Chapter 20 – An Early Morning Set-Up (Part II)« Chapter 20 – An Early Morning Set-Up (Part I) Chapter 21 – The Shutters Conspiracy (Part I) »
Brad Wright and Casey Vargas stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the semicircle of people that made up their DarkNet ARG team while Frog stood away from them and explained the nature of the operation. At first, the team took to her with suspicion—they knew that she’d been spending time with Brad, but they were also aware that she was friends with Elaine and by proxy working with her brother’s team. The remainder of the team also knew something strange had had happened after their encounter in the stairwell.
“What are we getting out of this op?” asked Alfred Crafford, a stern-looking blonde Aeronautics Engineering major who fancied himself also a Green activist. He maintained a scruffy goatee with an eternal five-o-clock-shadow combined with blue-jeans and a collared plaid-shirt (for an aeronautics student, Frog found him reminiscent of a lumberjack instead.) His laptop sat open nearby, numerous stickers proclaiming his association with various Green activism groups arrayed like peacock feathers around the Alienware logo on the back. “Last I checked they were winning, by a very small margin now, but we’re neck and neck and the last game ops are coming up in the next week.”
Casey fixed Alfred with a stern look. “Questioning our judgment already?”
Alfred folded his arms. “Yes, I guess I am. What does she—” He gestured to Frog. “—have over you anyway?”
Frog knew that this would be a tough crowd to win over, but Elaine needed their help on short order so she’d have to do it the hard way. She knew that she had the most important players—Brad, Casey, and Larry—already in her pocket, but that left wildcards of Alfred, Ben Osborn, and Lawrence Wes. Recalling the dossier that Elaine had written up on him suggested that he disliked cheating more than he liked winning. She figured she could just frame it as some sort of leveling of the playing field.
She moved her shoulders to show she wanted to take the floor from Alfred but he sneered at her and rolled on with berating Casey. He hopped from the table he sat on and took several steps out of the semicircle towards the pair, still gesturing.
“I don’t see why you and Brad both agreed to this. You don’t agree on anything.”
“I do,” rumbled Ben Osborn. He gave Frog a sort of conspiratorial nod as he turned to address Alfred. “It’s part of the rules of the game that we can steal from one another, that there will be double-agents, and it looks like Mercer’s group has one. Except the rules explicitly state that selling secrets for money is a violation of the rules.”
“This sort of cheating will only make the game harder for everyone,” Frog said.
“If this were happening to us,” Ben said, “she would be here helping us catch the cheater. It’s our civic duty.”
“No she wouldn’t,” Alfred said.
Alfred gestured to Frog and then folded his arms, avoiding looking in her direction as he spoke. “What about the part where she and her friend tried to blackmail Larry? Are we forgetting that already or am I on the outs here? It’s suspicious that you haven’t explained what happened back there.”
“Actually,” Larry piped up. “She wasn’t blackmailing us.”
“Zane’s sister helped us out with a problem we had,” Casey said, “…and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
“She’s already helped us stop a cheater,” Brad said. “I am just returning the favor. If Zane’s team loses because someone bought the solutions off their counter agent we won’t have won this game fair and square and I’d always wonder if we won because someone was selling secrets or because we’re just that good.”
“I don’t like it,” Alfred said. He paused for a moment and looked directly at Frog. “No offence, of course.”
“None taken,” Frog said. She hadn’t realized exactly how tense the room was getting until he said that, she could feel the muscles of her back crunching up as if she were prepared to spring on something.
Obviously, Brad had control of his team and Casey was backing up his dominance; but from what she understood, Alfred would be the linchpin of making the operation look like a real DarkNet action and draw out the traitor. The conflict of interest seemed pretty obvious, after all, she worked with Elaine and Elaine worked with Zane—so it would be hard to break Alfred’s dislike of the situation. He was right: catching the cheat selling secrets would only help the opposing team.
“I just think that we have a golden opportunity here we’re letting slip by,” he said. “Her team needs our help, we might as well ask for something in exchange. I’m not okay with rushing out and wasting my time for them when they’re winning. We have an advantage here, we should be taking it.”
The room stirred in an uncomfortable silence for a moment and the group’s most silent member, Lawrence Wes adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat.
“Let it go, Al,” Lawrence said—speaking up for the first time during the entire morning. “You’re outvoted and you’re wrong. The advantage is not ours to take. These people would be our friends if we weren’t competing against them…in fact, as I understand it, they are our friends currently and we’re just thinking too narrowly.”
“Fine,” Alfred said and returned to his computer. “Fine, fine, fine. If we end up in second place, it won’t be my fault.”
“And if we get first place, it’ll be because we’re that good,” Casey said.
“So you’re on board?” Brad asked.
Alfred held his hand out to Frog. “Hand me the phone,” he said. “Let’s get rocking and catch this cheater, I have a date in Gotham City later tonight.”
Frog handed him the specially prepared cryptophone and a USB cable for him to connect it to his laptop when her Android phone rang in her pocket. (“If you like it then you shoulda rolled need on it,” the phone’s muffled speakers sang, “If you like it then you shoulda rolled need on it. You’re only cryin’ right now cuz a hunter got it. If you liked it then you shoulda rolled need on it.”) As it was preparing to restart the song, she tried to fish it out of her tight jeans as she hopped away from the group.
“My phone, sorry,” she said. “I should take this.”
She pulled it from her pocket and glanced at the caller as she hit the TALK button. The caller-id said it was the College of Engineering Dean’s Office. Baffled, she put it to her ear.
“Hello?” she said.
“Ms. Kermit,” the dean said as if speaking to an answering machine, he went on without pause or consideration. “I have received your request via your academic adviser, Doctor Fedora, and the regents have decided to decline your request for an immediate reexamination of your grades and academic suspension. In this matter I am overruled. However, if you want to discuss it tonight in my office around 5 PM, I and two of our friends from the agency will be there.”
“What?” Frog said, but the Dean had already hung up. She frowned at the phone.
It wasn’t her but Elaine who had gone to Fedora about her grades and academic probation and they didn’t have any friends from an agency…
“What is it?” Ben asked at her shoulder, having broken away from the group surrounding Alfred’s computer.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just that a mutual acquaintance of Elaine and mine thinks he’s being clever.”
She tapped away at the touchscreen on her phone and called Elaine. “Doll,” she said when she heard her friend pick up. “You and I need to talk right now. Something strange has just come up with the case.”« Chapter 20 – An Early Morning Set-Up (Part I) Chapter 21 – The Shutters Conspiracy (Part I) »