by Chris Kreuter
A young man is dying of cancer. He comes from a religious culture that rejects technology, but he chooses to help a good friend by testing her new virtual reality game. As he encounters a new reality, the game encounters a unique perspective.
Part 1 : Turn For The Worse
"Psst... Harey... you awake?"
Hareleah Angwin Verran nodded, too weak, too disoriented to look over. But he recognized the voice.
Ruthie Roy closed the door softly behind her. She kept her head low as she strafed over to Harey's bedside, "Whew. Dodging nurses for the win!"
"Ugh... not so loud. My head's spinning."
Ruthie slung her Zelda backpack over the back of a chair. She leaned in, caressing Harey's shoulder, "Sorry bud. Having a rough morning?"
The firmness of Ruthie's hand steadied Harey's senses. He tilted his head to the side and smiled, "Rough night."
A vine of jet-black hair fell over one of Ruthie's gold-specked hazel eyes. Her computer-bleached cheeks arched back around a sympathetic smile. "Did you get any sleep?"
The relief of Ruthie's touch began to wear off. Harey caught his thoughts wandering towards impurity. He returned his eyes to the ceiling, teeth clenched in pain, "Not really."
"Are you in pain?"
He willed the tears not to fall. But the weakened dam gave way. He nodded as they began to wet his cheeks. Ruthie wiped them away deftly and kissed his forehead.
"I'm sorry Harey. I can't imagine what you're going through. It just sucks. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks."
Harey sniffled, "Sorry, Ruthie. I just..."
"You don't have to apologize to me. I'm here for you Harey. Just like the day you wandered into the library like a lost puppy. You remember that day?"
"Yeah. Must have been weird seeing a Verranite walk up to a tech help desk. Gosh, was I ever lost."
She stroked his shoulder again, "You're just lucky it was my shift. Anyone else might take advantage of a naive Verranite boy. Probably convince you to go on that Verranite Vultures show or something."
Harey looked back at her and smiled, regretting for the hundredth time not kissing her when he had a chance. He started his Wandering only four months earlier, but he'd learned about the Friend Zone early on, the hard way.
"Your parents visit lately?"
Harey laughed, "Not in a week."
"Well that sucks."
"It's okay. Last time they visited I was having a hard week. I was upset, said some hurtful things. I can tell it's hard for them to see me like this."
"You mean hooked up to all this equipment?"
"No, medical stuff's okay. Just seeing me... Dying like this. Besides, it's hard for them to get here. Real expensive to get a car service all the way to Halifax and back."
"That's BS Harey. I've already offered to put them up in my apartment for as long as they need."
Harey chuckled, then winced from the pain, "They're Verranites, remember? All the computers and electronic stuff you've got in there would freak them out. Plus Dad has to prepare for the harvest."
Ruthie shrugged, "You kept your room pretty tame. I'm sure they'd be fine staying there."
"I know Ruthie. Wouldn't be fair to our other roommates though. My parents aren't what you'd call flexible people."
Ruthie sighed, "I don't understand it, but to each their own. What about you? Docs give you any update?"
"They're worried it's spread to my lymph nodes. It might explain why I've felt so drained lately." Harey said, holding back the rest of the prognosis.
"Oh my God, that's terrible."
"Whatever happens, it's His will." Harey said with a shrug.
"Doesn't make it any less shitty. Why does it have to happen to someone as awesome as you?"
"If the Lord wills me to keep this cup, I'll drink it to the end."
"It's from the Gospel of Luke - Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. - Something my father preached before he left last week."
"I've gotta be honest Harey, that sounds pretty depressing."
"I know it's hard to understand Verranites, Ruthie. We take the Bible as literally the word of God. I'm actually glad Dad reminded me of the verse. I needed a reminder to stay strong, suffer whatever the Lord has planned for me."
Ruthie spun around towards her backpack, "Suffer my ass." She came back around holding a small disc the size of a loonie. She placed it Harey's palm triumphantly, "Here!"
Harey held the object up to his face. The computer chip's tiny boxes and metal prongs made it look like a miniature city. "What is it?"
Ruthie's grin stretched from ear to ear, "My master's thesis."
"Your what?" Harey asked, dumbfounded.
"My thesis. For my Master's degree?"
"We stop going to school at fifteen, remember?"
"Right, duh. When you're in college for an absurdly long time, you have to do some crazy project and write a huge fancy paper. For awesome game designers like me, we make a huge fancy game."
"This isn't one of those virtual reality things you begged me to try a few months ago?"
Ruthie shook her head, "No, that was just a stupid group project I was testing. That there in your hand? I've been working on that masterpiece for three years."
"Three years on this tiny thing?"
"Not the computer chip itself. That's just a VR neural transmitter. A damn expensive one, but it's off the shelf. What's special is all my amaze-balls code inside of it."
"You lost me."
Ruthie smiled and focused her attention on the computer chip, "I know, I know. Listen Harey, it's super-simple. I've already had a bunch of undergrads test the game. They say it's cool, but too predictable. Apparently the computer players I programmed are too easy to manipulate. They lose all the time."
"Whatever you said, it doesn't sound good."
"It's not. This thing's due in two weeks, and I desperately need my algorithm to learn some new tricks before then. Now I know Verranites are totally against using technology. But Harey, you're exactly who I need to play this. I'm desperate. Would you consider playing it?"
Harey handed the chip back to her, "I can't Ruthie. It's hard enough being surrounded by all these beeping and whirring things. But they're keeping me alive. Enjoying false imagery is a very different thing."
Ruthie pushed his hand back, "Come on Harey, you play board games with us all the time. This is practically the same thing, only on a computer chip."
"All Verranites grow up playing board games. Maybe not the complicated ones your group plays, but they're a great way to get to know people. To learn about life out in the world."
"And that's the reason I'm coming to you Harey. I need your help. I thought the whole point of the Wandering was to try things. Tons of people use these VR chips. They're totally safe."
"Why Ruthie? Why me?"
"Why you? Who better to teach my AI something than the guy whose won practically every game of Settlers of Catan since wandering into Halifax. The guy nobody ever suspects is a Cylon. You play games so... Differently than the rest of us."
"So you want me to play your game to show it how to play like me?"
Ruthie smiled, "No, I just want you to play it like you normally play a new game. Co-operate, play fair, whatever it is you do. You have a unique perspective Harey. And that's exactly what I need to fix this before it's due."
"I wouldn't consider myself an improvement to your game."
"What do you mean?"
"I've been bad at pretty much everything I've done growing up. I was an average student, a lousy farmer, and a terrible carpenter. I've never been good at anything. You know what the other kids called me? Ham Hands Harey."
Ruthie giggled and pressed a finger to the point of Harey's noise. In a snorting voice she said, "Aww, but you're such a cute little piggy Harey. And I think you're awesome." Then she planted a big kiss on his forehead.
Harey couldn't help but laugh, despite the pain it caused. He'd always enjoyed her quirky sense of humor. Any remaining resistance melted away with the kiss, "Are other people playing?"
The question surprised Ruthie, who thought for a moment before replying, "Oh yeah! It's pretty popular among the thousand or so developers with these super-fancy transmitter chips."
"Super fancy what?"
Ruthie looked to the wall clock, "Sorry, didn't mean to technobabble again. Listen Harey, the next game's starting in a few minutes, better hurry up and get into the game."
"What if my parents show up. If my community found out..."
"They won't, because I'll be here the whole time. If anyone shows up, or if any of these whooziwhatsits start going crazy, I can pull off the chip and you'll come right back here."
"I don't know."
"Harey, there's another reason I'm asking you to try it. When you're in the game, you can't feel your body. The game creates a direct neural link, making you feel like you're completely in the game world."
"I won't feel my body?"
"No, It's kinda freaky at first, even for me. But don't you think it'll be nice to not feel pain or the urge to puke for a while? I promise to be here the whole time. And it won't take long, I promise."
Harey thought about not feeling his body. About escaping the pain, the hospital bed, the chemo. The church would never forgive such blatant escapism to technology. It was so clearly against the teachings of Harum Verran.
Harey handed the chip back to Ruthie, "No, it's too prideful. I've already failed a lot in my life. But I won't fail my faith so close to the end."
"Come on Harey! After everything I've done for you, I've never asked anything in return. All I'm asking is for you to help me with the most important thing I've ever done. This game is the key to the rest of my life."
Ruthie paused, realizing the finality in Harey's statement. Her ignorance of it for selfish ends. She grimaced, "I'm sorry, Harey. I didn't mean..."
"It's okay. I know how passionate you are about your projects. It's just one of the reasons I admire you. But you know I appreciate everything you've done for me, right?"
"Of course, of course! Listen Harey, I'm sorry I got so caught up in getting you to try the game. I just guessed you'd appreciate a chance to escape all this. On top of that, I figured the Wandering is all about experiencing what the world has to offer, before you have to decide to commit to a Verranite life. And honestly Harey, I don't think it's fair that you've spent over two months of it in frigging Nova Scotia Provincial Hospital!"
Ruthie was practically in tears. Harey was sold. She'd given him permission, an absolution. Trying the game was an experience. Call it a folly of youth, a mistake, whatever. But one done in the service of a friend.
Hareleah Angwin Verran took a wheezy breath and placed the chip on his forehead.
Check out Part 2 : Turn 0...
Follow Chris at chriskreuter.com, or on Twitter: @creativekreuter