A white, spacious room. Bright beams of sunlight poured in through the wide windows. C. J. saw a door in front of him and tried to approach it but then realized he was stuck. The only part of his body that he could freely move was his head. He was strapped into a heavy iron chair. C. J. struggled for a while in an attempt to break free but soon had to admit that it was pointless. He took a few deep breaths and tried to keep his cool. Needless to panic, he assured himself. Just stay sensible and find a way out of this mess.
Suddenly he remembered the sight of his own deathly pale face inside the coffin just a moment before the blackout. Shit, he muttered quietly. They had dragged his body out of the ocean after all. C. J. took another look at the white room. It was almost empty but behind him he noticed another person tied to a chair similar to the one he was resting on. Agent Jefferson.
“What the fuck’s going on here?” C. J. cried out.
The agent wearing a blue aloha shirt and light brown chinos just sat stiffly, staring into space.
“Hey, Jefferson!” C. J. hollered. “You hear me?”
Abruptly the door opened and he instinctively turned his head towards it.
“No use bro,” said a buff, Afro-haired guy in a white tank top. With a gold necklace and all.
“Rat King,” C. J. grunted.
“Sure. Whatever suits you best,” the man grinned and walked across the space. He halted before the Agent, took hold of his chin, and lifted it a few inches.
“Nobody’s home,” Rat King told and slapped the Agent a few times softly on the cheek before releasing his grip.
The head slumped down and was left hanging, limp and motionless.
“By the way, I want to express my gratitude to you,” Rat King went on. “Dunno if we’d have gotten him without your aid. Good catch, you know. And the guy’s gonna be our guest for a while now.”
He started marching around the room, lost in his thoughts and whistling some remotely familiar tune from the ’70s. C. J. couldn’t help but notice a nasty-looking machete that Rat King was casually swinging in his hand. He could feel a headache coming.
“What’s this place anyway?” he asked.
Rat King stood by the window with his back to him.
“Consider it a safe haven, bro. Far away from the City or Laguna Beach for that matter,” Rat King replied. “Different server, you see.”
He turned around, caressing the knife with his fingertips.
“Got to say you’re a tough little fucker. Thought we’d already seen the last of you until yesterday when you suddenly popped up in the neighborhood with that toy copter.”
“Who are you people?” C. J. insisted.
Rat King shook his head. “Too much curiosity may waste you in the end. We’re a club, yeah. Nationwide and real exclusive.”
He walked back to C. J. and stepped behind the iron chair. C. J. felt his heart racing.
“You won’t need these no more son,” Rat King said tenderly.
C. J. could only guess what it was supposed to mean. Abruptly the machete was flung through the air and the whole chair trembled from the hit. Chop-clank. And then again. Chop-clank. Large beads of sweat were rolling down C. J.’s forehead as Rat King bent down to pick something from the floor, whistling chipperly. Then he got up and C. J. saw him holding a pair of thumbs in the palm of his hand.
“I really don’t get all the fuss about them trigger fingers,” Rat King snickered. “I mean, just try to hold and shoot a gun without your thumb, right?”
He shoved the fingers in his back pocket and headed for the door. C. J. was feeling nauseous.
“Make yourself at home bro,” Rat King said. Then he was gone.
Fronk slurped down a can of energy drink and stared absent-mindedly at the computer screen. A full-bosomed woman called Cindy was lying on the sand in a G-string, giving him a lustful smile that showcased a set of perfectly even, white teeth. After Rat King had taken off, he had stayed in the white room alone for a while and tried to find a weak spot or any kind of careless mistake on the part of his captors. Finally he had gotten frustrated and done the same thing as Jefferson earlier, namely plugged out. There was no way around it. He was stuck in the room.
On the next day, Fronk slept well into the afternoon. He had a pan full of mac-and-cheese for breakfast. As he shovelled the food into his mouth, he was still feeling lost and unable to think straight. Of course, he could delete his avatar and purchase a license for a new one. He would then however lose all of his property, savings, contacts, perks, his résumé, persona, and so on. In other words, he would need to start once again from rock bottom. Probably even his pecker would end up looking different.
“Fuck!” Fronk roared and cast the empty can of energy drink into the corner of the room.
The following evening Agent Jefferson started to show signs of life. He straightened up his back and glanced around the room.
“Anybody around?” he called.
“Yello,” C. J. replied.
“Good. You’re here,” Jefferson said. “I noticed already before we’d got company but you weren’t online.”
“Well fuck me sideways. Ain’t we lucky now? How did you end up here anyway? I thought you guys weren’t into the gig.”
“Things turned out to be more complex after our little chat,” Jefferson explained in a calm manner. “We got a tip-off that various far-right groups were planning a terrorist attack on the administration during holidays. So naturally preventing this was made a top priority. I had already collected reports of some shady business taking place in Laguna Beach and decided to go and check out the area.”
“I reported!” C. J. snapped. “You ought to let me know…”
“That was the plan, believe me. But then I got taken hostage,” Jefferson said.
C. J. began to ponder what he had just heard. His gut had been indeed telling him from the start that he was on to something. But the fact that an Agent had meddled in the case proved that it might actually be a lot bigger than he had even realized. He thought about the vehicle marked with the letter Q and the house on Mystic View. How hadn’t they ever bumped into the black hats while they were patrolling the town day and night? Then it hit him. There hadn’t probably been any gatherings at all in the first place. The whole operation was coordinated remotely. And even if they wanted to meet in person, they could’ve come along the beach, avoiding the main roads. C. J. cursed his own amateurish foolishness.
“Mystic View,” he said. “Rat King’s castle is located at the end of street. Tell your people to go and bust the place.”
Jefferson sighed deeply. “How do you think they caught me? The house is clean. They tidied it up real thoroughly. And the suspect’s on the loose.”
C. J.’s mood darkened instantly. He writhed around and jerked his arms and legs on the iron chair but the ropes didn’t give in even an inch.
“That motherfucker took both my thumbs,” he squealed.
Jefferson looked at him with contempt. “Lucky bastard,” he snorted. “The guy chopped off my entire hand.”
It had grown dark outside. Through the windows of the room, one couldn’t spot a single building or treetop, not even clouds drifting leisurely across the sky. Only the vast, murky blankness.
Without his online games, Fronk felt like a fish out of water. It was only now that he fully understood how much cyberspace really meant to him. It was a never-failing way of spending countless, dull evenings and also so much more. For years, it had played a key role in forming the core of his identity. It had been undoubtedly the single most important thing in shaping his daily life. As boredom struck him like a tsunami, Fronk decided to try some of his old games. Soon he grew tired of them and switched to watching videos streamed by other gamers. They were however a poor substitute and seemed to only make his withdrawal symptoms worse. Any incident worth knowing was to happen in the proximity of the City and he wanted to be there, experiencing it all firsthand.
He had arranged another meeting with Jefferson for the next evening in case either one of them would have any news to break. It turned out that nothing interesting had occurred in the meantime and their chat had been even briefer than the day before. Fronk threw the VR headset irritably on the desk. On Christmas Day, he had to once again settle for a frozen mac-and-cheese meal and some canned peaches in syrup for desert. After dinner he masturbated twice, watching porn on his computer and then slumped down onto the bed.
Grim thoughts were running through Fronk’s head as he lay still, staring at the ceiling. He tried to concentrate on the news for a while but for some reason they really made his blood boil. His hands moved on the belly to feel the wobbly love handles; he had gained twenty-three pounds since last year. Long, greasy hair rested on the blue pillow. All of a sudden Fronk gave the wall a loud smack. He bit his lip and continued banging on the wall until his knuckles started to bleed. Only then he managed to slowly cool off and set his arm down by the bed, hanging lethargically. The white wall was marked with an ugly bloodstain.