“Let go! We’ve got to drop!” yelled Dylan. He was hanging onto his best friend Rocky, who was hanging onto the top edge of a volcano, staring into its fiery core. They had just climbed to its top, hoping to find some safety along its slippery, craggy edge. At the base of the volcano were two big uglies they had narrowly avoided. Dylan had thought the best way to get past them was to go up. Rocky had thought it was a good time for them to give up and go hide out in exile for a little while, until the big uglies weren’t so hot on their trail.
It was hot. At least if they had given up they could have gone into exile, which was the game developers name for recovery mode. They would have lived. Now, he wasn’t so sure. If they fell, they might lose everything they’d gained.
“I am not going in there!” yelled Rocky. “You’re already in there,” reminded Dylan. Would you rather go back down to the bad guys’ hideout and remind them how we’ve just taken back the diamond they stole?”
Rocky knew Dylan was right, but he still didn’t see a solution. That was Dylan’s job, but this time he wondered if his friend was on target or if he was just going to get them killed.
“Just let go, it’s our only choice.” Dylan reasoned, “This is it, the vortex, it has to be. Jump and it will open. We have the diamond, we just have to bring it back.” Dylan was calm under the circumstances. “It’s nothing.”
“Oh it’s not nothing!” yelled Rocky. “It’s definitely something. If this is nothing, then I wouldn’t want to see what you call something, because this is way more than nothing!” screamed a frantic Rocky, his feet getting hotter, his hands more slippery with each passing second. “Hey, remember when you thought that other thing was something, and it turned out to be nothing? It’s like that,” reassured Dylan. “How are we on health?” he asked.
“Our health supply is almost nothing, and that is something. We need to stay alive, and my meter says we’re almost out.” Rocky didn’t know if he could start this game over. Getting through levels 1-3 locating the diamond had been ok, but level four had been a nonstop loop of chasing and being chased down. “Why do I listen to you? Now we’re going to die and lose our hard work. I should be playing chess and relaxing in the park!” Rocky’s words were cut off, muffled by the blasts of wind approaching them. Dylan could see Rocky’s mouth moving, but all sound was muffled by the approaching helicopter engine and air blowing around them. He knew Rocky well enough to know what he was probably saying, and he knew they had to jump to complete this stage of ‘Volcano Tour of Duty.’ If logic wasn’t going to work, a good old shove in the right direction probably would.
“What? I can’t hear you. The chopper blades are making too much noise,” yelled Dylan, titling his head toward Rocky for effect.
“If we get out of here alive, I’m never listening to you again! Can you hear that?” bellowed Rocky, who was more than a little annoyed at this point.
Dylan had already calculated there was only one way out of the situation they were in. If his instincts were correct, and they usually were, the entrance to Eastern Command lay inside the volcano he and Rocky were hanging onto. Correction, the very real, lava-flowing volcano Rocky was hanging onto. Dylan was hanging onto Rocky. Above their heads a helicopter circled, close enough that Dylan could see one of the big uglies hanging out the door, dressed all in black. That was their signature outfit.
The programmers went with the typical buff, chiseled jawline, black outfit and mirrored sunglasses when they designed the big uglies. This one was either getting ready to jump in after them or he was going to pull them out so he could finish them off. The guy looked kind of mad, which he probably was being sent out after a couple of kids who penetrated their hideout at the foot of the volcano.
“Do you see that guy? He wants to help us off this edge. Except he doesn’t really want to help us, he just wants the diamond. Once he gets it, he’s throwing us in anyway. So let’s make it a little hard for him, ok? Either way, we’re going in that volcano,” said Dylan, a little crankier and more frustrated sounding than usual. His hands were starting to get slippery, and he was losing his grip.
Rocky looked up, for a moment remembering Dylan was the idea guy. He may have been scared, but he reminded himself it was just a game. It was a little hard to do that with the real sound of helicopter blades pounding their ears and the very real heat below them. When he looked up, he saw today’s big ugly guys. This guy looked bigger and uglier than usual. Rocky didn’t understand how the helicopter wasn’t tipping over and wobbling out of the sky with that one guy’s weight, he was so bulky. He thought about his own 110 pounds and found himself wishing for once that he could work harder instead of smarter, just this one time. Maybe they could jump on the helicopter and get out of the mouth of the lava-pumping volcano, but then what? He couldn’t get the words out. The helicopter came within feet of them and big ugly swiped the air, hoping to net one of the boys. Rocky’s thoughts were drowned out by the shrill sound of screaming. Were there other players here? He didn’t think so, as far as he knew, they were the only kids who had managed to be noticed by the United States government, and allowed access to its new virtual gaming technology. Still, he could hear the screaming.
“Rocky, cut it out. This is no time to panic. Snap out of it.” yelled Dylan. He shook his buddy to bring him to his senses, but Rocky had started screaming when the big ugly swiped at them. “Let’s finish this. We’ll be out of this in a few minutes. Just let’s go!” yelled Dylan.
It was getting harder and harder to hear anything, between the hard beats of his heart which seemed to be coming from inside his head and pounding his ears, to the rhythmic, whup, whup, whup, of the helicopter blades right above their them. So close, big ugly guy could reach out and grab them. He hadn’t only because if he had, Dylan figured he really would tip the helicopter over. Perhaps that’s what they needed, to find a way to get the other guy to lose, and they’d win by default.
“Jump! A vortex will appear. It’s got to. Let go, it’s our only chance,” yelled Dylan. Rocky knew it was time to listen to Dylan, even if it meant jumping into a giant pool of hot lava.
Rocky let go and the boys began a free fall. He thought, “There’s that screaming again,” then just as swiftly, they stopped falling and floated, gently, back up, hovering. The air was cooler. Big ugly and the pounding blades of the helicopter had vanished. Looking down, he saw an open space with a large inflatable crash landing mat, the kind you might imagine a stunt performer would land on in a big budget Hollywood movie. In this show, they were the stunt performers and the NSA officers were the Hollywood producers. They were in a circular structure surrounded by open elevators and floors of agents walking about around them, just a regular day at work. He didn’t know if he should be happy Dylan was right, this was the NSA Eastern Command, or still be mad at Dylan for almost depleting their entire health supply. In the game, Dylan made a grab for the diamond right in front of the big uglies in their hideout. Their electronics had short-circuited leaving them to rely on their instincts alone, when they had suddenly found themselves at the hideout.
“I know what you’re thinking. You want to be mad at me but you can’t because I was right.” yelled Dylan. It was still quite a bit loud around them. They were being held up by some sort of air vacuum. It was noisy, but it was cool and Rocky was glad for that. Hanging onto the edge of a molten hot lava volcano can get you pretty hot. Someone turned off the air and they dropped. Plunk! Plop!
“Admit it, I was right, and you had fun, too” said Dylan smugly, laughing and bouncing them up and down on their crash landing pad.
Now that they were away from the heat, the noise, and big ugly, Dylan allowed a smile on his face. “It was kind of fun. But I’m going to have to talk to the programmers about that heat. It might be a little too real. They can turn it up later if they want when they’re training agents,” said Rocky. Dylan could see on Rocky’s face he was already formulating a code for the programmers to use to turn the heat on or off for different missions. He was always thinking like that.
Rocky did have fun, though it was exhausting fun. Leaning back on the mat, he realized how tired he was and how ready he was to head home and rest up. Rocky thought for a moment about his plan for the next day, write code and play chess in the park, nothing too strenuous. Without Rocky, his life would be considerably less exciting. He still wasn’t sure he was the right guy to be beta-testing the virtual technology, he was more of a behind-the scenes kind of kid. “Come back tomorrow?” asked Dylan. “Nah, that’s enough for me. I’m ready for some relax time designing video games, you know, hobbies, like other kids?” said Rocky.
“Other kids don’t design video games, they play them. And we’ve just lived one!” said Dylan, smiling at his friend. Dylan bounced the mat so Rocky would be bounced too. Rocky bounced Dylan back, and soon they were laughing, arms and legs flying.
Unaware of who was around them, they heard a familiar voice say “Welcome back boys. We were wondering how long you’d hang there in that heat, probably need to tweak that a little.”
They turned toward the voice, and noticed for the first time that the head the project, Dr. Longley, was standing a few feet away from them. She was an agent in the youth development division of the National Security Agency. “We’re fine Dr.Longley. Did you see all that? I’ve got the diamo….wait, where is it?” Dylan groped around his sweatshirt and didn’t find the large, blueish-purple stone he’d been clutching. He jumped up, worried he’d dropped it during the fall. He reached into his pockets, nothing. Then he remembered the side pocket in his pants. Ah, he breathed a sigh of relief, instantly remembering he’d put it there for safe keeping just before they began their climb to the top of the volcano. He pulled it out, glanced at it for a moment, then handed it to Dr. Longley. Mission accomplished.
“Here you are Dr. K. , the Cullinan diamond, safe and sound.” This was their first test, to bring back the world’s largest diamond, stolen by the big uglies for their boss, Dynamo who intended to use the sale of it to fund his secret operations. It felt good to be a part of something that would keep the world safe from real big uglies someday. “The heat was a bit much,” said Rocky. “But very realistic.”
“You’ve done well boys. That’s enough work for today. Why don’t you go do something fun. You’ve earned it,” said Longley.
“That was fun, right Rocky?” asked Dylan, leaning an arm on his buddy. Rocky was still a little shaken up, but he liked completing missions with Dylan. Dylan liked to take more risks than Rocky did, but now that it was over he could admit it had been kind of fun. A sideways smile started to form on Rocky’s face. He squinted his eyes to still look a little mad.
“Ah, come on,” said Dylan. The boys laughed, grabbed their backpacks and waved to Dr. Longley. I know you were having fun because you were screaming,” said Dylan, giving Rocky a sideways glance to watch his friend’s reaction. He saw Rocky roll his eyes but smile a little, so it was ok to have a little fun with him.
“Did not,” said Rocky emphatically, though he was thinking about how real it had all felt. Real heat, and noise. You could touch everything. Even though he knew they were in a simulated game, his sense weren’t always sure.
“Did too, but I’m not telling anyone. You couldn’t hear your screaming over mine!” The boys erupted in laughter.
They were still laughing when they swiped their security clearance cards, and went through the turnstile which released them out into the open lobby of the Eastern Command Center of the NSA. Light filled the room, and in a few feet they were out on Broadway Ave. From the street, it looked like just another ordinary city building filled with ordinary offices. The NSA liked to keep a low profile and blend in with its surroundings.
It was just a short ride out of town to their quiet neighborhood. They caught the outbound bus, talking about secret agents, diamond thieves, helicopter chases and climbing volcanoes. To everyone around them, they were just a couple of ordinary kids talking about video games. To the United States government, Dylan Smith and Rocky D’Angelo were two of their very best youth agents in the Virtual Technology Division of the NSA.