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Corruptor [MultiFormat]
eBook by Jason Cordova

eBook Category: Science Fiction/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: The Warp was the single greatest advance in computer technology since the invention of the microchip. A virtual reality gaming system so advanced that the person inside wasn't just in the game, but was the game. Within The Warp lay the most cunning of all games, the de facto king of online gaming, the one game which was reputedly unbeatable: Crisis.

The Warp was flawless. The game was perfect. Until something went terribly wrong.

eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books, Published: 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2010

4 Reader Ratings:
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"...This richly visual tale, in which any moment could contain your fondest dream--or be the last--is a book that will appeal to many. Mystery readers, science fiction readers, gamers, and everyone who likes a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma will love reading Corruptor." -- Stephanie Osborn, author of Burnout: the mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 and co-author of Extraction Point

"Corruptor is a cleverly crafted tale predicated on the creative idea that virtual reality overtakes the ongoing reality. It begs the question 'Where is the boundary between virtual reality and harsh reality.'" -- Bob Boan, scientist and co-author of An Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion


He knew, without a shadow of a doubt in his mind, that the young girl was trouble from the moment he laid eyes upon her.

There was no obvious reason for his gut to scream a warning at him as she entered the shadowy entrance to one of the ruined buildings across the street. Instinct warned him to keep his head low behind the partially destroyed brick wall he had taken cover behind minutes before. He knew who she was, knew of her reputation. That combined with the continuous warnings which erupted from his churning, roiling stomach set his nerves on edge.

He rested the butt of the rifle on his shoulder and leaned against the fallen wall, the muzzle of the weapon pointed at the doorway of the opposite building. He knew from her profile that she was sometimes careless about her patterns of movement. It was a reasonable deduction that she would use the same entrance upon her leaving the building.

He looked around to ensure that the girl was alone. He recalled that she often worked with others, a few close friends she had recruited to help her become the scourge she was. She was a bane to his kind, and he was determined to put an end to her reign of terror.

Being rewarded handsomely for it was a nice bonus, he thought with a vicious grin.

A breeze swept down the deserted, ruined streets. He coughed slightly as dust from the wall was kicked up and tickled the back of his throat. His eyes watered as he felt the tickling sensation slide further down his esophagus. He rubbed his chest with a gloved hand and grimaced at the amount of noise he made. He focused back on the old building, but the girl had not reappeared. His grimace melted away as he thought he spotted her shadow moving across the third floor window. He peered through the scope mounted on top of the rifle, but she had moved too quickly. There was no way for him to get a clean shot. He would have to wait.

Overhead, he could feel the sun slip behind the clouds as the temperature around him dropped slightly. He shivered and wondered if the weather was going to change. He had anticipated clear skies and sun and had packed accordingly. Adverse weather would not only ruin the perfect view of the building his target was in, but would also make him very uncomfortable. He frowned in annoyance as a few drops of rain struck the ground around him.

"Perfect", he growled under his breath. "This is why I am the best, little girl." He exhaled slowly and checked the front door of the building again. His eyebrows raised slightly, surprise coursing through him. He shifted slightly and peered through the scope of his rifle for a better view.

She was standing still, partially hidden in the darkened doorway. Her strawberry-blonde hair moved slightly in the breeze of the coming storm, while her blue eyes were staring in his general direction. Calm and deadly like the sea before a storm, her body posture was calm. No muscle moved in her body, and the man felt his body relax as he prepared for the shot. He pulled the trigger back slowly, carefully.

Why isn't she moving, a small, tiny part of him asked as he felt the pressure on the trigger grow.

The world around him exploded in a bright, white light.

He flew backwards and slammed into the side of the building behind him, his body creating a deep dent in the brick surface before he fell to the ruined sidewalk below. In a flash he was back on his feet as gunfire exploded from the direction of his target, each individual round kicking up a small cloud of dust as they impacted around him. He felt a tug on the sleeve of his shirt as one came particularly close.

He dove behind another, smaller pile of rubble as the gunfire tapered off. Coughing from inhaling too much dust, he pressed his back against a small, flat slab of fallen concrete. He tossed aside the sniper's rifle and shouldered a smaller machine gun. He quickly checked to ensure she was not outflanking him as he snapped in a fresh magazine clip into the gun.

"You give up?" a feminine voice, mocking and cruel, came from somewhere nearby. A chill ran down his spine. It wasn't cruelty in her voice, he thought suddenly with a sick realization. It was boredom.

"Do you?" he called back. A long minute passed as he waited tensely, sweat pouring down his face in buckets.

"What's your name?" she called out again from somewhere closer, her voice echoing loudly through the deserted streets.

"Mordecai, little girl," he answered after a momentous pause. "I already know yours."

"Indeed," was all she said. He shivered again at the sound of her voice. There was something definitely wrong with this situation...

"You're a scary little girl," he admitted. He risked a peek around the corner of the rubble he was hiding behind. He could not see her, but knew that meant little. She could be anywhere.

"You're a brave man, coming after me alone," she retorted, her voice terrifying. It promised that the street he was on was to be someone's grave. His grave. He shivered uncontrollably once more.

He waited a few more seconds for the girl to say more, but silence reigned. What was she doing, he screamed silently as he looked around again. Even the wind had disappeared. He had to act quickly, before she got to him. He shifted to a kneeling position and checked the street once more. Still empty, he saw. He whispered a brief prayer as he prepared himself to move. He never got the chance.

The girl slid out from the shadows behind the rock, her lithe form moving towards him with deathly determination. Paralyzed momentarily by her sudden appearance, Mordecai had no chance as the girl slashed downward with a narrow sword. He staggered back under the force of the blow, pain blossoming in his chest as he fell. The rifle fell from his hands and clattered to a rough landing a few feet away.

He collapsed on the partially destroyed rock he had been using for cover, his eyes fixed on the gaping wound in his chest. He moved his hands to cover it but he knew it was futile. He was finished. He looked up and saw the dark shape of the girl towering above him, her body blocking out the overhead clouds.

"You're lucky," she murmured as she flicked her sword at him, her face placid. "You'll be back in a day or two at the most, and you'll try again. And again. Each time, I promise you, you will fail. Just go find someone else."

"Cocky much?" he asked, his voice pained. She shrugged.

"Just the facts," she reiterated. Her voice lacked any heat, any sign of displeasure. Mordecai shivered.

"How... many?" he asked the girl. She cocked her head to the side for a moment, thinking, before she responded.

"You're number six," she answered. He nodded.

"Make it quick? Dragging these things out really bothers me," he said as he looked at the clouds beyond. The girl nodded and slashed her sword downward. No other sound was made as she sheathed the sharp blade.

The teenage girl watched as the body slowly broke down pixel by pixel and become absorbed by the street, forgotten as the now-deceased Mordecai no longer resembled his impressive self. She waited until the last shred of clothing had been reabsorbed into the street before she looked around and grimaced. Bad enough the Grinder mission had cost me so much energy, she thought. She had been nearly unprepared for the ambush Mordecai had set up, and only a stray bit of rubble knocked loose by one of his tripwires had alerted her to his presence. Sloppy, she thought.

Her eyes tracked skyward and, sure enough, the familiar black letters appeared. She grinned and raised her right hand into the air, her fist clenched. Victory, she thought as the warm realization flooded her. She read the message above her:

Mission Completed.

She looked over her shoulder at the fallen building and smiled as it slowly began, brick by brick, to rebuild itself. She knew that within an hour or so, the building would look as though it had never been brought down by explosives. She grinned, youthful exuberance spread across her face. Normal people would have called it beautiful. Ancient Finns would have recognized it as something far more different and terrifying. She whooped loudly, her voice echoing down the streets of the city.

"God, I love this game!"

* * * *

- 1 -

"Daddy!" a youthful, teenaged female voice screeched throughout the house. A pile of clothing flew across the room and landed haphazardly upon the open suitcase, scuffed and worn from years of use. They joined another, smaller pile of shirts which had already been tossed earlier in the general direction of the suitcase. The girl growled under her breath and looked around her room, her temper growing more profound by the second. Her face was beet-red from anger, which caused her freckles to stand out that much more. It was an odd contrast to her blue eyes and blonde hair.

Down the hallway and safely behind a closed door, the hapless father of the ticking time bomb sighed as he folded a dress shirt carefully and set it on top of the neat pile. He glanced at the closed door and wondered briefly if he could pretend to have not heard. He shook his head and decided that ignoring her would only lead to mayhem and destruction, something he had been trying to avoid for the past week since he had come home with the news.

He walked slowly over to his bedroom door and opened it cautiously, expecting the freckled face of his daughter standing in the doorway. He was pleasantly surprised when he realized that she was still in her old room. Instead of walking down the hall to see what she wanted, he decided that some distance between them might be prudent.

"What is it, Tori?" Rodney Adams called out to his only child.

"I can't find my Pooh shirt!" came the half-hysterical cry. "I checked everywhere and it's not here!" Rodney sighed again. There were some days when he wondered if she was a reward to him for his own troubled, turbulent teenaged years.

"Did you check your dresser drawers?" He called back patiently. The last thing they needed, he thought as he ducked back inside his own room, was Tori throwing a massive temper tantrum before they left for Germany. Fifteen or not, Rodney knew his daughter was more than capable of tears and hysteria.

Tori looked up suspiciously towards her father's room, her temper threatening to boil over. She shifted her gaze angrily to the dresser, whose drawers were all partially opened with clothes pulled halfway out. She balled her hands open and closed rapidly, struggling to control both her breathing and her voice. She counted to five, slowly, before she answered.

"Of course I checked the drawers!" she hollered back as she got up off her knees and walked to the dresser. She rummaged through the top drawer as she continued to yell back to her father. "I checked in the drawer five times, and I don't think it magically... well, crappy."

She pulled out the offending t-shirt and looked at the smiling, yellowish bear featured prominently on the front. The bear smiled mockingly at her and she felt her anger rapidly dissipate, replaced by a very acute sense of embarrassment. She glanced back towards her father's room, but the door had been closed once more.

"I checked here five times," she told the offending shirt as she tossed it over to her suitcase. She turned her embarrassment upon the dresser. "You're an evil dresser, you know."

She dusted her jeans off and looked around the disheveled room. Most of her personal belongings had already been packed, save for the contents of her dresser. The move, while sudden, was not nearly as difficult as her friends had predicted it would be. Of course, she thought as she cleaned out the remaining articles of clothing from the top drawer, not all of them had hired movers to lift and carry the heavy stuff.

She dropped the clothes onto the growing pile in the suitcase and looked around at the bare walls of her room. Daylight filtered in through the windows, and the near-empty room looked bleak and barren. She felt a surprising pang of loss and sadness as she spotted one stain in particular on the hardwood floor. She had made it years before, when they had first moved into the house. Back when her family was whole, before her mother...

She shook off the thought with a sigh and walked over to her closet. It was empty, with the exception of a lone winter coat her father had warned her to keep on her as they traveled. Though it was warm now, he reminded her it would probably be colder in Germany when they arrived. She grabbed the jacket, then threw it onto the bare bed, her anger slowly returning to her.

"It's not fair," she muttered as she rubbed her face. She was exhausted and knew that this was probably why she was being bitchy. "When's my stuff getting there, anyways?" she called out loudly as she turned towards her bedroom door once more.

Her father winced and smiled ruefully as she blushed with embarrassment when she saw him standing in her doorway. She opened her mouth to apologize, but Rodney beat her to it.

"Two weeks, more than likely," he reminded her as he looked around her near-Spartan room. "It has to travel by boat to Germany, then come south from Hamburg. Remember?"

"Sorry," she apologized as the pain and sadness returned to her heart with surprising speed. She looked down at the floor, uncertain. "I thought you were still in your room."

"I know," he said and made a small motion with his hand. Tori shuffled over to her father and leaned against him, her head gently resting in his chest. She closed her eyes.

"I hate this," she sniffled as tears suddenly flooded her eyes.

"I know," he repeated gently as he patted her shoulder. He reached out and hugged his daughter. "I wasn't looking forward to this day, you know."

Rodney glanced around the room again and smiled sadly. The scuffed hardwood floors, the odd stain on the wall that Tori had caused when she was just a toddler and had decided that Newton's law of gravity did not apply to juice... all these things nearly brought a tear to his own eye. He looked back down at his daughter and smiled. "But remember the positives. You get to keep going to the same school, better snow skiing, a bigger house. It's a new start, just the two of us."

Tori sniffled and wiped her nose on her arm. She looked up pleadingly at her father. "But do you have to take the promotion?"

Rodney chuckled softly. "Mr. Champion prefers that his employees take promotions when they are earned. I'm more inclined to say 'yes' to a promotion, especially one that pays as well as this one does."

"Will I have to learn German?" Tori asked as she met her father's eyes. Rodney shook his head and squeezed her tightly, once.

"Not if you don't want to," he replied. "Though it might come in handy if we're going to live there for more than a few years."

"I want to go to college over here," she reminded him, giving him a pointed look. "I want to go to MIT."

"I know, sweetie," he said as he took a step back. "But a foreign language might help you get ahead in a career field, plus help out in college."

"Binary is a foreign language," she said humorously. Rodney shrugged and smiled.

"Only to Mundanes," he countered. He suddenly remembered what they had discussed with the principal of her school. "You won't even have to change schools. They'll teach you online, remember? You'd still have Mrs. Miller, at least."

"The only teacher who likes me," Tori groused quietly. Her father, though, had excellent hearing and grinned.

"They like you, Tori," he chided her gently. "It's just not every day that a teacher runs into a student who knows as much of the study matter as they do."

"Mr. Cloyd has a weird sense of appreciation," she grumbled. She looked at her bed. "Are the movers really going to pack everything else up for me?"

"Yep." Rodney nodded. "Just take enough clothes for a week, like we planned, and I'll buy us some more when we get there. There's a store on the old base that has lots of stuff. Base exchange, or something like that." He paused for a moment, thinking. His eyes brightened as he thought of something that was almost certain to cheer her up. "You remembered to pack that game of yours, right?"

"Of course I packed it," she said and shot a look at her other, neatly packed bag near the doorway. She made a quick gesture in its general direction. "It's the first thing I packed!" Rodney chuckled and retreated from her room, leaving Tori alone with her thoughts once more.

"Today, America," she whispered as she looked around her room. "Tomorrow, Germany. And I don't even speak their language. Man, this royally sucks."

She glanced back towards her father's room as an idea began to form in her head. While she knew that the flight was going to be a long eighteen hours, it did not mean she would be completely out of the loop. There were some things she could finish before she got on the plane.

"Daddy, can I use your computer?" she called out. She heard a grunt, which she liberally interpreted as a "yes", and hurried out of her room. She rushed down the winding stairs and nearly tripped on a box she had packed the day before as she moved quickly through the living room. In the kitchen, next to the cursed coffee machine from hell, sat her father's satellite laptop. She grabbed the laptop and moved it to the kitchen table. She sat down into one of the chairs and logged on.

"Excellent," she murmured as she finished opening her email. She spotted the reply email from her team leader, Sergio. She clicked the link and the email opened.

Tori, the message began. The Helldiver mission can wait for you to get back online. The others said no problem, and to have a safe flight. See ya soon.

She laughed under her breath and began typing a response. A few seconds later she sent the email across the Net. Her mood drastically improved.

"Now, back to the joy of packing," she muttered, though it now seemed more of a trivial matter than an impending one. She recalled one last piece of advice her father had given her: take a lot of clothing. She climbed the stairs and went back to her room.

"Remember to leave a coat out for the flight," her father called needlessly from his room. Tori scowled.

"It's summer," she protested. "Sum-mer. Means it's warm."

"Humor me."

"Fine, Daddy," she grumbled and began to finish her packing.

The tavern was a dusky place during the daytime. Most countries had long banned public smoking, but within The Warp, normal laws did not apply. Therefore, anybody who wanted to smoke could. Another odd quirk of the game, the Moderator mused as he peered through the thick smoke.

He had walked into the tavern with his Moderator status hidden from the groups of players within. He didn't want to cause a panic, nor give up his identity so soon. Besides, Moderators were supposed to be banned from taverns, which were designated safe zones within The Warp. If players didn't believe that taverns were safe from Moderators, he thought as he deftly avoided being nudged by a busty woman walking in the other direction, then nobody would use them. He would be deprived of information. And information, he remembered from years of experience, was power.

He had no luck in finding an open seat; the tavern was, oddly enough, packed for a Thursday morning. He grumbled and looked towards the bar, one of the few places in a tavern he hated to be. It blocked his view of certain areas, while also being the one place where loners would go to act cool. The lone ranger look, while psychologically cool, was a complete hyperbole of a player's ability. Most, if not all, of the good players attracted others to help, or be helped. Politics were a huge aspect of The Warp, especially within Crisis itself.

The Warp, a cast gaming system created a dozen years before, was a complex web of server-maintained worlds, where one could do almost anything on the Net. Want to participate in ancient Roman battles? The Gladiator realm could take care of you. Want to participate in the most indescribable acts of indecency and sexual encounters? There were places for those as well, though he tended to avoid the worst of the bunch. Too many undercover policemen masquerading as participants, he remembered as he finally managed to squeeze between two hulking players and order a drink. Crisis, though...

Crisis, within The Warp, was the game. Mixing the difficulties of sequencing, coding and player interaction, it also allowed for complex political arrangements between teams, players and even Moderators. One could be the best gamer in the world, but in Crisis, that individual better have savvy people skills, or they could just end up another notch on a good teams' belt. Or better still, he thought with a small smile, a nice little reward for me to collect.

Crisis also was unique in many other aspects of gaming. The first was the ability to handle over a hundred thousand player accounts at one time online with no lag. This allowed for many, many players to be in at one time. Moderators loved busy Saturday nights, because it meant a target-rich environment. WarpSoft loved Saturday nights, because of the amount of money Crisis and others brought in. Players loved Saturday night more than most; the single girls who played were almost guaranteed to enjoy the attention and company of the virtual hunks, nerds they may be on the outside world. Within The Warp, however, most everybody had the body of Greek gods. Chalk a moral victory up within the cyber community. Nobody could make fun of looks here, he smiled inwardly.

It also was the only game that penalized a character for dying. If a character died within the world, on a mission, it was promptly erased. No questions, no arguments. It forced players, young and old, to make tactically sound decisions and prevented would-be players from simply sacrificing a life to get further into the game. The normal life bars and recharge kits were there, as well as a few potions and codes which could bring a dead player back. These codes, however, were so few and far between that many players doubted they even existed.

I had one, long before when I was just a wee little player, he remembered as he took a sip of the tangy brew. The bartender, being a part of the game itself, a program embedded within the trillions of lines of coding for the tavern alone, knew his drinking tendencies better than his regular bartender outside of The Warp. He sipped the mimosa slowly, smacked his lips appreciatively, and looked around the bar.

Many characters were seated around a varied collection of tables, each voice adding to the raucous noise. The lone wolves at the bar were filled with bravado regarding their latest conquest and how they had dodged the evil Moderator in the nick of time. He smiled. There was no way any of these players had even knowingly seen a Moderator, he guessed. They'd probably wet themselves if they knew a Mod was ten feet from them, sipping a drink. Heh.

Each player at the bar seemed to be regaling their friends about their latest exploits, he noticed as he threaded his way through the crowded room towards a seemingly unoccupied table. From one of the seats on the far side of the table, he would be able to see out both the front door and the windows, where the snow-covered mountains towered above in the distance.

He blinked suddenly as five people suddenly appeared, sitting around a table that had not been there moments before. He glanced back over his shoulder, but nobody in the tavern seemed to notice their sudden arrival. He shook his head and wondered, for a moment, what exactly he had gotten himself into. He sidled up to them cautiously, a smile on his lips.

"That," he said with a courteous nod to the group as he stopped next to the lone vacant chair remaining, "was one hell of a cloaking code. Whose is it?"

"Mine," one of the men said. The Moderator looked the seated man over for a second before he tilted his head towards the vacant chair.

"Mind if I sit?" he asked the group.

"If your name's Parish, sure," the same man answered.

Parish, his Moderator status still hidden from any casual viewers, sat down in the chair and set his drink on the table as he looked at the others in the group. The original speaker took a sip of his own drink and waited for him to be situated before he continued.

"Mind if I cloak us again?" he asked Parish, who nodded.

Parish shifted his gaze from the apparent leader of the group to the lone woman seated across from him. Her long, silvery hair was tied back into a ponytail and her eyes shimmered blue. Her features were sharp but not unattractive, something most beginning players in Crisis could not pull off without serious computer knowledge. He whistled internally at the woman's coding skills as he looked into her eyes. The eyes, it seemed, were rippling in the dimly lit tavern light. A very cool effect, he noted as his eyes lowered slightly.

"Put your eyes back in," she growled in a low voice, husky in a sense that defined sexiness. He coughed slightly in embarrassment. His eyes returned to hers and, instead of anger, he saw her smiling. Confused, he looked to her left, where a man with flaming red hair was quietly sipping what looked like a pina colada. The team leader, he surmised once more.

"Sorry," Parish apologized half-heartedly to the woman without taking his eyes off the man with the flaming red hair.

"So," the man with the flaming red hair began, "Monsieur Parish. I take it you weren't followed?"

Parish snorted in derision as he reached for his mimosa. "One of the en finites couldn't have followed me. I'm good at what I do, you know."

"Oh, we know," the man replied, his voice light and humorous.

"I'm very interested in learning how you found me," Parish commented, his eyes refusing to budge from the man with the flaming red hair. "I'm a hard man to find, even by my employers."

"It wasn't easy," the man admitted with a shrug. "It cost us a lot of money to track you down. But then, you're worth the cost."

"I like my ego inflated, but not overblown," Parish said, his eyes narrowing. He knew from long experience that flattery was the root of all evil.

"My apologies," the man said sincerely, though his face said otherwise. Parish felt some of the tension in his shoulders ease a bit. The group, he decided, was here to make a deal of some sort.

"So what can I do for you folks?" Parish asked them. The man grinned and nodded.

"Moderators need to know their own, for a start," the man said pleasantly. Parish cocked his head slightly but waited for the man to continue. "WarpSoft pays us well, do they not? Hunt the en finites, keep balance and order in a game specifically designed to be chaotic and unbalanced. We are sheep dogs in a virtual society."

"And it's a job that fifty million people would kill to have," Parish added, some of the tension in his shoulders returning. "Who are you?"

"My name is Apollo," the man with the flaming red hair answered. He made a motion to the woman seated across from Parish. "You've met the lovely Pegasus, and the hulking brute to her left is Gorilla, and next to him is Moonbat. The quiet, thin little man next to you is called Gargoyle. That rounds out my merry little band."

"Nice to meet you all," he said as he turned to look at Gargoyle. He offered the quiet, dark haired man his hand. After a moment of reluctance, Gargoyle accepted the proffered hand. Parish shook it quickly and looked around at the team, thoughts forming in his head.

They're not good hunters, he quickly realized as he peered around at them. One thing he was good at was judging talent and people within The Warp. It made him a better Moderator. Excellent coders, but any geek in his mother's basement can be that. No, they're too flashy, too obvious. These guys want to be feared, but probably don't have the rep to back up their desires. I'd put money that only Gargoyle has any sort of rep worth talking about.

His face, however, did not betray any of his thoughts. "So again, what can I do for you?"

"I've seen your work," Apollo stated casually, looking down at his perfectly manicured fingernails. "You always seem to find your mark and have never failed in a mission to eliminate one of the en finites. You had a masterful career as a character before it died off, quite by accident. Who could have guessed that one of your cowardly compatriots would 'accidentally' shoot you in the back just after you won the mission? In an odd turn of events, WarpSoft offered you a position within the game with your now-eliminated character. You naturally said yes, or we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. Is my brief summary correct?"

"Yes?" Parish guessed, his mind whirling. Only four people knew the reason WarpSoft had offered him a job, and three of them were in the personnel department. Apollo ignored his confusion and pressed onwards.

"You currently have a bachelor's in computer science, a graduate's degree in physics, and a master's in electrical engineering as well," Apollo intoned, his voice light despite the seriousness of the topic. "You also owe over forty thousand in student loans, and have little financial restitution coming soon, save from WarpSoft. You make most of your money as a WarpSoft Moderator; with a side job elsewhere offline. You have two outstanding personal loans as well, both of which are about to go to collections unless payments are made in a prompt manner."

"What the hell is this all about?" Parish demanded, forgetting his caution momentarily as he stood and glared at the fellow Moderator. Parish's dark, swarthy skin was sweating in spite of the relative cool breeze coming through the open windows of the tavern. Apollo motioned for him to sit down and after a few reluctant moments, Parish did.

His heart racing, Parish reevaluated the group in his mind as Apollo spoke again.

"I also understand you have a belief," Apollo continued on as if Parish's outburst had never occurred. "That all information should be shared and distributed amongst all people. That firewalls and trap doors are simply access points to be used for inquiries. Free knowledge. A hacker, in other words."

Parish looked around at the table, sweat beading down the side of his face. If any one of these people were in law enforcement, he realized belatedly as Apollo smiled and waited, I am, quite simply, screwed. So he decided to try a different tack. He tugged on his thick goatee thoughtfully, a small smile playing across his dark face.

"It's not every day I see other Moderators hiding their status within taverns," he said as casually as he could manage in the midst of his nervousness. His voice, cool and unconcerned, carefully hid the nervous breakdown he was going through emotionally. His eyes flickered between the group members, but their poker faces told him little.

Not cops, he thought with no small sense of relief.

"Indeed," Apollo replied easily. "I am not here to 'bust you', as you would say. I am here, in fact, to offer you a business proposition."

Despite himself, Parish's curiosity was piqued. He leaned forward on the table, looking at Apollo carefully. Either the man is the most gifted liar in the world, he decided after a moment, or the game decided that politics had just flown out the door and was now strictly seeing whether or not the Chaos Factor, which controlled the game, would save him. He patiently waited for the man to explain further.

"It's the sort of proposition which would leave you a very wealthy man," Apollo said, his voice smooth and velvety as he took another sip of his drink. "The man who women would want to be with, who men would envy and want to be. If you helped us, you would instantly be a worldwide celebrity."

"Hmm," Parish muttered as he dissected Apollo's pitch mentally. "Say I agree and, for what it's worth, desire these things. What's the catch?"

"It's entirely illegal," the man who Apollo had introduced as Moonbat replied. Apollo gave the younger man a hard look but said nothing. Parish's earlier suspicion as to who was the brains of the outfit was confirmed with the single glance. Moonbat, unabashed, continued. "And it could have far reaching implications. Things that could reshape society."

"Of what sort?" Parish asked, leaning back in his chair. He'd done illegal, though only of the informative sort, and the definition of "illegal" was loosely translated in most courts of law regarding the subject of information.

"The sort that, should we be caught, can be disastrous to us and our cause," Apollo said smoothly, his hair settling down into a mimicry of dancing flames. "The kind that could, if we get away with it, as we will, can change the world."

Parish chuckled, a wild idea forming in his head. "What are you going to do, bring down The Warp?" He laughed louder at the absurdity of the thought. His laughter died quickly, however, when nobody else at the table laughed with him. He swallowed nervously, his mouth dry. "You're serious? Are you nuts?"

"We're going to take down Crisis," Apollo said evenly, his eyes boring into Parish's. Parish coughed and shook his head, thinking rapidly.

"That's impossible," he argued. "WarpSoft can't be taken over as a whole. Crisis can be rebooted from the outside, and the rules would change. Once the rules are changed..." his voice trailed off. Parish rubbed his face with a hand and reached for his mimosa. He took a large gulp of the cold drink and looked back at Apollo.

"Not if we held, say, every player in the game hostage," Pegasus said huskily, her deep blue eyes piercing into Parish. "We could, in theory, upload some sort of virus to prevent reboots and disconnections. If someone were to reboot the game, say for example, the virus could theoretically kick in and destroy some of the memory nodules stored within the brains of players. Or an EMP could burst within their brains while they were fully interfaced, resulting in a coma or worse. There are possibilities here, Parish, should you open your eyes to them."

"But that would mean you'd have to lock out all non-interfacers," Parish said in a shocked voice. "Not everyone trusts the full interface yet, you know."

"See?" Apollo said with another booming laugh as he looked at his allies. "I told you he was smart."

"This is insane," Parish whispered angrily. He cast a baleful look at Apollo, which slid off the man like water off a duck's back. "You're going to risk the lives of thousands of people just for fame and notoriety?"

"And money," Gorilla chimed in helpfully. Parish shifted his gaze to him. The large man shrugged. "If not money, then freedom. Freedom of information."

"Bull," Parish snarled. "And how do you plan on blocking out the other Moderators?" He looked back at Apollo, who shrugged.

"What other Moderators?" Apollo asked, his voice nonchalant as he made a small motion with his hand. He shrugged and looked at Parish.

Oh shit, Parish thought as the man's eyes locked onto his. In his anger, he had forgotten about the other Moderators at the table and an ancient trick, one he himself had used long ago. He activated his escape code and waited long moments for the portal to open beneath his feet and whisk him safely away. After a few moments a sickening realization flooded over him. No portal appeared. His codes had somehow been wiped.

"You blocked me," he swore. He looked wildly around at the group. "How'd you... how'd you do that?" Apollo threw back his head and laughed. Parish winced at the booming laughter.

"I knew you had a trick up your sleeve, Parish," Apollo laughed. Parish struggled to stand and flee, but invisible bindings held him to the chair tightly. He struggled briefly before settling down, defeated. He glared at Apollo, who laughed again. "The portal trapdoor is a clever, if old, trick. Since you obviously do not wish to partake in our great adventure, I shall leave you here. But since I can't have you blabbing our little secret to the world, I'm leaving you here in the chair to observe. This little dampener code we've put in play will make sure you don't run off and ruin our fun. Oh, and for your personal safety, please don't try to exit the game manually. I don't want something unfortunate to happen to you. Plus, if I was forced to eliminate you, the game will ping the server and let the administrators know something odd is going on. Moderators don't kill Moderators within a safe zone, remember? Attention is something we don't need right now."

The group stood as one and began to leave the tavern, leaving the incapacitated Moderator alone. Parish swore under his breath and tried to stand up, but the dampener code the other Moderators had put into place prevented him from so much as leaning forward. A firm hand grabbed his shoulder suddenly, and Parish turned to see the face of the silent Moderator, Gargoyle.

The man leaned close to Parish's ear, his breath hot as he whispered to Parish.

"I don't want to do this, it's wrong," Gargoyle said and waved a hand slightly. Parish looked at him and waited. "But if they thought I would help you, I'd be stuck here with you. Someone will come for you, and that person will be able to destroy the dampener code. Until then, you're going to have to sit and stay out of their way. If you can think of a way to get a message out now, do so."

"Why are you doing this?" Parish hissed through clenched teeth. Gargoyle straightened and looked back towards the door.

"Because I must," he said and walked away.

Parish thought about calling after the other Moderator for a moment before he decided against it. There was more to the other Mod than met the eye, though he had no idea as to what that something was. He sighed and looked at his drink.

Outstanding, he groused as he tried the bonds again. He looked at his mimosa, just out of reach of his hand, and sighed again. Can't even get my drink.

Evil bastards.

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