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Corruptor: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 19:04 EDT



    “Down!” Tori screamed as two more projectiles screamed overhead, leaving trails of white smoke behind them in the thin air. The two missiles exploded in the treetops and showered the group with splinters and leaves. The concussion was fierce, and Tori felt herself buffeted by the blasts. The group flattened themselves out on the forest floor and watched as the fire from the projectiles fizzled and died in the dampness of the deep forest. Scattered leaves fell down from the branches above while small branches showered their protected shoulders. Tori peeked around but could not see anything through the thick smoke and dust. She waved a hand in front of her face and coughed.

    “Everybody okay?” she asked the group.

    “Yeah,” Raul called back, picking himself off Stephanie, who scowled at him. His massive body had covered the poor petite woman completely when he dove, nearly driving her body into the ground. He picked her up off the ground with a sheepish smiled. He shrugged at her apologetically. “Sorry.”

    “Looks like everybody’s good, Tori,” Jade reported after seeing the affirming nods from the group. She shook her dark hair and watched in dismay as leaves and dirt fell to the ground. She brushed herself off and looked up towards the treetops, awe upon her face. “Damn. What was that?”

    “Some sort of missile,” Tori replied. “I’ve seen something like that once before, in a fight in Gladiator. Not the zone, but the realm of Gladiator. The coder busted it out on some newbie and wasted him in one hit. It was really wicked.”

    “Yikes,” Gyasi said. He helped Miranda up from the ground and the two looked at Tori’s team expectantly. “Um, thanks for the help back there. I know that since we’re not on the same team, we shouldn’t travel together…”

    “Rules have been changed,” Tori said a bit too forcefully for even her own liking. She took a deep breath and scolded herself. There’s no reason to vent now, she thought. She continued in a more pleasant tone. “We’re one team, all of us gamers.”

    “Agreed,” Miranda said firmly. “We’re all together in this.”

    “So now what?” Raul asked as he helped Stephanie brush dirt and sticks from her hair. “Do we just run until they fix the problem?”

    “Sounds like a plan,” Tori stated. “Will WarpSoft pay? Possibly. But they can go in and track the source of the virus, and maybe they have some smart programmer out there at WarpSoft who has a honey pot. If we avoid contact long enough...” She let her voice trail off. The others nodded.

    “Honey pot?” Dylan asked, confused. Tori, in spite of the chaos and fear around them, smiled at her friend.

    “I forget sometimes you’re not a coder,” Tori said with a slight grin. “A honey pot is something of a trap for hackers. A malicious code within the system thinks it has struck gold with this system and starts to attack it. Inside the system is a bunch of security measures that are thrown up to deflect it while the system itself starts to look at the malicious code and break it down to defeat it. A honey pot, like Pooh always getting his nose stuck in one, you know? Tastes yummy, but you get stuck and then come the bees?”

    “Ah,” Gyasi said. He looked at Jade. “Pooh?”

    “It’s an kid thing,” Jade responded with a dismissive wave of her hand. She looked at Tori. “Okay Tori, now what?”

    “We run and hide,” Tori answered, doing her best to ignore the look Jade gave her. I should never have said that, she thought as a shiver ran down her spine. Nobody knows about Pooh anymore, not since I let him in on the secret. He used it. He used me. She violently shook her head, trying to ignore the frightening images which suddenly came to mind. She looked back at Jade. “The best places are places with lots of little hidey holes. So, big cities?”

    “Urban engagements never favor the attackers,” Raul agreed. “We settle in and let them come to us.”

    “Yeah,” Gyasi said after a moment. “Stalingrad comes to mind.”

    “Different times, different weapon caches,” Dylan whispered as he looked at Gyasi. “They had tanks rolling out of production plants and going straight into the battle. Good idea, though.”

    “Plus a bunch of other factors, like it being colder than the last circle of Hell,” Raul reminded them. Tori sighed, exasperated.

    “Is that really important?” she snapped, looking around. She kicked herself silently as the others stared at her, unsure. I probably look like I’m unhinged or something, she thought morosely. The group was quiet for a minute before Dylan coughed nervously.

    “The biggest city near here is Killakik,” Dylan stated after retrieving a map from his inventory. He looked at Tori, his gaze level and measured. “About fifteen miles or so east.”

    Another missile screamed overhead suddenly, higher than the first. The group instinctively dropped back down to the forest floor and waited for the impending explosion and shower of burning debris. None came, however. Tori looked at everyone, each of whom looked confused. Raul slowly rose to one knee and looked at Tori, curious.

    “They’re just shooting missiles off in random directions now,” Tori informed them as another large explosion sounded off to the south. She stood and looked at the sun to get her bearings. “They’re just seeing if they can startle a group to run in the wrong direction. Or panicking and firing back. Or doing something similarly moronic. That would be a dead giveaway to any teams’ position. So keep your heads and don’t use any coded attacks unless you can see them, okay?”

    The group nodded in agreement. It was silent for a moment, the forest deathly still from the most recent missile attack. A gentle breeze brushed the back of Tori’s neck, sending chills up and down her spine. It felt, she thought, like an omen. And not the good kind at all.

    “How do we let others know about Killakik?” Miranda suddenly asked, her small face twisted fearfully. “I mean, I have a whole team out there who are waiting for me. We were just in the tavern waiting for someone.”

    Tori sighed.

    “I don’t know,” she admitted after a moment. “Don’t you use any sort of instant messenger?”

    “Not anymore,” Miranda replied, her cheeks slightly red. “I accidentally sent something to someone I shouldn’t have.”

    “That explains the reason why Zero Chill and his team are still mad at us,” Gyasi said, looking amused. Miranda shot him a glare but said nothing. Tori hid her smile carefully. Gracie, an older friend of hers, had done something like that long before, except to a boy. It had not ended well for either of them. Especially after the “boy” turned out to be a forty-five-year-old plumber named Mario from Pittsburgh. A very large man, with broken and yellow teeth living in the basement of his mother’s house. Tori ensured that her friend was reminded of Mario whenever they got together. The memory brought a smile to her face. She shook the memory away and focused on the problem at hand.

    “Okay,” Tori said after a moment of thought. “I have an IM up and running. If anyone knows to ask me, they can get me.”

    “Thanks Tori,” Miranda said softly.

    “Let’s go,” Tori ordered, flushed and smiling. I hate feeling like this, she thought as Dylan took point once more and the group followed, weapons at the ready. She thumbed the safety off her carbine and followed Gyasi’s lean frame. I feel heady and powerful, and I hate being in charge. But I guess I need to do this. She sneezed softly as her nose was tickled by some dirt. Caesar thought the same thing, just before Brutus stabbed him, she reminded herself.




    It was almost twilight, and Tori was exhausted. She knew intellectually it was the game telling her that her character was tired and that physically she was not in the game. Her body was not tired, just her mind. Even armed with knowledge, Tori felt her feet slowly becoming lead with each step farther through the forest. Game or no game, she thought as she grudgingly took another step, crushing a small plant in an attempt to fight back against the forest, I’m tired. They’re all tired. We need to stop soon.

    Initially they had opted to follow roads, and they made quick headway as they followed the winding forest roads. After an hour or so, however, she had realized that being on the road meant being easily followed, easily trapped and most important, an easy target. After consulting with Miranda, they left the road and moved deeper into the forest. They followed the stray game trail as best they could, all the while trying to maintain their general eastern route. Though this offered a bit more protection, as well as making it harder to guess which way they might go, it also made for a difficult journey. Dylan, Tori noticed with quite a bit of jealousy, didn’t even look tired as he approached, his own weapon ready in hand. His young face was streaked with dirt and a bit of black paint, decent camouflage in almost any type of environment.

    “Nothing,” he whispered after looking around at the others, who had stopped for a moment’s rest upon seeing him. “Nothing but wildlife for about a mile around, and nobody’s following. I circled back and checked. I think Miranda even missed me.” He did not sound pleased.

    Tori sighed and looked back at the other girl, who was standing rear guard. She shook her head and glanced around at the forest. They were surrounded by tall canopy trees that seemed to block out all light. During the day, light had filtered through, but in the twilight it appeared as black as ink. She let her carbine slide off her shoulder as she drank in their environment slowly. The canopy prevented anybody from possibly flying overhead and spotting them, while the underbrush allowed them some sort of cover from others moving through the forest. She nodded. This area would be ideal, she realized.

    “We’ll stop here for the night,” Tori replied. “Set up watches. Standard mission scenario, two up at all times. No fire. Do it by lots if you have to, but I prefer volunteers. I want to be woken up at every shift change, as well as my own watch.”

    “No prob,” Dylan said. He moved off to the main group, leaving Tori alone with her thoughts for a moment. She leaned back against one of the massive tree trunks and closed her eyes.

    “Tori,” a voice whispered. She yelped and nearly fell onto her butt. Dylan was standing in front of her, a look of concern on his face. He offered her his hand to help her regain some of her balance. “You okay?” he asked.

    “Yeah,” Tori said shakily. She looked around but saw no sign of a threat. She rubbed grit from her eyes and looked at Dylan. “What happened?”

    “You fell asleep,” Dylan stated. “Standing up. Been out for about five minutes. You and I have mid-watch. So lie down and get some sleep. Gyasi’s going to wake us up about ten minutes before midnight.”

    “Okay,” Tori said sleepily and sat down at the base of her tree. She covered her mouth as she yawned hugely. She pulled her knees up to her chest and sighed. “I feel like I’m in a bad horror movie. Maybe even a low budget early Jackson film.”

    “That’s not so bad,” Jade said as she and Miranda sat next to her. Jade offered her a small piece of fruit, which she gratefully took. Miranda sipped some water from a canteen and looked at the men, who were preparing for watch. Dylan, Tori figured as she watched him move to where Gyasi was seated, was going to stay up until his watch. He moved across the small opening and looked over Gyasi’s ankle, which the dark man seemed to have hurt earlier. A small healing code would fix that right up, she noted idly as she chewed on the small piece of dried mango. She made a face but said nothing as she swallowed the dried fruit piece.

    “What movie?” Miranda asked. She settled down and looked up at the trees.

    “Oh, I forget what it’s called,” Tori replied. “It was a good one, if a bit dated. Really cool special effects for the time. Well, not really. But it was almost as good as a classic Bruce Campbell movie.”

    Jade chuckled and shifted her body against the tree. She rested her head on her young friend’s shoulder. Tori smiled and patted Jade’s head.

    “I think I saw my first Bruce the Chin movie when I was a teen,” Jade said, her eyes closed. “I was younger than you two are now. It was a great movie at the time. One of the better ones out there, even if it was low budget. Army of Darkness was the greatest movie, ever.”

    Tori nodded but refrained from asking Jade exactly how old she really was. That was something a woman just did not ask another. While it was true that her dad had the female intellect of a pile of dirty laundry, Tori was not that naïve. She settled uncomfortably against the tree and waited for sleep to come, Jade’s body heat giving her some small comfort.

    Unsurprisingly, she noticed that once she was settled in for sleep, she was unable to. Next to her, she could hear Miranda breathing deeply, a sure sign of unconsciousness. Jade too, it seemed, was asleep, her regular breathing coming slow and easy. She tried to relax but found herself unable to. Her mind kept replaying the day’s events, with images flashing through her brain in random sequences.

    Tori sighed and shifted slightly against the trunk of the tree, a vain attempt to become more comfortable. Jade rolled away from her, murmuring softly. Tori knew there was little chance of getting any decent sleep in spite of how tired she was. She wondered who else would be awake and would want to talk. She looked for Dylan and spotted him after a few seconds of careful searching. The teen had climbed onto a low lying tree branch and activated a black globe around himself for camouflage. She smiled. Though he was not a coder, it seemed that he always had enough extra cash lying around to purchase codes from the actual coders who wrote them. He also could splice them, given enough time. He was a coder’s favorite type of customer, she remembered suddenly, her thoughts grim and dark. Guys like Gavrie, in fact. The splicer.

    She suddenly stopped cold in her mental tracks as a surprising thought came to mind. That was a little too convenient, she thought as she remembered her earlier encounter with her former online boyfriend. He happened to leave just as the Moderators were arriving. Why didn’t they get him too? For that matter, why was he really in the area, she wondered as she replayed their conversation in her head. The Green Knight would be a convenient excuse for someone who needed to be in the area without raising any suspicions. Or for someone who was working with the Moderators.

    No, she decided instantly. He wouldn’t be working with the Moderators. But then what was his game?

    Games within games. Tori tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable against the tree as her mind whirled. She struggled for sleep before she finally gave up, her mind abuzz. She opened her instant messenger screen and set it for text only. This way, she thought as she waited for any messages to appear, nobody can see where I am or what I’m doing.

    She blinked in surprise. Her inbox was nearly full from messages from other gamers, most of who were wondering if she had any clue as to what was going on. She sent back a quick mass message to them all to keep their heads down and avoid all contact with people they did not know. While she did not know the rogue Moderator’s next target or even their current plan, she knew it would be foolish to go about the game as though it was no longer running. Even before the Moderators came, Crisis was not a typical world.

    Two messages stood out in particular, and these she answered in detail. Royce, another member of their team, had messaged her roughly fifteen minutes after the flight from the tavern began. She mentally grumbled at him. He had said he would not be able to make it to the mission because of some family thing, and yet there he was, soloing out in the Great Wastes and asking for some help. She bit off a nasty thought before it could turn into something more and messaged him back with details of their escape and a warning to avoid all people he was unfamiliar with, along with a subtle hint about their next destination.

    If he can’t figure that one out, she thought, then he’s not long for the virtual gaming world.

    The other was from Sergio. It appeared he was unable to log on due to some sort of malfunction with his VR and would try to get on later if problems subsided. His next message said that he had logged on again shortly after talking to her, but had not said anything since. She sighed, worried about her team leader. Had he been taken out by the rogue Mods already? Or just lying low? Without risking everyone’s safety, there was no way she could know. She replied to him as well, hoping against hope that he was still out there.

    She deleted a few IMs from people she knew vaguely. She suddenly stumbled on one that was rather recent. She shivered and double-checked the sender. It was from someone who she had removed from her friend’s list long before: Gavrie.

    She opened the message box and instantly his chiseled, handsome face filled her view screen. She left her own video off, however. A small, digital keyboard appeared in her hands as she prepared to keep it text-only. She was not quite sure she wanted Gavrie knowing where they were.

    Hey, where are you? he typed. She blinked and looked into his eyes, which were still deep blue. She could see the genuine concern in them, though something deeper set her teeth on edge. Do I tell him, she wondered.

    On the run, she typed back.

    I’m still trying to track the Green Knight, he replied back after a brief pause. She noticed a small icon appear in the upper corner of the translucent screen, and she frowned. Someone was trolling through her past messages, and she had a reasonable suspicion as to who it was.

    Well, we’re headed south, she lied as she fearfully watched her messages being pilfered. She hoped the intruder did not know her new code words for locations.

    That’s cool, he replied, his face calm. Tori was slightly unnerved. He began typing again. Maybe afterwards we can hook up and do a mission together?

    Tori frowned. “Something’s wrong here,” she muttered.

    Sounds like fun, she lied again. She paused for a moment before she started typing once more. Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m on the run?

    I assumed it was because Moderators torched the Arthuria Tavern, he replied back quickly. Tori’s heart skipped a beat as the next message came through. You’re not headed south, are you? Tell me where you’re going!

    She killed the messenger box and leaned against the tree, her heart hammering painfully in her chest. She had thought it had been him, skimming her messages, but was not certain until the last moment. She wondered, briefly, what other messages he managed to dig up while he had been distracting her with conversation.

    She mentally cursed. There’s nothing you can do now, she tried to mollify herself as she rubbed her eyes, too tired to cry. He’s good and knows how you think. Don’t blame yourself.

    She set her messenger to block any more attempts at a connection from Gavrie’s user name as well as his various screen names. She had a sinking feeling that she had given her former boyfriend too much information. She leaned forward, away from the tree and looked back to the perch where Dylan had been seated earlier. She could not tell if he was still there or not. She snorted angrily. Gavrie always managed to get under my skin in the worst possible way, she groused. Even before... she let the thought die before it could build up momentum. She definitely did not want to go down that memory lane again. It had caused too many nightmares.

    “Hey,” a voice whispered from above her head. She twitched, startled. She craned her head directly up and saw Dylan’s face filled with concern, backlit by the little light streaming through the leaves of the tree. He was no longer holding his weapon, she noted. “You okay?”

    “Yeah, just checked my IMs and… saw something I didn’t really want to see,” Tori murmured and stood up. She stretched her stiff back and looked down at the two women, who remained undisturbed by her movement. She looked back up at him. “Is it midnight already?”

    “No,” he muttered as Tori activated her jump code and vaulted high into the tree, settling on a branch a dozen feet above Dylan. She brushed aside a few smaller branches and balanced herself carefully against another, thicker branch. Dylan climbed up to join her and the two sat silently for many minutes, staring out into the dark forest. The night was alive with animals as the programs within Crisis continued to run their daily routines.

    The scene was eerie to Tori. Light splashed across the vast canopy of the forest, the moon bright against the black sky. The stars were out in full force, brilliantly painted across the canopy within Crisis’s heavens. In the distance fireflies danced above the water of a small pond, while tree frogs croaked loudly and plaintively into the dark. The soft gurgle from a running stream could also be heard.

    “Why still up then?” Tori asked finally, her eyes drinking in their surroundings.

    “Couldn’t sleep,” he replied. He waved vaguely towards the direction of the Arthuria Tavern, which was many miles behind them. “I tried to set my IMs to email, but that’s blocked. So I started looking at my map and saw a few things that didn’t add up.”

    Like what?” Tori asked, curious. Dylan pulled out a small map, and immediately the map grew big enough to fit in his hands. A very dim red light appeared above it, allowing the two of them to see the map without entirely killing their night vision. The map, Tori recognized, was a marvel, one Dylan had found a few months back while on a mission. It was a special coded map that allowed the holder to keep an eye on any area of Crisis they wanted to, so long as it pertained to them. Tori, not for the first time, thanked the gamer gods for Dylan’s thoughtfulness and ingenuity. She looked at where his finger was pointed. Killakik and the surrounding area. She frowned and looked at the other teen.

    “Well, last week Killakik was a ruined city with no inhabitants and no reason to go there, far as I can tell,” he recited from memory, his gaze on the map thoughtful. Tori remained silent as he continued. “Now, though, it shows it has inhabitants. I don’t get it. You know this map is never wrong either, so I figure that someone moved in. Moderators? Gamers? Who knows? I don’t like it, though. We might want to simply pass through it, not stopping.”

    Tori sighed. She knew why they had to go through Killakik and hiding it from Dylan was no longer an option. Not since he had his special map. “Promise not to tell anyone?”

    “Tell them what?” Dylan asked suspiciously.

    “Well, I finished a solo Grinder mission before I moved to Germany,” Tori admitted in a whisper, her gaze cast far out into the forest. She took a deep breath before continuing. “Since you’re on my team after I finished it, the map updated itself and my own mission parameters.”

    “But I’ve never heard of any mission that leads to Killakik,” Dylan protested feebly. “And I’ve met an en finite who was fairly close to the end. He said Killakik is a dead city for newbies.”

    “Who said that?” she asked wonderingly. She knew who the relative few en finites were, and was almost certain none of them would talk about Killakik. Too many secrets in that city, she thought.

    “Rogue Star,” he replied, using the screen name of a player instead of his given name. She giggled and blushed at the sight of his scowl. She looked apologetically at Dylan, who was glowering.

    “Sorry, but Simon isn’t close to the end,” she explained. Dylan blinked as his anger dissipated rapidly. Her smile grew larger. “He just finished the Bridge Demo mission actually.”

    “But… I’m further than that!” Dylan said, confused. “He lied?”

    “Exaggerated greatly,” Tori confirmed with a short nod. “Everybody on our team is further than he is.”

    “Wait,” Dylan interrupted. “If you are in a mission nobody has heard of, does that… are you…?”

    Tori sighed. Here it is, she thought. The reason Gavrie did what he did. How’re they going to react to the news, she wondered.

    “Yes,” she replied honestly. “I’m one of the en finites.”

    She waited for the onslaught of questions, expecting Dylan to grill her on every aspect of the game that she knew of. Everyone always did that to an en finite, once the secret was out. Being that close to beating the game, everyone both loved and loathed en finites. Loved because they could help almost every other gamer in Crisis.

    Loathed because of jealous fellow gamers, her mind whispered. However, Dylan surprised her once more.

    “So that’s why you were afraid of the Helldiver team mission,” he said thoughtfully, his gaze finally on her. She met his gaze equally, and was surprised again. His blue eyes were kind, and not piercing like Gavrie’s had been. They were open and honest, not accusing and angry. It was a welcomed change from what she had come to expect from men. “You knew we’d be tracked by Mods. That’s why back at the tavern you thought they were there for you.”

    “Yeah,” Tori confirmed softly, averting her gaze. Anger from another gamer she could deal with. Sympathy, understanding, and compassion, however, were all something entirely new. Something she was not quite sure how to deal with. “I was afraid for you guys, since you all have gotten so far with your characters. I didn’t want them to be deleted because of me.”

    “But we’re a team,” Dylan replied. “We stick together and fight together as one. We’re all here for you, Tori. That’s our job.”

    Tori blinked back sudden tears of relief and, before she even realized what she was doing, reached out and hugged Dylan. The stress of the events of the day crashed down on her, and sudden emotions that had been tightly under wraps for years burst forth. She shook slightly, surprised that she was relieved now that Dylan knew and would accept the dangers with her. This, for some reason, comforted her greatly. She clung tightly to him, nearly choking him as she held onto his neck.

    “Thanks Dylan,” she whispered in his ear. She pecked him quickly on the cheek and backed away. She looked into his eyes. “Someday you’re going to make a girl happy.”

    Dylan blushed and looked away. He mumbled something under his breath and looked down at Gyasi and Raul, who were still watching the surroundings. The two standing watch apparently had not heard the conversation between them while they were in the tree.

    “I should get going,” he muttered and, before she could stop him, launched himself out of the tree and across the divide to the ground. He landed silently, and with his black globe code quickly activated, disappeared into another tree. Tori sighed and shook her head, confused. There you go again, she reproached herself. Confusing everyone around you. When will you ever learn? She had a sudden, lingering thought.

    Dylan smells nice.

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