--Chapter Eight: The Tangled Web We Weave, Part Two
The cats stayed outside the firewall for some time after Pants Man had left. Aeris fiddled with the floating keyboard and tried random searches, while Leo further acquainted himself with his new body...
“Check it out, Aeris! I can do a cartwheel!”
Sigh. “I’m so proud of you, now would you stop playing around and help me think? I need to know where to find the computer that hacked into this system...”
“Wouldn’t it leave some sort of trail?” Leo asked while attempting a backflip—and winding up flat on this back as a result.
“Anyone smart enough to hack into this place is smart enough to cover their tracks...”
Leo got up and walked off the pain in his spine. “Well, that’s all I got for ideas, so I guess I’ll just walk around a bit and check this place out, if you don’t mind.”
“Don’t go too far; if I find anything I’ll yell for you.”
“Yeah, like that, only with actual words...” Aeris then stopped typing and said, “Wait...” She turned around. “Leo?”
The gray cat was nowhere to be seen. The firewall gave surprisingly little light to the bleak surroundings, but Leo should have been visible anyway...
She tried again. “LEO?”
This time a soft voice answered. It sounded like an echo. “I’m down here.”
“I don’t know, just follow my voice.”
Aeris had by now picked up on the direction, so she started walking.
“Watch your step,” said Leo, but too late.
Aeris fell right into a hole twice as deep as she was now tall. Feline instinct made her try to land on all fours, but this only succeeded in bruising her knees against a hard surface that cracked when she hit it—well, cracked a little more, because Leo’s weight had already penetrated it.
“I think we found the hack,” said Leo. “It’s a huge tunnel.”
Aeris stood carefully and brushed a few shards off her clothes and fur. “What is this stuff?” she asked.
Leo shrugged. “What would you expect an electronic world to be made out of?”
“Well, silicon...” and then it hit her. “This is hardened sand...”
“Probably made it easy to dig through.” Leo smiled, reveling in his discovery of the hack.
“It doesn’t make sense, though,” said she. “Why wouldn’t the computer on the other end of this connection dig through to the other side of the firewall? And why is the hole still open?”
“Hey, I think I found something else... But I can’t see what it is. It’s long, feels like a tube of some sort... Ooh, there’s something at the end...”
A gush of water flew out at Aeris, washing every grain of sand from her in an instant, not to mention drenching her from head to foot.
Leo turned off the hose and put it back on the ground. “Oops. Sorry...”
Aeris: (grunt) That explains how whoever dug this tunnel got past the firewall... Let’s follow it wherever it leads and hope we don’t run into anyone in the dark. Oh, and one more thing.
Aeris: Mind if I dry myself off real fast?
Leo: Be my guest.
Aeris: (after brief hesitation) Um... Could you turn around? I need to take my shirt off a sec.”
Leo: (squinting one eye) Why would I need to turn around? You never had a shirt in the real world and it didn’t bother you.
Aeris: (unsure) But... I don’t know, it’s just... different now. Please?
Leo: (shrugs and turns around. Camera view to his face.) Fine, but I still can’t see the point. I mean, it’s not like the shirt’s hiding anything but fur. And no offense, but even though Scott made us humanoid, he didn’t exactly give you enough ‘feminine’ humanoid features to warrant ‘hiding’ anything, anyway. In fact, I think you’re as flat as I am—
(Aeris, her shirt slightly drier than Leo’s, drops the hose back to the ground.)
Leo: Hey! What was that for?
Aeris: For not knowing when to keep your mouth shut. (starts walking down the tunnel) Come on.
(They walk, camera view looking at their faces. The area is so dark, soon only the eyes are showing. For a moment, Leo’s eyes disappear as if closed, but in fact, he is taking off his shirt to wring it out. Aeris sighs and looks away when she hears the squish of the water coming off the shirt, but they keep walking. Leo slows down for a second, then catches up with Aeris when she looks back for him. A second squish is heard.)
Aeris: Didn’t you dry your shirt already?
Leo: Well, you got my pants, too...
Aeris: (looks away, angry-eyed) Ew, Leo! That’s just sick!
Leo: Don’t worry, Scott gave us underwear, too.
(Ten seconds later, a third squish is heard. Aeris, still angry, looks Leo straight in the eyes.)
Leo: (feigning innocence) Whaaaaaaaat?
Aeris: Leo, if we survive this godforsaken tunnel to stop Krug’s godforsaken plan somehow, remind me to kill you when we get home.
Leo: Fair enough, I’ll put them back on. (sounds of him putting on the three articles) Sheesh, you act like because we’re humanoid in a simulation, we suddenly have to have human decency laws. Might I remind you, this isn’t even the real world.
Aeris: And you keep acting like this whole thing is a game! Might I remind you, there are people possibly dying right now in Toronto, and we might be Pants Man’s only chance at success!
Aeris: (snaps) Well, what?
Leo: You’re right, I have been acting like this is a game. I was just going to say, if I may, that to Krug, this probably is a game. You know him as well as I do... All he wanted to do last time was “be a good monster.” Tell him how to do that, and he acts like a slave to every command. It’s like he thinks he’s scoring points every time he eats something... or someone, whichever. If we’re going to beat him, we’ll probably have to find out what his end objective to his actions is, and whoever or whatever is commanding him this time. Then we can either stand in his way to reaching that objective—which I don’t recommend—or we can explain to him that he cannot fulfill his ends by current means. I’m just afraid that if we do the latter, Krug may one day slip back into this “rampage mode,” for lack of a better term, and we’d be doomed to repeat this process of explaining the concept of what a “good monster” does, every time this happens.
Aeris: (a little calmer) Wow, that... actually... sort of makes sense. But I don’t think Krug is working for anyone other than himself this time. All the people who used to control him are either dead or in prison.
Leo: Good point. So what would Krug want himself that would make him do this?
Aeris: Hmm... Think back to the night he left the apartment. Didn’t he say something about being King?
Leo: That’s it! Krug wants to be King of Toronto, and he’s asserting rule over the Fleshy Ones!
Aeris: (her eyes move in such a way that it’s clear she is shaking her head) That’s insane, but then, so is Krug... There has to be more to it than that, though...
Before she could finish that thought, the room lit up in pale blue. Both cats stopped walking, squinted, and held a hand up to shade themselves from the light, which came from a central pedestal in what looked to be a large circular room with hundreds of tunnels, each just like their own, scattered around the edge of the space.
Unfortunately, the hose that ran down their tunnel ended at a spigot attached to the pedestal, so there was no indication which of the many tunnels the cats would have to follow next to get to Krug’s link. Upon further inspection, however, the “pedestal” was actually a thin, circular sales desk of some sort.
The cats walked up to this luminescent desk. It was indeed a small circle, with room perhaps for a person to stand within it, but no apparent entrance or exit. A small bell with the words, “Ring for Service” lay atop it.
(Johnny Evilguy talks with Ternaldo in an online Final Fantasy server.)
Johnny: You know very well I’m an N-W-N character, so this out-of-game experience costs you double, my friend.
Ternaldo: Bah, it eez worth eet. So many peoples cheat in thees game, if I do not keep up with them, it eez game over for Ternaldo...
Johnny: So I trust you have the payment?
Ternaldo: Yes, here are ze testes. Zere are two of them, according to payment.
Johnny: Fool! This is not a secure location! Do not say the “T-word” here... Remember: they’re “salty pleasure balls.” (takes a small bag from Ternaldo, pulls out one nut and inspects it) By Jove, this is huge! (inspects the other one, which is identical) These are simply amazing! Who the hell did you defeat to get these?
Ternaldo: (deadpan) De... feat?
Johnny: Surely you must have cut these from a mammoth!
Ternaldo: (looks down and scratches behind his head) Oh. Yeah. Well... Ternaldo make do with what Ternaldo could find...
Johnny: (something beeps in his pocket, so he pulls out his pager with his free hand) Oh, well, I’ve got customers at one of my proxy servers, so I’m afraid I’ve got to run. However, since you’ve paid in full, here’s your cheat code. (puts pager back in pocket and extracts a sheet of paper, giving it to Ternaldo) Put it to good use, friend. And someday you have got to tell me where you found these, okay?
Ternaldo: Well... If you really want to know...
Johnny: Gotta run! (fades out of view)
(Johnny Evilguy reappears behind the counter, in front of the cats.)
Johnny: Well hello there, and welcome to Honest Johnny’s Proxy. Where in the world would you like to go today? We offer complete confidentiality to all our customers, so don’t worry about any nasty hackers tracking you.
Leo: Actually... We’re hackers, and we’re trying to trace the person who broke through the Toronto City Hall firewall.
Johnny: Oh! (not missing a beat) Well in that case, the price for forfeiting the customer’s confidentiality is four million American dollars, or two nuts.
Aeris: Nuts? Like almonds?
Johnny: No... not like almonds.... See, I have a collection of sorts. I also deal in them, as a side business...
Leo: (still oblivious) Ooh! Got any pistachios? I like those... kinda.
Johnny: Erm... Y’know what? I’m pretty sure you two don’t have the means to pay, so I’m sorry for wasting your time. (starts to fade out)
Johnny: (stops fading) Yes?
Aeris: (makes sure the spigot attached to the hose is turned to the Off position, then detaches the hose) We have proof here that this hose leads directly to Toronto City Hall. If you don’t cooperate, then instead of finding the original hacker, we’ll hold you directly accountable. (waves the hose in front of Johnny) It’s very rare to get this type of hard evidence on a proxy server for assisting in illegal activity, you know.
Johnny: (sigh) Fair enough. It’s not that I couldn’t trounce your so-called “evidence,” since that hose could have come from anywhere and was not necessarily my own doing... But due to my... exploits... undue attention from any authorities whatsoever is much appreciated.
Leo: So which tunnel do we go down?
Johnny: That one. (points, and one of the tunnels lights up) The people who came from there were digging quite ferociously, so don’t be surprised if you run into a security system of some sort.
Aeris: (squint) And how do we know you’re telling the truth?
Johnny: (as he fades out) Please, cat-woman! I’m “Honest” Johnny Evilguy! Why would I ever lie to my customers, hm? (is now gone completely)
The cats, not seeing any other option, went down the tunnel suggested. Each wondered what “security” they could possibly come across... But they did not have to wonder long, as it turned out.
After only a few minutes of walking, a flashlight turned on, aimed in their direction. The cats covered their eyes with their paws-turned-hands.
“Well, looks like we have a pair of intruders!” said a voice, high-pitched and nasal. When these words were said, about fifty other flashlights turned on right in front of them.
“Don’t move!” said the voice again. Then, it spoke to the other lights around it. “Take them... to the Master!”
“The Master!” cried fifty impish voices in unison.
Aeris and Leo looked at each other, the same confusion evident on both their faces. A moment later, tiny hands grabbed each of them by the wrists and led them further down the corridor amid their captors’ screeching laughter.