As Kevin Thompson, CONTROL Agent 86, approached the Chief's office door, he froze. He'd heard his boss roar like that plenty of times, but usually it was when Kevin was on the other side of the door. Nervous about facing an angry Chief but also curious about what non-Kevin thing could have made him that angry, he opened the door and walked in.
He found the Chief glaring intensely at his computer screen, muscles tense and eye nearly coming out of its socket. "You stupid piece of useless garbage, I don't even know why I keep you around! All you ever do is aggravate me and make my life unbearable!"
Kevin blinked at the all-too-familiar insults. Maybe the Chief just decided to get a head start on yelling at me today, he thought. Then he noticed that the Chief hadn't even looked at him yet, and was scowling even more fiercely at the computer.
"Something wrong, Chief?" Kevin asked cautiously.
The Chief's gaze immediately snapped toward Kevin, who actually took a step back at the heated glare. After a moment, the Chief took a deep breath and calmed down. Slightly. "I'm afraid so, Agent 86. It would appear that CONTROL's entire network has been hacked. Signs and countersigns have been changed by unknown parties, sensitive information has been accessed, and I can't log on to Facebook!"
"Wow, Chief," said Kevin, who had understood about half of what he'd just been told. "Is it one of those virus thingies? One time I went to one of those sites where the girls--I mean, I was looking for boring stuff and accidentally typed in the wrong web site--and my computer, like, went crazy on me."
Shaking his head, the Chief replied, "Unfortunately, these issues appear to be targeting CONTROL's most highly-classified files and other top-secret information, which points directly to KAOS involvement. This is a cyber-attack, not a mere virus."
"Whoa." Kevin still wasn't following all of what his boss said, but he'd gotten enough to know KAOS was doing bad things again. Which meant he needed to act.
"The only thing so far that doesn't fit," continued the Chief, "is that we've been getting shipments of Yoo-Hoo by the crate load all day."
"Oh...." The mention of Yoo-Hoo made Kevin stop and think for a moment.
The Chief, not paying attention, tapped his chin thoughtfully. "This could be a clue, in fact."
"Chief, I think I should--"
"I suspect that whoever is behind this may be some kind of prankster, which could prove to be a weakness."
"Actually, you might want to--"
"If we can find some way to take advantage of the hacker's odd sense of humor, perhaps draw him or her into some kind of trap, then maybe--"
Startled, the Chief ended his train of thought and looked at Kevin. "What?" he demanded.
"That Yoo-Hoo? That was, uh, kind of because of me. I found this place online where you can order it really, really cheap, but it turns out you have to buy a whole lot of it. See, I thought I was buying one bottle, but it turns out I read the thing wrong and I guess--"
The Chief held up a hand and let out a shuddering sigh. "Never mind, Agent 86. It was a nice lead while it lasted. At any rate, I'm assigning this case to you and--"
"Aieeee!" came a high-pitched shriek from the other side of the Chief's office door. Moments later, the door opened and Agent 99, Kevin's partner, entered. "I don't believe this!" she cried, waving her smartphone in the air.
"Problem?" Kevin asked unnecessarily.
"Ugh, yes!" 99 squeaked. "This stupid thing is driving me crazy!" She gave the smartphone an extra shake for emphasis. "It's my e-mail. The whole thing has gone nuts!"
The Chief and Kevin exchanged worried looks. "You're having issues with your e-mail?" the Chief asked. "Your personal e-mail?"
"Yeah," 99 replied, turning off the device in disgust. "I don't know what the deal is, but something weird is going on with it."
The Chief leaned back in his chair and frowned. "This is even more serious than I thought. Even our agents' private e-mails and devices have been targeted by this KAOS plot."
"KAOS is behind this?" 99 squeaked in horror. "But...why?" She frowned at her phone. "Why would KAOS be trying to sell me discount drugs or pretend to be from eBay or offer to enlarge my--"
"--Uh,99?" Kevin interrupted, "that's all just spam. Everybody gets those."
"Oh." She shrugged. "Well, I did think it was a little weird that their spies would pretend to be from Nigeria."
"All the same," the Chief said, "we're certain that KAOS has been hacking into our systems, and we need to stop them before any more damage is done. Unfortunately, our top tech people haven't been able to block their attempts, so it's up to you two to track down the culprits and stop them."
"But, Chief," 99 protested. "We don't even know where to start! They could be anywhere!"
"That's true, 99," the Chief admitted, "but we do have a possible lead. It's a long shot, but we need you to investigate the most depraved, amoral, notorious, disgusting, antisocial place in town. It's--"
"Oh, the cyber café?" Kevin asked. "No problem."
"Prepare yourselves," the Chief warned. "When you go to alt.lawndale.com, you'll be surrounded by freaks and misfits of every kind. Remorseless hackers, obsessive fanboys, and even--" he shuddered, "--bloggers. You'll be facing the bottom of the social barrel."
Kevin grinned as he turned to leave with his partner. "And...loving it."
The two CONTROL agents tried to enter the cyber café inconspicuously, but 99's appearance was too conspicuous to miss. Several of the café patrons' heads swiveled as they walked by, but no one was brave enough to do more than stare. Kevin received several jealous glances, which flew right over his head as he glanced at a nearby computer screen.
"Hey, look!" he exclaimed to his partner. "See the cute face that kitten is making? That's adorable! Oh, and somebody put a caption on it. Ha! Genius!"
"Kevin," 99 whispered urgently. "We're here to investigate a KAOS plot. Don't get sidetracked, okay?"
"Saw-ree." Kevin assumed his most serious face for about three seconds before dissolving into giggles. "Did you see the video over there? That guy fell down!"
"That's great, Kevin," 99 replied with a sigh. She was feeling more and more uncomfortable by the second as the other people in the café continued to stare at her with varying degrees of creepiness. As Kevin stared entranced at a nearby computer screen, she began looking around the room for clues.
After a few minutes of searching, she noticed a list of familiar names sticking out of a garbage can. She pulled it out and realized that it was a list of CONTROL agents. She turned the list over and gasped. "Kevin," she said quietly, "I found this list written on the back of a flyer for Mr. Fun's Exciting World of Games. It could be a lead!"
"Yeah, that's great," Kevin replied absently while reading over someone's shoulder. "Hey, did you know there's Ratboy fanfic?"
"Let's go, Kevin," 99 growled, dragging him out of the café and back to civilization.
As they pulled into the parking lot at Mr. Fun's Exciting World of Games, 99 put away her phone. "I updated the Chief on what we found. He says we've already got a CONTROL contact here."
"Whoa!" Kevin replied. "You mean CONTROL already suspected the arcade might have something to do with this and sent an agent before we even arrived?"
They walked into the arcade and 99 pointed toward a set of virtual reality machines. "There he is!" she squeaked. "Agent 207."
The attendant looked up as they approached. "We need to talk to that guy," Kevin told him. "Any chance you can, like, pull the plug or whatever?"
The attendant rolled his eyes. "Wish I could. He's been in there for over three hours."
"Wait," 99 said. "Maybe we should join him in the game. He may be following up some clues, and it could be more secure than talking openly in a public place."
The attendant shrugged and handed them some VR gear. "Go nuts."
The two agents hurried into the gear and were soon dropped into the middle of a not-very-realistic-looking fantasy world. "Oh, cool!" Kevin exclaimed, waving his hands in front of his face. "It's like we're really...uh, wherever we are."
"It's a jungle," 99 said, sounding far less impressed. "And it's not very realistic. I mean, those leaves are so blocky, and the birds look really fake, and those shouts--oh, wait. Those are real."
"Let's go!" Kevin said, excited in part because they were getting closer to solving the case but mostly because he wanted to see more of the virtual reality game. He ran off in the direction of the shouting, and 99 shrugged and followed behind.
They arrived to find one man squaring off against several foes. As they watched, the man grabbed one by the shoulders and threw him against another, knocking them both off balance. As they fell, the man jumped at a third, kicking him square in the chest and using the momentum to hurl himself at the fourth and final opponent.
"Should we do something?" Kevin asked 99.
"I...don't know," she replied, mesmerized by the brilliant tactics used by the fighting man.
The man looked up from his fight and waved. "Hello!" he greeted them, just before ducking behind one of his opponents and snapping his neck. Seeing the agents' startled reactions, he explained, "Don't worry; they're computer-generated characters." He finished off the rest of them quickly, then approached Kevin and 99.
"Are you Agent 207?" 99 asked him.
"Why, yes I am!" he replied with a pleased smile. "But most people call me Ted. And who might you be?"
"We're your contacts from CONTROL," she said, confused. "Didn't the Chief brief you on this before he sent you here?"
"I deeply apologize," was Ted's sincere reply, "but I haven't heard from the Chief in days."
"Then...why are you here?" Kevin asked in surprise.
"To practice my hand-to-hand combat skills! It's an ideal environment for experimenting with new techniques. Also, it's incredibly enjoyable." He looked curiously at them. "Is something important going on?"
Kevin and 99 just stared at him in shock. At last, they took turns explaining the situation. Just as 99 was telling him about the flyer she'd found in the cyber café, a new group of fighters came into view.
"Ah," Ted said cheerfully. "I guess the game is still going. Give me just a minute and I'll take care of these pixilated villains--"
"AIIIEEEEEEE!!!" Without warning, 99 leapt at the closest opponent and knocked him down. Whirling quickly, she attacked the next one and had incapacitated him in seconds. As she kicked the third, sending him reeling into unconsciousness, the remaining fighters turned and ran away.
"How odd," Ted remarked. "I've never seen computer-generated combatants retreat before!"
"Wow," 99 breathed excitedly. "This game is fun!"
Seeing another band of enemies coming their way, Kevin stepped forward. "Don't worry," he told his companions, "I've got this one." He crouched down, shouting, "Eat dirt, you pixie ladder loser!" He then sprang forward at the first one...and landed face-first on the ground, missing him by several feet. He got to his feet quickly, brushing himself off. "Listen, buddy," he said to the befuddled opponent, "I, uh, hope I wasn't out of line with that crack about the pixie ladder."
As he prepared to resume his attack, Ted and 99 moved in front of him. Working smoothly together, they took apart the group without any apparent effort.
"Uh, good job, guys," Kevin said. "Teamwork and stuff! Yeah! We all really kicked their asses!"
Ted and 99 exchanged a quick look, but before either could respond, she pointed toward something in the distance. "Hey! There's another one!"
She started toward the figure, but Ted stopped her. "Wait! That's not one of the usual computer-generated characters. I think that's another player!" He turned to the other agents. "Did you bring back-up?"
They shook their heads. "Not one of our guys," Kevin said, "and whoever it is, they're getting away!"
The person had started running in the opposite direction, and all three CONTROL agents immediately began running after him. Just as they were closing in on him, though, the figure suddenly vanished from the game.
"Drat!" Ted cried, deeply disappointed in his failure.
"It must have been a KAOS agent," 99 said.
Kevin nodded. "They're on to us!"
Sighing, 99 turned to her partner. "I think we're at a dead end," she said. "We better head back to HQ and regroup."
"Sure," Kevin agreed. He looked at Ted. "Coming?"
Ted fidgeted a little, looking eagerly around at the game setting. "I...think I should stay here," he replied slowly. "To, er, look for clues! And in case that KAOS agent comes back!"
"Uh huh," 99 said doubtfully as she and Kevin prepared to exit the game.
Once back in the real world, the two agents quickly shed their gear. The attendant jerked a thumb at Ted, still blissfully playing. "Is he gonna quit, too?"
"Sorry, man," Kevin told him. "I don't think he's ever coming out."
As they left the arcade, 99 whispered, "When does he eat and sleep?"
Kevin shrugged. "Or go to the, you know...little agent's room?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I don't want to know the answer to that one."
They arrived back at CONTROL headquarters to find the place in complete turmoil. Many agents were running frantically through the hallways, shouting incoherently at each other, while a few simply sat in corners, rocking back and forth with vacant looks on their faces.
"KAOS must have done something really bad to cause this kind of panic," Kevin remarked to the Chief. "Did they get one of our super-secret weapons? Hack into security and knock out all our defenses?"
The Chief, even more stressed out than normal, shook his head. "Even worse. We can't check our e-mail!"
Eyes wide, 99 gasped. "Oh, no!" Her hand flew to her smartphone and she began jabbing buttons as quickly as she could. She sighed in relief. "Whew! My online issue of Waif is here!"
"Wait," the Chief said in confusion. "Your e-mail is still functioning?"
"Yeah!" She smiled, still reading. "And shoulder holsters are in this season! This day just keeps getting more awesome!" She continuing going through her inbox. "Hey, that's weird."
"What's up?" Kevin asked.
"I got a really strange message from somebody I don't know. They say 'Don't worry about getting hacked; I've pulled a few strings and you'll be perfectly safe. I'll see you around! Your secret admirer.'" She gasped. "Oh, wow!"
"Indeed," the Chief said. "This is our biggest lead yet! With a little luck, we'll be able to follow it to--"
"I have a secret admirer!" 99 squealed, hopping up and down while clapping her hands with excitement.
The Chief sighed. "That's great, but could we possibly focus on the case?"
"Uh, right." She assumed a serious face, but continued bouncing in place.
"So what's next?" Kevin asked.
"I'm going to have our tech people take a look at the e-mail," the Chief began. "They might be able to trace it back to the source, and from there we can track down the person who sent it. It could take some time, though. Clearly whoever sent that e-mail is incredibly computer-savvy, so it goes without saying that they must have covered their tracks to prevent us from--"
"Chief?" 99 interrupted.
He sighed. "Yes, 99?"
"I just wanted to mention that their e-mail address is email@example.com. Do you think that might be helpful?"
The Chief froze. After a moment, he closed his eyes. "...Yes, 99. I think that might be helpful."
"Oooh, I bet I can figure it out," Kevin said.
"I'll take that bet," the Chief muttered to himself.
Kevin peered at the screen, concentration evident on his face. "Let's see...e-mail address...it was sent from...hmmm...."
Tilting her head, 99 suggested, "I think it might be someone named Bobby Stuart who works at Le Grand Hotel!"
Annoyed, Kevin replied, "If you don't mind, 99, I'd like to figure this out myself." He stared at the screen again, and at last snapped his fingers. "I've got it! I think it might be someone named Bobby Stuart who works at Le Grand Hotel!"
"Good job!" 99 cheered.
"Get out of my office," the Chief ordered them both.
"Remember," Kevin told 99 as they got out of his Jeep at Le Grand Hotel, "our cover story is that we're newlyweds on our honeymoon."
"In Lawndale?" 99 asked, uncertain.
"Hey, we've got that big strawberry!" Kevin replied defensively as they walked toward the front doors. "Anyway, our names are--"
"Welcome to Le Grand--Agent 99?!" The bellboy who had come out to greet them froze when he saw 99. He looked like he didn't know whether to run away or kiss her, so he decided to faint instead.
"Well, so much for that cover," Kevin complained. "Hey, that guy looks kind of familiar."
Tilting her head, 99 stared at the unconscious man and thought for a moment. "You know, I think that might be the guy we saw in the game earlier today!" She gasped. "It must be Bobby Stuart!"
Kevin nodded. "I think you might be right. Do you know what this means?"
"Yes!" she cried. "I found my secret admirer!"
The pair took Bobby back to CONTROL headquarters, and the interrogation began as soon as he regained consciousness.
"Eep!" he cried out when he saw where he was. "Please don't hurt me! I'm just a bellboy!"
"Nice try," Kevin snapped at him, making his best scary face, "but we already know you're a KAOS agent."
"No, they just hired me to hack into your system. I'll give you a free hotel upgrade if you let me go!" he begged.
"Gee, maybe he's telling the truth!" 99 remarked. "He's kinda scared for a KAOS agent."
Bobby noticed her there for the first time and his demeanor abruptly changed. "Oh! It's a pleasure to meet you." He smiled winningly at her. "Listen, have you ever been to C'est La Veal? It's almost impossible to get a reservation, but I happen to know the owner and--"
"Hey!" Kevin slammed both fists onto the table in front of him. "This is supposed to be an interjection, not a singles bar!"
Looking back at him, Bobby remembered where he was and froze in terror.
"Now tell us," Kevin yelled in his face. "Tell us everything you know about KAOS's plans!"
Bobby tried to reply, but all that came out was a strangled squeak.
Sighing, 99 stepped in front of Kevin. "Bobby," she said cheerfully, "you like to help me with stuff, like keeping me from being hacked, right?"
Calming down instantly, Bobby replied, "Absolutely! Anything you need, anything at all!"
"So, like, let's say I wanted to know who hired you to hack into CONTROL's systems...?"
"Noah Barkman," Bobby said without hesitation. "He's the president of Buzzdome."
"Dome?" Kevin asked eagerly. "Is this gonna be about football?"
"No," Bobby said calmly, his eyes still on 99. "It's an Internet startup."
"Internet starting lineup?"
"No, Kevin," 99 corrected. "It's like a company that does online stuff!"
Bobby nodded his agreement.
"Ohhhh," Kevin said. "So it's going to be about those funny videos and cat pictures!"
"Um...okay," 99 said with a shrug.
Leaving Bobby in CONTROL custody, Kevin and 99 made their way quickly to Buzzdome's headquarters. "By now KAOS has probably figured out that we're on their trail," Kevin told 99 as they approached the building.
"That's true," 99 replied. "They'll be on their guard, so disguises and cover stories won't work. We'll just have to tackle them head-on!"
Kevin looked at her in surprise. "Tackle? So this is gonna be about football!"
She chose to simply ignore him.
They tried the door and were surprised to find it unlocked even though all of the windows were dark. Sneaking quietly inside, they found the building consisted of a single, open-plan workspace that therefore offered very few hiding places. Even so, both agents had the unsettling feeling that they were being watched.
Kevin waved 99 toward one side of the room while he crept along the other side. Without warning, a thin woman with short red hair and braces on her wrists leapt out at 99. Taken by surprise, 99 was tackled before she could react and the other woman was able to get the upper hand quickly.
As Kevin moved toward them to help his partner, another woman--this one with long dark hair in a ponytail--stepped out to block his path. "You incompetent numbskull!" she shrieked at him. "Did you really think we wouldn't be able to deduce your next move and prepare for it?"
"Yes?" Kevin replied hesitantly, not fully understanding the question. "Er...no?"
She rolled her eyes in disgust. "You are easily the dumbest secret agent I have ever met!"
Before Kevin could ask if she was related to the Chief, she dove at him and kicked his legs out from under him.
"Not even the most inexperienced rookie would be this easy to anticipate." She continued her tirade alongside a variety of attacks, both of which were intended to keep Kevin off-balance and distracted.
Across the room, he heard an unfamiliar voice cry out, "Nooo! My carpal tunnel!"
Peering past his opponent, he could just make out 99 swatting the attacker with her own wrist braces. He was brought sharply back to his own dilemma with a sudden slap across the face. "Imbecile! Did CONTROL recruit you from some kind of remedial class?"
"Naw," Kevin replied cheerfully. "I just kept applying and showing up at HQ until they finally gave in and let me have a job!"
Now it was her turn to be caught off-balance and distracted. She quickly recovered and renewed the assault. "Are you really too stupid to realize when you're being insulted?"
"Nope," Kevin said with a grin. "Wait...is this one of those times?"
"Argh!" she roared, cheeks red with anger. "No one could possibly be this ignorant. Is this some kind of trick?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Kevin saw that 99 had defeated her first opponent and was now facing off against an Asian man with a lock of hair over his forehead. He turned his full attention back to his own foe in time to see her spring toward him, arms outstretched and bellowing with rage. He started to counterattack, but only managed to trip over his own shoes and land in a heap on the floor--which she sailed over on her way to crashing into the nearest wall.
"Saw-ree," he said, offering her a hand to help her up. She refused the offer, and as Kevin looked at her more closely he realized that it was because she had knocked herself unconscious.
Shrugging his shoulders, he turned back toward 99 and found his path blocked by a dark-haired man with a mustache. "Geez," Kevin complained. "KAOS must hand out overtime like it's candy or something, and yet the Chief gets all uptight if I punch out five minutes late!"
Kevin braced himself for another attack, but the man suddenly dropped to the floor. Standing behind him was 99, holding a large inflatable plant with a very solid metal base.
"Ah," he said approvingly, "the old 'knock 'em out with a giant inflatable palm tree' trick!"
Before he could say anything else, 99 pointed a finger toward the entrance. "Quick! He's getting away!"
Kevin whirled around in time to see a man with spiky white hair and tinted glasses bolt for the door. Reacting quickly, he bounded after him and knocked him to the ground, pinning him there.
"Wait!" the man cried. "We can cut a deal! Let me go and with my help CONTROL can become so plugged in even the digerati will be impressed! I've got the massive e-vision you need to optimize your web presence, and my bleeding edge killer apps will diversify your synergy. We'll shift some paradigms and increase your visibility in the marketplace--"
"I've heard enough!" 99 squeaked.
"So you'll work with me?" the man asked hopefully.
"No!" she cried. "I just don't have the slightest clue what you're talking about!"
The man deflated and when he spoke again, he had dropped the confident demeanor. "Fine, I'll talk. My name is Noah Barkman, and Buzzdome is just a cover for my work as a KAOS agent."
"So you're the one who's behind all of the hacking?" Kevin asked.
Noah shook his head. "I'm just a subordinate." Seeing two quizzical faces looking back at him, he sighed. "I work for someone higher up. The person you're really looking for is--"
He never got a chance to say the name, though, because at that moment he clutched his throat, gasped a few times, and collapsed on the floor, motionless.
Kevin leaned in. "Uh, do you think he's okay?"
After checking for a pulse, 99 put her ear to Noah's chest and listened for a short time before shaking her head. "No heartbeat. Hey, what's this?" She pulled a small bag from one of his jacket pockets and looked inside. "Chocolate-covered coffee beans." She sniffed the bag and gasped. "Poisoned!"
Kevin groaned. "Don't tell me KAOS killed him before he could lead us to the mastermind behind the whole plot!"
She looked sadly back at him. "KAOS killed him before he could lead us to the mastermind behind the whole plot."
"I asked you not to tell me that!"
Taking the other Buzzdome employees into custody, Kevin and 99 returned to CONTROL to explain the situation to the Chief.
"So the bad news is that Barkman died before he could tell you the identity of the person pulling the strings at KAOS."
"Yeah," Kevin admitted, "but the good news is that CONTROL can finally get on the Internet again!"
The Chief shook his head. "Actually, that's also the bad news."
"What?" 99 squeaked in horror. "You mean our network is still compromised?"
"Not at all," the Chief reassured her. "On the contrary. The Internet is up and running...and productivity has taken a nosedive."
Kevin shrugged. "Still, it was mostly a successful mission. But there's one thing I've gotta take care of before this case is closed."
"Finding the criminal genius who's running things from the shadows?" 99 asked.
"Nope. I've gotta find that Ratboy fanfic website!"
Thank you to RLobinske for beta-reading.