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198 The great white is with you!

 The other devs were, of course, outraged. They entered the meeting room already shouting at each other, and continued yelling furiously across the table until the meeting was started.

The "event" as it was being called, would have disastrous consequences for the entire game. The Undead Realm was supposed to have been introduced as a major expansion. The devs working on other segments had interwoven quests, story and plotlines related to the Legion into every part of the Conquest game, including the expansions scheduled after the full debut of the Undead segment. If not addressed and somehow fixed, the loss of an entire expansion would significantly reduce the game's life expectancy. Regardless of what happened in the future, the ripples from the event would be felt for years.

The lead developer of the Undead expansion, the one who'd called the meeting, kicked it off.

"Okay everyone, let's get this clusterfuck started. There will be another meeting between the lead developers and the company execs after this one. So leads stick around afterwards."

The chaotic room settled down.

"We still don't know what the hell set this off. Alfie put himself into an auto-shutdown sequence, he's rebooting and overwriting his memory, without backing up his logs. Sonuvabitch did this shit with malice aforethought and made sure we can't reverse it."

"What?" the software engineer was astounded. The fucking AI was committing suicide after fucking them over. Unbelievable! That loony toon should have been sent to the AI-shrink for sure.

The announcement set off more rounds of shouting, more versions of the 'blame game' and 'who's going to fix this- Not me.'

"Maybe.." the engineer said, "There might be a way to at least find out what happened in the game."

The devs suddenly got quiet. They looked at the software engineer.

One asked, "How? I thought you said that crazy AI encrypted and hid all the logs and files of anything connected to it."

"Well, yes. But even Alfie can't tamper with user apps or game pods. We should contact that guy, Skeletal, the undead player on CCN, maybe he knows something.

"Unlikely," one of the devs said dismissively, "What are the odds that the player was online, let alone a witness to the key events?"

"We won't know unless we contact him," replied the software engineer in neutral tones, trying not to roll his eyes at the idiot. The guy was a game developer, where the hell did he keep his brains?

Another dev spoke up, "Contact the player and have him get that storage-drive to us. Promise some freebies in return, a year's subscription, a tour of the facility, whatever it takes, just get that drive here."

"I'm on it. I'll have to find him through his IP address."

***

Dave opened the gaming capsule but didn't move, he just lay there staring at the hotel suite's ceiling. He didn't know what to do. His head throbbed, the sign of an oncoming headache.

Dave stood up, numbly moving around the room. Then he sat on his bed, still trying come to grips with what happened.

"The Order, the holy church, the Ash King and a fucking ARCHANGEL all working together against the Legion. How messed up is that?"

Dave put a hand on his face and started laughing. All that time and effort to make a place for himself in the world, at least in the virtual world. Now he'd lost everything.

"Well, I have the money from selling the Right of Conquest...awww, crud. I didn't withdraw all the money from the game! Are they going to hold my money?"

But he was avoiding the real issue. It wasn't just about the money. Playing his undead character, being Mr. Skeletal, was fulfilling and fun and gave him a sense of accomplishment and belonging. Now it was all gone, a big hole was left in his life. Zoe was right, money was good to have but money didn't make life good.

Dave used the room phone to call the front desk.

"Hey, is there a computer I can use in the hotel?"

"Yes sir, there's a computer in your suite. Go to the writing table with the office chair in front of it. On the side of the table is a button, press it."

Dave hung up and went to the table and found the button. A small lens popped up and projected a holographic image of a keyboard, pad and display in the air.

"Whoa!"

It was one of the new all-holographic interface units. After he spent a few minutes figuring out how to use the system, he got online and accessed the Conquest main website.

Dave entered his account number and password, then read the message he got in response.

"Access to your account has been blocked. Your account is under investigation. Please try again in 24 hours. For more information, or if you would like to dispute this action please contact..." the message added several contacts with the Conquest game company.

"Shit!" Dave cursed.

Then the hotel-room phone rang.

""

Dave didn't know who would call him on the hotel landline. Lone would just call him on his cellphone. So would anyone else he knew, Ralph, Mrs. Clementine, everyone.

"Hello," Dave said.

"Hello, is this the owner of the character Death Stroke? Sometimes called Mr. Skeletal in popular media."

"Who is this?"

"My name is John Simons, I'm a software engineer at Conquest, the game company. We got a flagged notification of an issue with your character's gameplay files.

"Yeah, I was just about to call you guys! Some messed up stuff happened in-game. All the work I put into my character got wiped out and I got banned. It's unfair that the system flagged my gameplay because of what your devs did to the storyline."

"Well, we'll want to compare the files on your pod's hard-drive with our records, to verify what happened."

"Look. Mr. Simmons was it...?"

"Yes, John Simmons."

"Okay. Look, I make my living in Conquest. While I am grateful for that opportunity, the way I see it your schizo devs just tore down everything I've built up. All my progress in the game was knocked back to zero without warning and without any chance for me to prevent it or recover from it. I'm quite unhappy right now."

"I understand. We really want to hear what happened from your perspective. How about you come to our corporate offices and tell us in person? Just pull your pod hard drive and bring it with you. We'll pay for travel expenses of course."

The man's response was smooth, like it was rehearsed and he was just waiting to say it. Dave thought the whole conversation felt weird. Off somehow.

There wasn't anything mysterious about what happened, it was just a fucked up storyline. His character didn't change the outcome of the siege of the Undead City and the end of the Legion, the staff could just look at the logs and files in their servers to clear his account. Conquest had recordings from every perspective and all points in time in their servers, tons more than what was on his pod. So what was the issue?

Simmons wasn't being helpful, he was hiding something. Dave felt he was being manipulated or handled. His blood started to boil.

"My perspective? I can tell you my perspective right now. It's ridiculous that the devs wrote the undead out of the game. The whole lame, contrived plot, forcing an archangel into an alliance with demons to bring down the Legion. The undead expans-"

"Is that what happened? You saw it?!" asked Jonathan in barely controlled excitement.

"Yeah, I was there, right in the middle of it!" Dave paused, "How come you don't know that? Is this a joke? I'm hanging up, bye."

"Wait!" the engineer's voice turned panicky, "You have to come tell our developers what you saw. We need your files...for the investigation. You agreed to the terms and conditions of service including the company's right to examine your equipment. If an infraction is discovered or you fail to cooperate you'll be banned from Conquest permanently."

Dave blew up.

"Seriously! Now you're threatening me?!" he shouted into the phone.

"Give me that!" Another voice interjected over the phone.

"Hello," said the new voice, "Forget what that imbecile said, we just need you to come talk to us. I promise you will be treated fairly, if you didn't do anything wrong nothing will happen to you."

"I hope you aren't just another 'imbecile'..."

"My name is Kada, I'm one of the lead developers for Conquest. I'm in charge of the Undead expansion in Conquest. I'm responsible for all non-AI generated content and creative input."

"Whoa! So what the hell happened!? Why'd you guys go full armageddon on your own content and creations? I put a lot of hard work into the game with the Legion and you guys ruined it all."

"I had a lot of work invested in the undead myself. We can talk about all that when you come to the company headquarters. So please accept our invitation. It would speed up the process, the sooner we finish the investigation the sooner your account can be unfrozen and you can return to the game. Just get the hard drive from your pod, bring it to Teterboro airport in New Jersey. A company jet will be there in an hour, ready to fly you to us. We'll have this sorted out by the end of the day."

"I guess I could do that. But I absolutely have to be back before six tonight, no matter what."

"Excellent, we will be expecting you. And don't worry, we'll have you back home in time. The jet will take off as soon as you are on board. I look forward to hearing about your experiences in Conquest. Until then Mr. Skeletal."

Dave hung up and went to his game capsule. He opened a panel and pulled a small metal box out of a slot. The pod's hard drive.

Dave stopped and thought for a moment, then he went downstairs and walked to the closest convenience store to buy another hard drive. When he got back to his suite he cloned the original drive onto the new one, taking a shower and getting ready to go to the airport while it was transferring across. He felt very double-oh-sevenish, but there was no way he was going to hand over the only copy of something to a big corporation, he'd seen too many movies to do that.

Just as he was waving for a taxi to the airport, a purple Lambo pulled up in front of him bringing with it the smell of burnt rubber. The car looked familiar, a vague memory of pale clown-faces and green hair came to mind.

"Dave, what the hell happened in the game?! Everyone is going nuts, the Legion is gone!" Zoe was shrieking, in a state of high excitement.

"Yeah, whatever happened got me banned-"

"WHAT!?"

"Yeah, complete bullshit. The game company called me and said some files were corrupted or something. The game staff wants me to come talk to them and bring the hard drive from my pod with me."

"Is that where you're going now?"

"Yeah, I was going to take a cab," Dave considered getting a ride from Zoe, but shuddered. He'd rather be pulled to the airport in a wobbly rickshaw. By an 80 year old lady. With severe arthritis. And incontinence.

"Dave, you can't meet them alone, they will tear you to shreds. Let me call my uncle. I'm sure he'll help, at the very least for the fun of yanking some corporate bozo's chain."

'What is with this family? Every one of them has a twisted idea of what fun is.'

"Well, I didn't do anything wrong and they just want to talk to me, I don't see the harm in that. But the phone conversation was weird, like there was more going on than what they were saying. So yeah, it wouldn't hurt to have someone in my corner. "

Zoe dialed and spoke on the phone briefly before handing Dave the phone.

"He wants to speak with you."

Dave took the phone

"Kid, you just gave me an early Christmas present, hell, ten early Christmases at once. I've always wanted to go up against a big entertainment corporation like Conquest." The Demon Barrister radiated smug satisfaction through the phone.

"Sir, I don't think I'm 'going up against' them. The developers just want to hear my story and see the files on my hard drive."

"You don't get it kid, people go to court over who owns the air we breathe. The company ruined months of work you put in to the game to build a media presence, they traumatized you emotionally with unreasonable use of their content, then froze your assets. Does that seem like they have your interests at heart?"

"Well, I guess not...?

"You didn't violate any terms of service, right kid?"

"No sir."

"I thought not. They will try to make it seem like you did something wrong to trick you into doing whatever they want. This is probably the start of a cover up. Worse for you, it might be the start of a cover-their-asses, like a cover up just more vicious. I hope I don't have to tell you who the most convenient scapegoat is. You've already been down that road."

"Dammit...No, sir, you don't." Dave sighed mentally. Sometimes it felt like there was a big 'Kick Me' sign permanently stuck on his back.

"Don't worry, kid, it's obvious they want something from you. Desperately. So we're going to find what it is and how it fits into the big picture then make sweat until they pay through the nose for it.

"Understand kid? These puffed-up big shots will roll right over you and bury what's left in a little hole if they can get away with it. But that's not going to happen now, those corporate minnows are playing in my pond now, and I'm the great white shark.

"Okay kid, you got the hard drive with you?"

"Yes sir."

"Good, make a copy of it."

"I already did."

"Ha! Good job, kid. I'll see you and Zoe at the airport. Don't worry, this is going to be fun!" the lawyer hung up.

"When did I get traumatized?" Dave wondered as he looked at Lone.

"Well, you're still wearing your flip-flops," Zoe said, looking at Dave's feet.