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Chapter 3

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Ger stood outside the foster home clutching his bag. How had things gone so wrong so fast?

As expected, he found himself taken to the Admin 'bot in charge of the home to explain his behavior at dinner. When his files were drawn up, it became known that he has just celebrated his eighteenth birthday and was no longer a child according to the rules of the state. Since all space was at a premium at the home and the recent infractions had marked him as a continued problem, he found himself escorted to his bunk, his clothes and personal items bundled up and he was sent out into the wet night all within an hour. As a new freshly-mintednadult, he was on his own.

Looking back at the locked door of the home, Ger had to make a decision fast.

The acid rain continued to fall and he found himself soaked in the yellow downpour looking longingly at the makeshift alley shelters the off-worlders had constructed. Funny to think, I was looking out at them just a little bit ago and now I’m worse off than them. At least they have somewhere to sleep.

Ger turned away from his former home and started off into the night. Slipping over the slick sidewalk, his threadbare sneakers did little to help him as he avoided the smoking puddles of chemical water pooling in the street. He had to get inside fast and he knew that money was definitely going to be a problem. His fake name debit account had very little — but it did have enough for a few hours at The Emporium, the internet hangout downtown that he used to go to for his black market trades. He’d promised his Mom and the cops that he wouldn’t go back but he had little choice now.

Water crept down his collar and he shivered in the rain as the clogged streets of Megacity One swallowed him. I promised Mom that I wouldn’t go dark again — but I don’t have a choice. If I don’t get out of the rain or find some money, I’m not going to last.

 

The Emporium, one of the larger public internet spaces, had been a hangout for dark web dealers forever along with the regular citizens that lived online. There was an illegal TOR browser installed deep in the mainframe that even the owners didn’t know about — only those that would go dark using the cafe as a private hangout or book a room for their clan meetings. The public workstations had the usual games and links to popular online hangouts and Ger had enough to pop in and dig. What if I don’t do dark? I can just go deep instead and tag a few user accounts and troll for pennies, nickels and dimes? It’ll take longer and I’m not really breaking the law.

Ger knew that going into the deep web wasn’t technically illegal as dealing in pirated bio-software or the more criminal activities that happened in the darker regions. Deep web digging meant he would be accessing the private records of users not using a VPN to mask their identity on the public servers so he could run a couple online spiders and then troll the Emporium users checking their bank accounts or logging onto their auction sites or online shopping. From there, it was just a matter of arranging for a few fake returns or sending a fake donation window to encourage patrons to donate a dollar or more to supporting street kids or off-world settlers. He’s done it before. It wasn’t technically stealing.

Slogging through the rain enroute to The Emporium, Ger wrestled with the decision. This was the work that had gotten him separated from his Mom — and he really did owe her a IRL visit now that he was sprung from the home. She wasn’t technically under house arrest and would be almost finished her mandated sentence so getting it to see her wouldn’t be THAT impossible. Not now that he was eighteen. A frakkin’ grownup. And I didn’t even know it. Ger pushed through the surly crowds that swamped the streets. Even in this chemical downpour, hundreds of people were out. Most of them had some kind of biologogical sissy suits on or plastic wraps covering their heads wearing breathers to filter out the near-toxic air. He didn’t have the luxury of these safeguards from the sick atmosphere. Shouldering his wet bag, he resigned himself to partially breaking the law for a good reason and made a mental note to check in with Mom once he had enough credits to at least clean himself up for a visit.

 

Inside The Emporium, it was packed as usual.

Vape fiends blew clouds of fragrant near-smoke up into the fans that circulated throughout the cavernous space. Technically, it was illegal to smoke vape inside but nobody here seemed to care. Tobacco crops had been replaced forever ago with bean and corn crops to feed the millions returned from the off-world fallout so chemical smoking was the new norm for almost everyone. Ger caught the sweet tang of mango, pineapple and cherry all within moments of pushing his way into the dark club.

Pinspots illuminated each half-wall cubicle with a main bar on the side and a full restaurant in the back. The goal here was to keep you as long as you had active bit-credit.

He swiped his anonymous debit card he’d created for just this purpose at the front and maxed out at four hours time as he looked for a terminal that would be right for his deep web trolling. Row after row of kids and adults were plugged into terminals and headsets playing games, having meetings and living their best digital lives. Nobody went to a physical office anymore so it wasn’t unusual for all types of people to be at The Emporium all night long. Clans of kids tended to clump together and the older grown-ups stayed away from the more rowdier sections. He could tell that tonight a BERSERKER marathon was underway in the middle of the room as groups of street and home-school kids had banded together on a maxi-quest. I’ll run the spiders and kick their butts. Plus I can get back on top of the leaderboard and smoke GINGER346. No way is that gonna stand.

Ger dripped his way through the terminals and spotted an older unit sitting near the back corner that had no one attached. With his back to the wall and a good eyeline on the room, he could plug in, scrum the host terminal IDS and pick his charity donators and online shoppers.

He clocked a group of girls shopping for the latest Neo-Tokyo fashions to one side and a pair of Cosplay kids bidding on plastic swords and ever-popular BERSERKER merch as he settled in. 

Ger scanned the room as his fingers flew over the keyboard logging in under a false ID and bringing up BERSERKER as his cover. He’d flip back and forth between the game and his spiders as he ran the charity tag and transactions that would let him skim the crowd. He’d learned early on that it wasn’t about stealing big amounts from users online accounts. It was all about volume. One plus two plus three plus four still equalled ten and a few bucks here and there would add up over four hours. He could use his VPN plug-in to mask his real ID and then bounce the money to his account and top up his debit card. If I’m lucky, who knows maybe I’ll get enough to get a real coffin suite after I’m done.

Isla shook the water of her favorite jacket as she pushed into the smoky Emporium. She was still shaking with adrenaline having only barely made it through the yellow storm raging outside. Her scooter was chained outside the club and she’d made sure that she’d activated the alarm on her comm-link. As much as she hated carrying the communication device, she knew that it was essential if she didn’t want to have her transportation stolen in this part of the city. I just have to worry about Mom trying to call or text me if she’s figured out I’m gone.

Swiping her debit card absently over the scanner, she scanned the busy room looking for a seat. This was where she had met Jericho online and tonight she was sure he would be online or maybe have managed to get a private online room in back to celebrate after the school data breach. If I had told Mom that I knew about this, she’d have died. What would she do if she knew I was the one that pointed him to the school?

Glancing about the room, she clocked Otaku girls oohing over the latest J-Pop music avatar, Cosplay dweebs, Fan-boy Auction Freaks, Coders and in the corner, some brooding punk also wet from the storm. The only terminal open was the one next to the drowned street rat so she dropped down next to him, glancing quickly at his screen over the half-wall, expecting him to be watching some form of strange off-world manga.

She was surprised to see that he was scrolling through hospital intake records as a BERSERKER link sat on startup. Takes all types, I guess.

As she settled into her own space, she clipped her small VPN plug-in module into the computer. There’s no way I’m leaving a footprint here. She’d gotten this unit from Jericho who had done a maildrop at her house one day after school. She told her Mom it was for a link upgrade and she never looked at it again. The anonymous web portal began its work as Isla scanned the room again looking for who might be Jericho. Not that I’d recognize him. They had met online here once but they’d spent hours in a private chat room talking about what was wrong with Axiomm and their entire corporate structure. Whoever Jericho was, he shared the same interests and passions with her. They were both angry about how the off-worlders had been refused citizenship in the sprawling MegaCity One having been forced to give up their rights in order to travel to the failed Mars colonies.

Next to her, the familiar sound of BERSERKER started up and the theme music prompted Isla to also launch her own link to the online MMORPG. Headphones, Mr. Punk Guy. Use headphones.  I might as well have some fun tonight.

She logged onto the game as well as she opened a chat box to the private chatroom Jericho had set up for them to speak. C’mon… be online now and want to chat about today. She imagined him as a cross-between a Steampunk Pirate or maybe some kind of cool Diesel Punk in stained overalls and multi-colored hair. Dreads, for sure. But no goggles, please. Those were totally camper. 

A bright insert window appeared on her monitor as a stream of cryptic acronyms and text shortcuts flew down the screen in the discussion room she had shared with Jericho. All congratulating him on the success of embarrassing the school circuit and there were multiple requests for copies of the more adult pictures. She scanned the responses looking to see if he was answering. A quick parse revealed that he hadn’t responded to any of the messages so she left the window open as she dropped into BERSERKER.

Sure enough, there on the request panel was a Player vs.Player Tournament inquiry from DD4EVR requesting a rematch.

It might be fun. Kick his butt while I see if Jericho is going to drop in to the board.

Isla tagged DD4EVR letting him know she was down to battle as she tagged Jericho in the Message Board letting him know she was online. She got a hit on both at the same time.

DD4EVR was down to battle and Jericho flashed a quick ID to her and asked her to meet him in a private meetspace so they could talk without anyone following the conversation.

Accepting both requests at the same time, Isla figured she could smash the BERSERKER wannabe while she told Jericho that she was all alone at the Emporium and maybe it was time to meet IRL. Why not?

J: WSUP?

I: Woot U. N1 on PS327.

J: FFA on dat. Woot Woot!

Isla’s console pinged as her BERSERKER Elf Queen BRITSHINSTR’s HP was seriously draining. She would actually have to pay attention for a moment. DD4EVR was about to be made a sandwich.

I: SHID BRB IGottaP

J: K. AFK.

Using type acronyms made writing so much easier.

She’d lied to Jericho — swearing politely first claiming she would be right back after she hit the bathroom — not exactly true, but better than admitting to kicking a kids ass on a silly game. She had a feeling that Jericho didn’t play games. He seemed way too cool for that.

Isla swung back to BERSERKER as total dweeb DD4EVR was DTF.

He was already going full-on medieval on her BRITSHINSTR and that was so not-cool.

Accessing her own AI code from the VPN rig she’d plugged into her console, she flipped back the private chat. She’d let her AI battle him for leaderboard status and she’d drop in and pants him at the end. BOOM!

I: **//

J: 10Q 4 327. 88

Isla’s face reddened as Jericho flipped her a thank you and hugs and kisses for her part in taking down PS 327. She’d suggested it during their marathon chat session last time. It had been her old public school back in the day and the place stank of grown-up BS.

I: II

J: IIT ILBCNU

What? He was impressed with me? And he’ll be seeing me?

Isla jumped out of her chair and tried to look-without-looking around the cramped space.

No one was watching her. Where they? Everyone was plugged into their own stupid digital playgrounds. Sheeple.

‘AHHHHGHHHH!’

Next to her, the punk kid she’d sat next to was going mental. Street Rat’s gotta problem. Mad that she couldn’t see Jericho anywhere, she snapped at him.

‘What’s your disconnect, Spaz?’

The punk kid next to her had slapped his monitor and now red lights flashed over his cubicle. FCOL. Nobody is allowed to beat up on the units here and smacking a monitor could get you turfed. Without thinking, Isla glanced at the guy’s screen and she was stunned to see her own BRITSHINSTR standing victorious over the KILLDZR Avatar. This guy’s Avatar!

The kid was DD4EVR.

Great burst out laughing. She couldn’t help herself.

‘What?!’ DD4EVR jumped up and stared Isla down.

‘You’re KILLDZR?’

‘So?’

Isla pointed at her Elf Queen who was now kicking his character’s senseless body onscreen. I love you, BRITSHINSTR

‘That’s me.’

‘WHAT!’

Ping! Isla’s DM with Jericho pinged at her.

She dropped back down to her monitor. Jericho was getting impatient and had signaled her to return to the conversation.

J: HAGN. GB

Isla started typing frantically. Jericho had just tagged her with the dreaded, ‘Have A Good Night’ and  ‘Goodbye?!’There was no way she was going to stop chatting with him now.

‘How the hell are you beating me if you’re not even playing?’

Isla looked up to see DD4EVR still looming over her cubicle.

She couldn’t help but notice how long his eyelashes were in those angry blue eyes. How his dyed blond hair framed a too-thin face with an angular precision showing of a pretty cute dude — if he wasn’t so angry with her. Isla held up one finger keeping him at bay as she continued typing with her right hand. The only thing she had gotten out of PS 327 was advanced typing and she’d maxxed out on all of her classes thanks to this skill.

Isla scanned the message portal and dropped a quick response to her Jericho. She figured apologizing would probably work so she laid it on thick.

G: HHIS GR&D

Jericho would know she was ‘hanging her head in shame’ and was now simultaneously ‘grinning, running and ducking’ at her terminal with some imagined problem. Hopefully, he would understand and keep his side of the conversation open with her. He was the the web-hero of the day right now and thousands of people wanted to talk with or meet him. I still can’t believe he’s talking with me still.

J: U wanna go F2F?

Face to Face. Meet face to face?!

<Connection Terminated>

Isla stopped dead.

WHAT?!

She looked at the blinking text on screen as the cute punker next to her tossed her connection cable onto the desk.

He had unplugged her computer from the main interface and cut off her connection with Jericho.

She was offline — at the worst possible time.

A bright red system alert light flashed over her terminal in unison with the idiot who had just shut her down.

He’d just set off the Emprium alarm system! And dumped Jericho?!

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