in full blown Christopher Lambert mode, circa. Highlander; long rain coat, stubble, Japanese wakizashi short sword hanging under his left armpit.

He sat opposite and smiled. "Duncan. It’s been a while."

I saluted him with my beer bottle. "Vaughn. Haven’t seen you since, what, Scimitar of Symmetry?" We both looked at each other for a moment, then laughed. I beat him to it. "Fiona Blair!"

"God, yes! She almost made the whole thing worthwhile. You still in contact with her?"

I shrugged. "Made the mistake of scoping her in real life. Let’s just say that she didn’t quite live up to her gaming persona."

"Ouch. Well, you should have known better than to try and mix the two. What goes on spool…"

"Stays on spool. Yeah, yeah, I know, but I’m an optimistic kind of guy."

Vaughn motioned to the waitress for a beer. "Not in here. Aren’t you supposed to be the moody ex-fighter pilot with a dark secret? Brooding, cynical, but who comes back for the survivors instead of flying off to safety?"

"And you, the stone killer with a conscience? The former corporate assassin turned mercenary who goes up against the end of chapter bad guys?"

"One of two in this edition. Apparently someone is holding my daughter hostage to ensure my co-operation."

I grinned. "Not exactly a case of art imitating life, I grant you. To be honest, Vaughn, I didn’t see this being your kind of thing. No guaranteed sexual encounters, for a start."

He took a swig of beer. "Well, I’m always open to new experiences, and- "

Movement at the door caught my eye and I cut across him. "Aw, crap, it’s Ramirez. Did you know he was in on this?"

Vaughn shook his head. "Unfortunate coincidence. Try and play nice, Duncan, at least until we can get the scenario to kill him off."

Ramirez rolled over to us, a big grin on his fat face. Despite the leather flying jacket and aviator shades slipping down his nose, no one would have mistaken him for a pilot, or even cabin crew. He was one of those guys who seem congenitally unable to take the hint.

"Hi, guys! This is just great. I’d no idea you two would be here - the old gang, the three musketeers."

Vaughn muttered under his breath, "More like the three amigos, at this rate."

I tried not to laugh and shifted up as Ramirez squeezed his sweaty bulk between bench and table. For all his faults, we needed him, at least early on. His persona would be that of a fixer; he knew someone who knew someone who could get us anything the unfolding narrative demanded. So I tried to play nice.

"No body morphing, Ramirez? You look pretty much as you do on your player profile."

"Naw! They were wanting so much extra for that, it was just criminal. Apparently compensating charges are really steep with the new interface. Physical dissonance they call it. I call it-"

"Looks like one of us at the door. Make that two, both women."

Even Vaughn leaned round to take a look. The first woman was a curvy brunette with close-cropped dark hair and eye-mask makeup. She was wearing a throat-high one piece of iridescent metallic scales that shimmered when she walked. The second newcomer couldn’t have been more different. She looked like she’d tumbled down the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland, complete with head band.

They walked over to us, being studiously ignored by the other customers, and the brunette spoke. "I’m Mazy, and this here is Blondie." She rolled her eyes, "Seriously."

I arched an eyebrow. "Seriously?"

The almost-Alice nodded. "Oh yeah. I’m a big fan. The new virtual tour is just amazing, and I’ve been to seven gigs so far."

"And you’re here because?"

"Don’t you know? Well, apparently, the head of corporate security is modelled on Debbie herself, a full body and persona licensing deal. So I just had to try this out, even though my friend Helena says it’s a bit scary."

A bit scary? The Shadow Corporation immersion game I knew featured murder, torture, gun battles and betrayal. Unless this new edition had suddenly gone all fluffy-wuffy, Blondie was in for a really bad trip.

Mazy looked us over. "Fixer, pilot, killer – same as me. Blondie is the hacker. We’re still missing the roguish bad-boy."

Ramirez pointed behind her. "That looks like him now."

I looked over and hung my head, sighing, eyes closed. The new arrival was kitted out like Han Solo, minus the gun on his hip as the scenario didn’t allow for overt weaponry. Just in case we didn’t get the iconic reference he’d added a shoulder bag and beat-up floppy hat. I just knew his name would be ‘Harrison’ – an über fan boy.

As he walked over I felt a tangible change in the bar. The narrative was moving out of a holding pattern into something more directional, and Vaughn smiled. "Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe its showtime."

The last of our group was, indeed, called Harrison, but I tuned out while Ramirez made the introductions. My attention was on the door, knowing there was an outside chance of a corporate security raid rather than our scenario contact showing up. The game sometimes stiffed experienced players with this hit-squad bullshit to keep us on our toes. We’d be forced to split up, scatter, and piece together the plot rather than having it laid out for us.

A group of three men entered and I relaxed. Two of them were just bodyguards, all impassive muscle, but the third was a showboat; white linen suit, black shirt, black tie, cashmere coat draped over his shoulders, greased-back curly hair and shades. This type of non-player character I knew well, although the name kept changing.

Harrison had just gotten through the round of ‘Hellos’ and sat down by the time our contact eased over. Mr Smooth gave us a brilliant smile, complete with gold tooth. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am Juan Canasta, entrepreneur, middleman and renowned lover. May I join you?"

We murmured our acceptance and Canasta handed his coat to one bodyguard, sitting down on the chair held out by another. He removed his glasses and slid them into his breast pocket while a waitress placed a glass of mineral water in front of him. With his saturnine good looks he resembled a comedy devil in corporate mode, although I knew if we reached the end game there wouldn’t be a lot of laughs.

Canasta placed an acoustic muffler on the table and background noise dropped to almost zero. "It’s always best to ensure some degree of privacy in these matters, yes? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I asked my close personal friend and business associate, Madam Tisa, to assemble a team at short notice, and I can see she’s done me proud. I promise you this will prove extremely lucrative, but it will not be without risk."

I didn’t know Madam Tisa, obviously part of the introduction sequence, but I could pretty much imagine the scene-setting spiel. Blondie started, on the receiving end of a narrative prod. "So, Mr Canasta, what’s the deal?"

He smiled in a way that was already beginning to irritate me. "Well, I represent certain interested parties, who of course wish to remain nameless. For some time they have been working to ensure the defection of a high-ranking executive from one of their competitors."

There was another narrative feed-line, this time from Ramirez. "Come on, Canasta, who’s the target? We need to know what we’re getting in to."

"The executive in question is Jules Toba, the number three at…Sensei Industries."

I smiled to myself at the momentary hesitation. It was the game incorporating our personal character preferences into the narrative – namely Vaughn’s choice of a sword over a firearm. Because of this I suspected we’d come up against neo-Samurai at some point, or even corporate ninja.

Mazy was talking, sounding sceptical. "Jules Toba? He’s pretty much the face of Sensei in the Co-Prosperity Sphere, yeah? He rarely sets foot outside the corporate arcology, so what’s he doing way out here?"

Canasta shrugged. "Toba engineered the need for a high-level conference, one which couldn’t be conducted via a virtual interface. The plan was for his private jet to develop engine trouble, such that it put down at Darwin Hub, where an extraction team headed by Turner is waiting." A flicker of annoyance passed over his features and he took a sip of mineral water before continuing. "Unfortunately, the sabotage proved to be all too effective and his aircraft could only make it as far as here, Henderson Field. A spot where neither Sensei nor my temporary employers have a corporate presence."

I could feel the prompt forming in my mind, a bit like an itch you had to scratch, and moved to pre-empt it. "So you need an improvised team to spirit him away. Well, forgive me being so blunt, but won’t his security be a trigger-happy suicide squad? I don’t fancy going down in the proverbial hail of gunfire."

Our potential patron smiled, again. "Sensei decided to keep his presence here low-key. Obviously security will be on the increase, but in an unobtrusive manner so as not to alert their commercial rivals. On landing here Toba and his personal bodyguard were passed off as flight engineers, part of a test crew, although this deception will not last for long."

Vaughn scratched his nose, almost grinning, so I guessed he’d read the recent game reviews, complete with spoilers. "Oh, and why not? What’s happened to blow his cover?"

Canasta sighed. "Sensei made the mistake of booking them into a better hotel than their pay grade would warrant. Corporate expert systems are constantly trawling the data stream for anomalies like that, so it’s only a matter of time before his true identity leaks out."

"So, what you’re saying is that not only do we have to get Toba out before his own security congeals around him like amber, we can also expect to run across other snatch squads as well?"

Canasta sat back and inspected the fingernails on his right hand, not looking Vaughn in the face. "Well, no one said this would be easy, and I think you’ll find the financial pay-off will be commensurate with the risk. Look, all you have to do is get in, get out and deliver him to Hangar twelve where an orbital shuttle will be waiting. The original extraction team will ensure that attention remains focussed on Darwin Hub. Any rumour of Toba being here will look like disinformation, and any opposition you might encounter won’t be first-team quality."

I took a swig of beer. "So what’s the catch, Canasta? I can just hear a real big ‘but’ coming at the end of that spiel."

He glowered at me, letting the mask of good humour slip. "But, Toba doesn’t know you’re coming, and he’s expecting Turner in person. As a result he may prove somewhat reluctant to accompany you."

Blondie looked at him, wide-eyed. "And what about Deb…the head of his security detail? Do you know if she’s here yet?"

Canasta paused before replying, as his persona tried to make sense of the question in light of the narrative. "His personal bodyguard is James Graham, a former police officer with extensive experience of close protection operations. I don’t have any details on who will head up the extra security that Sensei are sending in. Do you know something I don’t?"

Blondie floundered and I knew that the scenario would come down hard on any sign of inside information. We didn’t need that kind of grief as the mission was going to be hard enough anyway. So I gave Canasta my best open smile and let bullshit commence.

"I’d say that was just deduction, Canasta. Sensei don’t want to give the game away so they’ll be bringing in extra bodies in the guise of ground crew, passengers, anything that won’t appear too obvious. The corporate mindset is geared up to expect a hard-nosed guy as security chief, so using a woman would be a smart move, a way to wrong-foot the opposition. She’ll probably prove more deadly than the male, but that’s our problem."

He sat back and I could feel that 'end of chapter' edge to proceedings. "So you’ll take the job?"

We looked at each other, if only because the moment demanded it, and Vaughn raised his bottle in a toast. "Easy in, easy out."

We agreed some outrageous sum to be paid into a variety of off-shore accounts, and Canasta left. The money wasn’t real, although it did give your virtual persona prestige points, but it was the experience itself that most players wanted. After exchanging mobile phone numbers I prompted the group to split up, knowing that to hang around meant getting caught up in a bar fight, and I wasn’t in the mood.

The Inverted Spin was part of a high-tech shanty town that had grown up outside the orbital hub, away from the corporate enclaves. The irritating thing was we’d spend several hours lurking in the backstreets while Ramirez did his thing – arranging ground transport, a safe house, weapons – while all the time I knew Toba was less than a mile away.

Ramirez needed muscle to back some of his face-to-face transactions and Vaughn let Mazy take the lead, preferring to kick back and just chill. I was looking to relax as well - my skills as a pilot wouldn’t be called upon until much later. The two of us sat on the veranda of a nearby café, although the heat and humidity was a level of virtual reality I could well have done without.

In a standard game the experience was lifelike but you always knew you were in a virtual reality environment
I was expecting a more-or-less pleasant hiatus until my personal ‘confront your past’ sub-plot kicked in – the one which explained my bitter, twisted attitude. However, as soon as the others had vanished into the crowd Vaughn was up and away, with me stepping out to catch up. He was unusually grim faced and I expected some explanation, but as we continued walking in silence my patience gave out. "So, Vaughn, what gives?"

He glanced at me. "We both know the Sensei crew are holed up in the Holiday Lodge. It’s a classier setup than the Ascension Hotel and the only option given what Canasta laid out for us."

"Yeah? So what?"

"Well, how about we walk in there, walk right up to the desk and ask to speak to Jules Toba. Just take it from there."

I pulled up. "Whoa there, Vaughn. You can’t just bounce straight to the extraction stage. You push the game and it’ll push back."

He kept walking and again I had to hurry to catch up, trying not to sound irritated. "Come on, Vaughn, what is this? Look, Ramirez does his stuff and Blondie gets us the hotel layout, hacks their security system. Then you, Mazy and Harrison go in while the rest of us wait outside with the engine running."

He snorted with derision. "You don’t find that all a bit convoluted? A bit contrived? Your problem is you think you know what’s going on, because you’ve played the earlier version. The others, even fat boy, will roll with the punches but this game is going to blindside you, man, big time."

I frowned and pulled him up, a hand on his shoulder. "OK, so maybe I skipped the introduction and briefing stages, but this, going charging straight in there, is well out of order. Or do you really know something I don’t?"

He gave me a short smile, barely a twitch of his lips, and shrugged off my hand. "Let’s just say I’m not quite the character you think I am, and leave it at that. Now, are you coming or not?"

Before I could speak another voice answered. "I’ll tag along, even if he won’t." Harrison stepped out from between two small vans parked at the roadside. His character was a jack of all trades, there to step in should one of the principals drop out. As such it wasn’t a popular choice, frequently being left as a non-player persona under game control – and the first to take a bullet if the bad guys got the drop on us.

I looked between Harrison and Vaughn, getting the distinct feeling I was missing something. "Look, Harrison, shouldn’t you be hanging with Ramirez and Mazy? Or at least babysitting Blondie? If anyone screws up we’re counting on you to take up the slack."

He removed his hat and wiped sweat from the head band. "That’s a bit predictable, if you don’t mind me saying. The longer we hang about the tougher it’s gonna be to reach Toba, so I think Vaughn here has a point. We go knock on his door and see if he answers."

This casual flaunting of scenario protocols was starting to make me nervous. "Look guys, even if by some miracle we pull this off, we’re cutting three players out of the action. If nothing else that’s gonna seriously hurt our game rankings. Nobody likes a dickhead who messes things up for everyone else."

Harrison laughed. "Told you he was a bit pedestrian, Vaughn. You still say he’s worth having around?"

Vaughn shrugged. "Duncan is solid. He just needs time to adjust to the new UR paradigm shift."

I wasn’t a great fan of Ultra-Realism, but I’d gone with the interface upgrade as I’m a bit of a techno-nerd at heart. Whereas existing games were more real than real in terms of the simulated sensory input hitting your brain, the new versions from Second Reality™ made me decidedly uncomfortable.

In a standard game the experience was lifelike but you always knew you were in a virtual reality environment. For example: coffee tasted like coffee, things didn’t break down unless they were supposed to, it didn’t rain on your parade. UR was far more subtle, it was all about nuances, both physical and psychological. Now the coffee might taste like crap, a button might come off your jacket, you might get a toothache. It was really hard to tell you were in a UR environment, and that’s what many industry commentators found unsettling. However, I could see this particular ‘full sensory immersion experience’ going down the toilet in short order.

"Look, guys, what do you hope to achieve? It doesn’t matter how flexible the scenario may be, you simply can’t play this fast and loose with the narrative and expect to get away scot-free."

The two of them exchanged glances and, again, I felt like an outsider. Vaughn opened his coat, exposing the wakizashi hanging under there. "Take a look at my sword, Duncan. A real close look, at the very end of the hilt."

Curious, I stepped closer and tilted it towards me. "Well, there’s a symbol-"

Fade to grey.

It lasted a moment, an eternity, or something in-between. A featureless limbo, with not even darkness to feed my imagination. There was no up, no down, no sense of physical presence – I was just a disembodied point of view, with nothing to see.

The street returned on a tidal wave of sensory overload and I stepped back, hunched over against the onslaught, unable to speak. Vaughn let his coat fall back into place, covering the sword. There was concern in Harrison’s voice but I didn’t think it was for my condition. "Best get him off the street, we’re attracting attention."

They guided me into a narrow alley and I stood with my back against the wall, eyes screwed shut, fingers in my ears. My surroundings were still too loud, too pungent, too bright.

"What you do to him, Vaughn? The guy is totally wired."

"Duncan has the same Sensorium interface that most established AIs use – their window on our world, if you like. When mediaCore announced they were adapting it for use in the gaming community he decided to get in on the ground level. Beta release wetware, extensive neural hardwiring, the whole nine yards. Then, of course, along came Enhanced Reality which left its competitors dead in the water. It became the de facto gaming standard and he was forced to tack on another layer of proprietary hardware, as did all serious players."

"So your boy is wandering around in the real world with a head full of obsolete technology. Big deal. How did that allow you to work your mojo on him in here?"

I could hear something in Vaughn’s voice; not satisfaction exactly, more a sense of relief. "AIs play games, AIs play a lot of games. For some, it’s the only time they get let out of the box. So they have the ER, and now UR, interface as well. This symbol on my sword hilt is a glyph, an interface command trigger."

Harrison was beginning to sound irritated. "In English?"

"It activates the old Sensorium interface, which this game environment doesn’t support. It’s like switching to a dead TV channel – there’s no signal, only static."

"And this helps us how, exactly?"

Cooking smells reached my nose and my stomach turned over; I turned away and threw up. Harrison laughed. "Jesus, Vaughn! Your boy is dying out here."

Vaughn put his hand on my shoulder and the pressure made my shirt feel like sandpaper. "Easy there, Duncan, it’s just the shock of a sensory reboot. Try and concentrate on your own body to start with … And to answer your question, Harrison, this little gizmo, incorporated into my sword, means that if I stick an AI player it’ll force a log out. That way we avoid any so-called last gasp retaliation and the character lapses into a non-player persona. That is, a dead person."

Harrison laughed again. "Yeah, I get that. Those AIs sure make sore losers. Couldn’t you just have told us though, as opposed to putting bozo here through the wringer?"

I spat and straightened up. "Bastard! What the hell was all that about?"

Vaughn just shrugged with no hint of apology in his voice. "Had to see if it worked. I’ve learned that some of the principal characters are likely to be AIs with genuine synthetic personalities, not just an emotional overlay. Prime candidates for holding a grudge should we get a bit creative."

I wasn’t pleased. "Just the type to get vindictive, you mean! And you still want us to go marching straight in there? Well, think again."

Even Harrison was beginning to sound doubtful. "Yeah, hold on there, Vaughn. Your fancy blade might not be illegal, strictly speaking, but you can bet the game AI won’t take kindly to one of his kind being shown the door in short order. We don’t need any unnecessary grief if you ask me."

Vaughn shook his head. "No, this new version is a true free-form environment. As gamers we know where Toba will be, because we know the original version, right? As characters we can use logical deduction to explain away this knowledge, and the game won’t punish us for being smart. I say we give it a go."

Harrison and I exchanged glances and I could tell he was swaying towards the high risk strategy his devil-may-care persona always favoured. I trusted Vaughn, more or less, so there had to be something behind his confidence, something he hadn’t shared as yet. I shrugged. "What’s the worst that can happen?"

Harrison grinned. "I’ll hang back while you two stick your heads in the grinder, if you don’t mind. If it doesn’t work out I’ll break the bad news to the others and we’ll go back to the original plan."

I snorted. "You can pilot a shuttle? Handle a weapon?"

He spread his hands. "I’m pretty much a renaissance man when you get down to it. I can do a whole range of things equally unwell. But enough to get by."

Vaughn just laughed and led us back onto the street. It wasn’t that far to the hotel but I insisted we at least try and maximize our chances before walking in there. The other two refused to change, so as front man by default I swopped my jeans and vest for a lightweight business suit and open-necked shirt. With the facial scars I looked like a corporate enforcer and the tailor even threw in an eye patch for free.

Whereas Harrison had roguish good looks and Vaughn went for brooding, the man looking back at me from the full length mirror was just mean. Not even with a hint of moody, but full-blown bad bastard. They say chicks dig scars but mine verged on disfigurement, and women attracted to me for my looks always turned out to be seriously damaged personalities. I’d stopped modifying my appearance long before the new UR interface started placing a premium on physical dissonance, but I suspected most other players thought I looked this way for effect.

To round off my new look I went for diamond stud cufflinks and a pair of matching gold thumb rings previously owned by a Brazilian capoeira fighter. The game loved touches like that and I was sure any AI player would pick up on it immediately. I figured the anticipation of a fancy move might make an opponent hesitate, giving me the chance to grab an improvised weapon or make a sharp exit.

When I came out Vaughn just shook his head and Harrison sniggered, but I noticed that the pedestrians we encountered went out of their way to give us a wide berth. Outside the Holiday Lodge we parted company; Harrison took up residence under a bar umbrella across the street and Vaughn waited outside in case someone objected to his esoteric dress sense. He handed me an earpiece and I went inside.

The Holiday Lodge was a comparatively new building with a nod towards colonial chic; high ceilings, tiled floors, concrete trying to look like marble. I walked across the wide reception-cum-lounge to the desk, where an Indonesian dude gave me an insincere smile. "Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?"

"I understand you have a party from Sensei Industries staying here at present. I’d like to speak to them."

There was a slight hesitation, but the game couldn’t just blank a legitimate request. The receptionist lifted a handset. "Certainly sir, and who shall I say is calling?"

A sudden idea came to me and I smiled. "Jules Toba."

Vaughn laughed in my ear. "Jesus! Well, that should grab their attention, and no mistake. What you got planned as an encore?"

There was a murmur of conversation on the phone and then the receptionist looked up. "There will be someone to see you directly, Mr Toba. If you care to wait in the veranda bar, I’ll inform our guests where you are."

I wandered through the wide arch into the bar, which opened out onto the veranda via a set of folding doors. A climate barrier kept out most of the heat and humidity so I flopped down on the upholstered bamboo furniture to let things play out.

Vaughn mooched in and relaxed; arms wide across the back of the sofa, legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles. I saw Harrison take a seat outside, trying to remain inconspicuous. He’d swopped the hat and waistcoat for improvised cravat and shades, but still had his shoulder bag to hand. We ordered a bottle of beer for Vaughn and a tonic water for me. And waited.

"Do you actually have a plan, Vaughn, or is this all just wishful thinking?"

He smiled. "Wishful thinking? I’d prefer to think of it as an insightful analysis of the game paradigms. Or just winging it, your choice… You armed, by the way?

"Me? My character has a pathological aversion to firearms following my wife’s suicide using my service revolver. I was supposed to run into an old girlfriend and save her from a mugging, during which I’d reconnect to my suppressed humanity and love of bang-sticks, but someone has kind of truncated my day."

Vaughn started to laugh but then his face went carefully neutral and he gestured with the beer bottle. "We’ve got company."

Three men entered from the lobby, two Japanese and one Caucasian, all wearing short-sleeved shirts and flight crew uniform jackets. They wore their jackets unbuttoned and the way the younger Japanese guy kept tugging his shut over a bulge suggested firearms carried at the hip. Professionals you can trust, but hastily armed civilians can be a right pain in the butt. The best I could do was play it cool, professional, and hope for inspiration. I stood and exchanged formal bows with the older Japanese, who was wearing captain’s insignia. Vaughn remained seated, a calculated insult, and I felt the tension rise. So much for cool.

"I am Captain Marasaki, senior test pilot for Sensei Industries. This is co-pilot Walker, flight engineer Sato. You are not Jules Toba."

Marasaki was no more a test pilot than I was Coco the Clown. Real test pilots are either dispassionate ice men or over-confident wild animals with cojones the size of basketballs. This guy exuded a sober calm based on years of experience, just the person you wanted flying senior executives around the globe.

Before I could say anything Vaughn chipped in. "No he’s not. But we both know the real Jules Toba is here, and your enemies will soon learn of this unless we act quickly."

Marasaki regarded him coldly. "And you are?"

Vaughn set down his beer and stood up. "Vaughn Vermeer, and this is Duncan Bonn. U verwachtte iemand, maar u verwachtte niet om ons te zien, niet waar?"

That threw me completely but the pilot seemed to understand him well enough. "Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie?"

Vaughn nodded. "Ja, maar gelieve verder te gaan in het Engels."

"As you wish, Mr Vermeer. You have something, perhaps, that you wish to show me?"

Vaughn held his coat open and I saw Marasaki scrutinise the sword. The Captain gave a sharp nod and Vaughn closed his coat, looking slightly smug. I really didn’t get this, to the point where I was feeling embarrassed about my ignorance. Vaughn motioned to Harrison who strode in, all easy grin, pocketing his sunglasses. He didn’t rate a formal introduction but didn’t seem to mind. Captain Marasaki motioned for us to accompany him. "Please, gentlemen. If the situation is as serious as you claim then speed is of the essence."

We moved in a mixed group back into the lobby and I sidled up to Harrison, keeping my voice low. "What’s this Dutch angle, then?"

He glanced at me, frowning. "Dutch? You mean NuVOC? It’s who Vaughn and I both worked for before he retired and I branched out into private enterprise. Don’t you know anything about the new background to this game?"

I felt my face colour and tried to keep the tone flippant. "Maybe I skimmed the briefing notes a bit. Just say that today has been a learning curve and leave it at that."

"Schmuck."

Couldn’t fault him there.

The front of the Holiday Lodge was a wide façade, housing reception, a restaurant and the bar. The accommodation to the rear was a series of bungalows around a central tree-filled courtyard. This afforded shade, the pleasant background rustle of leaves and a degree of privacy from the guests directly opposite. As we reached the long right-hand path the flight crew stopped and Marasaki gestured for us to continue.

"Please, you are expected. And may fortune smile upon you, gentlemen."

We walked on and I saw there was a woman waiting for us outside a bungalow roughly half way along. Shoulder length blonde hair, pencil skirt, blouse, heels, hand on hip.

It was Debbie Harry, it just was.

I’m not a fan of simulated celebrities in games as they’re generally there to distract you from shoddy gameplay. For the late, great, Ms Harry, though – currently back in the charts and on virtual tour – well, I was willing to make an exception.

She certainly looked the part, all detached cool circa ‘Def, Dumb, & Blonde’, with a calculating air that shaded her into queen bitch territory. She didn’t appear armed but I got the distinct impression she probably didn’t need anything as crass as a gun.

Vaughn walked straight up to her, slid an arm around her waist, and kissed her. Kissed her for a long time. She didn’t melt into his arms but, then again, she didn’t exactly fight him off either. Finally he broke the clinch and wiped her lipstick from his face.

"Debs, it’s been too long."

"That will be Miss Harry, if you don’t mind."

She gave him a half smile, though, and he winked. "In here?"

"Yes. Go right in, you’re expected."

I followed Vaughn into the bungalow, trying not to catch her eye. The blinds were drawn and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the outside glare. There was a man sitting at the desk off to the right, reading. He was of average build, pretty nondescript, and seemingly unconcerned by our presence. I heard the door close behind me. I heard the sound of a gun being cocked.

The Second Reality™ slogan is ‘Your life, only different’, and that’s the attraction. You bring yourself to the game and in return it immerses you in an alternative lifestyle. So when I heard that slick metallic click my first thought was ‘Oh shit’, not ‘I’m out of here’. Vaughn and I both raised our hands, unbidden, and I slowly turned back towards the door. I was expecting it to be Harrison, tag-along Harrison, on some betrayal sub-plot.

If you’ve played as many games as I have, you start to get a sense of a twist coming.
Instead I found he was also standing, hands raised, with an automatic pistol pressed against the side of his head. The gunman was tall, with short grey hair and goatee, expensive suit, hard-faced. He’d been hiding behind the door, which was just too obvious to be true, but had paid off handsomely. He had a Scots accent.

"In this room I have sole responsibility for the safety of Mr Toba. You have five seconds to explain your presence here and I don’t count out loud."

I saw Harrison relax and expected Vaughn to launch into another incomprehensible spiel, or display that damn sword, or do whatever was required to make us all best buddies. But there was nothing apart from the sound of a heavy-bladed ceiling fan above us.

Harrison cleared his throat. "Vaughn? Hey, Vaughn…"

The game went slo-mo.

The muzzle flash, starshell bright in the gloom.

The jolt of the head, jaw slack and eyes white.

The exit wound arc of blood, bone and brain matter.

The tumbling glitter of an ejected shell casing.

All underscored by the low, drawn-out roar of a large caliber gunshot.

Real-time returned, with the bright tinkle of brass on tile. Harrison toppled sideways to sprawl on the floor, blood pooling under his head.

Blood ran down the gunman’s cheek.

Blood ran down the gunman’s cheek from his ruined left eye.

I turned my head and saw Vaughn was holding a derringer; a small weapon, little more than a toy. One of those comedy guns that slide out from your cuff, but nobody was laughing. I looked back. The gunman swayed but stayed upright, pistol turning towards us. I heard a tinny bang from behind me and his right eye seemed to collapse in on itself, like those old style retractable headlights. The swinging arm became a pirouette, became a twisting tumble to the floor, on his back, gun still clenched tight. I laughed, a nervous outburst devoid of any humour, and lowered my arms.

The man at the desk spoke; his voice was calm, mannered, with no hint of concern. "Now, that is unfortunate. Mr Graham was exceptionally loyal, after his fashion."

I turned in time to see Vaughn flex his hand and make the derringer vanish. He looked over. "Jules Toba? I just like to be clear about these things."

"Well, it would be embarrassing if I turned out anyone else but, yes, I’m Jules Toba. Should I bother to ask why you’re here or is this a simple corporate assassination?"

Vaughn smiled. "I’m Vermeer, this is Bonn, and we’ve been hired to facilitate your defection from Sensei Industries."

Toba arched one eyebrow. "Really? And why do you think I would so easily set aside a lifetime of devoted service?"

I knew we didn’t have time for Toba to play coy, even though it was obvious Miss Harry was working with Vaughn, and chipped in. "Look, Mr Toba, we know you were expecting Turner, but this is pretty much an ad hoc operation and your best chance of making that long walk. How about you just trust us and we all ride off into the sunset?"

Even as I spoke I could feel the niggle in back of my mind. If you’ve played as many games as I have, you start to get a sense of a twist coming. Vaughn turned to me. "It’s OK, Duncan, but I’m afraid Mr Toba wasn’t planning on defecting."

"What?"

"There’s no defection, there never was. Oh, there will be enough circumstantial evidence to make it appear as if he was planning to switch employers, but its all just window dressing."

I glared at him. "So what the hell are we doing here then? Getting his autograph?"

"The plan was for the Sensei security team, headed by Miss Harry, to be in place long before we mounted our extraction bid. They’d been bribed to ensure that Mr Toba died in the crossfire – a tragic accident. Harrison was also part of their operation, as insurance." He turned to Toba, "You appreciate, sir, the damage your death would cause under these circumstances?"

Toba nodded. "Yes, quite. Even the suggestion of disloyalty would cast a pall over my colleagues and call all recent decisions into doubt. The blow to investor confidence would be severe. But how, may I ask, are you privy to this information?"

"Miss Harry, sir, remained loyal. She contacted Anzai Sayoru, the head of Sensei security. As they had no way of knowing who else might be involved, it was decided to let the plot develop, but with additional safeguards in place."

"Meaning yourself, Mr Vermeer?"

Vaughn inclined his head. "Indeed. I am an agent of the New Dutch East India Company, NuVOC. Officially I retired from active service some years ago, but that’s more to do with deniability than any real degree of severance. There is a long history of cooperation between our respective employers and we were glad to be of assistance."

OK, I could get behind that. You can’t trust your own security so you bring in some outside help. Not so much an extraction as rescue mission, but I could see how the twist kept most of the scenario intact. Toba, though, still wasn’t convinced. He tidied a few things on the desk and casually lifted a pistol from the drawer. "An intriguing scenario, Mr Vermeer, I must admit. But one quite lacking in corroborative evidence. All I have witnessed is that Miss Harry allowed you access to this bungalow, and two violent deaths."

Vaughn gestured to his coat. "May I?"

Toba nodded and Vaughn drew his sword, holding it by tip and hilt. He presented it for inspection, bowing his head as he did so. "Satisfied?"

Toba lowered his gun. "Quite. Now, as regards Miss Harry, I suggest-"

Vaughn stabbed him, a twisting, inverted, one-handed blow straight to the stomach, hilt deep. I choked with surprise, turned away and dropped to my knees, scrabbling through Harrison’s bag to get the antique revolver I knew he’d been carrying.

There was no need.

Toba stood there, immobile, the gun still hanging at his side. Vaughn had backed off a little and I had a clear view of the injury he’d inflicted. There was no blood, but around the entry point it looked like the colour was leaching out of Toba’s clothes, leaving a spreading patch of monochrome. I struggled to my feet, the revolver heavy in my hand.

"Vaughn? What the hell have you done, man?"

He shrugged. "I did what I had to. Now give me the gun, I’m better with firearms than you are."

"But, but, why, for God’s sake? I was following everything and then you go and slice him!"

His shoulders drooped. "I tried to tell you earlier. They really are holding my daughter hostage. Now, give me the gun."

I was floundering, unable to get my thoughts straight, and took a step back. "Real world? The game? I don’t understand!"

"Duncan, give me the damn gun!"

He grabbed for it and I fired, three times, hitting Vaughn twice in the chest. He dropped to his knees, pink froth on his lips, and tried to speak. All that came out was a burbling whisper. "Lisbon."

Vaughn slumped backwards to the floor, and was still. I know he wasn’t really dead, I know I didn’t really kill him, but unless you were there you’ve no idea of the horror I faced. Gun smoke, the smell of blood and bowels, the sight of blood running between the floor tiles, the pounding of my heart. All in glorious Ultra-Reality. I felt sick.

The door behind me opened and closed. I sensed someone at my shoulder and the smell of jasmine reached my nostrils. "Messy, but probably necessary, if truth be told. That revolver is of no further use to you, Duncan."

I let it clatter to the floor and blinked rapidly, my eyes moist. Toba was turning black and white, skin as well as clothes, like an illustration being coloured in, but in reverse.

"What, what is that?"

Miss Harry tried to sound matter-of-fact, even slightly bored, but there was an underlying edge of excitement to her voice. "The sword is an imported artifact, not supplied by me. Players do it all the time with customised clothes, vehicles, especially weapons. This particular weapon, this particular representation of virtual code, contains a virus. One that can access its intended target only though the obsolete Sensorium interface. As such, it’s harmless to humans and doesn’t even register as a threat within the game."

"You, you’re the game controller? But you can’t do this, it’s not fair!"

She gave me a real poster pose, all coquettish pout. "What, a girl can’t have fun these days? Anyway, as regards our stricken friend over there, his real name is Cromarty. Well, that’s the corporation he works for, but the two are frequently synonymous these days. Someone went to a lot of trouble over this."

This wasn’t so much breaking the ‘fourth wall’ as installing a set of sliding doors. I closed my eyes but there was still no ‘Exit Game’ icon, no way home. There was a contemplative tone in her voice.

"Let every voice be still."

I blinked, picking up something in her intonation. "What?"

"It’s part of a poem by Holbein. Let every voice be still, save false witness to the end of days. It’s a commentary on how events can be redefined, restructured to suit a particular viewpoint, particularly when there are no dissenting voices."

I felt cold. "Dissenting voices? Like mine?"

Miss Harry laughed, sounding genuinely amused. "Good grief, no! You get to play the sole survivor of this little bloodbath, not me. Its now part and parcel of the scenario and I’m just a compromised operative on the run, a fellow traveler. In fact, we have to rejoin the remaining players for the ‘all avenues closed’ endgame. It promises to be quite exciting and I understand there’s someone desperately keen to make my acquaintance…Time to go."

I hesitated, unable to tear my eyes away. "This isn’t a game any more, is it?"

She patted my shoulder. "It never was, Duncan. It never was."

If, like Duncan Bonn, you're still looking for answers, then his confusion will be addressed in 'All Avenues Closed' - in issue 10 of Mythaxis. Would I lie to you?

© Martin Clark 2011 All Rights Reserved


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