“I think it’s real,” Ray said.
Jared stared at him. For a few seconds, the only sound was the hammering of water on the tiled shower floor. “You’re nuts.”
Ray shook his head in a quick, jerky motion. He seemed to have been expecting this. “No, I’m being serious. After some of the game settings were locked, I did some digging into the files behind it. I found a code in the programming - a code to filter real-time video into a virtual reality format.” Jared blinked in confusion. Ray clarified, “Essentially, running video through a program that makes it look like animation.”
“You’re kidding,” Jared amended.
“No, I’m not,” Ray replied grimly. “I also found files on all of us. They have info on us going back years. They know that I’m Gailik and you’re Jaraan.”
That was the last straw for Jared. His jaw dropped as he sputtered, “You’re Gailik?”
“Yes, and the other two are Koromosa and Noir,” Ray said. “But that’s not the point. They recruited us for this. They’ve tricked us into thinking we’re playing a harmless video game when we’re killing real people.” He was sweating now, whether from the steam that was filling the bathroom, or from the stress of the situation, Jared didn’t know. “Jared, what are we supposed to do?”
Jared shook his head, looking down at the floor. It was all too much to process. “I don’t know. You’re sure about this?”
“Absolutely,” Ray replied, sounding more confident than Jared had ever heard him outside of the game.
“Okay,” he said, running a hand through his hair and trying to compose his thoughts. “Okay,” Jared repeated, “Here’s what we’re going to do. They’re watching our computers, right? Did they see you doing all that hacking? Is there any way you could set up a private chat?”
Ray shook his head. “I managed to hide it, but only because it was localized in my computer. If I tried to connect all of ours, they’d be bound to notice.”
Jared nodded. “Alright. Let’s go to dinner and pretend everything’s normal. Then, you go back to your room and write up everything as convincingly as possible - by hand if you have to. We’ll pass it to Alena and Max with the instructions to read it in the bathroom. Hopefully by the time they get around to it, we’ll have come up with some kind of plan. Sound good?”
“As good as expected,” Ray said. “Let’s go before this shower thing gets suspicious.”
Jared barely managed to keep it together through dinner. He put on a mask of calm, but inside was nothing but confusion and panic.
They had lied to him. They had lied to all of them.
A sickening feeling hit Jared’s stomach, and he pushed his plate away, untouched. How many people had they killed already? What was the death toll on their hands alone? On his? Of course, when he had been drafted, Jared knew that he might have to kill. He knew that there might come a time when he would stand in the heat of battle and pull that trigger to take another’s life. What he didn’t expect was to take the lives of hundreds while sitting in a comfortable chair at a computer desk. It was wrong. If war had to be fought, it shouldn’t be this way. If he had to kill, it should be done on even ground. This murdering from a distance was so remote… the other soldiers didn’t even have a fighting chance.
You saved lives, the rational part of Jared’s mind told him. For every person you killed, you got American troops sent home. You’re helping to win the war. It was true. He was helping, but was this truly the way?
For once, Jared didn’t know what to do. Since he had begun gaming, Jared had taken over the role of leader naturally. He was always the one with a plan, with a back up plan, and with a back up for the back up. When something went wrong, Jared could make the snap decisions that would allow them to complete their mission, or to cut their losses. But now, Jared was lost. He found himself faced with two choices: to keep killing for the sake of his country, or to refuse, to blatantly defy the government but stand up for what is right.
But what is right anymore?
“Earth to Jared,” Alena said loudly, peering at him through narrowed eyes. “You okay over there?”
“Fine,” Jared replied tersely. “Just a headache.” For a brief moment, his eyes locked with Ray’s, but neither said anything. “I’m not hungry. I’ll be in my room if you need me.”
Ray nodded to him briefly, and Jared knew he would pass along what he’d found to the others. After that, it was just a matter of what to do with the information.
Three quick knocks on Jared’s door told him that the others knew. Great. He still hadn’t come up with any sort of plan, any sort of idea on what to do next. Pulling open the door, Jared let the three teenagers brush past him and into the room.
“We need to talk strategy,” Alena said with authority. “Let’s make it fun,” she said with forces lightness. “Like real war games. Come on, let’s huddle in the bathroom or something.”
“Okay,” Jared said, catching on immediately. “Come on.”
Leading the way, Jared stepped into the little room and perched on the edge of the tub. Ray sat down next to him. Max looked extremely pale in the harsh fluorescent light over the sink on which he sat, his feet resting on the closed lid of the toilet, but he looked more annoyed than scared. Alena shut the door with a click and leaned back against it, arms crossed. “What. The. Hell?” she said in a low voice, too low for the microphones on the other side of the door to pick up.
“My thoughts exactly,” Jared said tiredly.
“This isn’t a joke?” Max asked, glancing at Ray. “You aren’t messing with us?”
Ray shook his head grimly. “I wish I were.”
Silence fell for a long moment. “So…what do we do now?” Max asked eventually. All eyes turned to Jared.
Jared stared back for a moment before letting out a resigned sigh. “I don’t know. I guess this is something we have to decide together. I mean, we’re all… taking lives. But then again, we’re saving lives too. It’s not something I can decide for you.”
There was another moment of silence. “Do you… do you think we’re really helping? Like are we really getting people sent home?” Max asked tentatively.
Ray spoke up, “Yes, I think we are. I cross-referenced the dates of our completed missions with those of the shipments of troops home, and they seem to correspond. But still… this is a pretty sketchy way to go about involving us in this war. They should have been straightforward with us.”
“So there never was any greater mission we were waiting for, was there?” Alena asked. “They just wanted us all stuck here and bored so we’d get playing. Just like we used to… God, I can’t believe you guys are the ones from Questmaster. It’s so strange.”
Jared nodded. “Yeah.” He paused. “Maybe we should sleep on it. In the morning we can take a vote… But if you want out, nobody will force you to stay,” he said, looking around at the group. “Of course, leaving would mean telling the government that we know, but… I don’t think it’d be right to force you to kill.”
Everyone nodded their agreement. Alena leaned forward. “There’s one thing I don’t get, though. What are we controlling? What are our avatars?”
“I’m guessing robot-type surrogates,” Ray said. “I couldn’t find any record of them, but… well, the technology isn’t far off. It’s possible.”
“That would explain why we have to go back to that tent and get fixed when we log off,” Jared said. “Any damage done to our suits would have to be repaired.”
“Wow,” Max breathed. “If this wasn’t such a screwed up situation, that would actually be really cool.”
“Well,” Jared said. “I guess we should try to get some sleep. Think things over. It’s a lot to take in for one day.”
“Understatement of the year,” muttered Alena. Hand on the knob, she turned before opening the door. “Oh, one more thing. It really is cool to meet all of you in person. We had some good times in Questmaster.” Alena smiled.
Jared returned her grin. “That we did.”
“At least I know why I was drafted two years early,” Max said. “I was recruited because I was so badass.”
Jared snorted back a laugh. “Go on, get out of here,” he said, jerking his head towards the door. They all left with smiles, but it was clear that they wouldn’t last. There was a huge, life changing decision ahead of them.
No one would be getting any sleep that night.