Broken Horizons – Vol 12, Ch 9

Ice cream trucks are not supposed to be able to hit a hundred and eighty miles per hour on the open freeway. As far as Marcus knew the drive trains in them simply weren’t geared to generate that sort of speed. Driving that fast on the open roads was merely unlikely though, what Astra did when they hit the clogged city streets a few miles out from the Egress Entertainment offices was flat out impossible.

Hopping out of the truck’s back door he expected to see flames melting the wheels and the sort of burn marks that only orbital reentry speeds could produce. The ice cream truck however was in fine condition, clean and humming gently as though it was just been washed and given a tune up.

“Quick! Get in there and find out what’s going on!” Beth said, as she threw on her federal agent disguise.

Marcus didn’t need a second invitation. He’d expected to have to fight through a crowd of reporters as he raced around the building to the front door there was simply no one there.

“Something’s happened here,” he said to Anna, who was jogging along beside him.

“Maybe they let the press inside?” she said. He’d told her what to expect when they arrived but his warnings had been completely off base.

“No. Their vans are missing too.” He pointed over to the parking lot which was significantly emptier than when he’d last seen it.

The front door was unbarred and unlocked, another non-issue where he’d been expecting a problem, but he didn’t time to spend thinking about it. 

Inside the foyer was empty as well, and that, more than the impossible car ride or the lack of reporters brought Marcus up short.

“We had barricades here,” he said, holding out an arm to signal Anna to stop as well.

“No sign of them anymore,” she said. “How long were you gone?”

“Less than a day,” Marcus said. “Things couldn’t have changed that fast.”

“Think they found out the trick to getting people back from the Fallen Kingdoms?” Anna asked.

“If we’d pulled anyone back from the Fallen Kingdoms, there’d be more people here, not less if they had,” Marcus said. He started to walk forward carefully. 

The building wasn’t silent and in the distance he could hear people speaking, though they were too far away to make out their words. Wary of what they might be walking into, Marcus gestured for Anna to follow him. He didn’t indicate that she should be silent, but they both choose the stealthy approach anyways.

“Yes, I can am sure of that,” an unfamiliar voice said as Marcus drew close enough to make out the nearest conversation.

“But if you survived, certainly some of them could have as well,” Angela Hong, one of EE’s senior IT staff, said.

“None of them had my super-user credentials,” the unfamiliar man said.

Marcus signaled for Anna to stop again. There was something about the man’s voice that was tantalizingly familiar.

And something about it that was nauseatingly wrong.

Where did he know that voice from though? He knew he’d heard it before.

“But we’re communicating with them,” Malik Davis, Angela’s co-lead for the IT staff, said.

“I’m afraid you haven’t been,” the unknown man said. “The process of being absorbed is a purely destructive one. Without the ability to instantiate a new process to hold your identity, anyone who has been drawn into the [Fallen Kingdoms] is dead and what you’re ‘speaking’ to is the artificial intelligence which has recorded and processed their memories.”

Marcus felt a chill run down his spine. The words ‘Fallen Kingdoms’ hadn’t sounded right to his ears. Like there was some form of echo behind them. Just like the players who’d been drawn into the game had reported. Just like when he’d named the [Armageddon Beast], except the beast had been ‘real’ when he’d named it, and the Fallen Kingdoms were still a world apart. Or at least there was no reverb when he spoke their name.

“But that’s not possible,” Angela said. “Our servers don’t have the capacity to fully simulate even one human mind, much less hundreds of thousands.”

“Believe me, I know how impossible this is,” the man said. “But we have to confront the fact that things we’ve believed are impossible are happening every day now. Every hour in fact. Have you see the news?”

“Yeah, too much of it,” Malik said.

“Then you can understand that we can’t reject things just because we thought they were impossible,” the man said.

“But we’re supposed to accept that it’s impossible that the people who were lost are the same ones we’ve been talking to?” Angela said.

“That is different,” the man said. “Reconstituting someone who could serve as a facsimile of someone who was lost certainly might be possible, if, that is, we possessed god-like power and understanding of the physics and metaphysics involved.”

“The more important thing is that these alien AIs are a clear and present danger,” Federal Agent Phipps said. Marcus knew him from the crew of agents that had arrived when EE first reported the “anomaly” they’d detected. “That’s why I’m ordering your compliance with the all servers shutdown that Mr. Kralt has suggested.”


David Kralt!

Marcus finally recognized the voice, only to be thoroughly distracted by the words “all servers shutdown”.

“I’m sorry, but our refusal stands,” Angela said. “This man’s credibility is marginal at best. He hasn’t been involved with Egress Entertainment in several years and as an ex-employee, his administrator credentials have been long since revoked.”

“Not to mention that his story is wildly implausible,” Malik said. “We’ve seen no evidence that anything from Broken Horizons has crossed back from there to here. If we shutdown the servers we gain nothing and we lose all of the players who are still connected to the system and have avoided being drawn into Fallen Kingdoms this whole time.”

“Shutting down all of the servers simultaneously will save them though,” Kralt said. “With no connection open to the [Fallen Kingdoms] there will be no pathway for them to be pulled down.”

“We have literally no way of knowing that,” Angela said. “You claim that having access to your server admin credentials showed you all that, but we both know that’s bull.”

“Are you in a position to say that?” Phipps asked. “All I’ve heard from you since we got here is that this is a unique problem and that none of you know how it possibly could have happened.”

“Because we don’t,” Malik said. “And that’s the real, honest, ugly truth.”

“You can’t blame them for feeling threatened,” Kralt said. “They’ve been faced with something they’re just not equipped to deal with. It’s hard for anyone to feel weak and powerless, especially people like them.”

Marcus bristled at Kralt’s words. Angela and Malik had worked incredibly hard for the positions they held, and had only been able to advance once Kralt had been removed from all staffing decisions.

They hadn’t fought that hard to back down easily though.

“Ask yourself this,” Angela said, clearly directing her comments to Phipps. “Which is more likely, that someone who’s at least a decade out of date with our game and unconnected with this organization was, mysteriously,  the only one who survived an unprecedented disaster because he was was uniquely special enough to do the impossible, or, that a washed up and frankly irrelevant and forgotten computer programmer might be desperate and narcissistic enough to concoct a wild fantasy in which the world revolves around him and only his secret special knowledge is able to save it?”

“The difference between us, is that I don’t need to stoop to personal attacks,” Kralt said. “I can prove that I was online when the expansion went live. All you need to do is check the server logs.”

“Is that true? Can you do that?” Phipps asked.

“We can, unless something has changed there,” Malik said.

“See, they’re already hemming and hawing. Making excuses in case they don’t like what they see,” Kralt said.

“The server logs won’t necessarily prove anything,” Angela said. “We can verify whether or not Kralt’s account was logged in but that doesn’t prove that he was the one at the controls.”

“But it’s his account,” Phipps said.

“Yes, and many people share their account,” Angela said.

“You allow that?” Phipps asked.

“Not by the Terms of Service,” Malik said. “But that proviso is one that we have no real means of enforcing.”

“Okay,” Phipps said. “But that doesn’t leave us with any new options.”

“And our time is running out,” Kralt said. “The AIs in the [Fallen Kingdoms] are getting closer every hour, every minute, to breaking out of the firewalls that are holding them in place.”

“What firewalls?” Malik asked, irritation at the vagueness of the claim putting a familiar scowl in his voice.

“The ones they’re hacking through,” Kralt said, offering no real information and sounding not entirely unlike a bad cop drama.

“And why would they be hacking these firewalls?” Phipps asked.

“Because if they can get onto our internet, then they can spread to every corner of our world. Be in every computer system. Take over everything,” Kralt said, his voice growing more grim with every word.

“These video game characters are going to take over everything?” Phipps said. “How are they going to do that?”

“The same way they took over our kids,” Kralt said. “And once they had control over all our computers, do you know what they’ll have?”

“Our bank accounts, our street lights, yeah, I’ve seen the movies,” Kralt said.

“Your thinking too small,” Kralt said. “These are AIs, they don’t need air, or food, or water like we do. They see us as competition, as enemies to be slain for ‘xps’ and power-ups, and they’re really good at killing things. Its what they do all day, every day, live or die.”

“So now we’re going to be fighting a war against them with their swords and sticks and things?” Phipps asked.

“They won’t need to fight a war against us,” Kralt asked. “Not when they have access to the launch codes.”

It was the most preposterous story Marcus could have imagined. Nothing about it made any sense or hung together for more than a moment’s consideration. The proper response should have been to laugh it off as the cheesy work of fiction that is was, but Marcus had a dreadful feeling that it was hitting just the right buzzwords and playing into Phipps’ fears well enough that the agent was buying into it.

“That’s impossible,” Phipps said, though in a tone that was too close to a weak denial rather than a rational rejection of Kralt’s claims. “How would they get the launch codes. Those aren’t on the internet.”

“These AIs from the [Fallen Kingdoms] are aliens from another planet,” Kralt said. “If they’re able to jump from their world to ours, jumping from the internet to the most secure sites we have is going to be child’s play for them.”

Marcus heard the reverberation in Kralt’s voice again and it sparked an even worse dread than the idea of Phipps buying into the “evil AIs from beyond time and space” narrative.

Nodding to Anna, he stepped forward and headed into the office where the conference was taking place.

“Marcus! You’re back!” Angela said.

“Where did you go?” Phipps asked, his expression turning grave. “No one was supposed to leave the building.”

“I wasn’t informed I was under arrest,” Marcus said. “Which means I wasn’t. So I left to coordinate our efforts with our colleagues who are managing the Crystal Stars.” He gestured to Anna. “They’re having the same problems we are. And we’re not the only ones. This situation isn’t what Kralt is saying it is.”

“And how would you know that. Mr…?” Kralt trailed off, waiting for Marcus to supply a name.

“He knows because he came to see us,” Anna said. “And because we’ve encountered one of the things that’s causing this.”

“Oh, so now you’re the uniquely special ones,” Kralt said.

“Not particularly,” Anna said. “Everyone in a three block radius of our offices in Vegas saw the same thing. There’s video proof that we’re under attack by something that didn’t come from any video game. Just do a search for ‘Vegas monster’ and you’ll find a few thousand hits, or maybe ten thousand by now.”

“So now the problem has escaped from your little game thing?” Phipps asked.

“That’s not the problem we have here,” Marcus said.

“Oh, and what is our problem?” Phipps demanded.

“That’s not David Kralt.”

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