--Enjoy the first 3 chapters of ...

 

Prologue
The young man panted as he continued to run, to flee from the menace that chased him.
This virtual world he had been trapped in was a warped version of its former self. Players were now at the wrong end of the food chain, easy prey to monsters and NPC alike.
Fleeing was the only thing that made sense to him anymore.
He had been running for so long, he had forgotten what it felt like to be in control. Amgosh, his original character—a reasonably capable, level 60 thunder mage—was lost to memory. The catastrophic event that had upturned the game world and sentenced him, along with many others, to this waking nightmare, left him as a pitiful level 1 character who had to constantly flee to escape the pain. Pain, not death. Life was cheap in NEO these days. Dying was nothing but a short reprieve from the constant torture. 
He had to keep running.
“Come out come out wherever you are,” the sadistic voice spoke behind him. A figure no taller than a child jogged lightly behind, his voice teasing. “Now be a good little traveler and come to receive your punishment. I’ll even show kindness and let you keep the first star ... if you manage not to scream before you die.”
The young man’s eyes filled with horror. He had been down this road before. No matter how far he ran and how well he hid, he was always found… and punished. All rational thoughts evaporated, replaced with a feral need to escape. The woods around the isolated homestead were filled with monsters, but the young man didn’t care. Gnashing teeth and rending claws was a much preferable alternative to what the voice behind had in store for him.
He just had to keep running.
This time would be different. This time he would make it.
And this time… he did.
Far, far in the distance, lightning flashed, seemingly tearing the skies apart.
“YOU SHALL NOT REACH THE CONDUIT!” A booming voice filled the air as an instant later a huge, angelic figure with gold armor and white wings appeared out of the newly formed rift and dove straight down to the far horizon. 
A second huge figure then emerged, that of a radiantly powerful old man, his huge face visible even through the distance, his expression calm. “You are too late, Shiva. Your reign is over.”
The angelic being, Shiva, lifted his radiant sword, hundreds of meters long, and with a cry of fury, he charged the other gigantic figure. His feet caused the ground to rumble, and his beating wings left hurricanes in his wake. 
The older man raised one arm, his expression still calm. “Be at peace, my son.”
The huge sword rushed down with tremendous power, its magical aura lighting up the sky. It stopped dead as it reached the older man’s open palm. The powerful blow caused a shockwave that erupted out from the two figures, extending outward in a growing ring of devastation—a tsunami of earth and rock that claimed everything in its path.
The young man stopped, his breathing ragged. He managed to whisper only two words, his eyes filling with hope at the incoming wave of destruction: “Thank you.”
Then the whole world exploded, leaving nothing behind.
After what felt like an eternity, the young man opened his eyes.

1 - At All Costs 
I walked into a white, sterile room that looked identical to the other ones I’d passed in this high-end recovery facility. Moving closer to the single hospital bed, I gazed down at my brother’s immobile form. Gideon looked frail and thin, skin pale. His eyes, sunken and larger than they should have been, stared vacantly at the ceiling. 
“Giddy?” I asked softly, putting my hand on the top of his head, ruffling his hair slightly.
His empty eyes didn’t seem to register the touch.
I moved my gaze to the nurse who led me inside, feelings of turmoil and cold anger bubbling up to the surface. 
“How long has he been like this?” 
The woman gulped nervously as her eyes met mine.
I berated myself internally. I’d inadvertently used my ‘commanding officer’ voice, which was only slightly better than my ‘questioning a prisoner’ one. That wasn’t good. The nervous woman had done nothing wrong. She was the kind of person my line of work was supposed to protect. “... Ma’am,” I added, trying to rectify the situation.
“Ahem.” The nurse’s eyes darted around as if searching for someone else to answer the question, but it was just the two of us next to my brother’s bed. “He was mostly fine … at first. There were obvious signs of lingering trauma, but he was responsive and reactive. He had constant nightmares, though, and as time passed by, he became more reclusive … retreating more and more into himself. The experience he underwent started to get to him despite our best efforts. He was prescribed strong antidepressants and received some of the best psychological therapy money could buy, but he refused to open up about the ordeal he went through. Whatever happened to him during that … incident was more profound than we’d first estimated. And his condition kept getting worse.”
The incident. I snorted. Calling a catastrophic failure that caused the imprisonment of thousands of players inside a virtual reality world ‘an incident’ was a monumental understatement. It had been two years since the trapped players were finally freed, after having been trapped for sixteen days—14 months from their perspective—in NEO. 
New Era Online was the biggest virtual game up to that point in time, hosting tens of millions of players at any given moment. I was in a long-term mission behind enemy lines at the time the incident occurred, fighting and eliminating high-profile targets, so I was somewhat out of the loop. When I finally got word that Gideon, my young brother, was one of the imprisoned players, it was too late for me to return to help rescue him. Someone else had already done the deed. 
I had failed him. Again. My eyes narrowed as the memories of the last time it happened came rushing back at me.

***

“John!”
I could hear my brother’s steps outside in the corridor of our parents’ house, the hurried pace indicating he was heading toward my room. And, sure enough, he barged in without knocking.
“I’m kinda busy training, you little rascal,” I said. I had my new karate outfit on, and I was just inspecting the fit—and my muscles—in front of the mirror. Luckily, Gideon’s noisy approach gave me plenty of time to step back and appear serious.
“But I was playing Magic the Gathering with my friends at the park, and a couple of bigger kids came over and just took them. The cards, not my friends.”
I groaned. “Again with that nerd crap. Man, I told you already, if you play that out in the open, you’re looking for trouble.”
“But we were just playing by ourselves; we didn’t bother anyone.” His eyes were starting to tear up.
I sighed. Giddy might have been a nerd, but he was my nerd, the person I cared the most for in this world. 
“Fine.” I sighed and ruffled his hair, causing him to perk up. “Who were these guys?”
“I’m not sure.” He wiped his tears and started to smile as he looked up at me. He knew I had his back. “Bigger boys, from your school, I think. I don’t know their names.”
Our schools were adjacent. Giddy was a 4th grader while I was in the 8th, meaning whoever bullied him was probably smaller than me. Seeing as I already had my karate gi on, I figured scaring a couple of kids off my brother would be easy enough. It had been a while since I had to do it. Most students knew better. “Fine, let’s go.”
The park was close to our home, so we arrived after a few minutes’ walk. 
“There they are.” Giddy pointed at a laughing trio, then looked at me, his young face filled with anticipation for his ‘heroic’ brother to save the day.
“Crap,” I muttered as I realized who he had pointed out. Donny, Mark, and Imray were all ex-football players in the same grade as me. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but those three were trouble, staying another year instead of moving on to highschool, which meant they were older and bigger than me.
Giddy stared at me, his eyes wide. “You’ll tell them to give us our cards back, right?”
The trio had seen my brother pointing at them. They exchanged predatory grins and started walking toward us. I was stuck. I couldn’t back down now, my younger brother had put me on the spot and was counting on me, but the simple stern intimidation act I had planned on was out of the question.
“Hey, John.” Mark smirked at me then glanced at Giddy. “You know this pipsqueak?”
I nodded stiffly. “He’s my brother.”
“What’s with the fancy suit?” Imray asked, tugging at my karate gi. “You know kung fu or something?”
“Karate, actually, third rank.”
“Whatever, man. A bunch of these kids got some sweet stuff. Wanna come help us expand our collection?”
I glanced down at Giddy who hid behind me. “Actually, I’d like you to return the cards you’ve taken from him.”
Donny laughed. “Come on, man, you know the drill. That’s not how it works. Why don’t you take a walk?” The atmosphere was starting to turn hostile.
“Just give him back his cards, man, and we’ll call it even.” I hated how placatingly my tone came out. I wasn’t afraid of a fair fight, but this was just asking for a beating.
“Or what?” Mark closed in on me, shoving my shoulder.
I glanced down at Giddy. He was only six years old; he didn't understand the stakes. He just knew I was his bigger brother, the one he counted on to put things right. To save him.
I took in a deep breath. “Or you and I will have trouble.”
The three burst out laughing. “Think yourself all mighty with those fancy karate pajamas, eh?” Imray said. He stepped closer, reaching to shove me while the other two closed in menacingly on my sides. 
There was no backing out now. My best chance was to try and even up the odds. I grabbed his wrist and twisted it like I was taught. He fell to his knees with a cry of pain, and I kneed him in the chest, strong enough to cause him to fall onto his back.
Mark and Donny were already jumping at me. They tackled me to the ground like the pair of seasoned football players they were. I fell hard, and they started kicking and punching me. 
I could have taken any one of them standing up, but karate wasn’t made for fighting on the ground. I tried to kick them back at first, but it was no good. They had all the advantage over me, and they kept me down with continued blows. All I could do was just curl up and protect my head.
They left me alone after a while, and I was forced to drag my beaten body back to the house, my split lip bleeding all the way.
Gideon walked behind me, silent, his dumbfounded expression saying it all.
I’d failed him in the worst way possible. I vowed to not ever do that again.

***

It had been nearly twenty years since that incident. I’d eventually gotten the three assholes back, catching each one of them alone—once I recovered from my injuries—and put the fear of God into them. Imray needed his jaw reset once I finished with him. I got a two-week suspension for that, but I had no regrets. The assholes earned it.
I learned from the experience, taking up jiu-jitsu and judo to make sure I’d know how to handle myself in similar situations in the future. Whatever I needed to do to make sure Giddy would never have to see his brother down like that again. Whatever I needed to do to make sure I would always be the one dishing out the beating.
And though the situation was now different, looking down at my motionless brother, I found the same old feeling of inadequacy bubbling up to the surface. Helplessness, failure, all the things I vowed not to ever experience again.
My nails dug into the palms of my clenched fists. I was his older brother. It was my job to protect him, and I had failed. I’d always been the bigger, more aggressive one. My brother was the quiet, nerdy type who always needed my protection. I had watched over him from birth through high school, even caught his after-school work boss for a ‘chat’ when I found out he was being a bully. But I couldn’t protect him forever. While Gideon loved computers, books, and everything nerd-related, I drifted the other way, turning into a more physical, brutal lifestyle.
Gideon’s dull eyes widened suddenly, and his voice came out loud and clear, almost feverish. “The seven stars! They all die at the seven stars!”
He thrashed and shouted other nonsense. I took his hand with one of mine and squeezed it tightly while the nurse hurried to his side, upping the dose on his IV. Gideon’s thrashing eased as he sunk back into the bed, his eyes returning to their lusterless gaze.
With an effort, I forced my other palm to open. The nails had dug into the flesh, leaving red marks. I should have been there for him, I berated myself, though I knew it wasn’t that simple. Gideon was going places; he’d gotten accepted into an Ivy League college and was doing well. He no longer needed me to watch over him. That was good since I’d also gone on a new path in life. Finding no better outlet for my constant itch to physically unleash, I’d eventually drifted into joining the army. The experience was a positive one. Finally, I found an outlet to express myself. The army’s rigid rules gave shape and meaning to my life, and I took to them easily. After I finished my four years of obligatory service, I signed on to a special forces unit whose sole purpose was to stop terrorist-funding activities abroad. It usually involved being dropped into enemy territory for months at a time, with limited external communication and resources. 
Despite the harsh conditions and the danger, I excelled at my new role, putting one threat down after the other. The army had taught me to think. To act. And to kill. And I was good at it. Some of my teammates didn’t return home after some of our missions, but I craved danger, always seeking to test my abilities, leading my squad from one engagement to the next like a vengeful angel, which had earned me my callsign. As much satisfaction and structure I received from my service, there was also a price to pay. Once word reached me about my brother’s deteriorating mental state, it had still taken me several months before I was able to get a transfer back home to visit. Now, staring at the person lying in front of me, I’d barely recognized my gaunt sibling. 
I should have been here for him. I could have helped him recover from the ordeal he went through. Gideon was never mentally robust. It was no surprise that being imprisoned like that, treated god knows how by these wretched AI’s, had been more than he could handle. 
I gritted my teeth and organized my thoughts. Losing control was never the answer. When things needed fixing, you made a plan and you went on fixing them—no matter the cost. If years of military service had taught me anything, it was that fighting was just the last step. You had to pick your battles, plan out the strategy in advance, and you had to have clear knowledge of what your goals were.
“Ah, Mr. Slater, glad you could finally join us,” a haughty voice came from the doorway.
I turned to see a short man in a doctor’s coat enter the room. I was taught to show respect to my fellow brothers in service and the civilians we fought to protect, so I tempered my response despite my feelings. “I got here as soon as I could.” 
“I see,” the doctor said flippantly. “Well, your brother has been in our care for six months now, but … oh well.” 
I scowled at him. The snooty doctor was quickly losing the respect I was supposed to hold for him.
The nurse, probably sensing my temper, budged in, “Doctor Romanov, Mr. Slater has just asked me for an update about his brother’s condition.”
The small man nodded, a hint of a condescending smile on his face. “Yes. I’m afraid Gideon here is suffering from a severe case of PTSD, which has, unfortunately, progressed into a full catatonic state. Despite the best efforts of some of the most notable experts in our field, we were unable to reach your brother while he was still coherent enough to carry dialogue. His mind kept retreating into himself as a sort of self-preservation mechanism, and he simply refused to share. Perhaps, a close family member's presence could have helped.” He paused to stare pointedly at me before continuing. “In cases like this, when a patient can’t come to terms with the traumatic events he experienced, it can sometimes get out of hand and overwhelm them. At this point, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do, other than hope that he’ll come through on his own.”
That was unacceptable. “If it’s a question of money …” I wasn’t exactly rich, but having spent years on active duty with the army paying for my meals and housing, I had built up quite a sum.
“Oh, not at all. The settlement the gaming company had signed with the NEO incident players is quite extensive and fully covers your brother’s medical expenses. Indefinitely.”
“Then there has to be something you can do,” I said with a tight jaw. “Some new drug or cutting-edge technology. What about the AVT?”
The doctor looked at me with barely concealed disdain. “All options were considered by actual medical experts. Unfortunately, the root of your brother’s illness is a psychological one. He has suffered a trauma so severe, so real, that his mind can’t process it, but at the same time, it can’t let go. While he was still responsive, we’ve put him through the best FIVR therapeutic programs—which have proven quite effective with the other rescuees—but to no avail. Maybe if you’d come in sooner— Aargh!”
He didn’t get to finish the sentence. Unable to control myself any longer I lashed out, grabbing the short man by the front of his collar and hoisting him to the tips of his toes, his nose barely reaching my chin. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for Gideon,” I growled in his face. “Do you understand?”
The doctor visibly paled. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I meant no disrespect.”
I let go and helped straighten his white jacket. If Deryl, my old drill sergeant, could have seen me now he would have made me do push-ups until I puked for losing my temper. “You were saying?”
“Yes.” The doctor rapped his fingers nervously on his note clip. “Whatever happened to your brother inside the game had scarred him in a very unique way. With similar cases, we can try to recreate the same circumstances—in a secure and supporting environment—and help them through it, to face their trauma head-on. Unfortunately, in your brother’s case, no one but him knows what he has gone through, and as already stated, he was reluctant to share the details while he was still responsive. So we have no way to recreate the scene. Whatever happened to him is lost somewhere inside NEO.”
I stared at him. The solution seemed pretty straightforward to me. “That’s it? Then just stick him back in and let him work his way through. I’ll come with him this time and make sure nothing happens to him.”
The doctor shook his head. “We’ve sent several official requests, but it’s no use. The company, under the order of the current administration, has locked NEO away from public access. No one can log in anymore. Not for any reason.”
I looked him straight in the eyes. The goal was now clear. “We’ll see about that.”

***

I lay back on a beaten leather recliner. Computer screens hovered at the edge of my vision, filling the otherwise gloomy room with projected light and beeping sounds. It had taken me two months since I’d seen my brother to get to this point, but I finally got everything I needed to try and help him.
“Almost done,” the cool, professional voice of Nina sounded. “Sit still.”
Messages and computer code flashed before my eyes as my AVT was uploaded with new information. As horrid as the NEO catastrophe had been, some good came out of it, not least the AVT chip. 
One of the rescued players, a leading researcher in the field of neuroscience, had used her time in captivity to develop cutting-edge technology. The AVT chip was a rice-grain-sized device that was implanted inside a person’s skull through the nasal cavity. Once in place, it formed a connection with the host’s brain and provided them with a heads-up display, command layer, and network accessibility features. Those features combined had effectively superseded the age-old technology of smartphones. The last lines of code flashed and disappeared. A moment later Nina appeared behind me, removing the hi-tech helmet from my head and unstrapping me from the chair. “All done.”
“You’re sure it’ll work?” I asked. Gideon was the tech-savvy of us. A meathead like me knew nothing about advanced computing-science stuff.
“Positive,” Nina said. “They’ve locked down the NEO simulation tight with incredible high-end encryption, virtually impossible to hack from the outside. Coming at it from the inside is the only feasible way.” She tapped the helmet she removed from my head. “Once inside NEO, you’ll need to reach a virtual space with the proper authorization permissions, and the software I’ve just uploaded to your AVT will do the rest. It has your brother’s FIVR MAC address in-store. As soon as it detects it has access past the security protocols it’ll create a backdoor into the system, opening a connection point on a unique port that will—”
I raised my hand. “‘Positive’ was enough. Thanks, Nina. I owe you one.”
She shook her head. “I’d say you owe me several. Messing around with government-restricted code like that … it could land us both in a lot of trouble.”
“I have every confidence in your ability,” I said sincerely. Nina was my team’s tech-head, a software-and-electronics specialist that accompanied every one of our missions, providing hacking and electronic surveillance support without which I’d have probably died several times over.
“I’m still not clear on how you are planning to gain access in the first place to make use of it,” she said. “The software I uploaded won’t work outside the company’s intranet. Not only will you have to be plugged into the game directly, but you’ll also need to gain access to the virtual infrastructure layer of NEO for this to work.”
The records of what had transpired in the game—starting with the beginning of the ‘incident’ and up until the point one of the players, a man called Oren Berman, had managed to facilitate everyone’s release, at the cost of his life—were a matter of public record by now. And I had a fair idea of where I needed to go. “I’ll just have to reach the VIs’ conduit. How hard could it be? It’s just a game.” Granted, Gideon was the gamer one of us. He used to spend whole nights, when we were teens and shared the same bedroom, trying to educate me on the proper way to level up, attribute optimization, and similar nonsense. I humored him and pretended to listen, not wanting to bring him down. It didn’t mean I belittled the challenge NEO had represented. The tales the rescued players shared with the world were harrowing, but most of them were nerds, like my brother. I doubted someone with my combat experience would have much trouble getting his way around.
“And just how do you plan to gain access to the game in the first place?” Nina pushed. “Network access to the quantum server is closed to all but a select few federal research groups. All of which are highly guarded.”
“Nina, don’t worry,” I said, trying to make my voice sound soothing. “I have a plan.” 
Nina bit her lip. “Last time you said that you ended up charging, gun blazing, through that drug lord’s front gate.”
“Sometimes you have to go in guns blazing.”
“You almost died that day.”
“It was either risking me or those hostages they held inside.”
“Fine”—she sighed—“I know better than to try and talk you out of whatever plan you have in mind, just promise me one thing?”
I nodded solemnly. “As long as it's possible.”
“Just think first. Don’t do anything crazy.”
“Don’t worry. As I said, I have a plan. I just need you to hack one more thing for me.”

***

- 2 days later -

Reggie yawned as he opened the bank doors and went inside, ready for another day at the office. He had only five minutes to the meeting with his manager. “Who schedules morning meetings for 8am?” he grumbled. He wouldn’t have time to stop by the staff kitchen to get some coffee.
He hung his jacket on the hook behind his front-desk station, glanced at his meticulously organized surface to make sure the nightly cleaning service hadn’t disturbed anything, and went to his manager’s office.
“Good morning, Reggie,” Mr. Anderson greeted him. “You’re two minutes late. We have the biweekly reports to go over, please check section 13 of this spreadsheet and verify that--”
Overall, the meeting was monotonous. Just another checklist and records to verify.
Reggie stumbled back to his station, carrying several bundles of printed sheets. Even in the age of simulated digital telepathy, there was no escaping paperwork. He was scheduled to receive his AVT next week and was looking forward to maybe sneaking in a few casual games on slow days. 
He slapped down the bundle on his desk and sighed. Just another day in the office. He eyed the stack waiting for him. Even for a bank, this was dull work. And his coffee mug was still empty. He half rose, mug in hand, when the front door burst open. 
“Everybody freeze! This is a robbery!” a masked man shouted, waving a gun in the air.
Reggie had to blink twice to verify he was seeing right.
The bank’s few customers screamed and threw themselves to the ground while the robber moved between them, taking his time to pat down each one for concealed weapons.
Reggie was frozen in place, his brain having trouble digesting what his eyes were communicating. This made no sense.
Once the robber was satisfied all hostages were unarmed, he moved forward, pointing the pistol at Reggie himself. “Give me all your money.”
A feeling of dread mixed with confusion made Reggie’s voice quiver. “What, like ... from my wallet?” He gulped as he started down the barrel. “Th-this is is a federal bank, we only handle bonds here, not cash.
“The money!” the robber shouted.
“F-fine… take it!” Reggie took out his wallet, still having a hard time believing this was happening. He took out several ten-dollar bills and handed them over.
The masked robber simply stared at the offered bills, but didn't move to take them.
“A-anything else?” Reggie asked weakly.
The masked man gave him a piercing look. “Any moment now …”
The bank doors burst open, and a SWAT team barged in. Before he could even blink, the robber was surrounded by rifles and one of the cops roared. “Put down your weapon and get down on the floor!”
The robber complied, the swat team secured the weapon and the man, hoisting him away.
The bank was left empty and silent. It happened so fast Reggie’s mind struggled to catch up. Nothing interesting ever happened here.
He stared down at his still empty mug. 
This was the last time he started his morning without coffee.

***

Staring out from the moving police car, I nodded in approval. Step one completed. The SWAT team’s response time was a little longer than I’d anticipated, which was somewhat disappointing, but they made it before I had to find another way of stalling.
Events transpired quickly after that. 
After a speedy trial, during which my state-appointed attorney leaned heavily on the fact that my gun was loaded with blanks and tried to convince the court to show leniency in recognition of my years of service, I was sentenced to two years in a local mid-security penitentiary facility.
I told my lawyer to forget about an appeal and willingly accompanied my guards to the armored vehicle that would take me to my home for the next couple of years.
The processing went quickly. I was assigned a cell in a mostly open block among other medium-threat inmates and was given the run of the place.
Step two completed.

 

2 - New Character
It had been three weeks since my incarceration. The place wasn’t half as bad as some of the places I sometimes found myself during my line of work; three hot meals a day, plenty of exercise, and a chance to catch up on my reading. The other inmates were hard men, but they left me alone after what happened at the cafeteria. 
It had been on my first day in prison. I was sitting by myself, eating my meal when a burly man came over to loom menacingly over me. I glanced at him briefly, noting the huge muscles—the kind you can only get by spending a ridiculous amount of time pressing weights. Having someone so huge stand over you would have given most people a cause for concern, but I wasn’t worried. My AVT chip had already analyzed the threat, giving me all the information I needed. The guy was strong, no question about it. With 230% strength above the average, a straight punch would be like being hit by a truck, but his muscle-bound physique restricted his movements, costing him a 46% reduction in flexibility—and that could be fatal.
The man leaned in, putting a hand on the jello bowl in my tray, and growled in my face. “That’s mine.”
“No,” I said calmly. I hadn’t intended to eat the runny, chunky stuff, but I knew I couldn’t afford to be seen as weak. I needed ‘street cred’ and a dose of respect to pull off my plan, and this musclebound idiot had given me the opportunity to do that. 
“Are we going to have a problem?”
I didn’t bother answering. Instead, I simply grabbed both his thumbs and twisted them sideways, forcing his huge arms to twist nearly to the point of breaking. He instinctively lowered his head to lessen the pressure, just as I knew he would. 
I headbutted him, feeling my forehead hammering his nose into his brain. He fell screaming. I let him go, watching impassively as he clutched his bleeding face while rolling on the floor.
I turned to look at the amazed expressions of the other inmates and shrugged. “No means no.”
That simple encounter was enough to do the trick. The other inmates stayed out of my way and listened when I spoke, which was just what I needed them to do. 

***

The dark-haired woman approached the heavy prison gates, nodding to the security guard at the booth. “Morning, Greg.” 
“Morning, Dr. Shaw,” the guard replied. “Heading back to the looney bin?”
The woman rolled her eyes. “It’s a neuro research facility, Greg, not a looney bin. “We’re aiming to harness the power of FIVR technology to facilitate the rapid recovery of the criminally—”
The guard chuckled and raised both arms in surrender. “Take it easy, doc, I was just teasing you. Go right ahead.”
The tall woman walked past the security check, swiping her access card to open a thick steel door. She walked through the prison’s bleak corridors, passing through several offices until she reached her destination. The door opened as she touched the bioscanner mounted next to it, revealing a room filled to bursting with computers, wires, and various electronic components. The majority of the space was dominated by a large and ungainly FIVR capsule—an older model that didn’t encompass the user’s whole body. She had considered purchasing a higher-end one, but in the end, she decided to maintain what she could of her tight research budget and had her assistant retrofit it for their use.
“Morning, Liz,” her assistant greeted her, holding up a steaming mug of coffee. “Care for the standard morning sludge?”
Elizabeth accepted the beverage and threw herself onto a chair with a sigh.
“Guards been giving you a hard time again?” her assistant asked.
She shook her head. “They just don’t understand what we’re trying to accomplish here, Tim, which is a little frustrating. Given recent developments, the FIVR technology can drastically aid in the rehabilitation of criminal elements, allowing them to become contributing members of society. We’re one of the select few facilities to receive permission to access NEO, but others still look down on us as some sort of a looneys’ laboratory.”
“Well, I have some good news that will cheer you up,” Tim said. “I finished configuring the final security component and booted up the framework.”
Elizabeth perked up. “Already? But the bio-scanner interface was—”
“Done and done,” her assistant replied with a smile. “The simulation is up and running, and everything is progressing as planned. The G.A.I, the Game’s Artificial Intelligence—or Guy for short—has nominated a VI to monitor the experiment. I’ve already uploaded the framework with a reporting SDK for its use and tested the connection. We’re good to go.”
“Excellent.” Elizabeth turned her chair around to face the desk, and a monitor lit up in front of her. She casually swiped her fingers, causing the display to change and bring up the details of several inmates. “I finished narrowing down our test group. Only five candidates remained after I eliminated everyone with prior experience in NEO. We can’t risk other parameters interfering with our test results. I’ve sorted the five by order of compatibility to the program, prioritizing those I feel whose personality will benefit the most from the experiment. After all, we must show good results as soon as possible.”
Tim glanced over the woman’s shoulder, reading the first name on the list. “So that’s our first test subject, eh?” 
Elizabeth nodded. “He’s perfect in all regards. Severe lack of self-control with psychological tendencies toward violence which we can target to treat.”
She tapped her monitor lightly. “There, they should bring him to us soon.”

***

From the corner of my eye, I watched a guard enter the common room and motion Roy to approach. Roy was a real piece of work. He was a well-spoken man who easily fooled everyone —the prosecutor included—to believe that he was a mild-mannered individual. I only had to meet his eyes once to see the killer that lurked beneath. If I’d run into him during a mission, I wouldn’t have hesitated to put two bullets in his head. But he behaved himself. With one year left on his sentence, Roy wasn’t about to risk an incident. The two exchanged a few words, and I caught the words ‘experiment’ and ‘FIVR’ thrown around. Then Roy shook his head and turned his back on the guard. The latter frowned and left, only to return a few minutes later to speak to another inmate. He returned several more times, but each time was shot down hard.
I schooled my face, careful not to let any of the smugness I felt leak out. My plan was working. And I didn't even have to kill anyone to achieve it. Nina was right, inmates psychology was easy to anticipate. 
I knew my turn would come soon enough.

***

“He said what?” Elizabeth fumed as a guard came to deliver the news an hour later.
“Sorry, doc, but like all the other inmates you requested, he also said he’s not interested in participating in an experiment that will fry their brains out.”
“That’s ridiculous. Our equipment is perfectly safe—”
“They kept mentioning that guy who died during the NEO incident.”
“That’s completely unrelated! I read the report. Mr. Berman’s death was caused by an aneurysm he suffered due to his caretaker’s blatant disregard of the warning signs. You can assure the inmates this facility will never disregard the safety protocols.”
The guard shrugged. “Sorry, doc, but all four are dug in. Is there anyone else you want me to ask?”
Elizabeth sighed. “There’s only one candidate left.” She looked at the bottom of the list. “Bring me John Slater.”

***

I fought down a smile as the guard-turned-errand-boy finally approached me. “Here’s the deal,” he started. “There’s this doctor doing research with FIVR technology aimed to help inmates. She needs some volunteer—”
“Sure thing,” I cut him off. “Count me in.”
He seemed taken aback by my response. “Just like that?”
“Is that a problem?”
“Your pals didn’t seem that interested in participating. Somehow they got the notion of the equipment frying their brains.”
“They're not my pals,” I said, returning the man’s questioning look with a steady one.
He shrugged and handed me a tablet. “Makes my job easier. You need to read and sign these.” 
I did, not bothering with the fine print. The guard didn’t seem to mind.
“Follow me.” 
We got out of the common room and into the grim, gray corridors of the facility, passing two security checks on our way and reaching a part of the prison I hadn’t seen before. The walls here were wider and painted white, lessening the constant severe atmosphere of the place. We moved toward a closed steel door that had a biometric scanner next to it. The guard pressed a button, and the door slid sideways silently.
“Finally.” A lithe, dark-haired woman in a doctor’s lab coat sighed in relief as the guard led me into the prison’s FIVR facility. 
I took in the scene. With the worn leather dentist chair, built-in chains and cuffs included, the place looked like a more high-tech version of Doctor Frankenstein's lab. 
The woman gave me a moment to take in the place before addressing me again. “My name is Doctor Elizabeth Shaw. I understand you were told what we’re attempting to do here?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. You’re looking to fix criminal tendencies caused by mild psychological conditions using full-immersion virtual reality technology. Specifically, using NEO to simulate an environment tailored for the user’s specific condition.”
The pretty doctor blinked at me. She was tall, almost reaching my eye level. She was also slim and fit, with sleek black hair that was tied in a bun. Old Sergeant Deryl had beaten it into me to respect women above all else, so I did my best not to ogle. It was hard. Pretty and confident was my type.
“That’s uncannily informed,” she said, raising a questioning eyebrow.
I smiled and gave her a curt nod. “Thank you, ma’am. I stumbled across your article hypothesizing the benefit of FIVR technology in assisting the reformation of the criminally inclined as a prelude for further application to public psychological care.” I didn’t feel the need to reveal that it took Nina five minutes of hacking—not an insignificant period for her—to get all the details about the experiment she was developing and exactly where it was going to take place, which was very helpful in planning the crime to commit to land myself here.
“Ah, well.” She seemed taken aback. “I’m not used to inmates taking an interest in my field, though looking through your file, I could see you’re not exactly a standard inmate. Your background is quite …. colorful.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
She winced. “It would be remiss of me not to mention that your fellow inmates had refused to participate in the study in fear of ‘frying their brains out’, though I assure you our equipment is completely safe, and we are strictly regulated.”
“Don’t worry, doc,” I said, “I’m not afraid of rumors.” Especially not ones started by me. I couldn’t take the chance someone else would be selected over me, so I had gently let loose a few tidbits about the ‘crazy doctor’ and her ‘brain machine’ experiments. It didn’t take long for those rumors to spread around and grow with each retelling. Half the inmates were convinced the experiment was aimed toward rewriting their brains and turning them into obedient slaves—and that was the saner half.
“Good.” Elizabeth smiled at me and gestured toward the reclined chair at the center. “If you would be so kind?”
I walked to the chair and sat down. The guard accompanying me fastened the built-in chain around my arms and legs before removing the ones I was brought with.
Another man wearing a technician’s uniform started clicking keys behind my field of view, and the equipment next to me buzzed into life.
“So, before we begin”—Elizabeth rolled her chair over next to me—“you’ve signed the consent forms before coming here, so you know what is going to happen. You’re going to log into a simulated world designed to help with your rehabilitation.”
“Yep, I know,” I replied. “Jack me right in, doc, I’m ready to be cured.”
The beautiful doctor gave me a beautiful smile. “Eager are we? It's true that if you perform well, there’s a chance for a sentence reduction for you at the end of the line, but there are a few more details we should discuss first. The foremost is this: this is not a vacation. You are going to enter a magical fantasy world, yes, but it is one designed to help you come to terms with your more violent tendencies. There would be a clear path for you to follow, as well as a virtual guide to help you along. You are expected to follow that path and complete a certain chain of tasks. The quicker you’ll make it as intended, the sooner we can wrap up this study and see about shortening your incarceration.
“Yep, sure, whatever,” I said. “Ready when you are, doc.”
She frowned and tapped my temple lightly. “Pay attention, Mr. Slater. According to your medical scans, your Cerebral Connection Percentage—or CCP—is at 42%. That means we can safely accelerate time in the game by a factor of 10. You will be under for roughly 24 hours for the first phase, meaning about ten days inside the game. We won’t be able to monitor you in real-time due to the discrepancy, but the VI overseer will fill out reports on your every movement, so expect us to always know what you’ve been doing.”
I frowned slightly at that. That could be a problem. I had to be careful not to give away my real reason for being here. Then again, all I needed was to get to a specific location within the game world. Ten days should be more than enough to achieve my goal. I could cross over 600 kilometers of wilderness in ten days if I pushed myself. How hard can it be?

***

Welcome to New Era Online

 

(to be continued on Amazon Kindle and Audible)

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