The Game: Chapter 7

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Chapter 7

When August logged into the NetMeet room, John was nowhere to be found.

She sighed. Not the first time he'd sent her an urgent message and left her waiting. No longer surprising, but it was hard to stop hoping.

The room was devoid of all but bare functionality. The walls, ceiling and floor were flat black planes. The only thing distinguishing its shape was the outline of each plane. It was less a room and more the conception of a room, as drawn by a child just learning to represent three dimensions.Centered in the room was a white table and chair, serving as a metaphor for the meeting point of Net 3.0 architecture; through NetMeet, any user could talk to any other user in any program.

August smoothed her tank top, pulled up her jeans and ruffled her hair. She had come from Shattered Land and would use her Shattered Land avatar. It was a good likeness and the clothes suited her figure, though they were plainer than she might have preferred, given more notice.

She sat at the table to prepare her report.

Played moderator for Donald Marsh's group for a few hours. Made a generally strong impression again (I think). Hoping that with a few more good performances I'll have a shot at promotion with accompanying security clearance. Met a potentially useful new contact. Planning to investigate further.

Usefulness aside, the contact—James, rather—had turned out to be interesting. During the event he had played along to a greater extent than the others ever had. He instinctively knew how to push buttons, how to get people invested. Strange that he had never been invited along before. After just one event, he had become integral to the unit.

August sat for ten minutes, reviewing ad nauseam. When it began to seem that she would sit there staring at white on black until her vision went permanently monochromatic, the table sprouted a screen from its surface: a real-time view of John Ward at his work desk.

Canberra was sixteen hours ahead of New York. Though it was four in the morning for August, it was evening for John. It hadn't been wildly out of whack to hope John might be at a game center with some time to actually visit and interact. Obviously, in retrospect, if that was the case he would have logged into Shattered Land instead of calling August to NetMeet.

Despite the disappointment, August conjured a brilliant smile. She was good at showing what she wanted to show.

"Hi babe," she said. "Held up, were you?"

"Pack of galahs here, as usual. Director called me in, and just as I got out and texted, the Agent in Charge called as well. More projects, less resources, same old bloody story." John waved a hand like brushing away gnats. "Any news?"

August recounted the summary she had refined to the last detail. It was obvious that today's report was the same as every report for three years: baby steps disguised as no steps at all, if not the other way around. When she got to the part about James, however, John's posture straightened. He looked more interested than in anything she'd had to say for longer than she cared to think about. For a moment, hope flared that it might be jealousy.

"He was in the bar, just now? This James?"

"Yes, we'd got a drink and—"

"Was it James Kirkpatrick?"

"I ... don't know. Didn't ask his last name."

"Bloody hell, woman, why not? Got to be him. Get back in there before he gets away."

"I don't understand ... what's the fuss again?"

"James Kirkpatrick!" John barked. "Donald Marsh's best friend. The one he grew up with. The one who supposedly doesn't play games or have anything to do with UCC. What've you been investigating if you don't know something so fundamental?"

August blinked at the screen. "Oh hell, he's that James? ...Of course he is. Fuck me sideways."

John was rubbing his face. "Look. Go back, find him and keep him engaged. Build rapport. You know the drill. And by God, do a better job than with Marsh and the secretary."

"D'you really think he knows anything? He's so uninvolved I forgot he bloody existed."

"That's what always made him suspicious." John's eyes narrowed. "Someone that thick with Marsh ... no way he went twenty fucking years with that devil and wasn't involved. He was so clean I knew he was balls deep. The man's a cipher and you're the one to crack him."

"I—"

"Stop sitting around talking and get on him before he vanishes back into that meager existence of his. Fuck's sake, this might be our last chance. Use any means necessary to get in good and find something. Understand? Any. Means."

He clicked off.

August was left at the featureless white table in the featureless black room, vaguely excited that chess pieces might finally be moving—and in desperate pain that to John, she was just one of those pieces.

She phased out of NetMeet and back into Shattered Land, looking for James Kirkpatrick, heart beating wildly in her chest.

But he was gone.

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