The programmers at the NSA knew kids could see things in a video game that adults couldn’t, and they needed kids who really knew their stuff to test them out. Rocky was a boy-genius programmer, and Dylan was the kind of kid who made everything look easy. Challenger was the government’s official term for the project. The object was to test virtual gaming systems that would challenge and train agents and prepare them for real-life scenarios. They discovered Rocky in the park playing chess, beating all the old guys who normally couldn’t be beat. Dylan was there too, waiting for Rocky. They witnessed him chase down a purse-snatcher. Dylan tied the guy to a street pole with his own belt and returned the purse to its owner as he waited for help to arrive. When she offered him a reward he politely said getting the guy off the streets was reward enough for him.
They both had special skills, for 10-year-olds, and now they got to put them to good use under Dr. Longley’s supervision. Their teachers enjoyed hearing the reports from the NSA, and even gave the boys extra credit. Sometimes they got to replace projects with their NSA activities. Dylan was hoping to earn some field trip time to NSA during the upcoming poetry week at school.
“There’s a chess tournament in the park today, I can’t go.” Rocky was protesting Dylan’s begging to head into town. “Pleeeeease Rocky, we’re almost to level 5. You know, where we locate Dynamo and protect the world from his evil attacks?” said Dylan, walking alongside his friend. They had just met up at the corner where their two streets met. Normally, they would be heading to the park, as they did every Saturday.
“And get ourselves killed in the process.” Rocky added with the same tone Dylan used on him. Dynamo was the mastermind behind the big uglies, an inventor who surrounded himself with technology powerful enough to keep himself hidden and protected, so far. “I haven’t yet figured out the code he uses to scramble his transmissions to the big uglies, and if we screw it up and they find us before we find him, then we have to start all over or wait the day out in exile,” said Rocky. “If we get stuck in that game all day, I’ll miss the tournament. Can’t saving the world wait for another day?” He knew the answer to this. “Rocky, we’re so close, I can’t stand it. You’ll figure out the code, and be back in no time to take the tournament, I know it. If we transmit Dynamo’s coordinates to NSA today, we will be heroes!”
Rocky understood what the fifth level meant to Dylan, and he remembered all the other Saturdays his friend had spent in the park watching him play chess, not exactly a spectator sport, when he knew Dylan would rather have been riding his bike, patrolling the streets of their small town. As junior government agents, Dylan said he liked to keep an eye on things, but really he was being a good friend keeping Dylan company.
He and Dylan were best friends. Dylan was brave and jumped right into adventure, sometimes a little too soon. Rocky liked to avoid adventure, and would sometimes miss things if Dylan wasn’t there to push him, but Dylan needed him too. Rocky was the nuts-and-bolts guy, he liked to build and fix things, and he was the patient one. They were a good team. “You know it’s just a game, right?” asked Rocky, although he wasn’t sure of that himself. His body was aching and tired and he was pretty sure they were still carrying around the smell of burning sneaker bottom. “Right, it’s just a game,” responded Dylan, “and nobody’s getting hurt. We get into level 5 long enough to find Dynamo, get back to the park, you win the tournament, and I won’t ask you to go again for the rest of the weekend,” said Dylan cheerfully. He knew he had said the right thing and Rocky was in because his friend changed directions and was headed toward the bus stop.
“Henry and Frank won’t like it if we don’t show up. If we can’t clear the level we get out,” said Rocky. “Check,” said Dylan. Henry Rosetti and Frank Steiger were two of the older men who played chess in the park. They were always there, like clockwork, with their white hair, their button up sweaters and their stories from when they were young boys. They liked to pretend they didn’t like being beaten by a 10-year old at chess, but Dylan knew they enjoyed the company, and they wouldn’t like it if Rocky didn’t show up. “Keeps us young playing with you boys,” they would say, and give Rocky and Dylan a wink.
“I’ve got to get SID back online or I won’t be able to scramble Dynamo’s systems,” added Rocky. “Check,” said Dylan dutifully. He had faith in Rocky. If it had anything to do with electronics, Rocky could fix it, including SID. That was the nickname for the handheld they were assigned in the game. It stood for Systems Interaction Device, and it had been dropped and damaged when they were climbing the volcano. SID’s uses were endless, they were still discovering more every time they played, like the time in level three when they discovered a sonar app that helped them find their way out of a dark cave. The device helped them communicate with the game’s technology systems and download tools they needed.
When we get SID up and running, we can descramble Dynamo’s transmissions and determine his location” said Rocky. “Check,” said Dylan, adding “and sneak up on the big uglies. They’ll never know we were there.” Hoping the excitement of discovering Dynamo wouldn’t be too exciting for Dylan, Rocky added, “Once we’ve got the coordinates, transmit them and get out.” He looked at Dylan, who wasn’t responding. “We’re going to get out, right?” he asked firmly. “You fix SID, and leave the rest to me,” said Dylan, with excitement and determination written all over his face.
Rocky and Dylan made a transfer to the E-Route bus at the depot. It was a typical looking bus stop, but when they got on, the bus’ destination light went out. The driver yelled “All full! This bus is full!” to the riders getting on behind them, who looked around confused as the door swung shut. Dylan and Rocky could see they were the only ones on the bus. They said hi to the driver Dan, who was dressed in his driver’s cap and blue uniform, and took their seats. “Good morning boys,” said Dan. “Didn’t expect to see you here today. I can try out some new material on you.” They knew Dan well, and enjoyed seeing him on their rides inside Eastern Command. Dan was a retired agent, and enjoyed driving the bus. It was the gateway to the game, and Dan said while he loved driving into Eastern Command and remembering his old missions, he also loved driving out again as part of his retirement. He said he liked keeping an eye on the boys and seeing them off on their adventures.
“What comes before goose?” asked Dan, his face cheerfully beaming on them. “We don’t know. What?” responded the boys. “Duck!” yelled Dan, pointing and pretending to avoid an obstacle coming at him. Dylan and Rocky groaned. “I told you it was new material. You boys are my testers,” chuckled Dan, taking his seat and moving the bus forward. They were all laughing together as the windows went dark. The screens on the seats in front of them came on. “OK, let’s listen to your mission fellas,” said Dan.
Dr. Longley appeared on the screens. “Welcome to Level 5 Dylan and Rocky. Congratulations on retrieving the Cullinan diamond and momentarily stopping Dynamo. He has retreated to his hideout to hatch a new plan and we have gained a small window of time, though we know he loves attention and it won’t be long until he attempts to make news again. In this mission, you will determine the location of his hideout and transmit the coordinates to Eastern Command, but be extra careful. Dynamo is a clever inventor, and you will need to get past his traps. Best of luck boys. This is a dangerous mission. I hope you are rested and ready for what’s ahead.” The screens went black.
The game was a virtual reality experience, meaning they were transported into the game. As far as their senses were concerned, they would be there, seeing, hearing and feeling as if they were really chasing down Dynamo, and being chased too. It was similar to the experience of a 3-D movie, with a couple more D’s, and without the popcorn or the seats.
The bus pulled up to the NSA loading area, the large garage door opened and Dan drove inside. For a moment it would be dark, and then they were transported to the level where they left off. It happened like that every time. They got off the bus in the outdoors, the tropical, breezy outdoors, not anywhere on their actual bus route, or even inside Eastern Command. At least, it seemed.
The breaks made a loud screech as the bus lurched to a stop. The lights came on and a lush canopy of trees could be seen all around through the windows. “Be safe out there fellas,” said Dan. “Thanks,” said both boys, hurriedly exiting the bus. Rocky turned and said “We’ll be on the noon return, we won’t be any longer unless…” Suddenly Rocky was pulled down, off the steps of the bus. They were crouching next to the bus and Dylan was scanning the dense trees. He didn’t want any big uglies spotting them first. As they ran into the ferns and trees for cover, they heard the bus engine growing fainter as it drove away. They were completely immersed in tropical forest, with no other reminders of the real world beyond the game except for the retreating sound of the bus engine.
Rocky was starting to feel a little nervous, unsure if he could get SID repaired in time. He knew once they started the game they had a limited amount of time before the big uglies detected them. Dylan could see his friend was a little unsure. “If we don’t make it and end up in exile, Henry and Frank might actually like it if you don’t show up today. It’ll give them a chance to win,” he said, elbowing his buddy in the ribs. It had the effect Dylan was hoping for. “No way!” yelled Rocky, appearing to forget where he was. Rocky ran out into the clearing, grabbed the gear bag and ran back into the trees for cover. Dylan ran after him, grinning. It was time to meet Dynamo.