A kaleidoscope of colors flashed against the red-green striped present. Jeremy heard the noise of laughing and the tearing of wrapping paper around him, but he couldn't keep his eyes off the gleaming box with his name detailed in cursive.
Could it be the Mind Game? It's the right size. He gripped the arm rest harder. It has to be. It just has to!
The ads billed it as the most realistic virtual game ever. Yet, they also said the game wouldn't activate until sometime on Christmas day. Those who had tried it early reported only playing an old 2-D space invaders game. Speculation erupted among gamers as the launch date approached. The stores could hardly keep them on the shelves as crazed parents fought over the few they could find. Did his dad or mom wrestle one away from another desperate parent?
Jeremy recalled the bits of news he found in the gamers' magazines. A strange new company appeared from nowhere to offer the game, but no one could discover any info about who they were and how the game worked. The mysterious makers had effectively prevented any leaks. Jeremy wondered what new wonders the game might hold. He could hardly wait to find out.
He jerked himself from the daydream as hands wrapped around his gift. The shiny wrapping paper would no longer taunt him. He leaned forward in his chair and reached out, wiggling his fingers. His long-expected present lifted into the air, held by the hands of his eight-year-old sister Bridget-the last person he wanted holding his present.
"I bet you want this one." She waved the box in the air as she giggled.
"Stop playing, you might break it." Jeremy held out his hands.
"I wonder if it's breakable?" She tossed it in the air.
Jeremy leaped from the sofa, but his feet didn't keep up with his body, causing him to careen toward Bridget. He reached out to break his fall, but instead he wrapped his arms around his sister, tackling her to the floor. The gift spun through the air and crashed onto the hardwood floor. Wrapping paper crinkled with each bounce until it wobbled to a stop.
"You two!" Mom frowned at them. "That's enough. Bridget, give Jeremy his present."
Bridget lifted the gift off the floor. The fall had caved in the corners and torn the wrapping. She surrendered it to Jeremy, but not before sticking out her tongue.
"It better not be broken." Jeremy glared at her. But his attention quickly turned to the gift. He ripped the wrapping off. A plain cardboard box stared back at him.
Jeremy slouched. This couldn't be it.
"Aren't you going to open it?" His dad reclined in an easy chair. His face needed a shave, but the beaming smile prodded Jeremy with new hope.
Jeremy pulled the locking flap out and raised the top. Inside lay another box labeled, "Mind Game, The Real Virtual Game."
"Yes!" Jeremy exploded from the couch. "Dad, Mom, this is exactly what I wanted! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
They chuckled and beamed. "It wasn't easy finding one. Let's have a look," his mom said.
Jeremy pulled the box open and slid out packing cardboard and plastic. He tore it off to reveal a white helmet, complete with a visor. As per the box, it resembled a classic NASA space helmet from the 1980s. Inside he could see various pieces of equipment, placed at strategic locations. "This is so cool!"
"What kind of batteries does it need?" Mom asked.
Jeremy examined the helmet. "Don't know. Don't see where the batteries would go." He pulled out the instruction manual. As he flipped pages he kept noticing the words, "most real ever." Most likely it wouldn't live up to the hype, but he couldn't wait to find out.
He found the section covering the power supply and read it. Jeremy smiled, remembering some comments in the magazines about the game's claim. No one took it seriously. "It says no additional power needed. It has a self-contained fusion reactor."
Dad's brow wrinkled. "Fusion reactor? There's no such thing as a fusion reactor small enough for a toy." He scratched his head. "Must be a creative way to state there are long-life batteries built in. You probably recharge them or something."
Jeremy read it again. "Nope, says no cords or batteries needed. Don't know about a fusion reactor, but the power does appear to be self-contained."
"I want a present too!" Bridget jumped up and slammed her feet onto the floor.
Jeremy sighed. Eight-year-old sisters could be such a pain at times.
They continued to unwrap presents, but he couldn't think about much else. He didn't even remember the rest of his gifts. After several minutes, they finished. Everyone crammed wrapping paper into big bags and stashed the bows for next year.
Jeremy tapped his dad on the shoulder as he focused on assembling his wife's new wave lamp.
"Yes?" Dad swung a glance toward Jeremy.
"Can I invite Mickey over?"
Dad put down his screw driver and thought for a moment. "His parents may want to spend time with him today."
"But if he got the Mind Game too, he'll want to play with me. Please?"
"If his parents say it's okay, sure." He pointed at Mom who paused her trek to the kitchen. "And you'd better check with her."
She cocked her head to one side. "Mickey I assume?"
Jeremy nodded and waited as she stared at the ceiling.
"Only if you promise to send him home once Christmas dinner is ready."
Jeremy threw his hands up in victory. "Yes! Thanks."
He ran to the phone and dialed Mickey's number. It rang a couple times then the vid-screen flashed Mickey's face on it.
"Hey, Bucko, Merry Christmas."
"Back at you, Mick. So?"
"So, what?" Mickey snickered.
"You know what. Did you get one?"
"Yes, it's so cool." Mickey grinned showing his teeth. After a pause, he said, "So?"
"Oh, yeah. Me too. It's so exciting." He held it up to the vid-camera for Mick to see. "My mom said you could come over and play if your parents are okay with it, but you'll have to go home when Christmas dinner is ready."
"Cool! Let me ask."
Jeremy heard mumbling and one high shrill sound, but he couldn't make anything out. Mickey must have covered the mic.
"Yeah, I can come. I'll be right over."
"Cool. See you in a minute."
Jeremy ran up to his room to wait for Mickey. He set the helmet by his bed and picked up the manual. He had imagined many times how his own game's manual would be organized, and he enjoyed seeing various examples. He opened it and scanned the instructions.
Naturally, the first page contained warnings. The usual: don't immerse in water, don't expose to excessive heat or cold-then one grabbed his attention.
"Warning: Zori is not liable for any medical complications resulting from the game. Insure someone can monitor you during play and provide assistance."
Jeremy laughed at the strange name. But what possible medical complications could be produced by a virtual game?
Jeremy thought briefly about mentioning it to his dad, but surely the chance anything could happen was minimal. Many products put stuff like that to avoid getting sued. Plus, if he mentioned it, his Dad might not let him play it.
The doorbell sounded through the house. Jeremy jumped from his bed, careened down the stairs, and flew to the door. He flung it open, huffing. Mickey stood grinning with his helmet under his arm.
Jeremy caressed the helmet's chin. "Cool, you have one of those black helmets, like the one in that old movie."
Mickey smiled. "You better believe it, Bucko. Now it's time to kick some good-guy butt."
"We'll see about that."
They both ran to his room. Jeremy's arms shook with excitement. They raced in and sat on his bed. He pulled his helmet into his hands.
Jeremy paused; the warning bothered him. "One odd thing the manual said you should know about."
"Manual? You read it?"
"Of course. How else can you know how to use it?"
Mickey shook his head. "I shouldn't be surprised. You're weird, Bucko. It's easy to figure out how to operate these games."
Jeremy shook his head. "But there's a weird warning in there, about possible medical conditions."
Mickey waved a hand. "Probably referring to eye strain or something."
"Maybe." Jeremy ran his hand through his hair. "But there's something else. Could have been left out by accident I suppose, but there's no instructions on how to end the game, just how to start it."
Mickey sighed. "Bucko, you're over analyzing again! I'm sure it's in the help files. Let's play, we're wasting time!"
Mickey slid the helmet over his head. "Jeremy, I am your father," he said in a deep voice and created a sucking sound.
"You dummy." Jeremy smacked him on the side of the helmet, then put on his. Lights flickered to life. An opening logo appeared on a heads-up display in the visor but nothing else happened.
After a few seconds, Mickey said, "Uh...how did the instructions say you start this thing?"
"Over analyzing, am I?"
"Okay, you were right! Now, how do we start it?"
"You say, 'Activate Mind Game.'" He heard Mickey repeat it.
The space invaders' opening screen appeared along with instructions. Mickey grunted. "Blasted game. It hasn't activated yet."
Jeremy noticed a display. "Check in the upper left corner. It appears to be a countdown. If so, the game will start in about thirty minutes."
Mickey grumbled. "Guess there's nothing to do but play this old game until then."
Jeremy read the instructions. By turning his head he could control the firing base limited to left and right movements. He fired it by sticking his tongue out. After thirty minutes, he had worked his way through several levels.
Jeremy kept an eye on the counter. Anticipation built as each second ticked by. He wondered how many thousands of players around the world watched the same countdown, eager to see the unveiling.
The space invader screen froze and faded away. An image of an old Saturn V rocket sat on a launch pad, coolant vapors floating away in the gentle breeze. The timer moved from the corner to giant numbers overlaying the image.
A voice echoed in the helmets, "Ten, nine, eight..."
Mickey flopped on the bed, causing it to creak. "Yes! Finally."
"...seven, six, five, four, three..."
Jeremy breathed deep. "Here we go!"
"...two, one, zero...blast off!" The Saturn rocket fired and plumes of rocket exhaust blasted to the sides.
"Ouch!" Jeremy felt a stinging sensation at the base of his neck. Total blackness swallowed him. He tried to talk, but no words came out. He drifted alone in a vast void.
Bridget grabbed the new doll by the head and pulled hard. It popped off. "There, that's better." She rolled the head on the floor, then grabbed it in her small hands and stared the lifeless eyes down.
"You know what? I've got whole box of dolls. That's all I get, dolls. But what Jeremy wants, he gets. Stupid brother. I hate him."
She threw the head. It bounced off the wall and onto her bed. She knew no one would notice the sound. She could break the windows and nothing would happen. Dad worked on his stuff, Mom made dinner, and stupid brother played a stupid game with his stupid friend. She grabbed the body of the doll and banged it repeatedly against the bed post.
"Bridget!" her Mom called from downstairs.
Bridget flung the doll against the wall and stomped to the door. "Yes?"
"Go tell Jeremy to stop playing and send Mickey home. Dinner's ready."
Bridget banged her head against the door post. She would rather he didn't join them for dinner, but she knew that wouldn't fly with Mom. "Yes, ma'am."
She strolled toward his room, but stopped to think about the possibility of falling over the banister. She shook the rails, they barely moved. They would be too firm.
Then she remembered Jeremy and groaned. She approached the door and knocked. "Brother, Mom says it's time for dinner." Hearing no response, she opened the door and walked in.
Jeremy and Mickey lay on the bed, helmets covering their heads. Their stomachs moved up and down but otherwise they didn't move.
She stood by Jeremy. "If you don't get up, I'm gonna tell Mom." Jeremy remained motionless. She knocked on his helmet, but still no response.
A grin spread across her face. She balled her fingers into a fist and swung it down on Jeremy's stomach. She frowned when he still showed no response.
"Boy are you gonna get it." She rushed out to the banister and called out. "Mom, Dad, Jeremy says he's not coming to dinner."
Mom burst from the kitchen. Her frown told Bridget that Jeremy would finally get what he deserved. She wiped her hands on her shorts as Mom stomped up the stairs.
Mom marched into Jeremy's room. "Buster, you'd better get moving right now if you don't want real trouble."
Bridget watched from the doorway. Neither Mickey or Jeremy budged. Mom's ridged jaw and narrow eyes melted into an open mouth and wide eyes.
She shook Jeremy's shoulder. "Son, wake up." He still remained motionless. She held a hand over her mouth, then raced to the doorway. "Honey, something's wrong with Jeremy and Mickey."
Dad flew up the stairs and into Jeremy's room. He grabbed Jeremy by the shoulders and shook him. "Jeremy! Can you hear me?" He paused for a moment, waiting for a response.
He slammed his fist on the bedpost. "Go call 911. I'll try to get this helmet off."
"Is he in a coma?"
Dad's jaw set. "I don't know! Call 911, now!"
Jeremy noticed outlines and details appearing in the black void. A huge room formed around him until he stood on the floor of what appeared to be a vast space ship bay. Three ships sat against one wall, appearing very small in this cavernous room. Jeremy saw no one other than Mickey gazing around, five feet away.
Mickey spotted Jeremy. "Wow, Bucko. This is great. I can't even tell I'm lying on a bed. I feel like I'm fully here, in reality."
"Agreed. To do this means accessing our brains. That must have been the sting I felt right before it started."
Mickey rubbed the back of his neck. "That could be the health risk it mentioned."
Jeremy nodded. "And according to the manual, this is where we pick what game we want to play by choosing the ships." Jeremy stepped toward the lonely space ships.
Mickey followed. "I'm guessing the more you play this game, the more ships you'll get to try out. Must be a lot of them based on the size of this bay."
Two of the space ships sat side-by-side. A plaque stood in front of them, with two red buttons at the bottom. Jeremy read it, "Raven class ships."
Mickey laughed. "Looks like a pregnant bird to me."
"Says here that it's a short-range fighter. It has a one-seat control cabin, a bathroom, and a small room for cargo or passengers when needed. The engine's thrusters run along the trailing edge of the wings allowing for unparalleled turning rate and control, making them light and quick. Due to their short range, they can dock onto the back of an Eagle class or greater ship in order to travel longer distances."
Mickey grinned. "This is the competitive game. We fight each other."
Jeremy moved toward the larger ship. "Let's check out this one." He scanned its plaque. "Says it's an Eagle class ship."
Mickey chuckled. "They have a thing for birds, don't they?"
Indeed, the ship resembled an eagle. Much larger than the Raven, designed for longer trips. It included dining areas, a sick bay, and bunk areas, as well as a bigger payload of weapons.
Wings branched from the main body. They curved downward at the tips and each held a tubular-shaped fusion engine. The "head" area contained the control cabin, the body the other rooms, and the tail acted as an extra thrust port, as well as the heat for trash disposal. The jet-black hull camouflaged it in space. The metal absorbed light and most wave lengths.
Mickey pointed at the Raven. "I say let's pick the competitive one. I want to kick some good-guy butt."
Jeremy shook his head. "Let's do this one. We can always come back and play the other one, but I would rather work together."
Mickey sighed. "Don't think you can take me, eh?"
Jeremy jabbed Mickey on the shoulder. "In a heart beat. I want to learn the game first, though."
Mickey shrugged. "Have it your way. We'll do this one." He placed his palm on the right button. "Ready?"
Jeremy nodded and pushed the left button. The room faded into darkness, and images materialized before him as if emerging from a black liquid.
Translucent colors materialized then brightened into solid textures. Then as if a director had said, "Action," the scene came alive with movement.
Jeremy spotted Mickey floating a few feet away against a window that wrapped around the sides and front of the cabin, narrowing at the ends. Outside twinkled countless stars against the blackness of space. A red-orange planet the size of a tennis ball stood out against the haze of the galaxy. He couldn't detect any flaw in the graphics.
In front of the window, lights blinked along a panel filled with switches, dials, and touch-screen keypads. Two sturdy black chairs swiveled as if someone had lightly moved them a few seconds before.
On every wall, panels and screens danced with reds, yellows, and blues. Even the ceiling displayed multiple readouts, knobs and switches.
The "floor" remained relatively bare, though in this weightless environment, Jeremy figured it was to keep a path clear for some type of magnetic movement. Up and down didn't mean much other than to maintain a sense of order. Strategically placed hand-holds peppered the walls and the floor.
Mickey grinned as big as Jeremy had ever seen. His short-sleeve shirt gleamed bright blue with a narrow shirt collar that pointed straight up, black outlined in blue. A pin-stripe of blue ran up the outside legs of his black pants. A red, embroidered "Z" decorated his right chest, and on his left, a name plate that read: "Lieutenant Linerman." Strapped around his waist, he wore a black belt connected to a blue holster containing a gun.
"Hey, Bucko, how did you get to be captain?"
Jeremy read his name plate: "Captain Goodhue." "I don't know, luck of the draw, I guess." He examined himself. The game had dressed him the same as Mickey, except he had an extra set of red stripes around each shirt sleeve.
"This is absolutely amazing." Mickey ran his fingers along a panel. "The hype was true. I've never played any game this real before."
"If I didn't know better, I would have thought I just woke up from a dream and this is my real life." Jeremy stared out the window. "This is awesome!"
Jeremy found a target and pushed himself off the wall. He sailed across the room to the other side, but banged against the metal plating. He rubbed his head. "Even the walls feel real."
Mickey noticed the gun holstered on his leg. "Oh cool, look at this, Bucko." He lifted it out. The weapon shined in the light, like polished silver. A narrow barrel protruded from a bulkier body, rounded at the corners so it seemed to flow evenly. On the top back, a flat cutaway section displayed small, unmarked buttons. The handle flowed into a black-silver casing that shimmered in the light.
"Wow, my very own ray gun!" Mickey pointed it at the far wall.
He pulled the trigger. A flash of blue light blasted into a wall. Smoke rose from a blackened hole.
"Mickey, don't shoot stuff. We don't know how this game works yet. You could have decompressed the whole ship."
"I'm trying to find hidden points." He floated to the hole and examined the fried controls. "Yeah, maybe you're right. No treasure here."
Jeremy nodded. "I'm sure they have a practice game console somewhere."
"I'm sure they do, but this is a game. We can always start a new one. See, watch this." Mickey stuck his foot out and pointed the gun at it. Before Jeremy could stop him, he pulled the trigger.
"Ahhhhh!" Mickey let go of the gun and gripped his leg. He continued to scream through clenched teeth.
Jeremy watched as the ray disintegrated Mickey's foot, and the energy ate up his leg until it died off mid-calf. Blood squirted out into floating globs and traveled to a vent.
"Bucko! Do something!" Tears fell down his cheeks. He continued screaming while trying to hold it in.
"You dummy, let's find out what we're dealing with before we play around." He had never seen Mickey in such pain before. Jeremy tried to think, but he had no idea what to do.
"Find some health," Mickey said between cries. His blackened leg-stub continued to pump out blood.
Jeremy's eyes darted around the room. "I don't see any. What if this game doesn't have any?"
Mickey's knuckles turned white as he squeezed the back of a chair. "Just stop the game, we can start..." His eyes rolled back.
"Mickey!" Jeremy slapped his face. Mickey's focus returned.
"It didn't say how to stop the game, remember?" Jeremy thought for a second. "Computer, exit." Nothing happened. "Quit." Still nothing. "Stop." Beeps continued to emit from the control panels. "End game. End program. Abort game. Get out." Nothing changed.
A door slid open on the back wall and a lumbering robot exited. A cylindrical, metallic body, blinking with colorful lights and small dials on a front panel, swiveled toward Jeremy. A glass panel ran from the controls to the beginning of a thin but flexible neck. It supported a fragile glass bulb flashing with static electricity. Black arms and legs, encased in accordion-like rubber, protruded from the body. The arms held giant clamps for fingers. It rolled along the floor on continuous magnetic tracks before stopping in front of him.
"Robert is here to help you. What assistance do you need?" The voice sounded like someone talking monotone over a radio.
"The game, how do you end the game?"
The lights flashed faster on his front panel. "I am not programmed to answer that question."
Jeremy couldn't believe such a simple command wouldn't be in the help files. "Does this game have health?"
"That does not compute. A game cannot have health. Please rephrase the question."
Jeremy rolled his eyes. "Do you have a sick bay?"
"Hurry," Mickey's eyes struggled to stay open.
Arms extended toward them, clamps open. Jeremy winced as one clamp locked onto a metal ring connected to the belt of his suit. The robot rolled off, jerking them behind him.
The doors opened and they entered a hallway. Mickey's eyes rolled up and his head bobbed.
"Robert, can't you go any faster? My friend is in pain."
The robot's "feet" picked up speed, jerking them again. Jeremy saw a trail of blood globules floating behind them. A vent running along the wall sucked them in. A door slid open and they entered a room. The unmistakable smell of a doctor's office attacked Jeremy's nose.
"Where are the health pills?" Mickey asked in a whispered voice.
"There are no health pills. Such things do not exist. Initiate the surgeon robot."
"How?" Jeremy asked.
"You say, 'Is there a doctor in the house?'"
Mickey opened his mouth, but no sound came out. His eyes barely opened and his limbs moved only slightly.
A chill gripped Jeremy. "Is there..."
Jeremy doubled over and grabbed his stomach. It felt as if someone had punched him, but nothing had hit him. Did the game have a glitch?
The feeling subsided and air returned to speak the command. "Is there a doctor in the house?"
A panel slid open, and a sphere, about five feet in diameter, flew out and hovered over Mickey's body. A force field extended from it, lifted Mickey's body from Robert's arms, and laid him on a bare bed.
Holes opened on the sphere and appendages, tipped with various tools, extended toward Mickey. One scanned the area of his foot and another his chest.
"The patient has lost too much blood, and his heart is barely beating. His life will end," the sphere said in a high-pitched whine.
Jeremy kicked the table. "Come on, surely you can do something?" He felt his face flushing. It's just a game, he kept reminding himself, but it didn't seem to help.
Mickey's body relaxed. His glazed eyes stared blankly at the ceiling.
Tears welled up as Jeremy stared at his friend's dead body. But the game didn't end. He was alone. "What do I do now?" Jeremy said, more in grief than expecting an answer.
"Initiate a burial," Robert said.
As Jeremy stared at his dead friend, a sharp pain shot from the back of his neck causing his body to convulse. He screamed and the game world wavered as if underwater for an eternal three seconds.
Then, as suddenly as it came, it passed and he still stared at his dead friend. What was that? He feared the game might be doing something to his real body. Would these pains continue or the result of another glitch?
If only I could turn the game off, but how? He felt more alone now than he had in a long time. He slammed his fist on the medical bed and sank his head by Mickey's limp body.
Bridget watched as her dad tried to pull the helmet off Jeremy, but his body jerked uncontrollably. Serves him right for playing games.
Mom entered the room as her dad gave up on removing the helmet. Jeremy's body relaxed. Dad rested a hand on Jeremy's neck. Then he hit the wall and sunk his head into his hands.
Mom sat on Jeremy's bed and lay her hand on her husband's back. Tears welled up in her eyes. "Is...is he de--"
"No, he's alive."
"Why? Why did he go into convulsions?"
"I don't know!" Dad snapped. She burst into sobs. His face relaxed, and he placed an arm around his wife. "I'm sorry. I just don't know."
She buried her head in his chest. "Why can't you get it off?"
He stared at Jeremy gritting his teeth, his face red. "When did they say the ambulance would arrive?"
She half mumbled, "It took me a few tries to get through. They said a flood of similar calls hit all about the same time. They don't know."
They sat there, over Jeremy's bed, Mother crying and Father staring blankly.
Bridget stood engrossed. She had never seen her parents like this before. I bet they wouldn't act this way if it were me. She leaned in and bumped the door, causing it to creak. She froze when they turned and noticed her watching. She could sense the blame in their eyes. I dropped the helmet. I must have broke it; it's my fault. That's what they think.
Her mouth quivered in spite of herself. "Stupid boys with their stupid games."
"Bridget!" Mom's mouth hung open.
She turned and ran to her room, slamming the door. Why did he have to ruin Christmas? My Christmas! She pounded on her pillow and then flopped onto the bed.