"Sir," I said. "Please calm down and tell us what happened."
The man on the other end of the line coughed. "It exploded," he said.
"Have you tried turning it off, and then on again?"
"Yes, but it didn't do anything since the part with the button wasn't anywhere near the part with the computer-y bits."
"Mmhmm." I ticked 'restart' off my checklist. "Sir, do you mind telling me what you were doing when the problem occurred?"
There was silence on the other end.
"Well, I was just. You know. Hangin' out on forums 'n stuff."
"What happened, specifically? What were you doing? Were you talking to anyone?"
"Actually, that's the weird bit. I was just having a heated discussion with someone when he told me to cut it out, or he'd kick me offline. I thought it was funny, you know? Like those people who say they can 'hack the internet' and shit. I kept on, then my computer exploded."
"And I'm sure the two situations are completely unrelated."
I stifled a sigh and circled 'humanoid error' and 'intentional attack' on the list. In the top of the page as the words 'customer type' with the options being 'normal' and 'fringe'. Beneath it was 'customer complaint' with the same options. I marked off normal for the first and fringe for the second.
"Alright, sir, we'll be right out."
In my admittedly brief time as part of the Nerd Squad, I have noticed something fairly interesting; people seem to think that magic and technology don't mix.
"Maam, just tell me what's wrong and I'll do my best to help you."
"It's the mouse," she said. "It's not working right."
The pencil hovered over the 'normal' box. "How so?"
"It's not working."
"Is it plugged in correctly?"
"There should be a USB port somewhere that you plug the mouse into. Or wait, is it a wireless?"
"Wire? Oh! You mean the tail?"
"Tail?" I sat up. "Ma'am, are you using a live mouse?"
"Is that a problem? Should I have used a dead one? Only I don't really like necromancy..."
I checked off 'fringe'. "Ma'am, put the mouse back in its cage. I'll talk you through this."
I suppose it's a reasonable assumption. On the one hand you've got magic- the innate ability to fly in the face of probability, physics, and the universe in general, and then on the other hand, you've got computers. Machines that work entirely on logic and math. I guess it must say something about me that I happen to have a job that entails I work with both. No idea what it says, but that's life for you.
"I'll sue! It's false advertising, that's what it is! Or negligence, or something!"
"Sir, please calm down-"
"I won't! The box said it had a firewall in it, but all there is is a CD thing and some papers. I paid money for a firewall to protect my computer, and they cheated me-"
"Sir, you do realize that a firewall is just a name for a type of security feature, right? There isn't any actual fire involved."
"I- ah. Uh. Oh. No fire?"
"Oh. Well, I'll still need you to come over and fix this."
"I thought at first that since there wasn't any fire in the box, I might've had to set it off myself. You know, to get it going."
I felt a headache coming on. "Sir, did you set fire to-?"
"It's the box's fault!"
We haven't always been tech support for the supernaturally inclined. Originally, Ricky and I had been working at a Geek Squad rip-off called 'Geek's Quad', whose outstanding legal maneuvering and abuse of copyright technicalities had been the only things keeping them from getting sued to heck and back. We'd been doing just fine until we came across a wizard who'd melted his hard drive.
When we'd got there, we'd found a still smoking pile of goop that had been the computer and a nervous looking client who kept making up excuses for it, each one weaker than the last. Everything from 'a freak power surge' (which had been stupid), to 'leaving it too close to the oven' (which had been stupider). He’d looked like he was about to apoplexy until I’d calmly told him that yes, I did know a bit about magic, no, I wasn't kidding, and no, I didn't think fireballs were covered under his warranty.
Turns out, when faced with the unflinching truth that there was indeed a supernatural underworld where witches, wizards, ghosts, faeries and uncountable other supernatural hooligans thrived, Ricky's first impulse was to figure out ways to fleece the place dry. He hoped to accomplish this goal through a string of relatively mundane businesses aimed solely at the magical, the first of which would be an even bigger rip-off he dubbed the Nerd Squad.
Every once in a while we do get a weird call. Like that time some wizard died one too many times in WOW and hurled a fireball through the monitor. Or that time that witch caused a power surge because she thought more electricity would make the computer run faster. For the most part, though, the problems are just normal problems. Crashes, viruses, human(oid) error- stuff you get from people who just don't know how computers work.
So when we got a call to help some guy who was having issues, we just figured he'd fallen for the banner ad games one too many times and his computer had finally collapsed under the weight of trojans.
The client- one Mr. Martin Verdana- lived in a higher-end gated community. The sort of places that always have names like Pine View or Fir Acres despite being devoid of non-sanctioned trees and where you needed a bundle just to get through the gate. We didn't bother with our IDs; the security guy out front waved us through.
We pulled up to what I assumed to be the right house.
"So," I said as we went up the walkway. "What was this guy's problem again?"
Ricky pulled a small notebook from his jacket pocket. "Uh, bugs, apparently. He sounded pretty frazzled on the phone. Probably fell for the free iPod thing one too many times. You know how it is." He knocked on the door. "Remember, Kyle," he said. "Be sociable. Smile." He demonstrated by giving me a toothy grin.
"I am smiling." I was. At least, I thought I was.
"Well, you're not doing a good job of it."
He knocked on the door again while I felt my face. I really had thought I was smiling.
It was another five minutes or so of progressively louder knocking before someone finally answered.
The man who opened the door was taller than Ricky by about a foot, though shorter than me by a few inches (which is to say, he was average height). He was a little on the thin side, and his salt 'n pepper hair looked like he'd stuck his finger into an electrical socket. His clothes had probably been fancy at one point, but were now singed with the sleeves cut up.
As soon as he opened the door, the smell of magic burst out thick and strong. It might as well have punched me in the gut.
"Gah!" I turned away and hunched over, my hands held over my nose. The magic seared through my throat and into my eyes, making sure my nose got a good dose of it as well. I couldn't see for the water in my eyes, they were streaming so badly. It wasn’t even malignant- just unexpected and powerful; like inhaling from a jar of mustard. Whatever the heck that guy had been cooking up, it was serious business.
Ricky, of course, by virtue of not having a single magical bone in his body, was unaffected.
"Don't mind him," I heard him saying through the ringing in my ears. "He's a bit touched in the head. Excellent with computers, but just a bit sensitive."
I was going to kill him once this job was done.
"Are you sure?" The voice was high and reedy with a very slight accent I couldn't place. The client. "Does he need some water?"
I waved them on, unable to speak.
"He'll be fine,” said Ricky, translating. “Now, you said you were having issues with viruses?"
Instead of going inside without me, they waited until I managed to get myself under control.
The client still looked concerned. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like some water?”
I tried smiling, then remembered what Ricky had said about my smiling ability and settled for trying not to frown. "No, thank you. I'm fine."
He led us through the halls of a very well-to-do house. Plenty of polished wood and old looking furniture. The whole place absolutely reeked of magic. The smell of it was soaked into the walls and hovered thickly in the air like incense. Most magic is neutral. I’m not sure how other people feel it, but for me, if I walk into a room stuffed with spells, most of them tend to be sort of calm, sort of sleepy, and almost always have a blueish-purple tinge until someone activates them. The stuff floating around in the client’s house wasn’t anything like that.
Most of it was fizzy, vibrant, a little angry and very yellow feeling. These weren’t’ the normal, little magics like cooking charms or something to keep away dust mites; whatever this guy was up to was big.
Martin Verdana was, I gathered, a rather prolific entrepreneur (of what, he didn’t say) and obviously a powerful -if specialized- wizard. He also had bugs in his computer that prevented it from getting onto the Internet and working properly.
“I’d fix it myself,” he said, said as we passed through the house. “But I’m afraid computers aren’t really my forte. My niece usually helps me, and she’s out of town . . . “
He trailed off as we entered a dark room I took to be a study. Through the dim light from the hall, I could see that the walls were covered in shelves stuffed with books and knick knacks- sorry, curios. In the middle of the room was the system unit, still connected to the monitor on the desk, but lying on its side next to a screwdriver. The whole room fizzed so strongly with aggressive magic, it made my nose itch. Even Ricky looked a little uncomfortable.
"I tried to fix it myself," Verdana said. "But I can't get anywhere with it."
"I hope you didn't fiddle with it too much, it might've been under warranty." Ricky pulled out his little flashlight.
"Oh, don't!" said Verdana. "The light will upset it."
Ricky smiled politely and pocketed the flashlight. People get such weird ideas about technology sometimes.
He went over to take the side panel off. As soon as he touched it, the panel propped open and something glowing, green, and claw-like snapped at him.
"Ah!" Ricky leapt backwards, clutching his hand to his chest. "What the hell is that?"
"The computer bug," said Verdana.
The bug was about the size of a small plate. It had claws, and a carapace whose ridges spiked out a bit at the sides. What appeared to be a solid glowing shell was, upon closer inspection, numbers. Neon green ones and zeros flowed around in a blur, giving the creature its shape.
"Looks more like a crab," said Ricky from his spot on the floor.
"Does it bite?" I said.
"Yes." Verdana rolled up a tattered sleeve to show painful looking red welts going all along his arm.
I winced. "Ouch."
"Great." Ricky got to his feet and showed off his hand. There was a red slash on his wrist that looked like it was beginning to swell. "Just perfect."
"I've got something for that." Verdana headed off down the hall. "Be right back."
We watched the crab-bug crawl out of the case and sit on top of the shell, making angry clicking sounds. It reminded me of those little old men who sat on their porches to scare off kids.
"So . . ." said Ricky, still cradling his hand. "Got any ideas?"
He rolled his eyes and gave me an exasperated look.
I grinned, I couldn't help it. "What?" I said innocently.
"Fine time for you to grow a sense of humor. Seriously, what do we do about it?"
I tried to think. The spot where the creature's eyes would be were the only places without the ones and zeros, giving it the impression of having eyes that were pitch black.
Slowly, I sent out a tendril of magic to see what, exactly, it was.
It was full of the fizzing, angry magic. That’s what it was running on. When Verdana created it, he had to have been in a really bad mood to get that kind of reaction. I delved in a little deeper to see if I could shut it down from the outside.
It didn't work. I'm really not that talented, or strong, or however you're supposed to measure it. The bug felt me mentally prodding at it and, hissing, stood up. It began waving its claws in the air and taking on an obviously defensive pose. After a minute, it figured out what I was doing and severed the tie, just as I garnered enough to know that it was using an out of date, 8-bit code to function itself.
"Well?" said Ricky.
I rubbed my head. I hate the half-hollow, incomplete feeling that happens when magic is stopped suddenly like that. It's like walking up the stairs and finding there's one less step than you were expecting.
"I don't know. It's made of binary- both inside and out, but there's enough magic in it to make it fully autonomous life form. I think it's tied to the computer. It's like a hologram, but, you know. Physical."
"I was trying to make my game 3-D."
We turned to see Verdana standing in the doorway. In his hand was what looked to be a yellow tube of disinfectant. Along the sides were bold, black letters I couldn't make out.
"The ad for the game said it came in 3-D, but it didn't. Not really. I figured I'd go inside and adjust things a bit." He shook his head forlornly. "I guess I corrupted a file. Here," He handed the tube to Ricky.
"What's this?" He read the side. "Norton Antivirus version- oh, you've got to be kidding me! How the heck did you manage this?"
Verdana shrugged, embarrassed. "I panicked. You hear such awful things about computer viruses, and the box was just sitting there . . . Do you think you can get rid of it? I really need to check my E-mail, and that damned thing isn't letting me."
"Sir," I said, trying not to think of a person catching a trojan. "I don't think we'll be able to separate the bug and the computer. It's tied into the data held in one of your drives."
"So there's nothing you can do?"
"No," said Ricky. "I think I've got an idea." He finished rubbing the paste onto his wrist, then left me and Verdana to watch the bug.
Once he was gone, Verdana sat cross-legged on the floor a few feet away from the unit. Absently, he took a penny from his pocket and tossed it at the bug, who snapped it cleanly in half.
He smiled when he saw me staring. "It's kind of fun watching it do that. Try."
For lack of anything better to do, I sat down beside him. He handed me some coins, and we took turns throwing them. Each one was sliced before it had a chance to reach the ground.
Verdana cleared his throat. "So, Ezekiel, is it?" He smiled when he saw the look on my face. "The business card. It had both of your names on it."
I frowned. I'd have to have a talk with Ricky about that later. I didn't like the idea of my named being paraded around like that.
It occurred to me that Verdana was probably too strong a practitioner to have to worry about people using his name.
"Yeah," I said, "but I go by Kyle."
"Hmm? Kyle?” I could see the flash of understanding. Yes, it had been a while since he’d have to worry about names. “Oh yes. Of course. My apologies. Your friend, that Ricky fellow . . . "
He looked embarrassed. "Is he fey?"
I didn't know what to say for a second. "Um. Not that I know of. I think he's just waiting for the right girl-"
"No, I mean, he's short. He's wearing green, he's got red hair, he's running a business aimed at the fringe crowd, and he sort of has the pointy look."
"Oh." That was only slightly less awkward. "No. He's just hyper."
He tossed the crab-bug another coin. By then the floor around it was littered with bits of penny.
"Then if he’ not fringe, why are you . . .?"
I shrugged. "He's the business guy. I'm just the one who pokes bugs."
Ricky chose just then to come rushing back inside. "Okay, guys," he called from the hall. "I've got this idea and I'm pretty sure it'll work, but I-" He stopped in the doorway when he saw us. “Uh, what’re you doing?”
Verdana and I got up guiltily. “Nothing,” I said, discreetly putting my pile of pennies onto a nearby desk. "So, what have you got?"
Ricky held up a jump drive with a look of triumph. "Check it out. The bug's connected to a file, right? We put this in and download it."
I looked at the bug, then back at the drive.
"It could work," I said slowly. "We'd need something to distract it, though. It's not just going to let us mess around with its, you know, existence."
"Well, what do you suggest?"
I turned to Verdana, who was eying the jump drive suspiciously. "D'you have anything iron? Like, pans or something?"
I wasn't really expecting him to; asking a wizard if he had iron was like asking Superman if he had any kryptonite lying around. But to my surprise, he nodded.
"Yes, actually. My sister gave them to me and I haven't had the heart to throw them out."
A trip to the kitchen later and we were armed. Or rather, Ricky and Verdana were armed. Ricky with a cast iron skillet, Verdana with a broom. I wasn't because -as the only technical wizard in the room- there was a very good chance that I'd be needing magic to speed things along with the computer.
"Okay," I said. "Ricky, you're on."
He gave a little salute, then took a deep breath. He stood up a little straighter, then, screaming, charged at the bug.
Trust Ricky to go for the theatrics.
The bug tried to fend him off, but was smacked solidly with the iron and went flying across the room. It hit the wall with a thump and shattered. Ones and zeros scattered across the floor.
Too easy, I thought. I ran over to the unit and plugged in the drive, then went over to where the monitor and mouse were.
"Martin, where's the source file located? What's it called?"
"Uh, Kyle? We got a problem."
I glanced up. The ones and zeros had gathered themselves into small piles and were beginning to reassemble.
Verdana brandished his broom at one of the writhing piles. "3-DBugDocTestOne-dot-blend. It should be under My Documents, in the enhancements folder, then under 'in testing'."
The ones and zeros finished putting themselves together, only now instead of one
medium sized bug to worry about, we had a dozen little ones. Most of them went after Ricky, who tried leading them away from the computer and me. A few went after Verdana, who tried stomping on them.
The rest went for the unit. I was afraid they'd pull out the drive. Instead, one of them pulled off the panel and crawled inside while the others waited.
On the monitor, the bug's source file got a little bigger. I looked back just in time to see an original-sized bug crawl out of the case. Once it was out, another, smaller bug went in.
"Aww crap," I said. "They're making themselves bigger."
"Well then stop them," Ricky snarled. A bug leaped onto his leg. He hit it off, only to have it scatter and reform itself into even more bugs. Verdana was still dealing with his few, trying to fend them off with the broom. He had a pronounced limp.
I'd already begun transferring the file, making sure it wasn't just copying itself into the drive and actually moving. The estimated time in the corner of the screen kept getting longer as the bugs made their file larger.
One of the bigger bugs (the first one, I'd guess) saw me and charged.
I batted it away, only to wind up with a mean looking cut in my hand. Those things were sharp; they didn't even need to bite.
The bug scampered back into the case, shoving smaller bugs out of its way.
Hah, I thought. You better run.
A second later, the file jumped up another 300MB. The case nearly burst as a bug the size of a cat oozed out. It clicked, a low, angry sound, and then went straight for me. It snapped the air with its claws.
I jumped up and sprinted for Ricky, who was surrounded by an army of quarter-sized bugs. He wasn't even bothering with the skillet anymore now that they were small enough to stomp on.
"Ricky! Hit this one."
He looked up. "It's huge!"
The bug in question snapped at my leg, cutting through my jeans and gouging me in the calf. I jumped onto the desk. "Kill it kill it kill it kill it kill it!"
The bug leaped for the attack and Ricky smacked it right out of the air. It shattered and, for the moment at least, it was dead.
I looked at my leg. Blood was oozed out of a jagged horizontal cut and dribbled down into my sock. I got off the desk and strode to the computer.
Utterly ticked off, I stuck my hands into the box and forcibly dragged the bugs out. Their claws bit into my hands and their inexplicably sharp edges cut into my fingers. I didn't care. I flung them across the room (well away from Verdana, whose few baseball sized bugs had since been joined by a dozen of the quarter sized ones) where they hit the wall and were, temporarily, out of my hair.
Once they were out, I dealt with the file. Abandoning almost all ties to the mundane methods of dealing with technology, I honed in on the invisible tie between bugs and computer until I found the general spot, physically, where the file would be. I touched the main hard drive and did the mental equivalent of crumpling a piece of paper into a ball, which I then shoved into the jump drive.
Grinning, I went back to the monitor.
I right clicked the file now located in the jump drive's section and hit 'compress to RAR.'
The bugs began to shrink. They panicked and converged onto the unit, but it was too late. It was almost funny to hear their clicking sounds get higher and higher pitched. Within seconds, they'd all vanished.
I exed out of the page, then crawled over to the unit. It was bug free. It took me a few tries to get the jump drive out of the machine; the blood on my hands made it hard to grab onto it.
"Well," said Verdana, setting his broom against the wall. "Is it done?"
"Damn," said Ricky, collapsing to the floor. He looked even worse than I felt. His shoes were tattered.
"Yeah, it's done." I held the drive up to Verdana. "You want this?"
He shook his head. "No. No thank you."
"I'll take it," said Ricky, lazily raising his hand.
I tossed it to him and he tucked it into his pocket.
"What are you going to do with that?" said Verdana.
Before Ricky could answer, I held up both hands. "Please, it's just best not to ask."
Verdana handed me the tube of antivirus.
Surprisingly enough, it did help. The swelling died down to almost nothing, and what had been a sharp and biting pain slowed into a nice, dull throb.
"Thanks." I tossed it to Ricky, who began applying it to his feet.
"No problem." He looked nervously at the now dormant computer.
"Do you think . . .?"
I sighed and nodded. Well, our job was to make sure his computer was working.
For the next twenty minutes or so, Ricky and I put the computer back together, cleaned up the blood, and made sure there wasn't any more unpleasant surprises hiding around inside, both physically and not.
It was fine, other than a few mundane problems like spyware, which were promptly fixed. Once inspection was done, we gave Verdana a clean bill of health.
Considering everything we'd been through, I thought the bill in question might've been on the small side, but Ricky insisted. While I'd been cleaning up, he and Verdana had reached an agreement; Verdana would get a discount on today's and all future services, provided Verdana conjured up more of the antivirus for us. It was a compromise he was happy to make.
"Besides," said Ricky when we were getting back into the van. "You never know what else we might run across in this job." He tapped the jump drive, which was now hanging on a lanyard around his neck.
My leg began to ache. I'd probably be needing more of that antivirus cream pretty soon. I pointed to the drive to try and take my mind off it. "What are you going to do with that thing?"
He grinned and revved up the engine. "I know a programmer over at CalTech. I bet we can come up with something interesting to do with these babies."
I groaned and leaned back in the seat. The world was too complicated for Ricky's shenanigans right now. "Never mind," I said. "I don't want to know. Forget I asked."
"Two words, Kyle. Insect. Minions."
"I said I didn't want to know!"
Ricky cackled. We drove off, triumphant, aching, and with a potentially dangerous bastardization of technology and magic hanging around my best friend's throat.