Justin tore his gaze away from the large holovid on the opposite wall and shared an embarrassed grin with the middle-aged man who'd just entered the Imagitech waiting room.

The man was dressed in a tight synth-paper smock just like Justin, and given how he was holding the fabric away from his more private areas, the poor guy was uncomfortably aware there was nothing underneath the thin fabric to shield his dignity.

As a gangly 20 year old, the standard sized smock hung a little more generously from Justin's bony shoulder's, but was disturbingly short on his tall frame. He'd spent the last hour trying, with varying degrees of success, to keep the damn thing from riding all the way up his thighs every time he shifted in his chair.

Justin turned his attention back to the holovid, allowing the man to experience the new and exciting world of breezy thighs and sticky seats without an audience.

The screen was showing promo-reels for  Imagitech's catalogue of games, along with 'select advertisments from premium sponsors', and had been ever since Justin arrived nearly an hour ago. It was currently touting the decennial, re-mastered, re-release of Frontier Justice, one of Imagitech's earliest MMVR (massively-multiplayer, virtual reality) games.

A marshal riding slowly into town; a stage-coach bouncing across the plains, pursued by bandits; a game of poker around a dirty wooden table; a dawn shootout on a dust-blown street; a saloon owner pouring a glass of rotgut whisky, sliding it towards the camera.

Justin honestly didn't know who'd be willing to play something so out of date. Even with a graphics overhaul, it was originally designed for direct-feed suits without omni-sense feedback, and being pre-quantum, it lacked the life-like NPCs and adaptive skill and quest chains that had become the hallmark of modern games.

'They must be counting on a whole lot of nostalgia.' Justin thought, shifting awkwardly in his chair and once again rearranging his smock. He'd already seen each promo a dozen times during his stay in the waiting room, but since it was either watch the holovid or make stilted conversation with a complete stranger, Justin kept his eyes glued to the screen.

Spelled Steel, a sword and sorcery game almost as old as Frontier Justice:

A single knight stands over a bloodied ally, surrounded on all sides by baying wolves; a wizard throwing iridescent light from a rune-scribed staff; a horde of raging orks beating their chests to the thunderous beat of massed drums; a black dragon crashing to the ground, breathing roiling clouds of azure flame towards the camera.

Followed by City Streets, an urban neo-noir game pushing tales of mystery and uncertain morality in a corrupt city. Rain-lashed streets, gloomy alleys and stark concrete interrogation rooms flickered by to a soundtrack of maudlin blues music.

A quick advert for Seraph autonomous skids interrupted the game promos like a breath of faux-sweet reality, before diving back in at the deep end.

The Days After, a bleak post apocalyptic survival game full of irradiated cities, cobbled-together tech, desperate gun battles, bandits, mutants and cannibals. Strangely, one of their better selling titles.

Neo-Scape, dystopian cyberpunk, cybernetic hackers and neon-tattooed gangs, a contrast in vibrant holograms amidst a dark grimy undercity.

After two more promos, followed by an advert for Tap Soda that reminded Justin he hadn't had anything to drink for a couple of hours; a stirring peal of notes rang through the room.

The screen fades in behind a dark haired man standing on the roof of a skyscraper, his muscled body covered in blue and black form-fitting armour, his head tilted towards the city below.

A distant car alarm can be heard above the ambient sounds of wind and traffic, but then a scream rings out, seeming to silence the city. With a step the man dives head-first off the building and plummets towards the street below.

With seemingly no effort, the man rolls in the air, righting himself just before slamming into the pavement in a perfect three-point landing, the concrete cracking beneath him.

He raises his head, and then disappears in a streak of blue and black, a sonic boom rattling the nearby windows.

A Time of Heroes, Imagitech's  brand new Superhero venture, and the reason Justin was here.


Someone called Justin's name drawing his attention away from a Crafty Beers advert to the corridor outside the waiting room. A young indian man dressed in a white labcoat stood just outside reading a holopad.

Caught off guard, Justin lurched to his feet. Throwing a smile and a small wave to the middle-aged man in the corner, he hurried to the doorway.

Finished with whatever he'd been reading, the labcoat looked up at Justin and blinked as if surprised to see him there. "Right... Right! I'm Raj," he said in a British accent, waving vaguely towards the ID badge pinned beneath the company logo.

"I'm the floor tech for your area. Follow me and we'll get you all settled in." he said, turning suddenly and striding quickly down the corridor, his gaze back on his holopad.

Justin hurried to catch up, his synth-paper slippers providing surprisingly good traction on the smooth floor.

Raj had looked tired, but his voice was cheerful enough as he called back to Justin. "Sorry for the wait. We've got over 200 long-termers booked for processing and induction today. I was hoping things were going to slow down after opening weekend." He said, without looking up from his pad, "Oh well, better too much business than too little."

He carried on, obviously not expecting a reply. "Your medical results have been processed, hmmm, good latency scores there." Raj turned a corner seemingly at random, "Psych has signed off on your stability, no predispositions, no signs of claustrophobia, that's good." he threw a quick grin over his shoulder.

"Financial has confirmed the sign-over of your housing subsidy and your stipend covers the excess. You're marked up for the six month Paragon package, after which you'll be given the option for renewal or a preferential upgrade."

As Raj summarised Justin's long morning navigating the hurdles of Imagitech's medical and administrative divisions, Justin tried to keep track of their route through the labyrinthine corridors. The sudden turns, identical doors, and rapid pace was starting to leave him more than a little disoriented, enough so that Justin began to suspect it may be on purpose.

Before he could say anything though, Raj stopped suddenly in front of a seemingly random door. "Right, here we are, room 3762." Justin looked in confusion from the door, to Raj, and then to the dozens of identical doors around him with seemingly no identifying marks.

"Security," Raj said grinning "the door is keyed to respond to this pass code," he said, tapping his pad to the ID card hanging around Justin's neck. Now when Justin looked at the door, he could see room 3762 glowing there.

 "Only you and the floor techs know which room you've been assigned, the actual pods are given a random ID when they sign up to the game servers. Makes it just about impossible to determine who is playing what character." Raj said grinning again, "wouldn't want your nemesis to know you were living next door. Also makes people more comfortable with playing the bad guy," he said with a wink.

"Try not to forget your ID if you leave the room, speaking of, your ID will also give you access to the facilities down the hall." Raj waved his pad vaguely down the corridor towards signs indicating refresh facilities and a relaxation lounge. "You don't need to take downtime, but some users like to stretch their legs."

Justin turned back to find the room door now open and Raj waving him inside, "Strip down and settle into the pod. Once you're in I need to verify the health, system, and security monitors are up and running, then you'll be good to go."

"Okay," Justin said a little uncertainly. He was definitely uncomfortable at the thought of disrobing in front of someone, but he needn't have worried, Raj was back to reading his pad.

Stepping inside the room, he found a small changing area no larger than a shower stall. On the wall to his left there was a hook for his smock, a slot for his ID, and below that was a small indented shelf labelled personal items; which was odd, since he'd been told to put all his possessions into secure storage.

On the far side of the changing area, sat the pod itself.

Resting almost vertically with only a slight backwards tilt, it looked a little like a high-tech coffin. Inside the pod was a semi-solid, green gel bed, along with a number of vents and sensors.


Now naked, Justin settled into the pod, the gel sticky against his back, but surprisingly warm. He tried to keep at least one hand over his privates in case Raj looked up, but as soon as he settled in a metal door slid closed over the top, leaving only a circular viewing window clear above his face.

Raj's voice came over an internal speaker. "Once you're fully synced you'll be dropped into the pods home lobby, from there you'll have access to the game and standard lobby options, including logout commands. Please don't use the emergency logout for anything except an actual emergency, it will give you a mother of a headache and creates quite a mess out here. Now, close your eyes and try to relax."

Justin closed his eyes, before snapping them open a second later in panic. The gel behind him had softened and expanded, pulling him in, slowly enfolding his arms, legs and body. Outside he could see Raj grinning at his reaction, so Justin quickly closed his eyes and took a breath of relief as the gel stopped with his face still clear.

Against his scalp, he felt the gentle touch of a metal sensor-net, and with another deep breath, Justin dropped away from his body, his last sensation that of the gel inching forward to cover his face.


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About the author

Literal Folly

  • UK


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