~ Chapter two ~
*Beep*.... *Beep* … Joey Nelson opened his eyes so he could shout at Johnson to shut off the stupid game he was always playing. He tried to turn, but found his head held fast. Now fully awake, he looked around and saw white everywhere. He had been in them enough to recognize the flat colors and prison-cell-eske feel of the army hospital.
“Fack.” Was all he could say, as close to swearing as he allowed himself to get. At least for the ‘hard’ swear words, anyway.
A smiling face came into view, “Awake are you? Good, right on schedule. Good, good.”
“Who are you?” Joey asked blearily, the drugs he was on right now must be really good. “Are you a doctor?”
The greasy smile quivered a bit as the man seemed to be dealing with an internal battle for morality. Morality lost by a large margin. “Well. No. I’m sorry to say, I am an attorney.”
“What the…? For what?” Joey struggled to remain fully cognizant of his surroundings. “Where are we? There are no lawyers in this god-forsaken desert, the only good thing about the whole damn place.”
“That’s uncalled for.” The greasy man’s eyes shifted into a hurt look. “We are back in the States, you have been out of it for quite a while. About a month I believe. Just long enough for the paperwork.”
“What are you going on about? You an army lawyer? They kicking me out now?” Nelson’s voice had a dreamy quality to it as the drugs tried to send him off to the darkness again.
“No, no… well, yes, you are getting an honorable discharge, a few medals, and most likely a pension, but that isn’t my department. No, I am here representing your wife, Daisy.”
“Where is she? Is she coming to visit me?” Joey looked around desperately for his wife, they had only been married a few months when he got his deployment orders.
“She already did, and… well, that is why I am here. I specialize in divorce cases, and I needed to inform you that your wife is trying to get your marriage annulled. In this case, she is not trying for anything that you owned, and she will only take the possessions and money that she has brought in. She wants this to be as painless as possible for you.”
Joey’s eyes bugged out, “What? Why would she leave me, I…” He tried to sit up, only to realize that he could not move at all. He had thought that he was held in place, but now darker, more insidious ideas were appearing in his mind.
“You must understand how difficult it would be for a twenty year old woman to be married to a quadriplegic, sir.” The lawyer stopped in shock as Joey’s eyes went blank and his face drained of color. “Sir?”
“Hey!” A female doctor had stepped into the room, “Who are you? Is he awake? What did you tell him!”
“What are you talking about?” The confusion was evident on the lawyer's face, “I have a legal right to inform him....”
“If he is awake, it is the first time since he got shot down! Get out or I’ll have you arrested!” The doctor shouted in a tone that was bordering on shrill. She ran over to Joey as the lawyer scampered away mumbling apologies. “Sergeant Nelson, it isn’t that bad, you could…”
Joey cut her off, “Am I paralyzed?”
“...Yes.” was the reluctant reply.
“Will I ever regain functionality?”
“It’s… not likely.” She stammered quietly.
“Is my wife leaving me?” The doctor had the good grace to look away and not answer. “Pardon my insubordination, Ma’am, but I think it is that bad.”
The most humiliating month of Joey’s life passed in a blur as he tried everything he could think of to regain use of his limbs. If he could even get his fingers to move he could at least type for a living instead of being a drain on all of his loved ones resources. He had been moved into his mother’s house at her insistence, and she had been feeding and taking care of him since. Luckily, a portion of his benefits went to the hiring of a nurse that cleaned him so he didn’t have to suffer his mother doing that too.
“You have a visitor, my love.” His mom called out as she entered the room.
Bitterly he muttered, “Please let it be the grim reaper.”
She smacked his leg and glared at him, he didn’t care. He couldn’t feel the strike anyway. One of his buddies from the army came in with a grin as his mother left the room.
“Dylan Ramen, as I live and breathe.” What felt like the first real smile in months stretched his cheeks.
“Well you look like shit.”
“Thanks, I still look better than you. At least my arms still have some definition, unlike those noodles you wave around.”
“Why are you laying down? Rub some dirt in it, you’ll be fine. Best cure the army can buy, raw dirt.” Dylan had trained as a medic with Joey, and had always been full of eccentric jokes.
Joey nodded, “Ah yes, your catch phrase. You know, a few of those privates took you seriously and got infected. When a medic tells you to do something…”
“You do it.” Dylan finished the saying and chuckled. His face slowly lost a bit of its forced cheer. “Well, damn, buddy. Any good news about this?”
“Well, turns out I’m rich. After my ex sold my house and car and dog and…”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, your life is basically a country music song right now.” Dylan interrupted him laughingly.
Joey would have shrugged if he could have. “Well, I also won the lottery, after the annulment, so I am now officially a multi-millionaire. As soon as the lotto department pays out, that is.”
“Whaa? Nice, man!” Dylan latched onto this good news like a drowning man to a raft. “So it isn’t all bad!” The smile dropped from his face when he saw the sour expression on Joey’s. “Anyway, what now, man?”
“That’s the big question. No love prospects, no way to work, and no money until the first check comes in from the lotto. That would be next month, I hope. The army says they’ll pay for everything, but…”
“But it’s the army.” Dylan finished with him. “I hear you man. Listen, I got out last year… I have a new job. That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Offering me a job?” Joey’s eyes actually became somewhat excited for a moment until Dylan shook his head.
“Yes and no. It’s a way out.” He said this in such a low tone that Joey had to strain to hear it.
“Out of what? Life?” Joey shook his head, “No matter how I joke, I could never do that. You know I’m a religious man.”
“Not like that, man! C’mon, like I would even offer something like that to you?” Dylan looked truly offended. “No, I work at a gaming company. We just finished developing a new MMORPG, and it’s…”
“I’m sorry, a what?” this question elicited a look of pain from Dylan.
“A massive multiplayer online role-playing game.” Dylan informed him in a strained tone. “The company finally got the new FIVER-capsules approved, and…” He paused when he got a ‘look’, “A fully immersive, virtually enhanced reality capsule. FIVER. You get in the pod, and the game becomes reality for you. Cost prohibitive, but doable for a millionaire, huh?”
“So you knew that I had won before you came here.” Joey inferred flatly.
Dylan nodded sheepishly, “The company sent me because I know you. Here’s the thing, if you get in the pod with the correct subscription… the kind you have to be invited to,” He looked meaningfully at his prone friend, “You don’t ever leave the game. You actually start a life on a new world. In a new, custom designed body. It’s a new chance, man.”
Joey was silent as he thought about the implications of this offer, “I could walk again?”
“And so much more.” Dylan promised. “The game was developed by the same guy that made paybud, edison cars, and Space Y. It is beyond realistic. It’s… it's a new life, man.”
“What’s the game?”
“It’s called Cal’s Eternium. It is unique beyond belief. And… we need people we can trust in there. It goes live in two weeks. Most of the people that are going to play are standard desktop users, there are about twenty percent FIVER users, but there are no admins. So we need people to play the game, and sometimes play the game in a way that is best for the company.” Dylan seemed a bit hesitant about this words, as if he were biting his tongue to stop himself from saying something.
“No admins? What do you mean?” Joey locked eyes with his friend.
“The game is controlled entirely by an AI named Cal. Artificial intelligence. Beyond Turing, buddy. It stands for ‘Certified Altruistic Lexicon’. This thing is smarter than half the population combined. It creates quests, monsters, and the very world. No outside control whatsoever, unless Cal allows it to happen. I want to tell you more details, but I can’t unless you agree to join the game.”
Dylan though about the embarrassment he felt on a daily basis, and nodded sharply. Any chance at a mobile life was one that he would willingly take. “How much?”
“Two hundred fifty thousand.” Dylan’s words made Joey’s jaw drop, “That is the ‘at cost’ version. There is a solid reason, the technology is custom designed per user, and therefore can only be used once. Then there is the disposal fee…” He winced as the words left his mouth.
“The what!” Joey barked in shock.
Dylan sighed, “Look, you can’t tell anyone or they will kill you to keep you quiet. Once you are fully synchronized with the game and the mind to machine transfer is complete, they need to destroy your body and the gear. All that is left is a little data core that contains you. It gets added to the main data core, and you are part of the game forever.”
“...You’re serious.” Joey breathed through flared nostrils.
“Yes. I can’t say anything else until you sign the NDA. Are you in?” Dylan caught his breath as his friend deliberated.
Joey fought with himself for several moments. The answer that had to be given, finally was. “When do we start? I need to say goodbye to my mother.”
Dylan let out an explosive breath, “We can start the first scans today, and I brought the equipment. You can’t go in till it is paid off though.”
“So the game will have been running for at least a half a month? Is that going to be bad?” Joey wondered as more medical equipment was wheeled into the room.
“Two to one time compression. You’ll only be a month late to the party.”