Chapter Six

You may be surprised to learn that I have a conscience.

I didn't believe it either, at first, but I swear it's true. Despite the kind of trash that I usually deal in, I don't like to get my own hands dirty; I'll sell the stuff, sure, but I generally don't use it. I guess it's kind of like a code of ethics, if a guy like me can even have one. I mean, someone is going to make a profit off all the cracks and cheats and hacks out there, and there's no good reason why that someone shouldn't be me... but I seldom use the products myself.

Why not? Well, that's a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, I have no qualms about pirating software or music--I think that wealthy corporations are a little too wealthy already--but on the other hand, if I never do anything illegal, then I never run the risk of getting caught; after all, if I haven't broken the law, then who's gonna be looking for me? That's the advantage to being a middleman: in case anyone comes snooping around and asking questions, I can honestly claim ignorance. I don't know what my clients intend to do with their merchandise; I'm just the distributor. How was I supposed to know that the goods were hot, anyway? That program was cracked when I downloaded it, officer. At the very worst, I couldn't be charged with anything more severe than receiving stolen property, and that's a misdemeanor. I could plead "no contest" and get probation; hell, if I gave the cops the name of my customer, I could probably come away without so much as a fine. So I suppose that I keep myself clean for practical reasons... at least in part.

And the other part? I'm really a nice guy.

Yeah, you heard me. Johnny Niceguy--just try not to say it too loud, okay? I'm actually a halfway decent guy, once you get to know me. I like to help people. That's why I became a merchant in the first place. Customers want to buy smut, and I sell it; the police want the names of my clients, and I provide them. People come to me needing something, and I give it to them. That makes me feel good... as good as a vendor of porn and MP3s can feel, at any rate. I make people happy, and that makes me happy. I'm also pretty pacifistic; I don't like to fight. In fact, I abhor violence.

Unfortunately, the Internet can be a dangerous place, where nice guys like me really do finish last, so violence is sometimes a necessary evil. Every guy on the Net needs a little protection, whether he's cybering a man-pretending-to-be-a-woman or not.

That's where Bitchslap.exe comes in. I'm a fairly adept programmer, which makes me an even better software pirate; most of the hacks and cracks I use to break into databases are of my own design, and the disk I now held in my hot little hands was no exception. Now, for security reasons, I keep my system pretty clean; apart from my aforementioned tools of the trade and a few Evanescence songs, you'd be hard-pressed to find any contraband. (note by Aetre: Sinder, I'm not going to edit out that you wrote "Evanescence" here. I'm simply going to point out to the readers that you wrote it, not me, and they can draw their own conclusions.)

However, I keep all of my custom-coded viruses, worms, and nukes in a hidden folder, to be accessed in case of an emergency. And I think that being held prisoner by a bunch of nutjob "vigilantes" certainly qualifies. When Bitchslap is run, it activates my firewalls and virus scanners, closes down my incoming remote access ports so no one can hack my system, and prepares a delivery system to upload my own viruses to the attacking computer. It also makes the attacked computer play Raffi's "Bananaphone" at full volume on endless loop. But that's just to rub it in.

In cyberspace, this delivery system overwrites my current avatar and appears in the form of a seven-foot-tall robot--a little cliché, I know, but it always seemed to work for the Japanese--and one that was, thanks to my firewall, engulfed in flames. The burning metal frame didn't exactly make for comfortable clothing, but at least I wasn't cold anymore.

My captors didn't waste any time; the moment my defenses appeared, that metallic hand came back into the spotlight, along with its counterpart, this time, and reached toward me. I grabbed both the hands in my own, and with a sharp yank, pulled the attached arms right out of their sockets. The body they belonged to was still hidden in the darkness, but after a moment, I heard a harsh clang and felt the vibration in my feet as it crashed to the floor. I looked at the silvery appendages in my grasp, watching them spark and sputter at the joint. From the floor, I heard a death wail... "Ringringringringringringring..."

I felt something heavy land on my shoulder, and didn't waste time turning to look; I used both of the gleaming limbs I was holding as improvised spears, thrusting them backward and impaling whoever was standing behind me. I spun around just in time to see another pair of those clawing, clutching hands fading out of the light, accompanied by a second resounding clang as their owner toppled over. "Ringringringringringringring..."

I heard a voice shouting, the same one as before, but I couldn't make out what it was saying over the sound of scraping metal and Raffi that continued to "ring" in my ears.

Let us stop a moment to blame Aetre for that pun. Thank you. Now on with the story.

There was a flash of light, and then time stopped.  I couldn't move; my suit was no longer responding to my controls. All of my displays were locked up, and I was frozen in mid-movement. After a few tense moments, my robot itself simply faded away, much like my clothing had done earlier, and left me sitting on the floor, cold, naked, and confused... again.

I couldn't believe it. Somehow, they--whoever they were--had managed to crash Bitchslap. I was speechless.

"Well, well, well," the mystery voice spoke in a mocking tone, "it looks like you're not just another cheater... but a bona fide hacker, at that."  The last word was more spat than it was spoken, filled with a loathing that made me take notice. "Hold him, and make sure he doesn't try anything else.  I must inform the sensei."  A pause, and then the terse order: "Lights!"

The spotlight that illuminated my immediate vicinity seemed to explode in every direction at once, blinding me and making me lift a hand to shield my eyes; it was promptly and painfully wrenched behind me, both my arms held in a cool, steel grip that could have only belonged to a spybot. I rapidly blinked my eyes, squinting around in vain to try and get my bearings, but I was unaccustomed to being without my cloak and cowl, and it took a minute for my eyes to properly adjust to the newfound light.

I discovered three things. First and foremost, I apparently wasn't the only one who had a fondness for giant robots.

You'd think that a spybot would be fairly small; ideally, any machine built for spying should be compact and stealthy, like an X10 camera. That certainly wasn't the case here: the spybots were enormous, easily as big as my own robot had been before it vanished. They had what I thought was a clumsy-looking design, hard-edged and bulky, as if a child had constructed them out of Lego blocks. They were silver in hue, covered in a chrome plating that was almost too shiny. Their squat, square-shaped heads all possessed slanted, angry-looking eyes that gave them a comical appearance, and reminded me of the 'bots I had seen in that old arcade game, Two Must Fall. One of the spybots held me fast... the others were just milling around the warehouse, seemingly awaiting orders.

That was the second thing: I was located in what was, by all appearances, a warehouse, and a rather empty one. I had been in plenty of online storage spaces before--places like these were usually where I went to conduct private meetings and pick up merchandise--but this one was pretty barren. There were no crates, no boxes, no nothing. The whole building was empty, except for all the ninjas.

Oh yeah, that was the last thing. There were ninjas. Lots of them, all dressed in black jumpsuits and hoods. They were everywhere: clashing swords on the warehouse floor, climbing ropes that hung from the rafters, leaping along the rails of the maintenance catwalks. Two of them stood apart from the others. They were both a short distance from me, their backs turned. One of them had his head tilted back, watching a large monitor descend from the ceiling; the other was at his side, operating what were probably the controls for the monitor itself, a computer console jutting upward from the floor in front of him. That and the huge, flat screen that was being lowered from above were the only real pieces of equipment in the structure.

Just to clarify: I was being held captive by an army of ninjas. Ninjas who used the Internet. And who had giant robots.

I swear, some days it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.

"All right," I began, deciding to give diplomacy another try, "now will you tell me where we are?"

The ninja watching the monitor glanced over his shoulder at me. He sighed, and when he spoke I could tell that he was the same person who had addressed me before. "If you must know, hacker," he said, with as much contempt as the first time, "you are in the lair of my clan."

"Really," I said. "You'll have to forgive me, I keep getting my cyberninja clans mixed up. Which one do you belong to again?"

"Insolent dog!" he snapped, turning around to face me. "You are a prisoner of the honorable Clan Of Cheater-Killers, and you will show some respect!"

"Never heard of you," I muttered. "Hey, wait a minute..."  I blinked. "Clan Of Cheater-Killers... I'm being held prisoner by a bunch of guys dressed in tights who call themselves COCK?"

I couldn't see the guy's face under the hood he wore, but I heard his voice falter. "Be silent, cheater!"

"What the hell kind of name for an online clan is COCK? Were all the good acronyms on your server already taken?"

"The name of our clan is sacred!  It has been handed down by our venerable ancestors for generations! You will not speak it!"

"Buddy, I hate to break it to you, but I sell porn for a living, and believe me, that word is anything but sacred.  Which one of your ancestors had the bright idea to name your clan after a part of the body that people like me buy special soap for?"

"Shut your mouth, hacker scum!" he demanded.

"I suppose it is kind of clever, in an immature, college-humor kind of way. Do you guys throw smoke bombs, or do you just call those BALLS?"

Just then, another ninja ran in the room and said, "Sir! Our shipment of CUNTS is in, but the PUSSY is having some lag."

The ninja in front of me sighed. "Fine, fine. Can't you see I'm busy right now?"

"Why would a COCK be too busy for a little pussy?" I asked. "Or does your katana swing the other way, as they say?"

"Insolent cur!" he shouted. He took a step toward me and drew his sword--the one with the blade--from its sheath. "If you cannot hold your tongue, then I shall cut it out!"

Luckily for me, he never got the chance. At that moment, the big screen finally completed its descent, locking into place with an audible click. The display flickered on, and I saw the vague outline of a black silhouette against a bright blue background. "Report!" the shadowy figure ordered.

The voice was feminine, if somewhat distorted, but it was also strong, and commanded instant respect in the thug who was advancing on me. He spun around where he stood, and fairly shook in his little ninja booties as he addressed the screen. "S-S-Sensei," he stammered. "We have captured a cheater."

"Indeed," the shadow replied. "And just why did you believe this news was so important as to merit interrupting my personal affairs, hmm?"

She sounded annoyed, and the ninja knew it. He swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat, and continued. "Because he is also a hacker, sensei. He destroyed two of our spybots before we were able to subdue him."

That seemed to catch her interest. "Is that so? Bring him here."

The bot that had hold of me suddenly shoved me forward, making me stumble as I walked. I tried to struggle, but its grip was tighter than Major Payne's leather thong. It forced me down on my knees in front of the monitor, and I looked up at the screen with a defiant sneer. "I want to lodge a complaint," I said. "The service here is terrible.  I've been here almost ten minutes and a waitress hasn't seated me yet."

While I wasn't really expecting it, the figure on the monitor actually seemed startled by my comments. "Could it be?" She bowed her head—I can only assume that she was trying to get a closer look at me—and then lifted it back up, speaking in an amused chuckle. "It is!  Why, Johnny Evilguy. This is a pleasant surprise. It is an honor to finally meet you."

That unnerved me; I made a point never to let anyone see me without my cloak on, so how was she able to recognize me? As I watched her, I couldn't be sure--her image was being run through some kind of filter that made it difficult to see--but it looked like she briefly turned to one side, and was typing on a keyboard. "Do I know you, lady?"

"Oh, you don't know me, Johnny, but I most certainly know you. Better than you could ever imagine, in fact. Your reputation precedes you. It was you who crashed the Gibson supercomputer a few years ago, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember... though to be honest, I was kind of hoping that everyone else had forgotten about that by now."

"Come, come, there's no need to be modest. You are fully deserving of all the praise that you receive."

"I'm flattered, but I'm afraid you still have the advantage over me. You obviously know me well, but I still have no idea who you are." I made the effort to stand up, and was surprised when the spybot let me do it. "So what should I call you? The Queen of Cock?"

She actually laughed. "You really are as sharp-witted as they say! But you are right, I've been terribly rude. You may call me Bluescreen."

"How original," I deadpanned. "And just where the hell am I, again?"

"You are quite safe, Johnny, I assure you. I would never harm such an esteemed guest as yourself. I wish to apologize for your earlier mistreatment; my henchmen can sometimes be a little overzealous in their duties, and good lackeys are so hard to find these days." She made a wide, sweeping gesture with her arms, as if she was in the same room that I was. "Welcome to the headquarters for the Clan Of Cheater-Killers."

"Cock central," I summarized. "I know I'm gonna regret asking this, but... why COCK?"

"Bob," she said, gesturing to my old buddy, "Please explain the name of our organization to Mr. Evilguy."

Bob the Ninja stepped forward in military fashion--for a second, I thought he was going to salute me--and spoke in a loud, clear, well-rehearsed tone of voice. "The soldiers of COCK stand at attention for our sensei, tall and proud! Our determination is stiff and unyielding! We are as sturdy as shafts of bamboo wood and as hard as spires of rock! We are pillars of strength, towers of resolve! Our discipline is rigid, our fists are solid, and our hearts throb with--"

I was right; I did regret it. "Okay, okay, I get the point!" I said. I glanced about myself to get another, more comprehensive look at my surroundings, and added, "So your HQ is an empty warehouse? My office has better décor than this place."

"Forgive me, I spoke in haste." I couldn't help but notice that she was an awfully courteous hostess for someone who had her own private army. "This is an older facility. We are currently in the process of moving our files to a new server that is better suited to our needs. In the meantime, this IP address is being used to conduct training exercises."

"Training for what, the Ninja Olympics?"

She chuckled. "Nothing so mundane as that, Johnny. Tell me... what do you know about cheaters?"

"You mean other than the fact that they cheat? Not much."

"Mmm. They are the bane of the Internet, lowlife thugs with no respect for law and order."

"And I suppose kidnappers like you are fine, upstanding citizens?" I asked.

"Oh Johnny, you wound me with such hurtful words. You have not been abducted; as I said, you are a guest here, and will be released in due time. Until then, I suggest that you enjoy our hospitality." Even though I couldn't see her face, I was certain she was smirking at me. "But I digress. Cheaters have ruined the Internet gaming experience. A gamer can no longer play online without encountering duplicated items, or 'money' maps, or other such shameful disgraces."

"Wait, wait. I think I understand now. You got Zerg rushed, didn't you?"

"That's none of your business, Johnny. What makes these cheaters believe that they are superior to the rest of us mere mortals? What gives them the right? Why should we be made to suffer when we only wish to play honestly, and fairly, as the game was designed to be?"

"Oh, please," I said, rolling my eyes. "You make it sound like cheaters are evil. Look, toots, despite what you may think, games weren't designed to be played fairly; they were designed so people would cheat. That's why the creators build cheat codes and secret passwords into the programming, so players can have fun with them!"

"Don't delude yourself, Johnny," she said. "Any programmer who would deliberately include a way to cheat is a traitor to the gaming industry... and so are you."

Once again, she made me blink. "What are you talking about? I'm not a cheater."

"Indeed. You are worse than a cheater," she stated. "You are a merchant of cheats and hacks, peddling your wares--or shall I say, your 'warez'--to whoever can afford them. Do you really think that you are any better than your customers? Is a drug dealer any better than the addicts who buy his poison? No, if anything, he is worse; he enables their addiction, allowing them to sink further and further into depravity. And so it is with you, Johnny. People like you are those who make cheating possible in the first place. Without you to encourage and entice them, many otherwise law-abiding gamers would never be lured by the temptation to cheat at all... and the Internet would be a much better place."

"I see. So you don't just think I'm worse than cheaters... you think I'm the Devil. Whatever." I shrugged my shoulders; she didn't say anything to me that I hadn't already heard from my conscience. "The bottom line is that there will always be cheats, and therefore, there will always be cheaters. It's a fact of life. You should mellow out and learn to live with it, like I did."

"I'm afraid that you are incorrect, Johnny," she said. I didn't like the tone of her voice; I could tell that she knew something I didn't. "Cheating was a fact of life... but not anymore."

I narrowed my eyes. "What do you mean?"

"Cheaters are a disease, Johnny. They are a plague upon gaming, and upon the Internet at large. A cancerous growth that must be removed. And I have the tool with which to do it. In fact, I believe you may have heard of it? QueenMe.exe?"

"The queen with the virus on it," I said. "What do you intend to do, teach all the cheaters how to play chess?"

"Oh, no... We have plans far greater than that. Right now, in gaming circles, word is just starting to get out that this executable is a cheat for Ragnarok... and for Warcraft... and for several other games. Online chess was just my personal touch on the matter."

I milled it over in my head, but the whole thing made less sense than a Lyndon LaRouche speech. The only thing I was able to gather was that this woman wanted information from me, just like any legitimate cop would want information. And if she had to give me a sermon on why she was right to demand this information from me, then that meant she was making a crucial mistake: giving up too much information herself. This I could take advantage of... But how?