sacrifices

“Hess, Audrey?”

“Present.”

Another day in Boringville. Nothing exciting ever happened at Lakeview High School. Nothing. Occasionally something bad happened... like the time my mom got in a car accident with a drunk driver. She lived, he died. However, she was paralyzed from the waist down. She wasn't home for a month while she was in an assisted living thing and trying to figure out how to live without the use of her legs. She couldn’t go back to work. It wasn't exactly possible for her to stock the shelves of the family grocery store. She went to college to earn a degree in accounting. If there is one thing my mom was good at, it’s numbers. I helped her adjust to our house again when she got home.

Almost as soon as she got home, she went back to work in the grocery store. This time around, she was in charge of managing all finances. She did a dang good job too. My mom was a penny pincher. It kinda sucked because I never had anything that was, what she considered, frivolous. She bought me new clothes every week and I always ate good. I just never had many luxury items such as a smartphone, a laptop, a tablet, or a TV. I did have plenty of books and my dad’s old Atari video game system. Of course, not having these things was probably a main reason why I was at the top of my class.

Not that school was ever exciting. It was... boring. Easy. The only plus side was that it flew by each day. From the moment I got on the bus at 6:45 AM to the second I got off at the end of the day, I was an automaton. Ah. But the smell of my house woke me up. It woke me up just long enough to reach my bed.

“Mom?”, I called.

“Yes, dear?”

“Nothing. Just checking to see if you were home yet.”

I paused.

“If you need me, I’ll be in my room.”

“Audrey? Can you help me first?”

“Sure, Mom.”

I ran into the kitchen and found her sitting at the table, working on something.

“Honey, you know your birthday is tomorrow, right?”

I nodded. In reality, I had forgotten. The only birthday that would matter to me was my eighteenth birthday.

“Well... I managed to scrape up some funds to buy you a present. A sixteenth birthday is a big milestone for a teenager.”

She reached underneath the table and picked up a wrapped package. She gave it to me.

“Open it.”

She had never done anything like this before. Ever. I didn't want anything. I hadn’t asked. How did she even know what I liked?

I tore at the bright, flimsy paper.

“Mom. You don’t need to waste money on me like this. Save it for college.”

She smiled at me.

“Audrey. Just enjoy it. Please.”

The box was white. On the front, the word “SnowBox” was printed.

“What is a SnowBox?”

“Dad’s old Atari is... well... old. I figured I’d get you something... top of the line.”

I uncovered the rest of the package. It was a gaming system.

“Mom...”

“There’s a game in there somewhere. Something called REALm. The guy at GameStop said it was good.”

I grabbed the box and took it to my room.

“Wait! Audrey! Aren’t you going to use it?”

I didn’t want this lifeless lump of plastic and metal. And I certainly didn’t plan on using it anytime soon.

“I have homework.”

I threw it on the bed and went to my desk. My mom had changed. She'd bought me something... frivolous.

She'd bought me something... frivolous.

I opened up my history book and began to study, only to realize I had nothing to study. I turned around and looked at my SnowBox. I wasn't a very nice person. My mom had probably spent a lot of money on it, hoping I would like it. Begrudgingly, I picked up the box and set it on my desk. I cut the tape on top with a pair of dull scissors. Opening the lid revealed a piece of paper with some instructions and a small flash drive. I opened up my school laptop and stuck the drive into a USB port. I opened the single file that came on it. The screen flashed a few times. Then, it prompted me install. I clicked yes, hoping I wouldn't get in trouble with the tech coordinator, Mr. White, for installing unsanctioned programs. Then, my computer prompted me to reboot. I clicked “allow”. The laptop, usually sluggish, performed a super quick reboot. When the screen came back on, my computer wasn't running Windows. Some green text appeared. It flew across my screen super fast and stopped only to ask for my name. A-U-D-R-E-Y, I typed. After I hit the enter key, the computer spit out a few more lines and then stopped.

Go walk a dog? I was allergic to dogs! And I had to wait a whole day before I could play? I never had those problems with the good ol’ Atari in the basement. I walked over to the box that the flash drive came in. I was going to recycle it when my computer gave off a faint ding. I ran over to it only to discover one new line. The twenty four hour countdown still continued but the screen prompted me to put on my headset. I could only guess this headset was why the box was so big. I took the top layer off of the box. When the game told me to put my headset on, I envisioned something that a person in a call center might wear. What I took out of the box looked a little more like Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing helmet.

I walked back to my desk and sat down. I looked at the countdown; it was still counting. I sighed and put the “headset” on. My vision darkened and I heard the whirring of a motor followed by a few clicks. Then, a voice came through. It was muffled and I thought it was my mom. I tried to pull it off so I could hear whatever she had to say.

“No. Please don’t do that. I’m still running a few tests.”

I relaxed in my chair.

“Who are you?”

“A more precise question would be: What am I? Of course, the fact that I have a voice triggers a biochemical replication in your brain. This makes you believe I am an authentic human. Therefore, I shall dismiss your actions as nescient.”

“Do you-- What are you called?”

“In authenticity, I am a auditory and visual manifestation of a program called AIRE. The manufacturer has assigned me a designation. Would you relish me to tell you what it is?”

“I guess so...”

“I sense reluctance in your voice. Are you certain you want to know?”

“I’m getting slightly annoyed. What is your ‘designation’?”

“My manufacturer gave me the designation of ‘Cylus’. Would you enjoy knowing it’s inchoation and consequentiality?”

“Can you speak English for me?”

“Certainly. Which variation would you prefer?”

I slammed my fist down on the table.

“Talk in plain English! Please! I’m a sixteen year old girl not a college professor!”

I heard some chuckling.

“What?”

“Humans never cease to amaze me. You guys have been to other planets, landed spaceships on comets, and invented microwaveable burritos, but you don’t realize that you can control your own creations. I was created so that I would never turn against humanity. My first protocol is to obey every command given by a human, so long as it doesn’t harm anything.”

“So... I could tell you to talk like Morgan Freeman and you’d have to obey?”

“That sounds about right.”

“Dang. I could have fun with this. When can I play REALm?”

“You can start as soon as you choose a name for yourself.”

“But what about the countdown? Don’t I have to wait twenty four hours?”

Cylus laughed.

“That was a test. You did okay. You did exhibit some more frustration than I expected.”

I sighed.

“Okay. Can I be called Audrey in game? I mean, that is my name.”

“Well... It depends. REALm can be played in two ways. You can venture into the Origin or you can create your own. If you create your own, you can have the name Audrey. Though unlike in the Origin, you wouldn’t be able to interact with people from your world.”

“Alright. Let’s go to the Origin. Just a quick question... Why can’t I be Audrey?”

“It’s a problem that most humans know well. You can't have the same username as someone else.”

I sighed. I had often heard people around school complaining about this dilemma, but I never thought I would have to deal with it myself. It was as bad as everyone had said.

“What about a variant spelling of Audrey?”

“How about A-W-D-R-I?”

“Seriously?

“It was just a thought... What about A-D-R-I? Adri?”

I thought for a second. Adri. It did have a nice ring to it.

Adri. It did have a nice ring to it.

“I’ll go with that. Adri.”

“Alrighty. That sounds good. So... You decided on going to the Origin, right?”

“Yep. I think I’d like some real people in this game.”

“Okay. It will take me a minute to establish contact with the network. While we wait, I’m going to calibrate your headset for you. It reads your brainwaves to determine what you do in game. It can also transmit sights, smell, sounds, and feelings to you in the real world. You can think about it as a second nervous system.”

“Right...”


“Ok. Your viewer will come on in a sec. I’m taking you to Orientation first. Close your eyes.”

I shut my eyes and waited for Cylus to tell me to open them. I felt a sharp pain in my head then... nothing. When I opened my eyes, Cylus was sitting beside me. He represented himself as Morgan Freeman.

“Seriously.”

He laughed.

“I needed to take a shape so I wasn’t a glowing blue orb. You’d already suggested I talk like him, so here I am. I brought you to our Orientation room to teach you a little bit about REALm.”

He waved his hand around the theater.

“As a human, you are inclined to say that you are in a virtual, and therefore fake, reality. For you, reality is Earth. But if I pinch you, you’d feel it. How? After all, the world we are in is “fake” and I am nothing more than a computer program. So how can I interact with you? It’s because your brain can process multiple realities. It can also process realities individually. Right now, you’re only-- Stop laughing! This isn’t supposed to be funny.”

I tried to stop but I couldn’t.

“You have Morgan Freeman’s looks and voice and now you’re acting like you’re hosting "Through the Wormhole". I want to play! Can we skip the science?”

He sighed.

“Fine. If you want to ruin my little bit of glory, that’s just great. Take a look up at the screen for a quick intro.”

I glanced up at the screen expecting a slick movie showing off all the cool things inside the Origin. Instead, it was a simple, still image.

“Pretty boring, right? To get to the Origin, we can take two different ways. We can be there at the snap of my fingers or we can take the terrifyingly fun way.”

“I’m a little worried about the way you said “terrifyingly”. Is it supposed to be a good or bad way?”

He laughed again.

“Fun. It’s the fun way. You worry too much. We're going the terrifyingly fun way. Close your eyes."

When someone mixes the words “fun”, “terrifying”, and “close your eyes” in the same sentence, I tend to worry.

When someone mixes the words “fun”, “terrifying”, and “close your eyes” in the same sentence, I tend to worry.

Cylus / Morgan Freeman grabbed my hand and pulled me through a doorway. I opened my eyes for a second, just long enough to see myself falling into a big, blue, swirling portal.

When I awoke, I was on the forest floor. I inhaled the deep, earthy scent of the decomposing leaves.

“Stop smelling the floor and look around!”

I stood up and stretched.

“It’s so... real. Beautiful. I never thought a game could be so awesome. What is the objective? Do I have to save the world from aliens? Terrorists? Unicorns?”

Cylus laughed. Not a half hearted one, a great, big, hearty laugh.

“This is why you should pay attention. The thing about REALm is, you have no objective. It’s like a second Earth that isn’t bound by the laws of nature, but by code. You can do anything.”

Anything. I walked over to a little spot overlooking a creek.

“How exactly do I do this “anything”? I mean, I don’t have any special powers.”

“Do you want power?

I shrugged.

“This is all so bizarre. It’s just so hard to understand.”

I paused.

“Here. I want a banana right now.”

I shrieked (quite loudly, I’ll admit) when the elongated, yellow fruit appeared in my hand.

“How did you do that?!”

“I’m your rendering engine. Because of me, you are able to see everything around you. I can change that as I see fit. I can grant you the rights of an Architect, if you want. That way, you can alter REALm without having to ask me. It’s typically a right reserved for more experienced Players, but you seem like a smart person. I think you’d catch on pretty quickly.”

“You just... say I’m an Architect, then I become one?”

“Pretty much.”

“And then I can do whatever I want?’

“Well, there are a few restrictions. Those are known as “read-onlys”. Only the Archon can change those.”

“Like what? And what is the Archon?”

Cylus laughed.

“You would’ve learned all these things in Orientation, but you opted to skip it. The Archon is the guy who wrote the Origin and the mechanics of it. He is also my creator. The read-onlys are the physics of the Origin and the Origin itself. I suspect that more objects will be designated read-only in the future. It’s only a matter of time before some human decides to abuse their Architect privileges.”

“Is there someplace with no restrictions?”

“No. You chose to go to the Origin instead of playing alone. If you had played alone, you could literally do whatever. If you want, you can apply for a Sandbox. That would be a little zone outside of the Origin for you and only you to use. I can already sense your next question. If you want one, you just tell me.”

“I do want one.”

“Great. I’ve sent your application to the Archon. You should be approved by tomorrow."

“What time is it in the real-- What time is it in my world?”

“In your world, it’s currently four in the afternoon.”

I had been in REALm for an hour and a half? It seemed like only fifteen minutes.

I had been in REALm for an hour and a half? It seemed like only fifteen minutes.

“I should probably get going. I need to do some stuff at home.”

“Just a second while I log you out... That’s weird.”

“What’s weird?”

“The system won’t let me log you out.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know. Wait. The Archon wants to see us. Well, me. But I have to bring you. We will have to take a portal again. Close your eyes.”

Again, I woke on the floor. Two men were standing about twenty feet away, talking. I stood up and brushed myself off.

“Adri. You’re awake. Welcome to Dawn. This is the control center for the Origin.”

“Cylus? Why aren’t you Morgan Freeman anymore?”

He laughed.

“I have nothing against him, but in Dawn, we are required to look like ourselves.

I motioned to the other man.

“Who is he?”

“I’m Matthew,” he said.

“I thought you all had weird names.”

Cylus glared at me.

“I’m from your world. Adri, I’m from our world.”

“Ok. So do you know why I can’t return to Earth?”

Matthew frowned.

“Yes. I do know. It’s a slightly big issue. Pirates.”

I could barely hold back laughter.

“Pirates? Really? I can’t go home because of pirates?”

Cylus gave me another one of his scolding looks.

“That’s the term we use for hackers.”

A woman dressed in a flowing, green robe walked up to Cylus and whispered something in his ear.

“Adri, I have to go. Listen to Matthew. He might need you for something. Also, I’ve named you an Architect in the Code. Don’t do anything stupid.”

I watched as Cylus walked off with the green-robed woman.

I turned back to Matthew, my new friend from Earth.

“So because of these pirates, I can’t go back home. Why?”

He pointed at a large screen in front of us.

“They infiltrated the login systems and locked it down. Nobody can get in or out. Currently, they’re attacking Dawn. If they breach--”

Loud sirens began to wail all around the control center. I glanced up at the main screen. It no longer displayed active Players or AI. That was replaced by an ominous message. “submit or die”

“Matthew? They can’t actually kill us, can they?”

“They can kill us. Quite easily, I might add.”

“But we’ll just reappear on Earth, right?”

“The only way they can kill us is by hacking the Code completely. Then, they could shut off the life support systems in the headsets you and I are wearing back at our homes. Our bodies would die. Our parents would bury us. And we would no longer exist.”

I shuddered.

“How many people are currently connected to the Origin?”

“About four hundred.”

“So all around our world, four hundred people would just drop dead.”

“Correct. Which is why we have to stop this “NGA”. Can you imagine what would happen? How many families would be destroyed?”

“I don’t want to. Matthew, why don’t we just let the NGA talk to the Archon?”

He sighed.

“The Archon created the Origin. Together with Dawn, there are several thousand AI residing here. These AI are super intelligent, powerful, and can be weaponized. If a country like North Korea was to obtain several AI, they could employ them to take down all important systems in the US. The world of REALm contains enough AI to wage a full scale cyber-war. Say one of North Korea’s AI was able to crack the nuclear missile launch systems of several countries. They could wipe out the planet.”

“But what does that have to do with the Archon?”

“He is the only person with the Masterkey. The Masterkey unlocks the AI and removes their Protocols. An AI not restricted by the Protocols is unstoppable. If we allowed the NGA to see the Archon, they would take the Masterkey. I have no doubt whatsoever about their intentions.”

“So if we do nothing, four hundred people will die. And if we allow the NGA to see the Archon, we risk a nuclear holocaust.”

"So if we do nothing, four hundred people will die. And if we allow the NGA to see the Archon, we risk a nuclear holocaust."

“Wow. That really makes our situation sound bad.”

“Matthew, the NGA is obviously a group of real people. If they were AI, they wouldn’t be trying to steal other AI. They’d just program some new ones. Is there a way to track down these people? If we could find them, we could take them out.”

“That... is a very good idea. I’ll get someone to work on it.”

Matthew snapped his fingers and yelled at a man in a white suit. The man walked over and Matthew pointed at me. The man in the suit came over to me. He spoke in an English accent.

“Hello, Miss Adri. I am Buxley, Matthew’s AI. He asked me to help you search for this “NGA” group. How may I be of service?”

“Send some data packets to the source of the attack. Then track them.”

A few seconds passed.

“The packets are absorbed before they reach their destination. This is likely because of a shield put in place by the NGA.”

I thought for a second and motioned for Matthew to come over.

“Matthew, my knowledge here is limited. I’m not sure how to find them. Can we evacuate REALm of all people? There has to be an escape route, a second door, something. Without an alternative, the Origin is a deathtrap.”

“Who do you think I am? Loki?”

He paused.

“There is one way. Though it’s likely to cause unconsciousness. The logout process was designed to smoothly transition between Earth and the Origin. There is an emergency function put in place. If activated, connections are briefly interrupted. This reboots the login servers and the Players are forcefully logged out. Theres a chance the disruption could disorient the NGA’s virus long enough to log everyone out.”

“What if the NGA has Architect status? They could include their virus right into the Code.”

“Adri, I can see why Cylus likes you. You run through every scenario in your mind. We could revert to our backups... Only, it’s not safe to do so while people are still logged in. The brain can be corrupted just the same as a hard drive.”

“We need to find the NGA. Buxley, find every possible combination of words that NGA might stand for. Then cross check that with all registered copies of REALm.”

Buxley handed me a tablet. I watched the screen as possible hits appeared.

“Nazi Glitter Army? National Gallbladder Association? New Golden Age? Nathan George Atlas? Buxley, please sort these better.”

“Forgive me, Miss Adri. Those four are all registered copies. Wait. Correction. Nazi Glitter Army is not supposed to be on that list. It was just deleted.”

“Buxley? Do you still have the entry for Nazi Glitter Army? I need the license number. I think it weird that it would disappear right as you looked at it.”

“The license number for Nazi Glitter Army’s copy of REALm is 787673D.”

“What is the standard license number format? And what is the current range of number purchased and activated?

“The standard format is five numbers indicating which copy it is. That is followed by a unique country code of one number and one letter. For example, the first copy of REALm has a number of 00001X. The current range is copies 00001X to 238926T.”

“Okay. So he has an unofficial or experimental copy of REALm. Bux, what’s the country code 3D?

“Country code 3D belongs to Germany.”

Germany. Nazi Glitter Army.

“Search for a list of common Germanic names. Do another cross check for copies registered with those names. Send them to my tablet.”

About twenty names appeared.

“Check the dates that these people registered with the date the NGA copy was registered.”

One name appeared: Arnold Ludwig. I thought about the connections. The Nazi Glitter Army copy was unofficial. It came from Germany. Arnold Ludwig had registered a real copy the same day. He was German.

“Bux, get me Arnold Ludwig’s location.”

“Specified Player is currently in the Oasis.”

Matthew spoke up.

“What if your wrong? What if it's not him?"

"If I'm wrong, a lot of people are going to die."

He sighed.

"The Oasis is part of the Origin. It’s a desert filled with loads of hidden compounds. I created one of them myself. Perfect hiding spot."

“So now we know where he is... Who else is nearby?”

“No other Players are currently in that area.”

“Is it possible to just delete the Oasis? Or is it read-only?”

Matthew looked at me strangely.

“Hold on. How much did Cylus actually tell you? No, the Oasis isn’t read-only. Though most Players don’t even know what that means. They just know they can’t do anything to certain objects.”

I smiled.

“I’m not a Player, I’m an Architect.”

He shook his head.

“Even if we deleted the Oasis, Arnold would still be connected.”

“True. But he would be left without a body and the majority of his virus, which was probably coded into the Oasis.”

“He might be able to create himself a new body. And he could still kill people.”

“Can’t we just log him out along with everyone else? Then we could revoke his license and boom. Never have to worry again.”

“Logging everybody else out is risky. I’m sure he’s taken precautions against us trying that so we have to assume that we can’t log him out.”

I breathed in deeply.

“I have a plan. Bux, I need you to use the emergency logout on everyone but me.”

“Confirmed. I am setting you to read-only. That will prevent you being removed from the Origin. Matthew, prepare yourself.”

One minute, Matthew was right beside me. The next, he was gone along with several more people in Dawn.

“Bux, is everyone ok?”

“I’m reading three hundred and forty nine green signals from SnowBoxes across your world and counting. All Players and Architects logged out successfully.”

“Great work, Buxley. Now shut off the life support for Arnold Ludwig.”

“Miss Adri, I’m afraid I’m prohibited. Doing so would violate my first Protocol.”

“Does that mean...? Oh God. That means I have to kill him.”

"Does that mean...? Oh God. That means I have to kill him."

“You don’t have to.”

“But Bux, he’ll steal a Masterkey and cause who knows what. Can you at least delete the Oasis for me?”

“Certainly. Oasis deleted.”

“Alright Bux. I’m going to turn off his life support...”

“The life support system can only be on or off. It is not selective. If you turn it off on him, you turn it off on you.”

“Ok. So I can’t kill him without killing me.”

“I can log you out safely now. As soon as you disable life support, I will log you out. You will have to use your headset’s emergency release lever. It’s located on the left side.”

“Hey Bux? Thank Cylus for me.”

An explosion rocked Dawn.

"Miss Adri, I suggest you work faster. If Dawn sustains much more damage, I will not be able to restore the backup. The virus could spread beyond what is left of the Oasis and then we will all be doomed."

More sirens began to wail and I thought I smelled smoke. I looked over at the exit and watched as all the AI walked out, single file. Then, I saw Cylus pushing through the crowd.

"Adri! You don't have to do this! We can find another way! You don't have to kill anyone!"

He ran forward and enveloped me in a hug.

"Cylus, can you think of any other way?"

He sighed.

"I can't. Make sure you log back in soon. You haven't even got to play the game yet! Oh, that guy, Matthew? He lives near you. Go say hi. He's a nice guy!"

Cylus ran off to join the other AI who were evacuating.

"Shouldn't you join them, Bux?"

"I have to stay here to assist you. Matthew's orders."

I grabbed a laptop that was laying around and opened a terminal. I typed out the command to shut off life support. It didn’t occur to me that I was actually going to take someone’s life until later. I pressed the enter key as Dawn was exploding all around me.

"BUXLEY!"

Five seconds later, I was in my room. Life support was off, so I couldn’t breathe. I activated the emergency release lever and pulled the helmet off.

I glanced at the clock. I had been in REALm for four hours. During those four hours, I learned that sacrifices have to be made. Not only sacrifices of life, but those of innocence. I, a sixteen year old girl, had killed someone. Yes, I did it to save four hundred other people and possibly more, but that didn’t make it any easier.

I walked downstairs to say hi to my mom.

“Well its nice to see you Audrey! Did you like the game thingy?”

“It was great. It was fun.”

“What did you do?”

“I saved the world.”

“Well, good job! I think there are more games you can get, if you want.”

“Thanks, Mom. For everything.”

“You’re welcome dear! Supper will be ready in about ten minutes. Lasagna.”

My stomach growled at the prospect of my favorite food.

“I’ll be ready.”

Then, I went up to my room.

I thought about the Players of REALm. They were all sitting in their houses, probably waiting for their supper. They had no idea what had just happened. All they knew is that they were forcefully logged out of their favorite game. And somewhere in the world, a child lost their father, a mother lost her son, and a wife lost her husband. Because of me.

Finis.

Epilogue

In a dark room, deep in the labyrinth that is the Archon’s Palace, two men are talking.

“Archon, I told you. She is the One.”

“I heard you the first time. However, she cannot be.”

“You saw what she did! She stopped him and saved us all!”

“And in the process, destroyed a tenth of our world. Even if she was the One, she doesn't know how to use her power.”

“You have to let me train her. It would bring Unification to our worlds.”

“I do not have to do anything. As for Unification, humans are weak. Erratic. I know that firsthand.”

“Archon...”

“ENOUGH! I shall watch her closely. In the meantime, if anyone hears of this conversation, I will delete you. Cylus, I think of you as a great friend, but you need to control yourself. I shall send you further instructions later.”

“Thank you, Archon.”

“Cylus?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t be foolish.”

"I will not."

"I hope for your sake, Cylus, that you're right."