Special guest starring :
The last bell of the day had rung and everyone was pushing and bumping into each other in the corridors to head home for the weekend.
Weekend my dad kept referring to for his bad feeling. He almost went as far as trying to get me to stay at home for the whole weekend – basically ground me. Good thing pa came in and talked some sense into him.
I don’t get why dad is so worked up about this. I have absolutely no intention of going. Who would?
If dad is right, and it’s happening this weekend, then we’ll finally get the teachers off our backs. They really can’t find the pranksters who put these up.
I noticed Sal staring at the wall – no at one of the posters – as the corridors steadily emptied.
And then it hit me, in a kind of horrible get-hit-by-a-train feeling, as I watched her stare intently at the poster.
It’s not the first time I’ve caught her looking at it. And it’s not in a haha what a joke kind of way.
Her mom is in the hospital.
And there’s a big poster offering 1000$ for something as simple as trying out a video game.
“Sal! Salandra! Sallie!” I started, a little nervously. My anxiety started to climb as her steeled expression didn’t change. I glanced at the poster. “Please tell me you didn’t sign up for this.”
She visibly stiffened.
“Because if you did – please tell me you didn’t.”
“What if I did?” She replied, giving a stare that brought back the nickname Ice Queen to mind.
I admit I nearly stepped back when she glared at me with that cold expression. I don’t remember the last time she’s looked at me like that. Usually I’d back away from the subject, but…
“Then don’t go. Why don’t you come over to my house this weekend? We could hang out! Nato would be thrilled I’m sure. My parents are talking about renovating the basement, so it could be the last chance we have to sneak-”
“I’m not free this weekend.” She replied, her expression unchanged, almost daring me to try and convince her otherwise.
“If this is about money, I’ve got a bunch of cash accumulated from working at the café!” I saw her frown as I said the words. “It could be a loan if you don’t like charity.”
She shook her head. “I have to earn this Niko. And it’s just a game, it’s no big deal.”
“But I really wanna hang out with you this weekend.” I pushed with an attempt at a smile.
“Stop it.” She snapped and my mouth shut on its own. I had to force myself to speak again.
“This thing, whatever it is, if it’s not just a random prank it’s a scam. Just look at the small prin-”
“I’ll see you Monday at school.”
Just like that she spun around and went to follow the diminishing crowd out of the school.
“Sallie! Please, listen!” I called after her, and thankfully she stopped.
She glanced back at me with that same determined glare. Obviously begging isn’t going to be enough.
“Sal…” I said, reaching for her wrists to pull her closer. “I have it on good authority that this experiment isn’t going to end well.” I said, attempting a more logical approach.
“There is nothing you can say that’s going to get me to change my mind.” She stated, just as deadpanned.
I let go of her wrists, gritting my teeth as I started to get really annoyed with this.
My dad’s sixth sense is rarely ever wrong. Actually, I don’t remember a time where it was wrong. That experiment is not good news. Why is she so stubborn on this?
I clutched my head and let out a groan. I could tell just by meeting her eyes, she was dead set on this.
“There’s really nothing I can do to convince you to step out of this is there?” I asked, knowing the answer before she shook her head.
I let out a long sigh as I made peace with my decision.
“Fine then, there’s no going around it. I’ll sign up as well.” I declared with a small smile.
Her entire demeanor changed. “What!?”
“I think it’s a nice compromise.”
“No way! You can’t sign up!”
“Well-! For starters, there’s a max of 5 volunteers.” She said, gesturing at the poster. “I volunteered months ago. The spots are probably all filled.”
“Then I’ll just go with you to make sure nothing happens.” I stated.
“Like some kind of chaperone?” She said with a grimace.
“Or a bodyguard. Knight in shining armor?” I smirked.
“No way. No how. Nope. You can’t.”
“I’ll be there.”
“You don’t even know where or when.” She said, still shaking her head.
“I’ll be there.” I affirmed again.
“No you won’t.”
“I swear I will.” I said with a grin.
“Nope. I better not see you there.” She said, heading off for real this time.
“See you then!” I called after her, and she glanced back to give me an unhappy frown.
Well I did warn her.
It was pretty easy actually. I sent an email to the address listed on the poster first, and straight off the bat they accepted me as a volunteer. Guess they were missing one last volunteer. After that it was just a matter of telling my parents I was off to a friends’ house and reassuring dad that I wasn’t going to the video game thing. It took a lot of reassuring and subtly lying before he finally let me go (technically it wasn’t lying, I said I was going to go help out Sal).
The place they sent me the address to was at one of the random buildings in downtown Ridgevalley. Once inside, we said our names, and they led us to a ‘waiting room’. And we’ve been here for at least 15 minutes now.
When Salandra saw me she was not happy. But she seemed to begrudgingly accept it. She hasn’t really talked to me since, but I don’t think she’s that angry.
So far the whole thing seems a little…unprofessional. If only for the ripped screen door leading to what was probably the room with the video game.
Us five volunteers were already all here in the waiting room.
Apart from Sal and I, there was a red head sitting on her own.
I think I might have seen her around at school, but I’m not entirely sure.
The two others looked like they knew each other. One was –
I frowned a little surprised.
The colorfully dressed one was licking the old antique telescope apparently.
“What are you doing?” I asked, even though it was pretty clear. Maybe I should’ve asked why. “You know that’s not how you use a telescope right?”
“Sure it is!” The other guy piped up from his spot on the couch. “Rebelling against the system!”
“Your concept of telescopes needs to be expanded.” The yellow-haired guy said as he finished his moment with the telescope. He went back to sit with his friend.
“Pay up.” The colorful one said.
The other guy pulled out a few bills from his pocket, but instead of giving them to his friend he threw them in the air. “It’s raining money!” He exclaimed as the bills fluttered down. The two then proceeded to both try to catch the falling bills.
I shook my head slightly, wondering what Sal had gotten us into. I glanced at her. She’d been wearing that stern expression the whole day. I’m just worried for her, is that that bad?
“Are you still pissed?” I tempted.
“I’m not pissed. I’m just…a little annoyed. That people automatically assume I can’t take care of myself.” Sal admitted with a sigh.
“That’s not what I think at all! Definitely not! In the last year alone you’ve managed to surprise me with how strong and capable you can be.” I exclaimed without having to think about it. It’s weird to think about how I used to view her almost a year ago now. Yeah, it’s almost been a year since the bank robbery.
It’s weird to think about how I used to treat her.
“Um, I’ve been meaning to – actually I’ve been thinking – realizing?” I frowned at my apparent trouble with forming a coherent phrase. I took a small moment to gather my thoughts.
“Look, I’ve come to realize I haven’t always been the kindest. Actually I’ve been kind of a jerk to you in the past. Hopefully I’m not still being a jerk. And there’s no excuse for it,” There’s a certain someone I could blame, but I’m the one who used to treat her like she was less than what she was. Even though it’s clear to me now that she’s more. “I just wanted to apologize. You’re a great friend and I’m sorry I treated you that way for so long.”
She stared at me in silence as I waited for a reply.
Maybe an angry took you long enough.
But instead she smiled, slightly. “Thank you.”
Thank you for realizing.
I relaxed, only then noticing I’d been tense.
After a few more minutes, the people in charge of this activity finally came to join us.
The head guy, who introduced himself as Mr.Hans (talk about a name that makes this sound 100x times more professional), apologized for being late. Something about being at a meeting.
His co-worker and him set about explaining to us what would be happening.
Well actually first they showed us the dollar bills in sealed enveloppes with our names on them. Motivation I suppose.
They started with reconfirming the short questionnaire we had to fill in before coming in here. Confirming that we were indeed younger than 18 and not supernaturals.
Obviously, I lied. We’re testing a video game, I don’t see how whether I’m a witch or not is going to do anything. It’s probably another one of those discrimination things.
The game was unlike anything we’d ever played apparently. Or more specifically, the console. This is where things got interesting. They’d invented a piece of technology, very small, that they could place under our skin and connect it all to a main central drive. If I had to sum up what he’d explained, they were going to place some nanotechnology (I think?) in our wrist, and with that we’d all be able to play the same game – in our minds. Like some kind of collective dream controlled by software.
He assured us it had been done before. Now they just wanted to test what happened if they increased the number of participants.
The game itself was going to be pretty straightforward. The program would create an avatar for us, according to our personnalities, instead of us custom making it for the sake of saving some time. Then we’d be put into a field with a simple capture the fortress type game, with one team being on the defensive and the other offensive. The program itself would decide how to separate the teams to better even the odds.
The whole thing shouldn’t last more than an hour or two real time, though it might seem to last longer, depending on the scenario applied by the game. He told us him and his co-worker would be watching the whole thing through their computers and if anything happened and one of us wanted to stop the game they would manually wake us up. Once the game was completed, we could take our money and leave. He really seemed to stress the once the game is completed.
The whole thing still felt a little fishy, but Sal and the others didn’t hesitate when they got up to follow Mr.Hans down the corridors, so I let things be for now.
They led us to a room with five chairs hooked up to machines, and hidden from each other by large curtains.
I cast several skeptic glances at the devices before the co-worker came to my chair and sat me down.
“Just relax, it won’t take long.” She said, pulling out a needle gun.
“Jesus, you guys didn’t warn us there’d be needles!”
“We need to insert the connectors somehow.” She said, grabbing my wrist and shooting it with the gun. “Don’t worry. What we’ve inserted is essentially degradable ink. It’ll disperse in your system and be evacuated on its own.” She explained. I gave her a weird look. Ink? Where did ink come up in the explanation?
She hooked up some wires to my arms and forehead, and then told us to just sit back and relax. There was an anesthetic injected along with the special ink that would help us fall asleep and enter the game.
My eyes started to droop.
I’m still looking for – cause my dad had a feeling – why did they have to put curtains – I can’t see Sal-
I can see through the window
Is that Hans guy sleeping?
My wrist is tingling…
My mind suddenly snapped to a clearer setting as I found myself in a place entirely covered in white.
I glanced around, but there was nothing to glance at.
Faded greenwords appeared in front of me.
There are two subjects. Merge avatars?
I climbed to my feet.
“Merging avatars, what does that mean?”
It repeated, flashing a confirm button.
“Two subjects…maybe it’s got something to do with my power?”
“Like there’s my astral form and then there’s me-”
“Ok ok jeez!” I said, as the letters grew in size.
I reached over and pressed the flashing confirm button. Let’s get this game started already.