I logged in early the next morning. My secretary was already running, and she flashed me a red-lipped smile as I came in. I had tweaked her looks; she was a blonde-haired porcelain-skinned bombshell, and today, her random outfit generator had put her in a tight tube skirt and a fluffly blouse. "Heya sweetheart," I said as I walked out of my inner office and past her desk.
"More sweet talk from you. You should probably save that for your wife ya know. She dropped a message." She picked a note up off her desk and handed it to me. I downloaded it from her and looked at it; It was a fleshside phone number. Apparently my wife wasn't working in the office today. A quick lookup on the area code put her out of town, about a hundred miles north. "She told me to tell you that last night was the best sex she's had in three years, and would be sorry you weren't there, but she couldn't get you to logoff of the 'fucking gamething'."
I frowned. "Eh, figures, the bitch. I work hard trying to keep a roof over her head..."
"Boss, I know you ain't turnin' a dime on this thing. Why do you keep it goin'? I love being your secretary and all, but you could do so much better for yourself."
I made a mental note to revise her AI functions later. "But without this office, what excuse would I have to see you every day sweetheart? Don't worry about me; the wife's just a bitch, but isn't that the way with marriage?"
She made an ugly face at that; I had scripted her with period-appropriate morals. You're supposed to get married and be happy in her little digital mind.
"Listen, I'm going over to Forestshire. I picked up a new case last night, and for a change, it looks more interesting that finding some schmo's Wand of Summoning."
Forestshire was a long way from the center of Metro-City. Once outside, I walked the block to the station on macro. In game time, it was mid-afternoon. Not that in-game time of day ever really mattered for anything. Most game services ran 24/7, though in-game-night was traditionally the time that some servers would be taken down for maintainance and reboots. Still, it was a good time to get to investigating. NPC activity usually peaks within a few game-hours of modday.
I walked into the subway, and stopped at the ticket counter. The NPC there waited blandly, not engaging me. "One Forestshire." She handed me a token and spoke one of a dozen randomly selected phrases, and a few more Clams were racked up on my bill. Electric Artistry had their own leech industry- in game mass transit. You can't walk from one server to another; they'll use different versions of protocols, have different memory restrictions on characters, and most importantly, they'll have to translate scale. A pistol may be more devestating than a bow and arrow, but if everyone coming from Metro-City had that advantage in Forestshire, or any of the other fantasy realms, it'd unbalance the game.
Instead, you had to use one of the mass-transit systems. Each server had a different representation of them, but the purpose was the same. It translated all of the important game data and changed all of your stats so that they'd make sense in different worlds. There were scripts you could use that would negate that, but the Jackboots would hunt you down for it.
The train for Forestshire pulled into the station. I boarded, and to my surprise, a Jackboot was sitting in the car. He pointed to the empty seat next to him and gestured for me to sit. Fleshside, my pulse rate jumped. Jackboots never simply had civil conversations in the back of trains. He was going to do something bad. But if I refused him, he'd do something worse.
I sat next to him, noting the insignias on his uniform. Jackboot uniforms looked appropriate to thier name. Similar in cut to Nazi military, but done with darker fabrics. Alot more black; all of the insignia were chrome. Very shiny, and very ominous. This guy ranked at a level 23 Lieutenant, which meant he had PKed at least one hundred hackers. He also out leveled me by alot.
"So how are you Mr. Crane?" he asked. Instantly, you could tell that his voice wasn't the player's voice. Really "into it" players would invest in voice-synth processing, that way they could have a custom voice tailored to their character. Judging from the quality, I'd say he'd gotten top of the line, and was also paying big-bucks for bandwith. Not too surprising; Jackboots keep the loot from the PKed corpse. They're invariably wealthy.
"Well, I've been noticing a nasty packet loss, but other than that, everything's good."
"You're going to Forestshire as well I see." The train began to move; the full transfer over to Forestshire only took a minute or two, depending on traffic.
"Um... yeah. Following up on a case."
"Really? Is this the same case that would involve you invoking a Forestshire NPC in Metro-City?"
I bristled. The Jackboot smiled like a cat eyeing a lame mouse. It was a convincing emote. "I don't know what you're talking about." There was no way he could know that unless they had me under observation, which was unlikely. Usually the Jackboots were kind enough to look the other way when it came to me hacking, being that we were in the same business and all. But the thought was disturbing. They must have twigged to the NPC crossing servers and were staking out this train waiting to see if any of the usual suspects ventured out to Forestshire today.
"Oh? I'm sorry. I must have mistaken you for a different leech."
"Apparently. Someone was invoking external NPCs? I didn't think it was possible, even with a hacker. Trains like these shouldn't allow it."
"Theoretically, everything is possible. Interesting though, that you'd assume that it travelled there. Someone could have just ran the code in the city center."
"I'm just guessing." I emoted a shrug. "Thinking like a hacker is your job." He raised a good point though; I assumed she had travelled to my office under her own power, but that was unlikely. More likely, someone invoked the NPC from inside Metro-City, maybe even close to my office. Still though... why a Forestshire NPC? Why not one of the standard Metro-City ones?
He didn't reply for a moment. "I guess it is."
The train pulled into Forestshire. Outside, I could see a network of trees and vines, the vines occasionally pulsing as "Life Trees" sent messages through them. It was a cute effect; each "Life Tree" represented one of the specific computers that formed the server-cluster that ran Forestshire. "This is my stop." I stood up as the doors opened, and looked back at him, waiting for him to get off with me. These trains were one-stop lines, so there was no place else for him to go.
He shook his head, and leaned back in his seat.
No place else, unless he were stakeing out the train, as I had surmised. I touched the brim of my fedora and stepped off.
Once outside the train vanished, blending into the forest behind me. It would never do to have a subway train floating in the middle of a fantasy forest. It also wouldn't do for me to be loitering around in a longcoat and fedora. There were no rules against it, but most people wouldn't talk to you if you weren't in the garb of the region. I flipped to my inventory screen, and changed my street clothes out for "Leather Armor + 3" and a "Leather Helm of Searching", which allowed you to see other player's inventory. Handy when tracking stolen items, but it was also good head protection.
A short walk, and I was standing in the Forestshire Town Square. Characters were wandering about, shopping or resting up between sorties into the surrounding forest, which was of course populated with various hostile creatures. I glanced around, then belined for the bar. Even in digital worlds serving digital drinks, people gravitated towards the bar. In Forestshire, one of the key NPCs lived there, handing out missions and rewarding them heavily.
There were a dozen characters in side, most of them having conversations without looking at each other. No one I recognized was in there either. Not a big deal; I walked over to the bartender, an NPC. "Hey buddy." The tender looked expectantly, if blankly at me. "Listen, I'm lookin' for a guy named Aikenhal, you seen him around?" As I spoke, I fired a log-read script at the tender. So long as the Jackboots weren't watching the place, I'd be fine.
The log-reader had no in-game representation, but anyone running anti-hak software would still know I used it. It was shady, but as an Investigator, I had a sly nod from the Jackboots when it came to using it. They used similar software themselves when tracking hackers. At any rate, a moment later I had a copy of everyone that the tender had interacted with in the past two days. None of the class of trying to charm a bartender and pump him for information, but charm was usually lost on NPCs. At any rate, I sat down at a table in a corner, checking to see if anyone noticed my script. Either no one did, or no one cared.
I pulled out the logfile, which manifested here as a vellum scroll. I pulled out my magnifying glass (a horrible anachronistic faux pas, but I needed to search this rather large file and didn't want to do it the old fashioned way). In a few moments the magnifying glass pinged three references to Aikenhal. Once the day before last, at 0330GMT, then twice yesterday at 0403GMT and 1544GMT. When the NPC showed up in my office, it was about 0800GMT.
I put the magnifying glass away and thought for a moment. That was a big window between when he was last seen alive and when I found out he was dead. Still, it was something. What I really should do is find that elf NPC. Thing is, the only way to do that is to finger every female elf NPC I stumbled across, which is about as good as fingering every woman you meet fleshside when you first see them. Not to mention, that much scripting would get me temp-banned from the server, and put me on the Jackboot watchlists. No, I needed a better way of doing this.
I pulled my magnifying glass back out, and grepped through the bartender's interaction log again. Sure enough, every fourty-five minutes give or take five, "Elf1705513lvl17:Forestshire" tromped through the bar and ordered a drink. She probably had some "trollop" subroutines, with a hidden easter egg that would have her take you in the back and strip while saying sexually explicit things. Pretty common thing to hide in games frequented by people who don't socialize and haven't seen the sun in a month. I kicked back and decided to wait until she came back in. Looking at the log, it should be another half hour or so, and I didn't have any other leads.