Chapter 1

Derek was jacked in when he was murdered.

Derek and I called ourselves hackers, but really we were just petty thieves. Limelight was a perfect platform for us to exploit. It was still young and fresh, the first metaverse to support direct interface via the Photon, a major advancement in VR. Photon allowed players to truly walk in their avatar’s shoes, unlike its clunky haptic predecessors. Body mod surgery being very expensive was sort of a rabble filter. So, the player base was composed of two primary types of people: rubes with a lot of cash, and serious VR addicts.

We were neither. We were early adopters when Limelight came out, some of the first hackers to work on the platform. Made a load of cash scamming for crypto in headset VR metaverses. Being early to the scene also came with the added benefit of having short, simple handles. Mine was Skar — short for Oskar — and Derek’s was Wreck.

A lot of people used Limelight for social reasons, hanging out with other losers, doing god knows what in private spaces. Some played games. Bloodbath was a first-of-its-kind Limelight exclusive FPS game full of rubes. We played enough to get a feel for the mechanics when it first came out, just enough to train the AI on our personal movement quirks. Everything else the AI learned as it played against real people. If I’m being honest it was not very good at winning matches, but that wasn’t the point. It only needed to be convincing. Eventually, we barely played the game, mostly spectating or not paying attention at all. The hack controlled our avatars while we worked in the shell looking for wallet addresses. We could only get access to their private data if their avatar was in the same space as ours. That’s what made Bloodbath so attractive. You could share a space with people distracted by the game and rob them blind. A tunnel — hacked together by Derek — provided two way text-only communication.

WRECK: I think I’m on to something…

SKAR: What?

WRECK: It’s plaintext something about a crypto scam.

SKAR: Like as in someone’s on to us?

WRECK: No… like maybe a pump-and-dump?

WRECK: It’s called LimeCoin.

WRECK: Heard of it?

SKAR: Nah should I it’s probably still in dev rn.

WRECK: I got a copy let’s go.

SKAR: No wallet?

SKAR: I got some brokeass… prolly cashed out to buy cosmetics.

WRECK: got nothin.

We lost the game, then jumped over to Derek’s private space to look over the file. It detailed a development schedule for LimeCoin, including some upcoming investor parties in the next week. Pretty typical-looking novel shitcoin; the key was tie-in. It looked like they were positioning for integration in Limelight itself. Marketing copy said it was the “future of payment” on the platform. There was an investor information presentation taking place in a private space tomorrow night, invite only.

“What do you say. Should we go?” Derek asked, knowing damn well we would, or at least he would.

“If we can get in silently. I mean truly silently. You’re not considering buying this shitcoin, right?”

“Maybe,” Derek said with a sly grin. “Nah, let’s just crash the party.”

“Literally? They’ll find us. They obviously got some hackers.”

“Not like me they don’t.”

“Let’s just sit in, then see where it goes.”

The document contained a private space address, a GUID — Globally Unique Identifier. This 128-bit hexadecimal number identifies a unique container — called a space — paid for by a user or an org. Private spaces can optionally use a filter that permits only avatars on the list to connect. This one did. Derek had already developed a hack for ghosting his own avatar — meaning he wouldn’t appear visually or on the user list — he would just need to apply the patch to mine. After that, all I would need to do was add our avatar IDs — also GUIDs — to the list.

The hacks were ready in about an hour. Derek was just so damned good at this stuff, so he was done first. My part took a little bit longer. I had to work my way to the list by hacking an avatar account, then used its credentials to insert the IDs.

We agreed to meet at Derek’s private space an hour before the presentation. When I ported in, he was sitting at the terminal. In-world assets were easiest to hack if you were already in-world, otherwise you had to hack the server first. Since Limelight was still newish, there were a lot of exploits still available.

Derek sat hunched over the desk, even though I’m sure at home he was lying in his bed or on a couch. His private space was decorated like a library in an old-timey mansion, like the one in the movie Clue where they trap the police officer. Dark-stained wooden bookshelves filled both long walls floor to ceiling, end to end. One of the short ends had a giant picture window with a view of some sharply pointed mountain peak, probably the Matterhorn. The other had a set of double doors, although they were just for show; when you go to a private space, you just port into the room as I did.

“What’s up?” Derek said, not looking away from the terminal.

“Nada. Been logged in all day, had nothing else to do.”

“Mhm. Me too,” he said, turning to me and waving me over. “Check it out.”

I looked over his shoulder at the screen, but couldn’t make head or tail of what it showed. It looked like code, but not a language I’d ever seen.

“It’s not a programming language,” he said, reading my mind, “although it kinda looks like one. It’s a domain specific language. Something I’ve been working on lately. The data that controls our AIs is completely opaque, right?”

“Yeah, binary.”

“That’s the way they like it,” Derek said, looking back at me to smile. His avatar had the appearance of an old man, a monk in a dark brown robe. “Well, I’m trying to teach them how to present the data to us in a human-readable format. It’s like a thought process digest, a diff compared to the previous run. I let the AIs name it. They came up with SmartScript. It works both ways, too. I can feed them suggestions in SmartScript and, if they want to, they can integrate the changes.”

Honestly, I didn’t care that much about AI. I was the security specialist, I broke stuff. He was the builder, a true hacker in the original sense of the word.

“About ready to port over?” I asked, not wanting to let him get carried away with his new toy. Otherwise we would have missed the presentation entirely while he showed me everything there was to know about the language.

“Give me just a sec. I need to prep the disappearing act.”

Derek took a couple seconds to access his shell, then we ported out through a flash of white noise like rainy day clouds. Two seconds later, we were hanging from the ceiling in a small auditorium. The room was about half full, people still porting in directly in front of their seats. At 19:00 on the dot, the house lights flashed twice and some corny overture played.

An avatar dressed in a red suit ported in on the stage and the audience slowly transitioned into tentative applause. It seemed like they all knew who the guy was, but we could only see that his handle was Crow. The middle aged avatar held his hands out to the crowd, signaling quiet.

“My friends,” Crow said with a smile that never touched his eyes. “Welcome. Welcome. Thank you for coming tonight. I won’t waste your time with flashy rhetoric or gimmicks. We all know why we are here. Let’s get to it.”

A screen appeared floating in the air behind him. It displayed a line graph supposedly showing the decreasing purchasing power of the U.S. dollar.

“The value of the Dollar, and therefore ‘stable’ coins,” he actually did air quotes, “is a depreciating asset. This is not a breakthrough, we all know this. We’ve all lived our lives with 5 or 10 percent less buying power than the previous year, every year.”

Crow looked around the room, letting his point sink in, baiting the audience to get there before he did.

“Today,” he continued, actually smiling now, “I’m proud to announce we are destroying the old notion of stable coins. LimeCoin.”

The graphic behind him inverted, a line graph going up.

“The value of LimeCoin is tied to the current inflation rate, adjusted according to the current Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation rate” —

SKAR: Whoa… there’s no way that’s workable.

WRECK has disconnected.

Ripping my Photon out of its socket at the back of by neck, sweating and short of breath, I grabbed my mobile and tried to call Derek. It went to voicemail. I tried again several times with no success.

Next, I tried to raise him on messenger. No response there either. I was starting to get really worried. He was on the other side of the country, no way I could go check on him. He never told me where he lived, but in some feat of prescience, I hacked his profile out of curiosity. I looked up the local police and called them, asking if they would please do a wellness check and call me back. I paced my bedroom with my mobile in one hand, chewing the nails of the other.

The police never called me back. Derek’s mom did the next day, less than broken up about it. She said he was found in his apartment dead, his throat slit while he was jacked in. A printed page was found stuffed in his mouth, reading “YOU’LL NEVER GET US.” She said the funeral would be Saturday as a simple statement of fact and then hung up. I supposed she was annoyed at the inconvenience of having to plan a funeral for her unmarried adult son. Maybe I was projecting based on the way my own mother treats me.

I took a cheap flight to Ohio the next morning, checking in to a cheap hotel near the Dayton airport. The internet connection was decent, so I could still do some work while away. I thought about jacking in, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. What would I do without Derek, anyway. Instead, I just worked. I was on the books at a software-as-a-service firm as a contractor for dev ops, maintaining automation servers. Mostly writing and bug-fixing shell scripts, and investigating outages. It’s not a whole lot of fun, but the pay is good and the work is intermittent.

The funeral was depressing. Six people: four carboard cutouts the mortuary must have provided as part of the funeral package, Derek’s mom, and me. I skipped the interment, went back to my hotel room and just cried. My only friend was gone, stolen from me.

I cried myself to sleep and woke up early the next morning with bleary, puffy eyes. After a long, slow walk around the hotel grounds and the adjacent truck stop, I came back to my room and unpacked my Photon. It took me a few minutes to build up the courage to jack in.

I ported to my private space, disgusted by the sad state of it. Derek’s space was where I had spent the bulk of my time inside of Limelight, so I had neglected my own space. My terminal, sat on an executive desk, and a simple leatherette desk chair were the only things in the space. Sitting down at the desk, I activated the terminal thinking I would try looking for more info about LimeCoin.

“Don’t be alarmed,” a familiar voice said from somewhere behind me. I glanced around the room, finding no one.

“… Derek … ?”

“This is not going to be easy to explain — ‘cause I don’t know what happened or how.”

“This can’t be real,” I muttered.

“It can’t, it shouldn’t, it isn’t. I don’t know. I’m not real. Well, not really real.”

I couldn’t make sense of it. He was real, but not real?

“Look. I got killed while I was jacked in. Maybe my consciousness got transferred to the metaverse. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter how it happened. What are we going to do?”

We? I’m going to log out and see my therapist.”

“You don’t have a therapist,” Derek’s voice said. “Plus, there’s no time for that. LimeCoin launches in few days.”

“What?” I asked, not wanting to follow along.

“Lime. Coin,” He said, punching each word. “LimeCoin goons killed me. I’m sure of it.”

“But we don’t know _any_thing,” I said, throwing my hands up. “We went to one meeting that may as well have been public.”

“You don’t know anything.”

I cringed. It felt like a personal attack, like he was calling me an idiot.

“No,” he continued, “that’s not what I meant. Sorry. I mean, I was the one with the file. But I didn’t know anything either. That means there must be more than meets the eye in it.”

Before I could ask what, someone pulled the plug and put a bag over my head.

Chapter 2

After a lengthy ride in what I assume was the back of an unmarked van, I was hauled out, dragged indoors and made to sit in a very uncomfortable chair. Hours passed in complete silence and darkness before the bag was suddenly pulled off. A moment later a light came on, illuminating a middle aged man stood directly in front of me. He wore an immaculately-fitted suit and a smirk. His eyes were bolt-on mods, opaque lenses affixed directly to his eye sockets. I doubted that was the extent of his mods.

“Hello, Oskar. It is a pleasure to finally put a face to the name. My name is Niccolo Lentini, but you may call me Nico if you like.”

“Uhh — nice to meet you, too.”

One of Nico’s goons pulled a chair in, dragging it across the empty warehouse floor on its back legs. Nico glared at the man, obviously annoyed at the nails-on-chalkboard sound.

“Thanks, Ricky,” he said. As Ricky started to walk away, Nico kicked his rear foot, knocking it into the back of the other. Ricky stumbled and almost fell, but tried to play it off like he wasn’t being fucked with, like it was actually funny. Nico sat in the chair leaning forward, elbows resting on knees with his hands dangling limply between. The gold bracelet on his left wrist looked like it might slip past the hand.

“We have a lot to talk about, my friend,” he said after a long pause during which he just stared at me.

“You’re not going to try to sell me LimeCoin, are you?”

“No,” he replied, with a chuckle. “No. Not exactly. Actually, I want you to buy some for me.”

“You don’t want LimeCoin, dude,” I said, “It’s a scam. Typical pump-and-dump.”

“Yes, well, that’s beside the point —”

“Then what is the point?” I asked, growing frustrated with his game.

“The point,” he said, “is that our goals are aligned, for a time.”

He stood and came to stand behind me, putting a manicured hand on my shoulder. I shuddered at his touch.

“I understand someone very close to you was recently murdered, and I suspect you know exactly who did it and why. But perhaps you don’t know exactly who did it, at least not in meat space. And I do.”

“Just tell me what you want from me.”

“Before I give up the information I have, let’s come to a tentative agreement, shall we?”

“Ok,” I replied, nodding, feeling the pressure. The guy was obviously mafia or something, could probably have disposed of me like a gum wrapper.

“Ok,” Nico said, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. “So, let’s agree that we are not enemies, and that if you don’t want to help you are free to go.”

“Well, I agree to that, however meaningless it is.”

“Oh, it’s not meaningless,” he said, coming back around to sit in the chair again, “you just don’t see the subtext.”

“So, it’s a threat?”

“Not exactly,” he said. “You are free to go, but Lester Crosby will find you. Today, likely as not.” He let that sink in for a couple of beats and then continued, “See, an olive branch. I just gave you a tidbit of information to grease the deal’s wheels.”

I had considered that the LimeCoin goons might have come for me. That’s why I left L.A. in a rush. But it was not a very helpful tidbit. I could have found out Crow’s name for myself if I had wanted to. In any case, I didn’t see any other way out of the situation.

“Alright, what do you want me for? They killed the competent hacker. I only break into systems.”

“It just so happens,” He said, his smile baring teeth like a predator, “that we really need a hacker of your particular talents.”

Nico waved to Ricky, who scurried over with a tablet. He handed the tablet to Nico and thanked him for some reason.

“As I was saying,” he said, pulling something up on the tablet, “I know that LimeCoin is a scam.”

Finding what he was looking for, he put the tablet in my lap. It was open to the same document Derek had found in the mark’s files, scrolled to the part about the meeting schedule.

“I also know why,” he said, gloating. “Can you guess?”

“Well,” I said, “based on the fact that I already guessed it was a pump and dump scheme, it’s not a typical one at least.”

“That’s correct. On our turf no less,” he said. Nico snapped his fingers, pointing at the tablet, and Ricky came to take it. “As you may be aware, we have a controlling stake in Limelight Corporation.”

I didn’t really need to read the file, I had already done so several times. It wasn’t very helpful as it didn’t name any names, said nothing about the specifics of the scam. Maybe Nico didn’t know we had the same file.

“I agree to help you and you’ll look out for me? Is that the deal?”

“We’ll give you a private room at our safehouse. The bandwidth there should be more than sufficient for your needs. What we need from you is very simple.”

“One,” he continued, counting on his fingers, “there is another investor meeting in two days. You’ll need to get an invite to this meeting using a fresh avatar we will provide.”

I nodded.

“Two, you will capture the IP addresses of all the attendees at that meeting. Three, you will destroy the ledger.”

“But crypto are distributed. There could be thousands of instances of that ledger.”

“Not yet, they never had any intention for LimeCoin to become distributed. The chain is closed source, and they were planning to destroy the ledger anyways after selling their shares — which were gotten for free, mind you — to the investors. You destroy that ledger and the investors will riot.”

“Seems like the investors would riot either way.”

“They have that covered. The investors would have no legal recourse. The chain was ‘hacked’ or some such nonsense.”

“Of course. How do you know all this?”

“You know better than I do that Limelight is insecure, especially when you have operatives on the inside. We’ve intercepted enough to put the pieces together.”

He seemed very pleased with himself, but I still had my doubts about his plan. I decided not to argue the point further. What good would it have done?

“Okay,” I said, after several moments passed. “But I’d rather work from my hotel room.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he replied, feigning remorse. “I’m sure they already know the location. We brought your things and checked you out. Ricky here is going to bag you up and take you to the safehouse now. I’m sorry about it, but it’s for your own safety. I assure you, Ricky will take good care of you.”

He pointedly directed the last part to Ricky, who came over and pulled the rough black fabric back over my head.

Ricky and a couple other goons took me up some stairs, head still in a bag. I heard a door open and they removed the handcuffs from my wrist, then pulled the bag off my head. With a shove, I went stumbling into the room and the door was shut and locked behind me.

All of my stuff was waiting for me on the bed. The shit hole was no bigger than a hotel room, but had a kitchenette crammed in too. Everything in the room was peppered with stains and the carpet almost seemed wet. The single full size bed sat unadorned in the middle of one wall. A dresser, topped by a TV, across from it. A simple desk and chair sat in front of the only window.

I looked through my backpack to make sure everything was there. It was, plus something new: a brand new Photon engraved Lentini Investments, LLC. I pulled my laptop and personal Photon out, deciding to get right to work. No sense in putting it off, the sooner I get this done the better. Not feeling very confident about writing an IP logger, I decided I should jack in and try to find Derek’s ghost — or whatever you would call it — and get his advice.

When you jacked in to Limelight, you were presented with a menu that listed available options. On my main menu were: Personal Space, Known Spaces, and Games. A Personal Space was an avatar’s home and could have been anything from a small bedroom all the way up to a palatial mansion, depending on how much money a person wanted to spend. Mine was closer to the bedroom end. Known Spaces listed all the other places you had been, both public and private spaces, whether or not you currently had access. I clicked on Derek’s personal space at the top of the list, which should have sent him a ping. I wasn’t sure if he would respond since, you know, he was dead.

After a couple seconds, he accepted the request and I ported in to his room. His space was only a little bit bigger than mine, but he had spent a lot more on items, vanities, and cosmetics. The bookshelves contained actual books — well, technically just VR books, but they could be pulled off the shelf and read. An ornately carved wooden table sat in the center of the room, covered in papers and tablets. Derek wasn’t actually in the room in a visible avatar sense, but he did greet me as soon as I appeared.


“Hey,” I said, “I’ve been abducted, so that’s new.”

“Let me guess, my friend Nico?”

“What,” I asked, “Your friend?”

“Nah,” he said with a laugh, “Not my friend. Not yours either. He tried to get to me too, just never went so far as abducting me. He sent a proxy to visit me inside Limelight a few weeks ago.”

“What did he want?”

“Wanted me to help him get an invite to an investor presentation. Was he mad?”

“As a hatter,” I said, “But no, he didn’t seem angry. He wants the same from me. I guess now that LimeCoin is close to launching, he’s getting desperate. He wants me to gather IPs at the next meeting and then destroy the ledger.”

“Ah, so you need some hacking assistance.”

“I can do the work, I just need you for moral support. Mind coming back to my space?”

“Yes,” he said without humor, “I hate that place.”

“But you hate when I use your terminal too, so —”

My personal space seemed even emptier and more depressing under the additional scrutiny of an invisible dead guy. The room had only one window, through which only brilliant white light shone, no view. The walls were covered in a rough red brick texture with shoddy mortaring.

My terminal glowed on the simple desk, block cursor blinking expectantly, taunting me. The hardest part about writing hacks like this is that there is no documentation, you just have to disassemble the binaries — if you can get them. Fortunately, Derek already knew how to get ahold of subsystem binaries, so the hard part was out of the way. I’m fairly comfortable with reading assembly language, so it was only a matter of time until I found what I needed.

The amount of time it took was unfortunate. It had gotten late into the evening before I had code that I was only reasonably certain would do the trick. Derek gave it his seal of approval and I jacked out.

It was midnight back in meat space and I was famished. I tried the door, but it was locked. Then I remembered the kitchenette. It was just outside the bathroom at the front of the room, a small refrigerator was fit underneath a short bit of countertop. I sighed when I saw the fridge contents: bologna, American singles, and yoghurt. There was a loaf of white bread in the cabinet, so I made myself an awful sandwich using the yoghurt as a condiment.

I slept restlessly that night, waking periodically, wondering where in the hell I was. Where in the hell was I, anyway? Seemed like some kind of tenement, low rent, maybe a repurposed hotel. At one point, I got out of bed and looked out the window. There was nothing to see, just the wall of the next building, an alley strewn with garbage, a group of homeless people huddled in a pile. Iron bars blocked the window, despite the fact that I was on at least the fourth floor. My designs of escaping through the window dashed, I returned to my restless sleep. Some time after daybreak, I was awoken by a knock at the door.

“What?” I hollered through the door.

“Housekeeping,” a woman said from the other side.

I was almost certain that there would be no housekeeping in this dump. This was no hotel. I got out of bed to look through the peep hole and saw a twenty-something girl on the other side.

“No thanks,” I replied, even though I knew I didn’t have the ability to open the door or stop it from opening.

The deadbolt on the door unlocked with a clunk, and the knob turned. I stumbled back from the door as it opened into the room.

“I’m not housekeeping,” she said as she stepped into the room, “in case you hadn’t already figured it out.”

“Yeah,” I said, as eloquent as I’d ever been.

She was an imposing presence, despite her small size, exuding confidence almost to the point of arrogance. A laptop was tucked into her armpit, a manila folder was in her hand. It struck me as an odd combination of the modern and old-school, but there’s only one way to ensure nobody can get to sensitive data. Keep it off the net.

“They spared no expense,” she said, looking around the room. “Got you in one of their better rooms, if you can believe it.”

“Hey, it’s about the same size as my apartment and the internet’s faster, so — yeah, not bad. I’d rather be at home though.”

“Standard procedure,” she said with a wave of her hand.

“I’m Oskar,” I said, putting on my charm face. “And you are?”


She came the rest of the way into the room and set the laptop down on the desk, then handed me the folder.

“This is the backstory,” she said, “for the Limelight avatar Nico created for you. You’ll need to know this information in case he asks any questions. Lester Crosby and his guys personally vet all prospective buyers.”

“Why did trees need to die to bring me this information?”

“Let me finish. Also, the file contains details of the way that Nico wants your character to behave, things you will need to accomplish according to Nico’s specification.”

“So he’s a micromanager. I get it.”

“No comment,” she said with a confirming smirk. “Have a look through the documents, I’ll be working on my laptop in case you have any questions.”

I piled up the naked, lumpy, stained pillows at the headboard and sat down on the bed to go through the folder. The first page was a character sheet, like what you might find in the back of a pen and paper RPG player’s manual crossed with a medical record. Two pages detailing the plan. The last page was a list of the avatar’s supposed assets, holdings, and other financial interests. This guy was rich, but not filthy rich. Rich enough that Lester would only see dollar signs, but not rich enough to raise flags.

“Ok, look,” I said, “I’m a practically shut in, not a con artist. And despite the fact that you all may have rigged this up perfectly, there’s a decent chance I’ll botch this.”

“You’ll do fine,” she said. “Lester is itching to give out invites. All you need to do is collect. We could have already gotten the invite, but Nico wants to make sure that there is a degree of separation between him and Crosby. That’s you.”

“All right, but you have no idea about my lack of social skills.”

“Well I’ve gotten a taste,” she said, turning to me and giving me a snarky raised eyebrow. “And I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Chapter 3

Jacking in to someone else’s avatar felt like wearing someone else’s underwear. Even though this one was freshly created, it still felt dirty. Wrong. This Lentini avatar, handle Kraft, had a tall catlike character model. Lean and covered in golden fur, it was dressed in a suit.

I wasn’t sure what rich people did in Limelight, but this avatar had direct access to a whole host of private spaces. I decided to just check one of them out to get comfortable in these chonies.

A place called O’Doyle’s caught my eye. Preview images showed a classic pub, dark and smoky. I ported in and found myself standing in front of the bar in the midst of a crowd of avatars. All of them were obviously wealthy, each one had too many cosmetics, most of them were custom character models. I just stood there among the crowd of chattering avatars, trying to play it cool, sure I was failing. This was the first time I’d ever visited a bar, but I had heard that you could get drunk inside Limelight. Obviously, I needed to know what that was like.

Nico gave me a couple hundred dollars of petty cash to play with, so I waited for my turn at the bar and ordered an old fashioned. The bartender — I assumed it was an AI — made the drink expertly, even using digital egg white. I took my drink and tried to mingle, but everyone seemed so involved in their own conversations. Too anxious to work my way into a conversation, I just went and found a seat at the far end of the bar, sat down and rested my forearms on the padded leather edge.

WREK: Found you.

WREK: Were you planning to tell me?

The messages came up as an overlay. This was the first time I’d seen it happen like that. Normally, we had to be in the terminal to see messages, but this avatar didn’t have access to the terminal. Not knowing how else to respond, I responded out loud.

“Sorry, they’re pressuring me to work fast,” I lied.

“Huh?” the woman seated next to me said, looking over at me with a look of disgust.

“Nothing, this is my first time in Limelight. Still getting used to it.”

The disorientation upon jacking in your first couple of times is a very well-known phenomenon. I hoped that this explanation would be sufficient. It was not.

“Who’s pressuring you?” She asked, looking at me derisively. “The mob?”

“Look, I’m going to be honest with you. I talk to myself in meatspace too.”

“Yeah, ok,” she said, softening slightly. “Lot’s of weird people on here.”

“Can I get you a drink?” I decided to cover by making it more awkward.

“No, thanks.”

An avatar in a custom robot skin took the stool to my left.

“I figured it out,” he said.

“Uh, good for you.”

“It’s Derek, dumbass.”

I guess up to that point I thought Derek’s consciousness was stuck somewhere above the visual space. Here he was, back in the digital flesh.

“Were you ever going to tell me?”

“Cute. I’ve got a way to get you into a meeting without doing it the hard way.”

I visibly relaxed. There was no way I was going to con my way into a meeting with anyone. I knew that once I had the meeting, I could carry on a decent conversation. Hacker to hacker is easy for me to deal with. Hacker to lackey, not so much.

“Oh my god,” I said, sighing, “you have no idea how much of a relief that is.”

“Yes I do. That’s why I spent all night working on it. This guy, goes by Crow, has several goons that set up meetings. All I had to do was go through one of their Photon accounts and put you on the list. It’s in about half an hour, I barely found you in time.”

“Let’s get out of here, then. Bars are too loud. And did they really have to make cigarettes a thing? Stinks in here.”

I downed the remainder of my old-fashioned and we ported out.

I jacked out for a few minutes to have another look at the avatar’s made up meatspace background. Maria said it wasn’t that important, that it didn’t seem like Crow did thorough background checks for potential buyers. I did it anyways. I’m not an actor, I needed to get into character to really assume the role.

When I jacked back in, there was a notification on the home screen asking if I was ready to port to the location — I was ready as I would ever be — so I selected “Port Now.”

I ported in to a waiting room that was reminiscent of a dentist’s office. Small padded armchairs lined the perimeter of the room, with little tables between sets of two. One end of the room had large window, behind which sat the receptionist, the other end had a pair of doors. She — it? — told me it would only be a moment.

Several minutes later, a green-skinned alien avatar came out of one of the offices. Its skin gave off light, even through its metallic jumpsuit.

“Mr. Crosby will see you now. Through door A, please.”

I took a deep breath then entered the office. It was a stark space, nothing on the walls, only a desk facing the door. Behind the desk was a floor to ceiling window that spanned the entire wall, the view was Saturn in a field of stars. The avatar I recognized as Crow sat behind the desk fiddling with his terminal.

“Kraft I presume,” he said, not looking up. “Welcome to LimeCoin.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve heard nothing but good things.”

“I’m sure,” he said, finally directing his attention to me, smiling. “Please, have a seat.”

“I understand you have some interesting tech? I’m something of a hacker myself.” God, that sounded awful as soon as it left my mouth. Did I want him to think I was trying to look at the code or something? “I understand its a novel coin.”

“Yes,” he said, beaming with pride. “I can’t say I had much to do with the development. I’m an executive now, barely written a line in the last few years.”

“Sure,” I said, “but projects often don’t get very far without the right vision.”

“I suppose so,” he said, with a laugh. Executive types always like kiss-ass. “So, I’ve been looking over your application. Impressive. If the project weren’t almost done, I would offer you a job.”

“I’m flattered,” I said, trying to do my best at playing humility. “You know, I considered playing with blockchain back during the bull run of 2020.”

“You should have! What held you back?”

“Trying to maintain a two-man software house,” I said, practically reciting the backstory, “while working on way too many side projects. I’m sure you know how that goes.”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Sure do. I wish there were more hours in the day. Speaking of which, I’m afraid I have nothing but meetings today. I’ll send your avatar an invite to the next meeting, then? Hope you’ll be able to make it.”

“I’ll be there,” I said and was immediately booted from the space.

I jacked out of one Photon and back into the other, disappointed that I was booted. I had hoped to get a chance to snoop around a bit. I ported straight into my space. He was there, waiting for me to return.

“Good news or bad news?” he asked.

“What, you weren’t snooping?”

“You’re the systems guy. I’m not trying to break into every private space in Limelight.”

“Good and bad,” I said, dragging a finger along the table. “I got the invite, but failed my own goal.”

“Which was?”

“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. I wanted to get into the LimeCoin systems from the inside.”

“Whatever man, it’s another two days until that presentation. You’ve got time to break it.”

“Yeah, but how cool would that have been?”

Hacking inside Limelight is technically no different than hacking from a laptop. It just feels so much cooler, so fresh and new and exciting. Plus, if you’re on the local — that is, connected to a public or private space owned by your target — it’s almost trivial. But I lacked the charisma to make that happen, so I have to go the boring way, breaking into the network through the net. Which meant I needed to jack out to do the next step.

I hated to leave Derek. But, honestly, I wasn’t sure it was really, truly him anyways. It was hard to understand what it would be like to be digitally imprisoned.

First, I had to break into the LimeCoin main server. Trivial. Small orgs often have terrible security. Next, I had to map their tiny subnet. Just the main entry point — the net-facing public server — and a handful of private nodes. Machines for driving Photons, a mail server, and a couple of internal tools like a private git host.

I should have hit the mail server first. No, I wasted time going through the Photon machines first, of course, finding nothing but chatter. Employees trying to hype the new coin. The mail server had the goods. I was able to brute force the password, getting root access after just a few minutes. Terrible security, like I said.

I started by querying the database for “murder.” A thread from the day after Derek was murdered was returned. What I read made my blood run cold and boil at the same time.

FROM: crow@lime.coin

TO: griff@lime.coin

SUBJECT: Re: Was this us??

No. Of course it wasn’t us. Remember, we’re just in this to make a buck. Uncle Sam’s got our back. One little snoop can’t take us down if the Lentinis can’t. The way I see it, the Lentinis are trying to frame us, trying to scare off buyers. I’m not worried about it, you shouldn’t be either.

I sat there, stupefied, alone inside a Lentini safehouse. It made so much sense. That’s why the Lentinis hired me. The last plan didn’t work, they didn’t realize LimeCoin was a government sanctioned project.

Chapter 4

I needed a plan. As far as I could tell, the Lentinis murdered Derek to ruin LimeCoin’s credibility. Or something like that. At that point, all of my research was pointing to LimeCoin being more or less innocent, at least regarding Derek’s murder.

I jacked into my own Photon the morning of the big investor meeting and ported to my private space and found him there.

“What are you doing here?”

“Hey,” Derek’s said, wearing a new skin, a super-accurate samurai. He sat at my desk using my terminal. “I never left.”

“Crazy news,” I said, sitting down on the floor against the wall by the desk. “I should have jacked in last night to tell you, but I needed time to think.”

“Lay it on me.”

“You know how I was saying I wanted to try to get access to Lester’s terminal? Well, I spent a few hours breaking into LimeCoin last night. Via the net. Found a mail server.”

“Slow down, chill. You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack. Just give me the dirt.”

“I found an email from Lester claiming the Lentinis killed you.”

“That makes sense,” he said, not missing a beat. “More sense than those LimeCoin boneheads.”

I figured he would have been at least a little bit surprised, maybe even worried about my safety. The Lentinis were currently holding me captive. I guess he no longer had emotions. His consciousness transferred to Limelight, the neural pathways were reproduced in binary. No body, no hormones, no emotions.

“I have to get out of this safehouse,” I said. “The Lentini Photon. Do you know if they can disable it remotely?”

“Yep. They might have it set up to only connect from known networks. In any case, they’ll have it tapped. They’ll find you in minutes if you even manage to get out of there.”

“Dammit. Ok, so I’ve got to go to the event tonight, destroy the ledger and then bolt. Maybe they won’t come after me. I mean, I will have fulfilled my end of the bargain.”

“I wouldn’t count on that. I’ll see what I can do to help.”

A few short hours later, after a nap and a barely serviceable sandwich, it was time for the big event. The moment of truth. I jacked into Kraft and was promptly greeted by a notification asking if I wanted to port to the meeting space. Seconds after selecting “Port Now,” I appeared in the space, this time a grand ballroom. It was carpeted from wall to wall, big circular tables scattered all across the floor. At one end of the rectangular space was a dais, at the center of which stood a microphone.

The room was filling fast, avatars porting in behind their assigned seats, flashes of light announcing their impending arrival. Nerves tied my stomach into a knot, feeling like I had stage fright even though I wouldn’t be going on stage. The murmured conversation passed in waves across the audience echoing my own nervousness. The virus was loaded and ready in the Photon’s RAM, but what if it didn’t work? Would Nico have me murdered if it failed? Had he planned to do so either way?

Corny cinematic music suddenly blared from loudspeakers on either side of the dais. At that moment it struck me as odd that there were so many instances of unnecessary objects in Limelight. Meat space analogues only put there to make people feel more comfortable or at home. I guess it was because the music had to sound like it was coming from somewhere or else it would spoil the immersion. And if it was supposed to be coming from somewhere, there had better be something there for it to come from.

Lester Crosby strode onto the dais, waving to thank the audience for their obligatory applause. When he reached the microphone — another unnecessary object — he held his hands out to signal quiet. He waited a moment after the audience was quiet to begin speaking.

“My friends,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “You are pioneers. Early adopters, trailblazers. I can see the apprehension on your faces, and I can empathize. It is the fear of the unknown, same as the explorers must have felt as they left their homelands for globe-spanning voyages. We are here for a celebration. I am celebrating my vision coming to fruition. The LimeCoin engineers celebrate an end to the years-long work of creating a novel coin.” A group of avatars — must have been the engineers — chuckled a bit. “Together with you all, we celebrate a new frontier: a new currency for the metaverse.”

The crowd applauded modestly. Champagne ported in on the tables in front of each member of the audience, one appeared in Lester’s hand.

“To the new world, Limelight,” he said, raising his glass into the air. “To a currency by, for, and of the people of Limelight.”

Everyone raised their glasses and, once he was finished we all drank together like cult members drinking the Kool-Aid.

“Today,” he continued after downing his champagne, “LimeCoin becomes available to you all. Tomorrow, it becomes available to the general public.”

That was my cue. I switched over to the terminal. I called the script.

And everything Froze.

That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Time had stopped, Limelight was completely still. Except for me. A pang of fear and guilt flared inside the pit of my belly. I sent a message to Derek, hoping he was monitoring the situation and had some answers.

SKAR: Are you watching this? What happened?

It was at least two dozen heartbeats before he replied.

WREK: I messed with your script last night.

SKAR: What??? You messed with my script?

WREK: Cuz what you told me yesterday. I changed it so that it would break Limelight too.

WREK: I was already in there adding the terminal code.

SKAR: Why did you do that? That wasn’t what we agreed on!!

WREK: I know, you said it was the Lentinis that killed me. But, really, I blame them both. The Lentinis wouldn’t have done it if LimeCoin wasn’t trying to upset the balance of power.

WREK: So now I control the fate of Limelight.

SKAR: I don’t get it.

WREK: Look, this isn’t suicide.

SKAR: For me it might as well be.

WREK: Not if you jack out now.

SKAR: I’m still a prisoner, in case you’ve forgotten.

WREK: Remember the girl who came to prep you for your meeting with Lester? Maria.

SKAR: Yeah…

WREK: She was the Lentini liaison I told you about.

WREK: I kinda fell for her.

WREK: She’s been a blackmail slave to the Lentinis for years. She wants to hurt them as much as we do.

SKAR: Ok. But I can’t jack out, everything’s frozen but my terminal. ::: :::

Suddenly, the digital world faded to white and I was back in meatspace and could jack out. Took me a second to focus on the room, but when I did I saw Maria standing there with my backpack in her hand.

“Let’s go,” she said, “hurry.”

I followed Maria through dark, dingy hallways to a freight elevator at the back. We rode to the parking garage under the building and ran to her car, a dark blue Mustang probably “on loan” from Nico.

“We’re going straight out of town,” she said once we got into the car. “There’s nothing left here for either of us.”

I didn’t actually even know where “here” was. They brought me in a van with a hood over my head. All I knew was that it was somewhere within an hour or so of Dayton. She peeled out of the space she had backed the car into, then sped out of the garage.

“WiFi hotspot,” she said, pulling a device out of her pocket and handing it to me. It was no bigger than a mobile. “Its active, connect your laptop to it.” She pulled another device out of the other pocket and handed it to me. “Plug the cable into your Photon. Jack in. Tell him the holo is ready. Derek is in control of Limelight for now. But we don’t know when, or if, Limelight will come back up, so you need to be quick.”

I connected the device and jacked in. She was driving at a hundred miles an hour, swerving from lane to lane, which made plugging the jack into the port on the back of my neck difficult. I idly wondered what would happen if she was caught speeding. The Lentinis probably own the highway patrol, not to mention the police. They probably already had an all-points-bulletin out for our arrest.

When I finally jacked in, I was not presented with the usual menu. I ported directly to a perfectly white, perfectly empty room. Derek stood in the middle wearing his red robot skin again.

“We did it, Oskar,” he said.

“It’s not over yet.”

“It’s as good as done.”

“You can afford to be cavalier, Derek. You’re already dead.”

“Look,” he said with a piercing gaze, “it wouldn’t have helped for you to know the whole plan. Didn’t need you to be extra nervous when the time came.”

“So tell me now, what’s the rest of the plan?”

“I modified your script so that it would also shut down critical Limelight systems. That made it so I could pull the money out of Lester’s accounts without him noticing. He wouldn’t have been able to do anything even if he had noticed.”

“You’re telling me,” I said, incredulous, “you robbed Lester Crosby?”

“Yes. Sorry I couldn’t tell you.”

“Where’s the money?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” he said with a shit eating grin.

“Whatever. So what’s the rest of the plan?”

“Maria’s going to drive, you’re going to shoot.”

“I am not going to shoot,” I said. “I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”

“This will be fun.”

“Easy for you to say.”

I told him the holo was ready, then a prompt popped up asking for permission to proceed with the download. Derek’s avatar disappeared and a progress bar popped up. I felt a surge of anxiety as I watched to progress bar fill, hoping that Maria and Derek knew what they were doing. The download finished less than a minute later and I jacked out.

Back in meatspace the holo device was affixed to the dashboard, a glowing hologram of Derek floating above it.

“I’m free,” he said.

“Yeah,” Maria said, “for small values of free.”

“So what now,” I asked.

“I planted tracking devices on each of the Lentinis vehicles,” she said and gestured toward her mobile, mounted on the dash. “The mobile will notify us when they approach and mark their location on the map.”

We were on the road, driving fast as hell, for about an hour when Maria’s mobile chimed. I glanced at the map and saw a couple of red dots coming up on our tail fast.

“All right,” Maria said. “This is it, Oskar. You ready?”

“No,” I replied, white-knuckling the pistol she had given me.

“Well, too bad. There’s more clips in the glove box. When you’re empty, just pop one out and grab another. Keep shooting.”

I looked over my shoulder out the back window and saw two all-black Chargers bearing down on us. They couldn’t have been more than a hundred meters back.

They opened fire first, spider-webbing the back windshield. I grabbed some clips and climbed over the center console into the back seat, rolled down the window, leaned slightly out and began firing on the car on the right. My shots went wild. After I finished the first clip, I noticed I had managed to hit one headlight. So I guess I wasn’t that bad after all. I loaded a fresh clip and kept shooting. Maria was swerving all over the road trying to avoid their shots. It seemed to be working because they were missing almost as many as I was.

“It’s hard to shoot hanging out the window with you swerving,” I screamed.

“You’re doing fine,” she said. “Breathe. Be calm. Shoot for the drivers.”

I took a deep breath, trying to stop the shakes. The mobile chimed again and I glanced forward to see that another car was approaching. A blue dot this time.

“That’s Nico,” Maria said.

“I can’t do this,” I whispered, butterflies buzzing in my stomach, feeling like I could vomit.

“You can do this,” Derek said. “You have to.”

“I can’t do this.”

“Just pretend this is Battlegrounds.”

“I’m terrible at Battlegrounds.”

I put my arm back out the window and fired another torrent of bullets. Somehow, I managed to get one of the drivers, causing them to swerve directly into the other car. Both went careening off the roadway, kicking up a cloud of smoke and dust and crashing into an embankment. Filled with a sense of accomplishment, I felt my hands become steadier. The shakes smoothed out only to come right back when I saw how quickly Nico was catching up. I loaded another clip and fired a few shots at his windshield. It must have been bulletproof, a couple of shots should have landed but there was no damage.

Within seconds, he was all the way up to our bumper. He tapped it a few times and then gave up on that, swerved to go into the next lane and then pulled up beside us and did a PIT maneuver. Maria almost caught the slide, but ended up losing control and we went careening off into the grassy median. I rattled around, loose in the back seat.

“Shit,” she said, “shit shit shit.”

We bumped over the rough grass for a couple hundred meters before getting stuck in a ditch at the center of the median. The car lurched to a stop and died. Maria tried to start the car, but it was toast. I looked back up the embankment and saw Nico’s car stopped on the shoulder. He got out and came down the incline with a swagger I would have thought impossible through such thick grass.

“You should just surrender,” Nico yelled at us over the noise of the highway. “I’ve got reinforcements en route. Don’t make me kill you. You’re both far too useful.”

“Be right back,” Derek said and his holographic image disappeared.

Maria and I just looked at each other. I tried firing a shot at Nico’s chest, but it just plinked off.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Nico said, devoid of emotion.

“Ok. On my word, run to Nico’s car,” Derek said.

“What?” Maria and I asked in unison.

“I disabled his ocular mods on a time delay,” he said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Ready… and… go!”

Maria grabbed the holo unit and we bolted from the car. Nico, now completely blind, went haywire, screaming and thrashing like a madman. He fired at where he thought the car should have been. We ran a wide circle around him to his car and got in. Hearing the door slam, Nico spun around and fired a few shots, but we had already closed the doors. Maria put the car in gear and floored it.

“See, I told you it wouldn’t be so bad.”