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Chapter 4

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Ger had spent the first hour at the Emporium trolling deep.

He’d tagged all the guests as soon as he swiped the console IDs from the network and he’d already picked up credits from fake street-kid donations, illegal software offers and scammed a few mini-purchases from both the auction sites and the home shopping companies and had the redirect payments VPN’d to his dummy account. Looks like I get to get a room. Thank you, Emporium players.

So, he was already feeling pretty good about his skimming when his thoughts turned to his Mom once again. She’d done the best she could raising him by herself. He’s never known his father who had been an off-worlder working construction. Mom had told him all about how they met — they were both retro music fans and they’d bonded over early garage-rock bands, punk and DIY music artists from the late 20th century. His Mom had the most amazing real collection of old records — that were made out of some kind of plastic — that were the first to go when she got sick. Ger flashed back to the day she came home, pale and withdrawn, and it had taken forever to get her to tell him what was wrong. She’d been exposed to low-level radiation poisoning when she was young working reclaim at the early crash sites that were a common occurrence when off-world living tests were conducted. Scavengers would pillage the sites looking for salable metals or tech and she’d ended up getting a latent dose from the continued exposure to the breached engines left mangled in the crash.

It wasn’t soon after that she started going out every night leaving Ger in the care of his computer and a kindly neighbor, Mrs. Ebersole, who would look in on him from time to time. It was here he learned to code and swim first through the web and then venturing out into the deep waters once he found there was money to be made in hacking. There were lots of crews operating back then — before Axiomm and the government cracked down with jail sentences — and Ger quickly leveled up watching and then running his own coded strikes on local shops and online food delivery services. When the first boxes of food showed up, his Mom was too rad hungover to realize where it came from, so Ger made it a regular occurrence. It wasn’t long before his Mom’s illness stopped her from going out at all and they needed to get money for her meds and for their small studio apartment. She was too ill at first to complain when Ger started spoon feeding her the meds she needed — but she soon caught on and braced him on where they came from. Ger had no choice but to tell her about the online scams he’d been running selling counterfeit software and hacking the food services and debit accounts of others. His Mom begged him to stop but Ger knew that he would continue — despite her protests.

Ger called up the hacked Axiomm Rehab records from his terminal and quickly found his mother’s file. The photograph ID showed her staring listlessly out at the camera, the blond hair he had inherited lank against her gaunt skull. The clinic didn’t provided rad poisoning medication for addicts or members of society considered second class. She had only secured this appointment because Ger had scammed her file with an older Alpha Prime who was also suffering from the same addiction to pain medicines. Nobody at the clinic looked twice at her when she was input other than to scan her ID card and take her into the system. At least she’s getting some help.

Ger had done all the research knowing that his Mom wasn’t going to last much longer and sent her geolocation to his comm-link. He’d go in the morning after having a sleep in at the Nagatomi coffin hotel just south of The Emporium. The small capsule-like hotel rooms had everything he would need and he’d made enough to book a week’s worth of accommodations at the Japanese-styled digs.

Ger, sat back in his chair, noticing a good-looking girl dropping down next to him.

Her fiery red hair and vintage leather jacket looked great and he wished he could say something cool to her. He’d never had any success with girls and this one looked like she’d have no end of boyfriends and online followers. Probably some kind of ‘FaceSpace’ model or influencer. Ger hated the popular online hangout that all the kids his age used. I’m not a kid anymore. So says the great Axiomm Corporation. Taking one last sneak peek at the redhead as she plugged in, Ger stretched his long frame and fired up BERSERKER.

It was time to find GNGR346 and kick their ass in a PvP match.

 

Ger was disappointed.

He had hoped to find GNGR346 lurking for sure on BERSERKER. Once you have leader status, everyone wanted to kick your butt — but you got to choose who you fought. He had flagged her and saw that there was a long list of PvP wannabe’s also lined up ahead of him wanting a chance to knock them off the front page. Why am I ever doing this? I’m not a kid, right? Tonight, I’ve started hacking again and that’s what I’m gonna be. Off-the-grid and on the grind.  He tagged a few high scorers with a challenge and savaged a few N00bs because he could — and then GNGR346 tagged him back.

Time to BIH, GNGR346. Burn in Hell.

Ger activated KILLDZR and he got busy schooling the Elf Warrior maiden in proper battle manners. He was still pissed about how he had been smoked by GNGR346 so he targeted the onscreen Avatar with a flurry of moves enhanced with his own algorithm he’d knocked up replaying their earlier match. Ger recorded all of his online Player vs. Player battles and by mapping the combat strategies of the BRITSHINSTR combatant, he’d be able to auto-predict the moves of the enemy. He couldn’t help but smile as KILLDZR launched a devastating new array of attacks and brought the Elf down again and again.

Scanning the HP level of BRITSHINSTR, he was just three moves away from victory. FOB.

And then everything changed.

BRITSHINSTR started to predict his predictions — What? — and he found himself on the ground as the Elf Warrior kicked him about the battlefield. Over and over and over again.

‘AHHHHGHHHH!’

Ger couldn’t believe it. There was no way that this should be happening. He’d mapped out his attack, done the programming — whoever this was was a better fighter than he was and this was totally unacceptable. Why can’t I win this? Who is this guy? Why can’t I have anything? First Mom. Then getting booted out! This game sucks. My life sucks. EVERYTHING SUCKS!

He slapped his monitor in frustration — consumed by the rage that overwhelmed him.

Bright red lights immediately began flashing at his cubicle as the security service designed to kick in activated. The Emporium may be scuzzy with the rules sometimes but it had one hard and fast rule — don’t FUBAR the machines.

Ger pushed back from the flashing computer knowing that he was done until a club 'bot representative came over and issued and all clear.The girl next to him popped up, clearly pissed at him.

‘What’s your disconnect, Spaz?’

Isla stared at the guy who had just trashed her machine.

With his arms folded and a sneer hanging, she wanted to punch him. Hard.

‘Dude! Go sleep in your igloo, you dumb Canadian’

The guy didn’t have a clue what she meant. She’d just trash-talked him bad and he just stared at her. Lost.

‘Ger, my name is Ger. I’m from here. Not Canada.’

Isla eye-rolled him and started plugging back in her unit.

The red light continued to flash overhead as she waited for a reset. Maybe I can get Jericho back when I tell him about what happened.

<Step away from the consoles, please>

An Emporium attendant 'bot rolled up on them as Isla gulped nervously.

Her VPN unit was still plugged in — a direct violation of the Club policy.

Signs throughout the Club forbade the use of enhancement, anonymity and hack'bots in all of the units for fear of expulsion.

‘Hey, what’s the big deal. I just unplugged her unit’.

Ger leaned over and finished the reconnection as a green light flashed on the computer. Isla was back online.

She glanced at the DM window on her monitor but it was woefully empty. No Jericho.

<Customers are not allowed to touch or interfere with any corporate property> the 'bot automatically recited as Ger threw up his hands in compliance. He turned to Isla and gave her a conspiratorial wink as if everything was under control.

‘No problem, Mr. 'bot. Lady had a problem. I sorted it out. All is good.’

Isla fumed. Nothing she hated more than someone man-boysplaining a situation.

Pointing at Ger, she didn’t have any time to waste if she was going to get back online with Jericho.

‘No it’s not okay. This N00b unplugged my unit. I’m the victim here.’

Isla winced as she heard herself. Anger fired hot as she pushed Ger hard across the cubicle half wall. ‘Tell ‘em, it was all your fault!’

Ger folded his arm across his chest. Feigning innocence, he turned to the 'bot as an idea occurred to him.

‘Hey, 'bot Sir, this wasn’t my fault. This GamerGirl is so inbred, she should be a sandwich. All on her.’

Isla vaulted the console. ‘Useless piss weasel’ as she knocked Ger to the floor landing  hard on the dirty plastic.

Flashing on Ger’s console, his VPN unit in clear sight. You’re using a VPN too!

Isla, seeing the illegal hack box tried to grab Ger’s module to rat him pout to the attendant. He deftly rolled over beating her to the draw, snatching his VPN as full blown alarms sounded throughout The Emporium.

Everyone turned to look at the beatdown going on. IRL confrontations beat simulations any day.

< Class One Felony. Illegal VPN unit installed. Authorities Requested>

Ger leapt to his feet as Isla dragged herself off the ground. Good, I hope he does cell time. Stupid N00b.

‘Hang on a moment, I didn’t even know that was there,’ said Ger as he stuffed his VPN drive into his jeans pocket.

The Emporium 'bot held Isla’s own VPN is its pincer claw.

Isla paled at the sight. This was a total FU.

< Downloading all on site activity for analysis >

The attendant 'bot started to scan Isla’s VPN for activity and the adjacent computer.

Whoah. Hold on a minute. Isla panicked, pointing at Ger.

‘What about him? He’s got one too?!

Isla had never been in any real trouble before — but the possession of an illegal VPN unit was a Class One Felony. Anonymity was not allowed under general Axiomm rule and her conversations with Jericho were more than enough to warrant possible jail time or maybe even ‘re-education.’ She’d heard horror stories of kids that were sent to the facility designed to curb illegal web activities. ‘Brain dead’ were the words most often used.

The Emporium 'bot scanned Ger as he tried to deek behind Isla hiding himself from the onboard computer scanner.

< Class One Felony. Illegal VPN unit detected. Authorities Requested>

‘Ohhhhhhhhhhhh,’ the club murmured as Isla and Ger stood trapped by the 'bot.

Isla grabbed her VPN from the pincer, grasping her messenger bag and pushed past Ger fast. Friggin’ camper. 

Ger vaulted the half-wall as sirens blasted from the overhead sound system. All monitors in the room immediately shut down as an automated recording sounded.

< Please take your seats. Enforcer 'bots are enroute. Do not interfere.>

Isla and Ger raced in opposite directions pushing their way through the club.

Ger headed for the back bathrooms as Isla made her way to the front.

Everyone in the club dropped into their seats and waited for the authorities to arrive. Jeers could be heard from the tables as she pushed her way to the front door. Large metal shutters smashed down over the front windows and door as another larger Emporium bouncer 'bot moved in front of Isla. Shaped like a large shell casing with extended metal pincers, it was all heavy-metal business designed to keep the rougher elements at bay. It’s single eye was trained on Isla tracking her every movement.

< Please remain seated. Authorities are traveling. You must remain seated.>

Panicking, Isla skidded to a stop unable to get by the bulky robot.

She spun on her heel and raced back the way she had come.

Looking frantically for an exit.

Scanning the crowd for a friendly face or help.

Everywhere she looked she saw citizens of Megacity One resigned to their fates as she raced to get free. This is all that kid Ger’s fault. If I ever get out of here…

Isla leapt over the counter into the kitchen area.

Autonomous cooking 'bots continued working on the processed food served at The Emporium. Everywhere machines hustled back and forth in an endless rhythm of food preparation. Think Isla, there’s gotta be a back exit.

She pushed through the assembly line of machines looking for a back door.

< Please return to your cubicle for processing. The authorities are here.>

The kitchen robots stopped working and powered down as the grill shut itself off and the burners to the stove snapped off automatically. The sound of the steel shutters in the front of the restaurant could be heard all the way in the kitchen as heavy metal feet could be heard stamping inside the club.

< DO NOT RESIST. PLEASE HAVE YOUR IDENTIFICATION READY>

Outside in the main room, the sighs of the patrons could be heard as the authorities began checking IDS and processing the customers.

Where did that Griefer go? He’s gotta be somewhere?

Isla raced back to the kitchen entrance and looked out into the club in hopes of spotting Ger — or finding a way out of there. If my Mom finds out about this, I am going to be grounded forever. I’m dead.

A large metal humanoid robot stood at the entrance to the club as two other authority 'bots were moving through the patrons assisting the authorities. The front door Emporium 'bot pointed at Isla with its pincer as she appeared at the kitchen door.

< Report to the front door NOW. This is your only warning.>

From behind, Isla felt a pair of hands grab her and pull her out of sight. She fell backwards clutching her bag as she prepped for the shock of hitting the floor.

Ger caught her in his surprisingly strong arms as he laughed at her. Nice smile.

‘That was the kludgiest escape attempt ever,’ he said.

Isla had no idea what he was saying.

‘Kludge?’

‘Hastily or badly put together. You’re PWNed, GNGR’

Isla stammered, ‘I can’t be arrested. This would kill my Mom. I don’t want to go to jail.’ Tears trembled on the edge of spilling as Isla willed herself not to cry. Her heart hammering hard, she didn’t know what to do. I will not go full-girl here.

Ger smiled at her, and pushed her towards the pantry door.

‘Let me show you how to escape a mob, GNGR.’

‘Isla,’ she stammered. ‘My name is Isla.’

Ger opened the pantry door and pushed her inside the cupboard. Dried goods and cans were piled up on the shelves with a ventilation shaft cover high on the back wall.

Boosting Isla up onto the shelves, Ger clambered up beside her and pulled the metal cover from its frame.

Yawning before them was an industrial pipeway leading out of the club.

Isla blinked. This was it? This was the way out?

Turning to Ger, not sure what to do next, he smiled at her and moved past her into the darkened metal passage.

‘You can’t buy skill, arty’

Isla burned as she watched Ger clamber into the pipe.

Looking back at her options, she had no way to go but forward. Friggin’ Muppet. I so do not need someone to save me.

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