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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Repo Virtual

Corey J. White

Tor.com

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CHAPTER ONE


There are two things every repo needs: moxie and a clipboard. No matter the job—a car, a truck, or an ultra-heavy Winter-class dreadnought with enough firepower to shatter a small moon—the fundamentals stay the same. You walk in like you own the place, and if anyone asks any questions, you flash them a clipboard full of complicated forms.

The dreadnought’s hull gleamed like scorched diamonds in the light of a thousand artificial stars. Too huge for the Grzyb Station hangar, it was berthed outboard, the massive vertical ship secured by little more than a docking ring and half a dozen auto-turrets.

JD drifted in close with thrusters on manual, his hands gliding over the controls in a separate reality. A low dhoom rattled his eardrums as his corvette touched down, magnetic clamps holding fast to the dreadnought like a tick on a stray dog. JD took a clipboard from inventory and stood up from his seat with a shadow of pain spiking his knee.

Two-forty-five a.m. Moscow time. T-minus fifteen minutes.

“Khoder, you there?”

Silence at first, then the chat channel opened with a burst of noise, bass tones too low for JD’s cheap headphones.

“Not anywhere else,” Khoder said.

“Is Dix in position?”

“Waiting on one more.”

“Alright. Keep me posted.”

“Need a bigger envelope,” Khoder said, then he cut the chat. Adolescent smart-ass with a dad’s sense of humor—JD couldn’t help but smile.

He cleared his airlock and stepped out onto the docking ring, walls splashed with the red and black of the Asshole Federation. He walked toward his quarry, footsteps beating out a too-perfect rhythm, sharp clacks echoing in the high-ceilinged space. People stood static along the gangway, avatars left standing idle for unknown reasons, on abandoned errands. Come back a week later and some would still be there—digital ghosts, lifeless but immortal.

JD paused at the dreadnought’s airlock, and moved outside his avatar to open a link to the repo database. Authentication details scrolled across his vision, words strobing too fast to process. Access granted, JD’s fingers moved quick, flicking through his tagged jobs to start on the paperwork.

“Oi, ??????; fuck you doing?” The Russian spoke at a pubescent pitch, voice coming distant and hollow across a high-latency link.

“Official business, mudak,” JD said: you didn’t work repo for any length of time without learning insults in a dozen languages. He turned to face the kid’s avatar, half-hidden behind a wall of corporate legalese that JD was meant to read but never did. The kid wore one of the default human character models, a boring, white, power fantasy—stacked with muscles, buzzcut hair, and a ring of too-dark tattoos around his neck like a bad rash.

JD’s own avatar was from the pool of Arika aliens, living crystal beings that fed on starlight, and shattered into glittering refractive clouds on death. His first character had closely resembled his real self, but the moment he found himself surrounded by other players, the racist slurs started. Even in-game, his blackness was a provocation. He was almost relieved when that avatar died, giving JD an excuse to start over.

The Russian hurled another insult, loud enough for his voice to crackle and distort. JD muted him and held out his clipboard, the words NOTICE OF REPOSSESSION bold across the top of the page, followed by reams of dense text in English, Russian, Korean, and Simplified Chinese.

Official approval pinged his system and JD minimized the repo screen, attention back on his avatar, now holding a Zero Override like a shard of obsidian tight between thumb and forefinger. He slipped the ZO into the console by the dreadnought’s airlock door and it opened with a sharp hiss. Lights inside the vessel flickered to life, illuminating a path into the depths of the colossal ship.

JD boarded; behind him the Russian’s stunned silence quickly turned to chaos when the kid hit the alarm. The door closed behind JD, hushing the klaxon, the ship deadly quiet but for the ever-present ambient electronica piped into his ears. As JD ventured further in, his footsteps fell muffled on the high-res carpeting—a luxury cosmetic upgrade that cost as much in-game as the real thing. He strode past kitschy art and faux space-age designer furniture, the whole place done up like some asshole playboy’s bachelor pad. The repo paperwork wouldn’t say, but JD could guess the ship belonged to the child of some Russian oligarch: more dollars than sense, as his dad had said, back when the dollar still mattered.

“Khoder,” JD said. “Got an ETA?”

“Ten minutes.”

“Make it five.” The words came out blunt, sharply bitten.

JD reached the cockpit, finding the confined space utterly different to the gaudy furnishings throughout the rest of the ship. Brutally decorated, every surface was accented in dark steel with decals laser-burnt into the rear wall. A post-ironic hula girl rested on the dashboard beside a just-as-trite bobblehead messiah. JD took the pilot seat and keyed the ignition with the Override. Vibrations pulsed through his skull as the engines throbbed to life, reactor humming low, systems coming online one by one, green across the board. Somewhere distant, JD grinned, all that power at his fingertips, weapon systems more advanced than anything he could afford.

JD brought up the dreadnought’s menus, his eyes caught by the self-destruct button marked in hazard red. Every ship and structure in the game had one, and pirates were known to scuttle a stolen ship rather than let it be recovered. Some repos did it too, instead of leaving a botched contract to another repossessor, but JD never had. It seemed too petty.

A musical chime sounded from somewhere below the cockpit’s dash, familiar but out of place. JD tried to ignore it, but the digitized trombone continued playing over a sparse beat. It took him four bars to recognize it as his ringtone—another two to realize what it meant. Without taking the eye mask off his face, JD let go of the controls and reached blindly for the shelf beside his bed until he found the machined slab of glass and plastic. He held it in front of his face and let his VR rig re-create it in the simulation. The screen showed an incoming call from Tektech Logistical Assurances Ltd.

JD swiped and answered: “Yellow?”

“Need you in the shorefront warehouse,” said the terse voice on the other end. JD didn’t recognize their needling accent, but guessed it was out of one of the hellish Brisles call centers.

“I’m not on call until this afternoon,” JD said. With his free hand he brought up the in-game system map, watching for the arrival of Khoder’s crew. The sun shone bright in the center of the chart, but everything was still.

“On-site repair isn’t responding; we need a technician out there immediately. I’ve been authorized to increase your usual pay rate by ten percent.”

JD sighed through pursed lips, stalling while he did the commute math. “Alright, but it’ll take me two hours.”

“Ten a.m., no later.” The call center drone hung up and JD swore. He dropped his phone and heard it land on the bed beside him, crinkling the nylon fabric of his sleeping bag.

Back at the dreadnought controls, JD jammed the throttle. Engines droned louder and the ship’s superstructure popped and groaned, locked tight to the docking ring—the Zero Override linked only to the dreadnought, not Grzyb Station dock controls. The ship strained against its binds, reactor heat climbing until a sharp crack rattled through the hull and it broke free, debris spinning slow past external cameras in a protracted dance.

“Khoder?”

No response.


Copyright © 2020 by Corey J. White