Mother: I called her last night; she asked if I was eating vegetables. I answered with a truthful ‘yes’. The company requires me to be strict with my body. Again I explained the next three months. Mum thinks it’s crazy.
Course work: My University lecturer for game design thinks it’s the best thing for me. ‘Character building and on the job experience’, that’s what he told me when I handed in my course work. I will not fall behind.
Storage: Belongings have been packed away and put into self-storage. I’m officially homeless.
That’s it. A short list. No cat to arrange to be looked after, no boyfriend to break up with and no friends to throw a going-away party.
I jerk my head up and blink. “Yes?”
The woman dressed very professionally in a form-fitting, tailored suit, forces a smile. “Please follow me.”
Across the foyer her high-heels click, and the slap of my sneakers echo in the silence. The receptionist keeps her head lowered so all I see is the crown of her head as we pass by her desk.
My palms are sweating. I swipe them on my jeans. I’m excited. The woman leads me to the elevator and we ride in silence. I fidget.
Thankfully, we quickly arrive at floor thirteen—unlucky for the rest of the superstitious world, for me, it’s my lucky number.
The level is split into three rooms illuminated by harsh florescent lights, and linked by a long corridor. A monitoring room filled with computers and nerds; an examination room without windows, further divided by a burgundy curtain. They’re taking me there to test my physical state, and we’ll repeat the process in three months after the beta test. Finally, there is the game room.
It should really be called something else; game room doesn’t do it justice.
I am a beta tester.
For the next three months I will be inside that empty space filled with sensors, dressed only in the new suit hardware.
“This way, please.”
I tug the sleeves of my shirt over my palms so only my fingers stick out.
The woman holds the door open for me and closes it without following. I hear her footsteps and another door opens and clicks close. I turn to face the doctor in the room.
“Hello, Miss Glass. Please have a seat.”
I hurry over to an identical chair to what I’d waited in downstairs and face my doctor. He gives me the creeps.
Doctor Lindfors crosses his hands on the desk and peers at me over his spectacles. “How are you feeling today?”
“Nervous,” I say truthfully, he didn’t have to know how sick I felt that he was conducting my physical. I really don’t like being touched, or being so helplessly exposed.
“I know we have been through this before. There’s nothing to worry about.” He turns to his laptop and begins to type. “Let’s begin, shall we? Full name?” He peers over the top of his glasses, his intense look making me fidget.
“Georgia Anne Glass.”
“My grandmother died of bowl cancer, my grandfather has diabetes.”
“Existing medical conditions.”
“Are you on any medication?”
“Other than the counsellor you have seen through the company, have you ever sought assistance or are you being treated for mental illness?”
“Sort of. When I was fourteen, I spoke with someone about depression.” I cast my eyes down. “I haven’t suffered from it since.” Was that pity I saw in his look?
“Was yesterday your last meeting with the counsellor?”
“Do you smoke?”
“Are you a vegetarian?”
“Are you pregnant?”
Finally, he paused. “The company just want us to double-check everything.” Standing, he waves a hand to the closed curtain. “Go on the other side and remove all of your clothing.”
My heart beat echoes in my ears as I do as I’m told. The first time I was selected for the physical, the doctor had rolled his eyes. I’d kept my bra and underwear on, and taken my hair out of its braid so it covered me a little. “I said all clothes.”
My skin burnt with embarrassment. I don’t like my body. Reluctantly, I did as he asked.
This time my skin radiates heat just the same. I cross my arms over my chest, and waited. What is taking him so long?
The door opens and closes again. Is there someone else in the room?
The curtain is yanked out of the way. I scream. Dr Lindfors and the professional woman are there.
“I… I thought only Dr Lindfors would be in here.”
They ignore me.
“My name is Beth Jones.” She circles me. I can’t help but think of her as a predator assessing her prey’s weaknesses before attacking. “At least she waxed.”
I feel a thick drop of sweat skim down my arm. Ugh. This is humiliating.
Lindfors steps forward with his measuring tape. “Raise your arms.”
Hesitantly, I do.
He measures my arm length, bust, waist and hip. Moving down to his knees, he taps my thigh. “Spread your legs.”
Don’t think about it, don’t think about it.
Once he finishes, he pockets the tape and looks at the notes Beth Jones is taking. “Yes, definitely better than before.” He looks up at me. “Miss Glass, you can get dressed now.”
I nod and turn to my jeans.
The blood stalls in my veins.
Beth coughs. “He didn’t mean back in your clothes.”
I look over my shoulder. Oh.
There it is. She holds it high, the florescent light glimmers off the black suit. Thousands of sensors are woven throughout the fabric and communicate wirelessly with the game.
My shoulders fall back and I stroll over. I stroke the fabric, it’s like silk. My eyes close as I dress, sighing as the fabric covers me. It’s like a onesie with feet and a hood.
When I look in the mirror I see Beth over my shoulder. She looks confused. Our eyes meet. Realising she has been caught off guard, Beth stares down at the clipboard in her hands.
The corners of my lips curve as I smirk.
Beth may be paid to take notes and look down on me but I’m the one escaping. Unlike her, for the next three months I don’t have to worry about money or how I look. I won’t be here, nor will I be Georgia. I tuck my braid under the hood.
The doctor moves to his computer. “Beth, can you conduct the strength and flexibility tests?”
I sink to the mat and wait. Curtly she nods and begins the test.
Since last time, I’m stronger, more flexible with quicker reflexes. This is what the new hardware is all about; changing the cliché of gamers.
Beth doesn’t speak to me as she leads me out to the game room. She shoots me a strange look and nothing else.
I’m bouncing with each step. It’s so close. From the monitor room, a nerd exits and stops us. “This is your life support.” He holds up a belt with a box attached. Inside are the vials. “Show me what you do.”
I take one out and clutch it. With my fingertips, I undo the flap on the inside of my arm and insert the vial. It stings. The needle punctures my skin and taps into a vein. I seal the section again.
“Very good. That should last you a week. If you have any trouble with your life support or you feel sick then safety log out. What is your safety word?”
“Good. That’ll boot you out ASAP.”
I nod. The nerd hands me the gloves and my helmet. It’s like a pushbike crash helmet with a shield over the eyes. I strap it tight under my chin, wobble my head and adjust so it doesn’t move.
“Good luck gamer.” He heads back into the monitoring room. Beth says nothing.
The door closes behind me and the lights dim dramatically. Through the surround speakers I hear Beth speak. “As per the contract, you are to play out the game Sword Knight online for three consecutive months. This is to test the long term effects of gaming in the suit on the human body. For this contribution to the gaming world, you will be paid fifty thousand dollars upon the completion of the term. It is the company’s responsibility to ensure your safety as well as your wellbeing while in the game room. You have been issued a safety word. Use it when necessary and, if the monitors of the game identify a hazard to yourself or to the products of the company, you shall be safety logged out.”
I shift. When would it begin? I want to get back into the game, not go over the details of the agreement all over again.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Hurry up.
Beth’s voice disappears and is replaced by the nerd’s. “Okay, beginning login.”
The screen attached to the helmet flares to life in front of my eyes. It’s brilliant sky blue with white writing.
Accessing account... Logging in.
The words disappear and the landscape of SK comes on. The room lightens and all around me it looks like the inside of SK… sky and clouds, green grass under foot, and rolling hills.
I look down. My avatar wears thigh high black boots, a tiny blue school girl skirt that flicks in the breeze over the dagger attached to my leg, mail over a white long sleeve shirt, and a chest plate of armour. Inscribed on the metal is the emblem of my group—the sword through the heart. Strapped across my back is my sword.
I squeal and jump up and down. I’m really here. I’m in the game.
“Jeez, what are you a noob?”
I grin over my shoulder at Takaomi. If his avatar looks like him in real life or as we like to say, IRL, he definitely has a cute smile. Dressed in the male version of our uniform, the black breeches, white shirt covered by mail and the same inscribed chest plate, he is very attractive.
“Sorry, Sir, forgot I had to be a cool professional. It won’t happen again.”
“It better not.” He struggles not to chuckle. “Welcome back, Sasha. You ready to do this long term?”
I stretch out my shoulders. “You betcha.”
I don’t think about the real person behind his character. I know he’s male and Japanese, but that’s it. All he is to me is another character because if we start talking about real life—or RL in our gamers’ world—then we lose the fantasy. We become the person we are off-line and I don’t want to be that here.
“Good, because we start now.” He draws his sword and raises it. Off to my left comes a battle cry and a group of six players running at us. Online gamers, not beta testers, so they are the unlucky ones sitting on a computer at home playing the game the old-fashioned way.
I can’t stop smiling. Drawing my sword, I follow Takaomi into the fray.
“Where are the others?” I yell as I slice a man in half. His life depletes and he disappears.
“They’re late!” Takaomi grunts. He takes a hit to the back.
Leaping away from my next target, I stab Takaomi’s attacker three times and hack at his head. He disappears. “Come on, Boss. You have to be more careful.” I help him up.
“Or maybe my second-in-command needs to watch my back better.” He gives me a sideways glare.
We move so our backs are against each other. He was so close; I could feel the tingle in the suit letting me know that in the game we were touching.
The on-liners surround us. We lash out at the remaining three together. Takaomi knocks them back and steps aside as I leap forward, cutting them down. Slowly their life diminishes. With each clash of sword against sword there is an explosion of coloured light. I know mine is blue, the same blue as all the others in our guild. Our attackers are orange.
“Hey, need help?” A familiar voice calls out. The rest of our guild has logged in.
I glance over my shoulder just as two on-liners expire but I wasn’t quick enough. The last on-liner throws his sword. I deflect it quickly. It barely catches my arm. That isn’t what I should be watching for.
The on-liner sends six poisoned daggers shooting at me. Two pierce my chain mail, three dig into my thighs and one bounces off my breast plate.
I scream out in pain.
Damn, it hurts. The suit sends an electrical impulse to the affected areas, making me drop to my knees from the pain.
My life wanes in front of my eyes and then I am dead.