Codename Chameleon

Chapter 3

Nate pots the black once again

There's suddenly a lot of action in the alley behind our shop. It used to be a quiet place where I could go to be by myself and smoke a cigarette. Now Anne has left her office job next door, I think I'll get my quiet place back again. But today I see a guy through the small glass panel in the door at the back of the shop, standing in the alley using a Palm PC. He's wearing a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones on the front. It reminds me of the Dark Ghost that tried to infect my computer. Instead of going out into the alley right away I watch him through the door for a minute as he presses keys on his palmtop. I don't think he sees me. Then he gets a bit of chalk out of his pocket and makes a mark on the wall. Yes, I know what he's up to, he's a Warchalker. He's getting free Internet access through the wireless network in the office buildings. It's always cool to get something for nothing, so I go out to see if he can show me how it's done, but when he sees me he pulls his baseball cap down to hide his face and takes off down the alley. I take a look at the symbol he's marked on the wall, two interlocking loops made with white chalk. That would be a trick worth learning if I had a Palm or laptop.

I haven't played Fools Rush In And Explode for a few days. I got stuck on the Statue of Liberty. I keep getting shot on the steps inside the statue, when I'm running up the stairs with the FBI agents after me. I started to have some weird dreams where I was running through echoing green stone tunnels desperately trying to get away from something I couldn't see. Once I was running upside down along the ceiling of the tunnel, afraid that my feet would lose their grip and I'd drop down and hurt my head. Then I fell and I was falling for a long time but before I hit the floor I woke up. So I decided to give it a rest for a few days, but I think today when I get home I'll try again. But when I get into the game, everything looks different.

It looks like the days I haven't played have been years. Or centuries. London, ok London always looks old, most of the buildings are hundreds of years old anyway, but now it looks like the millions of people who once lived and worked here have gone, left the city to decay and rust. There's chunks of rubble everywhere, slates fallen from roofs, paving stones cracked, concrete etched by acid, shattered glass. The paper waste from a thousand office buildings blows down the streets. I go to New York and it's the same, it's worse because everything looked so new before, the crumbling skyscrapers and boarded-up department stores, the wide streets with lights all stuck on red but not a car, not a yellow taxi, not a head-down hurrying person to be seen. The Statue of Liberty is up to her waist in waves, and as I watch the sea creeps up and more of Manhattan crumbles and slides beneath it.

I go back to London. I don't want to play this game anymore. I move with horrified fascination through streets that should be familiar, gazing at broken walls, smashed windows, rusted railings. Every building has this look of an abandoned warehouse, peeling paint visible between patches of tattered posters, fragments of faded photos of clubs, bands, CDs from decades ago. A poster stuck over the glass door of an old hotel is stripped off by the wind and blows towards me. As it flaps past I see the skull and crossbones. I don't need to read the words.

I take a look online to see if I can find out anything about this Dark Ghost virus which has ruined my game. I can't find anything on the usual security websites. Strangely, nothing else on my computer seems to have been infected apart from this one game. I go back to an old game, Warzone Space Station, I used to play this all the time before I got Fools Rush In. The best way to play it is online. On the Spacecontinuum server you can play against gamers from all over the world, there's always someone online and the game never stops. You design and build your own space station, when you log on it appears in the game exactly as you left it, when you log off your bit of space just vanishes. My station is a huge grey doughnut shape bristling with torpedo launchers. Every time I win a few credits I add some new weapons. I've just entered the game in the middle of a patch of space hotly contested by five other station commanders. Good, I'm pleased to see the action hasn't moved away from my position. In a few minutes I've totally demolished two of the other stations and a third has asked to be my ally. I'll have him on my side to help me finish off the other two, but I'm going to keep a eye on him. Not wise to be too trusting in this game, some players change sides more often than they log on. He'll be someone else's friend tomorrow.

After about an hour of bitter fighting my new mate and I have defeated the two warlords who made the mistake of not joining up when they had the chance. I suppose they'd been on opposite sides for too long to think of fighting as a team. So we could take them on one at a time. We don't have too much trouble with the first guy but the second one knows what's coming and he's seen us at work so it takes a bit longer. It's a good thing I've got help with this one. We go at him together and wreck his station bit by bit, he's got these huge things that stick out like wings, three of them, that are just asking to be broken off. We smash two of the wings and take out his shielding and weapons systems. The last wing breaks off and goes spinning out of control into the depths of uncharted space. Suddenly my ally vanishes, he's logged off and I'm on my own but now I have no trouble finishing off my last surviving opponent who's desperately trying to repair his shields. So I'm now the undisputed master of my sector and since no-one else wants to take me on I might as well log off and go to the pub.

And in the pub, up there at the pool table, just standing there chalking his cue, is the guy from the alley, the Warchalker. So I get a pint and I go up and put my coin down. Now I'm not a scary guy who's caught him where he's not supposed to be, doing something he shouldn't be doing, I'm a guy he's met in a pub playing pool, he might even talk to me. As well as being a pool player I find out he's a hardcore PC gamer, so that's two things we've got to talk about. I ask him if he's got Fools Rush In and he immediately starts off about people who make viruses and how they should be tortured and shot, so I know the same thing that happened to me has happened to him.

"It's like London's been closed down for a hundred years," I tell him.

"And Tokyo! Tokyo with bamboo growing thick in the streets," he says sadly, "and everywhere papered over with those ads for the Red Lantern Jazz Bar."

I'm tempted to ask him if he got past the Statue of Liberty and how he managed it, but really I'd rather work it out for myself, so I ask him, "What is Dark Ghost?"

"Who knows? What I've heard is, it's a hacker, maybe a team of hackers, who can get into any PC and read any files they want, and sell the information at a high price. The usual security ware won't keep them out. Do you think they're behind this virus?" I tell him about the skull and crossbones. "That makes sense, in a way, it would take real skill to make that kind of a virus, I mean the graphics are awesome. Ok they've extrapolated from the game, but still it would take more work than making some games, making that kind of virus. And I've got good security, I've got the best firewall, they must be ace hackers to get past that. You must be right, it must be Dark Ghost, but why would they do that to a game?" And we're back to the topic of suitable punishments for virus creators. Just to join in I think of a few really unpleasant ones like having all their bones eaten from the inside by calcium-hungry nanomachines. In real life these hackers are such obsessive types that the worst thing you could do to them is to lock them up for years in a prison with no computers. They'd probably build their own from radio parts or something.

He's got Warzone Space Station but he's never played it online, so I tell him my online name which is Lightning and we agree to be allies if we ever happen to play at the same time. He tells me his name is Rick but he's usually called by his online name which is Ratstar, it's cool 'cos it's the same word backwards. We play best of three pool games, loser buys the drinks. I win two games and he goes to the bar and comes back with a couple of pints. When we finish these I'm set to buy another round but he says no, he's going on somewhere else. "There's a party in this big old house, it's not far from here, I think there's going to be a band, want to come? We'll need to take something to drink." So we go to the off-license down the road and buy some cans to take to the party.

Since it's him that knows about the party I suppose it's fair if I pay for the beers. If we'd stayed in the pub it would've been my round anyway. We walk down the High Street with our off-license bags, beer sloshing in the cans. It starts raining, gentle big drops making misty halos around the yellow street lights. When we get to the road where the party is, the rain starts pouring down as if someone was emptying buckets over our heads and we run the last few yards. Light and noise spill out into the street from an open door. There's a sudden flash of lightening just before we reach the doorway and I see the house looming above me, four stories of solid grey darkness punctured by dimly lit windows. The ground floor windows are barred. For a moment as I rush towards the house it seems to lean out over the street, to be about to fall on top of me, but then I'm in through the door and there's a light on in the long hallway. Everything gets back into perspective as we walk through to the big back room where music is beating out of half a dozen huge speakers. I haven't zipped up my jacket and the front of my shirt is soaked. My hair is dripping. Not a good look. Who cares, it's too dark in here for anyone to notice. I open a can of lager and take a long drink. Right, that's better.

I see a girl I know dancing right in front of a speaker, vibrating with the bass, her eyes half closed. Her ears will be ringing tomorrow. Her name's Sally or Sylvie or something, Mike knows her and she used to come into the shop a lot at one time, but I haven't seen her for a while now. A guy comes up and asks me if I can spare a beer, my new friend's gone over to talk to some of his mates and left me with both bags of cans so ok, I hand one over. From his bag. The sound is as loud and nasty as you could want, some hip hop, bhangra, some rock, all with plenty of attitude. The DJ is a guy I've never seen before, a black guy wearing little round glasses. Then Ratstar comes over, good, he's holding a beer he got from one of his mates so he won't miss the one I gave away. He asks if there's anyone there I know and I point out the girl, I remember her name now, Sherry.

"My kind of girl," he says, "looks like she's on something."

Then a tall thin guy who's been standing there leaning on the wall, so quiet and still I hardly noticed him, starts to talk to us. "You want to know whose girlfriend she is, man, before you try to get close, you don't want some serious trouble. Only the biggest cocaine dealer in South London, man! Had two brothers shot last week for dealing on one of his estates. One's still in the hospital and he's the lucky one, they got him in the leg."

Now this is enough of a warning for me. Ok, if she says "Hi" to me I'll say "Hi" back, to be friendly. But Ratstar isn't hearing. "Come on, let's go over. You can introduce me. "

"Are you serious? There's other girls," I protest, but why bother, he doesn't want to hear it.

"She might have some really good stuff she could share with us! I bet I can get her to like me," he says, and I can see he's not heard anything past the word cocaine. That one word has switched off the tiny fraction of his brain he sometimes uses to think with. I'm about to tell him he's crazy when I see she's looking over at me with a slightly puzzled look, like she's trying to remember where she knows me from. Now if she remembers who I am, she might be pissed off that I didn't go and talk to her. So I give in.

We go over and I do the Hey-Sherry-do-you-remember-me thing and I offer her a beer from my bag, which she takes. And all the time she's smiling at Ratstar like she's never seen a guy before and Ratstar is grinning at her showing every tooth he's got. They can't look away from each other and they start having this long conversation where they find out they like a lot of the same things. So I feel like I'm the fourth wheel on a tricycle and after a while I invent a friend who I have to go and find, not that they'll even notice I'm gone. I walk around the party for a bit and end up in another room talking to two girls who are kind of cool and like a lot of the same music as me. Then their boyfriends turn up. So I think I'll wander back to catch up with what Ratstar's doing but as I get in through the door of the big room I stop and stare in disbelief. He's only snogging the girlfriend of the biggest cocaine dealer in the area, a guy with a rep for serious violence. Must be totally mad. I duck out of the door into the hallway and there is a guy that I've never seen before but I somehow know just who he is. He's a tall black guy in a black suit worn with an immaculate white shirt. He's smoking a cigar and on either side of him stands an enormous guy, seriously huge and totally muscled up. These two guys are both wearing black jackets and have their mobiles hanging on chains round their necks. You have to be seriously hard to walk around this part of London with a mobile hanging round your neck.

"Shall we give him the Fate Worse than Death treatment, Boss?" one of them says. I have a feeling I know who he's talking about. Somehow I don't think the answer will be no. I head back in through the door and towards Ratstar as I'm thinking, I must be mad, I just met the guy, I should be out the door.

"Ratstar, you're in trouble, we've gotta be out of here." I grab his arm and prise him away from Sherry. He gives me a dazed look for a moment and then he gets it. We run out of the other door towards the back of the house. There's a long glass conservatory at the back and we run through it but as soon as I see the door at the far end I know it's no good. Bolted and fastened with a chain and padlock. So we run back through the kitchen but I can see into the big room where dancers are moving out of the way of two large men and the only way now is up the stairs. We find a back bedroom with no-one in it and Ratstar's trying to squeeze himself into the wardrobe, looks like he makes a habit of this stuff with other guy's girlfriends, when I manage to get the window open and find I'm looking down onto the roof of the conservatory. Easy. By now we can hear the sound of huge feet running up the stairs so we climb out of the window as quick as we can. I pull the curtains together before I close the window after us, just in time as I hear someone burst into the bedroom. We hear the men swearing as they make a hurried search of the room as we crouch, afraid to make a sound, on the sloping glass roof. Only when we hear them leave the room do we start to crawl across the wide glass panes. Ratstar gets to the end before me, drops to the ground and disappears into the darkness of the tangled garden.

I'm just about to follow him when the light is switched on in the conservatory. Below me I can see the two big guys as they check the bolts and padlock on the back door and peer under the empty plant benches. Heavy rain is drumming down on the roof and I hope there isn't a flash of lightening, if they look up they couldn't help seeing me. But there isn't a flash of lightening and they go back into the house. In the darkness I drop carefully down into the garden. I can't see a thing and I move slowly as rain drips from trees down the back of my neck. Then I hear Ratstar whisper, "Over here! I've found a gap in the fence!"

We squeeze through the gap in the fence and find ourselves in an alley between two tall fences that runs down the side of the house. I can see through to the road where the front door of the house is, where Sherry's man is dragging her across the road and into the longest bright red American car. They are under a street light so I can see them but they can't see me. We head the other way down the alley, it's got to lead somewhere. It becomes a long muddy path past the backs of houses, between a high fence and a high wall. I fall over a rubbish bin, now I'm not only soaking wet but covered in mud as well. Then the alley widens and soon we are walking on pavement. I see a building I recognise.

"That's the back of the cinema. If we go round the side here we'll get to the High Street." I've still got my last can of lager in my jacket pocket. I open it and we share it as we walk down the rainwashed empty streets.

Now Read Chapter 4!