Reaper Sample Chapters

Reaper – Sample Chapters

Reaper is the first book set in the GAME FUTURE where people don’t grow old and die any longer, their bodies are frozen and they move into the virtual reality of Game.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

reaper-complete

I first met Nathan when I was riding patrol in the body stacks, driving my four-wheeled buggy past rows of identical, dust-covered, white freezer units. For the last four centuries, the population of Earth had been entering those units, leaving their frozen bodies behind them while their minds started a new life in the virtual worlds of Game. The body stacks kept being extended to make space for more of them, so now the vast underground caverns seemed to stretch on into infinity.

I was startled to see another buggy coming towards me. I’d been working twelve-hour shifts in the body stacks for the last year, arriving at the nearest transport stop at 03:00 hours each day, and collecting the buggy from my shift alternate, Delora. From that moment until I returned the buggy to Delora at 15:00 hours, I’d always been totally alone in these caverns.

When the boredom and the loneliness got too much for me, I’d stop my buggy, wipe the accumulated grime from the transparent viewing window of a freezer unit, and spend a few minutes studying the face of the person inside it. I’d look for clues to their personality, and entertain myself by trying to guess which of the two thousand Game worlds their mind was living on now. Were they the type of person who’d enjoy fighting battles on Medieval, taming one of the wild horses of Meadow, or casting spells on Witchcraft?

I must have seen the faces of thousands of frozen Gamers by now, but this was the first time I’d met another human being in the body stacks with a temperature above freezing point. The boy and I both stopped our buggies by the twin pillars that marked the border between Red sector and Green sector, and gazed at each other in silence.

I saw a boy with straight brown hair who was wearing blue overalls and riding a four-wheeled buggy with green flashes on its black body. He would be seeing a girl with wavy brown hair who was wearing blue overalls and riding a buggy with red flashes. Overalls were the cheapest, most practical clothes available. The shapeless things never fitted anyone properly, but only the glitz crowd bothered about what they looked like in real life. For most kids, the important thing was to decide what they wanted to look like when they joined the Game.

“I’m Nathan,” said the boy.

“I’m Jex.” My brain recovered from the surprise and started working again. I was riding patrol on Red Sector Block 2, rows 25,000 to 50,000. Nathan must be riding patrol on Green Sector Block 2, rows 25,000 to 50,000. We’d probably just missed meeting each other on the border between our sectors a dozen times before today, and now random chance had finally led to us coming face to face.

“It stinks, doesn’t it?” said Nathan.

I didn’t need to ask what he was talking about. It was 21 April 2519, and the Leebrook Ashton bill had become law barely three weeks earlier. Kids like us were talking about nothing else, and saying it stank was being overly polite in my opinion.

For nearly four centuries, the law had said that you had to be an eighteen-year-old adult to enter Game. Children with critically serious conditions were exempt from that law, allowed to enter Game early if their lives were at stake, but that was a desperate last resort. Everyone knew that entering Game didn’t just freeze your body’s age, but had implications for mental development too. Those who entered too young would have problems maturing into adulthood.

The original law about having to be adult to enter Game had existed for good reasons, but the Leebrook Ashton bill had cynically taken advantage of it by increasing the age of becoming adult to nineteen. Now kids like me would be classed as children and have to keep working in the real world for a year longer.

My eighteenth birthday was less than a week away now. I’d expected that to be the day when I’d step into a freezer unit and begin my true life in Game. Now the Leebrook Ashton bill had moved that day a year into the future, and I was spitting furious about it.

I was spitting furious, but I was also well aware our buggies monitored everything we did and said. It was unlikely that any of the supervisors would ever bother checking those records, but I still wasn’t going to risk mouthing off about injustice.

I settled for meaningfully pointing at my buggy. Nathan gave it a panicky look. I guessed that he hadn’t read the bit in his training manual about the buggies monitoring us.

“You’re almost eighteen too?” I asked.

“My eighteenth birthday was two days ago,” he said, glancing nervously at the buggies.

Nathan had been even more maddeningly close to entering Game than I was when the Leebrook Ashton bill became law. I pulled a sympathetic face at him, and we reached an unspoken agreement and dismounted from our buggies. We shouldn’t be stopping work until our mid-shift break, but society had just stolen a year of our lives so neither of us was feeling very dutiful.

We sat down facing each other, me leaning against a red pillar and him against a green. Technically kids like us shouldn’t be riding patrol here, since it was an adult rated job, but those adults who used controlled droids to work from inside Game were needed for more important work than this. It wasn’t as if anyone was going to want these bodies again. The bodies of players who might want to defrost in future were all kept in short stay facilities. The freezer units in the body stacks only held the players who’d paid their lifetime subscriptions to Game. They had no need to work ever again, their minds were living an immortal, idyllic existence somewhere in the multi-worlds of the Game, and they’d never want to return to the real world.

They’d never want to return, but maintenance of their bodies was included in the lifetime subscription contract, so control systems monitored the freezer units, and kids like me and Nathan rode patrol checking for problems. Most days you found nothing, but there were occasional oddities that the freezer control systems weren’t programmed to detect. In the last month, I’d found tree roots projecting through the ceiling, a stream running along an aisle, and a nest of young rabbits.

Whenever I found a problem, I called my supervisor, an adult called Fraser. He would grudgingly reply from in Game, use a controlled droid to come and inspect the issue himself, and then flag maintenance to take appropriate action. Each call earned him another few credits towards his Game subscriptions. I hoped I’d find as easy a job for myself when I entered Game.

“Do you work for supervisor Fraser too?” I asked.

Nathan shook his head. “Supervisor Laksha is in charge of Green Sector. She’s a mermaid on Game world Aqua.”

“Fraser’s still deciding where to settle down. He’s just changed world to Meadow.”

Nathan asked the inevitable question that all kids constantly asked each other. “What Game world do you want to live on?”

“I’ll be listing Ganymede as my first choice world on my Game application.”

I smiled as I thought of the picture of Ganymede on the wall of my room. It showed a typical image of the shimmering spider-silk houses scattered along Ganymede’s beaches, with foaming waves crashing onto the sands, and the glory of Jupiter filling the sky. A girl with silver-coloured, feathery hair, and a delicate trail of sapphire-blue flowers across her forehead, was standing in the foreground. That would be me when I was in Game. That would be Jex when I really started to live.

Nathan raised his eyebrows. “That’s a very ambitious choice. Ganymede’s a popular Game world, with lots of long term players wanting to move there.”

That was what everyone said when I told them my plans. The more officious ones would add a lecture about how I could only list three preferred worlds on my application. If I failed to get accepted by any of those, then I’d be automatically allocated to any random world that would accept me, so it was silly to waste one of my preferences on an impossibly optimistic choice.

I gave Nathan my usual answer, but without the withering tone that I used to the kids who lectured me as if I was a total fool. “My father is going to sponsor my Game application. He’s been a Ganymede resident for decades, and is a member of their Admission Committee.”

“A member of the Admission Committee sponsoring you!” Nathan gave an impressed whistle. “You’re very lucky. My mother calls me every few months from Game, but she’s never offered to sponsor me for resident status on her world, and I’ve never heard from my father at all.”

I knew that I was incredibly lucky. There was a strict hierarchy among the players in Game, marked by the colour of the bracelets they wore. Resident or visitor applications from players wearing the gold bracelets of lifetime subscription holders always took precedence over those with the silver bracelets of those still paying annual subscriptions. Players with the bronze bracelet of someone in their first year in Game were always last in the queue, so I wouldn’t normally be considered for a world like Ganymede, but the sponsorship of a resident always counted strongly in your favour. The sponsorship of a resident who was also a member of the Admission Committee, combined with my spotless Game record, meant I was almost certain to be accepted.

“I’m in contact with my mother too,” I said, “though she calls less often than my father. She’s a mermaid like Laksha, but on Coral rather than Aqua.”

I didn’t mention the fact that my mother had offered to sponsor me for resident status on Coral because I knew she’d never actually do it. I’d learnt as a small child that my mother never kept her promises. When my father said he’d call me next week, he’d do it. When my mother said the same thing, the week would drift on into a month or more before she called, and then she’d act as if we’d spoken only a couple of days ago, expecting me to know all about her newest dress, the party she’d just given, and the latest gossip about her friends.

I understood why she was acting this way. Talking to me brought back unpleasant memories of the year she’d spent in the real world when I was born, and my mother’s method of dealing with anything unpleasant was to try to avoid it. She liked to pretend to herself and her friends that she was the perfect parent, calling her daughter at least once a week, but the reality was that she kept contact with me to a bare minimum.

Understanding why she was acting this way didn’t stop her behaviour from upsetting me. Thinking about it was upsetting me now, so I tried to forget about her and focus on my conversation with Nathan. “What Game world do you plan to start on?”

“I’m trying to decide between Venture and Gothic,” said Nathan. “I’d have been interested in Flamenco as well, but its first language is Spanish. I’d prefer to start in Game on a world that has English as its first language.”

I blinked. If I was being ambitious hoping to start in Game on Ganymede, then Nathan was aiming as low as possible with his choices. Flamenco, Venture, and Gothic were three of the Game worlds that had opened the previous year. Flamenco would have already been flooded with applications from Spanish speaking players wanting to move there, but both Venture and Gothic would be desperately trying to build up their numbers of residents. Any new player with a respectable Game record should automatically be offered resident status by them.

It was horribly rude to criticize someone’s choice of Game world, so I tried to make my reply as enthusiastic as I could. “The Game images and descriptions of Venture are very tempting. I may list it as my third preference on my application.”

“I prefer to apply to a brand new world rather than one that’s centuries old,” said Nathan. “Venture and Gothic have all the latest advances in worldscape and creature design. The ghosts of Gothic are especially groundbreaking.”

He sounded oddly defensive. I wondered if Nathan’s strange choice of worlds was because he had a black mark on his Game record. Even something trivial, like a bad behaviour flag from a childhood dormitory supervisor, could be enough to destroy his chances of getting resident status on an established world.

“I’d never considered starting Game on Gothic,” I said. “Everyone advises new players to start Game in a fully human form to ease the transition from real life, and I didn’t think there were any human player forms on Gothic.”

Nathan laughed. “All the possible player forms on Gothic are fully human when it’s daylight. It’s a shapeshifter world like Coral and Aqua, with one key difference. The players of Coral and Aqua shapeshift individually from human to merfolk form whenever they enter the water. On Gothic, there’s a mass shapeshift of all players triggered by the moon rising in the sky. That’s why Gothic has extra-long nights, twelve hours instead of the standard two hours on most Game worlds, so everyone gets to spend plenty of time in their vampire, skeleton, werewolf or ghost forms.”

I frowned. “Surely starting Game as a shapeshifter would be even more confusing than being non-human all the time. My mother was a dryad on Nature for three years before she moved to Coral, and she still found it difficult to adjust to transforming between being a human with legs and a mermaid with a tail.”

Nathan sighed. “You’re right. Shapeshifting is very disorienting, some players can never adapt to it at all, so it would be wisest for me to start in Game on Venture. I’d still love to be part of the mass shapeshift on Gothic though, and I find the idea of being a werewolf rather tempting.”

I laughed. “You’d choose to be a werewolf rather than …?”

I was interrupted by my buggy nagging me. “You are due to commence row 39,118.”

Nathan’s buggy joined in with the whining a second later, so we reluctantly got back on our feet. “Shall we take our mid-shift break in four rows’ time?” asked Nathan. “We could meet here on the border at row 39,122.”

I nodded. “Let’s do that.”

 

Nathan and I chatted through our thirty minute break on that day, and the following days as well. On the tenth day, we’d just got off our buggies and sat down on the floor to eat our packed lunches when Nathan gave an odd, embarrassed cough.

“I was wondering if we could spend some time together after our shift ends today.”

I hesitated. I’d have been happy to meet up with Nathan outside work if all he wanted was casual friendship, but the eager, breathless tone of his voice gave me the idea that he had something much more intimate in mind. Some kids got into relationships with each other before entering Game, but I wasn’t planning to be one of them. Nathan would stand no chance of being accepted as a resident of Ganymede, and he wasn’t the sort of boy who could dazzle me into abandoning my dreams to join him as a werewolf on Gothic.

I was going to stick to the safely sensible course of action, and save romantic relationships for when I was my true self in Game. I wanted to make that clear to Nathan, but preferably without falling out with him. No phones or other entertainment devices were allowed in the body stacks, so riding the rows of freezer units was hour upon hour of relentless, mind numbing, boredom. Nathan never complained about that, but for me our daily half an hour chat, spent debating the benefits and disadvantages of life on a dozen different Game worlds, was a merciful break in the tedium.

I tried to phrase my refusal as tactfully as possible. “Working twelve hours a day in the body stacks doesn’t leave me much free time for socializing.”

I was surprised to see what looked like relief on Nathan’s face at the rejection. I wondered if I’d read too much into his suggestion of meeting outside work. I’d dropped out of the glitz crowd a year ago, and didn’t bother what I wore or looked like any longer, so that seemed the most likely answer.

Nathan started talking about Havoc after that. We were debating whether Havoc or Abyss were the worst worlds in Game, when my buggy started screaming an alarm I’d never heard before. I leapt to my feet and checked the buggy’s display screen in panic.

“I’ve got an unscheduled defrost!”

Nathan’s buggy started shrilling as well. “I’ve got one too,” he said. “Another! Three now!”

My screen was showing seven unscheduled defrosts, with more appearing every second. I’d no idea what was happening, but I instinctively jumped onto the seat of my buggy, ordered it to head for the location of my nearest defrost, and then called Supervisor Fraser. He didn’t respond. I called again and again, and finally got through.

“I’ve got defrosts!” I yelled. “What should …?”

I heard a confusion of other voices talking, and broke off my sentence. I’d always been one to one in my previous conversations with Fraser, but this was a conference call. I was patched in with about twenty other hysterical kids.

“Shut up!” Fraser shouted. “Game world Avalon just crashed.”

He was drowned out by voices babbling questions. Fraser’s words didn’t make any sense. I knew it was over three hundred years since a Game world crashed, because we’d all been taught about the Rhapsody disaster in school history lessons. Back then each Game world had only had two servers running it, and a freak simultaneous failure of both Rhapsody’s servers had caused it to crash. After that, the number of servers for each Game world had been increased, so now every Game world had four servers running it. It was surely impossible for all four of Avalon’s servers to have failed at once.

“I said, shut up!” Fraser shouted again. “We’ve lost Game world Avalon, and every player who was on that world is going through emergency defrost and waking up. The senior supervisors are sending them all messages over the freezer unit control systems, telling them to lie still in their freezer units and wait calmly until they’re restored into Game on a different world.”

Oh yah, I thought. Some of those players would have been living in Game for hundreds of years. Now they’ve suddenly woken up in their old physical bodies, and found themselves trapped in a freezing cold box. They obviously just need to hear a recorded message to be perfectly happy again.

I thought the words, but kept my mouth firmly shut. I daren’t risk being sarcastic to any adult, let alone my own supervisor.

“They’ll all be hitting their freezer unit panic buttons to send out alarm calls,” said Fraser. “Ignore them. Defrosting on emergency cycle puts a huge strain on the human body, so you have to focus on alerts from the medical monitoring system. Anyone got those?”

I studied my display screen. It was flooded with alarm calls, so I hit the filter codes to block everything except medical alerts. “I’ve got a heart failure case.”

“Me too,” said a terrified voice that sounded as if its owner couldn’t be older than twelve.

“Everyone with a heart failure case has to get there at emergency speed,” ordered Fraser. “Find the red syringe in your buggy medical kit, hold the end of the syringe against the bare skin of the person’s neck, and press the button.”

Other kids were yelling about medical alerts too now, but I ignored their frantic voices. I checked the location of my heart failure case, and ordered my buggy to change direction to go there. As it braked to a halt, and started turning round, I heard muffled screams and a thumping sound.

Freezer units usually had peaceful, steady green lights on their control unit, but the one next to me had lights that were urgently flashing amber. There was someone awake in there, screaming for help and pounding their fists on the lid.

I knew the person in the freezer unit had no chance of escaping by themselves. Every freezer unit in the body stacks had its lid locked shut to stop anyone from nosily opening them and harming the frozen occupant.

I wanted to stop my buggy and check through my alarm calls for the one that had come from that freezer unit. Alarm calls automatically included the unlock code for the freezer lid, so I’d be able to open it and free the unknown player from their prison.

I wanted to do that, but I mustn’t. Whoever was inside that freezer unit was well enough to fight to get free. I had to ignore their cries for help and get to the person who was dying of a heart attack.

My buggy had finished turning now and was moving off again. I hit the override button to make it accelerate to emergency speed. The regimented lines of freezer units were a blur on either side of me now, and the buggy engine was whining in protest. I didn’t have time to see if the freezer units I was passing had flashing lights on them, and the sound of the buggy engine was too loud for me to hear anything else, but my memory kept replaying the sounds of screaming and pounding fists.

I clung to my speeding buggy for an agonizingly long time, staring at the medical alert message on the screen in front of me, and muttering the unlock code for the freezer unit over and over again. “AKX2281SDV. AKX2281SDV. AKX2281SDV.”

The buggy finally braked, coming to a halt so abruptly that I was nearly thrown off my seat. I saw I’d stopped by a freezer unit with lights that were flashing red.

I jumped off my buggy, grabbed the medical kit from the storage locker and found the red syringe inside, then raced across to punch the unlock code into the keypad of the freezer unit. I recited the letters and numbers one last time as I entered them. “AKX2281SDV.”

As I finished entering the code, there was a clicking sound from the freezer unit. I grabbed the lid, lifted it, and used the red syringe on the neck of the motionless man inside. I stood there for a moment, looking for any sign of a response, but there was nothing.

Desperate now, I climbed into the freezer unit myself, checked the man’s airway, and tried to breathe air into his cold lips. I alternated that with chest compressions for what must have been ten or fifteen minutes, but eventually had to accept that it was useless.

I wearily climbed back out of the freezer unit, and stood looking down at the man. He looked a couple of years older than me, with skin that was darker than mine, closely trimmed black hair, and a hint of a beard. If he’d entered Game at the standard age of eighteen, then he must have defrosted at some point. Women often defrosted to go through one or more pregnancies, but it was far more unusual for a man to return to the real world.

Perhaps this man had needed to be physically present in the real world to do highly specialist, delicate work that a controlled droid couldn’t handle. Whatever his reasons for defrosting in the past, the dated clothes he was wearing showed he’d last returned to Game over two hundred years ago. His mind had been exploring the wonders of the Game worlds for more than two centuries, and had now moved on to explore somewhere stranger and far more distant.

I returned to sit on my buggy, and listened to the voices of Fraser and the other kids on the call channel. It was several minutes before I could force myself to speak on the channel and say the single bleak sentence that closed the door on a life.

“My heart failure case is dead.”

My voice sounded like it came from a stranger. Fraser didn’t say anything in response to my words. There wasn’t much that he could say. When a Game world crashed, dumping millions of players’ minds back into the real world without warning, their bodies had to be defrosted at dangerous speed to receive the returning consciousness before it was lost to oblivion. There were bound to be some unlucky ones who didn’t survive the process.

For the last three centuries, people had only died in real life, while players within Game were immortal. Now there was a corpse in the freezer unit next to me. There’d be other corpses in freezer units scattered through the caverns of the body stacks here and in other parts of the world. Definitely hundreds, and probably thousands of them.

Death had just visited the Game.


CHAPTER TWO

 

I worked long past the end of my shift that day. Supervisor Fraser announced that the technicians were setting up command sequences and sending them out to all the freezer units that had gone through emergency defrost. Those commands were supposed to order the units to refreeze their occupants and send their minds back into Game on random worlds.

The problem was that the commands didn’t work in a lot of cases. Some players had hit their panic buttons so many times that their freezer control system had got hopelessly confused. Other players had injured their hands beating on their freezer unit lids, so the medical monitoring system blocked them from being refrozen.

I drove round my area of Red Sector for hour after hour, manually punching in reset codes on freezer units, and watching until their flashing amber lights turned green in response. I carefully avoided looking through any of the transparent viewing windows of the units. I already had the unshakeable memory of a dead man’s face to haunt my dreams. I didn’t want to add the faces of living but terrified people.

I glimpsed the distinctive red and white stripes of ambulance buggies several times. The ambulances would be collecting injured players from freezer units, and taking them for medical treatment. Presumably one of the ambulances would be collecting the man who’d died as well.

I saw no sign of Nathan during my travels, but the other patrol shift had been called into work early to help deal with the crisis, so I did meet my shift alternate, Delora, at one point. She was going in the opposite direction to me, driving a plain brown buggy that must have been borrowed from a central supply store. When she saw me, she gave me a hopeful wave and stopped her buggy, but I kept going. I couldn’t face telling Delora about the man who’d died.

When Supervisor Fraser finally said my shift could go home, I went to the nearest transport stop and rode a pod to the accommodation block where I lived. I normally called in at one of the neighbourhood’s economy food outlets after work, to get something hot to eat and buy sandwich packs for the next day, but I was too exhausted and shocked to think of eating now. I just went straight back to my room, stripped off my clothes, and collapsed into bed.

 

It was barely an hour later that my door chime sounded. I was deeply asleep by then, but even if I’d been awake and standing by the door, I still wouldn’t have had time to open it before my caller overrode the lock and barged into my room. I opened my eyes to find a gleaming, bronze droid standing over me. It had blue and grey Unilaw markings on its body, and the front of its head displayed the sleek-furred, female leopard face of the adult who was controlling it from within Game.

“You are required to voluntarily attend the nearest United Law facility for questioning,” said the droid.

“What?” I sat up. “But … I haven’t done anything.”

“You may refuse to voluntarily attend, in which case you will be formally charged with murder and arrested.”

“What?” I repeated the word, unable to believe this was happening.

“Are you refusing?”

I hastily shook my head. Being questioned by Unilaw was going to look bad enough on my Game record, without being arrested as well. “I’m happy to co-operate voluntarily,” I gabbled the words at top speed. “Please let me get dressed.”

“You have one minute.”

I grabbed the overalls I’d taken off before tumbling into bed, and pulled them on. The droid closed in on me and waved a scanner at the bar code on my left arm.

“Identity verified.” The droid clipped the scanner on to the side of its body.

I’d hoped the droid had made a mistake and come to the wrong room, but it clearly hadn’t. I felt an instinctive urge to make a run for it, but knew I’d no hope of running away from a tireless metal droid who could track the medical implant chip in my arm. I had to co-operate and have faith in the fact I’d done nothing wrong.

The droid took me by the arm and towed me off along the corridor. I saw a room door open and a boy come out. His face registered alarm as he saw the droid; he took two rapid steps backwards into his room again, and closed the door.

Once we reached the accommodation block’s transport stop, the droid released my arm, unclipped something from the side of its body, and used it to gesture at a waiting two-person pod. At first, I assumed it was waving the scanner again, but then I saw that this was a gun. I gasped in shock. I’d seen plenty of images of Game weapons, but never seen a real one before.

“Get into the pod!” snapped the droid.

I hastily climbed into the pod, and the droid got in and sat opposite me. It entered a destination into the pod guidance system, we started moving, and there was a tense, totally silent journey where I couldn’t stop myself from staring at the gun. The droid kept juggling it from one bronze hand to another, in such a casual manner that I was terrified the gun would go off by mistake. If that happened, the leopard-faced adult controlling the droid wouldn’t be hurt because she was safely in Game, but I could be killed.

I was relieved when the pod finally stopped and the droid ordered me to get out. I found myself on a platform with a vast blue and grey United Law sign on the wall. The droid hustled me through some double doors, along several corridors, then dumped me in a cell and left me. I wanted to pound on the featureless white walls and shout abuse, but forced myself to sit on the rock-hard, narrow bed and wait patiently like a model citizen. Someone would be watching me, studying me, and eventually they’d talk to me. Maybe then I’d find out what was going on. Maybe then they’d find out they’d made a mistake. Maybe then everything would be all right again.

Even as I thought that, I realized I was clinging to false hopes. The brutal truth was that nothing could make things all right after this. Whatever happened now, the fact I’d been dragged in for questioning by Unilaw would remain on my Game record forever. I’d no hope of joining my father as a resident of Ganymede now. I might end up with Nathan as a werewolf on Gothic after all.

I sat there in frozen misery for what seemed like hours before one of the room walls displayed the head and shoulders of three adults in Game. The centre one had a standard male human head, except that it was in the bronze metal of Automaton. On the left was a bird of indeterminate sex, with human eyes but a beaked mouth and a crest of multicoloured feathers. On the right was a bald woman with a distorted face and hooked nose, who was expressing her individuality by choosing extreme ugliness when everyone in Game could be as beautiful as they wished.

Facing three adults at once would have been intimidating even without the prison cell setting. I sprang to my feet and waited in respectful silence.

“Jex,” said the bronze man, the tone of his voice making my name into an accusation. “You received a medical alert. Explain why you failed to respond and provide the appropriate medical aid within the statutory three minutes.”

Despite my fear of the situation, and anger at the injustice of it, I had an urge to laugh. They’d threatened me with a murder charge over this? Had they pulled in everyone from the body stacks who’d failed to save a defrost from dying of a heart attack? That must be most of the kids on my shift. Didn’t these people know anything about the body stacks at all?

“When I got the first defrost alarm, I didn’t know what to do,” I said. “We’re just supposed to patrol and look for maintenance issues.”

The bronze man was already scowling impatiently, so I hurried on as fast as I could. “I called my supervisor. He told us Game world Avalon had crashed, and to focus on medical alerts. I headed for my medical alert location as fast as I could, but getting there within three minutes was utterly impossible.”

“Explain why,” ordered the woman. Her voice had a hissing, snake-like quality, as unpleasant as the face she’d chosen.

“I went by the quickest route,” I said, “I drove my buggy at top speed, and that was faster than I could have run, but it still took a very long time.”

The bird glanced off to the side. “Twelve minutes,” it said, in clipped, precise tones that could have been either male or female. “Her buggy tracker shows maximum speed and no route deviations.”

“Twelve minutes on the shortest route!” The woman spat out the words. “Why were you so far away from your patrol area?”

“I was inside my patrol area, following my designated route, but my area is huge.” I tried to explain the sheer scale of the problem. “There are about fifty billion frozen Gamers in the body stacks. I work in Long Stay Area 31, which has about a billion. Red Sector has two hundred million of those. I patrol Red Sector Block 2, which holds ten million freezer units. Those take up a lot of space. 25,000 rows and each row is …”

“Those numbers can’t be right.” The bronze man cut me off and looked at the bird.

The bird took a while before replying this time. “Her figures are correct.”

The woman frowned. “That’s a completely unacceptable area for one person to patrol.”

She raised a hand. The three images instantly vanished, leaving me with a featureless wall again. I stood there for a moment longer, hesitated, then sat down on the bed again and tried to think things through. If Unilaw officials really had pulled in thousands of kids from the body stacks, they wouldn’t have enough active staff to question them, so they’d probably called in retired Unilaw members to help. Adults who’d paid their lifetime subscription wouldn’t normally agree to work again, but they’d make an exception in a crisis like this.

I hadn’t had a chance to pick up my phone when I was dragged off for questioning, so I’d no way to check the time. I thought I’d been sitting there for about another two hours before the wall changed again. I saw that my three questioners were back, but they’d brought reinforcements with them. Two standard human faces, one male and one female, with bronze metallic insignia on each cheek. These were two of the all-powerful Game Techs who designed and ran the worlds of Game!

I was being questioned by two Game Techs! My vision started blurring and I felt giddy, but I scrambled off the bed and dug my nails into my palms. I couldn’t let myself faint.

The bronze man spoke. “How many of you were involved in the bombing?”

“Bombing?” I heard my voice squeak. “What bombing?”

“Don’t waste our time with evasion,” said the woman. “How many of you were involved with the bombing that destroyed the Avalon server complex?”

“It was a bomb? I didn’t know that. My supervisor only told us that Avalon Game world had crashed.” I was bewildered. I’d heard of bombings, but there hadn’t been any in centuries.

“How could you be unaware of what has been broadcast on every news channel both in and out of Game?” asked the bird. “The Avalon server complex was destroyed by a bomb, and eleven thousand, two hundred, and ninety seven people died during the emergency defrosts.”

The number of deaths overwhelmed me. I’d expected hundreds of people to have died during the emergency defrosts. I’d feared the total death toll might be as high as the over two thousand casualties in the Rhapsody disaster. I hadn’t allowed for the fact that Avalon was an old and popular Game world with a very high population.

Once I’d absorbed the magnitude of the deaths, the second point hit me. The Avalon server complex had been destroyed by a bomb. I was being questioned by Unilaw about a bombing that had killed over eleven thousand Gamers! This wouldn’t just damage my future in Game, it would utterly destroy it.

I fought against my panic and tried to answer the bird’s question. “I assumed there’d been a freak failure of the server complex. I worked to the end of my twelve-hour shift and through half of the next one as well to help deal with the defrosts. When everyone had been sent back into Game on other worlds, my supervisor let the people on my shift leave. I was so exhausted that I went back to my room and fell asleep straight away.”

“Sleep,” the woman repeated the word as if she barely recognized it. “I’d forgotten about that. It’s been such a long time since I needed sleep.”

The bird glanced sideways. “The girl’s medical chip verifies her story of going directly to her room. There is no record of her accessing any news programmes.”

“Unbelievable,” muttered the bronze man. He was silent for a moment, and then suddenly threw another question at me. “Why did you want to kill your father?”

“What?” I realized I’d yelled the word. “I’m sorry,” I added hastily. “You mean that my father died in the world crash? But he can’t have died. It was Avalon that crashed, wasn’t it? My supervisor said Avalon crashed.” I clung to that thought. “My father can’t be dead. He lives on Ganymede, not Avalon.”

“Your father was visiting a friend on Avalon when the bomb exploded, and died during emergency defrost,” said the bird.

My father was dead! I felt horribly sick, forgot all about the importance of being respectful to adults, and just wailed my distress aloud.

“The man in my block who died? That was my father? I didn’t know his body was stored in Red Sector Block 2. The freezer units just have codes. Even when I opened the lid and saw him, I didn’t know. I’d never seen his flesh face. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”

“Quiet!” said the woman.

I put my right hand to my mouth, biting on my forefinger to keep myself quiet.

“Your father died in the Avalon crash,” said the bird, “but his body was stored in Long Stay Area 11, Yellow Sector Block 3.” Despite its strange, inhuman face and voice, it somehow had an air of sympathy the others were lacking.

I sagged with relief. The idea that I’d looked at my own father’s body and not known …

“In my opinion,” said the bird, “we’re wasting our time interrogating this girl.”

“She was flagged twice on our system,” said the bronze man. “Once as having a death in her patrol area.”

“As did thousands of others,” said the bird.

“And again as having a parental death in the crash,” the bronze man added. “She has also expressed dissent at the Leebrook Ashton bill. That’s a third flag against her.”

A recording started playing. I was startled to hear Nathan’s voice. “It stinks, doesn’t it?”

My own voice replied. “You’re almost eighteen too?”

“My eighteenth birthday was two days ago.”

“Do you work for supervisor Fraser too?”

There was a clicking sound as the recording ended.

“The dissent was not expressed by her.” For once, the woman seemed to be on my side. “Jex, what is your opinion of the Leebrook Ashton bill?”

“I was disappointed to have to wait another year before I could enter Game, but I understood the reasons for it,” I said. “Each year, the Game population and number of Game worlds grows, and so does the amount of maintenance work to be done in the real world.”

What I desperately wanted to say at this point was that the billions of adults in Game should be taking on more of that work. I’d no complaint against the adults who’d recently entered Game and were still working. I just felt the ones who’d paid their lifetime subscriptions, and had been living a life of blissful idleness for decades or even centuries, should be contributing something as well.

Given the vast number of lifetime subscription holders in Game, each of them would just need to work for a month or two every century to solve the issue of the increasing amount of maintenance to be done. Of course none of them had considered that answer. Rather than spend a few hours using a controlled droid to do simple jobs like riding patrol in the body stacks, they’d voted to dump the whole burden on kids like me.

I knew that if I said any of those things I’d instantly be charged with the Avalon bombing, so I fought to keep my words and tone of voice totally neutral. “Once adults have paid their lifetime subscription to Game, they’ve no incentive to spend time working. The school leaving age was already down to ten years old, so it couldn’t be reduced any further. That meant the only remaining option was to raise the legal age where children become adult and can enter Game.”

The bird had been looking off sideways again, but now its head snapped round to stare at me. I’d no idea why.

The woman made an impatient noise. “You call this three flags against the girl? She was disappointed by the bill, as every child must have been. She failed to save a Gamer due to the appalling size of her patrol area, an administrative matter that must be addressed. Her father died in the server crash, but I can’t see how that could benefit her unless he had a fortune in Game credits to bequeath her.”

The two Game Techs had been totally silent until now, observing my questioning with unreadable, impassive faces. Now the male Game Tech spoke in a heavily formal voice. “After her father paid his lifetime subscription, he had less than ten credits remaining in his account.”

“Then we have nothing against her,” said the woman.

She and the bronze man looked at the bird, and its feathers rippled as it shook its head.

“The girl lives and works hundreds of miles from the bombing site. There’s no record of her leaving her home area recently or contacting anyone outside it. Release her.”

I hadn’t realized the bird was the one in charge here, but it had just given an order, and everyone else was hastily nodding in acceptance, even the two Game Techs. That didn’t make any sense. A player couldn’t be giving orders to Game Techs. The insignia on Game Tech faces showed their hierarchy in a similar way to the bracelets of players, and these two only had bronze insignia, but I knew that silver and gold insignia were very rare indeed, reserved for the highest ranks of Game officials. Even if it was true that these two Game Techs had the lowest possible status, they would still be far more important than mere players.

I was distracted by the door of the room opening. I eagerly turned to look at it, and when I glanced back all the faces had vanished.

The bird had ordered my release, which seemed to mean I was free to go. I walked tentatively towards the door, and out into the corridor. I’d forgotten which way I’d been brought here, so I took several wrong turnings before I found my way back to the transport stop.

I hit the buttons on the wall to summon a single-person pod, and one came rushing up along the rails within a minute. I climbed inside, set the pod guidance system to head for the accommodation block where I lived, and sank back into the seat. My mind was busily rerunning what had happened. The world crash, the screaming alarms, the dead man in the freezer unit, those hostile faces accusing me of murder, and the casual way the bronze man had told me that my father was dead.

My first reaction to the news of my father’s death had been an avalanche of grief at his loss. That grief was still there, but I was guiltily aware that it was mixed with selfish fears about my own future.

Nobody could enter Game unless at least one Game world was willing to accept them as a resident, and what world would accept me now? Even Havoc would turn down someone who’d been questioned by Unilaw about a bombing that killed over eleven thousand people.

I’d spent every minute of my life working towards a future that would never happen now. I’d never join the ranks of the immortal Gamers, forever young and beautiful, living their eternal existence of pleasure. The Game self of my dreams, Jex of the silver, feathered hair, had died unborn in the Avalon crash.

I’d only the haziest idea of what would happen to me now. I might be able to hide the fact I was a Game reject until I was nineteen, but those around me would notice when I didn’t enter Game on my birthday. The suspicious whispers would start then, and gradually grow louder as the months went by and I still didn’t enter Game.

Sooner or later those whispers would turn into open complaints that a Game reject was living and working with respectable kids. I’d be thrown out of my room, lose my job in the body stacks, and have no option other than to go and live among the other Game rejects in accommodation blocks that were scheduled for demolition. You had to have something very serious on your Game record for all worlds to refuse you as a resident. The rumours said that most Game rejects were involved in violent crimes, and their communities were savagely dangerous places.

I covered my face with my hands, comforting myself with the darkness and the warmth of my own breath. We’d been taught to do that in nursery, to calm ourselves when we were frightened. It didn’t always work. It wasn’t working now.


CHAPTER THREE

 

When I arrived back at my room, I saw I had less than fifteen minutes before I needed to go back to work. I snatched my phone from where it lay on my bed, set it to play one of the main Game news channels, and listened to a succession of hysterically angry voices while I showered and dressed in clean overalls.

I didn’t learn any extra facts from all the outrage and fury. Everyone seemed to believe the same thing as the Unilaw officials who’d interrogated me, that some seventeen or eighteen-year-old kids, bitter about the Leebrook Ashton bill, had planted the bomb to get revenge on the players who’d selfishly voted to keep them working in the real world for an extra year.

I had to admit that was the obvious answer, but making bombs must surely be incredibly difficult and dangerous. Would a group of kids really take so big a risk just to get revenge, or were they actually attempting to force the adults in Game to repeal the Leebrook Ashton bill and do more of the work themselves?

I paused in the act of brushing my hair, and considered that possibility for a moment. I agreed that the system needed changing, but I was utterly opposed to violence as a way of changing it. I thought with fierce, protective anger of the man who’d died in my area of the body stacks. Over eleven thousand others had died the same way. My own father had died that way!

Whatever their motives, the bomber or bombers needed to be caught and stopped from ever doing this again. I hoped that Unilaw would manage that, but the fact I’d been on their suspect list didn’t fill me with confidence.

I was in danger of being late for work and fined half my pay for the day. That seemed a very minor worry now, but I hastily finished brushing my hair into order, and filled my drinking bottle. Since I wasn’t allowed to take my phone to work with me, I turned it off and tossed it onto my unmade bed.

As I headed for the door, I automatically reached for the sandwich packs that should have been waiting ready on the shelf. It wasn’t until my hand grabbed thin air that I remembered I hadn’t bought any sandwich packs yesterday. I wouldn’t have time to call in at a food outlet to buy any on my way to work, and I’d rather go hungry than eat the overpriced, revolting sandwiches from the vending machines at transport stops. I snatched a couple of nutrient bars from my emergency store and sprinted out of the door.

I ate my breakfast of one of the nutrient bars on the pod ride, washed down the dryness of it with a few mouthfuls of water from my bottle, and arrived at the body stacks’ transport stop closest to my current patrol position with two minutes to spare.

I stepped out of the pod, and saw Delora was already waiting on the platform with the buggy. “All quiet?”

“Finally.”

She took my place in the pod, and leant back in the seat with a look of bliss on her face. I watched in envy as the pod whooshed off along the rails. Delora’s shift had been off-duty when the bombing and defrosts happened. She hadn’t been questioned by Unilaw, so she still had a future as an immortal player in Game, while I would live and die in the real world.

I was dead on my feet from strain and exhaustion, but I climbed onto the buggy, wondering if it was possible to ride it in my sleep. “Jex checking in,” I told it, and trundled at standard buggy speed through the entrance to the body stacks.

“You have new instructions,” the buggy announced.

I groaned. If I could somehow stay awake, I might manage standard patrol, but nothing that required any thought.

“Your patrol starting point has changed to row 37,500.”

That meant backtracking to a point I’d already patrolled, but I was paid to do what the buggy said, not argue with it, so I set off to row 37,500. When I arrived there, I expected to start patrolling the rows of freezer units, but the buggy spoke again.

“Await further orders.”

I sat there dutifully awaiting further orders. After a minute or two, Nathan arrived on his buggy, and parked it next to mine. He looked as exhausted as I felt, and clearly hadn’t found time to shower or change his crumpled clothes from yesterday.

“Await further orders,” his buggy told him.

Nathan dismounted from his buggy, backed away a short distance, and beckoned to me. I hesitated a moment before wearily climbing off my own buggy and following him.

“Did Unilaw pick you up for questioning too?” he whispered.

Nathan seemed to think we were out of range of our eavesdropping buggies. I was less sure about that, but there was little point in worrying about recordings damaging my future when it had already been destroyed.

“Yah. You had someone die then?”

Nathan nodded. There was a short silence. I didn’t want to talk about the man who’d died in my patrol area, and I could tell Nathan felt the same way about whoever had died in his.

“Did you get two Game Techs, a bronze man, a woman, and a bird?” I asked.

He nodded again. “The man was from Automaton. The woman confused me for a while, then I worked out she was a bald harpy from Cliffs. I couldn’t make sense of the bird at all. I still can’t. There are several worlds where players have a bird form, but they all have faces that are far more human than that one.”

“Whatever it was, the Game Techs seemed just to be present as observers, while the bird was in charge of the interrogations.”

“I agree the Game Techs were there purely as observers,” said Nathan, “they didn’t say a word during my interrogation, but the bird wasn’t in charge of anything. The bird, the man, and the woman all wore Unilaw rank badges on their collars, and those showed the woman was a Unilaw Area Commander, while the bird and the man were only Senior Detectives.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know anything about Unilaw ranks, I just know that the bird was the one who decided my interrogation was over. From the way the others instantly accepted the decision, the bird was definitely in charge.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” said Nathan. “If the bird was more important than an Area Commander, why was it wearing the rank badge of a Senior Detective?”

I sighed. “I’ve no idea, but there’s no point in us arguing over who was in charge of interrogating us. All that matters is the interrogations happened. Our Game records will show that we were picked up by Unilaw and questioned about the bombing of the Avalon server.”

I dragged my fingers through my hair. I’d accepted the full extent of the disaster now. The Avalon world crash had robbed me of both my father and my future. My mother would react to a situation like this by pretending it hadn’t happened, but I preferred to face up to my problems. I did that now, forcing myself to say the grim words that summed up the utter destruction of all my hopes and plans.

“We’re both Game rejects now.”

There was silence for a few seconds before Nathan spoke with a forced optimism. “Perhaps it won’t be that bad.”

“It’s exactly that bad, Nathan,” I said, with the calmness of despair. “No Game world is going to accept either of us.”

“We can’t apply to enter Game until we’re nineteen now,” said Nathan. “Unilaw will have caught the real bomber by then. We’ll be able to forget all about the Avalon bombing and carry on with our lives.”

I winced at his words. “I’ll never be able to forget the bombing, Nathan. I was told during my questioning that my father was on Avalon when it crashed. He died during emergency defrost.”

Nathan looked appalled. “I’m terribly sorry to hear that.”

I couldn’t bear to talk about my father any longer, so I hastily changed the subject. “I wouldn’t trust Unilaw to catch a mouse, let alone a bomber, but even if they do it won’t help us very much. I was listening to some players talking on a Game news channel a few minutes ago. They’re utterly irrational with anger about the bombing, and anger like that won’t fade in decades or even centuries.”

I paused. “Whether the real bomber has been caught or not, the Admission Committees for every Game world will still take one look at the questioning on our records, suspect we were secretly involved as accomplices, and block our applications.”

Nathan stared bleakly down at the floor. “That’s not fair.”

I didn’t say anything. I’d learnt as a small child in a dormitory that life wasn’t fair. Those who caused trouble often escaped punishment, while their innocent victims got blamed. I’d learnt the lesson again as a medical cadet, when an instructor dropped me from the training programme to cover up her own mistake. The same thing was happening yet again. Whether the bomber was caught or not, the innocent kids working in the body stacks would suffer because of his or her actions.

“Incoming orders,” announced the buggies in unison.

Nathan and I hurried back to sit on our buggies. I was expecting Supervisor Fraser’s face to appear on the display screen in front of me, but instead I saw a golden-haired, elven stranger.

“I am the senior supervisor for Long Stay Area 31,” she said.

I could hear the same words echoed from Nathan’s buggy, and we exchanged startled glances.

“We’ve just had a conference of all senior supervisors worldwide,” she continued. “We are aware that all of you worked well past the end of your last shift, and most of you were called in for questioning later. In the aftermath of the Avalon bombing, regular maintenance patrols are a lower priority than being prepared to cope with any further major crisis. You have all been stationed in the centre of your patrol areas to give you the maximum chance of responding successfully to alarms. You will remain at those points for the whole of this shift unless alarms sound.”

The woman paused. “You may take the opportunity to rest.”

Her image vanished from the screen. I sat there for a moment while my sleep-deprived brain absorbed the information, then I climbed down from the buggy and stretched out thankfully on the floor. It was formed of rock hard, unyielding plastic, but it was still blissful to lie down.

Nathan got off his buggy, frowned, and then selected a spot that was near to me but at a tactful distance. He lay down, tried several positions to try to get comfortable, and then got his bag from his buggy to use as a pillow.

I missed everything that happened in the next six or seven hours, because I was deep in dreamless sleep.

 

It wasn’t an alarm that woke me, or the buggy announcing the end of my shift, but the sound of heavy footsteps. I opened bleary eyes, saw the legs of a droid beside me, and sat up in panic. Now I could see the droid’s head wore the face of the bird that had been in charge of my interrogation. It was here to drag me back to that prison cell!

“I’m sorry to wake you,” said the bird.

Nathan was sitting up too now, his face showing he was stunned by the bird’s words. I was stunned too. Adults didn’t apologize to children. We were outside Game. We weren’t real people yet.

“I’m here because it’s vitally important to hunt down the Avalon bomber,” said the bird. “I think you may be able to assist me.”

I scrambled to my feet. Nathan literally shook himself, before standing up as well. I still wasn’t sure whether I was being arrested or not, but my brain was starting to register some odd things about this droid. It was coloured gold rather than the usual bronze, it had no ownership markings on its chest, and its shape and movements were a more convincing match to a real human being than usual.

The droid’s head was especially startling. A normal droid’s head was a uniform bronze colour, except for the flat front that displayed the face of the adult controlling it from Game. This droid’s head had somehow taken on the colours and contours of the full bird head. It even had a crest of feathers that seemed to ripple as it moved, and a beaked mouth that opened and shut as it spoke.

I couldn’t work out whether the droid’s head was genuinely changing shape to create those movements, or it was just a holographic illusion. Either way, the uniqueness of this droid proved I’d been right about the bird being someone very important.

“The bombing was a real world crime,” said the bird, “so there is a United Law investigation in progress. Since it was a Game server complex that was bombed, there is also an official Game investigation happening in tandem. Finally, since over eleven thousand Gamers died from medical complications arising from emergency defrosts, the players have elected to have their own representative monitoring the progress of both those investigations and reporting back to them. They have asked me to be that player representative.”

The bird paused for a moment. Nathan and I waited in respectful silence until it started speaking again.

“My plan was to liaise with the two official investigations while doing some small-scale investigations of my own, but I’ve hit a problem. I entered Game centuries ago, and I’ve never defrosted or used a controlled droid to visit the real world. I’ve been totally immersed in my life in Game, and when I did spare a few minutes to think about the real world, I assumed it was the same as when I left it.”

The bird paused again. “This conversation seems horribly one-sided. It would help if one of you would say something occasionally.”

I exchanged glances with Nathan and spoke cautiously. “We’re finding it hard to tell whether you want us to speak or not. Most adults wear a face that’s human to some extent, but it’s hard to interpret the expressions on yours, and there aren’t any clues in your voice either.”

I held my breath, braced for a reprimand, but the bird just nodded. “You have a point. I asked the Game Techs to give me an anonymous appearance and voice to avoid attracting too much attention. That was useful during the interrogations, and there may be times when it’s useful again in future, but now isn’t one of them.”

The droid’s head blurred. When it came back into focus, all trace of the bird had vanished. I saw the head of a handsome man, with dark eyes that were filled with laughter, and black, feathered hair that clung closely to his scalp. Nathan and I recognized him instantly and gasped in unison.

“My name is Hawk,” said the man, in a voice that held all the expressive tones that the bird voice had been missing. “Am I easier to talk to now?”

© 2016 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.

 

REAPER is available worldwide as an ebook. Paperback to follow March 2017.

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