The BugCatcher Chronicles #2 - Pine Hills

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Elena

The flickering streetlamp fought valiantly, but in the end Elena was victorious once again.

The green mantis/cricket hybrid that had been resisting her invocations finally gave up the ghost, melting into the virtual ground before materializing as a tiny pixelated icon in the upper-right corner of her phone's screen. The evening had been good to them so far; this was the third such avatar they'd captured. The path of broken streetlamps they'd carved through the neighborhood was a testament to their success.

"Nice inputs, babe." said a voice, hovering over her left shoulder.

"Thanks, Greg. How's yours going?"

"Not too bad." A quick glance at his screen showed a pink rhinoceros beetle clacking its jaws at him. He spun the input selectors again, tapped the invoke button, and the beetle lost one of its jaws. Startled, it attempted to flee, but a quick invocation finally brought it down. The beetle evaporated and rematerialized, and the garage door at the house across the street started to rise of its own accord.

"Shit. Better move!"

Elena quickly followed Greg's fleeing footsteps, and the two scrambled over the next hill, pausing to catch their breath under one of the pine trees that the neighborhood was famous for. They'd gotten away, like they always did. The setting sun framed the outline of the cookie-cutter houses, melting them into an endless skyline of sameness. Elena wondered how any of the residents could find their own home amongst all these identical facades.

"Woo! Got 'em!" cheered Greg. "We're killing it tonight babe!"

"Yeah we are!" affirmed Elena, pulling her hood back up over her head. It was chilly tonight, and while she didn't feel like going home yet, the cold was started to seep through her jacket.

"Any more nearby?" she asked. "I don't see them."

"There may be another over that hill to the west." said Greg. "I mean, we had good luck there yesterday."

"Cool, let's go."

The two slid their phones back into their pockets, volume turned all the way up so as to hear the rhythmic beeps that signify a nearby bug. These bugs are what Elena and Greg are after; software bugs that exist in the real world that, somehow, this app BugCatcher can find and invoke. Once invoked, Elena and Greg get a new, custom-generated avatar for their collection.

Of course, whatever the bug actually does will also happen, hence the trail of broken streetlights and the now-stuck-open garage door.

Elena slid her left hand into Greg's right. He'd been the one to introduce her to the game and, frankly, it had been a lot of fun. Find a bug, try some inputs, capture the bug, see what it did. Everything they'd captured so far had involved broken streetlamps or sprinkler systems gone haywire or suddenly-loud music systems; in other words, nothing too serious. The worst thing that had happened was that they'd accidentally turned a car on, with no way to turn it off. It hadn't been shifted out of park, so Elena figured it was no big deal; it couldn't go anywhere.

As they crested the hill, Elena got a glimpse of the rest of the neighborhood. It was quite nice, to be sure, but it was also so... dull. Every house was the same, with a big green yard, 2.5 children and a dog. Bland, unoriginal, inoffensive, boring.

It didn't really bother her that they were out here catching bugs, breaking streetlamps and sprinkler systems. After all, if anybody could afford the mild chaos she and Greg were causing, it was these people. Goddamn rich people.

A low drone sounded from Greg's pocket, and Elena's started doing the same. A bug was nearby. As if by magic, Greg's phone appeared in his hand as though it had been there all along. Elena was a bit slower, but in a couple seconds they had located the bug. Apprehension turned to amazement as they beheld the monstrosity before them.

It had the body of a caterpillar, but the clacking mandibles of a fire ant. The thing writhed in an unnatural way, as if trying to shake some invisible bond that held it within the phone. It was huge, almost as big as the house nearby, with giant black eyes that seemingly reflected the virtual light which attempted to pass through them. Elena was amazed at the design quality of this particular avatar; whoever coded this up did a hell of a job.

Greg was quicker, as always, and his first few invocations started flying. Elena joined in on her app, working the opposite way Greg was, just like he'd taught her. Between the two of them, they'd always managed to find the right combination of inputs to invoke the bug and capture the monster before it had a chance to flee.

This one proved difficult. Several rounds went by, and nothing was taking. The caterpillar's writhing continued, and it looked to Elena like it was specifically programmed to come leaping out of her phone if she failed to catch it.

Finally something stuck. The leftmost input glowed with a red outline, and the monster's right side started limping. She'd found something!

"Red 47!" she whispered urgently to Greg. "That's the left input!"

A moment later, he whispered back: "Black 12 is the middle."

All they needed now was the right side. Her fingers flew across the screen as she desperately tried combination after combination, willing the app to give her the right answer so she might have this bug for her collection.

Sustaining hit after hit, the caterpillar monster finally collapsed, dead, and faded away. The pixelated avatar appeared, and despite herself she let out a whoop of joy.

"Nice job, babe," said Greg, though not without a hint of jealousy.

"Hey, it was you who figured out the middle input."

"Yeah, but you brought it down. Make sure to show that to Danny when we get back to campus."

The two started back the way they came. Only a moment later, the trees became illuminated in red and blue, and a police cruiser slammed to a stop right next to the pair of hunters. Another cruiser followed on the heels of the first one, and three offices exited the two vehicles.

"Hands up!" shouted the nearest officer. "Don't move."

Greg glanced at Elena, and she could tell what he was thinking. Should we move? She shook her head, almost imperceptibly, and raised her hands. No point. He reluctantly did the same.

The nearest officer took Greg over toward the nearby tree, cuffed him, and slid him into the back of the first cruiser. Another officer cuffed Elena, and as she was being walked to the second cruiser she belatedly realized that the officer that had cuffed her had also been speaking to her, though she couldn't remember what he had been saying.

I'm being arrested! For what?!

As she took a seat in the back of the cruiser, she wondered how the hell it had come to this. Goddamn rich people, thinking they own the world. It was just some broken streetlamps. We didn't do anything!

Frank

Twenty minutes before the police showed up way earlier than she'd expected them to, Georgia Huntsworth sat in an easy chair and stared blankly at the TV. The family insisted that having it on helped poor Frank, but Georgia just couldn't see how. The man was a vegetable, with no hope of waking up anytime soon. He'd have no idea it was even on, much less be able to watch it.

She sighed, and got up to fix another cup of coffee. A stronger one, this time. The gentle whirring of Frank's artificial breathing machine faded into the background as Georgia crossed into the house's kitchen. It would be a long night, but the machines would do most of the work. All she had to do was make sure he was comfortable; at least, as comfortable as she could imagine him being.

She placed the pot back on its mantle and leaned against the countertop. The job wasn't bad, per se, it was just boring. There really wasn't much to do for poor old Frank. She made him comfortable, she kept the TV on, and otherwise she chatted with her coworkers or her daughter or her beloved Zachary. It was a good job, just not very exciting.

The coffee was done, so Georgia poured herself a mug and went back to the easy chair. She glanced at Frank; nothing had changed, and she mentally chastised herself for thinking that something might. She sat down, dug out her phone, and starting to type a message for Zachary.

Then she realized that Frank was no longer breathing.

And, even worse, there was no whirring noise.

She checked the machine. It was off, and silent, though she'd been told that if it failed it's alarm would go off. She checked for Frank's pulse, found it, weak but present, and scrambled to dial 911. Once that call was finished, she straddled Frank's still body and began performing CPR on him, hoping to keep his blood pumping long enough to get him to the hospital.

Thirty seconds later, the red-and-blue flashes of the police cruisers arrived, and Georgia was impressed with their promptness, only to be disappointed when they left prematurely. They were followed a minute later by an ambulance. An EMT burst through the open front door, relieved Georgia, and together they loaded Frank into the ambulance.

Elena

The room was bright, unnaturally so, and Elena's eyes were having a hard time adjusting. When the burly detective (Elena assumed he was a detective, given that he didn't wear a uniform) slammed the door open and barged into the tiny room, she nearly jumped out of her chair.

"Well now, little missy, mind telling me what you were doing out in Pine Hills tonight?"

"I, uh, I was just playing a game," she stammered. "We both were."

"That's a hell of game, then." The detective's voiced boomed off the walls; Elena thought she saw the one-way mirror rattle. "Four broken street lamps, one garage door stuck open, two sprinkles systems that now need extensive repairs. You know the whole neighborhood saw you two, right?"

Elena hadn't known that, but it seemed blindingly obvious now, so out of fear of embarrassing herself she kept her mouth shut.

The detective wasn't fooled. "Right. So would it surprise you to learn that all that property damage wasn't all you did?"

"What? I swear, all we were doing was catching bugs!" Elena insisted.

"I'm sure. I doubt the family of Frank Doornbos will be so understanding."

What the hell is he talking about? Elena wondered. I don't know any Frank Doornbos. Probably some damn rich guy who lives in that neighborhood.

When she realized what the detective had actually said, Elena felt a chill run down her spine.

"What does that mean?"

"We've already arrested you for destruction of property. Our officers picked you up outside of Mr. Doornbos's home. We know you were playing BugCatcher, despite that game being illegal in this state. You really want to add obstruction of justice to your rap sheet?"

"I swear, I don't know what you are talking about." Elena couldn't believe what she was hearing. BugCatcher was illegal? Why hadn't Greg mentioned that?

"Oh, all right then. I'll spell it out for you. Frank Doornbos is dead. Whatever you two and that app did, it caused his artificial breathing machine to stop working. His nurse called 911, performed CPR, the works, but it was too late. He was dead before they reached the hospital."

Elena's arms and legs went numb. That bug, the last one they'd caught before the police picked them up, the huge jawed caterpillar thing. It had killed someone?

Her face must have given her away, because she looked up from the metal table in front of her to see the detective's eyes boring holes into her skull. Her mind furiously searched for something, anything, to say.

"No, see, you got it all wrong," Elena fought through tears that threatened to overwhelm her. This was all wrong, it was just some fun at the expense of rich people, they weren't doing any real harm. "We were just catching bugs, we didn't kill anyone."

"Oh, but see, you did." The detective smiled, if you could call a mouth full of teeth a smile. "You invoked that bug. That bug shut off the breathing machine, which killed Frank Doornbos. Therefore, you killed Frank Doornbos." He slammed a file down on the desk and Elena jumped. "We are charging you with second-degree murder. Your boyfriend has already confessed; you would be wise to do the same. We will notify your family, and it would be wise to get a lawyer."

The detective picked up the file and walked out of the brightly-lit room, the door slamming behind him. From within the room, sniffles turned to sobs, and the detective strode down the long hallway to his desk.

As he approached, he heard a low drone sounding from his desk drawer, and he grinned.

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

I'm a parent, a husband, a geek, a web developer, and a speaker, in roughly that order.

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The BugCatcher Chronicles #2 - Pine Hills
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