I’m still at this experiment. You can download the story up to this point from this link:
I’m also linking to the previous chapter:
Nadisda tries to “rehabilitate” the arrogant cop Connor from trying to arrest her friend, cyber-crook Mike. She sets Connor (as Hero Hugo) tasks in the game to try and coax him into introspection. However her truth challenge backfires on him, as does her carelessness about allowing Mike to find out where his arch-enemy is living. Mike jumps at the opportunity and sends the police a false tip-off framing a recent unsolved capital crime on Connor. Neither he nor Nadisda could possibly guess how much deeper the trouble is in which Mike has dumped them all…
14 – The Secret
“He logged out!” said one of the betas, disgusted. “That monster Hugo has left the game.”
“Couldn’t handle the heat,” said another with disdain.
Valentine smiled to himself. He knew better. According to his intelligence, a beta gamer in the flat block across from Connor’s, observing with binoculars, the cop had just been raided.
A taste of his own medicine! Indeed!
It worried him that Nadisda wasn’t back yet. But then… somehow he didn’t think he needed to worry about that being of raw magic.
It was a Connor-worthy coup. Mike had anonymously tipped off police that he had information on who that hardware store shooter was who had randomly mown down twelve people last week and then disappeared before the cops could arrive. The man had paraded as some extremist, but Mike had pointed out that in fact there was reason to believe it was a cop who had gone off the rails. Cuckoos and on a power trip, with a gun. Not a safe combination.
It was evil of him, accusing the cop of something like that while the real shooter was still running free. But, he consoled himself, the New York police were pretty efficient and would figure it out themselves after a while. But it should at least stop the pig from pressing any more criminal charges against him, his innocent sister and his team. It should keep for a while, and most likely the newspapers would grab the story up too. After that, with such a stain on his rep, hopefully Connor would have to leave the force.
Nadisda had fallen asleep. A soft tread on her moss woke her up. She came out of her den.
“I wanted to see if you’re alright, sis,” said the fairy princess.
Nadisda shook her head. Somewhere in her nightmare of the real world, terrible things had happened, were still happening…
“How’s Valentine?” she asked.
“Pleased as punch,” grinned Nancy. “Everything’s good for him right now. His name is cleared, he’s got his game back – you should see the skills he’s given Elena! And we’re sort-of…” she blushed.
“Dating?” asked Nadisda with a smile.
“Yeah. That. Sorry. I know you have a shine on him…”
Nadisda held up her hand. “Stop right there! I never did! I just liked him, that was, before I saw clearly…” her smile faded.
“Saw clearly what?” asked Nancy, concerned.
She deserved to know. But destroy her happiness? Nadisda couldn’t do it. She put a wreath of white flowers around Nancy’s head.
“There’s a dark side to him,” she warned. “Just be careful.”
“Of course there is,” laughed Nancy. “He’s a bad boy! A hacker and a cyber-crook. That’s why he picked the Villain – because he’s got this irony thing…”
“Nancy,” implored Nadisda, “you’re my connection to the outside world now. I don’t know, something terrible happened at Connor’s place, I can’t quite remember… please keep Mike in line for me, stop him from stealing anything, and stop him from doing anything online other than just the game. Please?”
“Keep his record clean?” supplied Nancy.
“More than that. Keep his soul record… as clean as it is now, I guess. Don’t let it get worse. It could end us all.”
“How are you holding up with Hugo?” asked the fairy princess.
“I don’t know,” said Nadisda. “It is as though, in here, there’s a memory block to out there. I can only find out by looking. What the heck has Mike programmed into my grove?”
“Well, he overrode your privacy setting, for one,” said Nancy. “The grove is part of the game, Nadee. Can’t have it blocked off for questers.”
“And who is playing my part?” challenged Nadisda.
“The fairy has gone missing,” said Nancy. “It’s in fact a quest by now. Faff is in charge of that. For that purpose he visits your grove in the shape of an old wizard.”
Nadisda shook her head at this.
“I think Mike knows where I am,” she said. “In the real world. Ask him.” And she faded and woke up into the real world.
Nadisda nearly drowned, and had to teleport herself out of Connor’s pocket. She zipped to the corner of the small grey room and perched on top of the electronic eye.
From above, it was a terrifying scene. Connor had been strapped to a table of sorts, a plank – one that was tilted so that his head was lower than his feet. He was lying there gasping for breath. Around him, two men in black stood, one pouring another bucket of water over his face.
The whole room had only one very bright light, right over the plank; the floor was drenched and smelling very foul, with one single sluice hole in one corner. There were no windows, and the door didn’t look like the type that would open. But there was some sort of mirror in the other top corner. Nadisda remembered from nearly-faded implanted memories: It would be a one-way window through which more of Connor’s tormentors would be watching.
She had to save him! She made a bubble with her wings, turned herself invisible – dashit, it was difficult to practice her magic in this place – and teleported, placing the air bubble accurately over his mouth and nose just as the next lot of water came.
It helped, a little, but she had underestimated his lung capacity as he gasped for that tiny bit of oxygen. She had to teleport away to save herself from being inhaled.
This would never be enough! She tried to return to full size, stretching her invisibility with all her might, and found that she could only grow back to half her usual size. She shoved one of the men aside. Then she placed herself over Connor and tried to take him along to her grove. Her magic failed her dismally.
“What the hell was that?” asked the man who had been shoved.
“Careful that you don’t slip,” replied his associate.
Connor’s restraints kept him on that plank. Nadisda nearly tore her wings in the attempt. She retreated, and the next load of water threatened to drown her love…
She sent floral minions to unpick his chains, but those blasted things would’t grow. Something was wrong with her magic.
“One more and he’s dead,” one of the men in black pointed out.
The other one held off pouring yet another bucket of water over him. “Do we ask him to talk?”
“Not yet,” replied the first with a cold smile that made Nadisda shiver.
“I didn’t do it,” Conner managed to shout out.
“Do what?” challenged the second man, holding the bucket ready.
“The shooting,” gasped Connor. “Wasn’t me.”
The first man smiled his icy smile and gave a minute gesture with his head, and the second poured the water.
Connor coughed and sputtered and gasped for air. He had felt the fairy touch, as Nadee had tried to help him, and tried to get him out of there. She was still with him; she hadn’t drowned. That was his lifeline.
“I’m not the shooter,” he managed again. “You got the wrong guy!”
Another load of water crashed over him. If Nadee weren’t there to funnel a little bit of oxygen to him, he knew he’d be dead by now.
Then his torturers abruptly stopped the procedure, the first man giving him that reptilian smile one more time.
“We know. That’s not what you’re here for, anyway,” he informed him. And they picked up the bucket and left the room, locking the heavy metal door behind them.
“It’s called waterboarding.”
Connor was sitting against the wall in the watery mess on the floor. He looked grim, barely alive. She was curled up against him, using her invisibility spell to its maximum because she knew he could feel her, but she didn’t want the people to see her through that camera eye and that mirror window. And there was no more mana in her for more magic than only the invisibility. Unlocking his chains had taken all the strength she had.
“They give you the impression that you’re drowning,” Connor rasped. “It’s a psycho-terror technique. Of course they can drown you for real if they want to, and nobody will know better. But they haven’t even started asking me questions, so I guess they’re not going to kill me yet.”
“Who are they?”
“Could you still ask,” he smiled. “State agents of the secret type. I’m not saying it out loud.”
“You’re barely whispering,” she pointed out.
“They didn’t bother asking me about that shooting,” he mused. “They know it wasn’t me, it’s just a ploy to get me to crack.”
“Why do they want you to crack?” she asked in horror.
“They want…” he sighed. “Nadee, you realize that you’re just a program? If the game fails, you might die.”
“Everyone dies,” she replied philosophically. “I don’t think I’m a program. I’m a being of pure magic.”
He gazed at the mirage of black roses that wreathed its way like a shadow all along the walls. It was amazing how he could climb into her illusions.
“All this because Mike had to launch false charges against you,” she said angrily. “Curse him!”
“Poor Mike,” said Connor quietly.
“Poor Mike?” she repeated, dumbstruck.
“Most brilliant hacker the planet has ever seen,” he said. “Programmed by me.”
He sighed again and looked at the ceiling.
“Mike was a system kid,” said Connor. “I’m in here because they want to know where he is, and his sister Jen. The two were medically kidnapped by a clinic when they were brought in for basic flu. The parents refused to accept some or other experimental treatment the clinic wanted to try, so they were labelled child abusers and their children were both removed from their care and put into state custody. They were nine and eleven at that time. Six years later, Mike was a vegetable. They try every new treatment out on such medically kidnapped children. When his brain packed it in, they tried one more ‘treatment’. They tried an electronic implant.”
“He’s a cyborg?” she gasped.
“More like a hybrid,” said Connor. “His organic brain maintains his body functions, and a very limited bit of intellect. His AI steers his thinking. I made a mistake. I was a convict, a young expert hacker myself, had been doing time for cyber-crime, but they also knew that I was the best they had. So they called me in to rescue the kid. His sister was there, crying her eyes out. I promised her to get Mike back for her, and I did my best. I programmed him with the very best AI I could come up with, but I relied on his organic brain to maintain his personality and integrity. I underestimated the hate he carries for the system.”
“No wonder,” whispered Nadee.
“I programmed a self-learning function into his AI,” Connor added. “That’s what a true AI does, it teaches itself. And I gave him programming skills, just so that he’d have something to see him through in the world. My success got me out of prison, and into the supervision of Charlie… who has no clue, poor chap. I’ve been a well-behaved cop ever since, putting cyber-crooks behind bars. But my AI backfired, Nickells turned into the most ingenious cyber-criminal this world has yet experienced, and I’m the only one who can track him down – and I have to, because he doesn’t remember. I have to remind them both what went down, and beg him to go under cover.”
“And arresting him will do this?” asked Nadisda sceptically. “In all publicity?”
“There’s no publicity,” said Connor, his voice down to a barely audible whisper. “Charlie, and Henderson in Detroit, and several others – they are my network. And my personal network knows the mission is to get him to New York, and his sister too, with as little fuss and as quietly as possible; so that both kids can speak to me. The last time I managed to get them caught, I was too slow; by the time I got there, they had run. I deleted their records off the system immediately – that is also the plan for when I do catch them. Makes it more difficult for me but I don’t want the secret service getting alerted to where they are. It’s skating on thin ice, always a matter of time. I have my own network of cops convinced I can rehab them both without giving them a record, because they are essentially good kids. Damn, and I can, because I hold their memories in my hand! But I can’t let Nickells and his sister know that!”
“Can’t you tell them?” she whispered.
“Nickells is arrogant,” said Connor. “If he gets wind that I don’t really want him to serve time, he’ll become that much cheekier. I’ll never catch him. If he sees me as weak, that’s that. As it is he sees me as the system, the enemy, this is why I’m here. He himself betrayed my location, once he found it out. He only has no understanding to what he’s betrayed me.”
“And if he understood, would he care?” asked Nadisda fearfully.
“Maybe. If he could be made to remember. Jen was brainflushed. They took her memories out of her – basically the same way they’re torturing me now. She doesn’t know her brother is an AI. I’ve been trying to get the two back to New York forever now, so that I can get them alone and inform them, but that’s now well and truly buggered.”
She glanced up at the top corners of the cell.
“Don’t you think there are microphones in here? Telling me this, here, even if you’re whispering?”
He hugged her more closely.
“Nadee,” he said, “I’m already finished. They’re going to kill me, once they have the information out of me. And I’ll give it to them, make no mistake. Everybody sings, in here. Everybody!”
“So why haven’t they yet?”
“They’re ‘prepping’ me. Working on me until I wish I were dead, so that that last interview can come fast and easy, like a relief.” He planted a kiss on her head. “Nadee, get out of here. You don’t have to witness this. It will break your heart.” He smiled at her. “It was good to know you.”
She stared at him. “So they will kill you even if you tell them everything?”
He nodded. “Yup – that is their way. Nadee, I don’t want to betray Mike and Jen. The system will take them back and gobble them up.”
“What will they do?”
“They’re likely to kill Jen,” said Connor. “That is terrible enough. But she is in their way because she influences Mike. Then they’ll grab up the most brilliant cyber-criminal that has ever walked this Earth and make him work for them. They’ll program him.”
“The worst is,” said Connor, “it’s already over. There is no way I’m not going to tell them where to find the two.”
“Not if I can hide them somewhere,” replied the fairy.
Connor stared at her with new hope. “You’ll do that? But you must go now! Get it done. They could come back any moment, and the more time we can buy Mike and Jen for escaping…”
Tears sprang to her eyes. “But then you’re alone when they torture you.”
“They’ll kill me anyway, Nadee. We can’t stop them. Better you go and save those two.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. “I’m not leaving you!”
“I don’t want you to see this,” said Conner seriously. “I don’t want you to see how they break a man. It’s horrible.”
“You’ve seen it before?”
He nodded solemnly.
“I must get you out of here!” said Nadee urgently. She folded her invisible blue wings around him – he was not restrained now – and tried again to teleport. And her powers failed her entirely.
“What’s happening?” she asked despairingly. “Where’s my magic? It feels like it’s being drained off.”
“You need to get yourself out of here and replenish,” said Connor. “Don’t worry. They won’t kill me yet, I’m still too valuable. They’ll only make me wish they did. There’s some time. I’ll try to hold out as long as I can.”
“Then I’ll come back as quickly as I can!” She opened a button on his shirt and placed her hand over his heart. “I’m giving you this,” she said. “When you touch it and think of me, I’ll come.”
He glanced down. A faint tattoo of a single black rose glowed on his chest before fading into near obscurity. The outlines remained barely visible as grey lines.
“And I’m giving you this,” he replied and placed his hand over her heart. She held it there for a minute. “I love you,” he whispered. “Don’t ever forget that.”
It wasn’t visible from outside; but the words glowed brightly in her heart, like a beacon. She held onto them, thought of her grove and was gone.