by Kathryn Flatt
I must write it all down before the light goes. They will come for me, and while I deserve my fate, whatever it comes out to be, the story must be committed to words. People must know the truth of how it happened and understand the threat does not come from stupid computer hackers like me and Larry Paddington and Jenny Reynolds. We did not understand it either until yesterday.
Yesterday. Is it possible everything was still normal just a day ago?
As Larry and I sat in front of the computer workstation in his basement den, I think I remember feeling a touch of guilt. The laptop in the center displayed a counter on which the numbers climbed upward with ever-increasing speed.
“How long do we let it run?” I asked him.
Larry’s crooked grin looked sort of evil when reflected in the computer monitor. “Are you kidding? This is a bleeping goldmine. I say we let it ride.”
“Somebody’s going to catch on,” I warned. “Someone always does.”
“Nobody’s going to find out. The virus went out clean, no trail back to us.”
“But the fix leads back to us.”
“And that makes us the good guys. We got losers out there pumping fifty bucks our way for something to remove the virus we created. It’s genius.”
Part of it had been my genius, but it did not make me very proud.
“C’mon, Dave,” Larry chided. He grabbed the back of my neck and gave me a friendly shake. “In one hour, we’ve already made over five grand.”
The screen displayed a counter of our sales, and the units digit changed almost too fast to read.
A tap at the sliding doors of Larry’s walkout basement announced Jenny returning with the pizza. I got up to let her in.
“How’re we doing?” she demanded excitedly as I closed the door behind her.
“Rollin’ in moolah!” Larry proclaimed and laughed. “Get ready for the Ivy League colleges, kids, because our little charity is raking it in.”
She and I opened the cardboard boxes of pizza, and Jenny sat on the table beside them. I put one slice each on two paper plates and handed one to Larry as I sat on the stool beside his.
“Are you sure we’re not going to get into trouble?” Jenny asked, but her attitude was relaxed and unworried.
Larry rolled his eyes. “Jeesh. You two are both wimps.” He put on a whiney voice. “We don’t want to get into any trouble.”
Jenny shrugged a shoulder and bit into her pizza. I kept stealing looks at her from the corner of my eye because she was so cute. Short, kind of chubby, but not in a bad way, like a cuddly doll. I liked the way her long bangs would move just a little whenever she blinked. I sometimes wondered if I should ask her out on a date, but the three of us had been buddies since sophomore year, and it might just feel weird.
“You have any more diet cola?” she asked Larry.
“Try the kitchen fridge.”
She started up the stairs but stopped just before she was out of view and began backing down.
A man came down with her, tall enough so he had to duck under the place where the basement ceiling started. He wore a light gray suit, light gray shirt and tie, and a light gray coat draped around his shoulders like a cape. His hair was silver, too. He carried an ultra-thin laptop.
“How’d you get in here?” Larry demanded.
“That is immaterial,” the man said.
Jenny stared at him with her mouth hanging open, like he was a cross between the greatest rock star ever and something not of this world.
Once he got close to us at the computer desk, the light from half a dozen screens made his clothes seem to glow in the dark. His pale blue eyes looked angry and went with his cold frown.
He placed the laptop on the table in front of Larry. “Fix it.”
“Who are you?” I asked him. “What are you doing here?”
“Your virus has infected my laptop and it is imperative you fix it.” His raspy voice reminded me of someone walking through dry leaves.
Larry snorted. “Imperative, huh?” Larry did not look like a computer nerd, more like the captain of the football team that all the girls drooled over. And he didn’t scare easy either.
The pale eyes fixed on him, sharp as diamonds. “Yes. Imperative. Time is of the essence, so I suggest you get started.”
“Or else what?” Larry challenged, but with a little less sarcasm.
The stranger’s thin-lipped mouth twitched in an evil smile. “Trust me, you don’t want to find out. Just fix it.”
Something in his voice suggested he wasn’t making idle threats. I figured maybe he was a hit man or something criminal like that and we should call the cops. After all, he was trespassing.
I glanced at Jenny, still standing at the base of the stairs, gaping at him, entranced. The whole scene was so strange, I could hardly believe it was real.
“Okay, okay,” Larry said nervously. “We’ll fix it. No problem.”
“Good,” the man said. “You have roughly two hours and forty-five minutes.”
I forced myself to look away from Jenny and focus on his laptop. The highly polished black case looked too thin to be a functional computer. Its silver edges gleamed.
“Piece of cake,” Larry remarked. “We’ll just download the fix from the website.”
“No,” the stranger stated. “You must not uplink to the Internet.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Doing so could pass the virus to the Master Computer,” he explained without explaining. “That is the very scenario I am here to avoid. If that were to happen, it would be as devastating as failing to fix the problem. You see, I must uplink in the next two hours and forty-three minutes, and there can be no risk of infecting the Master Computer.”
“What’s this Master Computer?” Larry questioned with a hint of suspicion.
The man smiled his wicked smile. “You don’t have much time. I suggest you get on it.” He turned his head to look at Jenny, and the smile turned warm and benevolent. “Young lady, might I trouble you for a beverage?”
“Um, uh, y-yeah,” she stammered. Her cheeks were fiery red. “What would you like?”
He chuckled. “Whatever you’re having would be excellent.”
She stayed frozen to the spot for another couple of seconds and then dashed up the stairs.
I leaned close to Larry and kept my voice low. “What if we just link a USB cable between this one and yours? Just load the fix straight across.”
“Exactly what I figured,” he whispered back. “Find me a cable.”
I pawed around the assorted junk on the desk, found one quickly, and plugged one end into Larry’s computer.
Larry felt around the sides of Mr. Fixit’s computer, searching for the USB port. His brow furrowed. “No ports.” He looked at the computer’s owner who stood aside, buffing his fingernails.
“I’ve never needed any,” he said casually.
Larry licked his lips. “Okay. We’ll just clean up the bad files one at a time and fix the registry.” He raised the lid.
My stomach turned over slowly. Inside, both halves of the computer were pure black, shiny, just like the outside, except for one small square on the lower right corner that glowed a soft yellow.
“How do you turn this on?” I asked.
“It’s on,” Mr. Fixit stated. He came to the desk, leaned between us, and pressed his thumb on the yellow square.
The screen came to life, but it only made the whole thing stranger still. On a blue background, white concentric circles were crossed by lines, like some kind of graph. Each curved rectangle of blue in between held a different symbol.
“What the hell?” Larry muttered. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“What kind of computer is this anyway?” I asked. The words came out of my dry mouth with difficulty.
The man in gray fixed me in a penetrating stare that made my blood run cold. “Are you saying you don’t know how to fix it?”
“I don’t even know how to make it do anything,” Larry whined. “There’s no keyboard, and I don’t know how to get to anything.”
The stranger exhaled noisily in exasperation. “What is it you’re looking for?”
“Directories,” I answered. “Where do we see a list of files?”
He touched a symbol on the screen, a capital “p” with a dash across it.
The result sort of looked like lists of files in five columns, but all the entries used more oddball symbols instead of letters or numbers.
“I can’t read this,” Larry complained with a panicky edge.
A well-manicured hand passed between us and the screen, and all the entries changed to something more like normal computer file names. “Does that help?”
“How do we type anything?” I asked him, part of my brain trying to get past the idea that his computer was something out of a sci-fi flick.
“Type? Well, I suppose you must.” He touched a corner of the case that looked just like every other part of it. My breath caught when the dark lower part turned into a standard “qwerty” touchpad.
“Okay,” Larry sighed, pulling himself together. “Okay. We can do this.”
“You’d better,” Mr. Fixit said. “But whatever you do, don’t touch that red symbol in the upper left. That starts the uplink.”
I huddled closer to Larry as the man backed away. “I think I want to wake up now.”
“Get a grip,” he husked at me. “We gotta do something and do it fast to get him out of here. You start from the right, and I’ll start from the left. Look for our executables.”
I started scanning the list, but I had to keep starting over because I was more than a little scared. Everything around me seemed off kilter, kind of dreamy, but I knew I was awake. The strange character and his strange computer and his threats of terrible consequences if we failed to fix something we did not even understand were all too real.
“Here’s your drink,” Jenny said from somewhere behind us. “I hope diet’s okay.”
“Diet’s wonderful, sweetheart,” the man said in a flirtatious tone. “So what’s an adorable little thing like you doing with a couple of losers like these?”
Jenny giggled. “They’re my friends.”
“I’m sure you had nothing to do with their little get-rich scheme.”
“Not too much,” she demurred. “I just did some website stuff. They’re the ones who know the computers.”
“I could tell just by looking at you that you were an innocent, and maybe not without hope.” He leered at her like a dirty old man. “Well, let’s you and I hope they know what they’re doing, eh?”
“Here!” Larry grabbed at my sleeve and pointed at the screen. “That looks like ours.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, but it brought no relief. “How do we delete it?”
Larry studied the keypad, pulling at his lower lip and reminding me of a chimpanzee in the zoo, considering how to get the banana out of a sealed plastic bag.
Behind us, Jenny’s giggles alternated with the hushed male voice and his occasional laughter, and I dared a look. He stood in front of her, very close to her, pretty much hiding her from view. Pizza churned in my stomach. He looked old enough to be her grandfather.
Larry jabbed his elbow into my ribs. “Hey! Come on, Dave. Stay focused.”
I turned back as Jenny’s giggle became a throaty guffaw.
Larry touched the name of the file on the screen, and the letters turned from white on blue to blue in a white box. One of the keypad squares was labeled “Del.”
“Here goes nothing,” Larry breathed. He touched the “Del” key.
The file disappeared from the display and the other entries moved up.
“Yeah!” we shouted together and gave a high five.
“Four more,” Larry said eagerly. “Four more files.”
“How do we fix the registry?” I asked. I worried just deleting the files would not make the computer work correctly, or that we would even know if it worked correctly or not.
“We just tell him to reboot,” Larry replied. “Shit, man. For all we know, it hasn’t got a registry.”
“But if it does, it won’t work. The startup will look for folders that ain’t there anymore and it’ll crash.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. We’ve got no clue how this piece of junk even works in the first place. We do as much as we can and give it back. Let him figure out the rest.”
“He said him not being able to link up would be as bad as linking up with the virus,” I argued. “I think we got to make it work.”
“One step at a time,” Larry admonished. “Keep looking for files.”
He touched an arrow beside the last entry on the screen, and a new list replaced the old.
“See? These things are all intuitive,” he stated triumphantly. “We can do this, man.”
I rubbed sore eyes and realized I had not heard anything from Jenny or Mr. Fixit in a few minutes. With a shiver running up my spine, I scanned the basement to find Larry and I were alone.
“Where’d they go?” I felt sick inside.
“Man, we gotta keep working on this.”
“Who do you think he is?” I asked. “I mean, what can he do to us?”
“He must be some kind of government agent,” Larry said. “But he doesn’t seem to know much about how this thing works. So we say we fixed it and give it back. He goes away and then we clean house.”
I fixed eyes on the screen because looking for files kept me from thinking about where Jenny and Mr. Fixit might have gone. Or what they might be doing. Minutes seemed to fly by.
“There!” I said and pointed to the middle of the screen. “There’s three more.”
Larry touched the first of them and deleted it.
“Be careful,” I warned. “Don’t delete nothing you don’t need to.”
“I know, I know.” He knocked off the other two files, and we resumed scanning for the last one.
The room seemed too warm, and I wiped sweat off my forehead. “What if we can’t get rid of the virus, Larry? We only think we know what we’re doing.”
Tension was getting to him, too. “So what’s the big deal anyway? If we can’t fix this piece of crap, what happens? Some big computer somewhere gets a virus. Big deal.”
“It would be a very big deal,” came the dry voice from behind us.
I turned around. Mr. Fixit had returned to his place by the table. The room around us had gotten darker with night coming on, but his image remained bright and clear. Something about his uniformly gray clothes, glowing in the murky gloom, seemed familiar somehow.
“Where’s Jenny?” I asked him.
Mr. Fixit smirked. “Upstairs taking a nap. She was suddenly very tired.”
I cringed and dared not ask for more.
“We’ve almost got it,” Larry put in. “Then you’ll have to reboot.”
“Reboot?” he asked snidely. “I don’t believe I’ve ever done that before.”
My heart doubled up on a couple of beats. “Just what happens if we can’t get this to work?”
Those pale eyes focused on me and made me regret opening my mouth.
“You two idiots don’t get it, do you?” he lectured. “How do you think all this works in the first place?”
“All this?” Larry questioned.
“Computers. The Internet. Wireless connections, voice communications and video over the computer. All of it. How do you think it works?”
Either of us could have launched into a long description of the hardware and software involved, but for my own part, I had the distinct feeling we would have been wrong.
Mr. Fixit chuckled and shook his head. “You think it’s all a big toy. Systems and hardware invented by hotshots like you who got rich for it.” The humor ran away from his face, and his eyes seemed to glow, like cold fire. “It all works because the Master Computer allows it to. And if that goes down, everything goes down.”
“Everything?” Larry asked.
“Everything, young friend.” Mr. Fixit’s voice got louder as he talked. “Everything that runs by or connects to a computer anywhere, anything with a microprocessor in it, all of it. And if I don’t report in on time, it will be assumed that the virus cannot be contained and the system will shut down just the same. Those are the stakes, boys.”
“But that’s . . .” My words stopped up in my throat when he turned his glare on me. “That’s not possible. Somebody would know about this. How can it be a big secret from everybody but you?”
“Me and a dozen or so other Guardians,” he said haughtily. “We police the systems around the world in order to prevent this very sort of situation. We search for incursions into the Master Computer and stop them. I just happened to find yours.”
“So why can’t you fix it?” I asked.
“You should be called to account for what you’ve done, that’s why. Your archaic money-making scheme put everything in jeopardy, and you must accept responsibility.”
“Guess that means we’re smarter than you,” Larry taunted. “Our stuff broke your stuff.”
“You imbecile!” Mr. Fixit roared, loud enough to leave my ears ringing. “If you don’t fix what you broke, you will set civilization back fifty years! There will be chaos, anarchy! The computers all stop. The lights go out. The heat goes out. Planes fall from the sky. Weapons systems fail. People die! Are you getting this now?”
Larry’s face got so pale, it almost seemed to be glowing, too. He stared at nothing for a half a minute or so and then closed up the strange laptop.
“It’s fixed,” he said in a deadpan voice. “We deleted the files the virus put out there.”
“Very good,” the man stated in a calmer tone. “With time to spare. I’ll take it and leave now.”
Larry swiveled his stool around and held out the laptop.
In a blur of motion, Mr. Fixit tucked it under his arm. It happened so fast, like time had hiccupped, or a little piece--the one where he actually took it--had been edited out. I blinked, hardly daring to believe my eyes.
“If you have not corrected the problem,” he warned. “We, the Guardians, will find you and exact punishment for what you have done.”
I turned my head for a moment to look at Larry, just for a half second, and in that time, Mr. Fixit vanished. Just winked out, and I suddenly remembered what his glowing image reminded me of: a hologram from some science fiction movie.
“Jeeeeeesus,” Larry breathed. “Did we drop acid or something, man?”
“Jenny,” I said, and dashed for the stairs.
I found her in Larry’s room, fully dressed, laying across the bed on her stomach. She looked like she was asleep, a slight smile on her lips.
“Jen?” I reached out and shook her shoulder.
“So beautiful,” she sighed and turned her face away from me.
The sense of everything being unreal came on strong. I didn’t understand what had happened, but still some part of my brain, the caveman-afraid-of-the-dark part, understood perfectly. I sat on the side of the bed, trying to work it out.
Larry came to a halt in the doorway. “What’s going on?”
I shrugged and stared at Jenny. My head felt numb.
“What’s with her?”
“Asleep,” I answered. “Just like he said.” I couldn’t bear to wonder what might have gone on between her and Mr. Fixit.
“Hey, man, he’s gone,” Larry prompted. “What we’ve gotta do is go down there and wipe all this stuff off the system.”
Larry had compensated for the weirdness, had told himself everything could be okay again. I could not move. I just watched the rise and fall of Jenny’s shoulders as she breathed and felt something, maybe everything, had been lost forever.
“Come on, Dave. Haul ass!”
I made myself stand and followed Larry back to the basement, even though I felt only hopeless dread.
“Why does it matter now?” I asked him. “If his computer works, it works. If it doesn’t we’re screwed.”
“Don’t be a goof,” he chided and started working at a keyboard. “He was yanking us around with all that crap. Just trying to scare us. All we gotta do is follow our original backup plan. We clean it all up, hide the trail, and then--”
Every screen suddenly went dark.
“Oh, God,” I whispered.
Then the lights went out, plunging the basement into total blackness.
“What the hell?” Larry asked. “He’s messing with us now. Where’s a flashlight? I’ll check the breaker box.”
From a distance, sirens screamed, and I knew there would be nothing to find in the breakers. Something crashed somewhere in the neighborhood, loud enough to shake the house.
It had begun . . .
Larry chose to run, but I stayed. Jenny wouldn’t wake up, so I stayed with her while Larry ran away. When I heard the screams and yells from outside, I figured I had better start getting it all down on paper. I feel somewhat better--tired, hungry, a little hopeless--but at least the story has been told.
I’ll blow out the last little bit of the candle now, even though it’s still dark, and wait for the Guardians to come for me.
There’s nothing else to do.