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Corruptor: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, October 22, 2010 22:35 EDT



    Tori shifted and groaned, her back stiff and aching as she struggled to rest for a few minutes more. Another restless and sleepless night left her feeling ill. The rocky ground had been little comfort to her still-throbbing back. She nestled her cheek into the old leather cloak Dylan had offered her as a pillow and inhaled slightly, drinking in his scent. It had been the only comfort she had enjoyed during the night, a night plagued with nightmares whenever she had managed to fall asleep.

    Dreams within The Warp were far more powerful than outside of it. Tori knew from talking to others that when the neural synapses of the brain were firing as fast as they were whenever she was hooked up with the neural interface device for The Warp, the subconscious was far more active when the brain finally rested while still online. Something about duality, she recalled.

    Her nightmares were far more frequent and haunting within The Warp than without. She never dreamt of her mother, not on the outside. Some emotional barriers could never be breached, not without help. And The Warp helps to break down those barriers. Damn machine, she swore as a shape shifted against her back, attempting to get comfortable as well.

    She briefly wondered how many studies had been done on the subject. While the device had been created to help the psychologically impaired, it eventually became the primary for full interface into The Warp. It lowered her emotional barriers, a major reason she had switched to using the virtual reality visor. She partially blamed the interface device for her past with Gavrie, along with her own stupidity.

    She turned slightly until she was flat on her back. Minus a small rock pushing up against her shoulder, it was better than any other sleeping position she had found during the entire night. She glanced at the small figure nestled against her and smiled. She never figured someone that tiny could emit so much noise.

    Jade was snoring, her mouth open slightly and her black hair obscuring her face somewhat. Tori, not willing to interrupt her friend’s rest, did not disturb her. Tori smiled at the older woman and looked around the camp, watching as some of the others began to stir and wake. The small fire was smoking slightly in the morning mist, although Gyasi was valiantly stoking the fire and encouraging a flame to appear.

    Raul and Stephanie, she noticed, had slept close to one another. Very close, in fact. So close that Tori could swear they had even shared a blanket. She nodded as she wondered how long they had dated on the outside before they had brought their romance into The Warp. She wondered if her parents had been like that before she was born and ruthlessly crushed the visage before her emotions could well up. Raul and Steph, she thought, will probably be one of the elderly couples who walked the piers near beaches at sunset, still holding hands. Tori smiled at the thought. A motion off to the side drew her attention back towards the fledgling fire.

    Gyasi has stood upright and was furiously scowling at the fire, annoyed. Tori felt a slight chill in her stomach and realized that she did not entirely trust the African man. Of everybody in the group, he was the one who made Tori the most nervous about their situation. While she was distantly familiar with Miranda, she knew nothing of Gyasi, or his possible motivations. How did they end up with us of all people, she wondered apprehensively.

    She mentally kicked herself for prejudging him before she really knew him and looked away. She felt his gaze sweep over the camp, briefly pause on her, and move on. In spite of her suspicions, he did not glance away as though caught. He simply assessed her, she realized, before he looked elsewhere. She turned her head and stared at the others around the camp.

    She focused on Sergio instead, who was talking earnestly with Miranda. The young girl was listening intently, although Tori could see her eyes straying to his muscular arms every few moments. Tori could have laughed. She recognized Sergio’s technique easily, having watched him operate for over a year. She was privately glad he had never tried anything with her; the amount of laughter he would have generated from her would have killed their friendship.

    Tori realized that it felt as though she was not running from the Moderators anymore. No more threats, just her group plus two doing standard missions and enjoying the game as it was meant to be. She carefully crawled to her knees, taking great care to not wake up Jade as she moved. The entire scene, she realized as she grabbed Dylan’s cloak from the ground, reminded her of an old family sitcom. She giggled softly.

    “Morning,” a voice said behind her. She turned to look and found Dylan standing over her. She stood upright and smiled. He was holding what looked to be some sort of provision package in his hands. “Use a bit of your surplus power from coding and it turns into a breakfast burrito. I spliced the code from a guy who used it to make shields. I know we’re not really hungry, but… you know. Comfort foods.”

    “How...” Tori began to ask before she decided that she did not really care. She appreciated the gesture, and Dylan had gone out of his way to help her. She smiled and offered him his cloak back. “Thanks.”

    She shifted to her inventory rapidly, preparing to activate the power needed to turn the code into food. She paused, confused. Something wasn’t right, she realized as she looked farther into her inventory. Something looked at my inventory, she thought. Or someone. She shivered internally and remembered an old hacker adage.

    Rules were made to be broken.

    She used a little power from her coding and immediately the packet became a breakfast burrito, complete with sausage and chili. She kept her mouth shut regarding the inventory situation, however. That would only complicate matters more, she reminded herself. She looked up as her inventory closed and gave Dylan a forced smile.

    “Thanks,” she said and took a bite. Better than advertised, she thought as a little bit of egg threatened to run down her chin. She used a finger to scoop it up and was about to shovel it into her mouth before she noticed Dylan’s face. She shot him a querying look, but he simply looked away, embarrassed. He was blushing furiously. “What?”

    “Nothing,” he said hurriedly and walked away, his pace quick. Tori shrugged and quickly finished off the burrito.

    “Hey Jade,” Tori called out to her friend after she had polished off her breakfast. “You awake?”

    “Yeah,” the woman replied, her voice muffled by her jacket. “Five more minutes, though. Or coffee, coffee would be good. Go ‘way.”

    “Actually, I think Sergio wants to wait for later in the day,” Tori said sourly, casting a baleful gaze towards her team leader. “I have a question for you.”

    “Fine, but a short one,” Jade said sleepily as she pulled the jacket tighter around her small frame.

    “Who can view your inventory?” Tori asked. Jade was silent for a moment, and Tori almost suspected the woman had fallen asleep once more. She was about to reach down and shake her awake before Jade answered.

    “You and whichever server monitors and stores your equipment and stuff,” Jade said as she yawned, her face peeking out from a small opening of the jacket. “Why?”

    “I thought that someone had looked at my inventory earlier,” she replied. Jade rolled over onto her back and looked up at Tori, her eyes concerned. All traces of sleep were gone from her features.

    “Any idea when?” she asked suddenly. Tori shook her head. Jade sighed and pulled the jacket slightly lower, exposing her entire face. “Me too. Late last night actually, after you were asleep. I was on watch when I checked. I’m pretty sure it was my server. It’s possible that we are on the same server, though. Ever consider that? One of the inventory servers running a quick backup? Never seen it happen while online before, but...”

    “No,” Tori admitted. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

    “Think of it this way,” Jade said as she stretched her arms above her head. She yawned again before she continued. “Even if someone did look at your inventory, could they honestly do anything about it? Not unless your character was deleted, right?”

    “You’re right,” Tori sighed. “I’m sorry to bug you.”

    “No, you’re right to be worried,” Jade replied. She covered her mouth as another yawn hit her. “Anything suspicious that happens now might not just be harmless, after all. It could be those Mods again. Nothing is for certain anymore. Nothing is the same.”

    “You got that right,” Tori said with a firm nod. She looked furtively at Sergio and Miranda, who was enraptured with Sergio’s enhanced physique. Miranda was tracing a finger across the man’s biceps, which he willingly flexed for the attractive woman. Tori bit back her laughter and looked back down at Jade. “She does remember this is a game, right?”

    Jade followed Tori’s gaze and chuckled throatily. Tori was about to join her before she realized Jade was laughing for an entirely different reason. She looked at the other woman, more than a little confused. Jade tried to explain.

    “This game was also designed for political ploys,” Jade reminded her. “How else to get a male on her side than to bat her eyes and coo over his muscles? Believe me, girl, that one is a skilled manipulator. Might want to keep an eye on her so she doesn’t influence Oh Glorious Leader’s decisions too much. Sergio always thinks he needs to take over, and you know that could be problems with our newfound friends.”

    Tori nodded, though she felt slightly miffed and more than a little baffled at the idea.

    “It can’t be that easy to manipulate boys, can it?” she asked. Jade pursed her lips for a moment in mock thought before she grinned.

    “Let me think about it,” Jade smiled at her. “Yes! Boys are fairly dumb, for being so smart.”

    “Okay, people,” Sergio called out suddenly, his voice carrying loud enough for everyone to hear. The group stopped what they were doing and looked at the de facto leader of both teams. He waited for their attention to be on him before he continued. “I agree that the mission at Killakik should be done, simply because the prize could be very, very profitable. After that, though, I feel we should head north towards the bigger cities. Killakik is somewhat big, but places like St. George’s Cross and Plague City are even bigger and have more ruins to hide in. It could be safer.”

    “Think the vixen influenced that one?” Jade asked Tori under her breath.

    “Good idea, Sergio,” Miranda cooed from his arm, her eyes fluttering as she looked up at him adoringly. Sergio smiled at her, pleased. Tori made a face and looked at Jade, who simply smirked.

    “Yeah,” Tori muttered her answer.

    “So let’s head out,” Sergio ordered. “Dylan, point. Tori, rear.”

    Tori nodded, surprised. Normally, one of the lower-level players would take the rear, in this case Gyasi, Jade or Miranda. Tori narrowed her eyes but said nothing as Dylan cocked his head curiously to her. Tori nodded to him and waited for the group to move out before she destroyed the evidence of their fire. She cast one long, lasting look at the silent forest across the bridge before she followed the group.

    She still felt eyes upon her. It was very unnerving.




    Killakik. A city long abandoned, according to the back story surrounding Crisis. No reason was given. The only bit of data she could find in the system about Killakik was a little message posted on a message board about a coder who went through the city and only found a small cache of weapons. Nothing more. Tori had never been able to find another post by the coder, either. He had presumably changed his name, or quit the game soon after. Or been deleted. The possibilities were boundless within The Warp.

    The forest around the dead city was alive with activity, with birds flitting about through the treetops and small animals rustling in the underbrush. Tori almost preferred the silence to this racket. In the silence, a rustling bush would almost certainly be danger. Here, it could be anything, and it kept her on her toes. The city could be even worse, she thought as she looked over her shoulder. Doubt slowly began to creep into her mind. She started to wonder if she were in over her head for this mission.

    Killakik, she remembered from Dylan’s wondrous map, bordered just on the edge of the Three Forests. No river, though there was a major road that led north to the Dynastic Mountains and beyond. She shuddered. Crossing those mountains is going to suck, she thought as she stepped around another small tree and found herself standing in full daylight. She blinked her eyes and spotted the rest of the team standing there, waiting for her. She slung her carbine over her shoulder and, with a final backwards glance into the forest, joined them. The burning sensation of eyes upon her back had yet to fade.

    “Killakik,” Raul stated unnecessarily. The towering, ruined buildings loomed ahead, abandoned. The street leading into the city was covered in rubble. Apparently Dylan’s map was wrong, Tori thought. The city looked abandoned, derelict. Sergio interrupted her thoughts.

    “Ready?” he asked them.

    Tori nodded and double checked her codes once more. Everything looked in order, although her power levels were higher than earlier. Did I accomplish something during my rearguard that the game liked? Unsure, she set her codes and waited for the others to load their own coded attacks. Only Dylan, she noticed, used but a single code. His cloaking code, she saw as his visage became distorted.

    “How do you want to do this?” Sergio asked her. Tori thought for a moment, unsure.

    “The mission is to find the Sublime Key,” Tori began slowly, squatting down in the dirt. She began to trace a circle on the ground and placed a triangle inside of it. She then drew two lines parallel one another running horizontally above the circle. The others nodded. She looked at each of them. “If you find it, don’t activate it or touch it. Call me. We’re in mission mode officially now, so our IMs are linked as comm devices. Instant voice transmission and all that good stuff. Remember to

    keep comm security, though. We don’t know who might be listening. Last thing we need is a surprise visit from them.”

    “Okay,” Sergio said, looking over at the decrepit buildings in the distance. “Two teams of four. Miranda, Gyasi and Jade with me. We’re team Alpha. Raul, Stephanie and Dylan with Tori. Team Bravo. Keep in contact with us. I don’t want to be in there too long, so set your timers to two hours. If darkness falls and we’re still there, we could get separated or lost. I don’t want that.”

    “One other thing,” Tori said and uploaded a small code to each of them, one she had purchased from another gamer recently. They blinked their eyes, surprised, as they each received Tori’s special code for free. She quickly explained. “If you get attacked, launch this code. It’s a starburst. Think flare on steroids. It’ll shoot straight into the air about a hundred feet and explode, like a flash bang. If you see this, come running and be prepared for a fight.”

    “Thanks, Tori,” Jade said and squeezed her arm gently. “Stay safe, hon.”

    “I got her back,” Dylan murmured confidently to her. Jade nodded at him and smiled appreciatively.

    “Let’s go, Alpha team,” Sergio said gruffly, and they moved out quickly, following the main road into the city proper. Tori was about to follow, but Dylan grabbed her arm. She looked at him, annoyed. He shook his head and held up a finger, his eyes locked on Sergio’s back. Tori waited impatiently.

    “Hold up. I have an idea,” he began, looking for her approval. Tori nodded. He looked at Raul and Stephanie, each of whom gave him their own look of concern, but a nod of approval as well. “Sorry guys, but I don’t trust the main road. I know of two different routes into the city. We should try one of those instead.”

    “Good idea,” Tori said. She cocked her eyebrow at him, curious. “You don’t trust them either, do you?”

    “The only one I do trust in that group, right now,” Dylan said as they slowly moved west, picking their way across the open plain carefully as they searched for the second road Dylan had in mind, “is Jade. None of the others. Unfortunately, not even Sergio.”

    “Not even Sergio?” Stephanie asked, surprised. Dylan’s nod was firm and his jaw set. Tori was impressed.

    “Too many coincidences,” he said. Stephanie pressed for more, but Dylan left it at that. Tori knew where he was coming from and was beginning to feel the same way about almost everyone. After all, she thought as they found the second, little known road into Killakik, it wasn’t as if the chaos code believed in coincidences.

    With the small group of four spread slightly out and their weapons ready for the first sign of trouble, Dylan led them into the derelict city of Killakik.

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