Part 1 Chapter 1 - Open Port
"You have to learn to take games seriously Enzo. Who knows? One day you might end up in... The Funhouse!"
Bob/ episode- "Identity Crisis"- Part 1
People have different ways to leave reality behind, most of them either mental, physical, or technological. To Dr. Jeremiah Surd, Questworld embodied almost all three. His mind was still as sharp and resourceful as it had been years ago before he'd been shot and severely injured. His body, now paralyzed and useless became a prison until the right technology set him loose. The virtual reality world created by Dr. Benton Quest made him young and whole again. And Questworld became his new home to create havoc. Sure it provided entertainment and recreation, but the key was the power it provided. Using it, he became able to reach into other computers, other types of communication, even other peoples minds and other worlds not seen or explored by man. To him he had the chance to rule a whole new kingdom. And to think that he believed that threatening peoples physical lives could give him control. It paled to what he possessed now.
When he played games in Questworld, Surd had the ability to rewrite the environment or invent new elements within it. He liked to have himself trying to kill a virtual version of Race Bannon, the man he personally blamed for the loss of his physical functions. Today however, Surd opted to let the games run without interference. He simply let the computer play against him in a round of CyberCycle with the preset game sprites to challenge him. However, he preferred driving the blade tank instead of a VR motorcycle.
Surd raced along one of the many stretches of darkened tunnel. He swerved to avoid obstacles the game placed along the ground. Turns were hairpin at the speed he traveled. Gaps in the roadway were frequent. He had to accelerate at the right moments to jump them. He made it past it all. So did the biker following him. The virtual game sprite wore a dark outfit and cyber helmet making facial features impossible to see. Surd wondered if the sprite gloated at his success at keeping pace with him.
Time to create some new obstacles for him, Surd thought.
Surd extended the tank's blades on the right side, cutting open a section of pipe jutting out of the tunnel wall. He quickly accelerated his speed. The mythical gas ignited, creating a blowtorch like jet of flame across the virtual roadway. Surd slowed only a little to see what would happen.
The biker skidded under the wall of generated fire at a thirty degree angle scraping his leg but quickly righting himself and continuing forward.
Surd became impressed. He knew this was not another human opponent. ∆The computer's highest level of difficultly never made the sprites this responsive. There had to be something more to it. He allowed his adversary to catch up to him. The game sprite pulled along side and immediately attempted to swerve into Surd. He maneuvered to avoid being bumped instead of taking the impact.
He commented out loud. "You play very well. Have you been doing this long?"
The sprite should have ignored him. Even artificial intelligence sprites didn't speak unless programmed.
However, the biker turned to look at him.
"First time in this game," the sprite responded. "Glitch! Cutter!"
A multi-edged buzz saw shaped blade shot out from the sprite's forearm ripping into the front wheel of the blade tank. The tank flipped over, banging into the wall as the biker accelerated out of the way. Surd's tank then crashed back down and exploded, throwing him across the floor. Surd shook off the fall, tossing aside fragments of the shattered blade tank. He got to his feet to watch the sprite actually wave to him before gunning his bike on to reach the end of the level. Surd decided to access some of his authority in Questworld.
"Pause game," he ordered.
Everything stopped except Surd. He then walked over to the motorcycle and its frozen driver.
"Remove helmet on game sprite," commanded Surd.
Surd blinked in surprise. Questworld game sprites were crude in detail. If facial features were needed they followed those of humans using standard flesh tones and hair colorings likened to the virtual forms of the VR players. But this sprite's hair was silver chrome with blue skin. The only characteristic likened to normal were its hazel eyes.
"A program flaw?" Surd murmured to himself.
Earlier in the day Questworld had suffered a severe disturbance due to an electrical storm at the lighthouse computer compound. Although guarded with some of the best surge protectors, the shock send ripples through the system, creating a system crash that had affected his stolen VR unit during an attempted computer hacking. Surd had decided to access the game modes for a while until going after the more secure areas of the system again.
"Julia? Are you seeing this?"
Her voice echoed from everywhere and nowhere within the computer."What is it Jeremiah?"
"It seems there is a glitch in operation of the game or an unauthorized visitor."
"I'm not registering any other user in this area of the system. This must be an error caused by the electrical overload. Perhaps we should shut down."
"Wait a moment," Surd looked down at the sprite's arm.
A strange box with what looked like a gear and a small microphone was attached to it. He reached for it and pulled it off. Lifting it to his face he examined it, turning it over in his hands. The sprite called it Glitch. It was a weapon of some kind.
Maybe it did even more.
"Julia. I'm bring something with me to my personal virtual room. Replace helmet."
The computer did as commanded.
"Sorry my friend, but I have to take this. Consider it a penalty for beating me."
Surd walked back to where he had been originally.
"Resume game," he commanded.
The cycle sped off, the driver unaware of anything odd occurring. A moment later Surd heard a feminine voice announce. "GAME OVER."
It was down time in Mainframe.
Dot's Diner had the usual amount of mid-cycle customers. Practically everyone was recharging on energy shakes after putting in their day at various work functions. The volume of binomes had Cecil multi-tasking orders as quickly as possible. Dot helped out by bringing a round of shakes to Enzo and AndrAIa sitting at one of the booths. Ever since she had picked them up from school, Enzo had been whining about their homework. Dot was curious about the conversation, so bringing the shakes over gave her a chance to talk.
"Here you go guys," she said putting the shakes down."So how was school today?"
"Okay I guess," Enzo half grumbled.
"Too much data processing homework?" Dot guessed.
"We have to write a report about the User," AndrAIa told her.
"Kind of hard considering we don't know much about him."
"Its sort of a hypothesis. We research what we know and reach a conclusion."
"AndrAIa got it easy," Enzo told Dot. "She's fought the User so many times she knows more about him then we do."
"This can't be too hard. After all we do have one of the best sources of information available," Dot reminded him.
The game cube that had dropped in G-Strom pulled out. As Dot watched she thought she saw the cube compress into a fold in the sky instead of disappearing into the swirling mass it usually descended from.
"What was that?" she wondered.
"What is it Dot?" asked AndrAIa.
"I don't know. I hope Bob's all right. He took long with this game. I wonder what happened?"
"I wouldn't know," Enzo huffed.
Dot turned to look at him again. "What's wrong?"
"You won't let me play anymore! How do I do research into the User if I can't play a game?"
"Enzo we've been through this conversation twenty-two times already. Your insistence on going into games without telling Bob or˝ myself is reckless. Unless one of us is with you are not to go. Understand?"
"Copy and pasted," Enzo answered.
Dot doubted that would be the end of it.
"Its better this way Enzo," AndrAIa insisted. "I wouldn't want you to get nullified playing a game. The User is horrible. As far as I'm concerned he's evil."
"But he does send us upgrades sometimes," Dot jogged her memory.
"Not enough from what Bob sees," said Enzo. "Its like he only wants to keep us happy. He probably wouldn't care if we deleted tomorrow."
"Phong been around a long time to receive the upgrades. Maybe he can help."
Dot then heard her organizer beep. She removed it from her belt and pressed the receiver button to see Phong in the display window.
"Phong I was just talking about you. What is it?"
"I need you to come to the Principle Office immediately Dot. We have a situation of the most critical level."
"Is it Bob?" she asked concerned. "Did he get out of the last game okay?"
"We cannot discuss this over the com child."
"I'll be right there." She hung up and spoke to Enzo and AndrAIa. "I'm needed at the Principle Office. Want to come along?"
"Sure," Enzo answered, hopping out of his booth. "What's the problem?"
"I don't know, but I got a feeling its bad."
"This is very, very bad."
Jonny heard Hadji's voice echo through the virtual file room. He and Jessie had been logging in and out of Questworld all day trouble shooting the system in virtual reality format. Using a VFF, or Virtual File Finder, they had been doing data retrieval under the guidance of Hadji. The file Jonny and Jessie were in had fragments laying all over the floor.
"What was this Hadji?" Jonny asked.
"I must regretfully inform you that we have found the remains of the Questworld Inner Net Life file."
"Aw man! It's totally fried!"
"Don't panic yet Jonny. We'll set a Virtual File Repair command and see if it works to restore the file."˝
"Inner Net Life file?" Jessie repeated confused. "What are you talking about?"
"It's just a theory Jessie. Something Jonny and I started working on in our spare time. Remember when Surd tapped into the Whale Net?"
"How can I not forget. I almost could have drowned if I didn't find that underwater cave to hide in from those crazed whales Surd sent after us."
"If there are other forms of Nets that exist outside the Internet we know of, what is to prevent us or Surd from locating them?"
"You mean you want to find other types of communication networks that other lifeforms use?"
"Its more then that," Jonny told her, "we think there might other life that humans are yet to find. Scientist try to locate life on the interstellar level. Why not discover life on the Internet level. Instead of outer space exploration its cyberspace exploration."
Jessie noted. "I thought something like that would be our own doing. We create so many programs wouldn't they somehow gain a life of their own?"
"Perhaps they have Jessie," Hadji said.
"So what's in this file?"
"When we repair it you'll see. Hadji give us a VFR."
The devise materialized in the file room's center. It was cubical in shape, about the size of a small shoebox covered in burnished gold with several switches on it. Jonny knelt on one knee next to it and began to configure the settings.
"We'll need the widest fielding for this Jonny. The fragments are very well dispersed."
"Sure. I'm setting the timer for a thirty-second delay. We don't want to become part of this file when it goes off."
"Ready to log out?" asked Jessie.
"Its set!" Jonny told them. "Beginning countdown now."
"Log us out, Hadji."
The Real World
Hadji pressed several keystrokes on his computer board. Immediately the dome of energy surrounding Jonny and Jessie's VR chairs evaporated. They quickly removed their VR helmets and got up.
"Put the file on the main viewer Hadji," Jonny requested.
The multi-picture tube view screen lit up with a full image of the VR files interior. The VFR pulsed quicker and quicker as the countdown came to a climax.
Hadji recited the final seconds. "Five, four, three, two, one…"
A burst of light spread out from the center of the file floor to the walls and then up to the ceiling. As it washed over the damage, the fragments began to gather up. Almost immediately two human shaped forms began to form, starting with a green grid outline.
"How long Hadji?" Jonny asked.
"Fifteen minutes at least. I'll put it on one of the smaller monitors while we continue to rundown the rest of Questworld's working systems. We still have much to do until Dr. Quest and Race return with the new circuit boards."
"Having to trek all the way out to California for replacement parts for the computer is quite a trip," Jonny commented.
"I should have gone with them," Jessie admitted. "It's not exactly a quick ride to the corner computer store."
"What's next Hadji?" Jonny asked.
"The game grid. We'll have to run simulations on all of them."
"Then let's get started. Or should I say rebooting."
Julia and Lorenzo stared at the object Surd had retrieved from the game grid. He programmed the computer to rotate the object while the computer ran an examination. Surd monitored from the outside, tapping commands with his good hand on his cyborg chair's keypad.
"You sure this ain't an add on to the game boss?" Lorenzo asked him.
"I've played CyberCycle too many times to know Lorenzo. I'd know if this were a software upgrade. This object and the sprite were not part of the general game preferences."
Surd sighed. Lorenzo was good at grunt work but poor on technology terms.
Julia explained, "Sprites are humanoid or otherwise shaped characters or modifications created by programmers in games or CD-ROMs."
"So somebody put a new sprite in the game?"
"There was no upgrade Lorenzo! And the program has not been hacked and hexadecimaled."
Surd ignored him. "I'm going to attempt to break into the objects operating system. It may take a while."
"What about the Quest brats?" Julia reminded them. "They are doing repair runs in VR mode on many of the main computer systems files and programs. You said you had a special surprise for them."
Surd actually said. "It can wait a while. I'm sure the young Mr. Quest will be most interested in playing a little game."
Dot arrived at the Principle office with Enzo and AndrAIa in tow. They found Phong and Bob at the end of the main hall just outside the large ornate doors of Phong's personal quarters. Phong tried to calm Bob down. He was pacing back and forth looking very distraught and angry at the same time.
"Bob? Phong? What's wrong?" Dot asked.
"The worse thing possible," Bob answered in a huff of frustration. "My guardianship here maybe over."
"What?!" Enzo and Dot exclaimed in unison.
Phong tried again to undo Bob's fears. "Bob I'm sure if you explain carefully to the Guardian Port Authority-"
"Tell them what! Losing a keytool is not acceptable under any circumstance!"
"Glitch is gone?" Enzo asked in shock.
Bob stared at his empty left armband a bit sadly. "Its like Glitch has been erased from existence."
"Did you try a return command?"
"Yes. Glitch failed to respond."
Dot suggested. "Maybe Glitch fell off in the game and is out of power."
"The return command would still function even if Glitch's battery ran down. One of two things happened. Glitch has been either deactivated or Glitch is no longer in Mainframe."
"Then where could it be? Inside the game?"
"A game can't just seize hold of a keytool. Someone would literally have to have taken it off me. There were no other sprites from Mainframe in the game cube with me. There were no signs Megabyte or any virals in the game and even if they were, how could they take Glitch without me knowing? There is nothing to explain how this happened."
AndrAIa thought of something. "What about the User?"
"The User doesn't have that kind of power. Unless…"
Bob began to pacing again thinking aloud to himself and the others.
"There was something very eerie about that game and the User."
"I saw the game leave Bob. It didn't look normal," Dot told him. "It seemed to just disappear."
"So my eyes weren't tricking me," Phong granted. "I saw it as well."
"That doesn't compare to the inside," Bob said. "The environment was more sophisticated then I ever encountered. And I've never had the User speak to me the way he did."
"Really?" Phong wondered. "What did he say?"
"He paid me a compliment. He said 'You play very well. Have you been doing this long?'"
"Did you respond?"
"Yes. I told him it was my first time."
AndrAIa scolded Bob. "You should not have done that! You do not talk to the User! He is the enemy!"
Enzo defended Bob. "AndrAIa! Bob's been a guardian for a long time. He knows what he's doing."
"No Enzo," Bob admitted finally, "AndrAIa maybe right. Somehow that game allowed the User to interact more closely with sprites then ever before. When I spoke to him, it tipped him off that I didn't belong in the game's preprogrammed environment. It's very possible that the User took Glitch."
"If your right, what do we do now?" asked Dot.
"I'll e-mail the Port Authority by other means. If they don't fire me, they'll begin an investigation into what happened. This maybe the first close contact encounter with the User."
"In the mean time I'll get a security team to run a sensor sweep for Glitch," Dot said. "There must be a chance that Glitch is lost in Mainframe and we can find it."
"Problem is the cube dropped in G-Prime. Megabyte will get suspicious of what were up to."
"We'll just have to risk it."
Phong's vidwindow console beeped. "I have a call."
Phong tapped the vidwindow receiver. A second vidwindow opened revealing Mr.Pearson an old One binome who happened to own the chief data dump in Mainframe's G-Prime sector. He was not alone. The resident data dump dog, Frisket, stood next to him. The dog barked when he saw Enzo, the boy he had adopted for an owner.
"Mister Pearson. What may I do for you?"
"Phong. I'm glad ta see Guardian Bob's with ya. I think I got a tear in de dump yard."
Bob tried to act only mildly concerned. Without Glitch he would be unable to mend the tear. That meant using the crud method of blowing it up.
"How big is this tear?"
"Take a look for yaurself lad. I've never seen one like it."
Mister Pearson turned the vidwindow. The sudden cascade of bright light made everyone wince.
A massive vortex of energy, swirling counter clockwise and large enough to swallow an ABC, radiated from part of the far wall of the dump.
"What in the Net...?" Bob murmured. Then he stated. "Keep as far away from it as you can. I'll be right over."
Bob closed the transmission and turned to Phong. "I'll need a few things to substitute for Glitch Phong. I hope your have an system port analyzer."
"It's old but it will still work. Anything else?"
"A modem string reader?"
Phong nodded. "Come with me."
Bob spoke to Dot. "Get some troops together and meet me outside."
Enzo asked. "Do we have to stay here?"
"You know the rules. If there's danger you stay put."
"But Frisket's there! I don't want anything to happen to him!"
Dot rolled her eyes then glanced to Bob.
Bob answered. "You can come, but you leave when I give the order."
"No problem Bob," Enzo said confidently. "Whatever happens, we'll be sure to keep out of it."
"Well Jessie? What do you think?" Hadji asked.
Jessie stood inside the Inner Net Life file wanting to get a closer look at the hypothetical sprites Hadji and Jonny created. The bodies had the characteristics and shape of a male and female, the male being a full head taller. Their skin was laced with circuit board pathways that glowed light blue and served as their clothing. Their skin had a waxen pallor to it. They had no eye color or hair but did have ears, nose, and mouth.
"They look like mannequins," Jessie honestly replied. "Don't you think they should look more human?"
"They are as human as we dared conceive," Hadji said. "They are dimensionally constructed to our size but we felt they had to be physically different then us."
"So this is what you picked?"
"Jonny actually worked on their look. I theorized other aspects. They would take in energy as food. They would operate more logically. Perhaps they speak in the computer language of ones and zeros. They even may play computer games for recreation like we do."
Jessie smiled. "I think Jonny has been watching too many sci-fi movies. They look like some-thing out of that story about a computer programmer that got sucked into the computer world and had to play games for his survival. I can't think of the title."
"You can share your opinions with Jonny when he's done. Do you want to log out?"
"Sure. I want to place a call to dad. They might have arrived at Cybertech by now. We can leave Jonny to playing in Questworld. Testing the game grid for bugs is hardly work for him."
Jessie took one last glance at the two VR beings before she logged out.
Bob, Dot and Old Man Pearson stood directly under the vortex. It wasn't attached to either the wall or the roof of the data dump. It just seemed to hang near its center, floating like a tear did but staying stable. Blue and white light cascaded down from around it edges while its center glowed an indigo blue. Two CPU troopers on zip boards floated above it to stare down into it.
"It seems to be rotating in the opposite direction from this area!" Sergeant Gigs yelled above the humming noise the vortex made.
Mr. Pearson waved his hand at it in disgust. "Just look at the size of it. The light of it could burn out yar optical relay. Blasted tear!"
"Mr. Pearson this is no tear," Bob told him as he stared up shielding his eyes from most of the light with his hands. "Even without Glitch I am certain of that."
"I'd feel better if ya had it lad. How yar gonna get rid of the thing with no keytool?"
"I don't know. Let's start running those tests we need."
Dot tapped Bob's shoulder and pointed to Enzo, Frisket and AndrAIa. They had their heads leaning to one side, staring at the vortex as if it were turned on its side. Curious, they began to walk over to them.
Jonny's cybercycle sped along the game grid. When no game was loaded all that could be seen were green grid lines one the ground and in the sky. Jonny needed to check every sector for damage. So far he found nothing but boredom.
"IRIS? What's my status?"
The female voiced operating system program answered him.
"You are nearing the end of sector three."
"IRIS? Can you give me a target?"
"Please give specifics of request."
"How about a Guardian."
"Loading game sprite now."
The cybernetic monster dropped down in front of Jonny. A cross between a spider, an octopus and a nasty swamp water organism, the Guardian intended to tear Jonny and his bike into cyberbits.
"Forward cannon fire!" Jonny ordered.
The nose compartment of the bike popped open launching a large VR mortar shell that blew up the creature just before Jonny reached it.
"Jonny. We have many more sectors to examine," Hadji told him. "I think testing the weaponry can wait."
"Relax Hadji. At least we know some of the modules are working. Its-"
IRIS interrupted. "Warning! Unidentified obstacle ahead."
"Unidentified obstacle? IRIS? What do you mean?"
Jonny saw part of the grid missing ahead of him.
"Break!" he screamed.
The emergency stopping system kicked in but Jonny knew it would not be enough. He stood up in the bikes stirrups and leaped off. He got up in time to see the bike disappear. When he ran over and looked down he saw a swirling mass of energy.
"Hadji?! Are you reading this?"
"Yes Jonny! What is it?" Hadji called to him.
"I was hoping you'd tell me!"
Dot and Bob stood in front of the young sprites pondering what they were up to.
Dot finally said, " Enzo, Bob said you could stay only if you helped look for Glitch. What are you doing?"
"It reminds me of the Gateway," he said still holding his head sideways.
"Remember when Megabreath stole the Gateway command from the Archives? Look at it this way. You'll see."
Bob and Dot, feeling very silly did as instructed.
Bob understood immediately. "You've got a point Enzo."
AndrAIa said. "Your one smart Guardian Enzo. I don't even understand what tears are."
"You mean this thing is a portal of some kind?" Mr. Pearson asked.
"Looks that way."
ﬁ "Does that mean it leads to somewhere?" AndrAIa asked.
"The modem string reader will tell us," Bob said hopefully. "In the meantime you keep looking for my keytool."
"And don't get too close to this thing," warned Dot. "We have no idea what it might do."
The group jumped. Something had dropped out of the vortex as if on cue. The CPU's drew their weapons. Bob raised up his arm forgetting that he didn't have Glitch. Embarrassed he quickly put it back down.
"What is that?" one trooper inquired to Bob.
Bob gestured for the others to stay while he walked over and stood next the object. Looking it over quickly he said. "I do not believe this!"
He bent over and lifted the VR cycle onto its wheels. Keeping a steady grip on the handle bars, he wheeled the bike out from under the vortex.
"Wow! Cool! A bike!" Enzo exclaimed. "Check out that paint job! And the neon wheels! It's got to be fast! Do you think we can ride it?"
"Enzo! It could be dangerous!" Dot scolded him. "Bob? What is this?"
"I'll need to start running those tests right away," Bob said pulling the bike's kick stand down.
"Sergeant Gigs, I want this secured in a safe area. Have it moved to the CPU. And no touching it Enzo! Just keep looking for Glitch. The sooner its found the better."
"Allright," sighed Enzo.
When the group had dispersed to follow their orders Bob whispered to Dot. "That was the same bike from the game I played earlier."
"How did it get here?"
"I can't explain until I start scanning. But I have a bad feeling we've discovered something more dangerous then a random tear or weird game cube."
Jonny looked at strange mass of swirling energy. He didn't dare get close, feeling it tugging at him like a whirlpool.
"Jonny. I advise that you log out."
"Is Jessie still there?"
"She left for the house to contact Race."
"All right then. Pull me out. I'll fell more comfortable looking at this from the real side of things."
Just before he left Jonny bent down and yelled into the vortex. "Take care of the bike for me!"
Bob stared into the vortex felling more bewildered then before. Did he hear a voice speak to him?