War and Peace: Chapter 43

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Chapter 43

August wasted half the day just sorting herself out.

She stared at the ceiling for hours, finding nothing but stucco. Then she took a hard run, sweat pouring from her body in the winter air. Finally she stood under scalding spray in the shower until steam had her woozy, then stretched out on the bed in only a towel, back to staring at the ceiling again.

To fight the looming opponent, she first defined it: the NSA; the CIA; possibly the DoD itself; an unlimited well of black-ops funding; a sentient artificial intelligence capable of controlling the global flow of information. Set against that, the team of August, James and Imran Muhammad were mice before men.

For even a hope of victory, they needed a backer and protector, the ideal candidate being a foreign government. In the U.S., the enemy controlled every channel of information and branch of authority. But if they were to operate from foreign soil, they would be relatively immune to retaliation. The opponent couldn't mobilize so far as to invade a sovereign territory.

Hopefully.

Imran had already lost his country; James was fully American. That left only August with a connection to a candidate nation.

A connection that lay squarely in the lap of John Ward.

August didn't regret their final conversation. She hadn't changed her mind. Yet now, in preparation to confront the greatest hidden power in the world, she needed that connection as never before.

Meaning she would have to call him.

Hey, look. About that thing before—yeah, let's forget that. I need help.

John Ward. A brilliant man. A proud man. And stubborn. There was better than half a chance that he would think she was having second thoughts about the end of their relationship and just wanted to go back.

Or was it her own pride and stubbornness that kept her from acknowledging there was no other way?

August put her hand palm-down on the bed, on the spot where James had sat more than once while brainstorming or arguing or sitting in companionable silence with her.

She didn't want James to think she was running back to her ex. Something as juvenile as that was keeping her from making a snap decision.

Bloody hell. He loves Kanade, you idiot.

August pushed up off the bed. By the time she was dressed and had eaten, she was calmer. John Ward and the ASIS were her trump cards, or at least her jokers, but she wasn't ready to make that call yet.

She needed to contact Imran Muhammad. But how? He switched cell phones like most people switched underwear. Where he lived was a mystery, so she couldn't knock on his door ... which would have been dangerously stupid anyway, since all three of them were certainly on a list somewhere as persons of interest, or some other euphemism for one foot in the grave.

Suddenly, it was so obvious: where there was Jaleet, there was Imran. All August had to do was log in to Shattered Land.

She sat on the couch, put on the headset, and pushed the button to enter.

But nothing happened.

***

Half an hour messing with cables and settings came to no result.

The Shattered Land world server was functioning. August could see that from her phone's monitoring application. But the problem didn't seem to be on her end, either.

Why couldn't she log in?

Her calls to technical support were just as odd. Every time it rang through, the phone buzzed and went dead without even the usual your call is important to us. Finally, she called the direct line to management. It rang thirty times, and when someone eventually answered, the voice was breathless and irritated.

"Yeah, what?"

"Bryce?" August hazarded.

"Evans?"

"Oy, what's the problem?"

"It's a freaking gong show. Get your ass to the office."

"What? Why?"

"What do you mean, why? Nobody can get into the fucking game."

"I can work from here..."

"Everybody who knows anything is combing the registries by hand. I know you're in scenarios, but you took database in school, right? And you know math. And why am I explaining myself to you? Get here, yesterday."

***

"It all seems right peachy."

"That's not the answer I'm looking for."

"Well, it's the one you've got."

August sat at a workstation in quality control, surrounded by cubicles occupied by other disgruntled techs called in on their days off. Bryce was standing over her, grinding a fist into his temple, blond hair flat in some places and sticking straight out in others like he had just crawled out of bed with a hundred degree fever.

"Also," August said, "how'd I turn out to be the one you've glommed on to? Go bother these other sods."

"They're all just uselessly fiddling around."

"What's it look like I'm doing, then? I can't bloody find anything."

"If you get Bannigan here, I won't bug you." Bryce slumped into a corner of the cubicle, leaning his head back against the divider. "Over an hour and I've got jack diddly. Julia ... where are you..."

August sighed, stretching her arms out behind her chair to work out the kinks. "Where's everyone gotten to?"

Bryce shrugged miserably. "If I knew that, I'd be on their asses instead of yours."

"It's Donald's project. What's he doing?"

"Can't find him," Bryce said, in a monotone. "Julia ... Julia..."

August frowned, punching in a new query to the server. It returned a null value for the past ninety minutes.

"Bryce," she said.

"Yeah?" The eager expression on his face was almost too sad for words. "What you got?"

"Nothing good," August said. Bryce's smile began to fade. "We've all been so focused on why nobody can get in that we didn't check who's been coming out."

"Coming out?" Bryce narrowed his eyes. "Who?"

"No one."

"Huh?"

"No logouts for over an hour."

"What? Why hasn't anyone said anything?"

"Who would? The biggest event we've ever held is on right now. The game centers'd not be expecting many logouts. But none is a good sight different than not many. Got to be why we can't find our people. They're stuck inside and don't even realize."

Bryce stood straight, running a hand through his hair in a vain attempt to look presentable. "Shit. Shit. I've got to call ... someone. Gordon. No, everyone. Shit. Okay, good work ... I guess. Just keep ... doing whatever. Find some way out of this before we all get fired."

August was barely listening. She punched commands into her keyboard as fast as it could take them, sweat gathering on her brow.

No logins was one problem, no logouts quite another. People were trapped inside, and it was only a matter of time before word got loose.

What the bloody hell is going on?

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