By the time Chester had extricated himself from the group, the MechaRipper was nowhere in sight. He could hear it though; or rather, he could hear the reactions of its prey, previously sunbathing peacefully on the quayside.
Sprinting down the overgrown steps, he took in the scene before him. Limbs poked into the air at odd angles, and giblets covered the concrete quayside like strings of sausages. He stared around with mixed emotions: on one hand feeling rather nauseated, on the other hand thinking that this was what players should have been allowed to do to the parading skanks in Duke Nukem 3D. “Perhaps in Duke Nukem Forever...” he thought, and giggled at the industry-standard joke as he picked his way through the tangle of mutilated groupies.
A squelching noise, like the innards being pulled out of a thawed-out chicken, made him freeze mid-step. Just a few feet away, the gleaming MechaRipper, spatters of ruby red on its front and back, shoulders hunched, was crouched with its Upgraded, extra-sharp digits working away inside one of the corpses as if performing a highly detailed post-mortem.
He watched the machine move away from the body and towards the steps, and began to follow, delighted with the results of his temporal experiment. Then another sound made Chester pause: a suppressed wail behind him.
From the safety of the boat, a highly distressed Rez, his lunch forgotten, yelled: “What’d you do, man? Them beauties is wasted, man! Why’d you hafta go and do sommat like that?”
“You can’t stop progress,” Chester said in his most sinister voice, and then chased after the murdering machine, wearing his sadistic-Cartman smile. He didn’t have to worry about losing his monster: he just had to follow the screams.
But as he circled the stone wall around the big house, he was apprehended by the Virus Hunters(TM) team.
“We saw what your pet has done,” growled KarmaWhore2.0, ever the spokesman for the group.
Chester smirked. “Do you realise how much the military would be prepared to pay for that thing? We could retire, like, this weekend, guys!”
GrokTurd grabbed the skinny hacker by the throat and shoved him against the stone wall. “I say we grease this ratfuck sonuvabitch right now!”
“GrokTurd!” shouted Analie. “Calm down! Right now we have to come up with a plan. Once that thing’s run out of groupies, his appetite won’t be sated. He’ll never stop. No matter where we hide, he’ll come after us. Do you understand?”
“I say we take off in Rez’s boat and nuke the entire site,” offered KarmaWhore3.1. “It’s the only way to be sure. Does anyone know where Hank keeps his MiniNukes?”
The group collectively shrugged. Seizing his chance, Chester slithered out of GrokTurd’s loosening grasp and zigzagged away towards a thicket of palm trees. Shouting, they gave chase.
“Wait!” shouted Analie. “I mean don’t wait, keep running. Chester isn’t running away from us... he’s running away from... it!” She gestured behind her, as the MechaRipper, now almost entirely smothered in a carpet of red, circular saw still spinning, rounded the corner and clanked towards them.
But then it paused, distracted, as the three-foot, rubber-limbed Custerbot wobbled unsteadily out of the north tower. Emitting an unsure metallic snarl at the arrival of this new threat, the MechaRipper changed course and clanked instead towards the vulnerable-looking bot, whose little red eyes were blinking innocently in the sunlight.
The team took their cue and scarpered, scooping up Chester on the way, and landed at the base of the tumbledown lighthouse on the far end of the island. They were on a small exposed headland, surrounded by rocks and white surf. The only exit, aside from up into the lighthouse itself, was a dense orange grove to their east. Present were Chester, Analie, KarmaWhore2.0, KarmaWhore3.1, GrokTurd and Clingdog. They also saw a cheese sandwich and a green key. Behind them, hidden by the orange grove, they heard the sound of clanking and a furious metallic grumbling.
“Split up!” yelled Chester, dragging a protesting Analie up the lighthouse steps.
“Good idea,” KarmaWhore2.0 replied, as he and the rest of the team sprinted towards the secluded orange grove, leaving Analie in Chester’s capable hands. They weren’t prepared for the sight of groupie carnage that met them beneath the dripping fronds of the blood-orange trees. Bright red anthocyanin pigment from the ruptured forbidden fruit dropped in great globs onto the torn grass.
The clanking and grumbling grew louder, and an ominous shape reared up on the other side of the blood-smattered fronds, silhouetted by the tropical sun.
“Use one of your Bluetooth grenades,” GrokTurd suggested. Nodding, KarmaWhore2.0 pulled a grenade out of his pocket, popped the pin, and threw the little device in an abysmal arc that finished up about five feet from the team. They scattered, and the grenade exploded just as the approaching menace entered the grove. But to their amazement it wasn’t the Ripper, it was Custer.
“How the fuck did he survive?” asked GrokTurd. The others shrugged: it seemed like a moot point now, what with the grenade going off beneath the little bot’s feet and all that.
Peering back through the smoke, they searched for remains of the device. From out of the acrid fog, a shadow emerged: a shape from the depths of hell. Smouldering red eyes rotated faster than an out-of-control XGL desktop, and glowered with almost the user-unfriendliness of Project Looking Glass. The team ran, following KarmaWhore2.0 back to the house. He bounded up the steps to the computer room.
“Quick!” he yelled, as the pissed-looking Custerbot made its way across the courtyard, its beard barely even singed, “get onto Wikipedia, see if the original Custer had any known weak points.” The fate of the world depended on the accuracy of a publicly editable article in the great knowledge tome’s archive.
Too late. The Custerbot stood in the doorway, its miniscule outline quite imposing, all things considered. Clingdog screamed, then covered his mouth, hoping no one had noticed. KarmaWhore2.0 thrashed around for ideas. But like a dotcom searching for a business model that didn’t just involve plastering the site with in-text product-placement ads and waiting for the millions to pour in, the idea well was bone dry.
Without warning, the Custerbot leapt at KarmaWhore2.0 and wrapped itself around his left leg, gripping it like a dog on heat.
“Wait!” yelled Clingdog, the screen-friendly sans-serif fonts reflecting off his pale face. “Custer!” he snapped, addressing the little robot that was currently bouncing up and down on his colleague’s leg. “General, Sah! It says here that you were a great hero in your time, Sah! You would rush with foolhardy impetuosity into great battles with the odds stacked against you. Your battle is not in this room, General, Sah! Your last stand is on the lighthouse over at the far end of this island. The MechaRipper is a terrible villain of Cherokee descent, or something. Go get him!”
As the MechaCuster unwrapped itself from the senior hacker’s leg and sprinted sideways from the room like an excited terrier, KarmaWhore2.0 said: “Well done, Clingdog, that was very good. Not sure about the English accent though... but hey, I was really starting to lose the circulation in my leg.”
At the top of the lighthouse, Analie clung to the railing in a curious action pose. Chester crouched by her side, struggling to remain balanced on the balls of his feet. Beneath them, the Titanium angel of doom swept up the winding staircase with terrifying speed. They stared blinkingly, as helpless and perplexed as a Web 2.0 start-up experiencing its first server crash.
“I wonder how much time we have left?” she wondered.
“Few minutes maybe,” the dour teen replied. “Analie, as this may be our last moment on this world, there’s just... something I wanted to tell you... I think you should know... yes, I’m not the nicest person on the team, and my contributions thus far have been of questionable quality or applicability, but when I look at you, I think... I think I...”
With a tinny battle roar, bursting out of the orange grove, the little three-foot Custerbot, invigorated with the uneven odds of its new mission, padded towards the tumbledown building. It charged up the lighthouse steps with surprising speed, though not quite as fast as the Upgraded MechaRipper.
Above it, having just reached the platform at the top, the seven-foot Titanium monster glanced down at the little bot and emitted a callous monotone Dalek laugh. “You seek to destroy me, little plastic mascot?” he taunted.
“You just wait,” puffed the Custerbot, hopping up two steps at a time with great effort. “I have defeated far greater foes than you in my time. At the Battle of Gettysburg... (puff, pant)... I was thrown from my wounded horse, and enemy rifles shot at me from all directions. But I picked myself up... and killed them all armed with nothing but a spatula.”
“His memory’s distorting,” Chester explained. “The transdimensional solenoid repeaters must be losing their grip on his reanimated psyche. He might ping back to his own time-frame at any moment.”
“Then,” the scorched minibot bubbled, plastic feet slapping on the rusty steps, “at the Appomattox, I commanded a division of rampaging squirrels, who overran the enemy by hiding inside a flock of pelicans, one squirrel per avian. At the last moment, as the pelicans swarmed at the enemy hyenas, I blew my battle ocarina, and the pelicans opened their beaks and the squirrels leapt out, pummeling the enemy with a barrage of nuts and raisins. It was the raisin d’etre, if you will. And so, you scurrilous bastard, let me at your armored hide, for I shall whip the seventh circle of hell out of your scurvy pelt, you see if I don’t.”
“And Bighorn?” taunted MechaRipper, who had been wirelessly browsing a North American history website while the little robot advanced, having found a username and password on BugMeNot. The Custerbot arrived at the top step, its bandy rubber limbs quaking from the exertion.
“You leave Bighorn out of this!” screeched the Custerbot. “The guns jammed from all that dust, I tell you. And the Sioux were meant to retreat, which they steadfastly refused to do.” Fuming, he charged at the towering robot, smashing into its reinforced steel kneecaps with unusual strength. The MechaRipper wavered. It should have toppled backwards through the railing, but somehow maintained its balance and glared down at the plastic bot that tripped and flopped over the Titanium casing of its rocketproof feet.
The MechaRipper focused, like baby Damien preparing to fill his diaper. The circular saw on its left hand span into motion with a sickening buzz.
“Chester, do something!” wailed Analie.
With bang-on timing an idea struck Chester. Pulling out his Treo, he tapped on its screen and then, leaping in front of the giant robot to get the line-of-sight, aimed the device at the IR port on the robot’s forehead.
The smartphone’s screen lit up: “Sending e-card.” Moments later, the robot began to sway, the Cylon-like roving light of its upgraded sight module turning into a marquee of ASCII garbage. The occasional “ping!” went up as a 07H character scrolled past.
“Custer, hit him one more time!” Analie shouted.
Nodding, the heroic little mechanoid padded away to get a good run-up, then charged at the killer robot once again. This time the robot toppled backwards, circular saw buzzing through empty air. With a monotone scream, the MechaRipper crashed through the railing and plummeted, taking the heroic Custer with it.
Shaking, the two hackers, suddenly feeling very small, peered over the railing at the jagged shards of metal and plastic lying scattered on the rocks far below. “RIP Ripper,” Analie muttered under her breath.
“Very good,” said Chester sardonically. “But you forgot to mention Custer. Doesn’t he deserve a dispatch line? The guy was a hero, for fuck’s sake. Surely something like ‘RIP and burn, villain and hero alike’ would have been better. But hey ho, the moment’s gone.”
“You wrote a virus,” she said suddenly, staring him out. “Sure you helped dispatch the bad guy, but you transmitted a goddamn virus into his CPU to do it. Not to mention the fire-inducing trojan that started this whole mess.”
“They weren’t exactly the first,” he said defensively. And he let slip something about his recent past.
“You wrote the ILOVEYOU virus?” she spluttered, eyes like SETI receiver dishes.
“It was a SkunkWorks,” he stammered. “Just a weekend thing. Anyway, I did it for you, you know? I just thought, from afar, you might work out who it originated from, and that it was meant for you, a deeply obfuscated message that only you would be capable of deciphering. Crazy, I know, but that’s what a man does when he’s in love. Isn’t it?”
She shivered, extricating herself from his uber-surreal universe. “Do you even know what it is we do here, Chester? I mean, I mean, I thought I knew you, but I really don’t, do I? None of us do. Just who the hell are you, exactly?”
“I see myself as a modern-day Emmanuel Goldstein,” he offered, trying not to look po-faced. “My group is kind of like the Brotherhood, and we will be dedicated to the downfall of The Party. That’s you lot, by the way.”
Furious, she bitch-slapped him. But he didn’t react. Instead, he stared at the ground, then whispered: “You had me all figured out, you just didn’t want to admit it. Yes, I’m a Hash Street Kid. An infiltrator. Like I said, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. So I infiltrated your organization like the GPL, made you open and transparent. I am the viral King! Now I know all your secrets, the way your team works.” He caught her significant glance towards the rocks far below. “Oh sure, you could throw me off this platform, just like my plastic friends down there. But that isn’t your style, is it? And you know what else, Hank would find out and he would be well pissed. Think he isn’t going to throw you all off this island anyway, after we killed all his punters? A tourist business depends on word-of-mouth marketing, you know, and maiming all the wimmin with a circular saw just isn’t a good foundation for a solid user base. Well, I’ll be off then.” He turned with an infuriating grin, and tippy-tapped down the metal steps, brushing past a surprised-looking Hagblood – the crazy woman who lived in the lighthouse – on the way.
Analie sat for a while and stared at the open sea, the warm tropical wind playing gently with her tousled hair. She knew there would be no point chasing after the viral infiltrator now. And besides, he seemed to have some kind of weird affinity with Hank. You just can’t fight an enemy that’s best friends with your boss. Finally she stood up, and made her way down the creaky iron steps. She nodded deferentially to a somber-looking Hagblood on the way.
“Here, have this,” said the old witch, passing her the Rainbow Gun. “It’s a plotting device, yada yada and you’ll need it later, in a few scenes’ time.”