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Generally everyone in prison knows exactly when they’re getting out. There aren’t very many surprises on that front. So that April day in 2028 was an unusual day. It started out pretty ordinary at first, gray eggs and stale toast for breakfast. We sat around the chow hall at tables with hard round attached stools. We shoveled the watery eggs into our mouths. The new guy complained, just like every other morning, about the lack of coffee. It’s prison, what did he expect?

But ordinary wasn’t destined to last long that day. Bruce, one of the guards came over. Bruce isn’t a bad guy. I think he’s a pretty friendly guy on the outside, but with the inmates he’s quieter. No fraternizing and all that. But he’ll loiter and watch the card games and sometimes chuckle quietly at a dramatic win or loss. He’s a poker guy. I’m more a blackjack guy, but poker has grown on me. Blackjack is a little easier to count cards and know when not to push your luck. Poker feels a little more dangerous. I kinda like that.

“Danburg,” Bruce said. “Git up. You got a visitor.” That right there told everyone at the table something unusual was going on. Visiting hours didn’t start until ten, and today wasn’t even a visiting day. That meant lawyer or cops, generally. I would’ve bet hard and long against lawyer. Mine was about as useful as a marked deuce.

Everyone in prison is either a number or a last name. Behave and you get to be a last name. I’d done a pretty good job of not getting into trouble--as long as you don’t count those first few weeks. But I was only nineteen when I was arrested. At a much more mature 22 I knew better. Two and a half years out of nine. That was how long it had been since anyone called me Rick. If someone did, would I even realize they were calling me?

So I followed Bruce, leaving half of my “breakfast” behind. I did hear a, “Huh, wonder what that’s about…” as I walked away.

“Um…?” I asked as Bruce led me through a doorway I hadn’t been through for two and a half years. He didn’t say anything as we got buzzed through two more doors until only one more stood between me and the outside world.

I’d assumed by that point I was being brought for some unannounced court thing, but the woman in that final checkpoint room was no lawyer, and was no court bailiff. She stood like a soldier, more so than the prison guards. No, they stood with an overt authority. She stood with a disciplined confidence in a casual black suit. Silver-rimmed black sunglasses poked out the top of a breast pocket.

“Agent Wald, I hereby remand custody of inmate 55169B, Danberg, Richard to the Secret Service.”

Now for one, I’d never heard Bruce sound so formal. For another, Secret Service? How could that possibly not end badly? I sighed and stuck my hands out for cuffing.

“Am I going to need them?” she asked with distaste dripping off her tongue. Gulping and saying no really is the only reasonable reaction in a situation like that, right? Because that’s exactly what I did.

She stood aside, clearing the way to the exit. The buzz of the door being unlocked did not ring of freedom. “Walk,” she ordered.

The East Coast morning sun was bright and warm and exquisitely amazing. Yet I still turned and looked back at the door closing behind us. Things in there were predictable and understandable. Everything worked on a system, on a schedule. You could rely on that. By contrast, I had no idea what was going on or what to expect. She put her sunglasses on with a one-handed style that broadcasted confident cool. She probably swaggered when she walked, but she stayed behind me on the walk to the tilt-rotor helicraft. We prodded me up and in and secured the hatch behind us.

“Strap in.” She conserved words like she had only been issued a fixed amount that morning. Budget cuts again, maybe.

The helicraft’s engines started up with a whine as rotors came to speed.

“Um, can you tell me what’s going on?” I tried.

“You’ll be briefed on arrival,” was all she gave me as the pilot lifted off.

Briefed. That didn’t sound good. That had a distinctly military sound to it. I’m not very military. Well, okay, I’m not at all military. I’m a computer gamer. A really good one, at that, but when it really came down to it, computer games had always been the main thing I was ever really good at. Math, sure, but boring. Some coding, which I’d probably never be allowed to use again. A lot of other classes had just been boring.

But gaming had always felt like a focal point in my life. I was good at finding patterns, learning how to game the systems. When the first VR games had hit big I was ready. I was a star. I could always seem to figure out the tricks to maximize results without as much of the tedious grinding.

And then SecondScape came out, a VR game which overlapped game aspects with the real world. It was part virtual reality and part augmented reality. It was genius from a marketing perspective. Real-world obstacles became things to navigate, and could look entirely different. It was huge. Hundreds of thousands of people played.

It had a truly slick way of taking everyday objects and turning them into dual-purpose things. Real-life objects could be bought or sold for what they did in-game. Money connected in a few ways, several of which were designed to turn in-game purchases into revenue streams for the game company. And that turned out to be a mistake.

Agent Wald’s greatest talent seemed to be sitting in silence. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met any other Hispanic who could be so infuriatingly still and silent. But she breathed, so she wasn’t some science fiction android. Nobody makes them that realistic.

She just sat there, opposite me but offset a little, looking towards a window further ahead. She blinked. She swallowed. Her eyes shifted from place to place now and then. Her hands shifted on her lap. But her expression never changed. It was getting seriously creepy as the flight went on.

I’d say it was about forty-five minutes or so of that before we landed. We had to wait a few minutes while the rotors slowed before the ramp lowered once more.

We were on the roof of an office building. I didn’t recognize the buildings around us. It wasn’t New York, I could figure that much out. Two more agents stood by a door labeled, “STAIRS.” I didn’t need Agent Wald’s prodding to know where to go, but that didn’t stop her from providing it. “Let’s go,” she said in a voice that was anything but encouraging.

The two agents bookended us down three flights of stairs, where another door opened onto what could have been any corporate cubicle farm. People hurried out of the way, creating a clear path to a conference room.

“Wait here,” Agent Wald warned before she closed the door and left me alone in the room. Eighteen words total. Come one, the math isn’t hard, and it isn’t like I didn’t have time to keep count.

So I had a conference room to myself. A plastic pitcher of water sat next to a short stack of recyclable cups. I tried the communications panel at the center of the table. Disabled. As if I were some criminal. Yeah, I didn't blame them.

They left me waiting a while, so I helped myself to water, figuring they wouldn’t have brought me here just to poison me. I sat back in one of the cushy chairs and propped my all-white prison sneakers up on another. I figured if they were going to make me wait I’d make myself comfortable. And man, those chairs were pretty kick. Sure, maybe I was biased because the only padded surface I’d been exposed to for the last two and a half years was a thin mattress, but still. Kick chairs.

When the suit-and-tie parade began it took deliberate effort not to sit up straight. They’d let me wait. What were they going to do, arrest me for being disrespectful? They all sat down along the other side of the table. It turned a little, laced my fingers, and gave them my very best, ‘wazzup’ nod. I think I was supposed to be feeling intimidated, but if so it wasn’t working. It was feeling good. If they wanted me intimidated they should have kept Agent McSternface.

“Richard Danburg,” one of them began.

“I prefer Mr. Danburg or Rick,” I explained, not sure where the cockiness was coming from or how long until it ran out. I was already figuring out that they wanted something from me. Something they needed me for. And McSternface--her new name as long as she didn’t come into the room--didn’t like me being involved. That right there made me determined to play this up. Plus, I couldn’t help but screw with the guy. He looked every bit the formal type, who would normally be inclined to go for Mr. Danburg and not Rick. The full name route would be tedious for him. First point to me. Take that, G-Man.

“I am Secret Service Director William Thomas,” he went on, perfectly nonplussed. Might have scored that one too early. “A situation has arisen that we need your assistance with.”

“Oh?” Okay, he was better at the nonplussed thing. But I tried anyway.

“Agent Smith, fill him in.”

Agent Smith? Really? This guy couldn’t have been more than a few years older than I was. His hair screamed company man and his skin was paler than mine. And that’s saying something. At least I wasn’t the scrawniest looking guy at the table.

“Are you familiar with Riftworlds Online?” Agent Smith’s voice was a little nasally, that annoying kind of voice where you just want to tell the kid to speak from the diaphragm.

“Um, no. I haven’t had anything to do with anything ‘Online’ in a couple years.”

“Well, things have advanced since SecondScape. Riftworlds Online took it to the next level with a direct brain interface.”

“I heard those were coming.”

“Not coming,” he corrected. “Here. Riftworlds launched about a week ago. The biggest game launch in history. The first few days everything went well, and good reviews made it even more popular. Four days ago they started a tournament. Also the biggest. As of two days ago people are unable to log out. The first few times people tried disconnecting players physically those players died. There are approximately 12 million people, globally, trapped in the game an unable to get out.”

Well, damn. That was the first thought in my head. I said it a couple seconds late.

“And how is this my problem?”

The door opened and McSternface ushered in a woman in a bluish suit with an American flag pin on the lapel. President Hearn. Everyone at the table stood. That was enough to get me to sit up properly. I probably should have stood. I voted for her.

Men shifted positions and she sat directly across from me. Things had just gotten a lot more serious.

“Agent Smith was just explaining the situation,” Director Thomas said. “Mr. Danburg was just asking how it was his problem.”

Hah. I’d made him say my name the way I wanted after all. I’ll admit I felt smug about it, but also confused and a little intimidated by the President’s presence. But come on, she was the President. I think that’s fair.

“They told you about the people trapped in the game, right?” she asked with the same majestic voice she’d campaigned with. I’m sure she’s given a lot of speeches since her inauguration, but I’ve missed most of them.

“Yes…, Madame President.” Hey, I can be polite and respectful.

“And that people are dying?”

“Yes.”

“We think they’re dying because their...avatars are dying.”

Now that’s taking realism too far. I don’t want to be that immersed in a game.

That is where you come in, Mr. Danburg.”

“Umm, hey, I had nothing to do with this!” If prison wasn’t a good enough alibi what was?

“Nobody is blaming you, Mr. Danburg. Far from it. Right now we’re not sure who to blame, but we have a lot of people working on that, and we’re not the only ones. No, this is about something more….close to home.”

I raised an eyebrow, still not understanding the connection.

“My daughter is inside the game,” she said with a resignation brutally unlike her.

“I’m sorry.” I know, kinda lame. I didn’t know what else to say.

“So that is why you are here. I have a deal to offer you, Mr. Danburg.”

She already had my attention, but that really brought it to focus.

“Our best resources are working on fixing the problem. In the meantime, I need a way to keep her safe. If you go into the game, find her and keep her safe until we can safely get everyone out, then I will officially pardon you. You’ll be a free man with no felony conviction on your record.”

It was a lot to take in. For a moment I just sat there like an idiot, trying to think what to say.

“Why me?” was the best I ended up coming up with. “I’ve never played the game.”

“Because they tell me you’re the best. Because she’s my daughter, and I need her kept safe. You’ve never had a child, but if you did you would understand. And I want the best. So that’s you.”

“Hook me up with a levelled-up avatar with good gear?”

“The game doesn’t work that way,” Smith explained. “Each player can have only one avatar. Nobody else can log in to another person’s avatar. They’re genetically tagged. You’ll have to go in at level one.”

“So people have been leveling up for a week, and for the last couple of days people haven’t been able to get out so they’ve probably been leveling up even faster. I go in at level one and if I die in game I die for real. And if I can find her, and keep her safe, and not get killed myself, for however long it takes for you to fix things from the outside, I get let out about five years early and don’t have to tell future employers I’m a felon? Is that what you’re saying?”

“There will still be restrictions to your computer access afterwards,” Thomas added.

“You know you’re really not selling this well.”

“She’s my daughter, Mr. Danburg. And you’re supposed to be the best. If that’s not the case, if you’re not good enough, give us the name of someone who can do it.”

Oh, that was not fair. Come on.

I took some time running over pros and cons. If I refused I’d go back to prison, and someone would probably make sure parole hearings went poorly. Once I got out I’d have a hard time getting any kind of tolerable or worthwhile job. If I did it, I’d either die or come out a hero, with the President and her daughter both owing me, plus a pardon, albeit with some computer access restrictions. That left three possibilities, two of which kinda sucked.

I felt like I’d seen this movie. The hero usually gets betrayed in the end, right? Hero. There’s a word nobody had ever used for me before. I could be the President’s daughter’s hero, and from what I’d heard she was a good person. She could keep me from getting screwed over.

Risk my life against bad odds to be a hero? Me? Who was I kidding?

“Okay,” I said anyway to my own surprise.

 

“Tell me more about this game, and anything you have that might help me find her,” I said from a reclining chair as they hooked up monitors and an IV. Not far away a an eighteen-year-old girl lay in an identical setup.

“It’s comprised of seven different virtual environments called Worlds,” Agent Smith lectured. “Each world reflects a different game genre. The worlds are connected by portals called Riftways. A central hub connects all the worlds, but there are Riftways scattered throughout the game. There’s a fantasy world, a post-apocalypse world, a space opera world, a steampunk world, cyberpunk, superheroes and Western.”

I could understand the appeal right away. Seven radically different settings to play in. And probably the idea to take things from one genre and play them in another. Steampunk adventurers in space, or Old West wizards. Cool concept.

“The President’s daughter’s avatar is elven. She’s a cleric, a healer that--”

“I know what a cleric is.”

“Sorry, I had to explain it to Director Thomas. Anyway, her name in game is Silleste. Before being locked in she had left the fantasy world, we know that. She dislikes westerns and superheroes, so that narrows down a couple.”

“Leaving four complete game environments to search?” And I thought the odds were bad before. This was not helping.

“From what I’ve gathered about her, I don’t think she’s into punk genres. I think that makes space and post-apocalypse the best places to start,” Smith suggested.

Fifty-fifty was better, at least.

Leads and IVs were hooked up. They asked me if I was ready. I lied and said I was. They put a device around my head that covered my eyes and ears. It did a fantastic job of blocking out all outside sound. I could barely hear my own voice when I asked, “How long will it take to get started?”

Nobody answered. Instead every sense went dark, or silent, or whatever you’d call the rest of them getting absolutely no sensation whatsoever.

---

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BrianDHoward

  • Denver, CO USA

Bio: In my day job, I'm a low-level manager in Corporate America. By night I make up stories I hope people like enough to buy. I’m driven by “what if” questions, and often those lead to story or book ideas. I’ve lived in a motorhome traveling the country, and oh, there are some stories I could tell. I was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs and I’m happily living in Denver, CO now, with no intention of moving anywhere else. Writing has been a passion for most of my life. I've had to set it aside in the past, but so many circumstances have changed, and now I can focus on it more and more. Someday I'll make my living doing this.

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