I’ve seen it all in my time. My job takes me all over the country, mostly to unplug the dead bodies of the gamers who were too immersed in their games to realise they were starving to death, but occasionally the call would come just in time for me to save their lives. The problem is, with some gamers there’s no one to miss them; the real hardcore ones remove themselves from normal society and spend the rest of their lives talking to fictional characters in a fictional world.
The Engineer, that’s what they call me, but I think I’m more like a paramedic-cum-mortician. Whatever my job title, I had no way of being prepared for the sight that met me on that night in December, six years ago. I have never come across another case like that since then, and I pray I never do.
When the call came, I was about to shut down for the night. I had already unplugged three poor deceased buggers, two on the verge of death, and one who had only just discovered the majesty of the online world, to the horror of her parents, who had organised some sort of intervention.
The police greeted me when I pulled up outside the house. Two tough-looking officers both wore an expression that said they resented my presence but were prepared to accept it because I was doing a job they wanted to avoid.
One of them, a female officer, showed me inside. As she passed her colleague, she flashed him a look of pure hatred, and I noticed he had a smirk on his face. She took me into the bedroom, where most of the gamers install their equipment, probably in an attempt to regain their teenage years, and showed me the corpse.
It wasn’t much of a body. Most of it had decomposed, and I was extremely pleased that the body had been there long enough for the stench of decomposition to have faded away.
The body was lying on the bed, wires protruding from what was left of the head, which turned out to be mostly brain matter and very little else. The wires trailed along the floor; the other ends connected to a black box standing on the floor. The box had more wires protruding from the back that disappeared through a hole in the wall. From there they would run down the inside of the wall and connect with the cables that powered the GameNet. The whole ensemble was topped off by a set of speakers and a microphone, also attached to the box.
Here we had someone who didn’t spend their whole life inside the GameNet. The microphone and speakers were used only by people who had realised the box could serve purposes other than games. They could download music, or use the microphone to carry on conversations, the way the old telephones worked. I opened my tool bag and was taking out the tools I would need when I heard a voice.
“What did you say?” I asked turning to the police officer.
“Nothing,” she said, confused. “Are you going to be long? I’m sure there must be some criminals somewhere I could be arresting.” She was fidgeting; I could tell she was itching to leave the room.
“Should only be about ten minutes,” I told her. I picked up the neural scanner and wondered if I would need it. I had never come across such a badly decomposed gamer before, and I thought it was a certainty there wouldn’t be any neural activity going on.
“Hello?” the voice came again. “Is someone there? I can’t see you.”
I dropped the scanner and backed away hurriedly. The voice had come from the speaker. I turned to the police officer, and I could tell by the look on her face that she had heard it too.
“Please,” the voice said. “I can hear you moving around. Who are you?”
This last sentence was too much for the officer, who turned and fled from the house. I never found out what happened to her for deserting her post. I’m not supposed to be left alone with a gamer’s corpse, not after the scandal involving the engineer in America.
I dropped to my knees and shuffled closer to the bed. I felt like I should say something, but the shock of what was happening had made my mind go blank.
“Who are you?” the voice screamed in terror.
“Vince,” I suddenly blurted out. “My name’s Vince.”
“What are you doing in my game?” the voice asked fiercely. “Hacking is completely unethical.”
Unethical? More like completely illegal and punishable by total removal of gaming rights, a punishment much worse than death to most gamers. A lot of people say these gamers have no life. The gamers, on the other hand, argue that they have lots of lives. It just so happens they all exist in an alternate reality known simply as the GameNet.
“I’m not in your game,” I said, confused. “I’m not in any game.”
This was insane. Was I going mad, or was I really conversing with a dead gamer? It wasn’t possible. As soon as the brain died, the game was denied a power source and switched off.
“Don’t fucking lie to me.” It sounded like the voice would have spat if it could. “I’m in my game, so you must be a hacker.”
I was at a loss for words again. Apparently the brain had somehow survived the death of the body and was still aware of both the gaming world and the real world.
“Are you still there?” the gamer asked.
I heard a sigh. “Thank God,” the voice whispered. “I’ve been trying to log off for hours. For some reason I keep getting an error message.”
I bet you do, I thought as realisation started dawning on me. Hours? Try at least ten years. “What’s your name?” I asked out loud.
“What game were you playing, Katrina?” I wasn’t sure exactly why, but I felt an intense curiosity wash over me. After all, this had never happened before.
“Knights of Grandeur.”
Thank God for that. It wasn’t unknown for gamers to die, because the villains in the game were so realistic the gamer actually believed he had been killed. The most dangerous thing in “Knights of Grandeur” was a mugger who used a plank of wood as a weapon.
“Why do you need to know?” Katrina asked.
“Erm… we need to know what game you’ve been playing because it helps us with our investigations,” I lied. “Different games require different procedures if they refuse to shut down.”
“Do you think it will take long? I’m so hungry.”
Well, it has been ten years since your last meal. “Just keep playing, try to take your mind off food,” I said, all the while wondering how much more weird this was going to get. That didn’t make sense. Gamers never felt hungry while in the GameNet. That’s why they starved to death.
“There’s something I should tell you, Katrina…” I faltered, unsure of how to continue.
“What?” Katrina’s voice quavered with fear.
I hesitated. How could I tell her she was dead? How could I unplug her when she was still conscious? Somehow the game had taken control of her neural pathways, and when the body died, the game had managed to keep the brain ticking over. How on earth could I tell her any of this?
“We’re working on the problems you’re experiencing,” I lied again. “You just hang in there. You’re not the only person who’s had this problem. We’ll get it sorted.”
“Thank you.” Katrina said with obvious relief.
“You just stay calm,” I said, standing up. “As soon as we’ve discovered the problem I’ll be back to unhook you. That’s a promise.”
“Goodbye, Vince. And thanks.”
“Goodbye, Katrina,” I said a little hoarsely. “See you soon.”
I left her there, still plugged in to her game. One day, I’ll go back, and maybe I’ll be able to unplug her, but not before the game finally lets her brain die.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH Getting a Life:
This chilling tale gives the reader a not-so-bright projection of a perhaps not-too-far-away future we could (will?) easily succumb to. In this short and tightly written story, UK author Andrew Atkinson lets us feel the emotional change that Vince goes through from this experience. We know that he will never forget it, and neither will we.