“Seriously. Hard-boiled is a good look for you.”
I ignore Ernie, yank off my fedora and suit jacket, undo my bow-tie as I stride purposefully toward my laptop. I’m not usually the hacking and entering type—but, then, these aren’t usual times. I’ve been doomed to live out my days in black-and-white; my best (and only) friends are an Asian barbarian-geek, a virtual weight-lifting jock, an undies jockette in distress, and the human equivalent of cake. My subconscious has taken on plush form. My laptop is a moaning, grunting monument to banging.
No, these are not usual times.
Beta hefts his messenger bag and steps beside me, puts his hand on my shoulder. Jan, too. In solidarity we glare at Ernie, watching and waiting as he fusses with an overstuffed backpack I’m assuming he brought from home.
“Ernie, what are you doing?” I ask impatiently.
“Packing!” he barks back.
“Supplies! Munitions!” He makes a face, struggles mightily to fasten the pack to his back, though he just can’t seem to get it to cooperate due to an excess of arm fat, poorly-adjusted straps, and the fact that it’s too crammed with the likes of which only God can fathom. After several failed attempts at putting it on, he simply picks the backpack up with both arms and waddles over to where we’re standing. “Stupid thing’s broken or something.”
I nod, only vaguely agreeing, and, making sure Jan’s got his phone with him (I’d use mine for the return trip, but, well, you know), I hit the send button on my laptop. Looking like the DVD cover of some cheesy eighties sci-fi romp, we upload en masse…
Ernie lurches beside me. “Dude, it’s pitch-black in here—I can’t see anything!”
“That’s exactly what Eva said before she screamed,” Jan points out.
“Dude,” Beta grunts.
“Save the horror movie commentary for after we’ve come and gone.”
“I’m just saying.”
Jan launches the flashlight app on his phone, holds it over his head. It looks like we’re in some kind of garden shed. Everything’s cluttered and cobwebbed: gardening tools, lumber, paint cans, several dead Christmas trees. A procession of large wooden buckets lines one wall. I pray to God they’re not filled with what they smell like they’re filled with.
“Blech!” Ernie chokes, having immediately wandered over to one of the buckets and peered inside. “Check out the poop buckets!”
Yep—that’s what those are. Instinctively I reach to cover my mouth and nose with my shirt—only to find that I’m shirtless. And pants-free. In fact, I’m black and white and back in the default Joey Martin loincloth and dagger combo. Also, there’s ink on my chest. Someone’s written “good at bed” in giant, sloppy letters. “When did this happen?”
Ernie smirks. “When you were being good at bed.” He walks over to me, tries to flick one of my nipples. “Are you going to go full jungle boy every time you upload or download somewhere?”
Shooing him away, I look at Beta expectantly.
“It would appear,” Beta answers, thoughtful, “that in addition to being persistent, your skin is also resetting to defaults for some reason.”
“I’m not sure. It may be a session bug. Or just bad programming.”
I unsheathe my fake dagger, testing the blunt tip with my finger. “Wonderful. Just…wonderful.”
“Hey, there’s a reason SuperMegaNet is still in beta.”
Ernie moves over to another bucket, sniffs, scowls. “Ugh. This one’s even worse.”
“So, where’s Eva?” Jan asks.
“Not sure, but the server’s right there.” Beta points at a crusty-looking ThinkPad propped on an overturned orange crate. It’s got an external hard drive hooked up to it, as well as a power adapter that’s been jury-rigged to get its juice from a car battery sitting adjacent.
“Wow,” Ernie says. “That’s some ElectroBOOM-caliber shit right there.”
Beta kneels in front of the ThinkPad, opens his messenger bag, taking out his own laptop and a USB thumb drive.
I stand beside him, fidgeting over myself, and only partially understanding what he’s doing. PHP is as far as I’ve ever gotten with regard to programming, and even then I’ve never used it to hack into anything. I suppose it’s a little late to ask if this can be traced back to me—or any of us. My parents have been reasonably sane about everything up to this point, but what if hacking my guidance counselor’s SMN server is the straw that breaks the camel’s back? What if they take away my computer, my phone? What if I get grounded? What if they finally start parenting me?
Where the heck is Eva?
“Hey,” Beta whispers.
“Huh?” I whisper back.
“Don’t sweat the skin thing.”
“I’m not.” Which is true enough.
“It could’ve been a Donald Trump skin. Or Aughra from The Dark Crystal.”
“Instead you’re Joey Fucking Martin. Own and operate that shit. You’re a bad-ass orphan whose parents got eaten by lions, but you survived to help Tarzan restore relations with the Wazuri tribe. You’re a superhero, really.”
“Except I don’t have any superpowers.”
“Superpowers are overrated. Batman didn’t have shit but for his vast fortune and fancy toys, and he’s a superhero.”
“Really? You’re going to compare a jungle orphan with nothing but a loincloth and a prop dagger to the Dark Knight?”
Beta sighs. “Joey rescues Tarzan from the lion pit at the end of Tarzan’s Savage Fury, right?”
“There you go.”
Something occurs to me. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because no one ever felt better about themselves by thinking negatively.”
“Are you saying there’s a chance I might not get my original skin back?”
“Anything’s possible,” Beta says, not entirely able to keep the worry out of his voice. “I just think you need to be…optimistic. Own what you’ve got, bloom where you’re planted, and all that.”
OMG. He’s totally trying to tell me, in his own obscure way, that I’m not getting my original skin back! “You realize that’s like me persuading you to go unskinned when you’re actual, but that it’s okay, because your wheelchair would make you kind of like Professor Xavier.”
“You’re a hurtful little fucker sometimes, you know that?” Beta shakes his head. “But because I’m a nice guy, I’m still going to mention that as Joey Martin you no longer need your custom contacts.”
I blink, a ginormous mental tidal wave washing over me with such force that it ruffles my hair. I hadn’t thought about it at all, but apparently Tommy Carlton had 20/20 vision—or, at least, whoever designed his skin made sure it was sporting 20/20. That actually kind of makes up for having to lose three-quarters of my clothes every time I download somewhere. Not that I plan on staying like this any longer than I have to.
“Hey, guys!” Jan whispers loudly from the back of the shed. “Come look at this!”
I carefully pick my way to where Jan’s moved aside a giant plywood panel—revealing an arched doorway opening into a stone spiral stairwell that leads downward.
“What do you think is down there?” I ask.
Jan shrugs. “Where do most stone spiral stairwells lead?”
Before I can entertain my darkest fears, Ernie huffs beside me, tries unsuccessfully to keep one of the outer pockets of his backpack from rupturing—which it does, suddenly and without warning. Projectile supplies go flying all over.
“Cheap JanSport!” he exclaims, and sets down the pack, drops to his knees. “Shine the light down here, Czech!”
“Oh, Ernie.” Squatting, I feel around the floor, helping to pick up his…grenades and duct tape? “You brought grenades and duct tape?”
“Yeah—candy grenades.” Ernie holds one of the grenades up to the light, revealing that it’s filled with M&M’s.
“Oh.” Thank God. “And Fruit Roll-Ups?”
“No, that’s duct tape—just in case we need to bind and gag Thrill-Kill before throwing her off a cliff or something.”
I hand him his quote-unquote supplies. “Okay, someone who packs candy and duct tape as the only items in their survival pack should not be making decisions on whether or not it’s appropriate to throw a human being off a cliff.”
Ernie glares at me. “Shouldn’t you be doing lines of coke while providing sexual release for latently homosexual movie executives, or whatever it is you child actor types do when you’re not dimpling in front of a camera for chump change?”
“Listen, gas giant, if you make one more crack about my skin—”
The distant sound of chains rattling.
A girl screaming.
Both echoing up the stairwell.
“Huh,” I murmur, swallowing hard.
“Huh what?” Ernie asks, having deftly shifted his bulk behind me for protection.
“It just hit me. This isn’t a garden shed.”
Jan raises an eyebrow. “It’s not?”
I shake my head. “It’s the entry to a dungeon.”
Here’s some adjacent ridiculousness: