SUE: Grand Theft Automatic
It’s a grade four, dammit. Maybe it should have been a three, but the dispatcher bumped it way down the greasy pole because it was phoned in as a one and the MOP who’d reported the offence had sounded either demented, or on drugs, or something – but definitely not one hundred per cent in touch with reality. So they’d dropped it from a three (‘officers will be on scene of crime as soon as possible’) to a four (‘someone will drop by to take a statement within four hours if we’ve got nothing better to do’), with a cryptic annotation (‘MOP raving about Orcs and dragons. Off his meds? But MOP 2 agreed. Both off their meds?’).
But then some bright spark in the control room looked at the SOC location in CopSpace and twigged that they’d been phoning from a former nuclear bunker in Corstorphine that was flagged as a Place of Interest by someone or other in national security.
Which jangled Inspector McGregor’s bell and completely ruined your slow Thursday afternoon.
You’re four hours into your shift, decompressing from two weeks of working nights supervising clean-up after drunken fights on Lothian Road and domestics in Craiglockhart. Daylight work on the other side of the capital city comes as a big relief, bringing with it business of a different, and mostly less violent, sort. This morning you dealt with: two shoplifting call-outs, getting your team to chase up a bunch of littering offences, a couple of community liaison visits, and you’re due down the station in two hours to record your testimony for the plead-by-email hearing on a serial B&E case you’ve been working on. You’re also baby-sitting Bob – probationary constable Robert Lockhart – who is ever so slightly fresh out of police college and about as probationary as a very probationary thing indeed. So it’s not like you’re not busy or anything, but at least it’s low-stress stuff for the most part.
When Mac IMs you, you’ve just spent half an hour catching up on your paperwork in the Starbucks on Corstorphine High Street, with the aid of a tall latte and a furtive ring Danish. Mary’s been nagging you about your heart ever since that stupid DNA check you both took last year (‘so the wee wun kens his maws ur both gawn tae be aboot fer a whiule‘), and the way she goes on, you’d think refined sugar was laced with prussic acid. But you can’t afford to be twitchy from low blood sugar if you get a call, and besides, the bloody things taste so much better when they’re not allowed. So you’re stuffing your cheeks like a demented hamster and scribbling in the air with the tip of a sticky finger when a window pops open in front of the espresso machine.
SUE. MAC HERE.
He’s using an evidence-logged CopSpace channel, which means it’s business. Blow me, you think, as you save the incident form you’re halfway through filling in and swap windows.
SUE HERE. GO AHEAD.
With a sinking feeling, you look at your half-finished latte, then glance sideways at Bob. Bob raises an eyebrow at you.
GOT A 4 4U. SMELLS FUNNY. CHECK SOONEST.
You swallow convulsively and take a swig of too-hot coffee, burning the roof of your mouth. It stings like crazy, and you just know the skin’s going to be peeling by evening when you rub it with your tongue.
MAIL ME THE TROUBLE TICKET.
There’s a musical ding from over by the doorway, and a mail icon appears on your desktop.
ON DUTY, you send, giving the latte a final wistful look.
‘Bob? We’ve got a call.’
‘Eh, boss…?’ Bob lifts his cup and hides whatever he’s been working on – probably Solitaire.
‘Bring it along, it’s nae the blues.’
You file the email as you leave the coffee shop. Bob trails after you. The destination shows up, as a twirling diamond just visible over the buildings on the far side of the road as you get in the car.
It’s a short drive from Corstorphine to the incident site, but it’s up the steep slope of Drum Brae, hemmed in by shoebox houses at the bottom of the hill and the whirring prayer wheels of the wind farm at the top. By the time you’re heading downhill again, you’re worrying that the map is confused: ‘Turn right in one hundred metres’ it tells you, but all you can see is an urban biodiversity coppice. ‘What’s the scene?’ asks Bob.
‘I dinna ken. The skipper says it’s a weird one.’ You feel a flash of irritation – but your shift is a car short today, which makes it a stupid time for a prank – and right then you spot an open driveway leading into the trees, and your specs are flashing green. ‘Eh, look at that lot, will you?’
There are a bunch of cars parked at the end of the drive, and as the Forestry Commission doesn’t hand out Bentleys and Maseratis, it’s a fair bet that you’re in the right place. But the building they’re parked outside of is a raw contrast to the posh wheels: it’s more like a 1950s public toilet than a corporate office, just four concrete walls propping up a flat slab of characterless roof that seems to scream Asbestos! with all the force its wheezing, mesothelioma-ridden lungs can muster. Maybe it’s some kind of up-market cottaging club for the tech start-up crowd? You shake your head and climb out of the car, tapping your ear-piece to tell your phone to listen up: ‘Arriving on SOC, time-stamp now. Start evidence log.’ It’s logging anyway – everything you see on duty goes into the black box – but the voice marker is searchable. It saves the event from getting lost in your lifelog. Bob trails along like an eager puppy. Eight weeks out of police college, so help you. At least he’s house-broken.
The door to the premises is a retrofitted slab of glossy green plastic that slides open automatically as you approach, revealing a reception room that’s very far from being a public toilet. So much for the cottage scene. The lighting is tasteful, the bleached pine impeccably renewable, and the vacant reception desk supports a screen the size of Texas that’s showing a dizzying motion-picture tour of an online game space, overlaid by the words HAYEK ASSOCIATES PLC. It stands sentry before a raw, steel-fronted lift door with a fingerprint reader. Naturally. But at least now you know this isnae going to turn into another bleeding community relations call. You’ve had more than a bellyful of them, what with being one of the few overtly heterosexually challenged sergeants in C Division.
‘Anyone here?’ you call, bouncing on your heels with impatience.
The lift door whispers open and a Member of Public rushes out, gushing at you and wringing his hands: ‘It’s terrible, officers! What took you so long? It’s all a terrible mess!’
‘Slow down.’ You point your specs at him in full-capture mode. Your specs log: one Member of Public, Male, Caucasian, 185 high, 80 heavy, short hair, expensive-looking suit and open-collared shirt, agitated but sober. He’s in that hard-toguess age range between twenty-five and forty-five, used to being in control, but right now you’re the nearest authority figure and he’s reverting to the hapless dependency of a tenyear-old. (Either that, or he’s afraid you’re gonnae arrest him for emoting in public without a dramatic license.) He’s clearly not used to dealing with the police, which gives you something
to play on. ‘May I see your ID card, sir?’
‘My card? It’s, uh, downstairs in my office, uh, I guess I can show you…’ His hands flutter aimlessly in search of a missing keyboard. ‘I’m Wayne, by the way, Wayne Richardson, Marketing Director.’ Wayne Richardson, Marketing Director, is clearly unused to not being in control of situations. His expression’s priceless, like you’ve pointed out his fly’s undone and his cock ring is showing. ‘Ever-everybody’s in the boardroom; we’ve been waiting for you. I can, uh, take you there, Constable…?’
You give him a not terribly warm smile. ‘Sergeant Smith, Meadowplace Road Station. This is Constable Lockhart.’ Richardson has the decency to look embarrassed. ‘Someone here reported a theft, but I’m a bit unclear as to what was stolen.’ You blink up the trouble ticket again: yes, this guy was one of the two names the dispatcher logged. Something about a safety deposit box. Boxes. ‘Who noticed the item was missing? Was it yourself?’
‘Uh, no, it was the entire security trading team!’ He looks at you with wide-open eyes, as if he thinks you’re about to call him a liar or something. ‘It was on all the screens, they couldn’t miss it – there must have been thousands of witnesses all over the shard!’ He waves in the general direction of the lift. ‘There’s a crisis meeting in the boardroom right now. We captured the intrusion on-screen so you can see for yourself.’
They watched it happen on video instead of trying to intervene? You shake your head. Some people will do anything to avoid a liability lawsuit, as if the thief tripping on a rug and sticking their heid in the microwave is more of a problem than being burgled. Or maybe the dispatcher was right? Off their meds an’ off their heids. ‘Show me the boardroom.’ You nod at Bob, who does a slow scan of the lobby before trailing after you. Richardson walks over to the lift, and you note there’s a thumbprint scanner in the call button. Whoever stole the whatever, there’ll be a logfile somewhere with their thumbprints on file. (Which from your point of view is good because it makes detection and wrap-up a whole lot easier. The warm glow of a case clean-up beckons.) As the doors open, you ask, ‘What exactly happened? From the beginning, please. In your own time.’
‘I’d just come out of the post-IPO debrief meeting with Marcus and Barry, they’re our CEO and CTO. We were in a three-way conference call with our VC’s investment liaison team and our counsel down south when Linda called me out – she’s in derivatives and border controls – because there was something flaky going down in one of the realms we manage for Kensu International. It’s in the prestige-level central bank for Avalon Four. There was a guild of Orcs – in a no-PvP area – and a goddamn dragon, and they cleaned out the bank. So we figured we’d call you.’
The lift stops, and you stare at Wayne Richardson, Marketing Director, in mild disbelief. The jargon can wait for later, that’s what your interview log is for: but one name in particular rings a bell because Mary says Davey’s been pestering her for an account. ‘Avalon Four? Isnae that a game?’
He swallows and nods. ‘It’s our main cash cow.’ The doors slide open on an underground corridor. The roof is ribbed with huge concrete beams painted in thick splashes of institutional cream, and it’s startlingly cold. There are bleached-pine doors on either side, a cable duct winding overhead, and posters on the walls that say LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS. For a moment you wonder if you’ve blundered into some kind of live-action roleplaying thing, a cold-war re-enactment maybe but just then your phone chimes at you that it’s gone offline.
‘Uh, Sarge?’ asks Bob.
‘I know,’ you mutter. You must be too far underground, or they’re not carrying public bandwidth, or something. You force yourself to take it easy. ‘The signal in here’s poor: I’ll probably end up having to use a pen,’ you warn Richardson, pulling out your official evidence phone. ‘So I may havtae back up or slow down a wee bit. Begin statement. On scene’ – you rattle off the reference in the corner of your eye – ‘attending to Wayne Richardson, Marketing Director.’
He leads you down the passage towards an open doorway through which you can hear raised voices, people with posh accents interrupting each other animatedly. The doorway is flanked by two potted rubber plants, slightly wilted despite the daylight spots focussed on them. ‘Ahem.’ You clear your throat, and the conversation in the boardroom dribbles into incontinent silence as you stick your head round the door. Behind you, Bob’s got both his handcams out as well as his head cam, and he’s sweeping the room like a cross between the Lone Gunman and a star-crazed paparazzo: it’s policing, but not as your daddy knew it. You’re going to have to have a word with the lad afterwards, remind him he’s a cop, not a cinematographer.
There’s a fancy table in the middle of the room, made of a transparent plastic that refracts the light passing through it into a myriad of clashing rainbows, and there’s a lot of light – it may be a cave down here, but these yins have LED daylight spots the way papes have candles. The chairs around the table are equally fancy: they look like they belong in a squadron of fighter jets, except ejector seats don’t usually come with castors and a gas strut suspension. Shame about the way their occupants are letting them down, though. There are six of them. Two slimy wee maggots in ten-thousand-euro suits are clogging up the end of the table wi’ their status-symbol tablets: they’re the ones that were yammering at each other until they saw you. No ties; maybe it’s a dress code thing. There’s a lass in a suit, too, but she’s too young to be a decision maker. Secretarial/Admin, you guess. And then there’s the other guys who are, frankly, geeks. It’s not like they’ve got blinking red navigation lights on their heids, but two of ’em are wearing sandals and the other’s enough to make you wish your Little Database of Charges had a section on Fashion Crimes: the stripes on his shirt are interfering with your specs, and the evidence cam is picking up a nasty moiré effect. ‘Ahem,’ you repeat, as a holding action, then stare at Wayne Richardson, Marketing Director. Let him sort this out.
‘Oh, excuse me.’ Richardson takes his cue. ‘This is, uh, Sergeant Smith and Constable Lockhart. The sergeant’s here to take a statement.’
‘That’s enough,’ you cut in. ‘If you can introduce everyone? Then ye’d better show me what happened.’
‘Uh, sure.’ Richardson points at the suits with the slits for heir owners’ dorsal fins first: ‘Marcus Hackman, CEO.’
Hackman gives Richardson the hairy eyeball, like he’s sizing him for a concrete overcoat, but only for a second. Then he turns the charm on you with a nod and a great white smile that reveals about two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of American dental prostheses that he probably wears because it’s the only way to stop the bairns from screaming and running away before he can eat them. Clearly by calling the Polis, Wayne has pissed in Hackman’s pint, but he’s too much of a professional to let your arrival perturb him. ‘We’re grateful that you could come, but really it’s not necessary—’
‘And Barry Michaels, our Chief Technology Officer.’
Michaels is plump and rumpled in an old-Fettes-schoolboy-Boris-Johnson sort of way, with a port nose and a boyish cowlick of black hair: you peg immediately that he’s probably as
bent as a three-bob note, but unlike Hackman, he’s not some kind of toxic-waste-eating Martian invader from the planet Wall Street. He nods nervously, looking like he’s eaten something disagreeable. ‘This is Beccy Webster, our Market Stabilization Executive.’ The twentysomething hen’s a highflyer, then? ‘Mike Russell, Sam Couper, and Darren Evans’ – the latter is the one with the anti-webcam shirt – ‘are our senior quants.’
‘Excuse me?’ You raise an eyebrow.
‘Sorry. They’re our economics wizards, they do the market programming around here that’s the bread and butter of our business. It’s just what they’re called.’
ou take a deep breath. ‘Right. I understand Mr. Richardson phoned in a report of a theft from your company. He tells me that you got it on video, and it’s something to do with a game. What exactly was stolen?’ You take a wild guess: ‘Was it the source code, or something?’
‘Oh dear.’ Michaels emotes like a sweaty-handed old theatre queen. ‘Anything but!’ He sits up in his ejector seat – you’re certain, now, that you’ve seen one just like it in the air museum at East Fortune – and takes a deep breath. ‘Did you tell her it was the source code, Wayne?’
‘What did you tell the police?’ Michaels demands. He sounds very upset about something. Okay, pencil him in as number two on your list of folks who don’t like airing their smalls in public. (And remember for later: There’s no smoke without a source of combustion…)
‘Nothing, I just called them because we’ve been robbed!’
This is getting out of hand. ‘What was stolen?’ you ask, pitching your voice a bit louder.
‘Everything in the central bank!’ It’s Webster. At last, you think, someone who gives simple answers to simple questions.
‘Central bank where, on the high street?’ You can’t be sure while you’re offline, but you don’t think there are any banks at this end of Drum Brae—
‘Show her the video,’ Hackman says wearily. ‘It’s the only way to explain.’
You’re looking out across a verdant green rainforest canopy that sprawls across the foothills of a mountain range so tall that the peaks are a vulpine blue haze in the distance, biting at the smaller of the three moons that chase each other across the sky. A waterfall half a kilometre high shimmers and thunders over the edge of a cliff like molten green glass, shattering into rainbow-clouded fragments as it nears the lake beneath. Brilliantly plumed birds soar and swoop across the treetops, occasionally diving towards the waters of the river that flows from the lake. The effect is more than real: it’s as supernaturally vivid as an exotic holiday ad, banishing the rainy Edinburgh afternoon outside to the level of a dreicht grey parody of reality.
You’re about to ask what you’re meant to be seeing here – a bank robbery in a package holiday ad? – when the camera on the rainforest pans back and up, and you realize you’re not on Earth anymore.
There’s an island in the sky, a plug of rock set adrift from its mooring in the sea of reality, like a painting by Roger Dean come to life. Beneath it, ghostly violet and green ights flicker, buoying it up on a wave of magic. The camera rises like a helicopter and pans across the island. Although there are trees atop it, it’s mostly given over to buildings – constructions with uneven stone walls and steeply pitched roofs, some turreted and a few supported by classical colonnades. The ground rises near the heart of the flying island, peaking at a low hill that is surmounted by the battlements and towers of a gigantic castle. The battlements flash and glitter in the sunlight, as if they’re made of a glassy substance: rainbows shimmer in their recesses.
‘This is the Island of Valiant Dreams. It hovers above the Lake of the Lost, in the foothills of the Nether Mountains in Avalon Four. The Island is home to the city called Roche’s Retreat, and it’s supported by ancient magicks. Among other things, it is home to the central bank of Avalon Four, which we manage under contract.’
Aye, reet, you tell yourself, as the viewpoint rotates and zooms in on the island, diving towards the cobbled streets and crowded alleys that thread the city. There are a myriad of folk here, not all of them human. You weave past the heads of giants and around the sides of a palanquin borne on the back of a domesticated dinosaur led by lizard-faced men, loop around a timber-framed shop that leans alarmingly out across the road, leap a foot-bridge across a canal, then slow as you enter a huge stone-flagged city square, and dive through the doorway of a temple of Mammon that puts Parliament to shame. So this is what the wee one thinks he’s getting for his birthday? It’s all very picturesque, but the column of exotic dancers high-kicking their way between two temples tells you that Davey’d better have another think coming.
‘This is the central bank. Our task is to keep speculation down, and effectively to drain quest items and magic artefacts from the realm to prevent inflation. One way we do this is by offering safe deposit services to players: Avalon Four runs a non-persistent ownership mode so you can lose stuff if you’re killed on a quest and respawn, and the encumbrance rules are tight.’
It’s not much like your local branch of the Clydesdale. Demons and magicians and monsters, oh my! – a bizarre menagerie of unreal, superreal entities stand in small groups across the huge marble floor, bickering and haggling. Here and there, a flash of light and a puff of smoke erupt as one of the staff invokes an imp or servitor to take this or that item to the safe deposit vaults, or to check an adventurer’s possessions out of their custody and return it to their owner.
‘The time is just past ten fifteen…’
Your viewpoint jerks, then slews round to face the entrance to the bank. The doors are three times as high as a tall man, carved from giant ebony beams clasped in a frame of some silvery metal: the hinges they turn on are as thick as a body-builder’s arms. But they’re not silvery now – they’re glowing dull red, then a bright, rosy pulse of heat lights them up from the outside, and the doors begin to collapse inwards on a wave of choking black smoke.
In through the smoke marches a formation of monstrous soldiers. They’re larger than life and twice as gnarly, prognathous green-skinned jaws featuring tusks capped in gold. Their uniform is a mixture of brown leather and chain-mail, and their helmet spikes bear the impaled heads of their trophies, nodding above the points of their pikes. Just like Craigmillar at chucking out time on a Saturday night, you figure, only not as ugly.
There are many of them, for the column is at least ten rows deep: and something vast and red and reptilian looms behind them, ancient and malign.
Then the picture freezes.
‘You are looking at an Orcish war band. There are at least forty of them, and they’re a very long way from home. The thing behind them is a dragon. They seem to have brought him along for fire support. Which is impossible, but so is what happens next.’
The picture unfreezes.
The Orcish warriors spread out and adopt a spearheaded formation. Their leader barks a sharp command, and the pikes are lowered to face the denizens of the bank, who are turning to watch with gathering astonishment and anger. Here and there the bright glamour of incantations shows a spell-caster winding up to put the intruders in their place. And then – A wave of darkness descends across the room, and the occupants freeze in their tracks.
‘This is when something – we’re not sure what – nerfed our admins back to level zero and cast a Time Stop on everyone in the room. That’s a distressingly high-powered spell, and it normally affects just one target at a time.’
Flashes and flickers of light fitfully stab into the darkness. The Orcs are dispersing, fanning out with the speedy assurance of stage-hands moving the furniture and props while the stage lights are dimmed. They move between flicker and fulmination, snatching up leather sacks and ornately decorated chests, seizing swords and swapping their cheap leather armour for glittering plate. Over the space of a minute they denude the floor of the bank, snatching up the treasures that are inexplicably popping into view from the ethereal vaults.
Finally, their leader barks another command. The Orcs converge on his banner, his helmet nodding high beneath its column of five skulls – and they form up neatly into columns again, and march out through the mangled wreckage of the doors. As the last one leaves the threshold, the darkness disperses like mist on a summer morning. A couple of the braver warriors give shouts of rage and chase after their stolen property – but the dragon is waiting, and the smell of napalm is just the same in Avalon Four as on any other silver screen.
‘We’ve been robbed,’ says Richardson. ‘Got the picture yet?’
Halting State by Charles Stross is out now, published by Orbit in the UK, in paperback, priced at £7.99.
It was called in as a robbery at Hayek Associates, an online game company. So you can imagine Sergeant Sue Smith’s mood as she watches the video footage of the heist being carried out by a band of orcs and a dragon, and realises that the robbery from an online game company is actually a robbery from an online game.
Just wonderful. Like she has nothing better to do. But online entertainment is big business, and when the bodies of real people start to show up, it’s clear that this is anything but a game. For Sue, computer coding expert Jack Reed, and forensic accountant Elaine Barnaby, the walls between the actual and the virtual are about to come crashing down. There is something very dangerous and very real going on at Hayek Associates, and those involved are playing for keeps.
No cheats, no back doors, no extra lives – make a wrong call on this one and it’s game over.
Visit www.littlebrown.co.uk for catalogue and ordering information.
For more information on Charles Stross, visit his official website.