Christian's trip across the urban sprawl back to his house took all of twenty minutes, and in that time he'd received three calls from an almost frantic Michael wanting to know if he'd arrived yet. But in the few, spare moments between calls, he'd had an idea. It was a place to start anyway.
And without knowing what he'd find by doing so, he sat himself in front of his large spatial monitor and began to review the recording of the freewalk battle. It was the last place that Neal had been seen in Neverland, and Christian thought it was as good a place as any to start looking for clues to help find him.
No point looking at the whole thing at this point, he thought as he fast forwarded to the part where Neal's avatar took a two inch spike from a morning star to the cheek and collapsed.
At first he could see nothing about the exchange that would indicate anything other than a clean, legal kill delivered from one combatant to another. The scene played out just as it had on the virtual battle field only a few hours earlier. Christian watched as his avatar crushed the mouth of the man across from him with the steel boss of his shield, the man falling to the soggy ground after Christian's shield wall mate finished him with a stab to the belly. Christian's line pressed forward, stomping the virtual flesh and bones of the fallen beneath their leather boots. Something flickered at the edge of the screen, a volley of arrows from his team lobbed into the rear ranks of the Saxon team.
Christian's avatar glanced skyward at the volley, momentarily distracted by the sudden appearance of the missiles. That's what got me, Christian thought. It had been enough to take his attention away from the careening, spike-filled ball headed his way. He barely had time to duck the strike and save himself. It was not the thing to do in a shield wall. If the wall couldn't count on the integrity of its members acting as a whole, it could never function as a working battlefield unit. Christian felt a pang of guilt, wishing for a moment that he could go back and change the events of that morning.
Neal's face concussed with the heavy steel ball of the morning star, blood spray and bits of cheek bone were airborne as one of the spikes embedded itself in the upper cheek, just below the orbital socket. Christian watched the horrified expression on the morning star wielder's face as it dawned on him that his weapon was stuck, impacted in the bone of his already dead enemy. The man began to lurch backwards too late. Chris' heavy axe struck home, cleaving the clavicle bone and chopping into the meat of the man's neck.
The nameless foe's body fell a second after Neal's lifeless avatar struck the ground, his hand still clutching the handle of the weapon whose striking end yet lay embedded in Neal's cheek.
Christian's finger was on the rewind button, sending the figures onscreen into a volatile dance as events reversed and undid themselves. He let the file play again at normal speed, grimacing over again at the moment of his fateful duck. But something caught his attention that he hadn't noticed before. He'd focused so closely on the part he played in the death of Neal's avatar that he'd hardly paid any attention to Neal leading up to it. He quickly reversed the file to play the snippet back again. He slowed the playback to half speed, hunching forward as the file began to roll.
"There!" he exclaimed, hitting the rewind button again. He thought he'd caught a glimpse of something out of place on the second viewing, and his eyes hadn't deceived him. Chris watched at one quarter speed as the morning star began its death arc, and just as his own avatar began to duck the blow he saw it. Paused the file. And there, as plain as day, he saw the file flicker as Neal's avatar disappeared for an instant and then reappeared a second later. It was an interruption in the game protocol that shouldn't have been there. He quickly ran a scan on the file to make sure that the defect wasn't only in the playback file. If there's no corruption in the digital file transfer from the virtual camera into the playback deck, Christian thought, then I might have my first real lead. If there was a flaw in the transfer, he'd be nowhere.
The green light on his phone flashed and the tinkle tinkle of the ringer floated to him on the air. He snatched it up and tried to collect his thoughts as the data from the scan scrolled up his monitor.
"Michael? Okay. I've got something."