“There’s the island!” KarmaWhore3.1 quipped excitedly. KarmaWhore2.0 laughed at the eagerness of his kid brother; but then he saw for himself the faint shadow on the horizon. The perfect caldera shape – it could have been the secret island from Thunderbirds – loomed out of the distant sea mist as the Statue of Liberty must have emerged to weary immigrants hitting the New World, full of joy, expectation and hunger, not to mention weevils and rat-burgers after the ship’s food stocks went off.
Rez, one chunky hand on the shiny chrome helm, took a bite from his galley-prepared Burrito. Strange, indistinct meat sludge threatened to flop out of one end. He pushed the walnut-encrusted throttle further forwards to give the boat an extra kick of speed, a task which the twin 1000 hp MTU engines performed with understated ease, and within minutes the faint outline had become a solid shape with real, tangible palm trees and a small concrete quay with black tyres hanging down. Deep in Clingdog’s slightly diseased mind, he imagined the scene from Bounty – the Mel Gibson version – where underdressed native girls jumped into skimpy little boats and rowed out eagerly to meet them.
GrokTurd leaned forward over the bow, eager to see more, staring intently at the island. “Wait,” he said, “I think I see Chester!”
“From this distance?” Analie taunted. “You’ve only ever seen him in a Jpeg.” But then she saw the stick-figure: unmistakeable, like the figure painted onto the hood of the white Lotus in Return of the Saint, only without the halo. Chester, the latest recruit to the crack team, seemed to be running fervently along a pathway snaking between the palm trees. He kept ducking and glancing at the approaching boat, as if he didn’t want them to see him yet. Analie assumed that he wanted to surprise them. She’d IM’d with him a few times, and he seemed like a really sweet guy. Nice as apple pie.
“I think he must’ve been sunbathing,” she muttered, sounding puzzled.
The boat did a little loop around the makeshift harbour, then pushed up against the dangling black tyres. Rez, flashing a massive grin, jumped off the speedboat and tied it securely to the quay.
Some narrow steps wound up an overgrown pathway into the densely packed palm trees. Analie was dazzled momentarily by the ephemeral flash of Chester’s pale, skinny butt, like a couple of razor blades glinting in the sun as he fled into the trees. She shook the image out of her mind, then stepped carefully onto the quayside. KarmaWhore2.0 was busy emitting whoops of delight. “This is just goddamned spit-in-your-face perfect!” he hollered, causing some prehistoric-looking seabirds to jump out of the trees and beat their way skywards.
As they pushed their way up the fern-smothered steps, Chester – now dressed securely in a pair of bright purple baggy shorts and an orange T-shirt emblazoned with the words “King Cracker” – trotted casually down the steps. “I saw your boat approaching from the house!” he called, making Analie wonder why he would bother to fabricate his activities. “I was getting acquainted with the new system. You should come see it, it’s incredible.”
KarmaWhore 3.1 grabbed Chester’s hand and pumped it energetically, threatening to snap Chester’s stickman arm in two. “Great to finally meet you!” he challenged. “I’ve heard a serious number a’ awesome things – can’t wait to see what you can do.”
“So how come you’re already here?” wondered Clingdog as they proceeded up the steps and into the well-tended gardens surrounding the giant house; the only inhabited building on the entire island, apart from – so they would discover – the tumbledown lighthouse.
“Popsy had me airlifted in,” Chester replied, referring to his father.
“So where’s Hank?” wondered GrokTurd. “I thought he’d be here to meet us.”
“Important business. He had to leave on the same copter that brought me here.”
They ran up to the house, exchanged mutual gawps with the Leprechaun-sized serving staff, then quickly found their way to the main computer room – their new home. Minitowers loomed like stumpy monoliths, and an army of desktop fans redistributed superheated air through the grid of channels between the PCs. Although they’d been dumped quite randomly, the minitowers could easily have been an attempted scale-model replica of Central Manhattan, albeit with squatter skyscrapers.
They were about to settle in front of their new PCs, hormones raging, when – a hacker’s worst nightmare – a small, remarkably hairy woman appeared at the door and announced in a timid voice: “Lunchtime!”
Thoroughly pissed, they backed away from the shiny new equipment and shuffled downstairs in single file. In the giant kitchen, they sat around an oversized oak table and watched the hairy woman, who was barely 3 feet tall, put bowls of green stew in front of them.
“Back in a mo,” said Analie, unheard by all, and wandered out to powder her nose.
“This is Imelda,” announced Chester, astonishing the team by reaching down to place one arm protectively around the hairy dwarf woman’s waist.
GrokTurd whispered to Clingdog: “Is she... human?”
“Of course she is!” snapped Chester, overhearing. “Well, at least... I suppose you remember those reports of “human hobbit” remains that were discovered a couple years ago? It was on Flores Island in Indonesia. Well the thing is, when Hank bought this island and wiped the jungle off of it, he discovered a surviving colony of them. So he did the natural thing, and made them his servants. I guess he thought they were Oompa-Loompas or something.”
“And your relationship with her is...?” Clingdog asked guardedly.
“Just casual,” he said cockily, giving her a pat on the backside as she shuffled away into the other room. But he noticed the horrified looks around the table, and went on the defensive. “Okay, look, I just kind of like... wanted some company, okay?” he mumbled, arms folded and chin jutting out; “to feel a woman’s breasts pressed up against me...” His voice trailed off.
“Gorillas have less hairy breasts!” bellowed KarmaWhore2.0, just as Analie walked into the room. She stared wide-eyed around the group.
Later, after a decidedly awkward lunch during which little more was said, they returned to their Safety Zone. Settling in front of their PCs and sinking swiftly into their new virtual environments, they discovered that the PCs were networked – obviously – but even better, a VR chatroom had been set up. Each machine had its own headset and motion-sensitive glove placed next to it. Without prompting, the entire team was jacked-in within seconds of each other.
“Holy crap,” muttered GrokTurd. “This is reality! iD must be shitting themselves with stuff like this happening.” His avatar settled into a squeezy leather chair which moulded around him, transforming into a giant pink marshmallow. The marshmallow hummed contentedly, wriggling strategically to help him get comfortable.
"Forget Quake and all that last-century tech, Gramps," said Clingdog, "what about Second Life? Think how much more real your encounters would be with this touchy-feely engine. 'Specially if you could create your avatar using a porn-o-matic like Poser or sumfink." They went silent in awed respect, imagining the possibilities.
“HeyTheresA3dWiki!” KarmaWhore2.0 burbled elatedly, snapping them out of their reverie. He gestured towards one corner of the room where a miniature labyrinth of joined-up lines hovered, entangled like the result of a seven-hour marathon “Pipes” game. “This is exciting,” he enthused. “Hey, I could see this forming the central nervous system of our collaborative knowledge base; the frontal lobe of our combined elite hacker skillz.” He opened up a page at random, and saw:
FIRST POST !!!
Frowning, he opened another page:
He clicked on the FirstPost link, and saw:
This is the FirstPost page, w00t !!!
“Just how old are you, Chester?” he snapped, failing to hide his contempt. “You don’t have to buy into every frickin’ socially dysfunctional teenage hacker stereotype that ever existed, you know.”
“What’s in those filing cabinets?” Analie asked, jump-starting a new thread before a flame war erupted.
“Everything,” replied Chester, flushing. He glided over to the filing cabinets – the VR software allowed you to walk, glide, soar or wallow – and opened one. On the other side was a shoulder-high brick tunnel, starkly lit like one of the tunnels from Dungeon Master on the Amiga (the real nuts-and-bolts Amiga of times gone by, not the strange incorporeal quasi-resurrected effort). “Want to explore?” he suggested invitingly.
Analie walked over and, hesitating for just a second, stepped into the tunnel. Immediately her feet went out from beneath her, and she slithered helplessly through the descending shaft. Eventually her avatar landed in a small, bottle-shaped dungeon with no obvious exit. GrokTurd, ClingDog, KarmaWhore2.0 and KarmaWhore3.1 landed next to her.
Cackling, slightly effeminate laughter bounced around the room, echoing back and forth as if someone were playing with a sound mixer. “That was just too easy!”
“Hey, Chester!” called KarmaWhore2.0, slipping into his failed-Haiku lingo: “How the hell are we meant to get out of here? Is this meant to be some kind of joke? Because funny is what it sure ain’t, that for free I can tell you now.”
GrokTurd ran from wall to wall, hurling his virtual shoulder at each one, bouncing off as a virtual bruise – more of a warning flash – appeared on his avatar and then faded away. A horizontal green bar hovering over his head like a lazily rendered halo suggested that his health was at 90%.
Chester’s voice giggled delightedly. “So much for the crack VirusHunters(TM) team. You’ll be stuck in this dungeon forever, for there is no way out. Access denied. Your adventure ends here... partners!”
“What are you, the fucking Lawnmower Man?” screamed GrokTurd. “Let us out, you ninny!”
“All your base, dudes!” their captor taunted, giggling wildly. “Mine mine mine!”
“Team, think quickly,” hissed KarmaWhore2.0. “Think outside the box. We’re in a room with no obvious exits... a virtual prison. How do you get out of a prison that has no doors?”
“Attack the creator,” mused GrokTurd, rubbing his shoulder and forcing himself to calm down. “It’s the only vulnerable point. We need some sort of shiv – not like in Magic the Gathering, but I mean a secret weapon; perhaps a virus. It could tunnel its way back through the system, spoof a secure connection with Chester’s headset, then sort of eat into his brain and take out his frontal lobe. Or something...” His voice trailed away.
“I’d already thought of that,” Chester sneered condescendingly. “When I set up the prison, I isolated it from the mainframe, with a PC running the Windows XP firewall beta. Nothing can get through, I tell you.”
“Or we could just take our headsets off,” ClingDog pointed out.
Their captor went silent for a moment, then warned hastily: “I wouldn’t advise it. The shock would kill your systems. You’d... you’d die!”
“Fsck you,” barked ClingDog (literally said "Fsssk!"), and removed his headset. The others followed suit.
Back in MeatSpace, the team blinked in unison and turned to look at Chester, who was still embedded in virtual fantasyland. “Don’t do it!” he screamed. “It really will kill you! You’re stuck in there. My trap was executed perfectly, I – ”
KarmaWhore2.0 gave Chester a light Karate kick on the shoulder. The kick was 100% conformant to the technique he'd learned, the sort of kick that in a real fight would expose his vulnerable crotch area for a few dangerous seconds - a lifetime - and would leave him about as well balanced as a T Rex balancing on a pole, and yet still gets taught as "good combat style" by instructors the world over. However, in the current situation, with his opponent's eyes covered, it served its purpose, dislodging Chester’s VR helmet. He pulled it off his head and looked up, stunned, at the glowering team.
“Good test,” murmured Analie, sounding unsure. “You’re right, we need to stay on our toes all the time – never get comfortable or take anything for granted. Keep surprising us, Chester – although we might have to rename you Cato from now on.”
But KarmaWhore2.0 was staring at Chester with his eyes narrowed like a long-haired Persian cat peering at the Walther PPK-toting intruder; some indefinable facet of Chester’s oddball behaviour had aroused the sharp-witted hacker’s suspicions.
IN THE NEXT EPISODE: Notorious serial killer and all-round meanie Jack the Ripper is reanimated in a robot body, and the team discovers what Texan billionaire Hank has in store for Emoticon Island (something to do with rock bands and groupies).