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Comes… THE CHALLENGER! – Chapter 1

Las Vegas; Fortain’s World – Shortly after the expulsion of the “Zeta-Men”…

“Hi, Lee. Yes, this is yourself…”

Lee Croxley had been expecting this e-mail, and the one he knew would follow it. At the time he recorded the video-message, he had had no idea what was going to happen to the knowledge force-fed into his brain by Fortain’s flying saucer. The details of the flight operations necessary to fly an alien space craft had indeed become snatches of vague memory, but it appeared that at least the first stage of his hurriedly cobbled-together plan to preserve at least some of that knowledge had been successful…

“I dunno how much you’re gonna remember of what’s just happened, but man it’s been one crazy ride, and it’d be one helluva shame to simply forget it all. That’s why I’m sending you this message, and a second e-mail that’s the key to everything – it’s a self-running program that’ll reconfigure whatever machine you’re on…”

“‘…to receive the data-stream I currently have stored on some Canadian servers that should be running Indian gambling sites’”, recited Lee, word for word, mildly amused that he was talking over himself. “‘That data should secure your machine totally from any existing search capability – essentially, your computer will cease to exist yet still be able to access both the internet and the Fortain-O-Web.’”

Lee paused the video clip, and went to get himself a beer from the mini-bar of his Air Force-financed Las Vegas hotel suite. Refreshed, he returned to his battered old laptop – actually someone else’s laptop, that he had “acquired” during his “escape” from New York – and continued watching his plan unfold, just as he’d expected.

“Okay, so what’s this ‘Fortain-O-Web’, you may or may not be asking yourself”, said the recording. “Well, the internet as the rest of the world knows it only uses about twelve per cent of the bandwidth and processing power they think it does. It’s quite easy to cannibalise the free space – compress the porn JPEGs a bit more, prune a third of the frames from the LOLcats clips, and nobody notices. What runs on that freed-up space is what I’ve called the ‘Fortain-O-Web’; a ‘super-web’ that connects all his secret bases and stuff. Stuff the military simply cannot be allowed to find.

“Your mission, Jim, should you choose to accept it, is to become master of the Fortain-O-Web and all that bald alien bastard’s secrets. Master it, and use it to do some good. Make the world a better place – it’s what The Traveller would do…”

Lee paused the clip again, and went to the bathroom – that beer had gone straight to his bladder; no surprise after the far from hospitable grilling he had just received at the hands of the Air Force for misappropriating “their” flying saucer. As he relieved himself, he allowed that tiny, niggling voice in the back of his mind “off the leash”, indulging in a dose of what he hoped was healthy second-guessing. This could be the craziest thing you’ve ever considered doing, he told himself. They find out about this, and they can shoot you. Quite legally shoot you. On the spot…

Another corner of his mind butted into the conversation. And what if this is what Fortain wanted me, or anyone else, to do?, it said. What if it’s the biggest trap ever, with the sweetest bait there ever was?

“Can things truly get any worse?”, Lee responded. “Way I see it, Fortain didn’t have time to set a trap. The ‘Zeta-Men’ grabbed him before he could blow up the world, and once we freed him, that was all he wanted to do – and failure didn’t factor into his equation for even a moment…”

Lee went back to the computer. There were only seconds of the video left to play back – perhaps the most significant seconds of his whole life.

Taking a deep breath, he clicked on the PLAY button.

“Last chance to back out, fella”, said the recorded Lee Croxley. “After a countdown from ten, the code embedded in this video will pull the second e-mail off the servers. Open it, and the world is yours. Ready? Okay, here goes – ten… nine… eight…”

Lee paused the video countdown at five, and almost did it again just before two, but his resolve held. At “zero”, the video stopped, and the laptop reported “1 new message!” – and Lee didn’t hesitate in opening the e-mail entitled “Weasel”, which would have seemed to the uninformed to just contain the words “A plan so cunning, you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel…”

A “window” bordered with rippling green appeared at the centre of the screen. Reconfiguring – please wait, it displayed in clear, white text. Archiving user data… uninstalling Windows… reformatting storage for maximum optimisation…

Those were all words that would terrify most computer users, but Lee calmly leaned back on the sofa and let the reconfiguration program do its work. He expected it to take hours, but after only a few minutes, the computer switched itself off, sat dark and silent for another minute or so, then with a suddenness that made the young man jump, the screen burst back into life, a sea of undulating green.

Reconfiguration complete, declared the machine. System analysis commencing. Processor speed 10.2 terahertz; multiflex data storage 550 terabytes; network connection 4.2 gigabytes per second…

“Holy crap”, gasped Lee. “I got a portable hyper-computer…!

System mask initialising. Mapping disguise template to low-level interface and securing high-level access…

The green screen shivered, and in its place appeared the familiar backdrop and icons, just as they had been before, but Lee knew that beneath that lay a computer the whole world would kill to get its hands on, but which only he could ever access. It was like the craziest dream come true…

System ready said the computer, by way of a small window that looked like some kind of instant messaging program. What would you like to do? Suggestion – activate verbal interface. Press ENTER to activate, ESC to cancel.

Lee pressed ENTER, and a moment later, the laptop spoke to him, in a voice indistinguishable from a living person. “What would you like to do?”

“Search for any evidence of bank accounts under the name Durash Fortain“, he told the machine. “Let’s see what the guy was worth, and how much we can…redirect.”

“Searching…”, announced the computer, but this time, Lee didn’t even try to relax. He knew the machine would respond almost before he could draw breath -

“Matches found: Fortain, Durash – First Bank of Canada, Brazil National, Bank Of The Americas, Mediterranean Mutual, Credit Mumbai…”

“I think I get the message”, sighed Lee. “So, how much money…?”

“Nineteen point five six four billion dollars.”

Lee flopped back onto the couch, running his hands through his unruly hair. He had had ideas, plans for millions, maybe even tens of millions – but this was tens of billions… and a sum of money like that was going to require some extra thinking…

…o O o…

“Out of the turmoil, a ray of hope. Last night, an announcement of intent was made by an organisation calling itself The Better Days Foundation. A benevolent organisation established by so far anonymous donors, according to their press release, the Foundation intends to offer a variety of aid to anyone who asks for it – material support, interest-free loans, free buses for schoolchildren, the sick and the elderly…”

Lee toasted The Better Days Foundation with a beer from the comfort of his hotel bed. The idea had struck him when he had gone for a shower, and the plan had been set in motion before bed – Fortain’s funds had been secretly redirected, a company set up, office space rented, potential employees contacted, the whole crazy juggernaut set rolling on its way. Leave to simmer overnight, Lee thought, and it’s headline news.

It was an incredible achievement, even though the vast majority of the work had been automated, but still it left a sour taste in Croxley’s mouth – and that wasn’t due to the beer. No-one would ever know what he had done, except for one Lee Croxley…

There had to be something he could do, some active part he could play in putting this world right; a world with a third of the people it used to have, and a world ripe with opportunity – it wasn’t every day that something hit the world’s “reset” button, and gave the planet the closest thing to a fresh start it could ever hope for. Someone could step in, not quite replacing Fortain, but using the alien’s secrets for the benefit of all.

It was a potentially precarious place to find oneself, the lure of “the Dark Side” strong on all sides. It could all go horribly wrong, one Fortain replaced by another, “artistry” replaced by social engineering…

Lee got up, and poured the rest of his beer down the toilet. He was going to need a clear head to get things right…

That approach served him well sooner than Lee expected. He had barely started on his complimentary breakfast when a member of staff came to his booth in the dining hall with unwelcome news: “Mister Croxley? There’s someone from the Air Force to see you – a Lieutenant Salieri…?”

Easy, Lee, easy, Croxley told himself. You’ve not done anything wrong – unless they’ve got hyper-intelligent alien computers too… oh crap – they do. One flying saucer…! “Has she had breakfast?”, he asked the hotel employee. “She’s free to join me. Hell, she’s paying.”

“The Lieutenant would like to speak to you in private, sir”, said the jacket-and-tie staff member.

“And I would like to finish my breakfast”, Lee replied. “Dunno when I’m gonna get to eat in a place like this again…”

The hotel man strode away, the not exactly restrained manner of his departure suggesting to Lee that the man found it beneath himself to relay messages to an “underclass” of guests like Croxley, but that didn’t really bother Lee in the slightest. He had far bigger worries to think about than that – he’d always been at the bottom…until now. I could buy this hotel, and personally fire your stuck-up ass, buddy, he reminded himself. Actually, that’s a pretty sweet idea…

Lee had been in the not entirely disagreeable company of United States Air Force Lieutenant Salieri for much of the last two days, so he immediately recognised her approaching from her footsteps, and that little through-the-nose sigh of mild irritation she often made, without needing to look up. “Good morning, Lieutenant”, he said, remaining hunched over his plate. “Do sit down – you might wanna try the bacon. Funny how these guys can get really good bacon when half the city is struggling without water, or power. Suppose it pays to have, ah, military connections…?”

Salieri accepted the offer of a seat, but declined the food. “Sorry, but I’m a vegetarian”, she said.

“Oh”, murmured Lee. “I didn’t know.”

Nothing could have been further from the truth. With the aid of his new technological ally, Lee had learned all about his military captors. Nothing about Catherine Salieri was a secret any more – her dietary preferences, the location of a distinctive birthmark, the name of the bar where she’d punched out a hooker not long after joining the Air Force…

Settled, the Lieutenant spoke, in a hushed, secretive manner. “Mister Croxley, we’ve completed our investigation concerning the… ah, sensitive technology…”

“Oh, you mean the…”, Lee interrupted, out loud, then he switched mid-sentence to a whisper; “…the flying saucer…?

Salieri glowered at him. “Mister Croxley, we made it abundantly clear that that is not information for public consumption…”

Crescent moon, inside of left foot, where the instep meets the big toe joint, thought Lee as Salieri brought her authority to bear on the conversation. “Your secret’s safe”, he told her. “Right now, hassle is the last thing I need.”

“The first thing you’re going to need, however”, continued the Lieutenant, “is somewhere else to stay. As we’ve concluded our investigations, and determined you don’t pose a significant security threat, we’re releasing you under your own recognisance…”

“What?”, exclaimed Lee. “You’re kicking me out?

“Our hospitality budget may extend to first-class bacon, Mister Croxley”, said Salieri, frowning as Lee’s outburst drew disapproving glares from all around the dining hall, “but it doesn’t stretch to granting you indefinite accommodation.”

“I help save the world, and that’s all I get?”, spluttered Croxley.

“Let’s not forget your misappropriation of a certain piece of restricted equipment”, said the Lieutenant, coldly. “Or the vandalism of a certain section of landscape some people would say is a national treasure. Right now, Mister Croxley, I’d say it would be very generous of us to count ourselves all square.”

Lee slumped back in his chair, chin almost resting on his chest. He knew he had to look defeated, resigned to coming away from all this with just his liberty, but he couldn’t resist one final thrust of defiance. “What, you’re not even gonna offer me a job?”, he asked gruffly. “You don’t need a ‘restricted equipment’ consultant, perhaps…?”

“We’re not hiring”, answered Salieri, with just what seemed to Lee to be the slightest hint of regret.

Gotta look like I’m not going without a fight, Lee told himself. Just not too much of a fight… “Seems kinda… y’know, harsh”, he muttered. “I’m sure you looked at my records, saw I have what y’might call issues with authority…”

“We know about EyeOnThePigsty.com”, said Salieri, “and the charge that led to you setting that up.”

“Water under the bridge”, Lee assured her. “There won’t be any more trouble – so long as I feel I’m not being spied on.

“Are you suggesting the United States Air Force engagers in surveillance activities involving the general public?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me – sadly”, Lee replied. “All those terrorists…”

“Almost all of whom turned out to be those ‘Zeta-Men’ things”, said the Lieutenant. “Mister Croxley – Lee…”

“Mister Croxley will do fine.”

“…Mister Croxley, I’ll be as forthright as I can be – don’t tread on our toes, and we’ll return the courtesy”, continued Salieri, “and totally off the record, there are some in the defence community who’d like to give you and your curious friends medals…”

“Keep ‘em”, muttered Lee, leaning forward to snatch the last morsel of bacon from his plate. “There’re people out there far more deserving than me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Lieutenant, I believe I have some packing to do.”

“I wish we could help, but our resources are a bit stretch at the moment, as I’m sure you appreciate”, said Salieri, and she reached into her bag for a business card, which she laid on the table. “Call me if you need a hand. Unofficially, of course.”

Lee picked up the card, and smiled, half-heartedly. “And would you be one of those who wanted to give me a medal…?”

The Lieutenant didn’t answer directly. “You’ve shown how foolish the world was to give up on you”, she said. “It would be a shame to give up on yourself – maybe those ‘Better Day’ people might need someone with your skills…?”

“Maybe”, said Lee, trying to sound optimistic – and again, not too much. “Depends whether they’re genuine or not. All those years we thought the other two-thirds of the world were people, too.”

Lee got up, slipped the card into his shabby nylon hiker’s wallet. “Don’t worry ’bout me”, he told Salieri. “I think I know where I’ll be welcome, and where I can start doing some real good.”

“The Olympus Springs Hotel?”, suggested the Lieutenant, and Lee nodded.

“Then please allow me to give you a lift”, said Salieri. “Least I can do for a hero.”

Lee smiled broadly to himself as he strolled back into the lobby. Salieri had given him the most incredible idea – if she thought of him as a hero, then why shouldn’t be become a hero…?

“Ah, Mister Croxley?”, the clerk manning the front deck called out to him. “A courier came for you. He left something – ah, here it is…”

The clerk took a business-like white envelope from the pigeon-hole assigned to Lee’s suite, and handed it across the desk to Croxley. Lee had to laugh inside – the young desk-jockey was handing him the key to more money than anyone in the whole hotel might ever encounter; a credit card linked to a secret account into which Lee had siphoned a cool half a billion dollars. Heroic expenses, he told himself as he thanked the clerk, and headed for the lifts. Now, just how much do you buy a half-finished hotel for…?

…to be continued…

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