Codename Chameleon

Chapter 9

Real life gets more like gaming every day

My email inbox is full of the files that Ratstar's sent me. There's the complete specs for the Chameleon 1 prototype, with a link to something called the operator training program. I try to take a look at this but it wants a password. Still, Ratstar said he'd found some passwords so maybe it's in here somewhere. I read everything they've got about how to drive the tank and use the weapons. It would be awesome to have something like this in a game.

Ratstar gets here and finds the file with the passwords in it. It's called keys.dg and its icon is a tiny black skull and crossbones. This is the kind of thing that makes the people who hire Dark Ghost feel they're getting their money's worth. It's a simple text file with only six words. The first one on the list gets me into the Chameleon 1 operator training program. It's like I'm actually in the tank looking out at the road in front of me. A voice talks me though the controls and I drive down the road. Easy. Then the voice tells me how to change part of the viewscreen into a map. As I drive a dot moves on the map showing me exactly where I am. I drive from A to B to C on the map, then back to A. Then there's an exercise called "Desert conditions" and it's really easy, it's basically just driving the tank and firing the weapons when they tell you. Then there's a set of tests where opponents run out from behind the dunes and shoot at you and you've got to make sure you hit them first. I die twice but soon I get the idea and then I can hit them every time. They should make this into a game. I let Ratstar have a go and he does ok but he doesn't get as high a score as I do. The next part is "Jungle conditions", they assume by now you know how to drive the tank so what you have to do is get to a place on the map while dodging round trees and other obstacles and killing the enemies that are trying to kill you. Now I've had some practice I kill all my opponents and get a high score but Ratstar crashes into a huge tree and dies.

For the next part, they tell me I need to have permission from one of the following four officers, followed by a list of their names and ranks. There's a button to click next to each one. I click the top one and it gives me a list of his areas of responsibility, a short paragraph about his army career and a photo. Then I notice something odd, it says there's four officers but gives a list of five names. I click the last one, Captain Paul Wingate. He's in charge of research into possible uses for the Chameleon 1 within Britain. Then I see his photo. This can't be possible. He looks cleaner and neater in Army uniform but it's unmistakably Curtis Winter.

"Wow!" says Ratstar when I tell him who Captain Wingate really is, "is there nothing Dark Ghost can't do?" because of course this is a seriously clever piece of hacking. If I'd shown this to Penny last night he'd have known exactly what their plan was.

I go back to the box where I need to put in the name of the officer giving me clearance to proceed with the Chameleon 1 operator training program. I type in the name at the top of the list. A message comes up saying,"This clearance list has been locked." I click ok and try the next one. The same thing happens with all of the four real army officers. Not really expecting it to work I try typing in the name of Captain Paul Wingate. This time it asks me to give my name. Of course I'm not going to give my real name so I put in the only name that might work.

"Welcome, Captain Paul Wingate, to the final section of the Chameleon 1 Operator Training Program. Please be aware that any errors you make may have grave consequences resulting in potentially fatal accidents. When you are ready to proceed, enter your password."

I look at the list of passwords, Dark Ghost's "keys". There are five I haven't used. Four for the officers with the locked clearance lists. I type in the fifth and last.

At first I can't make out what's going on. I'm in the tank as before, but the viewscreen is mostly dark and I can't see where I am. I find the brightness control and turn it up. Now I can see out, I'm under some trees which are blocking out most of the light. Must be the jungle again. The program's not telling me what I'm supposed to do so I hit the M key to call up the map. What comes up is a detailed map of the Pinford area, the military base is marked at one corner and the tank's position is shown in a wood a few miles away. There's still no text to tell me what to do but I see a volume control next to the brightness control, maybe this part has voice instructions. So I turn the volume on. At first I hear nothing, then some birds start to make a noise, I suppose to make it sound like I'm really in a tank that's out in the woods in Pinford. Then I hear a voice, but faintly, just the sound of it, I can't hear what he's saying. I turn the sound right up.

"I really don't like this, Curtis! They'll be sending out searchers any minute."

And then a voice I know. "Relax, man, the truck should get here any time now."

The sound of a mobile phone ringing. "That's probably the truck now. Hello, Winter here. Yes, we've got it, we're waiting in the woods near the meeting point. Where's the truck? Good. No problems with the fake ID, the whole thing went off without a hitch. I'll tell you, that Dark Ghost is worth whatever we're paying him. Cool, we'll have the tank down to the meeting point in two or three minutes. See you."

I hear the crackle of dead leaves under their feet as they walk round to the front of the tank to where I can see them in front of the viewscreen. There's Curtis Winter, still in uniform, with another man I recognise, also in uniform. It's the big guy who works on the door at the Red Lantern.

Ratstar and I are just watching in amazement. It's obvious what's happened, the final part of the operator training program is when the operator gets a chance to practise with the actual prototype. The real thing. But I bet this is a bit more real than most trainee operators get.

"I'll just log in again and take command of the tank," Curtis Winter is saying, "it will take me a few minutes to get it down to the road and into the truck. Then we can walk to where you've left the car. We should be on our way back to London in about ten minutes."

"Can't be too soon for me!" the other man replies.

Curtis Winter is typing on a smart new laptop, the same type as the one I took from Luke. "What's going on! It's telling me I'm already logged in! I'm sure I logged out as soon as we got the tank here. I made sure I did, Dark Ghost advised me not to stay logged on for too long or they might be able to track us through the connection. I'll try once more and if that doesn't work I'll just have to get in the tank and drive it manually. They'll be waiting for us in the truck and we can't hold them up for too long. You can get the car and pick me up at the meeting point. No, it's no good. You'd better go and get the car now, I don't want to have to wait for you."

"Ok, sure," the other guy says. He starts walking away while Curtis Winter moves towards the tank. Now it's obvious what my mission is. Drive the tank back to Pinford Military Base while dodging trees and opponents who are actual terrorists. I can see the base on the map and there's a road that will take me most of the way. I've just got to get down to the road first.

I start the tank moving. It feels just the way it does in the simulation. Curtis Winter yells furiously as he runs out of the way, just in time to avoid being run down and crushed under the tank. The other guy turns round and starts running back. Do they really think they can stop me? Winter pulls out his gun and fires at the tank. It hits and the viewscreen jerks as if the tank has had a jolt but luckily everything still seems to work. Good thing I'm not actually inside. I target the tree closest to him and fire a laser pulse. Crouching down, he moves away from the tree and hides behind a bush. There's a large scorch mark on the bark of the tree. The other guy takes cover behind the biggest tree he can find. If I really wanted to kill them I could, even if I can't see them I can tell where they are by the rustling of dead leaves as they move. But I think I'm going to be in enough trouble without having to explain dead bodies to Vincent Penny. Moving fairly slowly so I don't crash into any trees, I'm heading for the road. On the map I can see the dot moving, showing the position of the tank. They must be mad, they're running after me, I can hear them. If they had any sense they'd be running the other way, back to their car to get the hell out of here.

I'm almost at the road now. The last bit is down a steep slope. I can see the road in front of me. There's not many cars on it at this time. Winter's switched the tank to jungle camouflage so they probably can't see the tank against the background of the wood. But as I get closer of course people on the road can see the tank and a couple of little kids wave at me from the back seat of a car. I guess if people live near a military base they're used to seeing this kind of thing. Then I see a huge truck coming towards me. It's on the far side of the road, driving the other way from the way I want to go. Behind me I can hear Winter shouting.

The truck pulls round so it's right across the road, blocking my way. No way is that going to stop me, this is a tank, remember? I go back onto the grass at the roadside and swerve around the truck. A man leans out of the window of the truck. He's holding a gun. I swing the tank around just as he shoots. The shot hits the side of the tank. I aim the laser weapons at the truck and fire. Two men just have time to jump from the truck onto the road before the truck goes up in flames. By now all the traffic on both sides of the road is held up by the burning truck, so I've got a clear road in front of me as I head for Pinford base. I can hear the sirens of fire engines and police cars behind me. Two police cars pull out of a side road and, one in front, one behind, escort the tank back to the base.

Tank pictures adapted from Hostile Waters, a game by Rage Software

I can hear Ratstar saying something and it pulls me back into reality. For a few minutes there I'd forgotten I wasn't actually sitting in the tank. Now I'm just driving down the road I can relax, the police aren't trying to stop me or shoot at me. I guess they're just making sure the tank gets back where it belongs. I watch the moving dot that marks the tank's position on the map as we get nearer to the base.

"That was killer! Ace shooting, Nate. That was so cool! We've done it! We've got the tank back."

"We're not there yet," I say. But the tank's getting closer to the base all the time and Curtis Winter and his friends are far behind. Then a message comes up on the screen. Senior Officer Emergency Override. Winter's found a way to regain control of the tank. He's turning the tank round. I'm trying everything I can to stop him but it's like my keyboard has been disconnected. He's targeting the police car that's been following me with the tank's weapons and I can only watch, helpless.

The fire button lights up and I wait for the laser pulse that will make the police car explode in a burst of flame. But as I watch the viewscreen blurs as if a mist has risen suddenly in front of the tank. The police car soon disappears and it feels like the tank is moving through a thick grey fog. Then something small and black appears at the centre of the screen and grows rapidly larger as if speeding towards the tank. I think it's going to collide with us until it gets closer and I can see what it is. A black skull and crossbones, Dark Ghost's logo. It gets so large it fills the screen, then vanishes to be replaced by a message. Resume control, Captain Paul Wingate. The tank has stopped in the middle of the road facing the wrong way. Weapons are powered up but not fired. I take the weapons off line, hoping the police won't try to shoot the tank. Then I turn the tank round and get back on track for the base.

I'm thinking about what Vincent Penny said to me earlier. It would be very easy for somebody to get killed. I could have shot Curtis Winter. If I hadn't actually met him, if he was a stranger, somebody who could have been a character in a game, I think I might have killed him. It felt good to scare him, make him jump out of my way, after what I saw him do to Anne. I'll tell her about it when I see her.

Now there's nothing else to do but drive down the road with the two police cars. There are no more attempts to take over the tank and before long I see on the map that we're nearly at Pinford base. The police must have let them know we're coming as the gate is open and the road inside lined with two rows of soldiers with guns. We drive in through the gate and the police car in front stops, so I stop too. Then I decide I've had enough of this, I've done what I needed to do. The men with guns converge on the tank but I don't wait around to see what they're going to do. I log out.

Ratstar and I look at each other with relief. Though nobody says this, we've both been feeling its our fault they managed to steal the Chameleon 1 so easily. If we'd handed the laptop over to Vincent Penny yesterday, Curtis Winter would have been caught at Pinford base as soon as he arrived. So it's good that we managed to put things right and bring the tank back.

"What happened at the end there?" Ratstar asks. "Was that Dark Ghost?"

"Must have been. But why he would help me, after doing all that work for the terrorists, I don't know. Unless he thought I was Curtis Winter, I was logged on under his alias." But I'm not really convinced by this explanation. If Dark Ghost could hack in to the Operator Training Program he could easily get a look at the map and see that I'd got the tank headed back to the base. Also he could probably tell that the person logged in was not using Winter's computer. I think he knew exactly what was going on and for some reason decided to switch sides. Maybe they didn't pay him. "Do you realise, after everything we've done, we're no closer to finding out who Dark Ghost actually is?"

"Yeah, I know. I couldn't find anything to help on the laptop. I expect he's one of those really paranoid types that never tells anyone anything. Luke says he doesn't have a clue who Dark Ghost really is and I think I believe him. When he was trying to recruit me he told me the group had asked him to find a good hacker and he'd emailed a couple of friends who he thought might be interested. Next thing he got an answer from Dark Ghost and of course he didn't have to look any further. He tried asking his friends but they claimed not to have told anyone about the hacking job. It's possible that Dark Ghost just happened to hack into one of their computers and read their email."

Then I get a call from Anne. "Vince just told me about your adventure with the laptop. Nate, are you crazy? I've told you before, these are very dangerous people you're dealing with. Who knows you took it, apart from Vince?"

"Just one friend of mine, and he's not going to tell anyone."

"Another thing, Nate, and this is important. Please don't tell any one I came to see you yesterday, or about the other time I was in your room. Vince will probably want to question you and I don't want him to know. I could get in a lot of trouble."

"Ok with me, it's none of his business anyway." I guess this is some kind of professional ethics thing, because we met when she was working. Cops aren't supposed to shag the suspects. No problem, I can keep a secret. But it would be cool if we could go to the pub together sometimes.

"I'm not sure when I'll be able to see you," she says, and then, "Sorry, someone's coming, I'll have to hang up now. Call you soon."

A bit later Ratstar says, "Do you want to look at the online news, see if there's anything about the tank?" So we take a look at and it's the top item.

Terrorists Steal Army's Latest Tank

Terrorists hacked into the high security computers at Pinford Military Base in an attempt to hijack the British Army's latest invention, a remote controlled tank that can change colour to match its surroundings. The tank was driven off the base this morning by a terrorist calling himself Captain Paul Wingate. Information planted by the hackers on the base computer convinced security at the base that Captain Wingate, as he called himself, was cleared to take the tank off base for a training exercise. Timely intervention by officers of Special Branch resulted in the tank being returned to base with no loss of life from its deadly laser weapons.

Our brave police found the terrorist's getaway car concealed in woods near the base. As the gang of four men ran to their car they were cornered by armed officers. The terrorist who had posed as Captain Paul Wingate, still wearing his disguise of an army uniform, pulled out a gun and attempted to shoot the arresting officers. He was instantly shot down. The other three men did not attempt to resist arrest and will be held without bail. An ambulance was called for the man who was shot who is believed to be the leader of the gang. He was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Peter's Hospital, Pinford.

The Metropolitan Police attempted to arrest another member of this dangerous gang this morning. Acting on information from a protected source they went to the South London flat of Luke Brady, only to find him shot dead. A neighbour claims to have heard loud angry voices coming from Brady's flat last night, when it is believed the murder took place. Police have released the information that the murder weapon is the same type of gun as that taken from the dead terrorist leader who posed as Captain Wingate. Analysis of the bullet will confirm whether it is in fact the same gun.

Other news items:

Global warming cause of African landslide
Female sports stars in sex scandal
Survey shows kids learn more from TV than at school
"Venus flytrap ate my pet rabbit"

Of course everyone reads this kind of thing all the time, it's always on the news, some guy's been shot, some guy's been killed. No one cares, really, about that kind of death. But it's very different when it happens to some one you know, a guy you've sat at the same table with, had a drink with. It's worse for Ratstar, he's spent a lot more time with Luke than I have.

"Why do you think that guy Winter shot him?" he asks me. "Do you think it was because we took that laptop?"

"I don't know. Could be because of the laptop, could be anything. He shot at Anne, he tried to shoot the cops when they came for him. He nearly made the tank blast a cop car. I think he went crazy, just wanted to kill."

"Maybe that's why he became a terrorist, so he could kill people."

I can't stop thinking that if we'd given Penny the laptop right away, Luke might have been arrested yesterday. That might have saved his life. And if the reason Winter killed him was about the laptop, then it's my fault he's dead. I suppose now Winter's dead I'll never know.

Now Read Chapter 10