Stuck in the Game

An Urban Sci-Fi Book Excerpt by Christopher Keene

Stuck in the Game

by Christopher Keene

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I didn’t know how long I had been floating in the darkness. My body twitched as waves of anxiety and exhilaration crashed over me, drowning me. Yet I could still breathe, despite the feeling of being suffocated.

When the tides of emotion finally receded, my heartbeat calmed and I floated once more, trying to gain a sense of my surroundings.

A speck of light appeared before me, glowing like the first glimpse of a sunrise after a starless night. The white radiance grew until it was a circle with a diameter as wide as I was tall. As confusing as the sight was, it wasn’t half as strange as the feeling of my eyes having already adjusted to it. Three smaller lights appeared around it, forming words I couldn’t quite make out.

I focused on the words. Of the three lights, ‘New Game’ glowed the brightest. The other two read ‘Continue’ and ‘Settings.’

New Game?” The sound of my voice was jarring after the silence.

Wait a minute . . . Continue? Settings? I had played enough games to recognize a gaming menu when I saw one. The icon flashed and the words were sucked into the circle of light, like being drawn into a whirlpool. I followed them soon after, my body seeming to stretch as the light engulfed me and a brief whine filled my ears.

When the light faded, I was standing on a dirt pathway surrounded by the greenest field of grass I had ever seen, complete with daisies and dandelions. I expected to smell the grass, but when I sniffed the air I couldn’t identify a single distinguishable scent. Against the silence I also noticed that the only noise came from my own body movements. Something felt wrong, like I was standing in a beautiful garden filled with plastic flowers. Everything from the clouds in the azure sky to the distant trees had the look of a CGI wallpaper; every object had been so neatly arranged that it only highlighted how unnatural it all was.

My eyebrows knitted together in confusion. How did I end up in a Dream Game?

Bending down, I touched the dirt of the pathway, feeling its rough texture under my fingertips. It felt too real, if such a sensation was possible. The edges of the track were clean cut despite the high grass surrounding it. I saw a crossroads in the distance, and ahead of me on the side of the pathway was a wooden sign pegged into the grass. I walked forward, details of the environment far away becoming clearer with every step, as though I had suddenly become near-sighted.

When I reached the crossroads, the sign came into focus, too. It had the word ‘Tutorial’ carved into it in block lettering. Under the etching was a map of a diamond-shaped path. At each corner of the diamond was a title. The eastern point was called ‘Menus,’ the northern point was called ‘Actions,’ the western point was called ‘Community,’ and the southern point had a red box with ‘You are here!’ written in it.

Really?” I murmured, startled again to hear my own voice echo back at me.

Considering I had no clue where I was, I guessed that the direction marked ‘Community’ would be my safest bet for finding answers. I ran down the dirt pathway, taking a left at the crossroad. Less than a few yards past the Y-junction, an animated circle appeared before me and I stopped. It was continuously filling up and emptying with blue liquid.

Huh . . . it’s a loading icon. I heard the chirping sound of a successful Internet connection. Five bars rose and then vanished only to be replaced with a black window that had three blank spaces for a ‘Username,’ ‘Password,’ and ‘Email.’

I stared blankly at the window for a moment before deciding to just go along with whatever trick the universe was playing on me. I said, “Email,” and the word began to glow. I verbally spelled out my email and password. Both were accepted, but when I tried to create a username it rejected it. Each time I tried a new name the window would shake and the words ‘Existing username. Try something else.’ would appear in a red box above it. I wasn’t surprised. So many Dream State accounts had been created in the past few years that it was almost impossible to find one without numbers or alternative letters. After a few unsuccessful attempts, the system finally accepted ‘NotThatNoah.’

Now that I was registered, a chat window appeared, and another invitation window immediately popped up on top of it. I was surprised to see my mother’s name followed by three random numbers. I didn’t hesitate to accept.

Noah?” My mother’s voice rang out in my head, wracked with worry. “Noah? Is that you?”

Yeah, Mom, it’s me.” I moved my head and the window followed my vision. “What’s going on? Why am I in a Dream Game?”

Oh dear . . . you were in a car accident.”

Car accident? The words seemed foreign, disconnected. A buzzing apprehension fluttered in the back of my mind.

Your brain was damaged during the crash. The doctor says your body is now fully paralyzed.”

Paralyzed.

The weight behind her words hit me in a rush and everything suddenly made sense. My body, which wasn’t really a body at all, froze, and my anxiety returned with a vengeance. The panic felt like my heart had just dropped into my stomach.

In a strange way, it’s a little funny.” Her frazzled tone gained a hint of nervous humor to hide her concern. “After all of those awful things being said about it online and all the times your father and I told you not to try it, the Dream Engine is the only thing that has the wetware interface that would allow us to talk to you in your condition.”

I stepped back, my eyes flitting rapidly around the virtual world in alarm without actually seeing anything. My hands shook in my narrowing vision as I breathed heavily, attempting to calm my racing heartbeat. Considering the very world around me was evidence of what had happened, trying to distract myself was about as effective as trying to think cold thoughts while inside a burning building.

My mother continued to talk but her voice started to sound further and further away. “Noah? Don’t panic, it’s okay! Everything’s going to be fine . . .”

With every word her voice became more distant until I barely heard her at all.

***

Sue and I had stood in David’s dark, BO-smelling room for half an hour before I realized he wasn’t going to wake himself out of his game. Or maybe he couldn’t.

I kicked his bed and screamed at him in frustration. He was so far under that I doubted he even flinched under the Dream Engine helmet.

During high school, I’d enjoyed playing MMO games as much as David and Brock, the third musketeer of our little group of friends. It was during this time that I’d met Sue, who had always been annoyed when the three of us would spend too much time on our computers. When Brock started playing the new Dream Engine, or the ‘harder stuff’ as we called it back then, we were shocked by how addicted he became to it. By then Sue and I were going out, and, after seeing how the games had turned Brock into a recluse, we were both completely against being sucked into them.

Now that David was getting into Dream Games as well, it felt like the game had stripped me of my best friend.

Sue’s dark hair whipped around as she made for the door. She hated the Dream Games far more than I did. It was like she was on a crusade to get them banned.

Frustrated, I’d stolen a bottle of soda from his bedside table while we waited. From the way two of them were left out, I’d assumed one was for me anyway. As I left, I gulped it down and then threw the bottle into the recycling bin outside.

I followed Sue out to my car. She was sitting in the passenger’s seat, her expression showing that she was unimpressed by the state we had found David in and that she was eager to leave. We took off down the back road, heading for the highway. My jaw clenched as I sped up, thinking about all of the controversies I had read up on about the Dream Engine.

Schizophrenia, narcolepsy, drug overdoses, there were a myriad of boogeyman-like risks being rumored about online to scare the parents of any gamer who might have considered buying the new system. Were any of these true? Probably not, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Being skeptical of the connection between smoking and lung cancer didn’t help those who died from it.

If they think a game is more important than spending time with you then you’re better off not being friends with them,” she said as we stopped at a red light.

It was getting darker and beginning to rain, the approaching night close on the heels of the overcast clouds. I turned on my lights while trying to simultaneously keep my attention on the road and her words. “Neither of us have tried it before so we don’t really know what it’s like for them. Maybe it’s just that fun?”

She snorted and I didn’t know what sounded less attractive, that or the car horn going off behind me a second after the light turned green.

True,” Sue said, “but they could at least do it in moderation.”

The impatient driver who beeped at me continued to ride my tail even as I turned my car onto the highway. To make matters worse, his lights were on high beam, so I could barely see anything in my rearview mirror. As I shifted my gaze back to the road, my eyes began to blur.

Whoa . . .” I squinted, trying to clear my vision. “I mean . . . it’s their choice how they spend their life, no matter how we feel about it.”

I didn’t know why I was defending them. I was just as against their kind of gaming lifestyle as she was, and besides, I was beginning to feel light-headed.

Sue crossed her arms, screwing up her mousy face. “Still, I would never say a life where you have to take mind-altering drugs to have a good time is a good life. Didn’t Brock tell you that a bunch of people died from overdosing on DSD?”

I’m not sure how seriously we should take his story.” I shook my head roughly, but not because I was disagreeing with her. A sudden weariness was wrapping itself around me like a warm blanket, making my eyelids droop. “The guy has . . .” I yawned. “Watched a few too many conspiracy documentaries. Besides, I think he likes you, and he knows that if he talks about DSD, you’ll listen.”

Well, Brock said he’s going to mail me the video evidence on a flash drive today. It should really add weight to my petition to get DSD out of stores and—”

She was interrupted by another roar of the horn from the car behind us. It jolted me from my stupor. Sue turned in her seat and flipped him off when we arrived at another set of traffic lights. “What’s your problem, huh?”

That’s . . . a very good . . . question.

I couldn’t focus on the road. With a quick glance through the rain-streaked windscreen to check for lights in the darkness, I eased on the brake to take a left off the highway. I had to pull over and take a rest before I caused an accident.

Time seemed to skip for a moment and I heard Sue scream, “Noah, stop!”

I jolted up just in time to see that there were lights ahead of me and that they were coming straight for us. I didn’t have time to wonder why I hadn’t seen them before. I floored the accelerator, hoping to cut past them. I wasn’t fast enough. A truck slammed into my car. The sound of shattering glass and folding metal overpowered the car horns as we spun from the impact.

***

I opened my eyes again. A pure panic was ripping through my brain. Despite the beautiful blue skies above me and dirt track below, I could only relate what I was feeling to a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from.

My mother’s frantic voice came back to me. “Are you hearing what I’m saying, Noah? You won’t be able to move your body. Keeping you in the game is the only way you’ll be able to communicate with anyone. Do you understand?”

Are you telling me that the only way I can have contact with the outside world is to stay in here?” My trembling voice echoed back at me.

I’m sorry, dear. The doctor says your brain will heal but that it will take some time. You’ll have to bear with this system to communicate with us until then. Listen Noah, it could be a lot worse, you—”

What about Sue?” I suddenly recalled that she had been in the car during the crash as well. “Is she okay?”

She didn’t seem to want to answer me. Her silence told me more than any words she might have spoken.

She didn’t make it, did she?”

She’s in critical condition but her brain was so damaged that the doctors don’t think she’s going to pull through.”

My anxiety returned with a deep dread and a throbbing ache that, even in this artificial world, made my vision blur. Guilt, regret, and the fear of losing Sue mixed together into a thick stew that formed into a cold lump in my chest. I would have vomited if the game had allowed it. I might never see Sue again, never talk to her or touch her. All of the dreams we’d had together might never come true.

No . . . no!” I grabbed my head that wasn’t real in a world that wasn’t real and shook it roughly as pixels blurred my vision. “I’m such an idiot!”

I heard my mother attempting to console me, but it was drowned out in the memory that my last words to Sue were in defense of the Dream Games.

My situation brought with it a cruel irony.

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