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Authors: Daniel Suarez

Daemon (9 page)

BOOK: Daemon
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Gragg loved this part. Sometimes severely wounded AI soldiers would surrender.

The injured Kraut held up his hands with melodramatic fear, looking up at Gragg’s avatar. “
Nicht schiessen!

BOOM! Gragg wasted him and reloaded.

The other three surviving members of his squad arrived, reloading their Tommy guns. The chat window started rolling fast and furious now:

Sergeant Hairy Balls> Any more grenades?

Your Retarded Brother> Never been this far!

Go Mets!> Loki, we’ll cover u

Gragg smirked. Like hell, motherfucker. He typed:

Loki> Fuk u. I took out the machine gun

A moment, then Sergeant Hairy Balls’s avatar moved toward some cellar steps. The others followed, with Gragg taking up the rear. This was the way he liked it.

Gragg looked down the stairway. That was the entrance to the wine cellar where he’d seen Oberstleutnant Boerner yesterday. He was going to kill that fucker this time.

Should he warn the others? He calculated whether it was better to share the information and increase the chance of success, or risk it all and keep victory for himself. He decided to let them find out the same way he did.

Hairy Balls tossed a grenade into the cellar and chased the resulting explosion, charging inside with his Thompson blazing. Suddenly the doorway filled with an orange glow, and flames leapt out of the cellar with a throaty roar.

Flamethrower. Boerner was holed up in the cellars with a fucking Flammenwerfer. This was suicide. Hairy Balls was already dead.

The other two players started tossing grenades in through the opening. They ducked in and out of the doorway, chased by roaring flames each time. Gragg knew they were taking damage, but they were helping; a flamethrower had only ten blasts.

By the time the flamethrower was exhausted, Your Retarded Brother was dead, and Go Mets! was badly injured. Gragg knew this because a player’s avatar limped when it had less than 20 percent health—and his companion was limping pitifully.

Gragg let Go Mets! grab the med kits from their fallen comrades, since he was of no use to Gragg dead, and they both charged into the wine cellar, guns blazing. Boerner was nowhere in sight.

Gragg hoped it was Boerner they were chasing, since he was running out of ammo. He typed into the chat window:

Loki> Did u see him?

Go Mets!> No

The wine cellar was dimly lit the last time Gragg was here, but now the fires left by the flamethrower illuminated the place pretty well, so they didn’t have to probe the dark corners of the room behind the wine barrels. From experience Gragg knew that wood textures could ”burn” in
OTR,
so they had to move through here fast, or they might lose any chance of catching Herr OberstLeutnant at all. Gragg glanced up and saw that the beams overhead had caught fire.

Damn! Who designed this level? It’s incredible.

A doorway led through the far wall of the cellar. The exhausted flamethrower pack lay on the stone floor there.

An echoing German voice shouted from that direction: “
Amerikaner!
” It was Boerner, all right.

Gragg rushed forward with Go Mets!, and they took up positions on either side of the doorway. Gragg started leaning in to take a look, when he saw the infamous Heinrich Boerner character stand up from the cover of some crates behind Go Mets!. Boerner was dressed in his trademark SS officer grays with a floor-length greatcoat and an Iron Cross under his chin.

This bastard son of an AI engine had dropped the flamethrower in the exit to make them think he’d left the room, and they both fell for it, like morons.

Boerner leveled a Schmeisser submachine gun at Go Mets!’s back and opened up. To his credit, Go Mets! leapt up like a house cat and spun around, firing wildly with his Thompson. Gragg tried to pump a few rounds in Boerner’s general direction, but Go Mets! was blocking the line of fire.

By the time Gragg circled around and Go Mets! limped to cover, Boerner was moving behind the huge wine tuns again—his evil laugh echoing.

“Fucker, fucker, fucker!” Gragg actually shouted at his flat-screen monitor.

Just then he heard the telltale
clink, clank
of a German potato masher landing in his general vicinity.

“Fuck!” Gragg ducked down and scurried away, but he was still caught by the blast and went flying across the room. He was suddenly down to 15 percent health.

“Damnit!” He pounded his workbench.

The grenades kept coming, and both Gragg and Go Mets! fell back, firing at nothing in particular. By the time they stopped, they were damn near back at the cellar entrance. Embers were falling down around their ears. Gragg lost another 1 percent of health in fire damage.

Gragg tilted his view upward to see the ceiling fully engulfed in flames. The place was filling with smoke. A beam in the corner collapsed, sending up sparks.

Incredible effects.

Gragg turned his view to Go Mets!’s avatar. The guy looked like hell, swaying unsteadily and wheezing.

Gragg aimed the shotgun. BOOM!

Go Mets! fell dead. Gragg collected his med kit and was back up to 39 percent health again.

PK-ing’s a bitch, fella.

Then Gragg realized he was out of shotgun shells. He also had no grenades left. He switched to his Colt pistol. This was laughable; he was up against Boerner with a peashooter.

Good as dead now. Might as well go out fighting.

Gragg’s avatar ran like a wild man across the burning cellar, firing his pistol at nothing in particular. He ran to the doorway on the far side and jumped over the discarded flamethrower pack. He ran full-speed into the darkness.

It was with considerable surprise that he found himself still alive and moving toward a faint light ahead. He stopped to reload his pistol and then continued.

Soon he reached a circular chamber with a beam of sunlight shining down from a hole in the ceiling, illuminating a section of the wall. It appeared to be the basement of a shattered tower. Several barred windows ringed the walls in the shadows. It was a dead end.

Gragg looked back the way he’d come. No wonder Boerner let him in here—now he was trapped.

Gragg wondered why Go Mets! wasn’t flaming him in the chat window for player killing. Perhaps if any of the first squad survived the diversion attack, he could convince them to move up and help out. Gragg hit the
TAB
key to bring up the player list. To his surprise, no one else was playing on the server anymore. There weren’t even any spectators—which is what you turned into after getting killed. All thirty-one human players had disconnected. It was strange. He closed the player list. Maybe they were shunning him for player killing?

Gragg’s avatar moved around the dark room. He noticed the wall where the sunlight struck it. There, in the center of the sunlight, a texture map of chiseled stone spelled out a cryptic message:

m0wFG3PRCoJVTs7JcgBwsOXb3U7yPxBB

Gragg stared at it for a while.
What the hell?

Just then he heard a familiar voice off to his left: “
Amerikaner
.”

Gragg spun left and emptied his Colt in the direction of the voice. It was Boerner all right, standing behind a latticework grate cut into the wall. His shadowy form was partially hidden by the grate. The bullets didn’t seem to have any effect. Apparently the game engine treated the latticework as a solid object—like a bulletproof confessional.

In a few seconds Gragg’s pistol was empty. As he stood there, his gun still aimed at Boerner, the SS officer took out a lighter and lit a cigarette at the end of a long black filter. The orange glow lit up his hawkish, Aryan face for a moment.

The Oberstleutnant’s dark eyes turned to Gragg’s avatar. “You haf played long. Haf you no job?”

Gragg’s jaded eyes widened in amazement.

Who the hell created this map?

Boerner continued to smoke calmly. On a lark, Gragg hit a hotkey for game taunts. His avatar shouted at Boerner:
“I think the Germans are out of real men!”

Boerner frowned. “Stop zat nonsense.”

At his computer, Gragg stood up, kicked his chair back and gripped his head in mute amazement. His eyes quickly returned to the screen.

Boerner took another drag on his cigarette. “Are you a brain-dead punk”—he motioned to the text centered in the sunlight on the wall—“or do you haf useful knowledge, yes? If you do, use your key, and ve vill meet again.” He clenched his teeth on the cigarette filter, smiled darkly, then turned and walked away—laughing his (literally) trademark evil laugh. It echoed in the halls.

Gragg watched him go, then turned to face the writing on the wall again. He hit a key combination for the in-game camera to snap a screen capture.

The moment he did so, he was ejected from the game. The Houston Monte Cassino server never appeared in the public listings again.

Chapter 10:// In the Air

R
oss leaned against Sebeck’s unmarked police cruiser. It was parked on the shoulder of Potrero Road. “Do you need directions to Woodland Hills, Sergeant?”

“Just a brief detour.”

“What is this, the first murder scene?”

“Down that dirt road.” Sebeck pointed back at the closed steel gate. He stood in front of the steel winch box. A police warning tag hung from the winch housing.

Sebeck noticed that the steel cable was coiled on the ground beyond the chain-link fence, stretching out of sight downhill. The county probably lowered it to avoid any additional accidents. “Hang on a sec.” Sebeck keyed a handheld radio. “Unit 992, this is D-19, over.” Sebeck looked to Ross again. “We have a patrol unit guarding the murder scene down below.”

A voice crackled over the radio,
“Unit 992, over.”

“I’m at your 20. I need to raise this cable. Is the area clear down there? Over.”

“Ten-four. Area clear, D-19. Over.”

“Stand by. Out.”

Sebeck clipped the radio onto his belt under his sports coat. He produced a ziplock bag from his pocket and unrolled it. It contained keys and a remote control. He removed the keys and flipped through them. He used one to unlock the winch housing. He flipped open the door, then searched for the key to the winch. He inserted the key and turned it in the lock.

The winch motor kicked to life, grinding like a powerful can opener. Sebeck leaned around the side of the winch housing to check the progress of the cable. It wasn’t budging.

Ross looked on from his position at the car. “You turning it the right way?”

Sebeck stopped it. He pointed to the arrows next to the lock. “It says ‘In.’ I’m turning it to ‘In.’ This is ‘Out.’”

He cranked it the other way. The winch paid out a small bit of cable before clicking to a stop. “See? That’s ‘Out.’”

Sebeck cranked it the other way again. The motor ran, but it didn’t even retrieve the small amount he had just paid out. The winch mechanism would not engage even though the motor was running. He stopped it and pulled the key out.

“That’s strange. Although, now that I think about it, the handyman said the cable didn’t come out of the ground when he ran the winch.”

Ross looked puzzled. “The cable was in the ground?”

“Yeah. It was buried in the ground, and the handyman got a faked e-mail from the management company to come over and run the winch.”

Ross came up alongside and studied the winch housing. “If running the winch doesn’t do anything, why bother to send a spoofed e-mail to have someone run it?”

“It is strange. The FBI lab will probably take it apart.” Sebeck pulled out a pad and pen. He started writing down brand, model, and serial numbers for the winch. “Any writing on that side?”

Ross shook his head.

In a moment they were done, and Sebeck put his pad away. “I want to take another look at the murder scene while I’m here. It’ll only be a few minutes.” They returned to the cruiser. Before getting back into the car, Sebeck pulled the remote control from the ziplock bag and pointed it at the gate. He clicked it.

The gate squeaked once, then started swinging open. Another, familiar sound came to Sebeck’s ears, and he cocked his head to listen closely. Ross’s hand slapped across his chest, startling him. He glared at Ross, who was pointing. Sebeck followed his finger.

The winch was running, pulling the steel cable taut.

It took the final clang of the gate stopping to rouse them from their stunned silence. The cable was as taut as a piano wire.

Sebeck looked at Ross.

Ross pointed at the remote. “Whose remote is that?”

Sebeck looked down at it. Then nodded appreciatively. “It belonged to Joseph Pavlos. The victim.”

Ross nodded back. “That’s about right. Otherwise, the cable might be discovered too early, and the murder attempt would fail.”

Sebeck pondered it. “But then why send someone out here to run the winch if the key didn’t do anything? Like you said: why fake the work order?”

They both thought about it for a few moments.

Ross turned to Sebeck again. “What was the first thing you did after finding out the handyman ran the winch?”

“We detained him and requested a search warrant for the property management office.”

“And how much time did you spend waiting for the warrant and searching the office?”

Sebeck grimaced. “Long enough for the second victim to die.”

“So maybe it was a distraction to give him time to kill the second programmer.”

“Then the bigger question is: why was it so important to kill these programmers?”

Ross frowned.

Sebeck watched him closely. “What?”

Ross hesitated. “The Egyptian pharaohs slew the workers who built their pyramids—”

“The programmers knew too much.”

“Maybe. Maybe Sobol had some help to code this thing. He was dying of cancer, after all.”

“But why on earth would they help him? Pavlos rode his dirt bike out here all the time. He’d have to notice this was designed to kill him.”

Ross leaned back against the hood of the car. “I’m guessing they didn’t design this part. Sobol probably did that. They probably coded other parts. Maybe parts we haven’t seen yet.”

They stood there a moment in silence, weighing the significance of this.

Ross was the first to break the silence. “It’s interesting that this Singh guy died trying to get into a server farm.”

“Why’s that interesting?”

“Well, a server farm is basically a big data storage vault. Racks and racks of servers.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, if I were a programmer trying to get to a secret cache of data—or to physically stop some machine from running—perhaps I’d head for that server farm.”

Sebeck leaned onto the car hood next to Ross.

“Okay, so Singh, who probably works closely with Pavlos, hears about Pavlos’s death and makes a beeline for the server farm. Sobol anticipated this and kills him when he tries to enter. So you think there’s something in the server farm?”

“Probably not anymore. It sounds like Sobol found whatever Singh put there. So what was Singh working on at CyberStorm? Do you know?”

Sebeck strained to remember the name of Singh’s project. “Singh was lead programmer for a game called…
Gate
?”

“The Gate?”

“Yeah,
The Gate.”

Ross let out a pained groan.

“What now?”

“Do you know the story line for
The Gate,
Sergeant?”

Sebeck gave Ross a look. Clearly he did not.

“It’s about a cult opening a gate to the Abyss and releasing a demon that lays waste to the world.”

Sebeck just stared at him.

Ross laughed. “I’m talking about Sobol’s
game,
Sergeant—I don’t believe in demons and devils.”

“Good. You had me worried for a second.”

“The only daemon I’m worried about is the Unix variety. There’s a delicious irony here that I don’t think Sobol would be able to resist. You’d know what I’m talking about if you played his games. Now consider this:
The Gate
is an MMORPG.”

“What the hell is that?”

“A massively multi-player online role-playing game.”

“And what the hell is
that
?”

“It’s a persistent 3-D game world experienced simultaneously by tens of thousands of players over the Internet.”

Sebeck pointed at Ross. “Okay, now that sounds bad.”

“In this case it’s very bad.”

“Well, the Feds powered down the whole server farm last night. There’s not a pocket calculator running over at CyberStorm now. So whatever he planned is…”

Ross didn’t look reassured.

Sebeck persisted, “I mean, hell, whoever did this couldn’t put tens of thousands of steel cables and electrocution traps in people’s houses. Failing that, this is basically just another computer virus.”

Ross jerked his thumb. “I need my laptop.” He walked back and pulled his laptop case from the rear seat. He laid it on the trunk and unzipped the top compartment.

Sebeck walked up to him. “What are you doing now?”

Ross had a credit-card-sized device in his hand. He scanned the area with it. “I’m seeing if there’s a Wi-Fi signal in this area.” He looked to Sebeck. “And there is.” He pointed to the meter on the device, which indicated a strong signal.

Sebeck took the device and examined it while Ross started unpacking his laptop. “Okay, so what’s this prove?”

Ross pointed to the gate down the road. “We need some indication that we’re on the right track.”

“And this does that?”

“Well, for starters it confirms that the gate or the winch could be wirelessly hooked in to the Internet.”

“Like the black box over at CyberStorm.”

“Right. It means a living human being didn’t have to be involved in this. The news reports said Joseph Pavlos went riding down here just about every day. That means his gate remote became a murder weapon only
after
Sobol died.”

Sebeck nodded. “Meaning the Daemon told the gate to kill Pavlos after it read the news of Sobol’s death.”

“That’s what I’m thinking. Now we’ll see what I can glean from this wireless network.”

Sebeck leaned over Ross’s shoulder as his laptop booted up. “What are you looking for?”

“The usual: whatever I can find.” Ross logged on to his laptop, shielding his logon from Sebeck. Then he launched NetStumbler and waited for it to initialize. “This is a freeware program that helps me see wireless networks.”

“I’m not computer illiterate, Jon. I have a wireless network at home.”

Ross turned the laptop so the wireless card faced the Wi-Fi signal, and he almost pushed his laptop off the trunk lid. He caught it just in time, held on to it, and continued scanning.

In a moment Ross smiled. “Oh yeah. I picked up an AP.” His face suddenly got serious. He looked up at Sebeck.

Sebeck moved over to him. “What?”

“If there’s one thing I know from playing Sobol’s games, it’s this: time works against you. You need to act fast or you’re dead.”

“Okay, and…?”

Ross turned the laptop around for Sebeck to see.

Sebeck leaned down. The single entry in the NetStumbler window showed text under a column labeled SSID. The text read simply:

DAEMON_63

“I’d say there’s more trouble coming, Sergeant.”

Sebeck pointed. “Get in the car.”

BOOK: Daemon
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