Prologue

He sits at his desk and flexes his fingers before pulling the keyboard toward him. Today is going to be the day. The solution to the problem is fixed in his mind. He’s been working on it all night, turning ideas over as he lay awake, testing his plans and looking for flaws. And now he is ready.

He begins to type, the code flowing easily from his fingertips: side quests, levels, characters, points. It’s all there, fully formed. It’ll work this time for sure, he tells himself. He’s finally figured out how to smuggle his modifications into the system, piece by piece, without alerting the system monitors.

But there’s only so much he can do. He can’t make it too obvious or the company will have his balls for breakfast.

He hits the return key and stares at the screen, taking in the beauty of his handiwork. “That’s one hell of a thing,” he tells the empty room. “Cleanest code I ever wrote.”

His fingers hover over the keyboard, then he types the final command:

execute

The screen goes blank, the system icon whirls for a second, then the blinking cursor returns.

He allows himself a grin. Not a single error report. That has to be a record. He stands and pats the top of his monitor. Nothing to do now but wait. He’s done his best. The pieces are all in place. Now all he needs is someone brave enough to make the first move. Brave enough, smart enough, and tough enough. This isn’t going be easy, and it’ll take a special person to get through to the end. A very special person indeed.

Chapter 1

Cody ran down the deserted corridor, her heavy boots slamming hard against the steel floor, the sound bouncing from the metal walls and echoing all around her. Trickles of sweat streaked down her cheeks, and in seconds the over-zealous air-conditioning turned her perspiration to chilled lines. But Cody hardly noticed. It was always cold in the headquarters of the Vortax Corporation. Cold and soulless. Every surface was clad in spotless stainless steel, and every breath she took was filtered, chilled, and dehumidified: the servers needed it that way. And like every other employee, Cody had been given a simple message on her first day: What’s good for the servers, is good for Vortax.

That’s why this is dynamite, she told herself. This is it. This is the break I’ve been waiting for. Her heart fluttered against her ribs. Her boss had to pay attention this time. He had to listen. And then maybe, if she played her cards right, he’d reconsider her application and let her try out for V Division. Cody pictured herself in the V Div black body armor and the rugged helmet over the distinctive dark goggles. She could almost feel the reassuring weight of an assault rifle in her hands. A shiver ran through her, and this time it wasn’t the air-con.

She jogged to a halt outside her supervisor’s office and snatched her ID card from her pocket. The smooth plastic card almost slipped from her fingers, but she held it tight and smacked it against a black panel set into the wall. The panel flashed green, and with a faint hum, the door slid sideways.

Cody squeezed in through the gap before the door was fully open. “Sir! I think—”

But her supervisor did not even look up from his desk. He simply held up a hand to cut her off and went on with his business, reading something on the huge monitor that stood on his desk.

Cody stopped short and held her tongue. But not for long. “Mr. Chalmers, sir. I really think you should listen. It’s important.”

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Chalmers took a long breath, then he sat back in his chair, staring at Cody, his eyes glittering in the cold, blue light of his massive monitor. “Oh really? You have something to say, Ms. Milbourne? You have something important, something that just can’t wait?” He made a show of checking the time on the wall clock then returned his attention to Cody. “Isn’t that interesting? Because it seems we have different ideas on what’s important, like turning up on time for the morning briefing for example.”

“Wait. I can explain. You see, what happened—”

“I don’t give a damn about your lame excuses,” Chalmers sneered, then he stood and leaned forward, his hands splayed on the desk. “This is the fifth time this month you’ve missed the briefing, and I warned you last time, didn’t I? Did I not make myself clear to you?”

For a heartbeat, Cody gaped, but she recovered quickly. She’d deal with the recriminations later; right now she had to make Chalmers see sense. “Yes, you made it clear, Mr. Chalmers. But you’re not listening. You see, I was looking into that glitch in the power supply on level three, and when I checked the energy usage monitor, I noticed—”

“Enough!” Chalmers snapped. “Stop talking.”

“But the readings are way outside the normal range. I haven’t seen power surges like that since the army. Perhaps we should—”

“Hell’s teeth, Milbourne!” Chalmers bellowed. “I said enough!

Cody gasped and bit back her words. Any second now he’s going to realize what I just said. She studied his expression, waiting for the moment when her supervisor would finally understand.

“Right,” Chalmers said, swiping his hand down his face. “I warned you last time. I told you that if you continued with your attitude, I’d have no choice but to report you to the section chief and recommend that you be stood down.”

Cody’s heart jerked. “What?”

“You think you’re something special, but I know a hundred people who’d take your job in a second, and any one of them would cause me a lot less trouble than you.”

Cody moved her lips wordlessly for a second, then: “Mr. Chalmers, please, sir…the power usage suggests something very wrong is going on. And we need to deal with it.”

Chalmers pulled himself up to his full height and flared his nostrils. “What does it say on your badge, Milbourne?”

Cody frowned. “I don’t…what do you mean?”

“What does it say, right there, on your badge?”

Despite herself, Cody glanced down at the badge she wore on her chest. “Cody Milbourne. Personal security.”

“Right,” Chalmers said smoothly. “It doesn’t say anything else, like for instance, qualified electrician or server technician?”

“Well…no…”

“And it doesn’t say private investigator?”

“No.” Cody dropped her gaze and glared at the desk. A dark storm of rage roiled in the pit of her stomach, but she wouldn’t let Chalmers see it; she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

“What about secret informant?”

She looked up, and when she spoke, she forced the words from between her clenched teeth. “No, sir. I know what it says on my badge, and with respect, so do you.”

“Exactly. You have a simple job, Milbourne—you keep a close eye on our highly valued personnel. When called upon, you patrol the building, you check the doors, and you take your turn on the gates, same as everybody else. And that’s it. So how could it possibly be okay to miss the briefing because you took it upon yourself to examine the company’s power usage?”

Cody swallowed hard, fighting to keep her tone neutral. “Sir, when I was in the military, I was taught to notice the unusual, and the absence of the usual because—”

But Chalmers didn’t let her finish her sentence. He slapped his meaty hand down hard on his desk, the noise filling the room. “You’re not in the military now. You got dishonorably discharged, remember? What was it for again? Oh yes, disobeying orders.”

Heat crept across Cody’s cheeks, and she bit the side of her tongue, straining to keep her emotions in check. “It wasn’t like that.”

“I don’t give a damn what it was like. You’ve got two options. You can either do the job you’re paid for and be on time, or you can damn well get the hell out of here and I’ll put your last paycheck in the post. Clear?”

Cody nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“I swear, if you show up late one more time I’ll have you thrown out of here faster than you can say but.”

“Yes, sir. I understand.”

Chalmers jutted his chin upward, apparently satisfied he’d made her squirm enough for one day. “Good. You can get back to work, but from now on, you’re assigned to the parking lot. Maybe that will give you an opportunity to get your priorities straight and think about your attitude.”

“The parking lot! Seriously?”

Chalmers glared at her, his eyes piercing through to her core.

“Right, the parking lot,” Cody said. “Understood.” She turned on her heel and stalked out the office, her head held high, and she kept walking, her shoulders square and her back straight, all the way down the corridor until she got to the elevators. She pressed the call button, requesting a downward journey, and when the doors opened a few seconds later, she was grateful the compartment was empty. Cody stepped inside, but when the door slid shut, she let her shoulders slump and hammered her fist against the unyielding metal wall.

“Why?” she whispered. “Why wouldn’t he listen for once?” But deep down, she knew the answer. Chalmers was a company man through and through, with a cozy job and one eye on his pension; he’d do anything rather than rock the boat. It’s a damned shame. Those energy surges were worth investigating—she was certain of it. Chalmers should have rewarded her for initiative, not sent her out to freeze in the parking lot. If he could see past his giant monitor for two seconds, then maybe he’d see what was going on in the real world. But he never did, and he never would. So if she was ever going to get her shot at joining V Division, she’d have to find her own way. And somehow, she’d have to do it without Chalmers finding out.

The elevator emitted an electronic beep, and a synthetic voice announced her arrival on the ground floor. Cody put her game face on and strode out as soon as the elevator doors opened. She crossed the marble-floored lobby as quickly as she could, keeping her eyes on the glass doors of the main entrance. Normally, she’d stop by the front desk when she passed and check if the receptionists had any concerns, but today she didn’t even glance in their direction. To hell with them. They can call Chalmers if they need anything.

Cody walked up to the metal detectors and flashed her badge at the guards standing on either side.

“Go ahead,” one of them said, waving her through.

But Cody hesitated. “Are you guys new?”

The men exchanged a look, then the same guard spoke again. “Sure. Just started today.”

“And you’re working the lobby already?”

The other guard piped up. “Yeah. We were called in at the last minute. I think the regular guys got the flu or something.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” the first guard said. “Flu. Too bad, huh?”

“First I’ve heard of it,” Cody said. “But listen, I have to head out to the parking lot, so you guys have a good shift.”

The guards smiled and Cody headed for the main doors, barely pausing while the glass panels slid open in front of her. So the new guys get the plum job. Some people have all the luck. But the grumbling grievances were driven from her mind by a blast of icy wind that tugged at her uniform and flung fistfuls of freezing sleet into her face, making her eyes stream and her cheeks sting as though she’d been slapped. She flipped up the collar of her jacket, hunching her shoulders against the cold, and she trudged along the path, her boots crunching on the light covering of snow until she reached the vast expanse of asphalt that served as the company’s parking lot.

Over ten thousand people were employed in Vortax headquarters, and from the look of the sleek cars in the lot, most of them were well paid. But there were plenty who, like Cody, took the bus every day and tried not to feel too envious as they passed the huge limousines in the executive parking spaces nearest to the entrance.

Cody paused, glaring at the Bentleys and BMWs. She knew their registrations by heart, so there was no need to check their parking permits. Instead, she stomped across the lot to the first row of ordinary cars and pulled a small tablet computer from her pocket. She held it out toward the first car and activated the scanner. The screen flashed green, and she moved to the next car, repeating the process all the way down the row. Then the next. And the one after that.

At the start of the fourth row, Cody took a break to rub some life back into her frozen fingers, and she looked up at the Vortax building: a soaring monolith of glittering glass, its windows heavily tinted. The dark glass reflected the sharp rays of winter sunlight, and Cody had to shield her eyes against the glare. And there, picked out in a silvery metallic finish, the company’s logo shone out: a huge letter V surrounded by a pair of concentric circles.

Cody pursed her lips. How many times had she seen that logo before she’d even arrived at work? It was on the back of her phone and on the side of her computer. It popped up in her browser whenever she went online, and since Vortax ran the TV cables and satellites, the badge appeared during the commercial breaks of her favorite TV shows. And it seemed as though every time she turned on the news, a well-groomed representative from Vortax was singing the praises of the company’s latest breakthroughs in every technological field from prosthetic limbs to space travel.

Cody sighed and tore her eyes away from the building. What the hell am I doing here? She’d never meant to end up in corporate security. She’d always looked down on the cut-price rent-a-cops who swaggered around the financial district like they owned the place. But that was in the past, when her dreams were still intact, when she’d still had a chance at an exciting military career. That was all gone now. Ruined, and with no one to blame but herself. So here she was, freezing her butt off in the parking lot, scanning cars.

She stared at the navy blue Mercedes next to her and considered giving it a miss. She could invent an excuse and go back inside to grab a coffee. Maybe she could even say hello to the new guys working the lobby and see how they were settling in. But she shook her head. She had a job to do, and she’d damned well do it to the best of her ability. She held up her tablet, and the screen flashed red.

Cody frowned and pressed the reset icon to scan the Mercedes a second time.

Red.

She pressed the Issue Penalty icon and couldn’t help a brief flash of satisfaction as the Penalty Received notification flashed up on her screen. Somewhere in the building, some executive just got landed with a hefty fine, and Cody smiled to herself, picturing some fat cat on the top floor choking on an espresso as they read the message.

“Tough break,” Cody muttered, but she felt no sympathy; if someone could splash out on a limited edition Mercedes, they could certainly afford to keep their parking permit up to date.

Cody carried on, scanning every vehicle, but by the time she’d completed her circuit of the parking lot, she’d only found two more cars without valid permits, and the end of her shift was still hours away. She kept moving, digging her cold hands deep into her pockets, then she headed back toward the far end of the lot, her mind numb. She waited a while, stamping her feet to keep the blood flowing, but there was nothing else to do, so she set off on another circuit, this time stopping occasionally to bend down to thrust her tablet under a car, using its camera and flashlight to check the underside for anything suspicious. There’d been rumors of bugs and tracking devices planted on Vortax executives by competing companies, but she didn’t seriously expect to find anything. Any illegal devices would be pretty much impossible to detect, but it relieved the boredom, if only for a little while.

But as time wore on, she was forced to admit one thing: “Nothing is going to happen today. Not a damned thing.” There was nothing worth noticing, and nothing she could put in her report, not even a wad of discarded gum on the asphalt.

She sighed and stretched her back, feeling her vertebrae click into place. What she needed was a good workout in the gym or a nice long run; something to get her muscles working. But when she stood and rolled her shoulders, a sudden movement near the lot’s entrance caught her eye. She tensed, her hand flying to her radio, then she marched toward the entrance, looking rapidly from side to side. But she came to a sudden stop when she recognized the man hurrying through the gate. “Joseph? How come you’re out here?”

Joseph lifted his chin in acknowledgment. “Cody.” He met her gaze for a moment then glanced over his shoulder.

“Where’s your car?” Cody asked. “Don’t tell me it broke down again, because you know Sarah will kill you.”

“No, no,” he said, fiddling with the strap of his bag where it crossed his chest. “Just felt like a walk today, that’s all.”

Cody raised an eyebrow. “A walk? I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, my friend, but when did you last walk anywhere?”

Joseph gave her a grin, but there was no warmth in it. “Anyway, good to see you, Cody. I should be—” He started forward, checking over his shoulder and darting between two parked cars, putting a row of vehicles between him and Cody, then he headed for the building, moving fast, his head down.

“Wait, is everything okay?” Cody called out. She took a parallel route and caught up with him easily, matching his pace.

Joseph glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Yes. Yes, everything is fine.”

“How come you can sign in so late? Man, I wish I had your job. You should’ve seen the dressing down I got just for missing the briefing this morning. But this is way past your usual time.”

“Oh, you know,” Joseph said, throat bobbing. “We don’t have strict hours. Do the work when it needs doing, that’s what I always say.”

“Right.” Cody studied Joseph’s face. It was paler than usual, and his glasses sat skewed on his nose.

Joseph rubbed the back of his neck and glanced at her again. “Are you…are you assigned to me today?”

“I wish I was, but I’ve been banished to parking lot duty as a punishment. I think Jayde is looking after you today although she should have met you at home if you were walking in. You know they don’t like important people like you wandering around unprotected.”

“Oh, I suppose I should have told them. It was just an impulse. You know how it is.”

Cody slipped through a gap in the cars and walked at Joseph’s side, close enough to smell the faint tang of sweat on him. “What’s wrong?”

“Hmm?” Joseph shot her a look, his brow furrowed. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”

Cody snorted. “Please, how long have I been doing personal security for you now? I can read you like a high-def screen. I know something’s wrong, Joseph, so you may as well come out and say it.”

“No,” Joseph snapped. “I’ve already told you. Just…leave it, Cody. All right?”

Cody frowned. It wasn’t like Joseph to be short with her; he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. It was as if he was putting on a show, being deliberately rude to get rid of her. “Come on, Joseph, you can tell me. What happened, did you miss a deadline again?” She threw him an impish grin. “I’ve told you before, you don’t need to worry about things like that. The company needs you. They know you’re some kind of genius—everybody says so. They’d never fire you for getting a little behind on your schedule. Me, on the other hand…”

The corner of Joseph’s mouth gave the barest of flickers.

A sudden thought struck Cody, and she put her hand on Joseph’s arm. “It’s not something between you and Sarah, is it? Did you two fall out? Because, if it is—”

“What?” Joseph interrupted. “No. Sarah’s fine. It’s nothing like that.”

“So what is it?”

Joseph stopped walking and scanned the parking lot, turning in a full circle, his eyes darting across the parked cars.

“There’s no one here,” Cody said. “And I should know.”

Joseph snorted. “There’s always someone watching.”

Cody studied his expression. In a high-pressure workplace like Vortax, with trade secrets hidden behind every other door, there were plenty of paranoid conspiracy nuts among the employees, but Joseph wasn’t one of them—not usually anyway. Perhaps the strain is starting to get to him, Cody thought, and she softened her tone and tried again. “What’s going on, Joseph? Maybe I can help.” She hesitated. “Is someone causing you trouble? Are they giving you a hard time?” Cody’s hands turned to fists inside her pockets. Joseph was one of the good guys, and if someone was taking advantage of his gentle nature, Cody would track them down and put them straight. There were many ways to make a person see sense, but a quick punch to the solar plexus was one of Cody’s favorites.

“You can’t help,” Joseph said. “No one can.”

“Why? What is it?”

Joseph shook his head. “I can’t talk about it.”

“Come on,” Cody insisted. “We’re freezing our butts off out here. Why don’t you just tell me the problem, and then we can both go inside?”

“No. It’s too late anyway.”

“Too late for what?” Cody paused to take a breath. “You know, if it’s something about your work, I won’t tell anybody. I would never leak secrets—I don’t want to risk going to jail. And anyway, even if you did tell me, I probably wouldn’t understand even half of it.”

Joseph looked her in the eye, and for a moment, Cody saw a glimmer of hope tinged with desperation. But then he turned away and started walking again. “Forget it, Cody,” he called over his shoulder. “Forget you saw me today.”

Cody stood still, rooted to the spot. There was something in the way Joseph spoke, something final. She wanted to run after him, to get the truth out of him. But she remained where she was, watching in silence as Joseph reached the main entrance and stepped inside. The glass doors slid smoothly closed, and Cody was left standing in the cold, alone and utterly confused.

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I hope you enjoyed that snippet.

Prison Quest is available on all Amazon Stores and can be read for free by members of Kindle Unlimited and Amazon Prime. To learn more visit: Find Prison Quest Online

scifi litrpg adventure book

Or you can go ahead and read snippet #2

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