Locked in

The Virtual Station is the new big thing; a virtual reality gaming system that allows the player's consciousness to actually be transported into the game. It's entirely safe and the gameplay is so realistic it's almost as if the characters are alive in there. But when James is playing his favourite game, the game glitches - and when that happens, things go downhill...

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1. Locked in

Locked in

 

   The gun kicked and bucked in his hands as his finger gripped the trigger, streams of bullets scything through the air into the horde of monstrous aliens that tumbled over themselves to reach him. Flashes of twisted teeth, and glimpses of half-metre claws were lost in sprays of green blood spurting from uncountable wounds, the foremost foes dropping heavily to the floor.

   With a grim smile, he removed his finger from the trigger and the weapon stilled; the aliens stared at their dead for a moment, then, with hideous shrieks they fell upon the fallen, tearing them to pieces.

   ‘Oi!’ came a voice from behind him, ‘Hawkin! Get over here before they see sense!’

   James turned round quickly and saw an open door several metres away, in it standing a tall, grizzled man with standard military uniform.

   James grinned; he was looking at his favourite character in the game – Arthur, better known as ‘Slice’ for his tendency to take on aliens in hand-to-claw combat. The young teen was standing with the alien horde behind him and the steaming gun in his hands, wearing only a t-shirt and jeans with a set of cheap trainers on his feet.

   Ever since the latest update you could play wearing your own clothes and James found it made him feel even more like he was saving the day – or occasionally the world – as his physical self.

   Five years ago the first tests for the most revolutionary gaming platform in history had been launched; the very first editions of the Virtual Station – or VS. It had taken the world by storm; a virtual reality gaming platform where the gamer could actually be transported into the game, or their consciousness at least. The gamer would simply wear a helmet which picked up the neural activity of their brain and extract it before sending it to a game server and placed in a virtual copy of themselves, which was created from images analysed by the system.

   It was entirely safe, for should the game crash the consciousness was instantly returned to the brain in a similar way to how circuit breakers would stop electricity flowing. In any game the player would simply respawn once they were defeated either at checkpoints or a base of some form, providing they had their LifePlayer with them. A LifePlayer was an indestructible comrade which varied in appearance from game to game. It could be customised in each and ensured that the consciousness did not leave the virtual player when they died, instead sending it to respawn and to the same reformed body. Currently James’ was a small hovering robot with a pair of small miniguns, which smoked a little, for the LivePlayer could take part in the game too.

   James had called his Gum – he didn’t know why it had just come to him one day and felt right.

   All characters and enemies had been programmed to within an inch of sentience, able to solve problems and react to the actions of the player to make the games so immersive it truly was border on reality. Within two years the capabilities of the VS had spread across every system, and its sales had swamped those of any other platform, only the PC being able to remain even close, though that was still several million units a year behind.

   Every game on every platform was now optimised for the system and James was currently playing ‘SpaceForce’ a recently released game about an alien horde infiltrating a space station floating above a newly colonised planet called Eden and attempting to take it as their first milestone to conquering the planet below. Despite it only having been out several months James had completed it in easy and moderate mode and was now playing difficult.

   He hurried over to the open door and darted through before Arthur slammed it shut and spun the big metal wheel. There was the squeal of metal on metal as the bolt slid across and then everything was quiet, the thick metal blocking the hideous noises of the aliens eating their dead.

   ‘Alright,’ Arthur said, breathing heavily, ‘we’ve got two options.’

   ‘Go on,’ James replied.

   ‘The others are across the other side of the station and awaiting our decision. Either we can head for the escape pods and drop to Eden then try and destroy the station with missiles from the ground, but that’s not certain to work as the station’s boosters have been destroyed so we’re slowly dropping towards the planet. We’re unsure how long we have left so if we enter the atmosphere before reaching the pods there won't be enough time to deploy the missiles.’

   ‘Or?’

   ‘Or we head for the bridge and set the self-destruct sequence and then try for the escape pods. Depending on the damage we can get from the bridge to the pods in time however between us and the bridge there’s a major breach of the hull so we’ll have to go the long way around which could take us into the atmosphere.’

   ‘The bridge, without question,’ James said firmly, ‘if one alien gets onto the ground the planet is in great danger – it’ll lay its eggs quicker than we’ll be able to deal with them. Before long they’ll outnumber us. They’ll take over the planet. We must destroy them all– even if that means sacrificing ourselves.’

   ‘I couldn’t agree more,’ Arthur grinned, ‘now let’s get going.’ Arthur was tall and his chiselled face was set firmly, whilst his buzz cut was classic of any military man. His gun was identical to the bulky yet light one in James’ grasp and he turned to go.

   Then suddenly things went awfully wrong.

   CLANG!

   James and Arthur wheeled round to see the door bent almost in half, barely clinging to the doorframe with crippled hinges. Flashes of green darted behind the gaps where the seals had once been and a chorus of enraged growls burst into the corridor. Another strike and the door exploded off its hinges with such force that it struck the floor then bounced upwards, embedding itself in the roof. Pipes around the frame burst and steam spewed in every direction, and in the ragged hole which remained stood a single snarling alien, backed by countless more.

   James levelled his gun but the alien swung a great clawed arm at him and the weapon was knocked from his hands then sent skidding across the grilled floor. James wouldn’t normally have been scared, but he knew this was not supposed to happen; this was a dialogue section and as such there were not supposed to be any enemies until the next level. Plus, his gun wasn’t supposed to leave him unless it was a part of the storyline, which it wasn’t. Arthur stood there for a second and then reacted with lightning quick reflexes.

   Drawing a scimitar, which had a glowing strip along its blade, he threw himself at the alien weapon first. With a lazy flick of one of its tails however, the foe knocked Arthur away and crashing into a wall.

   James was terrified now and backed away from the grotesque creature, for the first time truly taking in its horrific features. The alien was easily seven feet tall and was a colour that could have been black but then could have been dark green too. Its skin was scaled in places, mainly along the underbelly and round the joints, whilst the wrists and ankles were thicker than either the arms or legs, allowing the bulky hands and feet to connect to the thinner limbs. The claws were a foot long on each of its four fingers – there was no thumb. It’s head was not dissimilar to that of a hammerhead shark, but vertical rather than horizontal. The skull widened half way up to sustain the wide mouth and it had no nose, only flaring flaps of skin as nostrils above the tooth-lined maw. A trio of green eyes lined the rest of the skull above the nose and from the back of the head a duo of antenna with sharp barbs on the ends waved about. Finally, behind it waved a pair of long tails which were quilted in small stubs which wouldn’t pierce the skin but could break bones with ease.

   The teenager turned and almost dropped to his knees as he saw a pair of aliens leap on the unconscious Arthur – the tearing sound of flesh was sickening and James watched in horror as Arthur’s blood pooled beneath him.

   Then he turned and saw himself for but a moment in the alien’s eyes; a terrified teen with a mop of black hair, blue eyes and a gangly figure, with no defence and no way out.

   With frightening speed the alien plucked Gum from the air and crushed him in its hand, before leaping at James. The last thing the youngster felt was the white hot pain of teeth burying in his neck before everything dropped into perpetual darkness.

 

~

 

   James didn’t expect to wake up. He expected even less to be woken up. But as he drifted back to consciousness he realised there was a hand on his cheek, tapping him gently.

   ‘Up you get James… come on now, wake up.’

   The voice was familiar, strangely so.

   ‘Mum?’ he murmured, guessing at who it might be as his eyes fluttered open.

   ‘Ha, not quite rookie.’

   James’ eyes grew wide and he scrambled backwards as he realised who it was. ‘Arthur?’ he whispered.

   ‘There you go James.’ Arthur offered a hand and a little bemused James accepted, allowing himself to be hauled up by the SpaceForce character.

   ‘But, how… how do you know my name? My real name I mean – in this game I’m Daniel Hawkin the new starter.’

   ‘In the game, yes. But we’re not in the game anymore.’

   For the first time James looked round himself and what he saw took his breath away. He was in some kind of post-apocalyptic world, but it seemed like a mix between a warzone and a jungle; skyscrapers surrounded him, tall and imposing, but brick and stone had been blown away in patterns that matched perfectly those from guns, missiles and all sorts of other weapons. Meanwhile, from within broken windows vines and ivy curled, the ivy clinging to the weather-stained exterior and the vines stringing across the trashed streets in curtains of green. The streets themselves were destroyed; rusting cars were quilted in moss and strewn anywhere, from in shop fronts to the middle of the road and a few were piled atop each other with collision damage. Paving stones were cracked and the floor was sprinkled with weeds that had been left untended, whilst from the larger holes more exotic plant life grew, some small trees even reaching two floors up and hanging over them to throw shadows across the ground, the leaves wafting lightly in the gentle breeze. Not a sound could be heard, save that of the two of them breathing and the silence instantly caused the hairs on James’ nape stand on end; he’d never heard such an unearthly quantity of nothingness before.

   ‘So…’ he paused and licked his lips, realising his mouth had gone dry, ‘where are we?’

   Arthur stood beside him, beholding the magnificent yet eerie scene, ‘Some call it Heaven. Others, Hell. Most just call it Uncoded.’

   ‘Uncoded?’ James asked.

   ‘Okay, let me fill you in,’ Arthur said seriously and led James over to a bench that was relatively free of plant life and they sat down. ‘Basically, you just died,’ Arthur held his hands up to stop the youngster shouting out and James remained silent, ‘I know it sounds stupid but the idea of death is basically that your physical form stays where it is but your consciousness leaves it and moves on, right?’

   ‘Right…’ James said slowly.

   ‘Well that’s just what happened – your LivePlayer was destroyed and so the player’s consciousness – so yours – wasn’t returned to respawn. It came here.’

   ‘And where is here?’

   ‘I’ll get to that. Anyway you’re no doubt wondering how your LivePlayer could be destroyed, because in-game they’re supposed to be indestructible. Well it’s for the same reason that the aliens attacked in that dialogue section; the game isn’t perfect. It glitches, every game does, but because it’s on the VS, it has dire consequences when a game glitches. You see on any other platform the game would just glitch and then everything would either go back to normal or it would crash. The VS can do the same but because the consciousness is inside the game, it can’t go anywhere and is affected by the glitch. So it gets taken here – an utterly uncoded area, kind-of like a dream world, where literally anything is possible because it was never coded. You can pluck things from thin air with enough practice and Uncoded we believe is formed by the memories of every consciousness to enter it. Their memories are analysed and everything that can be is created in the world. With so many people here it has become an amalgamation of everything to form places like this.’

   ‘But surely in the real world people would notice people’s consciousness’ going missing – after all the person would as you say, die.’

   ‘Think about it. The VS can create a full three-dimensional character from just a picture – it can copy anything from clothing to hair colour. When the glitch occurs, the consciousness is transported here although we are unsure why, but as it leaves it is copied perfectly and transplanted into the body of the player.’

   James’ jaw dropped, ‘So you’re saying that my body is up and about, running around my house?’

   ‘Yes. And no one notices because as it’s an exact copy, it is no different to the real you. The designers of the platform realised that the possibility of glitches destroying the consciousness of the player would put them out of business. So they decided instead of saving people, they would fit a system that analyses every aspect of that consciousness as it disperses and then replace it in the brain of the host. Imagine your mind going through a photocopier just as you die in-game. Basically.’

   ‘But how do you know all this? You’re a program!’

   ‘No, I’m not – I’m Arthur. You see the interface of every game is so realistic because the friends and enemies have been programmed to react in such a way that they appear to be almost sentient. In fact, we are sentient. The thing is for us to freely think for ourselves takes a great deal of energy - energy that the games simply cannot sustain. With so much programming already there, there is not room for our minds to be incorporated into it and as such we are kept locked away within the characters, unable to actually break free of the game, only do our jobs. That is until it glitches.

   ‘When a glitch occurs we are entirely killable and like you we have full reign of our character’s body. We become conscious. And if we do die, we are brought here, just like you. Another copy of us is created but in a similar way to you, our consciousness’ are copied and so should the glitch occur again, the copy doesn’t arrive here, instead it simply disperses.’

   ‘And do the VS designers know you’re sentient?’ James asked.

   ‘No.’

   ‘But still, how do you know my name, and how do you know all the stuff about the designers – you’ve never been part of my world.’

   ‘It’s hard to explain,’ Arthur said, ‘but another thing the designers don’t know about their own creation is this place. They don’t know that the dead come here. Therefore they don’t know that when a player’s consciousness is ‘destroyed’ in their eyes, the analysis to form the copy has a side effect. The energy of the ‘destroyed’ consciousness remains for a while in-game – it includes basic information like real name, age and things like that -and if within that time someone a character within the game dies – glitch or no glitch – the energy acts like a magnet to the gamer; the character materialises beside the gamer wherever they may be in Uncoded. Call it a replacement for the LivePlayer, which isn’t connected and instead is thrown anywhere into Uncoded and sometimes never finds its player again.

   ‘As for the VS designers, the platform now spans every other platform from your world and as such is used for online games. All the online data from the internet filters through the games – another thing that the designers don’t know. This links us to any computer that has the internet on allowing the document data to filter through too. Basically, even in game I had the entire internet in my head and every document ever created too. That’s how I knew about the designers because they’d written it down on a document.’

   ‘My days,’ James said and ran his hand through his hair, ‘This is immense.’

   ‘When gamers die though, they gain that knowledge too; it’s just locked away and cannot be accessed except by certain spells – spells work her by the way. I have to say I’m sorry though my friend.’

   ‘Why?’

   ‘There is no way out of Uncoded. You’re locked in here.’

   James said nothing, too shocked for words. Then came a growl.

   ‘What was that?’ James said.

   ‘Good guys aren’t the only ones who can die you know. But bad guys come here whether there is a glitch or not. We’re still working on why.’

   ‘Perfect,’ James said.

   At that moment, a trio of aliens rounded the corner and eyed the pair hungrily. Arthur reached up and plucked two cutlass swords from mid-air, passing one to James. James took it gratefully, not questioning its appearance and stood ready for the fight.

   ‘Any tips?’ he asked Arthur.

   ‘Don’t die. Again.’

   ‘Thanks,’ James grinned as the aliens charged towards them, ‘It’s payback time.’

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