On my way back from what used to be Jeeves’s hideout, I did some thinking. Normally, I try not to think when I can avoid it; thinking too much can be dangerous, and usually results in mistakes like censorship, nuclear weapons, and the creation of the Internet. And it makes my head hurt. However, the events of the last hour were decidedly unusual--even for my line of work--so I decided that in this case, some potentially hazardous thought might be worth the risk.
Kids, don't try this at home.
As I walked, I looked at the hack in my grasp and turned it over in my hand. At first glance, it appeared to be just what its name claimed: QueenMe.exe, a hack that had a white chess queen for an icon.According to the ReadMe.txt, the hack was for Chess Amateur Online, and it allowed the pawns of the player using it to move an unlimited number of spaces in any direction, essentially turning them into queens. It was a little-known program in itself and a pretty blatant cheat, which made me wonder just why the pink cat wanted it so badly in the first place. But like I said, I try not to think about things like that; I learned not to ask questions about my customers’ merchandise a long, long time ago... It involved lemurs, midgets, and sodomy... You really don't want to know the rest.
The item in question wasn’t infected with anything; I was sure of that. I’d run it through every virus scanner and spyware sniffer on my system and had come up empty. That begged the question: just what the hell had happened to Jeeves and that landfill he called an office? I knew that pirate servers were prone to crashing; they were inherently unstable, liable to go down at a moment’s notice due to being so bogged down by the nonstop traffic of porn, warez, and MP3s. I kept telling myself that was a reasonable explanation for everything, but for some reason, my inner voice didn’t sound very convincing. I had seen server crashes before, but none of them had ever started with glitches like that... and the shit began hitting the fan mere seconds after Jeeves retrieved the hack for me. I knew that I just wasn’t lucky enough for that to be mere coincidence.
I shook my head and sighed. I had secured the desired goods, as promised, and that was all that mattered. My reputation--to say nothing of my fee--would remain intact. Besides, I had more important things to worry about: I had to find “General Payne” or whatever Aeris had called him before I brought her the hack. Now, I was certainly in no hurry to go looking for that deviant, but the pink cat had sent him to keep an eye on me, and I had a feeling that she would be... unhappy if I came back without him in tow.
And so I found myself once again creeping through the gay porn district of this little section of cyberspace and trying to be subtle about it. I’m not a homophobe, but I know from experience what could happen to a person who lets down his guard--or his pants--in this part of the Net. The cardinal rule of the neighborhood is that you never, ever bent over, not if you know what is good for you. You don’t pick up litter or loose change, and if you drop something, then you just keep right on walking.
Maybe that's why the streets were so filthy here; the ground was strewn with used condom wrappers and discarded containers of KY Jelly. I kept my eyes on the scattered garbage and tried my best not to accidentally look at any of the raunchy billboards that were clustered throughout the area. Occasionally, I would risk a glance down an alleyway or through a doorway while searching for the Sarge; in the meantime, I discreetly tucked the chess piece into the breast pocket of my dress.
Wait... Breast pocket? ...Of my dress?
I looked down at myself and found that the color of my robes had inexplicably changed to a hot neon pink, as pink as the fur of the cat who had hired me. A frilly tutu fit for a ballerina had been added to my waist, and my shoes had been replaced by a pair of slippers that suddenly felt very uncomfortable. My gloves--also pink--were now much longer, reaching all the way to my elbows. I even held a matching magic wand with a gold star on the end in my free hand, although I was at a total loss to explain how it got there. And to top it all off, literally, I could feel something sitting atop my head, which upon examination in the reflection off a nearby Silver Stuart's Sensual Bedroom Ceiling Mirrors Shoppe display window, was a golden crown with pink jewels.
I couldn’t help myself.
“What the FUCK?!” I screamed. So much for being subtle.
For a moment, I stood stiffer than a ten-year-old in Human Development class. Then I threw the wand to the ground, shattering the star into a million pieces, and I yanked the white queen back out of my pocket. I stared at it, then at myself, then back at the chess piece again.
It had to be the hack. It had to be. I didn’t have any avatars even remotely like this Sugarplum Fairy anywhere on my hard drive, and even the most radical file corruption wouldn’t cause this kind of error; the avatar would sooner fail to load than it would dress me up like a damned figure skater. The hack must’ve swapped my normal image file for one that was either coded within the program itself or located somewhere online... but how? This was serious spyware behavior, but my scans hadn’t picked up anything, and my firewalls hadn’t sent up any alarms, and--
That sound promptly derailed my train of thought. I spun around where I stood, tilted my head back, and gaped.
He was a giant of a man, one who stood at least a full head taller than I did. He was built like a gorilla and clad in a leather outfit that strained to hold his bulging, oversized muscles. Everything was leather: his vest, his thong, his gloves, his boots, and the mask upon his face. A floppy green beret was draped atop his head, looking like it had been added to the outfit as an afterthought.
And I swear to you, the zipper that ran across his face in place of his lips was actually smiling at me.
I realized I was backing away from him, involuntarily, until my back pressed against the wall of one of the surrounding buildings. He kept pace, approaching me with long strides, reaching forward with a gloved, outstretched hand...
“Hold it, Frankenstein!” I snapped. “Unless you want me to tell your mistress that you’ve been misbehaving!”
It wasn’t until I spoke the words that I realized the behemoth might actually like to be punished, but I seemed to have gotten his attention. His hand faltered for a moment before falling to his side, and he came no closer to me, although I could still hear a low “mrrrr” rumble from somewhere within his massive chest. At least I wasn’t the only one who was worried about getting Aeris angry... well, angrier.
“That’s better,” I said, hoping that I didn’t sound as nervous as I felt. “I’ll assume that you have some way of getting in touch with her. Let her know that I’ve got her package, and tell her that if she wants it delivered, she’ll have to meet me back at my office.”
The Goliath didn’t give me any acknowledgment; he didn’t nod his head or give me so much as a “mrrrr” in reply. He simply strode toward one of the many digital kiosks that lined the street in place of normal telephone booths.
The last sounds I heard as I ran toward home were those of the keyboard and his busily typing fingers.
(Aeris and Leo, in humanoid form and dressed in their usual clothing, are seated in a Victorian-era study. The scene is reminiscent of something out of “Masterpiece Theater”, with high, full bookshelves and a crackling fireplace, which is the only source of sound. The two cats are seated at a round coffee table atop which rests a chessboard. Aeris is white again, Leo is black... and from the look of things, Aeris is losing, with far fewer remaining pieces than Leo. She is hunched over the board, anxiously pondering her move, running a hand through her hair; Leo is much more relaxed, his eyes idly wandering over the many books, or looking thoughtfully into the fire. However, his gaze often settles upon Aeris herself, who eventually growls at him in agitation.)
Aeris: Stop that.
Leo: I didn’t say anything.
Aeris: No, but you’re staring a hole right through me. It’s distracting.
(Leo appears slightly crestfallen; his ears splay back, and he lowers his eyes to his lap.)
Leo: Sorry. (Grabs a book off the shelf next to him--War and Peace--and starts reading it upside down.)
(After some time, Aeris finally makes her move, advancing a pawn toward Leo’s front lines. Without hesitation, Leo swiftly leans forward, captures the pawn with a knight, and settles back into his seat. Aeris stares mutely at what has just transpired, then mutters.)
Aeris: How do you do that, Leo?
Leo: Mmm? Do what?
Aeris: Do that. (She points at the board.) How do you do in ten seconds what took me ten minutes to decide?
Leo: (shrug) The game’s really not that difficult, Aeris. All you have to do is follow the rules. That’s all I do.
Aeris: (sarcastically) Oh, is that all? What a brilliant strategy. Thank you, Mr. Kasparov.
(Aeris sighs and slumps in her seat. As she does so, an instant messaging window pops up before her, accompanied by the sound of a bell. She sits upright, ears perked, and begins to read it; Leo leans forward, but the back of the window is facing him, so he cannot see what is written.)
Leo: What’s that? Does someone else want to use the room?
(Aeris touches the IM window, closing it, and smiles.)
Aeris: Nope, but I’m afraid I need to go anyway. Someone is expecting me.
(Aeris rises from her seat and snaps her fingers. The air around her shimmers, and her clothing shifts into the same dress and high-heels ensemble she wore earlier. Leo arches an eyebrow.)
Leo: “Expecting” you? In that? What, do you have a date, or something?
(Aeris snorts, dismissing the notion. However, a small, mischievous smile appears on her lips.)
Aeris: Hmph. Not that it’s any of your business, but what if I do have a date, Leo? What’s it to you, hmm?
Leo: (his jaw slacks, and he stammers in reply) I... well... that is, uh...
(Aeris’s smile broadens, and she leans over the coffee table.)
Aeris: Why, Leo Leonardo... you’re not jealous, are you?
(Leo looks taken aback, but he merely puts down the book, folds his arms across his chest, and scowls.)
Leo: (gruffly) No. Of course not. Why would I be?
Aeris: Mmm, good. Then you won’t mind if I go out for a while. (She straightens her posture.) I’ll be back later. Don’t wait up for me, okay?
Leo: Wait! (he gestures to the chessboard) What about our game?
(Aeris looks down upon the chessboard with a grimace. Sighing, she reaches out and tilts her king over in forfeit.)
Aeris: (muttering) Fuck it. You would have won again, anyway.
(Without another word, Aeris snaps her fingers once more, and vanishes. The bewildered Leo, left behind, picks up the white king from the board, holding it in his hand and looking at it for a moment, pondering.)
Leo: (sigh) No fun in it if the opponent gives up... (widening eyes as he looks at the board again) Hey... Wait a minute! (He puts the king back on the board and moves Aeris's rook to his back row.) Check, mate in two! Wow. Didn’t see that one coming...
I was ready to log off when she finally showed up. I’m an impatient guy, so being kept waiting is bad enough, but waiting around in front of my shop in a frilly pink dress certainly wasn’t helping matters.
“It’s about time you got here,” I said.
“Sorry about that, Johnny. You caught me in the middle of something.” She looked me up and down; I could tell from the expression on her face that she was curious about my change of wardrobe. “Hmm. I’ve gotta say, Johnny. Pink doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me, and... actually, it looks good on you, too. I think I’d like to have the name of your tailor.”
She sported a toothy kind of smile that looked like she’d gobbled up a canary before she came to see me. And for all I knew, she had.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” I grumbled.
“So. Do you have what I wanted?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but I’ve gotta warn you, I think your file could be infected with a virus. All my scans came up clean, but it still managed to do this to me, and it might’ve crashed a server earlier today, so I’d be careful with it if I were you.”
Her green eyes narrowed. “A virus dressed you up like a girl? Why?”
I shrugged. “It ‘queened me.’ It’s probably somebody’s idea of a practical joke, but I’m not laughing.”
“That’s too bad, ’cause I am,” she said, chuckling. “You do good work, Johnny. I’m glad to see that I could rely on you.” She held out her hand toward me, palm upturned. “I’ll be taking the hack now.”
“Ah ah ah,” I chided her, wagging a finger. “This ain’t a charity, sweetheart. You have my fee, I hope?”
Her eyes flashed when I said “sweetheart”, and I heard a growl escape from her throat, but she said nothing. She just reached into her purse, pulled out a burlap sack, and tossed it to me. “Lucky for me you work for peanuts--or at least, some kind of nuts, eh Johnny?”
“Very funny,” I murmured. Although... they were kind of salty, now that I thought about it. “I’m tempted to charge you double, considering all the trouble I went through to get this thing.”
“Just you try it,” she hissed, “and I’ll show you my personal, hands-on rendition of ‘The Nutcracker Suite.’”
I winced. “Relax, I was kidding.” I sighed. “Some dames just can’t take a joke.” I dipped a hand into the nutsack to fetch an appetizer.
I was shocked when the sack slipped right through my fingers and spilled its precious contents upon the ground. Imagine my surprise when I looked down only to discover that my fingers were no longer there.
My hands were gone. As were my feet, and most of my robes, which had now darkened from pink to their customary black. They hadn’t vanished entirely, but flickered in and out of existence like static on a television set. I suppose that I was taking this much better than I should have, but when compared to everything else that had happened to me that day, it honestly didn’t seem that strange.
I was however startled by an instant messaging window that popped up in my face. It contained a single, solitary word, the last thing that I remember seeing: