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After running the corporate remediation tool, Ken stuffed his phone into his blazer's inner pocket. The tool had found viruses attached to the camera and ftp libraries. The logs had shown that pictures had been transferred to a known hacker site, but it was anyone's guess where they'd gone after that. He smiled. At least, they weren't sensitive documents—just his ugly mug. The usual malware detection hadn't found them because they were unknown. But not for long. Mas's team would make short work of them.

Mas was the best and he made Ken look good. That was one of Ken's talents, getting the best on his team and keeping them happy. But Mas was one of the few that could get under Ken's skin. Of course, it was because they'd always be friends, even when on opposing sides of the battlefield, which would never happen—in this world, anyway. Ken picked up a picture frame from his desk and gazed at the eight people. Ken, his brother, sister and father and Mas, Mas's parents and sister on their pilgrimmage to Poston. They stood in front of replicas of wooden bungalows built on hard-pack dirt. Dusty mountains rose up low in the background. He pulled a microfiber cloth out of his glasses case and wiped the dust from the picture frame's pane of glass. He rubbed again and again on a smudge, but it wouldn't come off. Then he realized it was a dust cloud in the background. His dad had said that there was so much sand and dust you could never get away from it. It even got under your sheets and sometimes into your underwear and rubbed your balls raw.

He walked over to the window. The sunset bathed the Golden Gate in glistening beams of real light. He loved that bridge. He ran his first marathon across it. Sunlight had warmed his sweaty biceps as his legs pumped up and down, propelling him across the golden steel road. That had been years ago. It had taken too much time and his family came first, but now he could see that beautiful creation almost every day of the week. Yes, as Mas had said, he'd made it to the top, literally. Yet, he'd never felt really satisfied, working at a company making money off of money, off of symbols of money, self-referential simulacrums devoid of any grounding in physical reality.

But the stealth company Websuit International had built something beautiful, glorious and creative: the websuit.

Glowing tendrils of fog rolled in under the Golden Gate. It seeped into his bones. The fog was stealth and would wend its way through the streets in a cool dispersed mist and then all of a sudden it would be everywhere. That was stealth and just like an immersive gaming experience, he wanted to be a part of a technology that could sneak into the everyday lives of people all over the world.

The soft pitter-patter of rain coming out of the surround-sound speakers broke him out of his reverie. He was sure he'd turned off the trailer. He swiveled his head around and looked back over his shoulder at the monitor. The trailer was off, but the registration page was displayed.

The environmental sounds of sleet now turned to rain hitting the muddy road and the lonely whining of nohkan beckoned him. Underneath the melody, a voice was singing. A woman's voice. A lullaby punctuated by the dripping of rain and then lifted up by the waves of the wind rustling leaves. Closing his eyes, he rocked his head back and forth to the tune. It was a soft voice. Mukashi, mukashi. Like how his mother used to start her bedtime stories. And then, he heard it. He wasn't certain, but he thought he heard his mother Tomomi singing his name, Kenji. Tears welled up and he clenched his eyes shut.

Mukashi, mukashi, a young farmer boy passed by the train station on his way home and chanced to see a girl debarking the platform. Her skin was as white as snow and her eyes were large and black like obsidian. She looked lost and, being the kind lad that he was, he stopped to offer his assistance. She was on her way to Tokyo to stay with her sister and become a nurse, but the train had a mechanical breakdown and she had to stay overnight in the boy's quaint village. She didn't know where to stay. In the off-season, his mother rented out rooms in the farmhouse for laborers, so he offered her such accomodations.

She never did make it to Tokyo. They—

Thunder boomed from the speakers. His eyes popped open. The room careened from one side to the other. The books fell out of the bookshelf on the other side of the room. Earthquake! He was about to duck under the desk, but then the shaking stopped.

Is it the big one? His phone displayed no voice service, but 2G was still available for cell data. He texted Chie to find out if she and Hayden were okay and then she texted him back.

It shook pretty bad, but we're okay. The news says 7.7. Are you still at work?

He texted back.

I'm fine.

He didn't want her to worry. She had to concentrate on Hayden and herself even though the Berkeley hills were on solid rock.

Then cell data dropped out completely.

He grabbed his backpack and was just about to rush out when the monitor screen caught his eye.

On the registration page of his home VM display, Click here glowed red. How can the wired connections even be active? I mean it's a 7.7, the underground fiberoptic cables must be a mess.

Curious to see if it was really live, he sat down and clicked it. A new page was displayed:

Hey there, good-looking!

Only five minutes left until your registration period expires.

You'd better complete your registration or else it's going to be transferred to the next registrant in the queue.

And you definitely don't want that to happen, do you?

Because then you won't get to meet li'l 'ol me—Aika—online. ^_-

I'm easy. Just click here.

What? Was I redirected to a camgirl site? He manually retyped the URL, but it was the right one.

Only 4 minutes left now, dummy. ^_-

You've got to be kidding? He clicked it, but nothing happened. Dammit! His finger jerked and spasmed on the mouse button. Blood seeped out from the crack in his thumb.

A dialog box popped up.

VM host SHIBUYAMA-FAM-WIN2016-1 disconnected.

Shoot, lost the connection to my home VM. He pinged it but all the requests timed out. Yep, the network's dead now, but maybe the company's private link to the backbone is still operational. He remotely logged into one of the security servers that managed the routing to the various exchanges. There was a slight delay, probably caused by rerouting of network traffic. He copied the URL embedded with his unique registration code from the work email. He completely isolated the VM from the internal network, including shutting down all the ports on the VM, and opened the purpose-built browser that sandboxed all activity. He held his breath. He followed the SOP for investigating hacking sources to a T, but there was always a risk—and it wasn't an official company investigation.

He copy-pasted the link into the browser and raised his forefinger over the Return key. He paused. He had less than four minutes left. It was a typical phishing tactic, but he was the one who had submitted his request in the first place. It was a trusted company and its SSL was verified. He had to answer a ten-page questionnaire. It proved he was one of the chosen few and there was no way he was going to let this opportunity get away.

He licked his dry lips and punched Return with his forefinger.

The registration page opened. He verified his email and identity through his private key registered with a third-party certificate authority and paid for an annual subscription with Ether from his digital wallet. To reduce liability, Websuit International, exactly like Three Kingdoms, didn't want to save any personally identifiable information in their system. They just wanted to get paid.

The pointer hovered over Submit and he lifted his finger.

The floor began to sway back and forth like the deck of a sailboat in a squall. Then, it rocked faster and the bookshelf toppled over. "Oh shit!" He dove under the table.

After several seconds, the shaking stopped and then his phone rang.

"Where are you?" Mas said.

"In my office."

"What the fuck? You've gotta get out!"

"Yeah, just need to do one more thing." He crawled out from under the table.

"What? I'm already down on the thirty-fifth floor. The emergency text said we've only felt the precursor. The Big One's gonna hit!"

"I'm coming."

Voice is back up. He grabbed onto the edge of the table and pulled himself up. Then he called Chie and she picked up.

He moved the mouse over the Submit button and then told a white lie. "Hey, I'm almost out of the building. Where are you?"

"What? You're still inside?"

"Don't worry, we—Mas and me—are making our way down the stairs. Where are you? How's Hayden? Is he scared?"

"What? Mas's still there too? I thought he had more sense than you. But anyways, the lights are out, but we have the flashlights and the emergency kit. It's like a camp-out, right Hayden. Here, say 'hi' to Daddy."

Now he was really glad that they'd put together a plan and an emergency kit years ago.

"Hi Dad! We're in the truck in the garage and—"

Then it hit. The shaking was even more intense than before. The blinds tore from their mountings, struck the top of his head, and tore a gash across his face. He shoved the blinds off of him. Shit! It'll take less than a second, then I'll get the hell out of here. At least Hayden and Chie are safe. He slammed his hand back down on the mouse. He was just about to click the button when the filing cabinet toppled over onto his leg. He yelled out in pain, fell to his knees and grabbed his leg with both hands. An alarm sounded through the computer speakers. He looked up and saw a message box pop up with a countdown timer starting at sixty seconds. He grabbed the mouse and moved it over the Submit button.

He clicked.

Taiko drums beat a slow dirge. On the page, a white ring like the tail of a snow fox appeared. It spun and spun. His eyes were glued to the spinning ring like the circumference of a drum head.

❄ ❄ ❄

Mas slammed the door open. Ken was in a catatonic state and staring at the screen.

A huge gash cut across Ken's cheekbone and blood streamed down into his mouth. He licked the blood from his lips.

Mas ran over and grabbed Ken's arm. "We gotta go!" Mas glanced at the screen and saw a spinning white ring. He was about to turn away but then he saw it and gasped. It was irrational, but the hairs on the back of his neck rose and he almost screamed. Behind the spinning ring, a woman stared out at him with her pale white face and red eyes, which then bled away, leaving two empty black circles—voids so black it was as though they were completely dilated and so deep he felt like he was falling into them. He had seen those eyes before and he didn't know how he knew but he knew he had loved them.

Long black hair swayed back and forth in a dark rhythm just above her knees. White arms in translucent sleeves stretched out to grab him. They seemed to be reaching out through the very screen. He felt cold like he was almost frozen solid and rooted to the ground. The hands were mere inches away from him, but he couldn't lift his legs. His breathing slowed and he started to shiver. Am I going to die?

An aftershock jolted the room, the monitor toppled off the desk, crashed onto the floor, and the screen cracked. Mas shook his head clear and tried to move his foot. The sole of his wingtip lifted off of the carpet and he took a step. After looping one of Ken's arms over his shoulders, Mas dragged Ken out of the room and they made their way down the stairs.

With only the red glare from the emergency lights illuminating each concrete step, they descended the deserted stairwell. In a trance, Ken dragged his feet from one step to the other.

Mas's phone beeped and he read the emergency text. More aftershocks were imminent.

Balancing Ken's bulk all the while, Mas trudged down flight after flight of stairs. Every other flight, he stopped to catch his breath. Every so often he'd slap Ken's face and yell at him, "Ken! Wake up!" But Ken would only stare back with the same expressionless eyes that Mas had seen when he pried Ken away from the monitor thirty minutes ago. A fleeting thought passed through Mas's head. I should leave him here and get the EMT to come back and get him? No, it'll take too long. Maybe it's better we perish together? But Katie and Robin need me. Yet if Ken died, I'd never forgive myself—and neither would Chie. He buried that last thought.

They made it down to the fourth floor before the walls started to heave back and forth. Mas grabbed the railing and held onto it as hard as he could. The shaking stopped. Dust sprayed into his face. He coughed and squinted. His mouth tasted like concrete and spiderwebs. He spat. His eyes itched something fierce from the paste of stinging sweat and dust. He rubbed them with the cuffs of his dress shirt.

Finally, they reached the landing at the top of the last flight of stairs. To get a better hold of Ken, Mas pulled Ken's arm back up across his shoulders. Sunlight outlined the edges of the door at the bottom of the last flight of stairs. He laughed out loud and almost started to cry. He patted Ken's shoulder. "We made it, man!"

Then the entire building started to sway. After a second, it stopped. Thank God!

That's when Mas heard it, a deafening grinding noise. He jerked his head around to look behind him. The concrete wall was starting to rip apart. He slapped Ken's face hard, again and again. "Ken! Ken!" Ken's eyes brightened and he looked at Mas in sudden recognition.

Then the landing buckled. The stairway tore away from the wall behind them.

"Run!" Mas said.

Mas ran and bounded down several steps at a time. Ken limped after him as fast as he could. Mas lost his balance and toppled over the railing, but Ken grabbed his hand just in time and pulled him back over.

Ken leaped off of the last step and landed on the ground floor. He yelled in pain as his bad leg crumpled underneath him and he lost his footing, twisting his ankle and slamming his shoulder onto the ground.

Mas jumped down, picked him up, and together they hobbled over to the door. Then everything went black. The emergency lights had gone out.

Mas and Ken took a few tentative steps in their original direction. Mas extended his arms in front of him and felt for the door. He whacked something with his hand. It was the door knob. He grabbed it and pulled, but it didn't budge. He looked up. Light from outside outlined the top of the door frame; the door was askew. It was jammed. If he didn't force it, the entire wall would come down.

Then another aftershock hit. The floor shuddered. Now, he didn't have a choice. They'd be buried alive if they didn't get out now. He grasped the door knob with both hands and yanked it with all his strength. The door wrenched open with a loud shriek and they rushed through. The sunlight blinded them. They were out.

From the evacation area in the center of the street, Mabel and the others frantically waved their arms at Ken and Mas and yelled, "run!"

A burst of pain exploded in Mas's back. Falling. Glancing behind. Broken chunks of concrete crashed down on Ken who then collapsed on top of Mas.

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About the author

Alexs

  • San Francisco Bay Area
  • Quantum Katana

Bio: Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night

Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.

Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/asato

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