“Z-76 signing in.”

“It’s about damn time, Zee! We’re starting behind because of you,” shouted A-25.

“We’ll be fine, Ace,” said G-28. “We’ve caught up from worse lag.”

“Easy for you to say,” said A-25. “You’re not the one point on this run.”

“Rolls. Eyes,” Z-76 said. “You can keep yelling or we can start the run. I’m all set here.”

“Set,” G-28 said.

“Set,” X-19 said.

“Set,” A-25 grumbled.

“Set,” L-91 mumbled. If the night went as usual, it would be the only thing he said the whole run.

“Launching now,” A-25 said. The displays at each of their terminals began to flicker rapidly.

None of them knew each other in real life. They didn’t know real names. They didn’t even know what planet they were each on, let along where they might be on them. For all they knew, one of them could be a mole on one of the government space stations.

They had a like purpose, though, at times like this. The Raid was one of the last joys left and they savored every moment of it.


Raid, Part 2

“Move your ass, Ex!” Z-76 shouted. “Keep hots up on the end zone!”

This was not going well. They were second place, but only distantly, and time was nearly up. Much as Ace would have liked to blame Zee’s lateness, he had really brought his A game tonight. They would be even further behind without his timely guidance.

“Ace!” Z-76 said. “Wake up! Rogers on your six. Lock the clock!”

“Done,” A-25 replied. She shook herself. No time to be contemplative. Plenty of time for post-mort after the Raid.

“Score at twelve,” L-91 said. His voice was even above a whisper.

The others nearly froze in shock. Only motor memory kept them from lagging out. He was right, though. Bonus up northside. That could make the game.

“Gee! Ex!” Z-76 said. “Bars up, both sides. Ace, get in there. We still have a shot.”

Ace dove through the cover the others provided. Ell swept the mobs and she hit the score a second before timeout.

Life was pretty damn good right then.



Now? Seriously?

Bzzt. Bzzt.

Fine, great, whatever. I slammed my hand down on the receive button.

“What do you want, Jet?” I said. I tried to keep the edge out of my voice. Not sure if I succeeded.

“Um,” Jet replied. “There are three serious-looking gentleman to see you, sir.” He was almost whispering. Like keeping his head down would avoid upsetting me further.

“Credentials?” I asked. There was a small delay. Presumably because Jet hadn’t thought to ask for them before now.

“Central Server Ops, sir,” Jet said. “And they apparently need to see you right now.” The syllables were stressed on the last two words. Almost hissed. They were making Jet nervous. Big surprise. CSO always liked to swing their weight around. As if they had any real authority here.

“Fine. Send them up.” Damn the timing. I’d been on the verge of something here. Something big. Now I’d have to throw everything into lockdown mode to make sure the CSO wasn’t probing anything important. I buzzed up Delilah.

“Dee,” I said. “We’ve got guests.”

“Understood,” came the synthesized female voice. “Lockdown in five.”

Lockdown, Part 2

“How can I help you, gentlemen?” I said. I swung my chair around with my hands steepled. It had precisely zero impact on them, but it made me feel better. Besides, I’ve always wanted to do that. Unfortunately, my architect had talked me out of putting a trap door in the floor.

As Jet had said, there were three gentlemen, very serious-looking. Virtually indistinguishable. I swear they even matched them up by height. Black suits. Black ties. Sunglasses inside. I’m sure they were meant to be intimidating. Maybe to convince the less well-educated that the CSO had any sort of authority in sovereign corporate territory.

“There’s been a traceback to this location,” the one on the left said. “Raid was run from a terminal in the building.”

The one on the right added, “We’d appreciate your cooperation on an in-building trace.”

The middle one just nodded.

I strained my eyes refraining from rolling them. “I’m sure you would. However, I fail to see the benefit for me. I have no reason to think any of my employees is a Raider, legal or otherwise.”

Lefty scowled. “You would earn good will with Central Server Operations,” he said. He spoke as if this was some great, self-evident truth that I was too naive to understand.

“Good will and ten million bucks will foot the repair bill on my server farm,” I said. “Your offer is lacking the latter.”

“We are not authorized to negotiate cash agreements,” Righty said.

I threw up my hands dramatically. “Well then why are you here? Send someone who can actually talk business or leave your suspicions at my door where they belong.”

Middle guy scowled deeply. I was beginning to think he was mute.

Seeking Truth

Commissioner Slaiton slammed his hand down on the desk, sending pens rolling and interns fleeing. “Hellard is negotiating? Damn it. We do not have time for this.”

Sergeant Black stood at attention in front of him, unflinching. He’d had a great deal of practice under Slaiton’s authority. He had not grown milder with age. “As per convention fifty-four of two-thousand –“

Slaiton cut him off with a glare. “I know the conventions, Sergeant. I know precisely what Hellard’s rights are regarding Persephone property. I’m just damned annoyed that he wants to use them!” Hands in the air, he turned to face the plate glass window behind him. “Why? Persephone Industries has always had good relations with the CSO. You’d think they would want to catch a Raider pirating their resource.”

“There’s always the chance of collusion, sir,” Black said.

“I don’t believe it. Hellard is smarter than that. It’s not like the Raids are worth anything to a megacorp. It doesn’t make any damn sense.

“There are rumors, sir.”

Slaiton collapses back into his chair, rage spent. “I know the rumors. They make about as much sense as believing Hellard himself is running Raids as a lark.” He shook his head. “Maybe the man is just going senile. He’s not getting any younger.”

“Younger, sir?” Black added. His expression changed, just a little. He flattened it down quickly. “The man I met couldn’t have been older than thirty.”

Slaiton’s face paled rapidly. “Thirty? That means… that’s his son. It also means that leadership transitioned without us even hearing about it!” Blood flushed his face once again, followed by more abuse of his desk. “Get Jenter in here. He has some serious groveling to do.”

Seeking Truth, Part 2

“So, Jenter,” Slaiton said. “Care to explain?”

The weasley head of CSO Intelligence looked sideways at the left wall, the one plastered with Slaiton’s accolades. “There was no hint, Commissioner,” he said. “No announcements. No public record. We’re not sure why, but the elder Hellard wanted to keep this completely quiet. We’re not even sure where he went. If he’s still alive.”

“Then tell me, exactly,” Slaiton replied. “What your job actually is here? To read the damn headlines and tell me what I could have found out with a thirty second net search? I thought the concept of intelligence implied some sort of faculty in the espionage department!”

“Persephone has been… uniquely cut off in the last few months,” Jenter said. “Every single mole has been fired. Every worm has been neutralized. There has been nothing coming out of that place save what they want us to know.”

Slaiton scowled and stood up at his desk, leaning forward. “And you didn’t think that just, maybe, that in itself was something to tell me about? Were you embarrassed? Like a damn school girl, afraid to tell her teacher?”

Jenter fidgeted his hands, which were sweating visibly. “I – I’m sorry, sir. The best explanation I can give is that your predecessor was unforgiving in this sort of thing. I didn’t want to tell you the problem without having a solution already lined up.”

The commissioner slumped to his chair and spun around. “Don’t make the mistake again. I want to know everything you know, as soon as you know it. Even if that knowledge is that you can’t do your damn job. Especially if it’s that you can’t do your damn job.” He pointed at the door. “Now get out there and find everything you can on Hellard Junior. Get me a full report of corporate activities since they went dark.”

“Yes, sir,” Jenter said. He fled the office.

Slaiton slumped his head against his hand. Former Commissioner Haldwell had a lot to answer for in how he’d run this place. It was too bad he was too dead to do so.

First Timer

“Hey, Dee,” Ace said. “That was a great run. You sure this is your first time?”

“Yes,” D-99 said. “Though I have observed many streamed recordings.” Dee’s voice was a bit odd. Almost synthetic, like bosses in the Raid sim. Ace guessed she was disguising her voice. It wasn’t unheard of in the Raid community. Some people just needed that extra bit of anonymity to feel safe.

“Well you’re welcome to run with us any time, Dee,” Zee said. “We’ve been down a verse slot ever since J-19 went AWOL.”

“And Jet was never that good,” Ex muttered.

El threw out an ‘offended’ emote. “I liked Jet.”

“Hey!” Ex replied. “We all liked him. He was good people. Still is, I hope. But he always seemed distracted. Not a good trait in a verse slot. You have to be on top of things, not just run macros all night.”

“You have my assurance I will not become distracted,” Dee said. “I am excellent at focusing.”

“Yeah, we could see that,” Ace said. She threw a thumbs up. “You were reacting to spawns before I even knew they were there.” She laughed. “I’d accuse you of hacking. Except, y’know, that applies to all of us these days.”

“Wouldn’t it be possible to upgrade the Raid simulation?” Dee asked. “It appears to be rather old.”

“People have talked about it,” Zee said. “But the code base is pretty deeply encrypted. Nobody knows the original designer, even if they’re still around. I don’t think there’s anyone alive that could start the thing from scratch.”

“Perhaps,” Dee said. Her logout timer abruptly appeared over her head. “I will message you again soon.”

First Timer, Part 2

“D-99 signing in.” The synthetic voice sounded a little more natural, more fluid today. Ace wondered if Dee was refining the program.

“Hey, Dee,” Ex said. His voice was forced casual. He didn’t want to be the first to broach the subject.

Zee had no such compunctions. “So you want to tell us about the attach you sent out?”

“It’s from me,” Dee replied. “It’s clean.”

“We know that,” Ace said. “We all scanned it.” She made a show of glancing around at the others. “I assume. We’re not dumb.”

“It’s a small install. Something I wrote,” Dee said. “I thought you all might like it.”

The group hesitated as one. They hadn’t known Dee that long. She seemed trustworthy, but a couple of Raids wasn’t really enough to know someone fully. On the other hand, what was the harm? Every one of them was running a backed up VM. The scans came clean. If you couldn’t trust Samware AV, then who could you trust?”

“Sure, why not,” Zee said. It was his turn to force the casualness. “Be right back.”

One by one, their avatars blinked out. Ace realized she was the last one. With a shrug, she ran the installer. It requested to close the Raid client, which she did. The progress bar went by super fast. Small install, indeed.

There weren’t any new executables. No new options anywhere. Probably some wallpaper or screensaver. Easiest to just ask Dee. Ace logged back in to find the others already back.

“Okay, do you didn’t blow our terms,” Ace said. “What did you write for us?”

“You all have it installed?” Dee asked. The group threw out a collection of nod and thumbs up emotes. “Excellent. Let me just enable the new thread and…”

The screen blacked out for a moment. Slowly, the image of the avatars and the virtual room began to rebuild itself. The colors were brighter. Textures sharper. Higher poly count all around.

Holy crap.

“Dee,” Zee said, his voice full of wonder. “Did you hack the sim?”


“Hey, Jet,” I said, plopping down in the vacant chair in front of his desk. “We need to talk.”

Predictably, his face went into panic mode. Most of the rest of the building was on holiday today. I’d asked him specifically to avoid a scene. Figured he’d been less worried without people walking in and out all the time.

“No need to worry,” I continued. “I’m happy with your work. You do a great job keeping the schedules, managing the people, all that sort of thing I hate to even think about. Couldn’t be happier.” Jet’s face relaxed a little, but he was still on edge. Not looking me right in the eye.

“I need to be straight with you, though,” I said. “And I’ll ask you to do the same in return. Can you do that?”

“Um. Yes, sir?” Jet said. His voice was barely above a whisper. How did this guy manage to fend off callers so easily every day? The dichotomy always surprised me.

“Okay, Jet, I’ll hold you to that. First: I know you used to Raid.” Jet’s eyes widened. “Water under the bridge, whatever. What I need to know now is this: do you still? And do you use company property to do it?”

Jet shook his head frantically. “I gave all of that up! Honest. I haven’t even talked to a Raid contact in years. I am totally legit.”

I made a show of being relieved, because I was. “Good. I’ll trust you on that. The reason I bring it up is that I’m letting the CSO continue a trace into the building. They have a pretty good lead on a Raider running from somewhere in HQ. It’s worth some brownie points, plus five million in cooperation fee.”

Jet nodded, his eyes creeping to mine and back. At least he was trying.

“I’m putting you on point as liaison. You’re to show them through all the standard areas, let them set up their equipment, whatever. If they request access to any restricted area, come to me and I’ll handle it. Also, if they drop any hints, I’m immensely curious as to who this Raider might be. Think you can work with that?”

Despite looking like he desperately wanted to flee, Jet swallowed hard then slowly nodded. “I’ll do my best, sir.”

“I know you will, Jet. That’s why I hired you.”

Opportunity, Part 2

Jet was in my office as soon as the CSO techs had left the building. Unbidden. That surprised me a little. Maybe he was learning.

“They’re done, sir,” Jet said. “And they’re not happy.”

I swung my arm at one of the chairs. “Sit. Tell me the highlights.”

Jet slowly lowered himself into a seat, shaking a bit. “It seemed pretty routine on their end. I got the impression they felt this was an open-and-shut case. I guess they find a lot of Raiders using corp terminals. The corps are probably very cooperative in turning them over, too.” He glances away as he said it, maybe thinking back to yesterday’s conversation.

“Most of us would take offense to a pirate assaulting the CS with our hardware, yes,” I admitted.

“The problem was,” Jet continued. “Their was no terminal trace in our system. They found signatures in our logs of the Raid runs, but they… well, they said it terminated at our server.”

“Somebody must have wiped the trace,” I said with a shrug. “Raiders are usually pretty careful.”

“That’s the thing. If they had the access, they could have wiped any trace from our system at all. Left the CSO with nothing but a trail that ended at our doorstop.”

Okay, that was true. Strange. “Something doesn’t add up.”

“That’s exactly what they said, sir,” Jet said. “They couldn’t even accuse you of collaboration. You could have done a much cleaner job. It really looks like the server itself was instantiating a Raid with no user input.”

I’m sure my face paled right then. I could feel the blood draining from my face. Damn. Could it be? What in hell had father left me with? I took a moment to regain composure before speaking again. “Very odd. I appreciate your insight, Jet. You can go.”

“What are you going to do, sir?”

I shrugged and grabbed a random object from my desk to toy with. “It sounds like there’s nothing to do. CSO trace is run out. No skin off my back.”

Meanwhile, in my head: oh crap oh crap oh crap oh crap.