UWA 3D Art and Design Challenge – November round winners

uwa-nov2009-winnerThe latest round of winners in the University of Western Australia’s 3D Art and Design Challenge have been announced. The momentum of this competition continues to grow, with a huge number of entries and the addition of Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon to the final judging panel.

All the details on the November winner from Jayjay Zifanwe:

Glyph Graves & Silene Christen take the NOVEMBER Awards by Storm

A sublime submission called ‘Tendrils‘ by the jewel in the crown of Australia, Glyph Graves took out top spot for the IMAGINE Challenge for the november round of the UWA 3D Art & Design Competiton. Not to be outdone, some incredible work by Silene Christen of the Balears Islands in Spain saw her winning the top non-scripted IMAGINE entry for ‘Jackob’s Stairs’ as well as the FLAGSHIP Challenge, where the challenge is to build and Art Gallery that could perhaps be built. With this, Silene became the first person to win the major prizes in both the IMAGINE & FLAGSHIP categories.

A total of 58 entries were submitted for the IMAGINE challenge for November and 7 entries to the FLAGSHIP challenge of the University of Western Australia’s 3D Art & Design Competiton. Co-hosts Jayjay Zifanwe and quadrapop Lane were astounded by the rise in entries month to month and the also how the entries coming in were spread across the globe, with artists and builders taking from Canada, the USA, the UK, Scotland, England, Spain, France, Brazil, Denmark, Holland, Portugal, Tunisia, Germany and Australia.

With the year long competition growing from strength to strength, it was announced during the award ceremony that the judging panel for the Grand Prize which already included Second Life personalities from the art, architecture & journalism world, including Frolic Mills, Will Dreadlow, Sasun Steinback, Lowell Cremorne and White Lebed was boosted by the CEO of Linden Labs, M Linden joining the panel!

An artist book prize was also awarded for the month of November. This was won by Oldoak Merlin for his work Offenes Buch (Open Book). Book prize panel chair, Juanita Deharo commenting on the piece said ‘The words and print won’t stay on the page but float and swirl, sometimes forming words, sometimes not. The work asks us to consider the nature of words, story and text, while staying within the known bounds of ‘bookness’. The dedication to Ramon Llull gives us an indication of the creator’s intent. It is a very well concieved and aesthetically pleasing work that operates on a number of levels, and is well deserving of the prize.

Commenting on his win, Glyph said ‘There was a lot of high quality work in this month so I wasnt expecting anything. My piece, Tendrils is a portrait of a person … both closed and open to the world showing a different facet of themselves depending on who and how many are around them. Theres an undocumented feture that I’m not sure many saw .. the sphere will change colour depending on how many people are inside it. Oh and of course it sends out tendrils .. of sound and colour’

Stunned by the double award, Silene said, ‘I’m happy, and surprised. Suprised for several reasons. Jackob’s Stairs is..very conceptual very ..in my style..and I didn’t think it would be ‘in vogue’ in SL at the moment. So I was really suprised. The FLAGSHIP prize… well, this is an honour. To see people dancing and walking and looking at the things in it makes me feel … extremly happy. I made things for people, and is very great for a builder to see poeple using them::)))’

A number of other awards were also preented including the People’s Choice Award taken by Dusty Canning’s ‘Letting off Steam’. Other winners included Miso Susanowa, Jedda Zenovka, Sledge Roffo, RAG Randt, Sabrina Nightfire, Nyx Breen and Ichiko Miles who took 2nd prize in both the Imagine Challenge and the SArtist Book prize (full list below).

The competition is now receiving entries for the month of December. Location is http://slurl.com/secondlife/UWA/64/132/250

WINNERS FOR THE NOVEMBER ROUND

IMAGINE CHALLENGE – 3D Art
1st Prize: Tendrils by Glyph Graves ($L5,000 + Custom T-Shirt)
2nd Prize: Consolation of Philosophy of Ichiko Miles ($L1,250)
Best Non-Scripted Entry: Jackobs Stairs by Silene Christen ($L1,250 + Custom T-Shirt)

Honourable Mention (Simple Beauty): Budding by Sledge Roffo ($L500)
Honourable Mention (A Short History of Everything): Offenes Buch / Open Book by Oldoak Merlin ($L500)
Honourable Mention (Immersion): Sweet Sid & the Singing Sidlets by Jedda Zenovka ($L500)
Honourable Mention (Behind the Veil): Primary Emotions by RAG Randt ($L500)
Honourable Mention (Atmosphere): Turbulence by Sabrinaa Nightfire ($L500)

FLAGSHIP CHALLENGE
1st Prize : Art Galery by Silene Christen ($L5,000)
2nd Prize: FUTURELab by Nyx Breen ($L1,250)

ARTIST BOOK PRIZE
1st Prize : Offenes Buch / Open Book by Oldoak Merlin ($L2,000)
2nd Prize: Consolation of Philosophy of Ichiko Miles ($L500)

THE EXCALIBUR AWARD (for new / returning artists)
Miso Susanowa: 1000 prims in perpetuity at Excalibur Aquitaine compliments of Phillip Vought

PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD
Letting off Steam by Dusty Canning ($L500)

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With thanks to iono allen (via the UWA blog), here’s a machinima of a number of the November works:

The University of Western Australia 3D Art & Design Challenge from iono_allen on Vimeo.

UWA 3D Art and Design Challenge – October round winners

uwa-art-oct09-1st A fortnight or so ago we covered the great work being done by the University of Western Australia in Second Life. One of the centrepieces of their activity is the 3D Art and Design Challenge, with the October winners now announced.

You can see all the finalists here, but here’s the summary:

IMAGINE CHALLENGE – 3D Art

1st Prize:Willow by Bryn Oh ($L5,00
2nd Prize: Holophrasis by Snubnome Genopeak ($L1,250)
Best Non-Scripted Entry: Concentric Shells by Ichiko Miles ($L1,250)

Honourable Mention (Emotion): In Uterus/Pregnant First Record by Silene Christen ($L500)
Honourable Mention (Harmony): Living in Syn by Maya Paris ($L500)
Honourable Mention (Immersion & Application): Come Go With Me by Alizarin Goldflake ($L500)
Honourable Mention (Hidden Wonder): Beauty/Beast by Feathers Boa ($L500)

FLAGSHIP CHALLENGE

1st Prize : Sci-Fi Gallery by Nyx Breen ($L5,000)
2nd Prize: Art Gallery by Dusty Canning ($L1,250)

For those interested in the real detail of what UWA is doing, Jayjay Zifanwe’s speech announcing the winners is worth perusing. I’m really thrilled to be on the final judging panel for the competition and the UWA team have done a brilliant job in building some real interest in its activities through encouraging one of Second Life’s real strengths: creative expression.

Jayjay’s speech:

Greetings everyone, and welcome to the University of Western Australia, or UWA as she is known and also welcome to the October Round announcement of winners for the UWA 3D Art & Design Challenge. As is tradition at UWA, I would like to acknowledge that the University is situated on Nyoongar land and that the Nyoongar people remain the spiritual and cultural custodians of their land and continue to uphold their values, languages, beliefs and knowledge.

I am so happy to see all of you here today. You honour us with your presence, and we have also been honoured by the incredible, varied and wondrous artworks submitted by the artists of Second Life for this round, with a total of 40 artworks and 11 building designs.

Artists & Builders taking part so far have come from Canada, the USA, the UK, Scotland, England, Spain, France, Brazil, Denmark, Holland and Australia.

Before going on, I would like for everyone to give a big round of applause to a tireless champion of the arts, the person most responsible for everything we see all around us now, and co-host of the UWA 3D Art & Design challenge, quadrapop Lane !!!

I also want to acknowledge the Cultural Precinct at the University of Western Australia and ShedworX.com and www.etshirts.com who have all contributed such that the total prize pool for the UWA 3D Art & Design Competition is sitting at well over $L357,000.

Something new for November only at the moment, is that an Artist Book Prize is being awarded. Juanita Deharo who owns Second Edition group is offering a L$2000 prize for an ‘artist book’ . “An artists’ book is an artwork in a book format, or an artwork which has its origin in the form or concept of the book.” You can interpret this in any way you want. This prize may be ongoing. All entries to the IMAGINE CHALLENGE that have conceptual roots in a book will be considered for the Artist Book Prize.

The special Artists Participation Pool that had been established, raised $L6,000 for the artists participating in the October round. I want to acknowledge the generosity of Sasun Steinbeck, Tranguloid Trefoil & Phillip Vought whose contributions form the bedrock of this pool.

I would however like to quickly acknowledge evryone who did contribute. Please forgive me for this long list, but it is important to me to acknowledge them!

Thank you MidnightRain Glas, Jesse Keyes, Lady Caitlyn Inglewood, Dusty Canning, Juliete3D Quinzet, Kayo Houston, Ichiko Miles, Lubnatsi Papp, Rae Larkham, Mab MacMoragh, Tweetie Birdbrain, Mrs Brandi, Genivieve Caproni, Briarmelle Quintessa and Bacon Hellershanks

As described previously all artists who submit a genuine entry (not a block of plywood) and who do not receive one of the main prizes, will receive a share of what has been contributed to the donation jar for that month. Nothing is being kept for the land tier, 100% will go back to artists.

I know the amount is not a whole lot, but following this months total contributions, all participating artists who are not one of the main prize winners will receive $L220 for the October round. I know for a few it will be the first time they received Lindens based on an art creation by them, and for the vetrans, I am sure this can be out to you in furthering the cause art or helping others in need!

This was reset today, and the pool restarted with $L4,000

Also, something else new that was initiated a week ago is A People’s Choice Award, along with the judges categories. We hope to give this award every month. Voting panel will go up each month for the days between the closing of the month’s entries and the announcement of the winners. The panel will be just along the pathway between the main entry landmark and this platform holding the IMAGINE entries. You register your vote by touching the image of the work you like best – one vote per person. This award is a fun award with a $L500 prize.

I would like also to acknowledge the members of the judging panel. On the panel were:
1. Professor Ted Snell (RL) – Director, Cultural Precinct, The University of Western Australia
2. Frank Roberts (RL) – The University Architect, The University of Western Australi
3. John Barret-Lennard (RL) – Curatorial Director, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery
4. Raphaella Nightfire (SL) – CEO of the Evane Model Agency, CEO of the SW&MB Fashion Productions, Seniorr Writer for Best of SL Magazine, Owner Sanctorum Gallery
5. Tranguloid Trefoil (SL) – Owner of WASP at the University of Western Australia
and yours truly

The panel for the Grand Prize will be an expanded one and will include:
1. Frolic Mills – Best of Second Life & CO CEO
2. Sasun Steinbeck – artist, scripter, and maintainer of the Art Galleries of SL list at http://sasun.info/ArtGalleriesofSL.aspx
3. Wil Dreadlow, ICON Lifestyle Magazine CEO & Publisher
4. Lowell Cremorne, Owner of The Metaverse Journal

On the panel for the Artist Book Prize, are:
1. Juko Tempel – Australian living in Paris. Librarian, photographer, linguist, educator and collector of new media art.
2. Victor Vezina – Journalist, artist, writes weekly column on digital toys and virtual worlds for Guardian newspaper, London. Gallery owner, experimental artist, art collector in SL.
3. Juanita Deharo – Gallery owner, Art educator, professional artist specialising in artist books, small sculptures, printmaking.
and yours truly

I apologize for the long speech. Now to announce the winers. The winers will be announced in 1 minute intervals. We do invite everyone to comment and congratulate the winners and for the winners to respond before the next announcement. Winners also please do ensure you get a photo of you and your artwork taken by quadrapop before you go. This will go into the UWA in Second Life Blog and a number of other journals and blogs. http://uwainsl.blogspot.com/

A lot of images of the artworks and buildings are also up on KOINUP (with thanks again to the expert camerawork of quadrapop) http://www.koinup.com/UWAinSL/works/

4 Honourable mention prizes have been awarded by the Judging panel for October for the IMAGINE challenge.

The Honourable Mention prize of $L500 for EMOTION is awarded to:
‘In Uterus/Pregnant First Record’ by SILENE CHRISTEN

The Honourable mention prize of $L500 for HARMONY is awarded to:
‘Living in Syn’ by MAYA PARIS

The Honourable Mention prize of $L500 for IMMERSION & APPLICATION, is awarded to:
‘Come Go With Me’ by ALIZARIN GOLDFLAKE

The Honourable Mention Prize of $L500 for HIDDEN WONDER, is awarded to:
Beauty/Beast by FEATHERS BOA

Next we move to the newly established People’s Choice Award which carries a prize of $L500. It was very very very hard for people selecting to only choose one single work. It was extremely close, and almost impossible to seperate, but in the end, by a nose…. the award goes to:
Drill by GINGER GRUT

Next we move to the 2nd overall prive for the IMAGINE Challenge. There were an incredible array of remarkable entries, and it was very difficult for the judges to seperate. After long consultation, the 2nd prize ($L1,250) was awarded to:
Holophrasis by SNUBNOSE GENOPEAK

Failing by a whisker to defend his win from the September round!

Next is the prize for Best Non-Scripted Entry ($L1,250). There were a number of very interesting pieces, but the one that caught the judges eye the most and to whom this prize is awarded is:
Concentric Shells by ICHIKO MILES

Now, we go to the 2nd Prize for the FLAGSHIP CHALLENGE (L$1,250). There were 11 submissions for this challenge for October, and a number of fascinating ideas. Again a close battle among the top 4 entries…… after much deliberation, 2nd Prize was awarded to:
Art Gallery by DUSTY CANNING

Can everyone please set land to midnight, and CAM to look at the front area and balloons from a distance.

Now for one of the overall winner prizes. Again,as mentioned, very little seperated them the art… as all of you can see…. so many deserving of honour, but in the end, the judges decided that winner for the October Round of the UWA 3D IMAGINE Challenge (L$5,000) is :
Willow by BRYN OH

Willow has a secret, that I hope all of you managed to find 🙂

The final prize for the day, is the winner of the FLAGSHIP CHALLENGE (L$5,000) for October. Now we had the fireworks for the winner of IMAGINE, but we are going to go party at the location of the winner after the announcement, as quadrapop Lane will reveal a special TP panel to take us there where there will be music and dance with our wonderful DJ, Briana Spires (and I ask all of you to please look after her for me). And so, the winner of the FLAGSHIP CHALENGE for October is:
Artstractions Gallery by NYX BREEN

With that the official parts of today have come to a conclusion. We already ahve 15 artworks submitted for November, please do start submitting your works for the November round, and letting your friends know about the competition.

quad can you please reveal the TP panel, winners please find quad, and have your photo taken with your artworks & buildings. Everyone please join us for the party 🙂

Beautiful Kate – screenings move outside the capital cities

Just a quick heads-up for those living outside Australian capital cities, interested in seeing Beautiful Kate. There are now screenings in a range of other towns and cities throughout Australia. For example, Event Cinemas (formerly Greater Union) now have sessions schedule over the coming couple of weeks for Wollongong and Newcastle in addition to capital Darwin. Albury-Wodonga has been screening the film recently as well.

You’ll need to check your local cinema guides to determine times and availability, but it’s good to see a little wider distribution of the film. Still no word on international release dates at this stage. For those new, here’s a brief snippet of the Second Life scene in Beautiful Kate:

For those who have seen the movie, we’re always keen to hear your thoughts, or whether you agree with our assertion that the movie as a whole is an impressive piece of art.

Dark Siren: Part 5

Dark Siren CoverIt’s time for the final part of the Dark Siren serialisation. This takes the story up to the Chapter 10. Don’t forget you can see Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here.  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.

A big thanks to Clifford Wycliffe for letting us run this serialisation. It’s a novel deserving of success and I have no doubt that’s just what it’ll achieve.

Chapter 9

Nez took of his jacket and hung it around the back of his chair. Learning to play Avataria like an old hand felt like a daunting task, and it was. One redeeming factor was that thousands of new residents were joining Avataria every week, so provided he could master the basics he shouldn’t stand out too much from the crowd. On the other hand, his aim of joining the AvPost as a freelancer wouldn’t succeed if he failed to persuade the Editor that he had a good working knowledge of the place and some new angles on stories about the citizens. He was also acutely aware that if he posed as a journalist he would have to write and converse lucidly. Then again, he could always say he’d worked for Hello! magazine.

Lauren’s first outing seemed to be going well. Once Nez had mastered the use of the page up and down keys to propel her around, he began to relax and enjoy himself. The first thing he noticed was that there didn’t seem to be too many other avatars around, although what few there were certainly reacted positively to Lauren’s seductive sashay. On Nathan’s advice he visited a few clubs, although these too appeared to be mostly empty as it was too early in the day for serious business both in the U.S. and Europe. Hardcore clubbers rarely surfaced before 11pm.

After several hours had elapsed and Nathan hadn’t returned, he ambled down the corridor in search of something to eat. Just off the Nursery he found what he was looking for, although it resembled a small boutique café rather than the institutional canteens he was used to.  The young man behind the counter was just shutting up for the day, and cheerfully offered Nez what food was left: sushi, zucchini, tofu, brown rice and a black bean salad, all washed down with organic orange juice or herbal tea. Nez grimaced, but took the free food over to a corner table where he’d spied a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Lunch over, on his way back to the room where he and Nathan had been working he was met by Bremer.

“Frank, there you are. I came down to see how you were getting on. I’ve got everything that you asked for.”

The two men carried on to Bremer’s office, where some more coffee was ordered and the door securely closed. Bremer settled back in his chair.

“This is one aspect of my job that I really hate. No disrespect to you Frank, but the thought of all this information on our own citizens being mined by the agencies gives me the creeps. Sure, our country must be protected, but do we have to totally undermine our civil liberties in the process? Your case has merit, but some of the requests I get here are glorified fishing trips. Anyway, lecture over. Here it is.”

Bremer passed over a CD to Nez and continued, referring again to his notebook.

“You realise that we don’t ask for street addresses, so the only real way you can get an accurate fix on those names is by tracing their credit cards. IP Addresses are useful, but aren’t really enough by themselves, and in any case some of the griefing fraternity use anonymisers.”

Nez interrupted: “I understand how anonymisers hide the IP addresses, but what in God’s name is a griefer?”

Bremer laughed. “I can tell you don’t play computer games on the net. A griefer is usually a player who doesn’t stick to the rules and gets pleasure from messing up things for everyone else. Don’t you remember the Avataria property developer and the flying penis affair? That was in all the papers.”

Nez shook his head. “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”

Bremer continued: “OK… as I was saying… on the CD you’ll find detailed chat logs, but don’t get too excited – we only keep these for two weeks so they may be of limited use. You’ll also find printouts of their public profiles which you may have already, plus the date when they first logged on.”

“First of all – Ariana McDowell, the Avataria alias of your villain Kyrylo. A big let-down. As you thought, he disabled the chat logs so there’s no information there, and the email address amcdowell@hotmail.com is, well, just a Hotmail address. He gave his real name as Ann Doe, and the only thing we can say with certainty is that she befriended Carmen Verne on November 7th last year and Menuti a few days later. She did seem to be into BDSM though. There’s a bondage group called Hellfire Inc. to which she, Menuti, and interestingly, the AvPost Features Editor Roxy Ryder belong. But all the activity on Ariana’s account stopped on the day of the Sydney raid you mentioned.”

“Second – the boys Ginger Stallion and Blow Dailey. As you correctly inferred from their profiles they’re in-world male escorts, and judging from their email addresses are students at UCLA in real life. The groups they’ve listed in their profiles give an indication of where they usually hang out: gay bars and BDSM parlours. On the positive side their credit card numbers are on file.”

“Now. Our friend Mr. Menuti has an email address at Yahoo, which is a little odd when you consider he’s supposed to be an executive. Joined in 2005, no credit card information at all, and when he logs in he rarely strays beyond the AvPost offices and a skybox in a residential sim called The Garden of Lust. He’s an advertising manager, but he never seems to visit potential clients. I have to say this is unusual behaviour, especially with rusted on business types.”

“The fourth name – Carmen Verne, the Editor of the AvPost – has been doing the job for two years, and she’s been a resident for as long as Menuti. No mystery about her real life name – Melissa Thurmann – she’s got credit card info on file and there’s even a real picture of her in her profile. I’d say she’s kosher.”

“What about her colleague, Roxy Ryder?”

Bremer glanced down at his notebook. “She’s been in Avataria for over two years, and spends all she earns at the Post on clothes. According to the info on file, she’s Roberta Harding with an email address at a community college in Houston, Texas.”

“Now we get to the interesting bit. I’ve been doing a little detective work here.”

Nez leaned forward in his chair in anticipation.

“There is another name – Joss Guest – which appears in the friends lists of both Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley. Nothing unusual, you might say. Could just be a regular client/friend/relative – whatever. Well, it could, but not with a real owner called Jack Gallagher.” He paused for effect.

“Senator Jack Gallagher, you mean?” said Nez, trying to sound unconcerned and neutral.

“Yeah. And how do I know it’s Gallagher the Democratic Senator and not any old itinerant Irishman?”

“Tell me.”

“Because three months ago, Senator Jack Gallagher became the first major league politician to set up his campaign office in Avataria. You must have read about it in the press.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Now he was given dispensation to use his own name to log into Avataria with – a $1000 privilege he paid for with a credit card. He certainly didn’t use the name Joss Guest, and he filled out the application form online like anyone else. So when I saw that name I went back through the records and checked. Not only are the credit card numbers the same, but so are the email addresses: jackgallagher@globelink.com.”

Nez digested this information silently, instantly aware of the implications and repercussions that could ensue if it became public knowledge. Bremer however was ahead of him.

“I know, I know. You don’t have to say anything. My lips are sealed. You and I are the only people who know about this so far. Of course I can’t vouch for our criminal friends.”

Nez let out a long low whistle. “Boy oh boy,” he said finally, “if this is going the way I think it is, the whole lid could be blown off the race for the Democratic nomination.”

“Absolutely. Not to mention the whole electoral process. Unless there’s an innocent explanation. I suppose that’s always possible.”

“Possible, but not very probable. If Gallagher happens to be some kindly old relative of Blow Daley’s mom, why wouldn’t he pick up the phone rather than communicate in that convoluted way? It wouldn’t make sense.”

“No. Perhaps not.” Bremer had placed the tips of his hands together and was staring out of the window, lips pursed.

“So is that it?” Nez suddenly became businesslike.

“Uh… Yes, I think so. I’ve recorded all the IP addresses of the computers used by those names, also a list of credit card numbers – they’re on the CD – and backdated the entry into Avataria that shows up on your profile. That will help when you talk to Carmen and make sure you’re taken seriously. Newbies have no status at all.”

“Martin… I really appreciate your help on this. May I call you if I have any more questions?”

“Of course. And I wish you the best of luck. Here, let me show you out.

Chapter 10

San Jose, CA.  26 January 2008 : 6.05am PST

It was still dark when the phone rang the next morning. Nez had just fallen into a deep sleep, having spent most of the night tossing and turning, unable to stop thinking about Gallagher and Kyrylo and the avatar they apparently shared. His hand groped blindly for where the phone should be. It was Everett on the line, and judging from the number in the LED window on the handset he was still at home.

“Frank?” the tone of voice was sharp.

“Cameron? What the fuck do you want? It’s six o’clock on a Saturday morning for Chrissake!”

Everett ignored the outburst.

“Things have moved on since we last spoke. There is now a joint operation in force between the FBI and the AHTCC – that new hi-tech crime agency downunder. So I want you to pack your bags, get down to the office as soon as you can and file a report on everything that Bremer told you yesterday. You’re booked on a flight to Canberra tonight.”

“Canberra? Canberra Australia, you mean? Why me? Why Australia? From what Bremer told me the action’s all at home,” said Nez bad-temperedly, now completely wide-awake.

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but the Feds want Kyrylo ASAP and the Aussies have already screwed up. They want you there on the ground to help catch him.”

“Have you cleared this with Rod Finlay?

“Frank… it was Finlay who wanted you to go. We both agree your skills will come in useful.”

“Kyrylo’s Avataria communications weren’t coded.”

“Don’t argue with me Frank…”

“I’m sure the Aussies have analysts and internet specialists too, you know.”

“That’s not the point. Do I have to spell it out for you? With your background and inside access to Avataria management… “

“All right Cameron. Keep your shirt on. I’ll discuss this with you later.”

Nez replaced the phone and mouthed a silent ‘Goddamn’ at the wall. He swung his legs out of bed and headed for the bathroom and the shower. What game was Everett playing now? From the sound of them, Simon Austin and his team were more than capable of bringing Kyrylo in on their own. Maybe Finlay knew more than he was telling Everett. His thoughts turned to Gallagher. Should he mention Bremer’s detective work in his report? On balance, no – let Everett sweat a little longer. If he didn’t know about Gallagher already, another few days wouldn’t hurt.

He quickly dried himself and shaved, then went back into the bedroom to dress. What was the climate like in Canberra this time of year? Hell, he didn’t even know what season it was – the southern hemisphere summer? Jeez – why did every conversation he had with Everett put him in such a bad mood? He wrenched a case from a shelf in the closet and irritably packed it with his passport, clean summer clothes, shaving gear and a few toiletries from the bathroom. He was just about to go down to the kitchen when he had second thoughts.  Dropping the case at the top of the stairs, he instead went across to the spare bedroom that he kept as an office to carry out his ritual morning prayer to the White Dawn.

Ten minutes later he retrieved the case and carried on downstairs to the kitchen, feeling in a much more positive mood. The American way of solving problems through argument and analytical process had its advantages, he knew, but somehow he’d always fared better with k’é, the Navajo spirit of peace and harmony, gone for the most part these days. The calming effect of those ancient rites his father had passed on to him never failed to surprise, even though in all other respects he had completely given up any semblance of living the traditional lifestyle. He stirred a teaspoon of instant coffee into a cup of boiling water and cursed when the fridge failed to yield any drinkable milk. He lit up his first cigarette of the day and thought about what he had to do and whom he had to notify before leaving for Australia. Too early to phone Alex and Julia, he’d do that later from the office. So apart from them, the depressing answers were 1) nothing much, and 2) nobody.

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?”

Dark Siren: Part 3

Dark Siren CoverIt’s time for the third part of the Dark Siren serialisation. You can see Part 1 here and Part 2 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 5

Avataria Post building.  22 January 2008 : 10.45pm PST

Carmen was in her upstairs office busy with clients, so he waited in the reception area for her. It was late evening California time, but in Avataria nobody kept ordinary business hours partly because of international time zones, partly because most had real life jobs.

Her visitors teleported away and she came down to greet him with the customary animated air kiss. He liked Carmen – one of the few Avataria figures who didn’t seem to obsess about her looks or care what others thought of her. A no-bullshit gal ostensibly from New York, the one time he’d heard her speak online at a press conference was in a deep throaty voice.  Reminiscent of Lauren Bacall after too many scotches and cigarettes.

Text appeared on the bottom left of the screen:

Carmen Verne: Mel!  good to see you! long time, no see! any injuries today?

He instinctively shook his head, then realised with a wry smile that the gesture would not translate to his avatar. It didn’t take long to get out of practice. He typed a line, the program automatically inserting his name:

Mel Nightfire: haven’t been online much…  too busy with rl

Carmen Verne: how’s that partner of yours?  what was her name? Emily?

This was a reference to an operative from the Federal Police he’d been obliged to bring along during the Al-Qaeda operation, although knowing Avataria as he did now, it had probably been a mistake to imply any intimacy between them. He lied effortlessly:

Mel Nightfire: we’re not together anymore… you know what Avataria’s like

Carmen Verne: lol… only too well. so how can I help? got a good story?

Mel Nightfire: it’s a personal thing… I wondered if you know Ariana… Ariana McDowell?

Carmen Verne: she’s a friend of Alan and Roxy – one of their bondage buddies. Did you ever meet Roxy Ryder, the Features Editor?

Mel Nightfire: No

Carmen Verne: she’s not online tonight, otherwise I’d introduce you…  ahhh! I get it. Might I be right in thinking you’ve got the hots for Ariana!  I don’t blame you, mind, she’s a very attractive girl… used to do some lingerie modelling for a friend of mine but I haven’t seen her around for a while

Simon used an audio routine to make Mel chuckle.

Mel Nightfire: seems I should take up bondage

Carmen Verne: lol…  you like getting your ass whipped then? You should come along to one of our little soirées… we need some fresh blood…

Mel Nightfire: I’ll ignore that horrible pun…

Again he imagined a throaty laugh.

Carmen Verne: Listen… if I get to see Ariana, I’ll set up a little social thing. Fat Freddy’s or the press club.

Mel Nightfire: that’ll be great… thanks Carmen, I appreciate it

Carmen Verne: I’ll send you an IM.  good to see you – take care!

Simon logged Mel out of Avataria and turned off his computer. Although Carmen was always good-humoured with him it wasn’t a good idea to press her too hard. He’d once seen her in a ferocious argument with a freelance journalist and he didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.

He dialled the US Embassy, and asked for James Whitman, his main FBI contact in Australia.

“Whitman.” The voice was friendly, but correct, with a strong Bronx accent.

“Simon Austin AHTCC. How are you?””

“Good. What can I do for you?”

In his earpiece Simon could hear the click-cluck of fingers operating a keyboard. He had met Special Agent Whitman once before, at the opening of the FBI office in Sydney. Whitman was a strong believer in multi-tasking.

“You heard about the raid, I take it?”

“Yeah.”

Simon had never mastered the policeman’s knack of saying as little as possible. Disraeli’s maxim, ‘never apologise, never explain,’ never seemed so cruelly unattainable as he wretchedly explained the escape of their quarry and the loss of a police colleague.

“So you lost him. What are you going to do now?”

Whitman’s question was not phrased unkindly, but it still made him wince.

“He left a laptop. We managed to crack the passwords.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Usual stuff… everything you’d need to fake credit cards. But there was one thing. He had a Avataria viewer.”

“So he likes cybersex.”

“Uh… maybe… but that’s not the main reason. He used it to communicate with the Druzhba network.”

“That is interesting.” The cluck-clicking noise in the earpiece stopped.

“He’s using steganography. We found commercial software and our forensic guys located some images he’d doctored and sent through the Avataria system.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. The NSA is always running to catch up with stuff like that.”

“There’s something else.”

“You have been busy.”

Simon detected a rare chuckle on the other end of the phone.

“It’s only a hunch. There were four names in Kyrylo’s Friends’ List. Basically the main people he dealt with in-world.”

“Think they might lead us somewhere?”

“They might help track some of his Druzhba contacts in the States. But I think he’s got other things on his mind.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Two of the names are in-world rent boys. There was a message setting up a trick from a character called Joss Guest.”

“So? Like I said, maybe he likes cybersex.”

“Maybe. But nothing I’ve read in the FBI files suggests he’s gay.”

“True. He probably isn’t.”

“We found a clipping from an e-zine article in his Recycle bin… Salon.com. Do you know it?”

“Sure.”

“It featured a Senator called Jack Gallagher.”

“The Democrats’ great white hope?”

“Yes. It’s a few years old, but it’s basically about his negative attitude to gay marriage.”

“So he’s a little old-fashioned. That doesn’t make him homophobic. In any case, what’s the connection with Kyrylo?”

“That’s what I want to find out.”

“Sounds like a long shot.”

“Maybe it is, but at the very least if we can track these names it might lead us to Kyrylo and help catch his friends.”

The keyboard noise picked up again. Whitman was losing interest.

“So you’ve got as far as you can, but now you need help from the Avataria management?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“Well, I could give you their number, and maybe an introduction, but even if you get to talk to them I don’t think it would progress your investigation.”

More clicking.

“Why’s that?”

“For starters, there’s a good chance that your names belong to American citizens, and there’s also the privacy thing. I would imagine that Avataria isn’t too keen on giving out that sort of information without a warrant from a U.S. court.”

“So what do you suggest?”

There was a pause, followed by more typing noises.

“Well, I can’t deal with this here. It’ll have to go to the folks in San Francisco, which is the nearest main office to Avataria. They’re in the Valley I think.”

“Silicon Valley you mean?”

“Yeah. Send me an email with all this in more detail, and I’ll get on to it. I can’t call them today – it’s too late.”

“Shit!”

Whitman’s muffled expletive was followed a moment later by the C major chord of a Mac re-starting. Yet more click-clucking, then:

“Oh Austin… One last thing. If we do help you with this, you are going to nail Kyrylo, aren’t you?”

The next morning there was a return email from Whitman in Simon’s Inbox. It was short and to the point:

The guy you need to talk to at Avataria is Martin Bremer. ASAIC San Francisco knows a personal friend who can smooth the way. He’ll phone you shortly.

Whitman

Chapter 6

Analasys Inc., San Jose, CA. 23 January 2008 :  4pm PST

“Busy, Frank?”

With an almost instinctive reflex Nez minimised the computer dating site window he had been studying on his personal laptop, and returned to his official duties – analysing and deciphering encrypted text embedded in suspect websites. He hated to be disturbed, and Everett disturbed him a lot – in both senses of the word.

“I need to speak to you for a minute. My office, OK?”

“You’ve got it Cameron.”

Everett was a short stocky man with a thick neck that gave him the look of an overweight bullfrog. He retreated down the corridor to his office, a featureless grey box with a window looking out over a high security fence at an equally featureless road in a business park in the Valley. Wintry sunlight filtered through ill-fitting vertical blinds. He sat down behind his desk, punched a few numbers into a keypad, and spoke briefly into his wireless headset. Nez ambled in and sat insolently on the corner of the desk, kicking his heels and waiting for him to finish. Everett motioned Nez to shut the door, then said abruptly into his mouthpiece “I’ll call him back,” and fiddled with the headset switch to finish the call.

“So how’re you doin’, Frank?”

“Fine thanks.”

“Divorce papers finally come through?”

“Uh huh. Last week.”

“How do you feel about it now?”

“Water under the bridge, Cameron.”

“What’s Eva up to now?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Everett wasn’t really interested in his welfare or mental state, Nez knew only too well. He was such a manipulative asshole, and had probably kept a file on every twist and turn of his disintegrating marriage in case it yielded ammunition for a future departmental brawl or an unexpected contract termination. But that wasn’t why he wanted to see him.

“How well do you know Martin Bremer?” asked Everett, leaning back in his chair sucking a pen and scratching himself. A missing shirt button exposed a few square inches of hairy paunch. “Weren’t you buddies with him at Lockheed back in the nineties?”

“Yeah. And before that in the IT Department at Marine Corps Engineering School. He went out on his own though, five, maybe six years ago.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“He’s an idealist, and the more senior he became the more disillusioned he got with the hypocrisy of the arms trade. I think he wanted to be a force for good in the world.”

“Another bleeding-heart liberal, then,” said Everett sarcastically.

“Well… I guess you might think that. But I think he’s a genuine kinda guy.”

Martin Bremer was a household name among the computer geekerati. An undisputed software genius, he had found working for the defence industry too restricting and built the futuristic concept of Avataria into a MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) with over 13 million players.

“There’s been a development. Do you remember Kyrylo, that Ukrainian guy we tangled with last year? One of the head honchos of the Druzhba network.”

“Weren’t you monitoring him for the Feds?”

Everett’s reply was characteristically vague. “For a while.”

“Has he resurfaced? I seem to remember they couldn’t pin anything on him.”

“He’s finally flown the coop.”

“How come?”

“Seems he could live with the LAPD hassling him, but the Feds were closing in and the heat got too much. About a month ago he surfaced in Sydney where he’s been trying to set up shop. We gave the Aussie police a tip off and they busted his operation last week. Except they didn’t catch him.”

Nez wasn’t really listening. He knew only too well that Everett had been tasked with monitoring Kyrylo’s communications, and had somehow missed the crucial piece of information that he was about to flee the U.S. Not only that, he was a fantasist and a time-server, and although deskbound, spoke in annoying staccato phrases like his hero James Cagney in G-Men. He’d probably die in harness, Nez thought, and be carried out feet first from his office still clutching his favourite gizmo and muttering that headsets increased productivity by 43%.

“Too bad.”

“Yeah… you could say that. Nasty piece of work.”

“Wonder how he managed to slip away…”

Everett looked at Nez sharply.

“You got anything to say, Frank, you just say it.”

Nez raised his hands in mock surrender.

“So what’s the Bremer connection with all of this?”

“In his rush to escape, Kyrylo left a laptop behind. When the Aussies hacked into it they found a Avataria viewer with some names. One of the Canberra cops thinks he’s using the game to talk to his amigos in Russia, as well as harvesting credit cards, scamming IDs and all kinds of shit.”

“He’s Ukrainian, not Russian,” said Nez absently, examining his nails.

Everett leaned forward over his collection of business toys and fixed Nez with a bloodshot stare. “I don’t give a shit if he’s a fuckin’ Eskimo. I wouldn’t normally bother with these guys, Frank, but the VP-Ops is under pressure from the Bureau to do something about it.  To cut a long story short, the Aussies want us to check out these names, and as you know Bremer, you’re the obvious guy to do it.”

Nez continued to study his fingernails, then slowly looked up. “Some of my best friends are Eskimos, Cameron.”

“You know what I mean.”

For a moment the two men stared at each other in an atmosphere of mutual loathing. Then Nez relaxed and fished in his pocket for his cigarettes. He placed the pack on Everett’s desk, took a cigarette out slowly and deliberately, tapped it on the packet and placed it between his lips.

Everett immediately rose to the bait. “You can’t smoke that in here.”

Nez eyeballed him steadily for a few seconds and then laughed. “I wasn’t intending to light it. I know the rules.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth with his left hand and put the pack back in his pocket.

Despite the pathetic display of alpha-male posturing that he was goaded into on an all too regular basis with Everett, Nez had perked up. He admired Bremer immensely, and although he hadn’t seen him for years there was still a lot of mutual respect and camaraderie. Ostensibly, the prospect of poking around behind the scenes in a virtual world that size was very attractive, yet he couldn’t get the notion out of his head that he was in some way being taken advantage of. He knew he shouldn’t let Everett get to him. But there was just something about the guy that wound him up against his better judgement. The job sounded interesting, but he had an uncomfortable feeling that something didn’t add up.

“OK… where do I start?”

Everett eased himself out of his chair and started rummaging in a filing cabinet. He passed Nez a folder. “These are the printouts of the files that came from Whitman, the Bureau chief in Canberra. Read through them, call Austin at the Hi-Tech Crime Centre – his number’s there – and then get on to Bremer. And make sure you get the whole story. It’s gonna be my head on the block if all this goes tits up. And one last thing… as far as Bremer’s concerned – keep it unofficial.”

Nez tucked the folder under his arm and got up to leave.

“So business as usual, Cameron.”

“When can I have the report?”

Frank paused at the door. “First thing Monday?”

“Make it Friday afternoon.”

Beautiful Kate – imminent debut at Toronto Film Festival

jungle-bar Just a heads-up to Canadian readers (who make up a decent slice of readers outside Australia and New Zealand). Beautiful Kate, the Rachel Ward directed feature with a small cameo by numerous avatars, is debuting outside Australia at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday the 11th September at 8.30pm.

As we’ve said before, it’s a confronting film but one that seems to be getting widespread praise. It’s broken the 1.1 million dollar mark in its first three weeks locally (in only a handful of cinemas), so it’ll be interesting to see what buzz it generates in Toronto. Hopefully it will create the momentum for release in other countries.

So the call goes out to Canada: get along to see Beautiful Kate, and if you like it, spread the word 😉 Hell, Toronto isn’t that far from a lot of areas of the United States either, and with the extensive program on offer it’d make for a hell of a weekend.

For those that haven’t seen it already, you can view a snippet of the larger Second Life scene here.

Dark Siren: Part 2

Dark Siren Cover

Below is the next part of the serialisation of Dark Siren (you can see Part 1 here )

If you like what you read, you can buy the full book as a PDF here for only US $7.95. Payments are accepted via PayPal or credit card. As we said last week, we’re not getting any kickbacks, just the warm glow of helping an Aussie virtual worlds fiction author 😉

Chapter 3

Australian High Tech Crime Centre, Barton, Canberra.

23 January 2008 : 3.15pm EDT

Deborah Lauder was the Manager of the Computer Forensic Department. Thirty-something with dark copper shoulder-length hair, she was wearing a tight-fitting navy blue suit with an emerald green blouse that showed off her wasplike waist to great effect. She got up from the keyboard she was using and smiled broadly as Simon came through the door.

“Simon! A pleasure as always! How did you go last night with the heavy mob?”

“Do you want the bad news or the bad news?”

She frowned sympathetically. “Why? What happened?”

“One of the Tactical Unit’s men got shot. He died this morning.”

“That’s terrible! Did you know him?”

“No. But that’s not the point. I feel somehow responsible. I want to catch them, Deborah.”

“OK. You’ve got a computer you want us to look at.”

Simon took the laptop out of his briefcase and laid it on Deborah’s desk.

“It was a credit card racket. There was a stuff-up and the head honcho got away, but he left this laptop. A lot of it is routine credit card encoding software, Photoshop, lists of numbers, that sort of thing. But what intrigues me is the Avataria viewer.”

“The virtual reality game?”

“Yeah. He could just have been playing around, but I don’t think so. Both of the crims we caught said that he used to play it a lot, especially after 3 o’clock in the afternoons, which is when the Yanks are online.”

“And have you tried to log in?”

“I can’t… you need both a user name and a password. There’s a box to tick if you want your computer to remember the password, but there ain’t one there. Just the name – Ariana McDowell.”

“Sounds like a long shot. He might just be a cross-dresser!”

“You’ve obviously never played Avataria.”

Deborah smiled. “My first life’s complicated enough, thank you.”

“It is a long shot, but I’ve got a hunch it might lead somewhere.”

“So you want us to hack the password?”

“Yes, please.”

She returned to her chair and swivelled to face him.

“Anything else I can do for you?”

Simon was sure she had raised her left eyebrow, not to mention an unnecessary emphasis on the word ‘else’. He found himself almost blushing as he ran through a short list of things on the laptop he wanted her to have a look at.

“How much time will you need for this?”

She looked at him with a hint of amusement. “How long can you give me?”

“24 hours?”

“You are sooo demanding!”

Simon grinned. “I’m sure you’ll find a way.”

The next afternoon Simon was back again, this time with Wayne Chapman. They sat in the Forensics conference room, the sound of traffic on Northborne Avenue coming through the open windows.

“We found a few things that might interest you,” said Deborah, handing out copies of a list of the software and relevant files that had been found on the laptop.

“There was a package called Steganos, which without getting too technical, allows files to be hidden in other files. Even images. And it looks like Simon may be right about Avataria. We analysed the viewer’s inventory. Your man Kyrylo’s been experimenting with encrypting text, hiding it in snapshots taken in-world, and passing them to other avatars. I can’t tell you whether it worked though. Avataria is notoriously buggy.”

Simon leaned forward, fascinated.

“So he could be using Avataria to pass messages to and from his Druzhba gang in Russia or Ukraine, wherever they are?”

“Absolutely. But on the face of it, Avataria is an unlikely candidate. It’s tightly controlled, all text chat is logged by management and kept for a few weeks at least, and I would imagine the NSA can retrieve the image streams. But there are a few loopholes. Avatars can talk to each other – and although theoretically the conversations can be intercepted, in practice it would be very time-consuming to analyse them – there’s just too much data. But the main thing is the exchange of files in-world. That’s what he’s doing.”

“The lists of credit card numbers. The names. Security codes.”

“Exactly.”

“Is he using encryption?”

“If he is, it’s a simple code. The only encryption software on the laptop is a program linked to Steganos. Maybe his accomplices aren’t as computer savvy as he is.”

Simon exchanged glances with Chapman. “And what did you find out about his friends?”

“Another interesting thing. He only seems to have four.”

Simon laughed. “I’m not surprised, judging from the smell in that place we raided last night.”

Deborah looked at him with a withering smile. “Settle down. What I meant was that there were only four friends listed for Ariana: Carmen Verne, Alan Menuti, Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley. He could have 20 avatars for all we know. One for each cell of Druzhba. One for each scam maybe. It’s a classic compartment structure. The possibilities are endless.”

“But have we no way of knowing who these other avatars are in reality?”

“There’s no easy way. Avataria doesn’t ask for street addresses, so unless residents use a trackable email, you’d have to check IP addresses…”

“…which are notoriously unreliable and could be hidden using anonymising software.”

“Exactly.”

“Doesn’t the Avataria viewer give the option of recording all text conversations on the hard drive?”

“Funny you should ask that. In theory, yes, but it looks as though Kyrylo switched it off – potentially incriminating – but there was one transcript of a conversation between his friend Ginger Stallion and an avatar called Joss Guest.

“I don’t understand,” said Simon. “If a conversation was recorded, Kyrylo must have been there, even if he didn’t say anything.”

“That’s right. But this wasn’t the sort of conversation anyone was privy to. It was an IM – an Instant Message – which is personal, not heard by anyone else – and in any case the content strongly suggests it was a dialogue. Read it!”

Simon and Chapman dutifully read the short transcript dated 16 January that Deborah had given them.

“It’s all about setting up a trick.” said Chapman. “This Guest bloke is offering AV$2500 each for one hour’s sex if Stallion can supply a friend. Holy Moly! Seems a lot of money to pay for a root… how much is a Avataria dollar worth?”

“About AV$265 to US$1,” said Simon helpfully. “AV$2500 is about $14 Australian. Quite a lot for an hour’s work in Avataria.”

“So what does this suggest to you?” asked Deborah triumphantly.

“On the surface of it,” said Simon, “Kyrylo could’ve logged in under another avatar’s name. As Joss Guest for example. But there is another possibility…”

Chapman snorted. “Seems straightforward to me. It’s a gay meeting place. The bloke’s a shirt-lifter.”

“Maybe… maybe not,” said Simon, ignoring Chapman’s questionable take on the subject. “It’s true that one of the guys they caught hinted at that, but I’m not so sure.”

Deborah looked crestfallen. “What do you mean, Simon?”

“The IM system is not just restricted to dialogue. I mean in the sense of there only being two partners to a conversation. There’s a facility for setting up group discussions, like phone conference calls.”

“So there could have been three people privy to that conversation, except the third one was silent.” Deborah leaned forward: “Forgive me for stating the obvious, but there’s no way we can determine whether that’s true. If that’s a crucial detail, the quickest option is to contact Avataria.”

Clifford 28-8-09Simon pondered for a minute or two before replying.

“I have thought about it, Deborah, but they’re based in California. We’d have to go through the Bureau,” he said at last.

“The ball’s in your court,” said Deborah, starting to pack up her things. “Oh, I almost forgot. We recovered this from Kyrylo’s Recycle Bin.”

She handed over printouts of a clipping cut from an Internet e-zine.

“It’s an article from an online U.S. political gossip magazine called Salon.com dated 14 January 2003… a report of a speech that a U.S. Senator called Jack Gallagher made attacking gay marriage.”

“The same Gallagher who’s running for the Democratic nomination?”

“Looks like it.” She snapped her folder shut.

“What makes you think this is relevant?” asked Chapman.

“It may not be, but given the two rent boys in Kyrylo’s friends list, there may be a connection. Not only that,” she raised one eyebrow in Simon’s direction, “if you read between the lines, the journo seems to be implying there’s a whiff of hypocrisy about Jack Gallagher and his high moral pronouncements about family values. Which, by the way, he’s still making today on the campaign trail.“

Deborah zipped up her briefcase with a flourish.

“Have fun, guys.”

She sashayed away towards the double doors at the back of the room, which closed after her with a faint hiss. A whiff of expensive French perfume hung in the air.

“So what do you make of all this, Simon?” said Chapman, pulling out a stick of chewing gum and unwrapping it. “What’s the connection between an ex-commando, some bodgy credit cards, two rent boys, and a closet gay Senator?”

Simon didn’t reply immediately. He was gazing out of the window, the only indication of his thoughts the repeated twitch of his left eyebrow.

“Looks like I’d better log on to Avataria.”

Chapter 4

The Avataria viewer took a long time to launch. Simon punched in the name of the avatar he’d used a few months previously during the Al-Qaeda investigation, and a few keystrokes later he was searching the public details of the avatars on Deborah’s list. Each had a Profile, with its name, date of first entry to Avataria, Interests and Groups. One of the names was very familiar to him: Carmen Verne – Editor of the AvPost, an in-world gossip sheet published on the Internet. After an hour’s work he sat back and studied the FBI case files and the list he had made.

According to the Bureau, Kyrylo had left the US in late December for Australia, although no one could be sure as he was travelling on false or stolen passports. He was originally a member of a Spetsnaz unit in the Ukrainian National Guard and he had specialised in codes and computers. These skills had recommended him for training in the United States through the Partnership for Peace program. He had been accepted for a modelling and simulation course run by the USJNTC at its combat centre in California. At the end of the course he disappeared, presumably figuring that his newly improved computer skills were far more valuable in the US than back in Ukraine.

Then things began to get ugly. He surfaced in Los Angeles and set up a thriving business scamming credit cards – coming to the attention of the FBI when it became clear that he wasn’t just a local spiv, but a mover and shaker in Druzhba, the Ukrainian-based criminal network. So the FBI put him under surveillance and due to the international connection the NSA started to monitor his phones. According to the report from the ASAIC San Francisco FBI, they were just about to arrest him when he disappeared under rather suspicious circumstances. That he had flown to Australia was only discovered when he made the mistake of phoning one of his old associates in LA and fell foul of a NSA intercept.

The profile of avatar Ariana McDowell was intriguing – ‘born’ on the 8th October 2007, her Groups were strikingly similar to those of Carmen Verne. In Simon’s experience this might indicate she been stalking her, but maybe not in the usual sense of the word. Carmen was the AvPost Editor. She’d been in Avataria since 2005 and it would make sense for a newbie with a criminal bent to try and befriend her. She was very well connected.

On impulse he Googled the AvPost on the Internet and got five or six entries, the third of which revealed the names of the senior staff: Carmen Verne – Managing Editor; Alan Menuti – Advertising Manager; Roxy Ryder – Features Editor.

He flipped back to the Avataria database. Menuti’s profile revealed that he and Roxy and Ariana belonged to a BDSM group called Hellfire Inc. Simon searched again and found the group, but there was no further information.

The last two on Simon’s list, Ginger Stallion and Blow Daley, hardly needed researching. Gay escorts, and quite young at that judging by their taste in music. A penchant for bondage too, by the look of it. But why were they on Kyrylo’s list of contacts? Maybe Chapman was right and Kyrylo was gay, but somehow he didn’t believe it.

He opened a word-processing program and cut and pasted all the information he could find into one file.

Simon’s avatar was called Mel Nightfire. Although Avataria was not strictly speaking a game, there were combat regions where the normal rules were suspended. Avatars could be… well, not actually killed, but ejected from the sim or be subject to various other forms of banishment or avatar damage. Not a violent or aggressive man by nature, he found these zones heavy going, although the experience stood him in good stead when he’d fronted up to the AvPost and offered to write for them.

When there had been talk of Al-Qaeda making mischief in Avataria, Chapman had received a vague, slightly panicky directive from his political masters to investigate. Evidence was scant, and based on anecdote and hearsay. Simon thought that this was just about as ridiculous as saying, “There’s a nondescript terrorist loose in Belgium. Find him!” Both entities had roughly the same population, and in Avataria there weren’t even the usual signposts that could be followed to ethnic communities, political hotspots, or suburban ghettoes. Not only that, in Avataria almost everybody was living some sort of lie – wasn’t that what it was really about, the ultimate masked ball? So many residents employed elaborate disguises and covert techniques to cover their tracks from prying spouses or the over-curious they met online, you could almost call it the norm.

Avataria would certainly work for terrorists, he’d thought at the time. The most beautiful female avatar could be a Bin Laden or Abu Zubayida, and who would know? The only possible indications would be a poor command of English and an eccentric interest in flying but not landing commercial airliners.

So he persevered with the combat sims, and amused Carmen with his tales of malfunctioning helicopters, exploding skyboxes, and the humourless armchair warriors who populated them. Hell – he even got two articles published in the AvPost!

Reaching for his keyboard, he logged into Avataria, woke Mel Nightfire up, changed him into his virtual work gear of fatigues and combat boots, then teleported to the AvPost.

Bodily Beauty in Second Life

The master content creators at Rezzable have created a stunning piece on their Black Swan sim in Second Life. The picture I took pretty much sums it up:

rezzable-aug09sml

It’s certainly one of the more striking examples of the beauty of sculpted prims. Thanks to Sarah Nerd for the heads-up. For the full power of the vision Rezzable have created:

Check it out in-world

Dark Siren: Part 1

Dark Siren CoverLast week, Tateru Nino reviewed Dark Siren, and as promised we’re really pleased to be able to present the first of a few posts that serialise a large part of the book.

Author Clifford Wycliffe is Australian, and has put a huge amount of effort into his creation of Avataria, which draws very heavily on Second Life for inspiration.

Reproduced below is the Prologue and the first two chapters. If you like what you read, you can buy the full book as a PDF here for only US $7.95. Payments are accepted via PayPal or credit card. We’re not getting any kickbacks, just the warm glow of helping an Aussie virtual worlds fiction author 😉

Please don’t hesitate to post your thoughts on Dark Siren in the comments, and look out for further chapters in the coming weeks.

As Tateru says in her review:

“It’s a pretty solid Australian crime-detective novel, involving a very realistic portrayal of Second Life, with a solid blend of high-tech crime, political skullduggery and human weakness. On the whole, I’d heartily recommend it to fans of the genre.”

Prologue

Cold Finger Bar, Avataria.  16 January 2008 : 3am PST

At 3am the Cold Finger Bar was almost deserted. On both sides of the dance floor, a bored pole dancer in a sparkly lurex costume gyrated ritualistically on a podium, each surrounded by an almost empty semicircle of seats. To achieve good search engine rankings in Avataria demanded a high throughput of visitors, so avatars with outgoing personalities were hired to make the place look busy. That didn’t fool anybody in the Cold Finger Bar, least of all the rent boys who made up the bulk of the customers.

Ginger Stallion settled back against the cushions in one of the snugs and tried to look as cool and desirable as he could, given the limitations of the animation override on his avatar. Hanging around was a tiresome aspect of the job. The clients were another. Boorish college dropouts looking to liven up their onanistic fantasies or shy beginners unsure of their true sexual orientation. Give it another ten minutes, he thought.

Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody stuttered intermittently in his headphones thanks to a slow Internet connection. His friend Blow Daley seemed engrossed in the gyrations of one particular dancer, a flashy looking shemale called Sugar Plumb whose costume emitted a shower of sparks each time she twirled around the dance pole in front of him.

Sugar Plumb: Like my dancing, Blow?

Blow Dailey:  Sure. It’s cute. And so are you, Sugar.

Sugar Plumb: Why thank you… would you like me to strip for you?

Blow Dailey:  How much that gonna cost?

Sugar Plumb:  Whatever you think I’m worth, darlin’

Blow clicked on Sugar Plumb’s tip jar and donated AV$20. An automated message lit up on the bottom left of his laptop screen:  Sugar Plumb thanks you for the kind donation. Sugar’s avatar started to shed garments piecemeal. Like taking a blowtorch to plastic, he thought idly. Gypsy Rose Lee she wasn’t, that was for sure.

Sugar Plumb:  So where are you boys from?

This time it was Ginger who answered.

Ginger Stallion: L.A.

Sugar Plumb:  Lookin’ for a nice girl?

Ginger Stallion:  Lol… not exactly. We work out of here… except it’s been kinda dead tonight.

Sugar Plumb:  Omg…  sorry…  I thought you were customers. I’m new here…  guess that’s why I haven’t seen you before.

Ginger Stallion:  And where are you from, hon?

An incoming message flashed up in Ginger’s viewer before Sugar had a chance to reply.  The caller’s name was unfamiliar and the grammar stilted.

IM: Joss Guest: Hello Ginger. I am friend of Ariana…  she recommend you

IM: Ginger Stallion: do I know you?

The caller ignored the question, which faded off the screen.

IM: Joss Guest: you are gay escort, yes?

IM: Ginger Stallion: yes… amongst other things…

IM: Joss Guest: I may have job for you. What are your charges?

IM: Ginger Stallion: Depends… basic AV$2500 per hour plus extras…

IM: Joss Guest: Extras?

IM: Ginger Stallion: Yeah… like room hire

IM: Joss Guest: don’t worry… I have room… dungeon actually

IM: Ginger Stallion: You into S&M?

IM: Joss Guest: If you’ve have suitable friend, I pay you $AV2500 each for one hour’s work… all included

IM: Ginger Stallion: Together?

IM: Joss Guest: Yes, together.

IM: Ginger Stallion: AV$3000 each upfront and you’ve got a deal

There was a pause before the text resumed.

IM: Joss Guest: You drive hard bargain Mister Stallion

IM: Ginger Stallion: That’s ‘cos we’re good

IM: Joss Guest: You’d better be. My client is very… how do you say? –  very particular

IM: Ginger Stallion: You won’t be disappointed

IM: Joss Guest: I hope not. Very well… it’s a deal. I contact you later to arrange time and place.

IM: Ginger Stallion: any particular likes and dislikes?

The text slowly faded leaving a blank screen. The caller was gone.

Joss Guest? The name didn’t ring any bells. Ginger called over to his friend, who by this time was deep in conversation with the shemale dancer:  Blow… d’ya know anyone by the name of Guest… Joss Guest? I’ve just had an IM from this dude about a job… friend of Ariana’s, think he was foreign…

No reply.

hey, Blow…

Still no reply.

Never mind… forget it. I’m outa here… I’ll see you tomorrow.

And with that, Kyle Martinez, aka Ginger Stallion, second year student of the Computer Science Dept. UCLA, logged out of Avataria, switched off his laptop and went to bed.

Chapter 1

Alexandria, Sydney, Australia. 23 January 2008: 4am AEDT

Lit only by sidelights the large black van hissed silently past on the wet road and came to a stop in front of Simon Austin’s parked car. Pools of water from an early morning shower sat in depressions in the asphalt as he quietly got out of the vehicle and walked towards the van. As he approached, the back door opened and heavily armed police in body armour piled out silently and conferred with three local officers waiting in the shadows. Simon shook hands with the Inspector, who introduced him to the leader of the Tactical Operations squad.

“Sergeant Blake – this is Simon Austin, AHTCC Canberra. We’ve been through all the details, is there anything you want to discuss before we go in?”

“No, sir. We know the guy’s armed and dangerous, and we’re prepared. How many do you think are in there?”

One of the younger constables from the NSW police stepped forward.

“I’ve been watching the place since yesterday arvo, sir. Kyrylo went in around lunchtime, and his two blokes turned up around half past five. No one’s come or gone since.”

“So three then?’

“Yep.”

The team set off at a jog across the car park towards the two storey office block, dark except for the patchy reflected light of a few street lamps behind the trees. Keeping in single file, they moved soundlessly behind a low wall until they were up against the building, heading for the main entrance. Simon and the three regular police followed at a safe distance, trying not to make any noise.

Lady Carmen & AlanThe Senior Sergeant looked round to check that the team were in place, then producing a ram, swung it forward hitting the grey security door with enormous force. The echo of the crash reverberated in the silence and a flock of startled birds flew up from the trees lining the road. The impact bent the frame, but the reinforced panel refused to budge. A squad member forced a long metal bar into the crack that had appeared and with the combined leverage of two men finally snapped the locks. Black-clad figures carrying assault rifles swarmed through the gap and up the concrete stairs shouting ‘Police! Stay where you are!’; another crash, then shouts and banging could be heard coming from the first floor. A moment later the sound of a shot rang out, followed by a short burst of automatic fire, shouts and a door slamming. More confusion: noise of boots on concrete, a stifled curse, and from the other end of the building, the distant clatter of footsteps on a metal staircase. Then silence, broken only by the crackling of a voice over a police radio: “Clear! Officer down! Call the ambos! Now!”

The Inspector shone his torch into the stairwell, and ran up the stairs two at a time to the first floor with Simon following. Someone had found the light switches and a line of fluorescents flickered into life as they reached the landing. They passed through a splintered door into an anteroom, where police were pointing their weapons at the figure of a man lying face down on the floor clad only in underpants and T-shirt. Two camp beds with sleeping bags lined a wall decorated with pictures of Jessica Alba torn from Ralph magazine; the only table was littered with empty beer cans and the remains of a takeaway meal. A few discarded clothes lay on the floor and the room stank of stale sweat and pizza.

“Not exactly the Ritz, is it?”

The Inspector ignored Simon’s comment and led the way into a large shabby office painted an incongruous purple. There were four foldaway tables butted together; on them sat a laptop, several electronic components, two mobile phones and what looked like boxes of credit card blanks. Along the back wall were stacked unopened cartons of brand new plasma TVs, iPhones, digital cameras and various other electronic goods.

The leader of the police squad was lying on the floor, his head in a widening pool of blood that was already seeping into the grubby floor tiles. A colleague kneeling over him turned as the Inspector approached.

“Senior Sergeant Blake’s been hit, sir.” he said. “It’s serious.”

“An ambulance is on its way. Can you can do anything for him?”

“No sir. He’s been shot in the face.”

“Is he still breathing?”

“Yes sir, but his pulse is very weak.”

Simon turned away in shock, suddenly feeling sick and queasy. By the window a unshaven young man in jeans and singlet sat looking terrified, handcuffed to a battered office chair, a young constable’s assault weapon jammed in his ear.

“The bastard got Vince.” The policeman was almost crying, and spat the words out in a thick Scottish accent, kicking the chair for good measure.

“What happened?”

“It was dark. There was a shot and Vince went down. I let off a few rounds but must’ve missed. He got away through the door at the back.”

“You knew he was ex-Ukrainian special forces?”

“Of course we bloody did.”

“I’m sorry about Sergeant Blake. You did all you could.”

Kyrylo’s FBI mugshot didn’t match either of the two captives. Simon walked over to the Inspector who was talking into a mobile phone.

“Can you get some men to search for Kyrylo? He got out the back way. And check for blood stains – he might have been hit.”

“Taken care of. They’re doing it now. Just don’t hold your breath.”

“I am so sorry. About the sergeant, I mean. Will you keep me informed?”

“Of course. But don’t beat yourself up about it. He was doing his job and he knew the risks.”

“Even so… it looked pretty bad.”

“What do you want us to do with all this stuff?”

“We don’t need the TVs and the iPods, just all the gear on the tables.”

“OK. I’ll get it all bagged up for you.”

“I’ll need to take the computer back to Canberra with me.”

“No worries.”

“I’m going catch a few hours sleep, but I’d like to interview those guys first thing. Eight o’clock OK?”

The Inspector was already making another phone call.

“Inspector?”

“Sure.”

Simon was privately seething. The two arrested men were small fry and one of their own was badly hurt. The target of the raid had got away. The FBI had given them good information and Whitman would not be impressed. They had screwed up big time.

“Just make sure you take bloody good care of that laptop.”

He left the office and headed downstairs. From behind him came some muffled cries and what he knew to be the sound of someone being kicked. As he walked across the car park an ambulance was backing up against the front door, now hanging forlornly on one hinge. By the time he got to his car, the paramedics were going inside with a stretcher, the scene lit by the ghostly flashing of the blue lights on a parked patrol car. Shaking his head, he turned the ignition key, pulled out from behind the black van and headed back to his hotel.

Chapter 2

Kings Cross Police Station, Sydney, Australia : 23 January 2008 : 8am

Three hours later after a snatched rest, a shower and a strong cup of coffee, Simon phoned his supervisor at the AFP in Canberra. He was expecting to be read the riot act, as Chapman was a man given to intemperate outbursts.

“The bastard got away, I hear.”

“I am as angry as you are, Wayne. He slipped out through a new back doorway that wasn’t on the plans. They searched for him for an hour, but no luck.”

“Luck doesn’t come into it Simon. It was a stuff up, mate, pure and simple.”

“We’ll get him Wayne. We’ve effectively busted his organization in Sydney.”

“Sergeant Blake died this morning on the way to hospital.”

“I know. I feel responsible.”

“It was a bloody shambles. Can’t be helped, I suppose. That Kyrylo fella is one tough customer.”

“We did get his laptop though. I’ll bring it back with me and we’ll let the techos loose on it.”

“And the two blokes you caught?”

“Just going in to the interview room now. But I’m not expecting much – they’re local crims that Kyrylo hired to do menial stuff. I’ll keep you posted.”

Simon replaced the phone in its cradle and briefly pondered how he was going to conduct the interrogations. There’d been no joy from the owner of the offices involved. The premises they had raided had been on a short lease, managed by a local real estate agent and signed by someone who apparently didn’t exist. The new interconnecting door had been installed without planning permission six months earlier when the landlord had bought the building in the next street.

Lady Carmen_2The two suspects were being held in separate cells. The first, the swarthy man in jeans, had given his name as Salim Chamoun, 28 years old, originally from the Lebanon but a naturalised Australian. The second was a no-hoper from The Cross, Australian-born Gareth Johnston. Both had a string of petty convictions going back years, and according to the Inspector, neither was in a mood to talk. Simon sensed that they were scared witless by Kyrylo, and judging by the violent response to the attempt to arrest him, Simon could understand why. Johnston had been recruited by Salim, who had a distant family connection with Kyrylo’s sister, who had married into a family living in Beirut. Both denied having anything to do with the laptop; their role was to skim credit card information from legitimate credit card holders, and use the resulting fake cards to buy high value goods before the owner discovered the theft. To those ends Salim had taken up employment as a waiter in a busy upmarket restaurant, while Gareth worked as a cashier in a petrol station.

Simon had expected the interviews to commence on the dot of 8am, but as he entered the police station, the duty sergeant pulled him aside.

“You the bloke from the Hi-Tech Crime Centre? I’m Sgt. Crawford. I don’t think Salim’s going to be much use to you this morning. He’s not feeling very well.”

It all came back to him with a rush. The muffled cries and the sounds of a bashing as he left the warehouse. NSW’s finest settling a score.

“What do you mean, he’s not feeling very well? “What happened?”

“He tried to make a run for it as they were taking him out of that building this morning. Fell down a flight of stairs… few cuts and bruises, but he’ll be alright.”

“So when can I see him? It’s very important. And what about Gareth Johnston?”

The Sergeant leaned across the desk and lowered his voice conspiratorily.

“Look mate, I don’t think it would be wise to formally interview Salim at the moment, if you catch my drift. But I could arrange a few minutes in his cell, if that’s any use to you.’

Simon nodded his assent and the Sergeant grabbed a bunch of keys and led him downstairs. He stopped in front of one of the cells and looked through the viewing flap.

“Still asleep, the lazy bugger!”

He unlocked the door and they both walked into the cell. Salim was lying on the bunk fast asleep, his face to the wall. The sergeant shook him roughly.

“C’mon ya bastard! Wake up! There’s someone here to see you.”

Simon was visibly shocked when Salim finally turned round. He’d expected the police detail to rough him up after what had happened to Blake, but not to this extent. One of the prisoner’s eyes was almost shut and black with bruises, and there were deep cuts on his cheeks. His knuckles were raw and bloody and one arm was in a sling.

He turned to the sergeant.

“Injuries incurred whilst resisting arrest, eh? I hope you got the ambos to look at him.”

Crawford was offhand. “We took him to the hospital with Blake. They checked him over and discharged him this morning. He’ll be right.”

Simon asked the sergeant to step outside, then turned back to Salim.

“You know you could be charged with accessory to murder over the shooting this morning?”

Salim responded with a grunt and turned back to the wall. Simon shook him again.

“Look mate, help me with this one and I’ll put a good word in for you. I’m only interested in what Kyrylo was up to with the computer.” Salim muttered something that Simon couldn’t catch. He shook him again. “C’mon, speak up.”

“I said, he used the computer to make new cards.”

“And was that all?”

There was no response.

“Salim!”

“Fuck off and leave me alone. I ain’t sayin’ no more without a brief.”

“Alright, if that’s your attitude, maybe the sergeant will help change your mind.”

Salim half turned around and raised himself on one elbow. “Look, as far as I’m concerned the bloke was a psycho. We didn’t ‘ave nothin’ to do with the computer. He wouldn’t let us. All I know was that he used to visit some funny porn sites.”

“Porn sites? What was funny about them?”

“They didn’t ‘ave real people in them. They was cartoons… like those Japanese anime things.”

“What were they doing?”

“What weren’t they doin’ more like.”

“Tell me.”

“It was gay porn… not that I could see much, but that was what it was.”

“And that was all?”

“In dungeons… with two blokes. That was what it was. Now leave me alone.”

Simon was about to ask another question, but thought better of it. He called to Crawford who was waiting outside the door.

“We’ve finished mate… thanks. Where’s Johnston being interviewed?”

A few minutes later he was shown into a shabby room with three other occupants, Johnston, a police constable, and the Duty Solicitor Marcus Freeman, an ethically challenged silvertail in a pin-stripe suit whom Simon knew from a case in Sydney some years before. He sat down opposite Johnston, who was looking decidedly the worse for wear.

“You realise you’re in serious shit, Gareth. Sergeant Blake is dead, and I want some good reasons why you shouldn’t be charged as an accessory to his murder.”

Johnston squirmed in his seat, and ran his hand nervously over his two-day old stubble. “It wasn’t me that shot him. It was that crazy Ukrainian bastard.”

“I thought he was a mate of yours.”

“He was no bloody mate of mine, I can tell you. Salim rang me a few weeks ago and asked if I wanted to earn a few bucks. If I’d known what Kyrylo was like I woulda said no.”

“So what was he like, Gareth?”

Johnston shot a glance at Freeman, who shrugged unhelpfully.

“We was ‘sposed to copy all the numbers off the credit cards I got off the customers.”

“And?”

“The first day, I didn’t know ‘e wanted the codes on the backs of the cards as well as the numbers and expiry dates. When I told ‘im he hadn’t asked for them, he head butted me, and told me if I didn’t get ‘em the next day he’d put me in hospital. The bloke was mental.” He raised a lock of unkempt hair in his forehead to reveal an ugly red weal, already going brown and yellow around the edges.

“So you supplied the card information and he made up the copies?”

“Yeh. From the stuff that me and Salim gave ‘im.”

“And who bought all the TVs?”

“We did… Had to get the stuff real quick before the cards got stopped.”

“How did you get rid of it?”

“Salim had a mate who ran a market stall.”

“Not the best place to sell a $3000 plasma TV.”

“He’d shift all the small stuff like the iPhones. Any stuff he couldn’t handle would get sold on to someone else.”

“What else did Kyrylo do? Apart from make counterfeit cards.”

“He played around on that laptop a lot. I don’t know what he was doing, I don’t know much about computers.”

“But you must’ve seen what he was up to?”

“He played that cartoon game a lot. What’s it called? The one with the avatars.”

Avataria?”

“Yeh. He’d get on to it in the afternoons, after three usually. We couldn’t talk to ‘im then. He didn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Did he ever make any long distance phone calls?’

“Not that I know of. He was paranoid about us making phone calls. Told us never to mention ‘is name, and to keep them as short as possible.”

Simon told the Duty Solicitor that he was leaving. Johnston paused the audio recording and stood up.  Simon inclined his head towards the door and followed him into the corridor.

“Keep up the pressure on them about what Kyrylo was doing with the laptop,” he said. “I don’t hold out much hope. I’ve got a feeling he kept ‘em out of the loop – they’re not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer – but anything they give us could be helpful.”

The sergeant nodded and returned to the interviewing room. Simon retrieved the laptop from the evidence store and headed back to Canberra.

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