Human/Super #14: Versus

 

HUMAN/SUPER #14

VERSUS

 

 

 

 

 

The lands of Akkraemyth were divided into two kingdoms: Kal Darro in the north, ruled peacefully by men and elves, and Kal Ekred in the south, where chaos reigned. Separating the realms were the towering and treacherous Daemonspine Mountains.

Lilith, an elven sorceress with bright pink hair, stood atop the mountains’ westernmost peak watching a battle unfold in the valley below. Swords clashed, arrows loosed, and spells lit up the evening sky as a party of humans attempted to repel a small army of orcs pressing through a narrow mountain pass from the south.

As more and more warriors joined the fray, their movements began to stutter, the framerate dropping rapidly. Leigh Tyrrell glanced up from her tablet and noticed a yellow light flashing on a screen mounted to the wall above her desk.

She sprang from her chair and ran across the hall to the server room. Row upon row of racks, housing dozens of interconnected servers, formed the backbone of the online role-playing game Akkraemyth: Shattered Land.

Leigh hurried down an aisle, deafened by the hum of the computers and the roar of the air conditioning. She closed her eyes and the network of information appeared in her mind like a vast, tangled web.

She traced the congestion to a single server, where a memory leak was causing sluggish performance. She redirected traffic through redundant systems and rebooted the faulting server. The problem went away.

“Something wrong?” Grace Marley, Leigh’s friend and one of Akkraemyth’s lead programmers, asked from the doorway.

“Just some lag,” Leigh replied, “but I fixed it.”

She stepped back out into the hallway and shut the door behind her. She glanced at a clock on the wall, both hands pointing straight up.

“What are you doing here so late?” she asked.

“Crunch time,” Grace replied, taking a sip of coffee. “The new expansion ships at the end of the month and we’re still trying to get everything working.”

“Think you’ll make it on time?” Leigh asked.

“Oh, sure,” Grace replied. “I’m just not going to sleep much until we do.”

“Well, if you need any help, you know where to find me,” Leigh said.

“Yeah, right,” Grace said. “If my boss sees how good can code, I’ll be replaced in a heartbeat.”

“Seriously?” Leigh asked. “Damn, if I’d known it was that easy to steal your job, I’d have done it months ago.”

“Don’t even think about it,” Grace said. “I still have a copy of our class photo from sixth grade. You know, the one with—”

Leigh held up her hand and said, “I remember.”

“Good,” Grace said, grinning. “Just so we’re clear.”

Leigh rolled her eyes and chuckled. The sound of swords clanging together echoed in the hallway. Grace took her phone out of her pocket and sighed.

“I have to get back up there,” she said. “I’ll see you around, okay?”

Grace headed up the hall and stepped into the elevator. Leigh returned to her chair in the operations centre and put her feet up on the desk. Placing her tablet on her lap, she leaned back and linked her fingers behind her neck.

The battle in Akkraemyth was winding down. The orc faction had mustered an impressive number of players for the invasion, but the human side managed to fend them off. The remaining orcs retreated through the valley while the humans looted the bodies of the fallen.

As Lilith turned to leave, she noticed a cloaked figure standing at the edge of a cliff on the other side of the valley. She waved, and the figure disappeared in a flash.

“Nice to meet you too,” Leigh muttered.

Lilith cast a spell of Gliding Flight and leaped from the mountaintop. She plummeted down the sheer rock face and drifted along the slope. She skimmed over the tops of the trees at the base of the mountain and touched down on the grassy hills beyond.

The orange light of the rising suns peeked over the mountains as Lilith set off to the north, heading home.

///

Leigh glared at the clock on her nightstand and the alarm stopped beeping. She grabbed her tablet and checked her email on the way out of the bedroom; a bunch of spam and an invitation to a late lunch with Grace.

She accepted the invitation and stepped into the living room. With a glance, the television turned on and sought out a random tech channel. The video game news show Game Theory was on.

“…already a strong contender for Game of the Year,” a thirty-year-old man with a fauxhawk said, standing in front of a green screen displaying footage from a generic-looking first-person shooter. “In other news, players of Elphame Studios’ Akkraemyth: Shattered Land have taken to the company’s official forums to voice complaints about a recent epidemic of lag and downtime on the game’s servers. An increasing number of users are threatening to abandon Akkraemyth in protest and…”

Leigh scoffed. Those same players talking about leaving would be camped out with credit cards in hand when the expansion hit the shelves. She turned off the television and headed out to lunch.

///

Lilith wandered the Plains of Tanamar, searching for the next objective in a particularly tedious fetch quest. She arrived at a small human village called Dar Sallas and picked up a magical MacGuffin from an NPC in the apothecary’s shop. When she stepped back outside, the town was in flames.

That’s different,” Leigh said aloud.

Lilith cast a few spells to buff her fire resistance and turned to the sky. A huge red dragon soared over the town, spitting flame from its terrible jaws. Lilith uttered an incantation and a blast of ice shards pelted the beast’s hide.

The dragon turned its black eyes to Lilith and roared. She raised her staff and fired lightning bolts at the monster as it plummeted toward her.

She ducked under the swipe of its massive claws and cast another spell. A pillar of stone burst from the ground, striking the dragon in the stomach. It crashed to the ground, stunned.

Lilith jumped onto the beast’s back and let loose with her magic. The dragon reared and knocked her into the side of a building. A burst of flame brought the walls down on top of her. Her health dwindled rapidly.

Quickly accessing her inventory, she donned a Belt of Strength and a Frost Ring. Charging out of the rubble, she struck the dragon repeatedly with her staff, dealing massive amounts of ice damage with each blow.

Finally the beast fell dead. Lilith cast a healing spell on herself and looked around. The town was in ruins and dead villagers littered the streets.

Amid the devastation stood a lone figure, clothed head to toe in a black cloak. No name hovered over its head, but this was clearly no mere NPC; there was a player behind this character.

“Who are you?” Lilith asked.

The figure did not reply. Lilith stepped forward, and the game began to lag, even worse than before.

Leigh hurried to the server room and found congestion in the same server as last time, plus a few others. She rerouted the traffic as best she could, and restarted the offending units.

When she returned to the operations centre and picked up her tablet, the buildings of Dar Sallas had been rebuilt, and the NPCs were resuming their daily routines. The cloaked figure was gone, and in its place, a scroll now lay on the ground.

“Seek the house of the living in the city of the dead,” it read.

As Lilith departed again for the Plains, several of Leigh’s friends logged in and invited her to join a raid. She spent the rest of her shift fighting hellhounds in the fire dungeons beneath the island of Sul Ferus.

///

In the afternoon, Leigh drove her aunt Judith to the mall for a haircut and wandered the halls while she waited. She spent a few minutes reversing the direction of an escalator full of people before getting bored. She headed to a game store and browsed.

A young boy was playing a racing game on a demo console. Leigh joined him in two-player mode. She let him come close to winning, but zoomed past him at the last second. After a couple more rounds of this, he gave up and left with his parents.

She stepped over to the PC section of the store and picked up a copy of The Uninvited, an urban fantasy MMORPG that was one of Akkraemyth’s chief competitors. A part of Leigh was tempted to try it, but she knew she’d never live it down if Grace found out. She put the box down and left the store.

“There you are!” Judith said, sporting a blonde pixie cut and carrying a plastic bag.

“What’d you buy?” Leigh asked.

Judith grinned and pulled from the bag a stainless steel chess set in the shape of medieval warriors.

“Loser buys lunch?” she said.

Leigh sighed and followed Judith to the food court. They set up the board on an empty table.

“You do realize you have, like, fifty of these, right?” Leigh said, flicking the board with her finger.

“Do I judge your game collection?” Judith asked.

“Yes,” Leigh replied. “All the time.”

Judith moved one of her pawns ahead two spaces.

“Your move,” she said, smiling.

Twenty minutes later, Leigh returned with two plates of sukiyaki. She slid one across the table.

“Better luck next time,” Judith said.

Leigh scoffed and said, “If luck had anything to do with this game, I’d have beaten you at least once by now.”

“Do you want me to start going easy on you?” Judith asked.

Leigh glared across the table, and Judith laughed.

“Remember that time you ended up cleaning the house for a whole month because you wouldn’t give up?” Judith asked. “You kept saying, ‘Double or nothing!’ until you fell asleep at the board.”

“I thought I could wear you down,” Leigh replied.

“It wasn’t a bad idea,” Judith said, and grinned. “You just underestimated your opponent.”

Leigh smiled.

“At least I’ve never done that again,” she said.

///

Lilith traveled south over the Daemonspine Mountains and east into the deep forest where the lost city of Sal Mordra sat shrouded beneath the trees. Here, in the perpetual darkness, dwelled the dangerous and anarchic Vampire faction.

Casting an invisibility spell, Lilith stole into the city. She crept through crumbling alleys, avoiding other players prowling the streets, and eventually found the place she was looking for: the remains of an ancient hospital in the centre of town.

She opened the door and slipped inside. Rotten bedframes lined the walls of the towering hall, and an altar to a long-forgotten god stood at the far end, ready to accept offerings. Beyond the altar, the cloaked figure stood waiting. Lilith stepped forward and dispelled her invisibility.

“I solved your riddle,” she said. “Now what?”

The figure raised its arm, and the floor opened up beneath Lilith’s feet. When the dust settled, she was standing in a broad, earthen tunnel extending into darkness to the north and the south. A roar thundered up the passage, and a pale, wingless dragon crept from the shadows.

Lilith backed away, readying a spell of paralysis. The game began to lag, and the spell glanced off the tunnel wall. Before she could cast another, a tongue of blue flame spat from the dragon’s mouth, engulfing her. The healing spell registered a moment too late, and Lilith fell dead.

“That did not just happen,” Leigh said, jolting upright.

She’d been using Lilith, in one form or another and across a dozen different games, for nearly ten years. Not once had any version of the character fallen in battle. Until now. And all because of a little….

Her eyes shot up as a wave of yellow spread across her monitor. She jumped from her seat and bolted to the server room. This time, dozens of servers were affected, all leaking memory and slowing the game to a crawl.

Leigh redirected as much of the traffic as she could, but the sheer number of leaks overwhelmed her. She started shutting down servers and dropping clients until finally the data began flowing smoothly again. She ran diagnostics on the hardware as she gradually brought the servers back online, but found nothing out of the ordinary.

She returned to the control room and glanced at her tablet. A dialogue box asked her to choose a respawn point for Lilith. Leigh sat in her chair with her arms crossed, seething. The lights flickered overhead.

She glanced at the phone on her desk and the number for Grace’s cubicle dialed itself. On the seventh ring, the call finally went through.

“Hey, Leigh,” Grace said on speaker mode. “What’s up?”

“There’s something wrong with the game,” Leigh said.

“The lag, yeah,” Grace said. “But you’ve got it under control, right?”

“For now,” Leigh said, “but it keeps getting worse. I think someone may have found an exploit.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Grace said. “You sure it’s not a hardware problem?”

“I checked,” Leigh said. “There’s nothing physically wrong with the systems. It’s got to be in the code.”

“Well, I can talk to my boss about it,” Grace said, “but we’re not going to have time to work on a patch until after—”

“—the expansion ships?” Leigh snapped. “You realize you’re not going to have any players left by then if you don’t take care of this problem now, don’t you?”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” Grace said. “Jesus, why are you so angry all of a sudden?”

Leigh sighed and said, “Lilith died.”

There was a long pause, then Grace laughed.

“Man, for a second there, I thought it was actually something serious,” she said.

“It is serious,” Leigh said. “It only happened because of the lag.”

“Of course it did,” Grace said, chuckling. “You know you can just respawn, right?”

“That’s not the point,” Leigh said. “If it’s bad for me, it’s even worse for everyone else.”

“Listen, Leigh, I have to get back to work,” Grace said. “But I promise I’ll take a look at the code as soon as I get the chance. Okay?”

“Fine,” Leigh said. “Bye.”

“Laters,” Grace said.

Leigh hung up and spent the rest of her shift playing a chess game on her tablet. On her way home, she picked up a copy of The Uninvited.

///

A few of Leigh’s friends had already made the switch, so the transition was fairly easy. The Uninvited took place in a massive urban sprawl known as The Protectorate, where a secret society of elves, vampires, werewolves, and various other creatures lived among the human population.

The new Lilith carried on many of her predecessors’ traits: the pink hair, the elven heritage, the mastery of magic. This time, however, she was dressed in modern clothes and as such resembled her user more closely than ever. She headed out into the city with a pistol in one hand and a spellbook in the other.

The game was more action-oriented than Leigh expected, but she got the hang of it fairly quickly. Within a couple days, she’d built Lilith into something of a powerhouse. By the end of the week, she was taking down dragons with a sawed-off shotgun and leveling city blocks with her magic.

But still, her defeat in Akkraemyth taunted her. As days went by, the lag continued to escalate, and as hard as she tried to fix it, she knew there was only so much she could do from the outside.

///

Lilith respawned in the elven city of Sal Boreus on Akkraemyth’s northern shores. She used her remaining gold to reequip herself, and headed off immediately on the long journey back to Sal Mordra.

The hospital was just as she’d left it, minus the cloaked figure and the hole in the floor. She walked to the end of the long hall and found a lever built into the altar. She pulled it, and a trapdoor opened in the middle of the room.

She cast several attribute buffs—fire resistance, strength, agility, etc.—and dropped down into the hatch. A pile of bones lay at her feet, still carrying the remains of her inventory. She looted her corpse and headed north.

Like the rest of its kin, the Burrowing Wyrm made its lair in the caverns beneath the Daemonspine Mountains. Lilith crept into the chamber and slew the beast in its sleep. Exploring the dragon’s rather meager hoard, she came across a small chest containing a scroll.

“The height at the end of the tunnel,” it read.

Leigh sighed, and Lilith doubled back. The tunnel was long, seemingly endless, but eventually she emerged far to the south, under blazing suns in the middle of the Aldermord Desert. The twisted spires of Sal Ish’aek, home of the orcs, lacerated the sky in the distance.

Lilith approached the city under her spell of invisibility. Bodies of recently-deceased warriors littered the crimson sands along the way, both orc and human. Hostilities between the rival factions were on the rise as part of the lead-up to the new expansion.

Lilith stepped onto the winding, unpaved streets, and scanned the skyline. The cloaked figure stood atop the city’s tallest tower, waiting for her yet again. Lilith cast a levitation spell and floated up to the roof of the building, landing beside the figure.

Leigh closed her eyes and peered into the code, searching for the thread of data that connected the anonymous player to the game world. Her efforts were blocked at every turn, shunted through proxies and firewalls.

Lilith’s invisibility wore off. The figure turned toward her, its face still shrouded beneath a black hood. She waited for a trap to spring, but nothing happened.

“Are you just going to stand there?” Lilith asked. “Or do you actually have something to say for yourself this time?”

The figure turned away, toward the edge of the roof. Lilith stepped beside him and looked down. Players and NPCs, mostly orcs and the occasional troll, wandered the streets, going about their business.

Leigh sensed a change in the code, and the game began to lag again. Some players logged out immediately, while others stuck around to whine about it. Leigh made her way to the server room without taking her eyes off the game.

“Why are you doing this?” Lilith asked.

Still no reply.

As Leigh fought off the attack on the servers, the figure fired a blast of wind at Lilith, knocking her from the tower. She cast Levitate again and brought a massive fireball down upon the roof of the building.

The figure countered with a lightning bolt that Lilith narrowly dodged. A server crashed; more players disappeared from the streets below. Lilith managed to hit the figure with a paralysis spell, and charged forward to land the killing blow.

“The connection to the server was lost,” a dialogue box said as Leigh was kicked out to the main menu.

The rest of the servers came crashing down, and all she could do was let it happen. Across the hall, her phone was ringing off the hook. She focused on bringing the servers back online, but the attack persisted.

Eventually she managed to isolate and block a few of the IP addresses causing the most damage. The lag persisted, but the game was running again, at least. Users began to trickle back in, but in smaller numbers.

Leigh sat on the floor with her legs crossed and leaned back against the server rack. At the end of the hall, she heard the elevator open and footsteps approach. Through the doorway, she watched Grace step into the operations centre.

“Hey, our network just…” Grace trailed off and glanced back over her shoulder into the server room. “Uh…what are you doing on the floor?”

“My job,” Leigh said. “Got some bad news for you, Gracie: you’re being hacked.”

Grace sighed and said, “Are you absolutely sure?”

“You think I don’t know a hacker when I see one?” Leigh asked.

“Point taken,” Grace replied. “Okay, as soon as you can, I need you to send me a log of all the server activity from the past couple hours. I’ll see if anything stands out. Did you happen to get the username?”

Leigh shook her head.

“It was hidden,” she said. “Whoever this person is, they’re good. Really good.”

“Better than you?” Grace asked.

Leigh pursed her lips gave Grace a dirty look.

“Okay, sorry I asked,” Grace said, chuckling. “Anyway, seeing as my workload just doubled, I should get going. It was nice chatting with you.”

“I’ll text you when I catch the bastard,” Leigh said, turning back to her tablet.

“Good luck,” Grace said.

Leigh waved as Grace headed back up the hall. Lilith returned to Akkraemyth, materializing atop the tower in Sal Ish’aek. The hacker was gone, and the streets below were mostly empty. At her feet, she found yet another scroll waiting for her.

“Welcome to the jungle,” it read.

///

Leigh sat on the couch with her tablet on her lap and the television on in the background. She didn’t want to risk confronting the hacker again without direct access to the servers, so she was playing The Uninvited instead.

The fauxhawked host of Games People Play was interviewing Leigh’s boss, Arthur Drake, about the upcoming Akkraemyth expansion and the recent problems with the game. Drake put a positive spin on everything, of course, but the questions clearly bothered him.

“Trust me,” he said with a don’t-trust-me smile, “we’ve got our best guys working on this and we’ll be back to one hundred percent in no time. It’s just growing pains, nothing more.”

The television blinked off. A whole company was riding on Leigh’s skills, and she didn’t know if she was up to the task. She glanced down at the game in her lap and threw an enchanted hand grenade into a horde of zombies. She logged out and set her tablet aside.

She took a drive to Judith’s house in the suburbs and immediately got roped into another round of chess. Leigh played more aggressively than usual, going on the attack right from the beginning.

The game lasted more than an hour, with Leigh advancing across the board and Judith evading. After a while, Judith began making mistakes, leaving her pieces out in the open for Leigh to capture them.

Leigh’s head was buzzing; she’d never come this close before. She moved one of her pawns into position, and her army finally had Judith’s king completely surrounded.

“Checkmate,” Judith said.

Leigh stared at her aunt for a long moment, then muttered, “What?”

Judith nodded at the board and Leigh glanced down. Her king sat in the corner, trapped between Judith’s knight and bishop. On the other side of the board, none of Leigh’s numerous pieces were in a position to help. Her king was doomed.

“You set me up,” Leigh said.

“That’s kind of the point of the game, honey,” Judith replied, winking.

“But, I mean, I was winning,” Leigh said. “Wasn’t I?”

“You played very well,” Judith said, “but sometimes a strong offense is no match for a good bluff.”

Leigh stared down at the board, replaying the match in her head. She smiled.

“Judith,” she said, “you’re a genius.”

///

Lilith traveled to Sal Demet, a lawless port city at the southern tip of Akkraemyth. It was the only human settlement in Kal Ekred, populated by pirate clans that raided villages along the shores.

From there, she booked passage on a ship called the Lightbringer and helped the crew battle the giant snapping turtles that stalked the Southern Sea. The ship dropped her off on the shore of Sul Kador, a tropical island near the edge of the Impassable Mists.

Hiking through dense jungle under heavy rain, Lilith eventually found herself standing on a cliff overlooking a deep gorge. On the opposite side, at the base of a roaring waterfall, an ancient temple was built into a wall of rock. Lilith cast Gliding Flight and descended to the temple entrance.

The antechamber was mostly caved-in, but a set of stone stairs led down into a flooded passageway. Lilith cast Breath of Life and dove into the water. The tunnel branched off into a sprawling underwater labyrinth that eventually led to another set of stairs in the centre.

Lilith climbed out of the water into a vast underground chamber dimly lit by glowing blue stones embedded in the ceiling. In a far off corner of the cavern, a pale green sea serpent slept coiled around a mound of treasure. Beside it, the hooded figure waited.

“I’m getting pretty tired of this,” Lilith said. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

The figure raised its arm and the serpent stirred from its slumber. The creature set its cold blue eyes on Lilith and reared like a cobra.

“So we’re fighting again?” she said. “Fine by me.”

The figure’s arm dropped, and the serpent lunged, snapping at her with venomous fangs. Lilith dodged and blasted the creature’s underbelly with a fireball. It twisted around for another strike, and the lag returned.

Leigh stood in the server room, monitoring the data flow. Traffic spiked in a few of the Kal Darro servers, and Leigh let them crash. Lilith focused on evading the beast’s attacks and healing when necessary.

Leigh shut down more and more servers, until all that remained online was this one small section of the game world. The hacker concentrated the attacks here, and Leigh traced them all simultaneously.

The firewalls and proxies obstructed her again, but she was able to find common threads among the myriad connections. A number appeared in her head, followed by a second number, and a third. She saw the fourth number just as the last server crashed.

Leigh smiled and said, “Got you now.”

///

The numbers represented the IP address of a data centre firm in Victory City’s industrial district. Leigh parked her car down the block and walked the rest of the way.

A dozen white shipping containers lined the pavement of a fenced-in lot. Each container was modified to house a miniature, self-sustained data center not unlike the server room at Elphame Studios.

An overwhelming amount of information flowed in and out of these containers, a haystack to the hacker’s needle. Leigh wouldn’t be able to trace the attacks from here, unless….

She got back into her car and logged into Akkraemyth. The hacker had left her another scroll, instructing her to “lift the fog of war.” Lilith found a group of giant turtles nesting on the beach and cast a spell of Beast Charmer on one of them.

She climbed onto the turtle’s back and compelled it to swim south from Sul Kador, into the Impassable Mists. The dense wall of fog surrounded all of Akkraemyth, but Lilith knew exactly where to go.

Floating a hundred feet above the sea, a huge factory churned the Mists out into the atmosphere. When the expansion launched in a few weeks, this facility would shut down, opening a passage to Kal Tirna, a new continent where a number of new playable races would dwell.

Lilith cast Levitate and landed in front of a vast furnace burning with magical fire. Climbing one of the factory’s towering, obsidian smokestacks, she surveyed the area. The cloaked figure was nowhere to be seen.

Leigh glanced out the window of her car. Light from the rising sun filtered through the skeleton of a building on a construction site across the street. A fifty-foot-tall woman wearing a hard hat and reflective vest lifted a steel girder to the top of the building. A crew of regular-sized workers secured the beam in place.

Leigh tilted her seat back and closed her eyes.

///

By the time evening rolled around, Leigh was about ready to call it a day and head home. She didn’t really feel like spending one of her few nights off on a stakeout. Lilith took one last look around the factory, and found herself standing face to face (so to speak) with the figure.

“Well, I think I’ve figured out what this is all about,” Lilith said. “You’re trying to kill the expansion, right? I’m not sure why, exactly, but if I had to guess, I’d say ‘disgruntled former employee.’ Am I getting warm?”

A fireball erupted from the figure’s hands and hurtled toward Lilith. She jumped out of the way and fired back with lightning. The game started lagging. Leigh put her hood up and climbed out of the car.

She crept along the fence, dividing her attention between the game and the real world. The electric gate at the front of the lot rolled open a couple feet, and Leigh slipped inside, shutting down cameras along the way.

She followed the trail of data to one particular container. She glanced at the keypad and the door popped open. Inside, she hurried down a narrow aisle between rows of servers and found the specific unit she was looking for.

Lilith’s health dwindled rapidly as Leigh plunged into the network. She hit another firewall and smashed her way through. Another IP address formed in her mind, and Akkraemyth’s servers crashed completely.

As she crept out of the container, a security guard’s flashlight arced over the lot. She ducked back and stared at the light until it shorted out. While the guard was busy checking the batteries, Leigh slipped past him and returned to her car.

///

Leigh pulled up in front of the headquarters of Hybernus Interactive, the video game studio that created The Uninvited. She glanced down at her tablet and the company’s Wikipedia page appeared.

“Hybernus Interactive was founded in 2011 by former Elphame Studios vice president Duncan Wolfe,” the page read. “Wolfe, who founded Elphame with fellow game designer Arthur Drake, unsuccessfully attempted to sue his former partner over several copyrights related to Elphame’s MMORPG Akkraemyth: Shattered Land. In the aftermath of the lawsuit, Wolf was forced to….”

Leigh shoved the tablet into the pocket of her hoodie and stepped into the bright, white foyer. The security guard at the front desk narrowed his eyes and looked her up and down.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m here to see Mr. Wolfe,” Leigh replied. “I have an appointment.”

She slid her driver’s license across the desk and glanced at the computer on the desk, inserting her name into the system. The guard read her card, typed a few keys, and then nodded.

“He’s up in his office,” the guard said. “Second floor, across from the kitchen.”

Leigh smiled broadly.

“Thanks a bunch,” she said, and headed for the elevator.

The second floor consisted of a large, open space occupied by desks arranged without any discernible pattern. In one corner, by the window, couches were arranged around a 42-inch television with several gaming consoles attached.

Leigh made her way across the room to a narrow hallway at the far end. One door was open, leading into a fully-stocked kitchen, while the next was closed. The label read “Duncan Wolfe, CEO”. Leigh opened the door without knocking.

Movie posters plastered the walls of the spacious corner office. Action figures lined bookshelves in a various combat poses. Wolfe, a pale man in his thirties, sat hunched over the desk, his face aglow in the light of dual monitors.

“So you found me, eh?” he said, looking up. “I wasn’t sure you had it in you.”

Leigh shrugged.

“You made it easy enough,” she said. “All those riddles, it was like you wanted to get caught.”

“I wanted to know what you were capable of,” he said. “You didn’t disappoint.”

“I wish I could say the same for you,” she replied. “I mean, corporate espionage? And here I was thinking I was dealing with an artist. But it turns out it was all about money.”

“That’s not what this is about,” he said. “It’s about justice. I created Akkraemyth, and my best friend stole it out from under me. I won’t let that stand.”

“So if you can’t have it, nobody can?” she said. “Look, I get it. Losing sucks. But that’s no excuse for what you’ve been doing. It has to end. Now.”

“Well, you’re certainly welcome to try and stop me,” he said, turning back to his computer. “I’ve already got my next clue ready. You’ll never guess this one.”

“No more games,” she said, stepping forward. “I’m a fan of your work, so I’m not going to call the cops. And I’m not going to tell Drake what you’re up to, either. But what I am going to do is make you a promise: if you keep messing with Akkraemyth’s servers, I will make things very uncomfortable for you here.”

She waved her arm in a broad arc and both of Wolfe’s monitors turned themselves off. He jumped from his seat and backed away.

“I could set off every phone in the building,” she said. “Every fire alarm. Every sprinkler.”

A remote control car rolled off the shelf behind Wolfe and zoomed toward his feet. He hopped out of the way.

“I could crash every server,” she said. “Corrupt every file. Erase every hard drive.”

Wolfe’s stereo started playing some loud techno music, and the ceiling lights flickered on and off to the beat. He watched it all wide-eyed, his jaw slack.

“You have a good thing going here, Mr. Wolfe,” she said. “Try not to mess that up, okay?”

Wolfe swallowed hard and nodded. She smiled and strolled out of the office.

“Checkmate,” she said softly to herself.

 

 

 

END