Thin, bony fingers were holding the plastic box at eye-level, twisting and turning it
in every possible position for an austere and detailed inspection. Whichever way Chase looked at it though, it still seemed like a dull, oversized matchbox to him. He held a plastic rectangle, not more than two inches thick and three long, uniform and perfectly even, except for a tiny opening on its rear left side. That's where the cable goes in, he thought. He measured its weight, threw it playfully in the air, then caught and pocketed it.
"I dunno whether you've gone bonkers from all those hours spent online," said Carmichael, raising an eyebrow at him, "and you're now suffering from some compulsive sort of delusional cravings for the virtual delights," He paused for dramatic effect. "Or," he went on, "you are deeply, madly in love with this chick, who, by-the-by, might be a hairy, beer-bellied, smelly thirty-some year old dude in real life." He took an overemphasized deep breath. "Actually, I don't even know which of the two is worse for you. And you're not even listening!"
Chase sat slumped on the bench in the dark alley where they'd met, dressed in his worn-out leather jacket and jeans torn at the knees. He went through his thick, greasy blonde hair with his hand, and said "I am listening." His unkempt hair fell to just below his ears, parted unevenly in the middle. "Just didn't deem fair to interrupt your stream of wisdom."
"Joke all you want, but you know I'm right," Carmichael sat down next to him. "Listen," he said, "You know if you get caught using that, you'll be in some real trouble. You know that."
A cold, nightly breeze sent shivers down their spines. "Ask yourself if it's really worth it. You might get banned. Locked up, even. That'll tear down our guild, and less-importantly, it might destroy what's left of your nonexistent, nonvirtual private life."
Clutching the plastic box in his jacket pocket, Chase felt Carmichael’s words reflect his own doubts. Why was he acting so foolishly? Never in his life had he been the risk taker; he was always the one who kept his head lowest. To do something that's frowned upon, let alone something unlawful, something that could potentially lead him to real danger was unimaginable to him. Fighting dragons in caves was playing around, but this, this could turn real ugly, he thought.
"I know," Chase's voice bore the distinct timbre of fear, and Carmichael noticed it. "But I also know that I am bored with my life. I'm so bored, I'd get ten pounds of prescription pills for it if it was a disease. I know what I felt with that girl. Something, I have never felt in-game before, something much more meaningful then guild ranks." Carmichael shot him a grave look to say that nothing could be more meaningful then guild ranks but Chase chose to ignore it. "I know this is all fun and games to you, even though you're helping me do something illegal, but that's who you are, you turn everything into a game. Look at you."
If it weren't for his considerable anxiety, Chase would've found it pretty funny. Instead of his usual daytime attire, Carmichael had donned a long, grey overcoat, black top hat, dark shades and right underneath them, a moustache that would've made Groucho Marx look dead serious. He looked like he was spat out by a mid-twentieth century spy novel. Somewhere in his pockets was a pipe and Chase was sure of it.
"What?" Carmichael got up in protest. He started poking Chase in the chest with his finger. "Do you know how many cameras you pass on your way here? I chose the most secluded and least monitored corner of town, but still, one can never be too careful."
"Okay, okay," Chase held his hands up in resignation, "Not my point. Thing is, you enjoy this everyday bullcrap. I can hardly wait till my shift is over so I can log on, and play with you guys, and even then, as the fun subsides, at the end of the day I'm stuck with the realization that I'm wasting my time away. A feeling of uselessness washes over me as I fall asleep every night, and it's hard to shake it off in the morning, lemme tell you that."
Another icy breeze swept over them, and Carmichael sat down and pulled himself closer to Chase so they could keep each other warm on the cold, metallic bench. They were indeed in a secluded part of town, the graffitied walls the only indication that people still lived in that block. Every window shut and dark- the single light cast over them being the erratic red and green of the lonely traffic light, which, given the amount of cars circulating at that ungodly hour of the night, was completely and utterly useless.
"If you want excitement, get yourself a bike for heaven sakes," whispered Carmichael. "Why risk jail for someone you don't even know?"
He wondered himself the whole week, and could never come up with a decent answer. That hacker, whoever she was, had gotten a firm grip over his mind, and it seemed as if she wasn't going to let go without a satisfactory amount of foolishness on his part.
Chase got to his feet faster then his brain had registered the action.
"Thanks for helping me out, Carm," he chewed on his lower lip. "My car is parked a block away, I better get going before I get fined."
Red light reflected off the glistening tarmac, then it changed to green.
"I'll walk you to it," Chase got to his feet, shoved his fists in the overcoat's pockets.
The weather was being very unkind for a night in early May, and they hurried away from the chilling breeze, walking on the sidewalk in great strides. Eventually they reached the car, an old black Volkswagen convertible with a rift in the roof where someone had knifed it.
"How you drive this, I've no clue," muttered Carmichael. Chase opened the door and had one foot in the car. He turned to his friend.
"I know you worry about me," he smiled, "but don't. I'm just trying to have a little fun- that's all. I'm not doing this out of weird, platonic emotions for a person I haven't even seen. That's crazy. I don't even know her name." Nina. It's Nina, he thought. "And, like you oh-so-eloquently pointed out, 'She' might be a 'He' in real life." Deep inside in his very own pathetically shriveled soul he knew it wasn't true. He knew it was their destiny to meet. "I wanna meet the hacker, to use her knowledge of the game. Besides," he shrugged, "our guild could really use a bump in the ranks."
He patted the silent Carmichael on the back, thanked him again for his help, then got in the car. The gasoline gauge pointed at barely above zero. Starting the car, he unrolled the window and poked his head out.
"Having fun is what it's all about," he laughed, "I'm not hopelessly in love."
The clogged up engine revved loudly and they waved at each other through a cloud of exhaust fumes as the car drove off. Carmichael pulled out a white wooden pipe from his pocket and placed it between his teeth. He sucked out a toke of air off the empty pipe, and sighed.
"Oh, but you are hopeless my friend," he said, then glanced sideways if anyone's around and scuttled off in the distance towards the safety of well-monitored subway tunnels.
The following morning, Chase woke to a shrieking sound coming out of his alarm radio.
"More and more people are dropping out of high school, and these so-called virtual words are to blame, there is no doubt." The high-pitched, piercing voice sounded like it belonged to a middle-aged woman. "The numbers are horrifying," she added.
Just as a younger-sounding male voice began his reply, Chase's hand fumbled for the device on his night side table, and fell on top of it clumsily, silencing it and pushing it off the table at the same time. Almost in sync, his autonomous bedroom windows popped open to let the light and clutter of the city pour in in its full morning glory. Car honks and incomprehensible chatter echoed around the room, tearing him away from much-needed sleep. He roused himself, glanced at the inverted alarm clock on the floor, then buried his face in his pillow again. 9:05.
"Arrrrgg," he mumbled into the pillow, then sprung out of bed.
Rubbing the sleep off his fragile eyes, he paced quickly to his workroom where his computer terminal was stationed. Mechanically he pushed the ON button with a toe, his hands dragging a chair underneath him. A churning sound filled the air as the terminal booted up, and Chase used the wait time to finish what coffee he had left in a cup on his desk. Stale and cold as it was, he drank the few remaining drops from last night and sat the cup in its place, on the sheaf of paper it occupied before, right where the golden ring stain showed it should be. Navy blue light flashed at his tired face, indicating that the terminal was online. He spoke out his password, and was granted access.
Eager and excited, he called out a few commands, then, before he could even remember what day it was, he asked, "Server status?"
The computer screen turned black and a few bleeping sounds later, flashed red all over his face. "Offline," it said in a digitized but soft voice.
A few keys sprang up from the keyboard as he slammed down his fist. He got up, pushed the chair to the far side of the room, and paced out furiously, leaving the computer screen to emit confused blue colors behind a firmly shut door.
He was washing his face and teeth when the automated E-z Breakfast(tm) sounded a cute ring. The preprogrammed breakfast was ready to be served. He dabbed his face with a towel, then masterfully avoiding the mirror walked to the kitchen, welcomed by the pungent smell of fried eggs, onions and bacon. For the first time since waking up, he opened his eyes wide, taking in the sight of his tiny condo. The kitchen was much smaller then his working room. It could hold no more then two people at one time. It hosted a small, round table, surrounded by two plastic chairs which would probably be less out-of-place on a lawn somewhere; a sink filled with dirty dishes to the brim and a grimy glass door which gave to a three square feet balcony. From it, daylight crept its way inside, scattering itself sparingly all around. Because of the city's skyscrapers, direct sunlight was a luxury he did not own, although there was a specific time window in the day, somewhere in the early afternoon, where if he'd climb up a chair and stand on his toes, he would glimpse a fraction of the sun, for a few very precious moments, right until it drops out of view behind a gargantuan Vibrant Cola billboard.
Chase rented a loft right in the heart of the city, and with his modest salary he couldn't have hoped for a better place. It might've been small, but he came to like it. Sure, there were termites, and sure, there was Mrs. Kawalsky from the floor below and her constant complaining for non-existent noise, but he enjoyed his place immensely. Who doesn't have trouble with pests? Who has perfect neighbors, above and below?
He sat himself on the plastic chair with no broken handles, forked a hot, crispy slice of bacon, and stuffed it in his mouth. He thought of the day ahead.
The servers were still stubbornly offline. It had been a whole week. Never in the history of the World had there been so much downtime. And the company's silence began to seem quite suspicious, he thought and chewed on a mouthful of eggs.
He had scoured the online forums for clues, and had speculated endlessly amongst friends, but the reason for the downtime eluded them still. Carmichael had been the first to suggest a government conspiracy, involving malevolent AIs and an all-encompassing digital plague that spread through infected rare in-game items. He swore he'd seen government officials with earplugs around his block, but, as usual, the others couldn't be quite sure whether he was yanking their chains or not. Balin claimed that the developers were preparing for a major upgrade, and was more excited than agitated by their temporary disconnectedness. The taurens on the other hand, were the ones taking the off time the most seriously, more seriously in fact, then Chase himself. They weren't talkative anymore, and when Carmichael would taunt them, they'd respond with grave looks and snappy offensive remarks. Of course, the company itself stated the reason was a parallel server malfunction, and that it would be fixed within a week. The week's over, give us back our game, thought Chase.
He mused over all that as he was finishing up his breakfast. Once he was done, he emptied the plate in his Dispenser, underneath the sink, then placed it carefully on top of an unstable towering pile of dirty dishes.
"I'll clean tomorrow," he muttered under his breath.
With a soft buzzing sound, the Dispenser recycled the remnants of his food, storing the reusable parts for the E-z Breakfast machine. Chase set to 'milk and cereal' for the following morning.
Quarter of an hour later, he found himself standing in the shower, one hand continuously resting on the hot water faucet. He had his eyes closed and head tilted up to face the water stream. Beating down on his face, the drops made wavering red ripples on the back of his eyelids. He enjoyed the patterns, and rested his mind with unrelated thoughts, half-listening to the sound of daily news blasting out of the camouflaged speakers from both sides of his showering cubicle.
"With the hash tag 'tvgossip'," said a soft feminine voice before crossfading to a more animated, radio-personality speaker, "Today, early morning, reality TV celebrity and author of 'My Arm-Wrestle With Fame: And Why Protein Is The Answer' Jo Biceps, was found dead by the cleaning lady in his Sunny Hills mansion. Results from the autopsy are pending, but it's no secret that Jo was quite the PleasureStix user. Neighbors say they haven't seen him leave the house in days, and an anonymous tip from inside the police department says his body appeared wizened and malnourished. Family says the funeral will be held tomorrow, and fans will be given access keys to the online memorial. If you want full-access front-row seats plus private time with the grieving family, send us a ping, and you might be one of the lucky four, randomly chosen fans. Paid for by the Lolitoz chips, crispy potato chips that make you LoL."
Hot water ran down his face, body and out the drain, where it was being recycled by the water purifiers in-between floors for reuse by showering neighbors below. He struggled to remember Jo Biceps' face, but couldn't.
The soft voice spoke again, "With the hash tag 'worldnews'," and once more was replaced by a different, livelier voice, "Today, a car bomb exploded in downtown Paris, injuring twenty-two. No casualties. As with last week's events, the police link the crime with the neo-luddite terrorist..."
"Joanna, skip tag," gurgled Chase.
An affirmative bleep later, the soft voice replied, "Tag skipped. With the hash tag 'gaming'," and gave way to another, excited male speaker, "Wow, have I got some great news for you! In a press release this morning, the Stormfrost Company reports that The World's severs will be back online, today at 1800 hours." Chase nearly slipped. He moved his head out of the falling stream of water to hear the news better. The speaker continued, "Apparently, the rumors were true. The servers were down due to a massive upgrade to the in-game engine, but they're keeping the details to themselves. I'm sure this will be much more then a simple patch. As a reward to the player's patience, every account will have an extra hundred gold pieces attached. I'm not sure rioting can be considered a show of patience, but you have to acknowledge Stormfrost's ingenuity." Chase jumped up and down, shouting out random words. "With more on this major piece of news, we go live to Stormfrost's headquarters..." The voice trailed off as Chase flung the cubicle's door open. He wrapped himself in a towel, and went searching for new underwear, leaving watery footprints all over his apartment.
"Joanna," he called out his personalized computer assistant, "Call Carmichael." After what seemed like a never-ending moment of silence, the whole apartment echoed with Carmichael's voice. In the pauses in-between heart throbs in his ears Chase could hear him speak.
"I can't believe Balin was right," the apartment said, basking in laughter. "Not that it matters now, I mean, sheesh, finally we are back online. Hell, yeah!" Both of them laughed.
Chase found the underwear he was looking for.
"What do you suppose we do first?" he asked, a faint idea rattled in the back of his mind.
"I dunno, I dunno," blurted out Carmichael, "The taurens were rambling on about some arena guild battles, bla bla bla, I guess we could do that later. First thing, I wanna see what the fuss was all about. I wanna see what's new."
Chase roamed all over the apartment, picking his clothes up from the various places he had them scattered.
"Yeah, me too," He scooped up the alarm radio, and set it back on the night side stand. "Oh shit, we'll be late for work."
Apparently, Carmichael had glanced at a clock on his side too. "Oh damn, yeah yeah yeah, I gotta be off then, see you at work," he said.
"See you later, man."
"I knew this day was gonna be exciting," said Carmichael, then hung up with a ping.
All dressed up and dried out, a mug of freshly brewed coffee in his hand, he headed back for his workroom. Hibernating with a low pitch hum, the terminal sensed his entry and rebooted itself. Blue light blinked stupidly at Chase.
He took a sip of bitter, hot coffee.
"Psst, can I come over?" Before Chase could turn around and reply, Balin had pushed himself off his desk, and was floating in his direction. Once he reached Chase's cloud, he tore a tiny bit off it, compressed it with his hands and positioned it gingerly beneath him as a cushion.
"What's up?" he asked, a wide grin spreading on his face.
Chase put his hands behind his head and leaned back. The sky all around had a soothing blue color, perfectly laid out but for a few cloud patches which served as office space for nearby employees. The virtualscape functioned as a common work environment for over ten thousand employees of a large cluster of different software companies. Multiple servers scattered around the country hosted the environment meaning every employee had enough room for himself in the massive sky-world.
"I'm working on something," Chase replied as casually as he could.
"You can't say?"
Chase and Balin worked in different companies and different departments. Chase was a programmer, Balin a debugger. For the companies they worked for privacy was paramount and loyalty treasured. As much as he wanted to share his exploits, Chase had to keep his mouth shut most of the time.
"Sorry," he shrugged.
Balin tried peering at the screen before Chase but the whole desk area was filtered for outsiders, appearing scrambled and distorted to prying eyes. He sighed and suppressed his curiosity as much as it pained him.
"Anyway, I didn't come to spy on your work," he sounded almost bitter. "I came 'cause I had this thought."
Chase had his gaze fixed on the wheat fields beneath him, sprawling in all directions in patches of green and yellow. A shimmering blue river slithered through them, appearing as nothing more then a thin line from their height. He wondered to what extent the servers rendered nature down there, since nobody fell off the sky it was pretty useless to allocate precious resources to it. A simple image would've sufficed. Either way, people rarely looked down, most were efficient worker bees, tirelessly churning out lines and lines of computer code out of their clouds. But the ground looked as real as if he'd peered down the window of a plane.
Balin noticed Chase's lack of attention and added, "It's about that girl of yours."
That managed to tear Chase's eyes off the ground and bring his back to focus. "Girl?" He asked incredulous but knew who Balin was talking about.
"Yeah, that hacker girl."
"What about her?"
"Well I think I know how to find out who she is," he said, adding, "if she's really a she." He tore off another piece of cloud, the size of a tennis ball and toyed around with it, squeezing and stretching it. There they go with that gender thing again, thought Chase.
"How?" Not that Chase hadn't been thinking of ideas, but he wanted to hear to what Balin had to say. There were times when Balin proved able to concoct intelligent plans. Carmichael swears to have witnessed such thing at least once.
"Well, she's a hacker and from what we've seen a good one too," he pressed on the simulated cloud piece with both hands, "so I say, if we wanna catch her in-world, we give her what all hackers want."
Chase smiled, "So what, we give her a bunch of access codes to high-loot dungeons? Or plain simply hand over the password to our guild's bank? Please," He shook his head, refocusing on the picturesque landscape.
"No we don't," said Balin, "But we say we do."
"You've seen the girl Balin, she's good. With what she can do, I'll be surprised if she doesn't figure us out right from the start. You can't trick a hacker like that."
Wanting to be taken seriously, Balin now floated even closer to Chase. "Yes you can but not in the way you're thinking. All we do is spread the word out that there's a bug someplace remote. Carefully. In small-sized hacker chatrooms. Being blunt will only make us transparent so we must proceed with caution and patience. Sooner or later the word will spread and reach her. Hopefully, she bites and when she does the five of us will be there waiting for her."
Balin pushed himself off of Chase and floated a bit back. "I couldn’t care less about this whole business, I'd rather be out raiding those few high-level dungeons we've left," his tone was non-chalant, "but I know how much you've been obsessing over this girl."
Chase said bitterly, "Suppose we do what you say. No matter what, she'll just use her uber-skills and dart off many miles ahead of us fools and then log out from a safe distance,"
"This time," winked Balin, "she won't be the only one with uber-skills."
"Oh come on, even if we reach the top of the leveling ladder in a day there'd be no..." Chase trailed off as Balin kept grinning. Suddenly, he realized what lay at the core of Balin's plan.
"You know," he said, feeling a little betrayed.
"We're a tight group, Chase," said Balin, interpreting the look on his face. "We stick together and we're here to help each other out. No secrets between us."
"So, you're suggesting I use it?"
Balin nodded enthusiastically. Regardless of the consequences he loved adventures, and as Chase quickly realized, Balin regarded the whole affair as nothing more then a high-level incredibly rewarding quest. You had to admire his attitude towards life, thought Chase as he smiled back at him.
"I thought you guys would disapprove," he whispered, casting a furtive glance sideways.
Balin just shrugged contorting his face in a silly grimace to mock Chase's prudence.
"But, I'm not even sure I know how to use it," Chase was honest. He did have a lot of knowledge in client-server mechanics but hacking those protocols was several steps beyond that. That required some street skills.
"Pfff," whistled Balin, "it's nothing five computer pros like us can't handle. Besides," he added more seriously, "if anyone can mess around with Connex protocols it's you. I know the work you did on Cosmonline was different, but the principle remains the same, more or less."
He did have a point there, thought Chase. All the work on the communication relays for that project could finally pay off. He'd been feeling pretty burnt about the service given that it failed almost immediately after launch. Obviously, none of that was Chase's fault, bad marketing and terrible timing were to blame, but that didn't make the process any easier. Having something you've worked on for over a year fail miserably stung quite a bit.
Chase said, "I suppose you're right. But I will need all the help I can get."
Suddenly a rush of cool wind blew over them, one of many built-in procedures meant to remind an idling person that they should be working.
"I better head back." Balin pounced off his cloud-seat with a backwards summersault and flew back to his workspace. "We're a tight group, Chase," he hollered from the distance and was gone.
Chase resumed programming but was now too absent-minded to be efficient so he lay back again, this time looking upwards at the magnificently drawn sky. He kept turning Balin's idea over and over in his mind. Could it work? He'd been thinking along similar lines himself, his original intent being to use the packet-spoofer carefully, in small doses. Mostly to spawn multiple spy-bots who'd scour the World for her. But Balin's idea appeared elegant and simple. It just might be simple enough to do the job. The oldest trick in the book- the famed classic hacker honey pot. Much thought needed to be put into the plan if it was to work, otherwise, they'll end up embarrassing themselves even worse. And what he feared above all was another shameful display of lackluster skill before the girl. He clicked off the programming GUI and brought up the chat menu. "Patch updates can wait a bit longer, need to talk to you about something important first. Msg me when you're done," he typed out to Carmichael.
Together, they'd weave the perfect fly-trap and lure her in it. Then what, he wondered. A little sardonic voice in his head said, "You can't trick her into liking you". He snickered loudly at himself, then pulled up the sign-out menu. Enough work for today, he thought and clicked himself off.
The cloud beneath him dissolved effervescently as he spiraled downwards back to his workroom.