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Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 11 months ago


George had been fired before, but this time it was personal—because it was so impersonal. The mail message had simply read, “InfoTech no longer requires your services at this time.” It was just a plain, old-fashioned text message—no video, audio, or graphics. Not even a name! He had been hired anonymously; he had worked anonymously; now he simply ceased to exist. Collins could do that, of course. He could even call off the final tests: no one listened to engineers anyway, not even to consultants. But consultants live by referrals and recommendations, and the simulation-engineering field was getting too tight to survive without them.


He should have known better than to trust Collins. Everyone knew that InfoSys, InfoTech, and InfoNet had more in common than just the word “Info”—even though whole armies of government and private legal teams had never managed to prove it. InfoSys was software, InfoTech hardware, and InfoNet provided access to practically every piece of data known. Together they formed what the media called the “Troika”: the most powerful monopoly in history, effectively more powerful than all but one or two governments. All the conspiracy theories and more professional investigations used the word “Troika” at some point, and one of the unwritten—even unspoken—rules for employees at all three companies was that the word was never to be used. Rumor had it that some people had been fired for breaking that rule, though there was always a perfectly acceptable ground for dismissal when investigators checked. The heads of the Troika were far too adept at covering their tracks to blunder on such a point. Or so the story went.


Collins was one of those heads: he pretty much was InfoTech, so he had to be one of the three slipperiest characters on the planet. George should never have believed him when he as much as promised in their e-chats to introduce him to some of InfoSys’s sim engineers. But George had thought he might even secure a job with their Universe division, producing programs that put other engineers out of work.


There was no hope of that now. All he could do was go to the lab and pick up a few things he had left for the final testing phase. The door slid open; his pass badge must still work. He wound his way through the maze that led to the niche in a nook in the Research Wing where his closet-sized office had been.


“Had been” was the right phrase, as it turned out: the room was bare. The desk, chair, and terminal were gone. Only the side door was there—the one that said No Admittance. While he was working there, the door had intrigued him, but nothing more. Rules were rules, and George Templeton did not go where he was not wanted. But now he had nothing to lose, and a few personal effects to gain, so he knocked at the door.




He pressed the entry plate, and to his amazement, the door opened. Apparently the security system figured that anyone who could come so far must be clean. Peeking in, he saw just a small room, furnished only with a desk, a terminal, and a chair—just like his old office! No, not just like it: this chair was bigger than the other one, with heavily padded cushy arms and a large headrest.


Beyond the desk was another door, but a blinking movement on the terminal’s monitor caught his eye. A dialog box said, “Help!! Operator assistance required.” He looked at the display in the background: it was clearly his work—he recognized the scenery from his simulation project—but the dialog box wasn’t from his program.


“So that’s it,” he muttered. “The twit tried linking some other program to my simulation, and they didn’t like each other. If he had only said something….” He closed the dialog box—he was as close to an operator as this terminal would see anytime soon—and opened his program. He had both a high-level and a low-level editor set up, but he ran the high-level one. Its diagnostic system should be able to find the problem if it was a software conflict, and if the trouble went beyond that, he might as well reboot before starting the low-level editor.


As he sat down, he noticed that the other program was still running. A message bar at the bottom of the screen switched from “Summoning Operator” to “Installing Operator.”


“‘Installing Operator’? What does that mean? Another mystery to solve,” he muttered, settling back into the chair. The next moment, he felt slightly dizzy and disoriented, as though he had just awakened from a deep sleep. The chair was comfortable, but not that comfortable! Still, there was something different about the room. He glanced around and found himself suddenly dizzy again. The room just wasn’t tracking right—or his eyes weren’t, anyway. He tried looking around the room once more, but this time slowly. Everything looked the same. What had changed was not so much the room itself but the way he perceived the room. Had he been drugged? But how, and why?


The sound of a door opening disturbed his thoughts. Two men entered the room from a door in front of the desk. Where had that come from? He glanced quickly over his shoulder: yes, the door he had entered was still behind him. He turned back to face the newcomers.


“Hello, my young friend,” one of the men said. He was large in every sense of the word, and George had a nagging feeling that he should recognize him. If only his mind would clear up!


“My associate and I,” the fat man continued, gesturing toward his short, thin companion, “have brought you here to help us with a problem.”


“Who are you?” George asked, his mind finally coming back into focus. He had never met Mr. Collins, but neither of the two men looked like the pictures he had seen, outdated as they likely were.


The fat man chuckled. “We are colleagues of Mr. Collins, and we have summoned you here to help us rescue him. He has been kidnapped.”


“Kidnapped? Isn’t that a job for the police?”


Another chuckle. “No, I’m afraid the police could not help us. They could not get here—there is only room for one more, namely you. Also, the facts that you were in the research section and that you could respond to the request for help both imply that you know something about computers. So you may be more likely to adapt to the environment than a normal police officer would be. You see, we are not in your world.”


“Ah, good. Is this room part of a flying saucer, or did you just beam me up?” A sudden memory of his dizziness transformed his joke into a horrifying possibility, and he wished he had not said it.


“I do not mean that we are out in space. This room is a copy of part of an experimental facility. When you sat down in the chair, you were, so to speak, pulled into a virtual world.”


George practically jumped out of his chair. “Virtual reality? But that stuff’s dangerous!”


The fat man dismissed the objection with a brusque wave of his hand. “This is a different technology—a better technology, without the dangers of the old projected-display method. It is perfectly safe. Unfortunately, an industrial spy has entered the realm along with Mr. Collins. She has imprisoned him somewhere, and there is no way to release him without a device she has stolen: a virtual object that acts as the key to the program. You must find her and recover the device.”


“If you know so much, why don’t you do it?”


“She is very clever, and we have not been able to outwit her yet. You are an outsider, an unexpected factor. While she is evading us, you should be able to find her and retrieve the key. Then we can rescue Mr. Collins. I am sure that you will find him most grateful.”


“Very nice. Why me, though?”


“Simply put, you are the one who answered the call and sat in the chair. I should also warn you that you have no alternative. We were able to bring you here, but there is no way for anyone to leave without the key.” The fat man pointed to the door he had just used. “She is out there somewhere, and only you can find her and save us from this place.”


“So you say,” George muttered. He strode to the door he entered only moments before and swung it open to reveal a broom closet. He stepped inside and examined the walls thoroughly: they were all solid—or at least they were as solid as anything else he had seen recently. For he suddenly realized what was different about the room: everything had a dreamy, fuzzy look, and he could not help feeling that it might all give way at any moment.


He looked back into the room and toward the other door. The two men were still standing there, waiting for his decision. He shrugged. “All right, you win,” he said, walking toward the door. Then he stopped short. “You never told me what either the woman or the key looks like!”


The fat man didn’t chuckle for once, though George had steeled himself for the noise. “I cannot tell you. Appearances are deceptive here, so any description would mislead you. Look at yourself, for example.”


George did, and he had to admit he would not have recognized himself. For one thing, he never wore a trench coat, yet he had one on now. For another thing, though he was not outright flabby, he was nowhere near as trim as the figure he saw. He wondered what his face looked like. He checked the trench coat again. Was this virtual reality program a mystery game of some sort? If it was, the two characters before him looked very familiar. Suddenly his mind cleared up completely. He began to realize what was going on—or at least enough to know that he could be in serious danger.


The Fat Man interrupted George’s thoughts. “Now then, Mr.—”


“Slade. Sam Slade.” The answer was not mere flippancy; he actually wondered what kind of reaction he would get.


The Fat Man grunted acknowledgment, but not recognition. “Anyway, Mr. Slade, you shall recognize the spy and the key; that is one of the reasons why you can succeed where we have failed. This system was designed as a game, and finding other players and their keys is part of the game. Since you entered as a player, you can recognize both the woman and the key. We did not enter this world as players, so we cannot find either one easily.”


George scowled. So it was a mystery, and he had entered as a player! That made it imperative that he leave at once. He almost glanced back at the door that had let him into the nightmare, but he stopped himself. There was apparently no other way out, so he walked to the door behind the two beings—for he was now sure that they were not men—and opened the door that led deeper into the game. “Okay, but I better get triple my usual emergency call fee for this,” he said as nonchalantly as he could.


“Not so fast, Mr. Slade. My associate, Mr. Wilner, shall accompany you for protection.”


George didn’t have to ask whose protection. “Sorry, Fat Man, I always work alone.” Feeling considerably less brave than he tried to sound, George quickly stepped through the door before the Fat Man could object.

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