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Book 1 – Chapter 4 – Still Receive Your Kiss – Part 5

Zkazz and Alexis must have finished their play when we arrived, because they were nearly throwing a tantrum at this lion named Escaflowne. “Your skin color, your parents, the top team thousand dollar grants you had in college,” Alexis said. “None of these affected your chances of landing your dream job.”

“Tell that to the forty-five rejection letters I have sitting on my desk at home,” Escaflowne said. “I busted my ass for months out of college, working at Target and risking my job every time I called in sick to go to an interview. So I don’t see why Richard should be getting all the sympathy.”

“You did actually read his post,” Zkazz said. “You didn’t just skim the recap that Nettle posted on his journal?”

“Oh right, boo-hoo,” Escaflowne said. “My body breaks down and I have nothing in common with my coworkers. That’s no reason to be on the dole. I was civil. I mentioned some easy certifications to get his foot in the door.”

I took out some virtual popcorn and settled down. I never marched into these things. I waited for Escaflowne to make even more of an ass out of himself.

Then, a panda boy named Aleutte passed into the room through the north wall. The Sitting Room didn’t have a door on that side. Everybody stopped. We stared at the kid in jeans and a T-shirt. He was as stunned as we were. He was probably reading the descriptions of everything in sight.

Nova broke the silence. “You’re not age verified,” she said. “How did you get in here?”

“Where is this?” Aleutte said.

I performed a search on the kid, too. Players over 18 had one tag; those over 21 had another. The kid had neither. He had broken into a locked, protected space.

“Holy shit,” Aleuette said.

Alexis slapped him. “Watch your mouth,” he said. “This is the Villa. You shouldn’t have been able to come in here.”

“This is some sort of club?” Aleutte said.

“Yes, adults only,” Nova said. “Where were you before you came here?”

“The bathroom in the park. Is this how you get here?”

Escaflowne, Zkazz and Alexis disappeared. In half a minute, they all reappeared through the wall.

“This is bad,” Alexis said. “If you type ‘go in the second stall,’ it takes you here.”

“I’ll contact an administrator,” Nova said.

“Don’t,” Escaflowne said. “This isn’t a bug. Someone made the link deliberately, and only an administrator can create yet.”

“Did I do something wrong?” Aleutte said.

“No, hon,” Spiderweb said. “You should head out, though. We’ll handle everything.”

Zkazz and Alexis left for the hallway. Zkazz sent me a message, “Help contact everyone in here. Tell them to lock their rooms and don’t come out.”

I forwarded the message to Applewing, but she had already heard the news.

Escaflowne faced the kid. “Don’t go anywhere,” he said. “Do you know anyone else who went in that stall?”

“Not really. I was exploring.”

According to his profile, the kid had only been a member of SarnMUCK for a week. Nova sent a mass-message to everyone except him. “Escaflowne and I agree that this is some form of harassment from the admins. They could take over a week to fix this. We must stay with locked rooms for now. Anyone with suggestions on dealing with this, speak now.”

I had forsaken the Villa months ago, but I racked my brain for solutions too.

“We keep this quiet,” Alexis said in green. “If this gets out, people will be coming into the Villa out of curiosity.”

“The kid’s going to tell,” Escaflowne said.

“Which is why I asked him to leave,” Spiderweb said, “before he realizes it’s not a game.”

“Admin Petra is sympathetic,” Zkazz said. “He’ll take care of this if we report it to him.”

“He’s on a trip to Holland this week,” Nova said.

“If this is a no-win situation,” Applewing said, “we have to tell Univore that we’re not taking it lying down. Amber and I have invitations to his private chambers, for a party last weekend.”

“They are probably still some good,” Amber said. “If not, no loss.”

“What’s the point of that?” Alexis said. “He broke into our place, we break into his. So what?”

“We bring the kid with us,” Applewing said, “and we shame him into closing the link.”

We spent a few seconds in silence, which is immense on-line where everyone’s pressured to speak their mind and say clever things whenever they can get a word in.

“You know that Univore can read this,” Nova said.

“We’re not the ones at fault,” Escaflowne said. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Who’s with us?” Applewing said. “The kid doesn’t have an invitation, so someone has to watch him outside.”

“If that’s a subtle hint, yes, I’ll join you,” Nova said.

“So will I,” Spiderweb said.

“Me too,” I said. I wasn’t about to wait for the message boards for the scoop.

We gathered a sizable crowd. Nova explained the situation to Aleutte and he agreed to join us. We summoned taxis and swept off for Univore’s lair.

As a member of SarnMUCK, I had an apartment somewhere. I found it by accident once. It was empty. Most people don’t need apartments except for nookie. Perhaps some kids might dedicate their rooms as shrines to Slayer, the Sex Pistols or some stupid noise band.

Univore had his own plantation. It was surrounded by woods for a paintball version of hide-and-seek, dungeons for monster whacking (by appointment only) and a hedge maze. I had sneaked inside once, and promptly called a taxi after it started to change shape.

Applewing took point and guided us into the hedginess. She called out the direction she was about to head, so that it wasn’t lost in the sea of text lines announcing each player arriving and departing. We were far inside when she called, “Halt.” I was afraid we would have to start over, but then she announced, “Sorry, we’re fine. It’s south.”

“Are you absolutely certain?” Spiderweb said, “We’re not really in a maze. We’re spelling out words in binary. It’s an old trick. The four directions are 00, 01, 10 and 11.”

Suddenly I wished I had been keeping track.

“Really?” Applewing said. “What letters have we spelt so far?”

“C, R, O, A, T and we’re starting the next one.”

“Croatian?” Alexis said. “Is Univore’s family from Eastern Europe?”

“Beats me,” Escaflowne said.

“Anyway, for an ‘I’, we should go west,” Spiderweb said.

“What does it say on your invitation?” Aleutte said.

“South,” Applewing said. “I checked twice.”

“I vote west,” Spiderweb said. “The next letter has to be ‘I.’”

“I agree with Spiderweb,” Nova said.

“I don’t know,” Escaflowne said.

“It might be ‘Croatoan,” Aleutte said. “The mystery word from the Roanoke colony.”

“Good point,” Spiderweb said. “I didn’t consider that. In that case, south would be correct.”

“Make up your mind,” Escaflowne said.

“I guess we’re going south, then,” I said, and blinked off after Applewing.

We danced around the hedge until I was certain we had spelled ‘onomatopoeia.’ Suddenly, we all jumped into a secret garden. It was described as ordinary, a bright square with plenty of sun and foliage. On closer inspection, I realized the greenery was not plants. When I ‘looked’ at the bushes, I saw their leaves were constructed from human arms, eyes and painted fingers. The peonies were built from fingernails. The rhododendrons were tongues. The high walls were headless torsos compacted together. Univore had written enough detail that when I touched them, I was informed their flesh was warm but their hearts did not beat. Applewing tapped one hedge wall and a door slid out.

“We’re ready,” Applewing said. “You stay here and we’ll get his attention.”

“Wish us luck,” Amber said.

I sent Applewing a message. “Break a leg.”

Then we waited. I stood up to get a drink from the fridge, and then wrapped myself up in the blanket again.

Applewing and Amber were still outside with the rest of the furverts.

A message from Spiderweb was waiting for me. “Keep quiet for now. We’re being watched.”

My cursor flickered on and off for a while.

Without warning, Zkazz wrote, “Wow, this is some kind of sick joke.” He pointed to a sign. I’m sure everyone typed, ‘read the sign’ at once. I did. It said, “Welcome to the Garden of the Nanthropomorphs.”

I sent her a message. “What is that?”

“You know how anthropomorphs are the way we envision human qualities in animals?” Zkazz said. “Nanthropomorphs are how inanimate objects perceive us. Shapes that bend funny. You know how we see in a face in a car’s headlights? The car would see a strangely shaped tree.”

“Is that why we’re waiting?”

“Who knows. Nova has been messaging up a storm. We’re waiting for her to finish something.”

More time went by, as if the program had crashed. Soon, Aleutte said, “So, are you going in or not?”

“No, Univore, we’re not,” Spiderweb said.

The room exploded into chatter, at the level of the Park. Escaflowne announced he didn’t believe it. Only Nova kept quiet. Spiderweb took a moment to kiss her.

“Who is Univore?” Aleutte said.

“I’ve been talking with him since Aleutte showed up,” Spiderweb said. “I’m sorry, but administrators have complete log access, and it’s safest to report these things immediately.”

“She’s shared her logs with me,” Nova said.

“Applewing said she received her invite a week ago, around the time Aleutte’s account was created and Petra went on vacation,” Spiderweb said. “Remember, Aleutte didn’t appear until the Sitting Room was full of witnesses. I asked Aleutte about himself while I was speaking to Univore, and I noticed they never responded at the same time. Then they said this.”

Spiderweb: (to Aleutte) I hope you understand we might have to talk to your parents about this.

Aleutte: Yeah.

Spiderweb: (to Aleutte) Then co-operate with us. Do you want us to have to email them?

Spiderweb: (to Univore) It’s probably a mix-up that happened during maintenance. I understand. The problem is it happened

Spiderweb: (to Aleutte) in a very sensitive area of SarnMUCK, right?

Aleutte: Yeah.

Aleutte: I mean, no.

Univore: Yeah.

As she printed this log, Spiderweb disappeared. The screen said, “Spiderweb has been removed from this server. This account has been set to ‘banned.’”

Aleutte also vanished.

I drowned some choice words for Univore in my drink.

“We almost screwed up,” Alexis said. “He could have used that against the Villa.”

“No harm done,” Zkazz said. “Taxis home, everyone.”

“Damn,” he wrote to me in private.

“I know,” I replied. “I’ll catch up with Spiderweb.”

I logged off SarnMUCK and opened my email. “I’m sorry for everything. That was such a crappy thing to do to you. You completely didn’t deserve it. Screw him with a stick. If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know. Zkazz can get you back on-line.”

I read the email over, and then again. Elory was banned from SarnMUCK, and I was sorry. I would hate to have that happen to me.

And I realized that I had already had her banned from Kristen’s parties, too. And for what?

I paced from one end of the apartment to the other, wearing down the stress from Saturday night. She didn’t deserve that either, just for a few questions. I thought about swatting flies because they couldn’t swat back.

I picked up the phone and dialed Kristen’s number. I apologized to her until Elory was on her guest list again.

Chet posted the transcript of our adventures with Univore on his journal. Nova added a few snippets from Elory’s logs. Univore’s name was removed, but everyone knew it was him. Trisha told me nothing else happened against the Villa that week.

Elory wrote me back as well. “Don’t sweat it. That’s not the first time this has happened to me. Are you still up for lunch this Saturday?”

I said yes.

Categories: Book 1 - How Cheryl Got Her Tail, Chapter 4 - Still Receive Your Kiss.

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