Jared had one thing to say for the army: they were efficient. Within the hour, he was in his new quarters in an underground compound about a twenty minute helicopter flight from his hometown.
The compound was just as he expected - sterile, brightly lit, and bland. The walls were mostly concrete, and fluorescent lights gave a harsh tone to the place. He was escorted down a few levels to his quarters which consisted of a bedroom and bathroom, and that was it. A bookshelf rested against the wall opposite his bed, and there was a small desk with a high tech computer pushed off to the side.
“I can go on the computer?” Jared asked his escort excitedly. She looked to be one of the scientists who worked there, and her name tag read “Hillen”.
Hillen sent him a warm smile and nodded. “Yes, but there are very few programs installed. You can’t go on the internet for security reasons, but we’ve set up a link between your station and the ones which your other companions will be using, so if you want to play games together, you’re more than welcome.”
“My companions?” Jared repeated.
“The others recruited for this team,” she explained. “This is your floor. Those doors we passed will be their rooms, and there’s a lounge area in the center. Only those with highest security will be allowed on this level, for your safety of course.”
For your safety. For security reasons. Jared thought this was supposed to be a program which guaranteed his safety. What were they afraid of? He nodded to Hillen, “Okay. When are they coming?”
“Hopefully within the week.”
“And you still can’t tell me anything about what the actual job is which we have to do?” Jared probed.
Hillen shook her head apologetically. “No, I’m afraid not. It’s Top Secret until the very last second; I can only assure you that you were hand picked and you’ll be able to execute it without any problem whatsoever.”
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to be getting back-“
Jared waved a hand. “Oh, sure, go ahead. Thanks for showing me down here.”
She nodded. “If you need anything, there’s an intercom button just inside the door. Have a good night.”
Jared waited until she was gone before hurrying over to the computer. He felt way more excited than he should have, but it was so nice to be able to do something as comforting as playing a computer game, especially after the really strange day he’d had. Maybe this place, and this mission wouldn’t be so bad, he thought, clicking on the “Applications” button.
That was it. Only four options. Naturally, Jared gravitated towards the only intriguing one - “Battlefield Heroes.” He clicked on it and the game started up.
Welcome. Please select a character profile.
There were four avatars on screen; they were all dressed in some sort of futuristic armor, and the only difference between them was the colors they were accented with. From in between the plates of black armor seemed to glow a light. Each suit had a light of a different color - red, blue, green or white. Jared arbitrarily picked green.
Please select a code name:
Jared wryly thought he sensed a theme. He clicked on Falcon and the screen changed, loading a scene of some sort of battle camp.
Welcome to tutorial mode. Learn the navigations well enough and you will be given your mission. Good luck.
Tutorial mode with some stakes, Jared thought. He liked it. If his playing was inadequate, he wouldn’t be allowed to move on. The camp consisted mainly of a cluster of tents on a barren field. Barbed wire fences enclosed the place, and watchtowers dotted the perimeter. It looked almost like some of the pictures he’d seen of army camps.
Jared guided his character around, learning which buttons did what, and how the game was played. When he next looked up, it was nearly midnight. “Wow,” Jared muttered to himself. With no windows, time seemed to slow down here. That probably wasn’t a good thing.
When he at last turned in for bed, Jared couldn’t stop thinking about Battlefield Heroes. He’d taken an almost immediate liking to it, for it was almost like Questmaster modernized. The virtual camp was fully accessible; there was nowhere he couldn’t go - even the bathrooms seemed operational, not that it mattered. In addition, the attention to detail was incredible. If he pressed the button that allowed him to perform whatever function was appropriate for what was in front of him - say, the sink - his avatar actually reached out and turned the sink on. Jared had never seen a game so realistic. He felt like he was really there, really a part of the game.
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Three days later was the first time Jared heard footsteps in the hall outside his room. He was glad that he was actually decently dressed for once, figuring he should take a break from his gaming habit to get a shower and put on some real clothes. The Battlefield Heroes game was incredibly addicting; his missions included assassinations, reconnaissance and extractions, and it was all so incredibly realistic. Jared couldn’t wait until he could show the new arrivals the game, for he was sure that playing together would be even more fun than doing so alone. So when he heard someone out in the hall, he naturally went to take a look.
Jared stepped out of his room just as Hillen was approaching with a boy who looked a little older than he. Hiller smiled, “Ray, this is Jared. He’s in the same program as you.”
“Hi,” Jared said, offering his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Ray’s hand was a little clammy, and his handshake weak. He had a long, pale face, and though he was tall, he looked a fragile. Maybe the army had chosen him for this because he wasn’t the fighting type… Did that mean Jared seemed just as weak? “Same to you,” he said quietly, hesitantly.
“Can I trust you to show him around?” Hillen asked.
“Sure,” Jared replied. Seeming satisfied, she left, heels clicking on the tile floor. Jared turned to Ray. “So did they tell you anything about what we’re doing here?” he asked.
“No, nothing,” Ray replied. He fidgeted uneasily.
Jared shrugged. “It’s okay. Come on, I’ll show you the lounge, and then there’s this really cool game they’ve installed on the computers. Do you play?”
Ray nodded. “Sometimes.”
“Awesome,” Jared replied, excited by having company for the first time in a while. “Maybe we can play together.”
Ray gave a wan smile, but otherwise didn’t respond as Jared led him down the hallway. Of course, he was glad for the companionship, but he couldn’t help but hope whoever else was arriving would be a little more chatty. If not, this was going to be an extremely awkward waiting period. At least there was always Battlefield Heroes to fall back on if human contact got boring.
“Here’s the lounge,” Jared said, showing him the circle of couches in the center of the floor. “There are two rooms on either side; the one from which we just came was obviously the side I’m on. I guess you can pick whichever one you want,” he said.
Ray looked both ways, before silently moving to the room farthest from Jared’s. Jared gulped. That had to have been a hint. “Uh… I guess I’ll, er, let you get settled. If you need anything, you know where to find me.”
Awkwardly turning away with a little wave, Jared retreated to his room. He closed the door and was surprisingly glad for the isolation despite having wished for company just a few hours ago. Ray was…not what he had been expecting, not at all.
With a sigh, he glanced at the time. It was still early afternoon. Dinner would be brought down in a little bit, but Jared figured he had enough time to play Battlefield Heroes. He fired up his computer and started the game, surprised to find that there was another player already in the world, this one in armor laced with blue.
Hovering his mouse over the blue player’s avatar, it said, “Chameleon.” Jared frowned. Chameleon? Chameleon wasn’t an option for a name. Flicking the switch to his headphones, Jared asked aloud, “Ray? Is that you?”
A message probably popped up on the other player’s screen saying that an audio message was coming through, so Jared repeated himself, “Ray? Is that you?”
“Yes,” Ray replied. “It’s me.”
His voice sounded different through the microphone. It was a little lower, but a little more confident. Less hesitation. Jared asked, “How’d you get the name chameleon? I thought the only options were bird names.”
“Those are the only options when you can’t hack the programming.”
Jared let out a slow breath. “Wow. That took you less than five minutes.”
“I highly doubt they recruited me because I’m an amateur,” Ray responded.
“You think that’s why they recruited you? For your hacking skills?”
“Yes, I do.”
Jared frowned. If that was true, then what had he been recruited for?