Dark Siren: Part 4

Dark Siren CoverIt’s time for part four of the Dark Siren serialisation. You can see Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and if you like what you read, please do support an up and coming author and buy the full book as a PDF here for only US $7.95. Payments are accepted via PayPal or credit card.

Chapter 7

Instead of going back to his office, Nez headed to the courtyard for a smoke. He sat on a wooden bench in the afternoon sunshine and studied Everett’s folder. There were contact details of the main players: the FBI’s rep in Canberra, James Whitman, Wayne Chapman from the Australian Federal Police, and Simon Austin of the AHTCC – a new high-tech crime agency he hadn’t heard of. The next page contained a list of the four Avataria names Kyrylo had been in regular contact with: Carmen Verne, Alan Menuti, Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley.

Stapled together was a scanned copy of a standard NSW Police evidence log – a long list of items that had been seized in the raid including the contents of the laptop. A number of things caught his eye – the presence of Steganos software, an article from the political e-zine Salon.com about Senator Jack Gallagher, and a memo from Simon Austin noting the possibility that a certain Joss Guest was another of Kyrylo’s avatars.

The use of Steganos was kind of ironic, he thought. Developed initially to foil hackers, it was now being used by them. He knew the FBI were concerned that they were intercepting fewer and fewer communications between Druzhba operatives, but far from meaning that they were doing less business, this actually suggested that they were using a new way of communicating each other without being tracked. Steganos could insert encrypted files into all sorts of files including bitmapped images – one of the formats used by thousands of Avataria residents to take screen snapshots and pass them around.

Back in his office, Nez checked his watch and picked up the phone to call Canberra. An assistant answered, but Simon soon came to the phone. Nez introduced himself.

“I’ve been asked to call you about your interest in Avataria.”

“Are you with the FBI?”

“We work with them.”

“You know about the raid, then?”

“I’ve just read the stuff you sent me on Kyrylo. Interesting reading. We have a history. So what do you want to know?”

Simon came straight to the point.

“I’ve been logging on to Avataria and some other online games for several months in connection with an Al-Qaeda inquiry. That didn’t go anywhere, but we’re taking Avataria seriously as a potential criminal medium for money laundering, identity theft, communications channel – you name it.  When we busted Kyrylo’s office we found a laptop with a Avataria viewer. There was evidence of credit card scams and identity theft of some of Avataria’s Australian residents. Would that ring any bells with you?”

“Bet your life! Before Kyrylo skipped to Sydney he was into the same sort of scams in LA, but the Bureau could never pin anything on him. I didn’t know he was doing stuff in Avataria, though. That’s a new development.”

“Once the raid threw up the link, I went online,” Simon continued, “and checked out all the avatar names on Kyrylo’s viewer. I’ve sent you the list of them: Carmen Verne runs an in-world newspaper, the AvPost, and Alan Menuti is its Advertising Manager. But it’s Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley who interest me – particularly in the light of that Salon article on Jack Gallagher. They’re rent boys.”

“With those names, could they be anything else?”

Simon laughed. “They’re not monks, that’s for sure.”

“So what are you saying? That Jack’s been playing away from home in a virtual gay bordello?

“Not exactly. But isn’t he the great white hope of the Democratic Party in the next Presidential election?”

“You wanna be careful, using that phrase in American politics.”

“Great white hope?’

“Yeah. Do you know what it means?”

“Sort of…”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then.” Nez laughed.

“Tell me.”

“It was a play, then a film… the story of a successful black boxer that a racist society wanted to bring down… with one of their own.”

“Hence the term, Great White Hope?”

“Yes.”

“So not applicable to Gallagher?”

“Not really… but I know what you mean. Let’s just say that Gallagher’s the frontrunner.”

“I don’t want to sound alarmist, but given Kyrylo’s background…”

“Mainly fraud, forgery and extortion,” said Nez, “but so far no blackmail.”

“There’s always a first time.”

“So how can we help?”

“I’ve been told to catch Kyrylo. As you can imagine the federal cops here aren’t exactly happy with a heavy duty crim like him on the loose.”

“I thought the Bureau gave you a tip off where to find him.”

There was a slight hesitation on the other end of the phone.

“They did, but he got away.”

“Got away?”

“The place we raided had an exit we didn’t know about.”

“Surely the regular cops will catch up with him sooner or later?”

“Maybe, but I’m not holding my breath. I reckon the best chance of finding him is through Avataria.”

“Tracking him when he next logs in, you mean?”

“Possibly, although we think he may have more than one avatar. I think we should try to trace those other guys.”

Nez leant back in his chair and put his feet up on the corner of the desk. “You seem to have made some progress already.”

“I’ve gone as far as I can online. I’d guess that all those avatars on Kyrylo’s contacts list are American citizens. I can’t trace them from here – that’s a job for the FBI.”

“You may be right,” said Nez. “but first you’d have to find out who the avatars belong to.”

“Could you lean on the Avataria management?”

“The CEO’s an old friend of mine. I’m hoping I won’t have to.”

Martin Bremer answered the phone with characteristic energy.

“Frank! What a surprise! Good to hear from you… how’s life at No Such Agency?”

“Bugging you all as usual,” said Nez good-humouredly, used to wisecracks about his old employer’s legendary obsession with secrecy. “But you’re out of date. I’ve moved on.”

“How come?”

“It’s a long story. You know the current administration’s love affair with public-private partnerships. I’m still technically with the Agency but I’m on attachment to one of their contractors.”

“Is that so? Funny, only the other day I was reading about you wiretappers being privatised.”

“Martin,” said Nez, “I’ve got a favour to ask. We think some very bad people are using your game for all the wrong reasons, and we need your help to stop them. I’ve got some names I’d like you to check out, and I want to come over tomorrow to get me set up in-world with a fancy avatar.”

“No problem. I’ll do whatever I can. I’ll ask Nathan, one of our guys, to help you  – he’s a whiz with avatars.” Then casually, “Do you have a warrant?”

“I’d like to keep this unofficial for the moment, Martin. Are you comfortable with that?”

“Sure… as it’s you, but do remember if it comes to court…”

There was the tiniest hint of alarm in Martin’s voice, Nez could tell. Come to think of it, he was alarmed as well. Why had Everett wanted it kept hush-hush? These weren’t terror suspects, they were almost certainly ordinary Americans. Was Everett holding something back? That was a no-brainer – he was such an obnoxious son of a bitch, secretive and always covering his ass… if push came to shove, he would deny all knowledge.

“Yeah… I know. 9.30 tomorrow morning OK for you?”

“You know where we are.”

On his way home, Nez pulled off the freeway and stopped at his local mall to get a takeaway dinner from his favourite Chinese eatery. At this time most shops were deserted and the bookstore next to the takeaway was just about to close. On impulse, he went inside and started browsing the computer gaming section. One title jumped out at him: ‘Life and Love in Virtual Worlds’. He thumbed through the pages; not all of it was relevant to Avataria, but there were some promising chapters on sub-cults, cyber prostitution, how to conduct online business, and, much more relevant to his present frame of mind, virtual speed dating. He took it to the cash point and paid, picked up his Singapore noodles from next door and headed home on the freeway just as the light was beginning to fade.

Chapter 8

San Francisco Bay Area, CA. 25 January 2008 : 9.35am

The offices of Avataria were located just off the Mountain View-Alviso Freeway with an attractive outlook over the County Park. Nez pulled into the shiny new complex a few minutes after the designated time and walked the few yards from the visitors’ car park to the main entrance. The sun was shining with the steely brilliance of a Californian winter. For the first time in months he felt a spring in his step – he was looking forward to catching up with Martin and sniffing around his virtual empire.

As he approached the building he couldn’t help noticing the Porsches, Jaguars, and other exotic marques parked in the executive bays on the other side of the walkway, which he guessed was the designated domain for the staff. The building was long and low in an almost Japanese style, with a shallow moat on either side of the entrance. The whole effect would have been of stylish, restrained opulence had there not been life size figures of a male and a female avatar in garish outfits on either side of the entrance steps. Disneyland had a lot to answer for. Nevertheless, he made unfavourable comparisons with his own seedy workplace, a far cry from this and the glass-and-chrome extravagance of NSA Headquarters at Crypto City. For a brief moment his ebullient mood left him and he felt quite depressed.

The glass doors opened automatically, but instead of revealing a conventional lobby with a receptionist and a desk there was a large circular area painted brilliant white, vaguely resembling a Star Trek teleport. A hi-def plasma monitor faced him, set into a curved teak panel set well forward from the back wall. Below and in front of the screen was a highly polished teak surface with a built-in keyboard and screen for checking emails, a few pens and notepads and a cordless telephone. On either side of the room were more screens showing constantly changing panoramas from Avataria, but more surprising were the seats: four beautifully made garden swings in the same teak as the TV wall panel, upholstered with exquisite Thai silk cushions. The subdued but distinct tones of Gamelan music could be heard issuing from hidden loudspeakers.

As he approached the screen flickered into life. An attractive female avatar vaguely reminiscent of an Asian flight attendant appeared and smiled as he approached:

“Good morning Mr Nez, how are you today?”

The voice was synthesised, but he could hardly tell. Stifling his astonishment, Nez replied coolly that he was good.

“You’re here to see Mr Bremer, I believe? He is expecting you, will you take a seat for a minute please?”

The avatar continued to smile, but in a slightly vacant way. Nez half expected her to fold her arms behind her head and pout like many Avataria women with custom animation overrides did when they were conversing.

He sat down nursing his briefcase on one of the swings, which gave a slight creak as he rocked gently backwards and forwards. He had to admit he was impressed, although he wondered how the avatar receptionist would greet a visitor who wasn’t on the database of the face recognition software. Default to ‘Good morning Sir/Good afternoon Madam’ perhaps, though determining sex based on CCTV data might be risky, he thought with a wry smile.

“My, what a long time it’s been. Eight years?” Martin Bremer was standing in front of him, right hand extended in welcome.

“Martin! I was miles away. You’re looking as fit as ever. I was just admiring your receptionist.”

“Oh… Maya? She’s cute, isn’t she?”

Bremer led the way behind the teak wall into an airy open plan room decorated in primary colours with large north facing skylights. It couldn’t really be called an office. In one corner was a group of young men and women clustered around some monitors on a bench, in another an arrangement of squashy sofas around a couple of plasma screens, and in the middle where the nearest thing to conventional work stations could be seen, Nez observed two small dogs lying asleep on an old blanket. On the right was a mezzanine level punctured by a fireman’s pole that terminated underneath in a heap of bright yellow plastic cushions.

“Love the fireman’s pole.”

“It’s the nearest thing we could get to a teleporter,” Bremer said with a laugh, nimbly stepping over a Segway personal transporter someone had abandoned in the middle of the room.

“Toys for the boys?”

“We call this the Nursery,” said Bremer without a trace of irony in his voice, and turning left passed through some double doors into a wide corridor. Here the atmosphere was more corporate, with several small glass-walled offices on one side and computer rooms on the other. Bremer’s office was at the end, sparsely furnished in the quasi-Japanese style of the building’s exterior. They both settled into easy chairs away from the desk and Martin called an assistant to provide some coffee.

“How’s the lovely Eva? Are the kids still at high school?.”

“Yeah. Alex is in Year 10 and Julia wants to do a gap year teaching kids in Africa when she finishes next year. Eva and I aren’t together anymore, by the way.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I presume that she got custody?”

“Yeah… well… life goes on.”

“You’ve got a list of those names for me, I assume,” said Bremer, tactfully changing the subject. He pulled out a small notebook from his inside jacket pocket and produced a pair of half-moon reading spectacles, “so what would you like to know about them?”

Nez handed over Simon’s list of avatars and detailed his requests: the names they signed up with, credit card information, chat and Instant Message logs, IP Addresses, and a list of ‘friends’ of each of the names and any records of whom they might have met online.

Bremer dutifully recorded all this in his notebook, then looking at Nez over the top of his glasses said, “I’m willing to do all this off the record for you, Frank, but I have to say this: until the day Congress legalises all this eavesdropping you might have a problem getting any court convictions without a FISA warrant.”

“You’re right,” said Nez, “but this directive comes from above, and I don’t really have any say in it.”

Bremer shrugged.

“Now. How else can I help? You want to go into Avataria undercover?” He laughed. “I almost said just like all the others.”

Nez smiled. “Well, look at it this way. I’m not exactly your typical Avataria demographic, am I? I need all the help and advice I can get so I don’t raise any eyebrows.”

Bremer continued to look over his glasses, but made no comment.

Nez continued: “We can only do so much with electronic snooping. This guy Kyrylo is already wanted by the Feds for a whole bunch of serious crimes, plus we think he may be up to something even more sinister. There may even be a political angle to it. I’ve gotta to go in there and do some old-fashioned investigating.”

“OK. But let me assure you of one thing. There is no typical Avataria demographic. Not really. It’s not just a game for students and computer geeks. You’ll be surprised to know that over 40% of our residents are over 35 years old. The way things are going in a few months’ time you’ll be just about average. And here is a statistic that might interest you: 27% of the women in Avataria are really men! Isn’t that something? I can’t remember how many gals are playing guys. Far less, I’m sure.”

“So it’s all about roleplay, then?” Nez was fascinated.

“Yeah. Roleplay… sex… and money. The usual elements of the human condition. Why would it be anything else?”

“Fertile ground for carpetbaggers and sharks with an eye to the main chance, then?”

“That too. It’s still caveat emptor out there…” He put his notebook away in an inside pocket and stood up. “OK… let’s go find Nathan.”

Bremer led the way out of his office to a technical area off the main corridor. In one of the cubicles a young man with a shaved head and an earring was scrolling through some code on a large plasma screen.

“Frank, I want you to meet Nathan King. He’ll take you through the basics of downloading the Avataria viewer, logging in, exchanging money, teleporting, and communicating with the residents. I’ll catch up with you later… have fun.”

Nathan was a bright Jamaican-British ex-pat from South London. He waved Frank into a seat next to him and typed away on his keyboard launching some 3D software. A few more strokes and a glamorous looking avatar appeared standing on a small plinth.

“OK… you’re the geezer who wants to go into Avataria as a chick, yeh?”

Nez nodded in affirmation. Bremer had recommended a female avatar as it was easier to talk to both male and female residents. He’d also hinted that if Nez wanted to get into the AvPost, a woman would be more likely to succeed as some of the management listed lesbian predilections on their profiles.

“This is Lauren Falmer. Tasty bird, innit?” He pointed to her luxurious shock of blonde hair. “Took me bleedin’ ages to find that ‘air. Now, before we start, have you played with Avataria before?”

Nez shook his head. “Not really. My daughter used to play it and showed me the basics.”

“You’ve gotta understand that some of the residents are very observant. Especially the ones who’ve been there a few years like the girls at the Post. Which is where you want to go, right? A lot of blokes who try to pass themselves off as women make some really basic mistakes. Like giving their avatars enormous tits for a start. Another dead giveaway is coming on too aggressive.”

Nathan paused, and revolved the camera around his creation. He glanced at Nez.

“So my advice is, don’t get too technical and always compliment the chicks on their outfits and hairdos. Believe me, it works a treat.”

Avataria supports the Equal Rights Amendment, I take it?”

“Not wiv you, mate.”

“Never mind.”

Nathan continued undeterred. “Now, Have I explained lag to you?”

“No.”

“You won’t get it here, ‘cos the computers are fast and you’re not going through the internet. But if you was to play on a slow connection, or in another country, you’ll get lag.”

“Which means?”

“That your av will take a few secs to respond. So you’re tapping away on the direction keys and Lauren’s not doin’ nuffink. So you keep hitting the key and she suddenly takes off… can be quite awkward.”

“In what way?”

“Well, climbin’ stairs is the usual one. Mind you, if it was me I wouldn’t bovver wiv stairs in Avataria at all. Too much trouble. That’s wot teleporters are for.”

“Then why have them?”

“The punters want ‘em. Reminds ‘em of home or somefin’. I dunno, you tell me.”

Punters?”

“Residents, customers, players, wotever… I calls ‘em punters.”

Nez couldn’t resist another dig.

“It’d be so much easier without the punters, wouldn’t it?

“You’re telling me.”

After explaining the options available to enhance Lauren’s movements and expressions, Nathan switched seats and let Nez try his new character out. He urged him to experiment with the everyday routines of changing Lauren’s clothes, adding animation overrides and walking without bumping into walls.

“You know there’s voice communication, dontcha? Not many people use it – they’d give the bleedin’ game away… know wot I mean?” He chuckled, and looked at Nez knowingly. “So if anyone asks you to talk to ‘em, say you ‘aven’t got a mike.”

Nez nodded, totally engrossed in propelling Lauren through a landscape of Gothic castles, California bungalows, night-clubs and shopping malls.

Nathan continued, “Okay, you seem ‘appy… I’m going off to do summink else, but here’s some places you should check out, yeh?” He pointed to a printed list next to the keyboard. “Visit a night club, go dancing, chat to people, get the ‘ang of the place. Then I’ll come back and test ya. Let me know if there’s anyfink you don’t understand.” He flashed a broad smile revealing a row of gleaming white teeth and a stud through the centre of his tongue. “Just keep off the cyberbonking, yeh?”

Comments

  1. Pretty good..I used to read all this book parts in this blog. thanks!

  2. Pretty good..I used to read all this book parts in this blog. thanks!

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