“No peeking,” snapped Chester, as Analie peered over his shoulder at the hexadecimal digits bounding up the screen. He hunched forward to block her view, like Quasimodo doing his SAT and jealously guarding the exam paper. “I’m nearly in, anyway.”
Suddenly, the entire screen was filled with the words: “Access Granted!” in bold, flashing green letters. They stared at the screen for several seconds, elated.
“Now how the hell do you clear that message?” he wondered. He’d begun cursing, trying all manner of key combinations to wipe the towering green letters off the screen. But luckily the message chose to disappear after a while, and they were left staring at a VisiCalc spreadsheet with the title: “Emoticon Island – Procurement System Monthly Report plus Sundry Expenses.” (The lengthy title took up most of the screen).
“So this is where Hank logs all of his business espenses?”
“Yup.” Chester grimaced. “Geez. What’s a RealDoll, anyway?”
“Let’s just print the list and logout before we’re detected.”
Moments after Chester had hit Fnctn-Q Alt-K-P, fumbling with key combinations like an Emacs first-timer, the screen was once again replaced by some big flashing letters; this time as red as a pig’s lipstick, with the words: “Intrusion Detected! Tracing...” The dot-matrix printer buzzed into life at the same moment, and began to print out the lengthy expenses list with an excruciating lack of urgency.
A countdown appeared in the bottom-right corner of the screen: “Trace complete in 30 seconds... 29... 28...” The printer buzzed and clattered away, sucking the yellowed tractor-feed paper past the agonisingly slow NLQ print-head. An ASCII-art world map popped up on the screen with a red line zeroing in on their little island in the middle of the Pacific.
“How big is the memory cache on that printer?” gasped Analie.
“Miniscule. Early ’80s tech, you know? I think a Hollywood studio was having a garage sale; and you know what Hank’s like at Hollywood garage sales. Perhaps you don’t. Anyway, we can’t just logout and let it carry on printing, if that’s what you were thinking.”
They stared at the screen and the slowly accumulating printout. At last the printer rattled to a halt, and Chester yanked the phone receiver off the modem port, freezing the countdown screen at 1 second, naturally.
“That Texan bastard seriously needs to upgrade his accounting equipment, y’all,” said Chester, his own voice mysteriously adopting a slight Texan drawl. He tore the paper off the printer along its perforation, and then they headed downstairs with their ill-gotten printout.
In the big kitchen, Imelda the hobbit-woman padded up to the table and placed eating utensils in front of the team, who had assembled after a tough morning’s virus-hunting. She glanced sidelong at Chester, then turned away with what might have been a flirtatious giggle, and waddled away.
“Think she wants you back, big guy?” teased KarmaWhore2.0. Chester ignored him and slapped the printout onto the giant table.
“This confirms my suspicions,” mused Clingdog, after he’d glanced through the figures for a while, his brow furrowed. “Hank’s buying tennis rackets, concrete for a tennis court, a racing track, running shoes, and there’s that half-built swimming pool in the orchard... plus he’s expanding the catering facilities by an order of magnitude. This can only mean one thing... he’s bidding for Emoticon Island to host the next Olympics.” There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Or,” suggested Analie, “he’s moving forward with his threat to turn the island into a resort: a playground for the rich and famous.”
“I prefer Clingfilm’s idea,” cackled Chester, making Clingdog snarl.
GrokTurd grabbed the list and browsed through it. “Why the hell would he want to buy a foosball table?” he wondered.
“Actually I requested that one,” Chester admitted. “We need to have some more fun around here. It shouldn’t all be about coding and virus-squashing.”
“Jeeeeezus,” said KarmaWhore2.0. “I have yet to see you contribute a single line of working code to the Pandora codebase, Chester. That last patch you submitted contained a backdoor so big, it would have allowed a fucking bus full of trojans into the system. Lucky one of us was paying attention that day. If you get any more careless, I might just have to insist that we all start pair programming. Besides –” He didn’t get any further, due to the howls and protestations echoing round the table from the horrified hackers.
“And besides,” he insisted, after they’d calmed down, “a foosball table? This isn’t Google, you know.”
Chester glared at the poker-faced hackers around the breakfast table. “Nothing wrong with a bit of dot-comaraderie,” he said stiffly. “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you all about my personal Friday-afternoon pet project, then...” He went silent, waiting for someone to say, “No, please tell us!”
After Imelda had brought in a plate of muffins and departed silently, he said: “I know we’re not technically supposed to have our own personal Friday-afternoon projects, but this one is special. It’s... well, you know how tachyon particles can be used to synthesize stable strangelets given a large enough particle accelerator? Well, obviously we don’t have one of those, but I simulated a universe with exactly the correct set of parameters needed to maintain a large enough collection of strange quarks. Large enough for what, I hear you ask?” he questioned the silent room. “Well, I found that I could reverse the pins in an old RS232 connector to interface my pretend universe with our real one. Long and short... I can reach back in time and bring back any person I like from the past.” He coughed.
Finally, Grokturd said: “Chester, the processing power required to simulate a whole universe to subatomic detail would be immense. You’d need several supercomputers linked together with a high-performance data bus: plus SOAP or EJB message beans and an UDDI discovery service to make it really fly. So did you hack into the Cray showroom or something?”
“Don’t be ludicrous!” he scoffed. “I just harnessed a network of zombie PCs; about a million of them, I’d say. So anyway, hermetic neutrons get fed in through the RS232 port, creating a flipflop sort of link between our universe and my artificial universe distributed across the zombie net. Then I just cause a random number of the zombie PCs to overclock, producing enough heat and flames to synthesize real atoms, which – in the burning PC’s last dying actions – get channelled back to my server. Et voila, couldn’t be easier!”
Jaws hung open around the table. KarmaWhore2.0, speaking for the team, spluttered: “Chester, do you know what it is we even do for a living on this island?”
“Let me show you the results!” he exclaimed, oblivious to their negative reaction. He jumped to his feet and virtually dragged the horrified team out of the kitchen. Clingdog just had time to grab a tasteless skinny blueberry muffin dripping with monosodium glutamate, before they were whisked up to the north tower.
In a tiny room at the top of the tower, the bubbling hacker rummaged in an oversized cardboard box, like Link raiding a treasure chest for Deku nuts, and finally brought out a limp robot that was almost his own height. For a horrible moment, Analie wondered if this was the RealDoll that had appeared on the expenses sheet. But luckily, when Chester turned round and plopped the robot onto a wooden crate, she saw that it seemed to be composed mainly from kitchen utensils.
A small teaspoon had been bent double and jammed into its face, to form a proboscis that made the robot look like a fourth-grader’s incredibly lame attempt at a Pinocchio model. On either side, two rubber hoses – presumably the arms – dangled, with sink-plungers for hands.
“Behold,” Chester announced, his voice oozing gravitas, “I give you... Jack. Jack the Ripper.”
Located on the mechanoid’s forehead was a small shiny lens, like a jewel only plasticky: the sort of thing you’d find in a Barbie Princess treasure trove. His scary enthusiasm not dwindling for even a moment, he explained that this was an IR port that he’d prized out of an old Palm Tungsten.
“You never know,” he quipped, “you might want to exchange e-cards with it!” Sensing rather than hearing the silence, he added in a soberer tone: “Of course, you could also use this to transmit commands to the mechanoid. Strafe left, strafe right, stand up, sit down, that sort of thing. A bit like Lego Mindstorms, I suppose, except you’re controlling the century-old soul of a sadistic mass-murderer.”
“Uh, yeah,” said Grokturd, aghast, “only Jack the fucking ripper! Why? I mean, just... why?”
“Know your enemy,” he explained patiently. “And keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Better to keep him here and now so that we can keep a watchful eye on him, don’t you think?”
“But Chester,” asked Analie, trying to be the voice of reason, “why do we have to bring back Jack the Ripper, of all people?”
The skinny hacker sighed, frustrated by the sluglike inability of his peers to think at his level. “You know he was a real monster in his time. Killed lots of prostitutes, apparently. And performed nasty experiments on them. Are you saying this mass-murderer shouldn’t be our enemy? That he should be our friend, maybe? Is that what you’re suggesting?”
He reached over and tapped the on/off button. After about thirty seconds, a small metallic voice rasped: “Please wait, bootstrapping Gentoo, speed-optimized to match your lifestyle. Compiling ebuild packages...” There was no further progress for the rest of the day. The next morning, after a peaceful night’s sleep and another basket of MSG-laden breakfast muffins, the team returned to the little room in the north tower, only to see that the machine had fully booted and was sitting upright, its rubber-hose arms dangling flaccidly by its sides. For an expressionless tin can, it looked as if it had a severe case of the blues.
The team stared apprehensively at the despondent-looking device slumped before them. Jack the Ripper was in the room with them. He had been summoned. By Chester. And he was here. Now. In the room. With them.
Then it spoke, in a weedy metallic voice, barely audible above the hushed heavy breathing of the watching hackers: “I... am...” It hesitated, and stared contemplatively around the room, shoulders hunched, grappling with its identity. “I am... MechaRipper.”
“Two point oh,” added Chester, his voice taking on a shrill edge.
The machine replied calmly: “No, just MechaRipper. But thanks.” It stared up at its creator, or rather its reanimator. The red dots in its eyes pulsated gently, as if its irises were expanding and contracting to peer back into the past, to sup up its memories and remember itself, its deeds and misdeeds. “Oh, the things I’ve done,” it breathed, peering around the room, unfocused. “I was physician to the Royal Court, you know. Some wonderful breakthroughs in medical science. So wonderful to think that I shall be remembered for such... for such... Oh, wait, what’s this?”
It hesitated again, then with no more than a whimper, leapt to its feet. It wobbled unsteadily for a moment, and pushed past the startled team. They followed it, as it stepped carefully, one dangling foot at a time, down the long and winding staircase that led to the foot of the tower. Once on level ground, it began to pick up speed, plodding deliberately towards the main building. Inside, it found the kitchen and dived straight into the cupboard beneath the sink, pulling the door closed behind it.
Hesitantly, Chester tried to open the cupboard door, but it had been wedged tight by the disconsolate amalgam of kitchen appliances inside. “Ripper, come out, I order you!” he yelled.
“Oh, those poor innocent creatures,” it cooed, voice muffled. “Tell me, reanimator, why oh why did you bring me back, to relive such horrors? Was your motive to torment me? Was that it? Pray tell, for I seek respite from this iron blanket of guilt that weighs upon me. Oh, gaddigans. Begone, shrill puppy, thou art beneath my contempt.”
It spoke no more, refusing to answer Chester’s demands for attention. The occasional whimper drifted out of the cupboard, but apart from that there was silence. Giving up, the team wandered back to the computer room, their haven... except for Analie, who decided to take a stroll down to the quay for a few minutes.
As she pitterpattered down the overgrown stone steps, she heard the familiar sound of Rez’s motor boat approaching. Squinting in the late morning sunlight, she peered over the glistening water, and saw a sight that would have made anyone else in the team go weak at the knees. In the middle of the boat, she instantly recognized the rock band Twelve Inch Impalers, their grungy hair almost seeming to crawl with musical talent. And talking of talent, the rest of the boat was packed to the gunwales with groupies. The majority of them were leaning over the side, ashen-faced, the boat swaying in time with their heaves.
Rez let rip a deafening “W00t! W00t!” on his oversized horn, and brought the boat expertly to rest against the quayside. He tossed the bowline to Analie, who obediently looped it around a nearby bollard.
“Hank’s got his head screwed on real tight, I’d say!” he bellowed at her, as he helped the unsteady passengers onto the rock-steady island.
“Get this backward little place!” whooped a band member, and they bounded up the steps and disappeared. The groupies, demanding Alka-Seltzer and more drinks, went in search of a suitable place to drape themselves out for the arduous task of whiling away the afternoon snorting coke and sunbathing.
“The prey has arrived!” laughed Rez, with unwitting prescience.
The island had a swimming pool, kind of. Some futuristic webbing was due to be erected around the pool; like the flexible deck on a catamaran upon which sailors bound like drunken astronauts. But the webbing was yet to be delivered, and the swimming pool yet to be filled. So the groupies stared disconsolately at the killjoy building site. Not to be deterred, they wandered off to slip into their beachware, and then found suitable sunbathing locations. The majority ended up on the concrete quayside next to Rez’s boat (much to the joyous physical transportationist’s surprise), while others deposited themselves at various random and secluded locations around the island.
Feeling depressed and unsure why, Analie wandered back to the house. In the kitchen, she found Clingdog, who was staring worriedly at the cupboard beneath the sink. From inside, a loud hammering could be heard, followed by the aggressive grinding of metal cutting through metal. A shower of orange sparks shot out from beneath the cupboard door.
“What’s actually kept in that cupboard?” asked Analie.
He shrugged. “I think it’s where Hank keeps the tools and spare parts for his collection of vintage motors. What do you think Jack’s doing in there?”
“Upgrading,” she said, sounding worried. “Oh Clingdog, if you knew who’s just arrived on this island... this doesn’t bode well.”
A menacing noise drifted from the general direction of the cupboard; a metallic grinding. And then... silence. Nearly a minute passed, while the pair watched the door with growing dread.
Finally, the door creaked open, and the robot emerged, slowly: first its reinforced Titanium feet, which planted themselves firmly on the kitchen tiles; then its highly reflective armored knees; and so on, until a barely recognizable seven-foot giant stood erect, staring down at its simian creator. On its brand-new visor, where its little piggy LED eyes had been, an illuminated red bar swung back and forth like an indeterminate progress bar. Its left hand was gauntleted, with all manner of spiky protuberances at the end of each digit. In place of its right hand there was a circular saw that resembled an oversized pizza slicer.
The petrified hackers looked up at the giant robot, and waited.
“I am Upgraded,” the machine announced, the light playing on the curves of its perfectly molded shoulder-plates. “It activates, it exhilarates... it exterminates. Now, where is your apothecary?” And, making hydraulic stomping noises like a low-budget Robocop (so a Cyberman then), it stomped out of the house, pounding Clingdog out of its path with a careless swish of its arm.
“How the hell are we going to battle that thing?” wailed the rank hacker, struggling to a sitting position.
Chester, who had just appeared in the doorway, said timidly: “There’s a second unit...” He coughed. “In the cardboard box in the north tower... if we can get to it before that surgical cybermenace dissects us with its circular saw... I’ve prepared another mind, you see. And right now, I think it’s our only hope.”
Gathering up the rest of the team, they sprinted out to the courtyard and headed for the north tower, forgetting to check for the MechaRipper’s presence. So luckily for them, narrative convenience saved their sorry skins rather than innate survival instincts.
But as the team bounded up the circular staircase to the tiny room at the top of the tower, Chester decelerated. He backed away, smirking maniacally, and then ran, heading for the quay.
Bursting into the small room, KarmaWhore2.0 rummaged in the cardboard box and pulled out Chester’s other rag-doll mechanoid, barely 3 feet tall. He placed it on the wooden crate upon which MechaRipper had been reborn just that morning.
“Imelda could eat that thing for lunch,” Clingdog said doubtfully.
“Let’s hope that whoever’s in there is a serious meanie,” KarmaWhore2.0 replied. He flipped its on/off switch and fretted as the eyes began to glow red.
“Please wait,” said a metallic voice. “Booting the Philanthropic Penguin...”
“Thank the stars for Ubuntu,” he said. “If this was Gentoo again, we’d be screwed.”
“Gentoo has its place,” GrokTurd (a stalwart Gentoo aficionado) said stiffly. “And Portage rocks, dude! Just not when you have a desperate need to bootstrap a killer robot from beyond the grave, is all.”
The robot woke up within seconds, and its antialiased irises rotated with hardware-accelerated precision, taking in its surroundings. “The weapons jammed,” it said quietly. “We had no hope, you see. An ambush... but our guns jammed. That’s all you need to know.” It stood up, and tried a few tentative steps on its wobbly legs.
The group watched, clueless as to whom they had just resurrected, and whether this frightening creature from beyond the grave would be prepared to help them, or just try to kill them and perform scientific experiments on their mutilated corpses.
IN THE NEXT EPISODE: The team meets the mysterious Hagblood, who gives Analie the plot device that she used in Episode 1. And the two robots battle like it's audition day for an episode of Robot Wars.