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Chapter 5:
Everything For A Price


Johnny awoke with blurred vision and a metallic taste in his mouth. He attempted to rub his eyes, only to quickly find out that he could not. His hands were tied behind his back. Giving a few strong blinks to help clear his vision, he was able to see that he was sitting barefoot on a chair inside of a non-descript warehouse. Next to him sat a wheeled cart with a metal tray on top of it, something more suited to a hospital than a warehouse.

Out of the shadows, Oakley emerged. "Oh, you're awake!," he said giddily.

In a groggy voice, Johnny asked, "Where am I?..."

"You, Mr. Beautiful Brain, are in my secret lair," Oakley explained. Without waiting for a response, he continued, "You are going to help me make history. You see, most people know me for my work with Gauss Motors and Payfiend, but these are just a means to an end. The project that is really closest to my heart is Brainchain. Brainchain is the final fusion of man and machine..."

Oakley closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "Mmmm, yes", he murmured like he was savoring the thought of it.

"...So, what do you need me for?," Johnny hesitantly asked, wary of the answer that he might receive. If Brainchain was so great, why didn't Oakley volunteer to be the first guinea pig?

"As I stated before, your brain meets all of the necessary criteria for experimentation. So when you chased me out of your house the other day, I knew that I had to come back. Like most people, it is simply a shame for your brain to rot on energy drinks and go to waste on social media...especially when it could be donated to science! All I need is for you to sign these papers."

"Papers?"

"The non-disclosure agreement and the waiver of liability contract! We have to do this by the letter of the law!"

Johnny was about to point out that kidnapping was illegal and that contracts made under duress are void, but decided that now was probably not the best time to mention the flaws in his reasoning. Instead, he stayed quiet.

After a moment of silence, Oakley spoke again. "Not willing to comply huh? Well, we can find some ways to convince you..."

He walked over to the tray, grabbed a long ostrich feather, knelt down in front of Johnny, and vigorously began tickling his feet. Johnny started to quake, his eyes clenched shut. Throwing his head back in suppressed laughter, a tear squeezed out of the corner of his eye and rolled down his cheek.

"Have you had enough yet!?," Oakley yelled.

Oakley was about to tickle him again when he noticed that something had fallen out of Johnny's pocket during his fit of shaking. He reached down and picked it up off of the floor. It was Johnny's smartphone. On its screen was a game of Croptown.

Distracted by the pulsating lights and vivid colors, Oakley turned to Johnny and asked, "What is this?"

Attempting to catch his breath, Johnny exhaled, "Croptown...a game..."

Oakley set the feather back down on the tray. Walking over to a wooden crate, he sat down on top of it and began playing. The game was of a simple, repetitive nature, but extremely addictive. He could not tear his eyes away from it. Minutes turned into hours as he tended to his digital plantation of opium plants.

By nightfall, he had finally reached the end of the demo. "Awwww, I was about to upgrade to a hydroponic system," he whined. He got up and walked over to Johnny, who was slouched in the chair fast asleep.

Shaking him awake by the collar of his shirt, Oakley frustratedly asked, "Where did you get this game? Where is the full version?"

Johnny's snoring got cut off in a snort and he looked up at Oakley through the crust in his eyes. "What?," he questioned in his drowsy stupor.

"The game! Where is the full version?!," Oakley repeated in agitation.

"It hasn't been released yet," Johnny yawned.

Releasing Johnny's collar, Oakley walked away and began pacing. He moved back and forth a few times before stopping and looking down at the phone in his hand.

Earlier that day Eugene and Mars had met up again. Eugene said that he felt bad that the trip to Giggle did not turn up anything useful, so he suggested some more contacts to try. The first was Joffre Bozo.

Joffre was the owner of the Congo webstore. It contained literally everything that money could buy, including certain goods that were only previously available through the blackmarket. The only downside was that their "Congo Cargo" shipping centers were the absolute worst. Every purchase was almost guaranteed to come pre-broken.

However, convenience overcomes necessity for many people, so Joffre still made gigantic steaming piles of cash. If anyone could rival the obscene levels of wealth of Willy the Wizard, it would have to be Joffre.

In the case of Mars and Eugene, the one redeeming quality of the extensive Congo Cargo shipping network was that it might help them to find Johnny. Eugene located Joffre's number within his contacts and handed the phone to Mars.

After a few rings, a pleasant voice stated, "Hello. This is Joffre."

"Hello Joffre! This is Mars Sugarhill."

"How can I help you Mars?," Joffre asked politely.

Rather than dancing around the subject, Mars figured that he would just ask plainly, "I need some help looking for my friend Johnny Orca. Would it be possible to use your Congo Cargo shipping network to track him down?"

"Tsk tsk, I would really like to help Mars, but I am a busy man. My time and effort will cost you," Joffre replied cooly. His helpful demeanor quickly shifting.

After Facepalm's stocks took a hit, Mars still had money to burn. "How much?," he asked confidently.

"200 billion," Joffre answered.

Unsure if he heard him correctly, Mars stuttered, "W-w-what?"

"200 billion," Joffre repeated.

Even at his level within the social strata, there was a limit to the depth of Mars' pockets. "Do you really need that much?," Mars tried to haggle.

"Oh I don't 'need it' per se. I just want to double my money, and this seems like a good opportunity to do so. You can never have enough money! Take it or leave it."

Disappointed, Mars said, "I'm going to have to leave it."

"Suit yourself," Joffre replied as the phone call disconnected.

Mars looked at the phone in disbelief. "Sheesh," he mumbled.

"Any luck?," Eugene inquired.

"Nope," Mars answered.

They sat there a little while before Eugene spoke. "Hmm...I am hesitant to suggest this...," he thought aloud.

"I am willing to try anything at this point," Mars assured.

"Should we get the IOS involved?"

Mars fidgeted nervously.

The International Organization for Spying was a hideous creature lurking just beneath the surface of the tech industry. Everyone who worked in tech had to sign away a certain amount of control of their company to this government body as the price of admission. John "Wayne" Pompous was the director of the IOS, a half-human, half-reptile sort of a man. His oily character was a good fit for an organized crime syndicate, not a position of public service.

After clearing his throat, Mars questioned the wisdom of that decision through chattering teeth.

"D-d-do you really think that is a good idea? Both of us are toast if a paparazzi c-c-catches us anywhere near that building! Especially after what happened!"

Even though the entire media was run by "The Big 7", they had a field day reporting about GLaSS, or the Global Lying and Surveillance System. This was a top-secret operation that used "crackers", the little bits of information that record where you've been on the Internetz, to track the computer usage of everyone in the world. For what reason exactly, no one knew. It sounded like the sick fantasy of a megalomanical fascist. The only reason people were aware of the system itself was because it was uncovered by a legendary hacker that went by the alias "XxEarwort_SnowconexX".

Just about every tech company known to man was shown to be complicit in this corrupt scheme, Orange, Macrohard, Facepalm, Tweeker, Cracktalk, Giggle, and so on. Each of them was warned by John Pompous to not breathe a word of it to anyone, lest they face "dire consequences". They already had enough on their hands with the whistleblower Julio Lozenge running amuck. It truly was the stuff of "conspiracy theories". But alas, a "conspiracy" is merely a group of people plotting together, and without transparency, many groups continually conspire. Mars knew this all too well.

"You said you were willing to try anything," Eugene reminded him.

"I am not sure how to get ahold of John Pompous though," Mars confessed.

"Duck Horn probably knows," Eugene ventured.

"Yikes!," Mars whistled. His soft, feminine hands were not eager to play with fire.

"Look, we don't even have to go anywhere. I went digging and found his phone number. All you have to do is call," Eugene said as he handed him a slip of paper.

Mars took the paper and began to shakily type the numbers into his phone. After a few beeps, a voice with a thick country accent answered the line. "New phone, who this?," they barked.

"Hi, this is Mars Sugarhill. I was looking for Mr. Duck Horn."

"Speaking."

"Hey Duck, I know this might sound strange, but I was wondering if you could help me find Johnny Orca. He seems to have gone missing."

"Johnny's gone missing? How come I haven't heard anything about that?"

"Really? It has been all over the news Duck," Mars revealed.

"I don't watch none of that garbage! Anyway, how can I help? I am not president yet."

Mars found the last part of his statement a bit presumptuous, but held his tongue. "Well, you have political connections, and I am trying to get ahold of John "Wayne" Pompous, head of the IOS."

"Oh, is that it? Ok, let me just hand him the phone."

"Wait, you mean he's there with you?"

"Yes, of course, he's my cousin! Before I go, don't forget to vote Duck Horn!"

Mars attempted to humor him, "I'm sure you'll do great."

"You got that right! Duck and politics goes together like the words "voter" and "fraud". Ooo, ooo! And the word "nepa-"..."nepa-"....gosh, what is that word?"

"Nepotism?," Mars guessed.

"That's the one! Anyway, here's Wayne..."

After a few seconds, a deep voice snapped, "What do you want?"

"Uh, hi Wayne. I was wondering if GLaSS was capable of tracking down Johnny Orca."

"Don't you ever mention that on an insecure line...Besides, we have the use of your systems, not the other way around. Now, if you'll excuse me, we have to go waste those tax dollars." *click*

That was the second time Mars was hung up on today. He didn't like it and would most certainly be crying a river into his pillow tonight, the one covered in a money-themed pillowcase with hundred dollar bills printed all over it.

Before he had any time to stew in his feelings, his phone started to ring. Looking down at the screen he gasped. It read "Call from Johnny Orca".

"Hello! Johnny? Are you okay?!"

"I got your friend," an unfamiliar voice responded.

"Who is this?," Mars questioned.

"That is none of your concern. However, I am willing to trade your friend for...a favor...."

"How much money do you want? I will pay anything!" Mars was glad that he hadn't given all his money to Joffre earlier.

"I don't care about money."

"...What do you want then?"

"Croptown."

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