I’m a bit early with this, tonight.
And here’s the new chapter:
Someone was prowling around the house. Nancy hid in the bedroom, with its curtains closed. She had returned after a few hours at the library, first cautiously, but when she saw no cars around the place, more boldly. If she kept a low profile and escaped every time a car stopped, she’d probably be fine. Except that right now, she was caught in the house. She’d have to hope for an unattended moment and slip out of a door – front, back, it didn’t matter. And take the Dell and external drive with her.
She hoped the police would go easy on Mike, Jen and Ben. After all there was nothing Mike had committed since their last conviction that could in any way be proved. Sure, he’d nicked food and stuff from stores, and she had no idea where he’d ‘found’ that video card for Ben’s computer. But his main efforts had been entirely on creating that game; a project that was meant to boost them all into a legal lifestyle.
There was another thing that weighed on her. She was worried how Nadisda was holding up, right in the stronghold of the enemy. She had tried to find her in the game a few times this morning; but clearly the fairy was not asleep, and was caught in the real world. Maybe she’d have to help her with a jailbreak too.
“Fairy!” came the bright voice of a small child. “Come out, fairy! We know you’re here!”
She peered through the curtains, trying to see who was stalking around the house.
Only a small boy with his mother.
Nancy considered. If she were to help Mike in any way and get them all back out of jail, she’d have to make contact with the outside world. She had thought of getting at least one of the net-worthy laptops to some repair place, having some wiz resurrect it, and reloading the game properly online, making contact with the betas and rallying their support. But without Mike there to direct their play and overwrite the code as needed, she doubted that she’d cope. She’d be hunted down so fast by that scumbag in New York.
She needed to get a message to Mike. He’d know what to do. But she couldn’t do it herself, because she’d just be arrested too.
Was there any way in which she could persuade this kid here to drop off a message at the police station for a jailbird?
They hadn’t called her, though she knew that each of them had the right to one call. She suspected that Mike didn’t want to expose her and make her vulnerable to be tracked down. Still she needed to speak to him!
Well, perhaps she could charm this woman here into giving Mike a message. It was a risk. But she had to take it. She slipped out of the back door, rounded the house and approached the mother and son from the garden.
“Are you the fairy?” asked the little boy, running towards her. “You don’t dress like a fairy! Where are your wings?”
Act like a fairy, she thought and dropped to her knees to get to eye-level with him.
“You can only see them in moments when you really, really believe,” she said with a mysterious smile. And she glanced up at the mother, and got back to her feet, surprised.
That woman was looking at her as though she, too, believed Nancy were a fairy!
“Your secret is safe with us,” said the woman. “I’m Angela, and this is Danny. We saw you. You can tell us. Are those wings electronic?”
Nancy smiled and shook her head.
“I don’t know what you saw, lady,” she said.
“We were looking through a telescope and saw you fly in from the hills over there,” Angela pointed, “and we saw you land here, at the door. It was impressive, it looked like real fairy wings, so whatever it is you have here…”
“There is nothing electronic, I can promise you,” said Nancy.
“Mom, she’s just an ordinary girl!” said Danny, disappointed.
“I saw her fold her wings away, and they disappeared,” replied Angela. “That means, you must be some sort of mutant, right, girl?”
“It’s Nancy,” Nancy introduced herself.
“Can’t you open your wings for us just once, please?” begged Angela. “For Danny. You know, he lost his father last year, and every little bit of hope and belief I can give him, is a good thing.”
Nancy shrugged. “Sorry, lady, I really don’t know what you saw. Could it have been a trick of the light?”
Angela shook her head. “I definitely saw a fairy. So did Danny. We can’t both be crazy.”
Nancy shrugged again. “Actually, if you want to help me, I’d be very thankful.” She nodded at Danny. “There’s a wonderful grove around the back,” she said. “And he’s also welcome to take some of the fruit.”
“Yay!” shouted Danny and tore around to the back of the garden with a lot of noise.
“Maybe we can come to an agreement,” said Angela. “I help you with – whatever it is you said, and you agree to show your wings to Danny?”
“There’s a problem,” said Nancy, thinking very fast. The cooperation of this woman was worth gold. Was there a way of getting it without lying and pretending to be a fairy?
They had spotted Nadisda, this was pretty clear to her. But Nadisda was gone. Flew right into the lion’s den in New York, thought Nancy uneasily. Well, at least she was alive!
It all hinged on Mike. She needed to get to him, break him out of jail come what may. The first step was to send him a message. She thought frantically, while Angela studied her intently.
“Let’s sit down,” she invited, motioning to the steps up to the veranda. “This is complicated.”
They both sat down, Angela on the steps and Nancy on the low red wall flanking them.
“I’m no fairy,” she began.
“But -” protested Angela, but Nancy held up a hand.
“Still, what you saw was real,” she confirmed. “It wasn’t me, though. And the whole thing hinges on a friend of mine, and here is the problem – he’s…” Could she trust this woman? “He’s been locked up on false charges.”
“He’s in jail?” asked Angela, taken aback.
Nancy nodded. “They came and raided us and locked him and our other two friends up. Maybe they wanted to steal the fairy,” she fuelled Angela’s fire.
“So the state is already onto you kids!” said Angela in disgust. “You find an alien, and instantly the CIA…”
Nancy shrugged. “It’s how it goes. Would you do me a favour please? I only got away by luck. I can’t go and contact him. Can you give him a message from me? If we can get him and the others cleared, he can probably get the fairy back.”
“You mean, you guys had a real alien…”
Nancy nodded gravely. “You saw her. It was supposed to be a secret, but she got out somehow.”
“But where is she now?”
“Only Mike can find her,” said Nancy. “If he can. We are all extremely worried about her, but now because of the cops I can’t even try to go search for her.”
“I’ll bring him your message,” said Angela indignantly. “I’ll organize him a lawyer, too! And I’ll take it to the newspapers! Time the CIA got exposed in their nasty little games!”
Newspapers? Hell, no, thought Nancy. Please not!
“If you contact the newspapers, the CIA will be here in no time flash,” she pointed out. “Rather please help me get a message to Mike.”
“This is here at the police station down at the corner?” asked Angela.
“Tell me your message,” said the woman. “I’ll give it to him.”
“Wait here, I’ll bring some paper,” said Nancy. “He must be able to give me a message back. Please just ask him what he needs. That is the only thing. I don’t know what else to do for them all. He must write the answer down for me or draw it.”
“Sure I’ll do that,” said Angela and waited for Nancy to fetch a pen and paper out of the house.
“Please tell him from Nancy that I’m okay,” said the Goth girl, handing them over to her. Angela called for Danny and set out for the local jail.
Nancy went back into the house, stocked her backpack with food, packed the Dell and the hard-drive and got ready to bolt.
The crazy spinning stopped; reality gained traction. The apartment in New York materialized around Connor and Nadisda through a haze of blue light. Morning sun still poured in through the window. Connor touched the gossamer blue fairy wings that had wrapped themselves around them both. They withdrew in shock.
“That’s real?” he asked in wonder. “You actually have wings?”
“You know I do,” replied Nadisda. “You know it from the game.”
“And they can actually teleport,” added Connor in amazement. “You really are a being from the Magic Realms?”
She folded her wings away, self-conscious.
“You have me caught in one tangled web,” said Connor softly, touching her face. “Wish I didn’t have to go to work today.”
“But we must,” said Nadisda urgently. “You have to get Mike and his team free!”
He shook his head sadly as he went to retrieve his bullet-proof vest. Work was work, after all. “I don’t know how, Nadee.”
“At least you have to try!”
He glanced at her, and suddenly there was that flinty hardness in his eyes.
“And I don’t know if I want to,” he added impatiently. “In this world, Nickells is a cyber-criminal, Nadee. He has stolen and looted. I’ve spent months tracking him down! In this world we have laws, and I’m there to make them work.”
The despair in her voice went like a shard through him. He came back to her, caught her face in his hands and kissed her gently.
“I’ll do my best,” he promised against his better wisdom. A promise he knew he couldn’t keep, even if he’d wanted to. “But you must promise you won’t leave me.”
“You’ll stay here and wait for me?”
She nodded once more. “You too have secrets,” she reminded him darkly.
More secrets than she could guess! “Right. I’ll see you after work, Nadee. Please – can you trust me?”
She nodded again. That wordless sorrow in those opalescent eyes… he very nearly didn’t leave. When he did, he felt as though he were floating.
Nadisda went into the kitchenette, found the drinks cupboard and turned all the whiskey and brandy bottles into dandelion tea. And then she idly returned to his study, to investigate his computer.
Angela talked to the police chief while Danny, an inconspicuous child, walked up to the holding cell where all three gamers were locked up.
“I saw your fairy,” he said innocently. “She said I must ask you what you need.”
Mike came to the bars and went down to eye-level with the young child.
“Anything on which I can program,” he said. “Really, anything with a screen and buttons.”
“I have a McDonalds toy,” said Danny and handed a small toy wristwatch to Mike. It did have a screen… and two buttons, one that programmed the time and the other that lit up a tiny light…
“Hmm, I can’t really use this,” said the hacker. “It doesn’t really have enough buttons… a cellphone or a DS or PSP will do it.”
“Got a DS Nintendo,” said Danny and pulled it out of his pocket, handing it to Mike.
“Cool! That’s a great machine,” said Mike as he paged to the programming screens within seconds. “Say, can you go online with this?”
“Sure!” Danny pressed a little button on the side of the DS, and it connected to the internet.
“Give me a minute,” said Mike as he started pressing away on the limited buttons of the DS at supersonic speed.
Nadisda felt a tingling sensation in her brain. It felt similar to… when Mike had reprogrammed her with memories! She listened into herself. Was he removing this dreadful curse? Nothing happened about the way she felt about Connor – enslaved, unable to escape – but she suddenly realized she had programming skills.
“Mike, you genius!” she whispered to herself. This was glorious! She could make alterations to her world, add things that weren’t there before, into the actual structure, not just by ordinary magic… she could dig into other games and make programming changes! She could hack into real-world systems… Oh glory, what a time she’d have of it! Could she program changes into the fabric of the real world? Would it turn out that this world was based on some sort of arcane programming too?
But that meant that she could… delete the curse herself! Her thoughts went to Connor and her heart contracted. No. Whatever the reason, that curse had chosen its own course; she wanted to see where it led… bull dung, she didn’t want to lose Connor! The memory of his kisses lingered. It occurred to her that she’d have to make a choice – for Connor, or for Mike. They were enemies, not only in the game, but bitter rivals in the Real World too. And she had chosen Mike’s side, long ago, and she was sticking by that. It was right that way, even if he was the misguided teenage hacker who had – but wouldn’t anymore – dug in other people’s pockets. Mike was her responsibility. She was righting his ethics and teaching him better ways; she felt very protective over the young game creator.
But still, she didn’t want to lose Connor! What she had found there, between them, was entirely something else… so raw, so rare, so totally elemental… she wasn’t even aware of the white starflowers that were pushing up through the carpet.
Wait! By now her metal plant minions had fixed both the exploded power point and the plug. She plugged in the computer and switched it on. It booted up without a hitch; the download was stuck mid-way, with a warning message not to go offline. She clicked it away. The download had failed.
She connected to the net and hacked out Connor’s password into the police network. It was easy, she only had to think about him… “Everrealms”. Correct. And she accessed the files on Mike, Jen, Ben and Nancy and deleted them all from the network. Then she opened Connor’s email program and jumped into it, sending herself to the police office in Third Ave, Detroit. Not realizing that she was leaving a tangled grove of black roses behind in Connor’s apartment.
Police Chief Henderson blinked as another young lady walked into his police station to plead on behalf of the newly convicted cyber-criminals. She argued that the tip-off had been a ploy, that there were no genuine charges, and that the entire history of Nickells and co was a confabulation by a cyber-rival.
Henderson shook his head at her fervour but opened the files on the system to show her that the charges were in no way invented – and failed to find the files.
A faint blue mist seeped over the police station. Henderson started doubting himself. Had he actually seen those files, or had he seen a clever construct by another cyber-thug? But wait, it had been a tip-off straight from Connor McNaught… or had it? He was confused now. Connor’s voice had sounded odd, on the phone. Maybe it hadn’t been him? What on Earth? He peered at the absence of files. Connor wouldn’t leave loose ends like that. The cyber-rival story began to sound much more likely. He’d been duped.
Another few minutes, and he unlocked the cells of Mike, Ben and Jen, apologizing to them about the misunderstanding.
“So, son, do you still want to press on with those other charges, against the policeman in New York?” he asked Mike.
“Definitely,” said Mike angrily. “He had us arrested under false charges, and he’s stolen my game and wrecked our computers! Piracy and wilful damages. And abuse of his position as police officer.”
Nadisda gaped. She hadn’t expected this.
“You’re suing Connor?”
“That pig’s going to rot in jail,” spat Mike, then looked up sheepishly at Henderson. “No offence, sir. We only call officers ‘pigs’ if they break the law.”
Henderson laughed. “I know you don’t, you little louse! Now go home! Keep on the straight and narrow, kids! Sorry about the scare and the uncomfortable night.”
“All forgiven,” trilled Jen before her brother could utter anything more damaging. “Thank you, officer!” And she herded the boys, Nadisda and Angela out of the station, the latter having picked up Danny.
Nancy couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the group approach, in broad daylight.
“Ben! Mike! Jen!” She ran to meet them, and gave Nadisda an extra hug. “Oh, it’s so good to see you, fairy! Did you survive the lion’s den?”
“What?” asked Mike sharply.
“I was caught in a loop in the game,” said Nadisda with a warning glance at Nancy. “Your programming got me out of there.”
“Oh! Well, good.”
Nancy turned to Angela.
“How on Earth did you get that right?”
“It was Danny,” said Mike. “He lent me his DS so I could program. You did it, Danny!”
“It was the fairy!” piped Danny. “She put a blue mist over the policeman and next he let everyone out!”
“Blue mist?” asked Nancy quizzically.
“So he wasn’t thinking straight.”
“But does that mean that we’ve got another jailbreak on our records?” she asked.
“It just puts us where we were before they came for us,” said Jen with a philosophical shrug.
“Actually, no,” Nadisda corrected her. “I fixed the records so the charges were dropped. I also fixed the police chief’s memories.”
“You fixed the files?” asked Mike admiringly.
“You did give me programming skills,” she replied with a broad grin. “Thank you for those!”
“Just how fast do fairies fly?” asked Mike. “I had barely finished giving you those skills and you arrived.”
“We fly fast,” agreed Nadisda. “But I sent myself by email. It’s faster. Valentine,” she added urgently, “I need you to get the game back online. Come hell or high water. You four must play tonight.”
“But our computers are rotten with virus,” objected Jen.
“Let’s see about that!” Nadisda led the way into the house. She glanced about the commune. Too shoddy. With a flick of her hand, she cleared away any clothes and stuff that lay around. She repainted the walls and ceilings in white, making Gothic black roses wreathe all over them. She turned the boxes they had been using to put their computers onto, into coffee tables with intricately carved legs. She fixed the broken couches and the tattered carpet, giving them all a brand-new, homey finish. If Connor the Cop could waste all that kind of luxury and style on living alone, why should her friends not live in beauty too?
“Impressive!” said Mike approvingly. Danny, who was holding Jen’s hand, bounced up and down in excitement.
“You really are a fairy!” he peeped. And he turned to Nancy. “Wish you were one too!”
Nadisda looked at Nancy and smiled. With a wave of her hand she conjured the Goth girl a pair of wings of black lace. Nancy flapped them experimentally, and gasped.
“I can fly?”
“Shall we try it out together?” asked Nadisda. “Bit later though.” She pulled a fairy wand out of nowhere and handed it to Nancy. “There, now you can grant wishes.”
Nancy stood speechless.
“High time the Perfect Princess becomes a Fairy Princess,” commented Nadisda. “Right, Valentine?”
The programmer grinned broadly.
Angela took a seat on the newly redone couch, with Danny on her lap. Nancy waved her fairy wand and an espresso machine popped up in a corner. She waved the wand again and a shelf with mugs appeared. From that, she started serving people the best coffee she had managed to make in an age.
“You’re the best, Nadisda,” she beamed.
The forest fairy had something else to do though. First she resurrected the computers with magic, so that they would at least boot up. Mike connected the rescued hard drive and copied the program back onto his laptop, agonizing the whole time about the risk of having the disk infected.
With Mike’s programming enhanced with Nadisda’s magic, the four computers were up and running again in a fairly short while. Mike scanned intensely for virus and malware, then he cautiously opened the latest savegame. The last backup had not been destroyed. It took them right before they met Hero Hugo in the town. Nadisda flew her avatar over the lands to check for yellow fog. So far there was none.
“Get online and get playing,” she encouraged the four players. “I have somewhere I have to be.”
“What? I thought we’re doing this together?” asked Mike with a worried crease in the middle of his forehead that strengthened his resemblance to Valentine the Villain.
“I have to be somewhere,” said Nadisda. “I’ve set it up for you. Gather as many beta players as you can, and back up in two different places, and alternate them. Help Ben find the moonstone. I have a mission.”
“What mission?” asked Mike quizzically.
“A curse for Hero Hugo,” she replied with a grin. “Tonight we kick him – not only off the gameboard but out of reality. Sorry. You’ll have to create a new heroic hero, Valentine. This one went bad.”
“Fairy,” said Mike seriously, catching her by her wrist, “just remember please. Doesn’t matter what he’s done. You can’t go after Connor and kill him. In this world, that is murder, and they’ll never stop hunting us down for it. And besides, it’s evil. It’s the worst evil we’ve got. It turns you evil, and I don’t want that for you.”
She smiled at him and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“Who said I’m going to kill Connor? It’s only Hero Hugo I’ll kick so hard he’ll be able to say his name backwards.” She paused. “Actually, that metaphor doesn’t really work. Oguh.”
“Adsidan,” grinned Mike. “Sounds middle-eastern.”
“Enitnelav,” she retorted. “Sounds slavic. Could you minimize the game for a second and open your general google? I’d like the maps.”
“What do you do with the maps?”
“I find my position, and then I become that little yellow person and drop down there. It’s safer than emailing me from your computer.”
Mike laughed and opened his browser on Google Maps.
“Be good, girl!”
“Later!” She vanished into his screen.
“Mark the spot!” exclaimed Jen. “We’ve got him now! She’s shown us where to find him!”
Mike turned to her with a scowl, then to Nancy.
“Spill it, kid. Where is the ‘lion’s den’ you two were conspiring about earlier?”
Nadisda’s heart was beating faster than her wings. She had to get back to Connor and warn him… how the heck was she going to tell him that Mike wanted to sue him for false arrests and cyber-theft without letting on that she’d hacked his systems herself, freed the hacker and cooked the police files? And yet! It wasn’t right. Connor shouldn’t be sent to prison. Something told her that that was the worst thing that could happen. She wasn’t sure if it was only the curse singing in her ears.
“So, where is it?” asked Mike.
Nancy shrugged. “She somehow managed to break into McNaught’s apartment and stop his systems from copying your files.”
“Brilliant!” exclaimed Mike, slapping his thigh in excitement. “Anything else? – Wait! Don’t tell me. She also broke into his own files and deleted us from the police profiles! Course! What a girl! She emailed herself? She gave us everything, Nance! Everything! We can trace his computer, we can find him online, and we can find him physically by looking where on Google she went. What a genius!” He bent over his keyboard and opened a programming window. “Time to strike back,” he muttered.