War and Peace: Chapter 45

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Chapter 45

"Hey! This isn't the time to flee the scene!"

"I'm going to the loo," August said, shaking Bryce off her arm in annoyance. "Bloody hell, a girl's gotta pee."

"Ah. Right. Okay."

Bryce was still in charge because no one above him could be found, and he was clinging to August like someone's lost toddler. Tech support wasn't even her department. Flattering, in a moronic way, but also irritating as hell.

August took her time wending through the corridors of cubicle city. She had been roped in to work only by her need to maintain cover. She couldn't lose sight of the real issue, but it was a bad time to draw attention. It would be best to get out of this as quickly as possible without having to quit her job. The only way to do that was to help stupid Bryce fix the game.

She splashed cold water on her face from the restroom faucet to clear her head, but her vague disquiet only worsened.

A glitch in the game had nothing to do with anything. Glitches were inevitable. The only thing different today was that UCC's big secret was no longer fully secret. That coincidence was hard to ignore, but August couldn't wrap her head around the implications. What was the AI that had designed the game doing? Why it wasn't fixing the problem? Was it because the only person who could directly control the AI was Donald, who was stuck inside the game himself? Something about that didn't make sense.

All August could do was get back to her cubicle and help Bryce run his army of useless techs. If enough people worked on the problem for long enough, surely something had to give.

***

An hour passed during which August's faith in the roach-like resilience of humanity was slowly shaken.

Nothing of use was accomplished, by her or anyone else. The only significant event was an order coming down from on high; apparently someone had finally gotten ahold of Gordon Marsh, on vacation who knew where and not returning until who knew when. The message consisted of a single command: no matter what, all UCC employees were forbidden from simply taking the headsets off of everyone who was trapped in the game.

August couldn't make heads or tails of that, and things were rapidly coming to a point where there would be no other options. It was a matter of time until someone called the police because their spouse or adult offspring had gone to a Shattered Land game center and hadn't been heard from since.

Not that August particularly cared. If she stopped trying to fix things and let the situation take its course, maybe UCC would collapse without her or James taking any action at all.

August kept working anyway. Not because Bryce was alternating between sweating, shaking, and shouting in her ear, but because she was living in a dream world to believe that the dissolution of UCC as a game company would solve the underlying problem. The NSA had a sentient AI and a vast server farm for it to inhabit; the only irreplaceable thing keeping UCC in the loop was Donald Marsh. Whatever happened to the company, Donald was too important to take the fall.

Still, anything that set UCC and the shadow government back a step could only be a plus. Dictatorships and foreign markets could breathe a sigh of relief for every hour's delay in whatever project was on the board for ... what was it that James had called it?

DE-16?

***

By late afternoon, August wanted to bang her head against the cubicle.

The biggest issue was that they couldn't contact anyone inside the game. NetMeet didn't work. Proxy servers didn't work. The UCC hardline didn't work. It was like Shattered Land had become an independent pocket universe.

Only, it hadn't. The game was so processor intensive that if UCC's farm was truly cut off from the NSA and the global data centers, it wouldn't run. All of the game centers were communicating somehow, or everyone in them would have been automatically disconnected.

There was a positive, if it could be called that: the absolute failure of hundreds of UCC employees to unravel even the basic thread of the problem had convinced August of one thing.

It was no glitch, and no accident.

August flexed her fingers, wincing at the crackling in the joints. It was forever since she had spent this long at a keyboard. At home doing scenario design, most of her work was done with the headset on.

She stood up from her desk.

"Now where are you going?" Bryce asked. He didn't look up from where he sat on the floor with his back against the wall, head in hands.

"To make a call."

"A personal call, at a time like this?"

"It's not as if I'm doing any bloody good here," August said, and walked out.

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