Codename Chameleon

Chapter 4

War in Space

Sea Serpent Station spins at the centre of an immense battleground, surrounded by the debris that remains from the countless wars that make up the epic struggle for control of this sector of the galaxy. The gunmetal plating of its outer hull is scarred by the tracks of torpedoes and freckled with small shiny patches where repairs have been made to its meteor specked surface. The mouths of ion cannons protrude like huge metal pipes from the perimeter, alternating with the shorter barrels of plasma guns.

At the control centre of the station stands my avatar, the Commander General, regarding the panoramic viewscreen before him that shows the immense spiral of the galaxy's right arm, bright, bright with a trillion stars. With pride he surveys this sector of space, now totally under his command after a heroic victory, the culmination of a tense battle against overwhelming odds. As he watches a dark patch appears, stars winking out as it grows, taking shape, changing shape, forming a multifaceted polygon of varying appearance, a station wreathed in a grey cloud haze like a swirl of mist in constant motion. Areas of grey intensify and darken to black, forming a familiar shape, the Death's Head, the skull and crossbones.

The Commander General lights a cigarette in open defiance of the red "No Smoking" sign on the wall behind him. "Right," he says, "that's going to make life around here a lot more exciting."

Warning lights flash on the control panel as power is routed to the weapons systems. I order my fleet of space fighters to get ready for launch. I keep a close watch on the enemy station as it rotates slowly a few light years away. The fog obscuring its outline is suddenly lit up by a cluster of sparks as it launches missiles. I zoom in on the missile launcher as I strengthen shields around my hull. I've seen this type of launcher once before, it's not the standard type that's included in the game, it's a mod he's made himself. Remember my ally last time I logged on, the one who vanished just before the end? He had a missile launcher that looked like the prototype for this one. Lucky I spent those credits improving my shields.

The missiles aren't going to be too much of a problem, I think my shields will hold, but he's got a big gun which looks to me like some new kind of plasma weapon. I target the skull right between the eye sockets and fire my ion cannon. Let's see what kind of shields he's got. As I thought, too many credits spent on hull effects and not enough on shields; he's taken damage. There's a bare patch on his hull right in the middle of the skull and crossbones. I'm almost sorry, it was a cool look and a clever graphic. Then I remember my ruined game and I want to slice his station into tiny fragments. Dark Ghost, you just made a fatal error in picking a fight with the invincible Commander General of Sea Serpent Station.

I fire my ion cannon again and this time I manage to dent his hull. I can see the huge plasma gun taking aim at me. I launch my fleet of small fighters with orders to attack his weapons. My screen splits in two so I can operate both sets of targeting controls. My hands can hardly move fast enough to keep up with the speed of the attack. Most of my ships manage to evade his fire but one is destroyed just as it gets into position to have a clear shot at his plasma gun. I try to move my other ships in, but as soon as they are in range the plasma gun just picks them off. It's not going to be possible without a lot more fighters than I have. For the first time I realise I might actually be going to lose, and it's not so much losing the game, it's losing Sea Serpent Station which took me so long to build and cost so many credits, where I've spent so many virtual hours. I didn't think anyone could win against my station, specially now I've spent serious credits on the shields. The only good thing is, as long as that plasma gun is targeting my fighters, they're not aiming at the station. So I've got a bit of time to plan my final attack.

My valiant fighter squad are aiming everything they've got at that plasma gun. He blasts another one, forcing it back on a collision course towards the station. It crashes into the hull, knocking off flakes of rusty steel plating. A red warning light comes on, telling me the shields are damaged. If I can't get them back up fast I'm really in trouble. The grey mist swirls around the enemy station. I'm guessing he's reloading, getting ready for the final attack. Energy is slowly flowing into the shield generators, I'm operating with low level life support. No cigarettes for the Commander General now, can't waste the oxygen. I need one myself but I don't want to take my hands off the controls for long enough to light up. I send one of my fighters on a suicide mission to smash right into that plasma gun. The Commander General paces back and forth on the bridge, shouting orders, staring out of the viewport at his enemy, hoping it's not too late to save the station that's been his home for as long as he can remember.

As I look out of the viewport through his eyes, over on the far side of Death's Head Station I see something blink into existence. Another station, someone has just logged in. It takes shape rapidly and it's one of the strangest things I've ever seen in space. Imagine a Klingon Bird of Prey, except this isn't a small fighter, it's a huge space station, and it looks nothing like a bird, it looks like a huge bat or a flying squirrel, some kind of animal with a long pointed nose and whiskers. Then it starts to rotate slowly and I see there are six of these animal heads, like the figureheads on an old sailing ship, put there to ornament the points of an enormous metal star. A white beam from the plasma gun blasts my fighter to bits, he's reloaded and ready to attack. My shield levels are still too low to withstand that kind of heat. I watch the shield strength indicators creep up, too slowly. Then the new station starts firing torpedoes, he's targeting Death's Head Station which is now being attacked from opposite sides. I realise what kind of an animal those figureheads are meant to be. Ratstar Station to the rescue!

The plasma gun swivels round to fire at Ratstar, giving me the vital seconds I need to get my shields back up to strength. Now Dark Ghost doesn't have a chance, not against two of us. As this is Ratstar's first time he's only got the basic weapons and shields everyone has, so to even things up I'm going to try to get rid of that plasma gun. I send two fighters flying in fast from opposite sides, both aiming their weapons directly at the gun. A well-aimed torpedo from Ratstar Station just misses one of my fighters as it smashes into the enemy's hull. He fires back with a plasma beam aimed right at Ratstar's torpedo launcher. That plasma gun is the business, I'll have to make one for myself. My fighters aim concentrated laser fire right at the gun. He manages to hit one but by now the whole gun is glowing white hot with the heat from the burning plasma and the lasers. The gun swivels round to target my last remaining fighter. A last burst of laser fire and the plasma gun explodes in a burst of bright white flame. After that it's easy, between us, to finish off Dark Ghost. He should have got some better shields.

I text Ratstar to suggest we meet for a drink to celebrate our victory. He wants to go to the Green Dragon again, he's convinced he can beat me at pool if he gets another chance. Of course he's wrong. I promise him a best of three games. Then I see I've got an unread text on my phone from an unknown number. It must have come when I was playing Warzone Space Station, I wouldn't have noticed in the middle of a battle. It reads, "plz txt me we need to talk anne".

I don't know if I should text her or not. I'm not sure if I want to be involved with the undercover cop stuff any more. Then I think, how did she get my number? I never gave it to her. This puzzles me for a minute, then I realise she must have got it from Vincent Penny. So definitely it's a work thing for her. Police business. I don't text her back. I don't delete her text.

I go out to meet Ratstar in the pub. He's got there before me, he's already got a pint and he's hanging out by the pool table. Of course he's talking to a girl. I get myself a drink and go over and put a coin down, he hasn't bothered with that little detail. He thinks he's teaching this girl to play pool, telling her how to take her shots. She's getting a little impatient with him, I've seen her play in here before and win five games in a row. She knows what she's doing which is more than he does. When she beats the guy she's with Ratstar offers to give her a game, never mind that it's my coin down on the table. I only let him get away with this because he helped me defeat Dark Ghost. Her friend wants to go but she can't resist the chance to show Ratstar what she can do. I enjoy watching the game as I get my first beer down. She's playing well and when she pots the black I say "Ace shot!", which it is, and she gives me a smile. Ratstar comes out with "Yeah, great shot, babe" but he's looking amazed that she's left him with four balls on the table. I'd play her and I think she'd like to go on playing but her friend wants to leave. I don't know why she goes out with a guy like that who can't even play pool. So she goes and I have to play Ratstar.

Half way through the game I get another text but I wait until after I've potted the black to look at it. I think it could be from Anne and when I check I see it's from the same number as the last one. The message says simply, "winter is out". For a moment I don't get it, I think she means winter like it's cold and there's snow and no leaves on the trees, then I remember Dodgy Guy. Curtis Winter. I guess he's out on bail or something. I hope he doesn't come looking for me. I remember his two mates who caught up with me in this pub. If I stay here there's a chance he'll know where to find me. I know Ratstar's going to insist we play the three games but after that I think I'll move on to somewhere else.

So we're walking down the High Street arguing about where to go. Ratstar wants to go to the Jug and Bottle because he likes some girl that works there. I hate all those chain bar places. When you're in there it's like you've stepped into chain bar universe, you could be in any part of London and everything would look and feel and sound and smell exactly the same. You'd have to go to the door and take a look round to know what bar you're in. Even the people all look and dress one way, costumed inhabitants of chain bar universe. What's sad is, they've chosen this, it's how they want to be. But, as Ratstar points out, while drinking there is not so fun, working there is different. That's just a job, I mean, if the shop where I work was taken over by a big chain I'd probably still work there 'cause I need the cash. The guy on the door gives us a look but he can't think of a reason to actually stop us and we walk into the Jug, and almost immediately the evening starts to go wrong.

First thing is, Ratstar's girl isn't here, she's swapped with someone else and got the night off. The beer is all in little bottles and not proper pint glasses, so you get less. There's no pool table, I guess because they can fit a couple of dozen punters in the same space, so there's nothing to do except drink and look at girls. Ratstar of course feels right at home here because he doesn't need to do anything except drink and look at girls anyway. I'm trying, I don't know why, to make my little bottle last more than five minutes when the Tequila Babe comes over with the tray of tequila shots. Ratstar has to buy us a couple of shots so the Tequila Babe won't think he's cheap. She's wearing a kind of a Lara Croft look with a mini and long lace up boots and a belt bag, except Lara's taller and wouldn't need high heels on the boots. And Lara does more active stuff than stagger round a bar with a tray of drinks. Tequila Babe's had one or two from her own tray and I hear her tell Ratstar she's not allowed to have a shot unless a customer buys it for her, which of course he takes the hint and does. More money than sense, that guy. There's a girl walking around collecting empty glasses, she's got about ten in a stack that's starting to lean over dangerously. I'm half watching this girl so I don't miss it when the glasses crash down to the floor. Tequila Babe has knocked back her shot and she's now openly flirting with Ratstar, pretending to find everything he says outrageously funny. Ratstar's playing up to this, saying stupid things with a straight face and acting like she's hurting his feelings by laughing at him. Then he says, "Ok, you want to hear something funny, I'll tell you a joke!" and he starts a long and complicated story about how his dog died. If you actually listen to what he's saying, there's nothing at all funny about this story but he tells it as if it's a joke, and when he gets to the punchline, "and I never did find out which evil bastard did that to my dog" she's pissing herself laughing, and she gasps out,"Enough, don't make me laugh any more, it hurts!"

That's when the girl collecting glasses comes up to Ratstar and starts having a go at him. Tequila Babe takes off at once and I go to the men's room. When I come back she's still going on about how Ratstar has wronged her friend Jeanine, the girl we came here to see, by flirting with Tequila Babe. Ratstar is trying to defend himself and failing because she's not in a mood to listen. She's put the stack of glasses down on a table so she can emphasise points with hand gestures. A drunk guy blunders past on his way to the bar and brushes against the table. The stacked glasses plus a couple more and an ashtray, crash down to the floor. I politely and helpfully point this out to the girl, who starts to pick them up. Ratstar and I look at each other and head for the door.

Ratstar's telling me all about this girl Jeanine who he's only been out with twice so what is all the fuss about, and why shouldn't he talk to other girls if he wants to, like I care, when suddenly he stops in mid sentence. We're walking past an old warehouse which is being converted to an office block. The site is surrounded by a high wall which of course is covered with posters and graffiti. The development's been going on so long that there are strata of old posters, with new posters stuck over the top, you could cut a slice through and get samples of posters dating back to last century. Ratstar's staring speechless at one of these posters, a new one, it's not been graffitied over yet. It's an ad for a place called the Red Lantern Jazz Bar.

I think I've heard of this place before, the Red Lantern Jazz Bar, and then I remember when I first met Ratstar in the pub and we were talking about our games. He's staring at the poster as if it's come to life and the girl in the picture has stepped out onto the street and started singing.

"That's the poster! That's the exact same poster that was up all over Tokyo in my game! How did it get here?" He looks at the shops across the road, the off license, the chemist, the newsagent, all closed, metal grills pulled down and locked at the front. I know what he's seeing, empty buildings, abandoned cars, ruined, deserted Tokyo.

The posters that papered London in my game didn't seem real. They didn't look like you could walk up close to them and read them. So why did Tokyo get posters, real posters, advertising a real place? The Red Lantern Jazz Bar in Soho. Why did Tokyo get posters advertising a bar in London?

"Hey, Rats, why would Dark Ghost use these posters? What's special about this jazz bar place?"

"I don't know, I've never heard of it before. I didn't think it was real." Now he's looking at me and I see the bewilderment in his eyes change to excitement. "It could be a clue! It could be where Dark Ghost hangs out. Their favourite bar or something. We could maybe find out who Dark Ghost is!"

"Yeah, and if we find him, I'll tell you what I'm going to do, I'm going to make him change my game back." I know Ratstar thinks Dark Ghost could be a team of hackers, but I get the feeling there's just one, the one I've been playing online. And if that's the case, Ratstar and I have already beat him once.

"Right, we'll make him take that virus off every copy of Fools Rush In or we'll tell all the people he's hacked into who he really is!"

"We could google the place, see if there's anything on the net. We could even go there for a drink, I mean it's not my kind of place, a jazz bar, but if we get to meet Dark Ghost it would be worth it."

"Lets do it!" Ratstar agrees. "That would be so cool, to hang out with Dark Ghost."

So we decide to start our search for Dark Ghost with a visit to the Red Lantern Jazz Bar. I probably couldn't talk Ratstar out of going there if I wanted to. But it doesn't say on the poster how late it's open and by now it's pretty well pub closing time, so we agree to go there on Friday. Ratstar says that any place where an ace hacker like Dark Ghost hangs out must be cool, but I'm not convinced, I mean some hackers can be sad loners with no life and that's why they're always online. At the same time it's good to have found a way to get back at Dark Ghost for invading my computer and wrecking my new game, and there's a kind of a hunting instinct thing coming in here, I'm going to enjoy tracking down my enemy. I'm not as forgiving as Ratstar, who'll probably start off by buying Dark Ghost a drink and then ask for some hacking tips.

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