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“It’s accelerating!” Soshi yelled from the back of the room. “It’s the wrong code!”

Everyone stood in silent horror.

On the screen before them was the error message:


“Damn it!” Jabba screamed. “Numeric only! We’re looking for a goddamn number! We’re fucked! This ring is shit!”

“Worm’s at double speed!” Soshi shouted. “Penalty round!”

On the center screen, right beneath the error message, the VR painted a terrifying image. As the third firewall gave way, the half‑dozen or so black lines representing marauding hackers surged forward, advancing relentlessly toward the core. With each passing moment, a new line appeared. Then another.

“They’re swarming!” Soshi yelled.

“Confirming overseas tie‑ins!” cried another technician. “Word’s out!”

Susan averted her gaze from the image of the collapsing firewalls and turned to the side screen. The footage of Ensei Tankado’s kill was on endless loop. It was the same every time‑Tankado clutching his chest, falling, and with a look of desperate panic, forcing his ring on a group of unsuspecting tourists. It makes no sense, she thought. If he didn’t know we’d killed him . . . Susan drew a total blank. It was too late. We’ve missed something.

On the VR, the number of hackers pounding at the gates had doubled in the last few minutes. From now on, the number would increase exponentially. Hackers, like hyenas, were one big family, always eager to spread the word of a new kill.

Leland Fontaine had apparently seen enough. “Shut it down,” he declared. “Shut the damn thing down.”

Jabba stared straight ahead like the captain of a sinking ship. “Too late, sir. We’re going down.”