For today, I’m trying something a little different. I built this website as a way to connect with my readers. I love science fiction stories, and I thought I would spend the next couple weeks posting pieces of a short story I wrote a while ago.
There are so many online role-playing games out there, that I wondered what it would be like if people could get completely lost in them. How would they get out? That’s when I wrote The Plight of Lost Souls. Here are the first few scenes from that story. Next week, I’ll post the last few scenes. I hope you enjoy it.
The Plight of Lost Souls
by Daniel R. Burkhard
With a satisfying click, the coffin shaped portal closed, with Mr. Sanchez safely tucked inside. Evan could relax, now that the Lost Soul he had been sent to retrieve was on his way home to the real world.
Evan let out a sigh of relief and started to turn for his own portal. That’s when he saw the other man.
He looked exactly like Evan.
The man had the same dark hair parted to the left and hanging slightly into his face. The man seemed to appear out of nowhere, which wasn’t entirely unusual in VICE. The man watched him, expressionlessly.
“Can I help you?” Evan asked, but the man vanished before he could say anything more.
That man’s choice of avatar sent a chill down Evan’s spine. The man was probably another Lost Soul. But he had never seen an avatar that mirrored someone else’s so closely.
VICE was a way of life for billions. They would pay to live in the computerized world, making contracts for up to five or ten years at a time.
Even after four decades, it wasn’t a perfect program. The most common problem arose when people forgot who they were in real life. Each VICE terminal came with a cost, and when paid contracts expired, they became Lost Souls. VICE couldn’t afford any freeloaders. They would hire Retrievers to find those Lost Souls and convince them to leave VICE.
Trying to forget the man he had seen, Evan walked back through VICE’s Central Station. The construct appeared as a massive mixture of futuristic and ancient stone colonnades. Hallways and passageways led in all directions. Some hallways were wider, loaded with buses, while others were narrower, loaded with the coffin-like portals. Some of the narrower passages led into regions more adult in nature. So far, Even had avoided any retrievals in those seedier areas.
Newly arrived and exiting avatars of all shapes, colors, and sizes filled Central Station’s granite, steel, and stone space. From Central Station it was possible to get anywhere in the VICE.
As Evan approached the hallway with his coffin-like portal, he glanced to the sign over the hallway. “Don’t forget to save your adventures before exiting,” it showed in bright white set out from the granite of the hallway structure.
Some of the portals stood against the wall, while others were recessed into the floor. Most were shiny black, but a few were designed to look like wooden coffins.
Evan verified the number on his black portal standing near the hallway entrance and entered. As the door closed, he saw that same man watching.
With choking suddenness, the polluted air of the real world forced its way into his lungs, and the darkness fled. He had been through this before. Coming out of VICE always came as a surprise.
As his eyes swam into focus, he saw a beautiful face, surrounded by short flame-red hair. The woman’s emerald eyes watched him under slim eyebrows raised in what he had come to know as worry.
“Are you feeling okay?” the woman asked.
She was Laura, his attendant. She was the woman that watched over his body while he was in VICE.
“I feel fine,” Evan answered.
“Good work,” Laura said, ignoring his question.
Something about being around her made Evan feel comfortable. “Mr. Sanchez was a difficult one,” he said, trying to change his thoughts. “How long was I gone?” It was hard to judge the passage of time in VICE.
“Three months,” Laura answered.
“Were you starting to think I would never come back?” Evan asked, trying to make her laugh, but she didn’t. In fact, he thought he saw her flinch.
He swung his legs off the bed.
Evan was in a room that smelled of disinfectant and held twenty-four carbon fiber beds, in three rows of eight. Each bed would be slipped into an opening on the wall, and, like a morgue, a flush fitting door would seal it into walls the color of fresh lemons.
“You might want to put some clothes on,” Laura suggested, as he realized he had climbed off the bed naked.
Embarrassed, he snatched the clothes out of her hand and dressed himself as quickly as he could. He was glad to see her turn around and spare him more embarrassment.
“I am ready now,” he said, doing the last button on his shirt.
“Good,” she said, turning around. “How would you feel about another case?”
Evan had been looking forward to a chance to return to his own bed, and a night’s sleep in the real world. He was afraid of losing himself in VICE. He had no desire to become a Lost Soul.
“This one is urgent,” Laura said, folding her arms and stepping closer. “The man has been in VICE for over ten years, and his contract has lapsed. VICE wants him out.”
Evan just wanted a night to himself in the real world. “How soon would I need to start?” he asked.
“It is best if you get back in there now,” she answered as she stepped around him and removed the sheets from the bed he had used. “I don’t know how much longer they will allow him to stay in VICE.”
“They wouldn’t force him out, and risk brain damage, would they?” Evan commented. That was the danger with Lost Souls. Some were so far gone, their minds collapsed if they were removed. Forcing them out caused irreparable brain damage.
“He’s been in too long, taking other people’s avatars, and trying to use their bodies,” she said. “It seems like they might.” She spread a new sheet on the bed and looked away. “This Lost Soul is a special one.”
“If I start tomorrow,” he began his argument, “that would be soon enough, wouldn’t it?”
Laura looked worried but sighed a deep sigh. “Yeah, I guess,” she said. “But you need to get here early tomorrow.”
Evan had heard of afterimages of VICE in people’s dreams, and that was what he thought this must be. He had returned home to his apartment to sleep, but when he opened his eyes, he was in a strange room.
The tan color of the room, and its size looked wrong. It had to be a dream, or a figment left from his time in VICE. Somewhere, water was running. He thought he could feel the steam and smell lavender scent of the soap.
Following the sound of the water, he found a small door to a bathroom. It was open. He really wished he knew where he was, so that he could prepare himself for whatever was on the other side.
Carefully he stood in the doorway and tried to see inside the bathroom. The floor was covered in dark blue tiles, with a freestanding clawfoot tub in the middle of the cramped space. A powered wheelchair stood in the corner, near the tub, but that wasn’t what drew his eyes.
A woman with long red hair, dressed in a loose green shirt and gray sweatpants, leaned over the tub and washed whoever was in it. Feeling certain this was a dream, he let himself be curious, and leaned closer to the door.
Slowly, he pushed the door open, and stepped into the steamy room. The Woman looked a lot like Laura did, only younger, and the person in the tub was a man. She didn’t seem to notice he was there, confirming his dream theory.
The man had thinning, reddish hair, and green eyes. The man, like the house, seemed familiar. The man wasn’t moving, except to breathe, and twist his head.
Evan began to think the man might be paralyzed when the man looked at him. No other part of his body moved. The man flashed a broad smile at Evan, then his face shifted. The reddish hair was replaced with black, and the rounded features of the face were replaced with the sharp angles of Evan’s.
Startled, Evan sat up in bed. Only the lights from his wall clock were visible, and their green glow spread dimly through the room, reflecting off parts of the walls.
“Lights,” he said, and the lights came on, blinding him.
His apartment was larger than he needed, and, honestly, he couldn’t remember purchasing it. It was VICE, he thought. The more time he spent in it, the harder it was to remember things of the real world.
The sea green bedroom walls were spaced far enough apart for two king-sized beds to fit side by side, and that was just the bedroom.
The kitchen, dining room, and the front room were each the size of this bedroom.
Feeling calmer, he pushed the blankets away, and headed for his dining room. There was a computer there, and he wanted to do some searching about his next case. With the urgent way Laura had tried to get him to take the case, she had probably sent it before he left her.
He sat at his glass kitchen table, and used the built-in computer, projecting the screen image onto the far wall.
His new case was Mr. Chandler. Because of the privacy laws governing the contracts of VICE, they weren’t allowed to give out the first names of the Lost Souls. They wouldn’t even give them to Retrievers, like Evan. It made his job harder, but that just meant he had to head for the Library of Heaven, in VICE. It stored the information on anyone who entered the simulated world.
Mr. Chandler had taken a contract for five years, ten years earlier. His family had purchased the contract when he had been paralyzed in a bus accident, but, after entering VICE, his family had never heard from him again, and they suspected he had taken another person’s body and identity.
Evan knew that one of the draws of VICE was the ability to travel to other parts of the world using another person’s body, but there were several security checks to get through. Most of the VICE customers couldn’t do it because it wasn’t in their contract. Some did sell time in their bodies to help offset the cost of VICE. While most of VICE’s customers used a VICE center for access, if the users of VICE received an upgraded implant, they could access VICE from anywhere through the internet. Those implants were expensive.
As Evan read through the information it all seemed normal, until he noticed the picture of Mr. Chandler. The picture had the same reddish hair and green eyes as the man from his nightmare.
Evan worried. He shouldn’t be dreaming about his next case. He never had before.
He tried to chase the worry out of his mind, as he looked over the places Mr. Chandler liked to visit.
With a list of places to search, starting with Mr. Chandler’s most recent visits, he checked the time. It was three o’clock in the morning. Laura had wanted him to come in early. Maybe he could surprise her.
“I didn’t expect you this early,” Laura commented, and stretched with a large yawn. With her hair in disarray and her eyelids heavy, she didn’t appear to have slept. He wondered if she ever went home.
“You wanted me to be early,” Evan joked, then tried to explain himself. “I had a hard time sleeping last night, and I thought I would come and get an early start.” His dream disturbed him more than it should have.
“Well, shall we get you started?” she asked, leading him toward his room.
Evan was glad to be getting on his way. He wanted to get this job started, and he followed her through the lemon-colored hallways of the large pyramid that was the Salt Lake City Terminal for VICE. They were walking around the outside edge of the third floor, and the wall sloped inward on their right side, to meet the other wall high over their heads. No window was visible anywhere he could see.
Laura didn’t speak on their walk toward the room, and Evan found that strange. Either she was overly tired, or something else was bothering her. He didn’t ask.
When they entered the storage room, she pulled out his bed. “Lay down,” she said, stepping back.
Evan could tell something was wrong. “Are you okay?” he asked, feeling a little regret as he spoke.
She didn’t answer for a while, keeping her back turned toward him. He couldn’t tell if she was really doing something, or just avoiding his question.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
Slowly, Laura turned around and folded her arms. After a moment, she dropped her arms to her sides, and looked him in the eyes. “You just have to be quick in there,” she said. “Be as quick as you can.”
“Evan,” she started, but seemed to change her mind about what to say. “Evan, your man has been in there for so long that they are getting ready to kick him out, even if it causes brain damage.” She finished and wiped what could have been a tear from her eye. “Now get undressed, and ready.”
Evan did as he was told, trying to hide himself as he removed his pants. She had seen him that way several times, but it still bothered him.
As he climbed onto the bed and rested his head on the pillow, he felt her insert an IV that would give his body the chemicals to paralyze it and allow him to enter VICE. Within a few seconds he drifted into unconsciousness.
The portal door opened to a view of Central Station that was more crowded than Evan had ever seen it. Several groups of people were passing by in the major hallway that connected all the smaller hallways and passageways.
Avatars were everywhere.
Evan waited for the portal to close behind him and headed for the bus terminals. Starting with the places Mr. Chandler had visited most recently, he would try to find the man. The places Mr. Chandler visited were familiar to Evan. He had been to the same places while searching for other Lost Souls.
As he rounded a corner, he thought he saw someone watching him, but turning to look, he found no one. He dismissed it as leftover anxiety from his dream and continued.
Eventually he made it to a bus that would take him to Pirate’s Cove. It was a restaurant Mr. Chandler had visited recently.
The bus was an old style, with rounded lines and rivets showing through the metal exterior. It was blue below the window, and polished metal above the windows.
He stepped onto the bus through the open door and was instantly stepping off in the middle of a street surrounded by large buildings of all shapes, and colors.
The City of Heaven had been perfectly planned. The first programmers of VICE had started to sell property and building supplies to its customers. Soon there were buildings of different types of architecture. Some bore gothic carvings, while others had futuristic shapes that could never be built in the real world. There were others that were built out of large squares without windows and made to look like solid blocks of steal. If a building were large enough to take more than one block, it would have to leave room for the city street to pass through it unimpeded.
Looking for the telltale sails of Pirate’s Cove, Evan saw someone in the distance. At first, he thought it was the same man he had seen earlier, but he wasn’t sure. The man had vanished around a corner too quickly.
Evan decided not to worry about it and searched again for the sails. He was headed for one of the harbors and trying to find a large triple-masted ship. The ship housed Pirate’s Cove.
The ship was programmed to appear wooden, with the doorway to enter just above the water line. A small ramp stretched toward the opening from the dock.
The restaurant was never extremely busy, but often, sword fights would break out, leaving bloodied avatars on the deck or pushed overboard. VICE didn’t have rules against killing avatars. They merely respawned in Central Station.
“How many in your party,” a burly man said, walking toward Evan. The man had a wash rag in his hand, and Evan wondered why the man wouldn’t use VICE to keep the restaurant clean.
“I’m not here for food,” Evan responded. “I was hoping that I could get your help finding someone.”
“Who is it you are trying to find?” the man responded cordially enough. He still held the clean rag that appeared damp.
“Well,” Evan started, “I am a Retriever, and I need to find a man named Mr. Chandler. Do you have a record of him coming in here?”
The burly man put the rag on a table and headed for the bar. The whole room was made of dark wood. There were several tables and a long bar that stretched the full length of the ship on the opposite side from the entry. Behind the bar were several bottles of different beverages. Evan never had the time to drink in VICE, so he didn’t know if the drinks would make someone drunk.
Before the man reached the bar, a few shouts echoed from deeper in the ship. A fight had broken out, with three women against four men. All of them smiled as they brandished their swords and fought. Other patrons gave them space.
“You said Mr. Chandler?” the man asked, as he used a computer recessed into the bar’s top. He looked for several minutes more, then looked up at Evan with a smile. “He has been in here several times in the last few months.”
“When was the last time?” Evan asked, thinking about the last time he had come to the Pirate’s Cove.
“Four days ago, he came here,” the man answered, ducking a bottle that crashed into the stack behind the bar. “Do you have a picture of him? Maybe I’ll remember seeing him.”
Evan reached into his pocket and tried to find his data pad, as one of the women was thrown through his avatar and along the bar top. She shouted with excitement as she crashed into the wall and collapsed onto the floor.
Evan’s data pad wasn’t in his right pocket where he would normally keep it. That was strange. He shouldn’t have trouble finding a simulated item. He tried again, but it wasn’t in any of his pockets. He wondered if it were possible someone could have taken it but didn’t think VICE would allow that.
He was going to have to ask Laura about hackers, next time he saw her.
“Can I use your computer to search for it?” Evan asked. “My data pad is not with me for some reason.”
“Someone hack you?” the man asked, seriously. He shook his head once. “Sure, go ahead.” He moved out of Evan’s way, and motioned toward his screen.
Evan moved to the man’s side and used the computer’s touch screen to access his VICE account. He hoped it would have the information that he was looking for.
After several seconds of waiting, the computer showed an error that his account could not be found.
Evan tried again but had the same result.
“I have never seen that message before,” the man said. “Maybe it only works from your data pad. I mean, you are a Retriever, they might not allow you to use just any computer.”
Evan feigned agreement but didn’t believe it. He should have been able to access it.
“I wish I could help you more,” the man said. “All I can say is that he has been recorded coming into here.” The man sighed and started to walk back toward the table where he had left the rag. Three of the men and one of the women from the fight had succumbed to their avatar’s injuries and vanished, leaving various possessions on the floor. The remaining man and two women gathered the possessions and returned to their table laughing.
“What if I could describe him to you?” Evan asked after watching the remnants of the fight clean themselves. The broken bottles, chairs, and tables mended, and the room grew quite again.
“Give it a try, and I will tell you if I have seen him,” the man responded.
Evan described the reddish hair and the shorter stature of the man, drawing on what he had seen in his dream, and the picture he had seen in his apartment.
“Sorry,” the man said. “I haven’t seen him. I remember most of the people that come in here, like you, but I don’t remember that man.”
“Do you remember seeing me here?” Evan asked.
“About four days ago,” the man said. “Right?”
Evan believed the man. If Mr. Chandler had come in here, it was likely the owner would have remembered him. Could it be possible the computer was wrong? Evan thought.
“Are you here every day?” Evan asked, choosing a different route with his questions. “I mean, do you work here every day your restaurant is open?”
“Always,” the man answered. “In fact, I don’t have any other workers, just some computer-generated employees.”
“Okay, thank you for your help,” Evan said, then turned to leave.
He felt he was back where he had started. So much for an early start, he thought. At this rate, he was not going to find Mr. Chandler very quickly. Usually, it wouldn’t bother him, but he didn’t want to be the reason a man left VICE with brain damage. He wondered how much time Mr. Chandler had left.