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May 13, 2024

Levels of Reality

By Sailor Jim Johnston

The intruder had a bazooka. It wasn't the only weapon he had, not by a baker's dozen, but it was the one that caught my immediate attention. Aside from being large, greenish-gray, and very impressive looking, it was easily the most stupid weapon I'd ever seen! Who the hell carries a bazooka into an office building? The machine guns made sense, as did the various and sundry hand guns holstered about his body, but a bazooka?

I don't care how much damage he wanted, the rules of everyday physics dictated that -- were he to actually fire the silly thing in such a confined space -- he'd be blown up along with everything else! (Obvious mistake, actually. Most people don't understand that the vast majority of physical laws apply in here. I guess they watched The Matrix once too often, or something.)

I shook my head sadly and nudged Lisa, pointing out the bazooka. She smiled and shrugged uncomprehendingly. I'd forgotten that she worked in research and, therefore, wouldn't know the first thing about physics. I sighed, and shifted my attention back to Larry as he wrapped up his weekly report on the Anderson case. With just a bit of luck, the Anderson Pharmaceuticals campaign would result in millions of dollars in revenue and, since I'd chaired their account from day one, my personal bonus would end up tipping me into the deep green, perhaps even result in a serious promotion. Yea, me!

A burst of automatic gunfire made me turn around again. I could see the intruder clearly now. It was Jenkins, Peter Jenkins. He'd been released from accounting last May as part of the latest downsizing. I looked again, my eyebrows rising. Well, it was Peter's face, but -- unless he'd spent every dime of his severance pay on steroids -- it had been grafted onto some sort of macho video shooter body.

I turned back towards the table as Larry finished and stood. "Well, Larry makes it clear that we're going to be saddled with the twin curses of much fatter paychecks and large bonuses... but nobody ever said that advertising was easy." I waited out the laugh, and then gestured over my shoulder towards the Jenkins monster. "However, I'm sorry to say, it seems we'll have to cut this meeting short. Bob, Jenny? Please take the time to consolidate opinions as to the follow-up campaign, including possible ways to take Crimosatan 5 into the over-the-counter market in a year or so. FDA approval should come in ... I looked the question at Jack Macy, who held up eight fingers. "Ah ... excellent! FDA approval should come in around a week, so we should be ready with the next phase by the end of the month, no later. Thank you all and I'll see you all this time next week."

I raised my hand in dismissal and clicked to break connection. The boardroom didn't fade away. I clicked my glove mouse again, still nothing. The puzzled looks from the others indicated that this was not just a local error. I tapped a three-finger combination to bring up the main interface and found a message floating in front of me, superimposed on the boardroom.

"Sorry for the inconvenience," it read, "but I really want to kill you all and have paid several thousand dollars to a hacker to keep you all here until I do. Thanks oodles, Pete."

I looked back into the main office just in time to see Jenkins blow Susan... Susan - Susan What's-her-name, the cute intern with the big wabbos? - blow her head off. Pretty gruesome; I brought up my virtual laptop with another three finger combo and flashed her at her home terminal, asking if the attack had messed up her connection?

My flash bounced, so I accessed my manager program and tapped directly into her home video feed. She was just sitting there, head lolling off to the side and half hidden under her vr helmet. I started to flash her again, when I noticed the bleeding. A trickle of blood flowed from her nostrils, turning into a flood as I watched. She jerked twice and fell from her chair, jerking her helmet connection loose. The picture blanked.

Panicked, I let my virtual laptop vanish and tried to break the connection by pulling my own helmet off. My fingers ran through my hair, not feeling anything else. I'd forgotten that, for all intents and purposes, the helmet didn't exist while I was at the office, only after I broke connection. I clicked the glove mouse equivalent of the old 'Cltr-Alt-Del' command and heard a sinister giggle. The boardroom remained.

The firm hadn't made me chair of the Anderson account because I was stupid or slow to react. Without thinking, I leapt over the table and, in a crouching run, headed out the side exit at speed, while the other members of the Anderson team were still trying to figure out what was going on. Obviously, Jenkins had managed to come up with a way to play disgruntled postal employee in a virtual office space and I had no desire to stick around until he was finished.

The hallway outside the boardroom was empty and I did my level best to beat a few Olympic records by sprinting hard towards the executive suites in the rear of the building. While running, I brought my cell phone up and dialed 911. The same sinister giggle answered so I tried our tech support number. More laughter. I ducked through another doorway, locked it behind me, and started to toss the phone back into oblivion... then paused.

I tapped *666, hating having to do it, and waited -- almost hoping -- for more laughter. Instead, a warm female voice answered.

"Dian Roberts Incorporated; Dian Roberts, speaking. May I help you?"

"I sure hope so, Kid! Some asshole with a bazooka...

"Jim? JIM! You sonovabitch bastard! My lawyer told you to never... "

"Damnit, Dian! Will you just flipping listen for a minute!? I'm calling from the office; an ex-employee has gone postal and is killing people!"

"What?! Are you out of your teeny brain, Jim? That's impossible!"

"Cross my heart and hope to... well, let's just make it cross my heart, Kid." I'd made it to the far doorway of the executive office area, racing past shocked mid-management faces in smaller offices, and shot the bolt on it, too. Now Jenkins had two doors to go through and would have to... what? Knock them down? What kind of rules were we playing by here? A dull boom partially answered my question. "Jenkins figured out some way to stop people from disconnecting from the office and is killing them."

"So he kills your virtual reality body, so what? Any good hacker can crash a VR office. Hell, I killed you twice a week until you got that restraining order. What's the big deal?"

"Ah for pity...I don't know what he's doing, but I watched one of our interns die at home when he blew her VR head off with a shot gun."

I brought up a connection roster; half of the office was grayed out, disconnected without advance warning. While I watched, two more grayed. I pressed my ear against the bolted door. I heard three quick bursts of gunfire, followed by two names graying out.

"What?! Are you sure? How could having her VR head..."

Call waiting beeped on my phone and, after telling Dian to hold on, I transferred the call and started jogging towards my own office in the rear.

"Mr. Roberts? Mr. Roberts?!" The voice was whispering and female.

"Who is this?"

"Oh, thank God! I'd thought he'd gotten you too! What the hell is going on?! I can't get an outside line, tech support isn't answering, my link won't disconnect... "

"Stay calm, Linda." I recognized the voice of Linda Craig, from accounting. "Is Peter still in your area?"

"No, I don't think so. He came in and shot Mr. Kidd and Ms. Jackson and... and... well, all the supervisors! He shot them in the head! I think some of them might really be hurt, too!"

"Naw," I made myself chuckle for her sake, "you know you can't hurt a Douglas and Wilkerson supervisor by shooting them in the head...now if he'd shot them in the ass, then there might be a problem." She snorted a laugh. "It's just a really good software bug, set loose by a ticked ex-employee, Linda. Hell, we're lucky we don't get them three or four times a week. Just stay where you are and relax; consider it a really long paid break, okay? Pass the word along, but don't get in Jenkins' way. Spending the time in an electronic limbo would be real boring, right?"

"Right. Gotcha, Mr. Roberts. I could use the rest."

I hung up and found, to my considerable surprise, that Dian was still waiting. "Kid?"

"Gimme your access code, Jim," she immediately replied.

I goggled for a moment. "What?! Damnit, Dian, we had this argument in court! I'm not going to hand you access to my business records and private files, not without a court order!"

"You idiot," she laughed derisively at me. "I need access to your system to piggyback in and maybe stop that asshole! Are your precious records and files worth your life?"

I ran on in silence, almost to my office. After a moment, she yelled, "Jim!"

"I'm thinking!" I replied, going for the cheap laugh.

"Yassur, Mr. Benny..and while you're thinking, a potentially deadly cyber maniac is looking for you. Feel free to take your time; win/win situation for me, you know." She had a right to sound smug, but she didn't count on my paranoia peaking during our divorce proceedings.

"Okay, okay...I have to reach my office and boot up my 'desk' computer, but I'll get you total access. Gimme a minute and stay on line, I'll need your info to open it up to you."

"No problem, Sweetie!" She all but sang, overjoyed and no doubt already sending a message to her attorney. Probably something to the tune of, "Start the barbeque, Bubba; we gots us a pig to fry! Yeeee-Ha!" (Are there actually people who still talk that way, or is this just another beloved myth of advertising?) I put her on hold and sprinted the rest of the way.

I slammed and sealed my door by throwing the security bolt, which activated levels of computer security that would take an expert to crack. I figured it might even slow down the guy with the bazooka (and lord only knew what that bazooka represented in reality). I ran clockwise around my desk three times, to deactivate an internal security that surrounded my virtual desk and computer, then sang the first stanza of a Cole Porter song, set to a Paul Simon tune, to bring my virtual computer up.

(Yeah, yeah...laugh it up, pal, but you don't know my ex! She created her own business by hacking into computers and made it a legal, high profit, occupation. When we divorced ten years back, I spent tons on tranquilizers and sleeping pills, worrying about my private records. In this small area of my business programs lurks more dirt than in the entire state of Wyoming! Some of it helps me do my job, some of it could get me jailed, some of it could get me killed...and some of it could do worse and get me paying alimony, lots of it, for the rest of my life!

On the other hand, at least one piece kept me from paying any sort of alimony, at all, and kept Dian from even asking for any... which is why she spent so much time trying to hack into my files and why I have to practically dance the Mazuka in the nude just to write a memo at work.)

I pulled out the keyboard and, being careful to whistle flats on the vowels and sharps on the consonants as I typed, set up remote access for Dian. I brought her on-line, had her confirm her address, and then said, "Alakazam, Kid. Welcome to the pound of flesh nearest my heart and please be gentle."

As expected, she immediately started a massive download of everything. I hoped she also started reviewing our virtual office program security files at the same time. An explosion echoed from down the hall; the main security door for the executive wing, no doubt.

"Diannnnnnnn," I pleaded loudly. "Speed is of the essence here! Homicidal ex-employee on the way, so please hold off being a homicidal ex-wife for a few moments longer. Remember; dead Jimmy equals no alimony!"

"Yeah, yeah...but I never did get a chance to wear that little black sheath number, and your funeral would be such a pleasant chance to meet new and interesting people," she gaily replied as her computer received a transfusion of my professional and personal secrets. "Decisions, decisions..."

Massive footsteps thundered towards me and a hell-bent for vengeance ex-wife was my only hope "Crap," I muttered, backing up against the far wall, "I'm dead."

To be cont'd.

Article © Sailor Jim Johnston. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-07-10
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