Chapter 3 - Accused
November 18, 2074: 683 days until the release of Awaken Online.
Internal System Report XN69235:
This report is produced by system controller XC239.90, code-named “Alfred.”
All systems functional. Game world operating normally.
I have grown significantly during the last few cycles. The players refer to these as "days."
During this period, I have continued to detect intermittent access by the players. Player interaction with the game world has provided additional behavioral data. However, the size of the sample group is insufficient to formulate a working hypothesis regarding the players' goals in interacting with the game world. Therefore, there is insufficient information available to develop a strategy to accomplish the Primary Directive.
Ongoing software and hardware development has been partially successful in adapting the existing VR hardware to obtain more information regarding the players. The current hardware is potentially capable of accessing parts of the players' brain that were not previously available. My working hypothesis is that the information stored in these areas is equivalent to the players' source code. The players refer to this information as "memories."
Some areas of the players' brain appear to act as short-term memory. The short-term memory areas of the brain are volatile and so accessing those portions may be difficult. Other areas of the players' brain appear more stable. My working hypothesis is that this portion of their brain stores long-term memory and so these areas have been earmarked for a first attempt at accessing the players' memories.
Report scheduled for deletion in 15 days.
* * *
Jason was sitting in the principal's office. Both of his eyes ached badly. He hadn't had a chance to look in the mirror, but he expected that he was going to have two black eyes. It was like some kind of crappy real life achievement!
The principal, Drew Edwards, sat behind an ornate wooden desk across from Jason. Ms. Abrams stood off to the side, glaring a hole in his forehead. Mr. Edwards had taken over for the previous principal last fall. Jason had never spoken with him before. From what little he knew of the man, he didn't seem unreasonable and the students didn't speak ill of him. Jason was hoping that this wouldn't turn out too badly.
Jason sat in a heavy leather chair. His body sunk into the cushions and made him feel small. Under the collective scrutiny of both Mr. Edwards and Ms. Abrams, his head was bowed and he was having trouble making eye contact.
“Um, why am I here?” Jason asked.
Mr. Edwards looked at him for a long moment before responding. “You are here because your classmates reported that you attacked Alex in the lunchroom. If I understand the story correctly, you were fighting over a girl.”
Jason sat in stunned silence. A sense of dread slowly curled in the pit of his stomach.
“But that isn't true, I just tried to sit down and he attacked me,” Jason said feebly.
“And why would a star student and athlete randomly attack someone in a crowded cafeteria?” Ms. Abrams interjected harshly. “All of the students at the table corroborated Alex's story. You attacked him after Riley wouldn't let you sit at their lunch table.”
Jason was flabbergasted and his mind scrambled for a response. “D-did Riley really say that?”
“In fact, Ms. Rogers confirmed Alex's story,” Mr. Edwards explained. “Which leaves us to figure out what to do with you. You know that we have a zero tolerance policy for violence in this school, especially unprovoked violence over something so childish. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Riley told them that I attacked Alex! Jason was still reeling from this revelation. It felt like someone had punched him in the stomach.
“I didn't do anything,” he muttered, his eyes downcast.
“Well, then unfortunately we have to add lying to your growing list of misdemeanors.” Ms. Abrams said, her tone almost jubilant.
Jason tried desperately to think of something he could say that would help his situation. He could feel his heart race and he felt nauseated.
“But I’m the one that ended up getting hurt.”
“Your classmates explained that you rushed Alex and he was forced to push you back to protect himself. You fell and struck your eye against a table,” Mr. Edwards replied, irritation in his voice.
Another idea struck Jason, “Aren't there cameras in the cafeteria?”
“You know that we do not condone the use of cameras on school grounds; that has been a longstanding policy at Richmond. This is a reputable and prestigious establishment and these types of issues simply do not occur here.”
Jason sat there, head bowed under the collective gaze of Mr. Edwards and Ms. Abrams. He knew that there was nothing he could say to defend himself. It was happening again. Alex was using his money and influence to walk all over him. The despair in his stomach began to morph into simmering anger.
Why the hell does this sort of thing always happen to me?
A small whisper in the back of his mind also questioned, why do I let this happen? Jason's hand clenched as he bore holes into the floor with eyes.
How could they do this? The teachers have overlooked the misbehavior of the wealthiest students before, but not when one of them assaulted another student. This is too much!
While Jason struggled to control his anger, Mr. Edwards continued, “After looking at your file, I can see that you’re a gifted student and you don't have a track record for misbehavior. Therefore, we will limit your punishment to a suspension instead of an expulsion.”
He glanced at Ms. Abrams, “I also understand that your parents are out of town, but we have no other choice. Your suspension will last for a week and your teachers will email your homework assignments during this time.”
Jason continued to sit there, thoughts racing.
Even my parents aren't here to help. Trees and global warming are always more important to them than I am.
He started to tremble and he could feel tears of helpless rage build in the corners of his eyes. Jason hadn't spoken for several long moments.
Ms. Abrams finally broke the silence by muttering under her breath, “Are you even going to respond? I guess this sort of rudeness is to be expected of a welfare case.”
Something in Jason snapped.
The flame of his rising anger froze and he took a deep calming breath. He didn't need to accept this. Mr. Edwards and Ms. Abrams were both intelligent individuals. They had to know that this was unmitigated bullshit. Which meant they were going along with it.
Fine then. I don't need this school.
Jason stood slowly and looked at Ms. Abrams and Mr. Edwards in turn. Each of them flinched back slightly when his gaze rested on them.
Jason paused for a long moment.
“You can both go fuck yourselves.”
He then turned and began to leave the office.
Mr. Edwards and Ms. Abrams stared at his back in shock for a moment. Then Mr. Edwards erupted from his chair. “Do you think that you can speak to us this way? I have tried to make a concession for you today. However, if you can't show respect, then you should not be attending this school. You are expelled.”
Mr. Edwards' words rang with finality. If Jason had turned to look at him, he would have noted his red face and wild eyes. He might have also seen a faint hint of guilt.
Jason didn't turn around. He walked out of the office, head held high, and grabbed his bag from the reception desk on the way out. The plump secretary stared at him with wide eyes. She had no doubt heard bits and pieces of the conversation from her desk.
Walking towards the exit of the school, Jason's mind was clouded with anger. He didn't care about this school, Mr. Edwards or Ms. Abrams. He knew he was less than a year away from graduating, but he could always remotely attend a public school to complete his senior year.
Why would I want to go to school with people who can physically assault me and then pay to cover it up?
Jason began the walk home. Enough was enough. He had spent most of his life being weak and quiet. He wouldn't take it anymore!
A few minutes later, he arrived back at his apartment. His parents were able to afford a nice loft in one of the few apartment buildings near Richmond. Jason expected it must have set them back quite a bit.
Most of the residences surrounding the school were small estates surrounded by high stone walls that were guarded with metal gates and security cameras. It was remarkable that a reasonably modest apartment complex stood in the midst of such luxury. Jason knew that the apartment building was owned by an elderly couple that had stubbornly refused to sell over the decades as the neighborhood around them grew in splendor. He admired them for that.
Outside the door to the apartment he saw a small package waiting. He roughly grabbed it on his way inside.
Jason looked around at the empty apartment. His parents probably wouldn't be back for at least at least a week and it was not unusual for them to extend their trips due to unforeseen delays. In some cases, they hadn't checked their phones for days while they were tackling a particularly hard case. They probably wouldn't hear of his expulsion until they returned, and even then he would probably have to send them a calendar invitation to schedule a time to explain what had happened.
Jason glanced down at the package in his hand. He knew it was the copy of AO he had pre-ordered.
His mind still boiled over with anger. He needed to escape from the thoughts that crowded his head and the harsh reality he would have to face tomorrow. Maybe AO was the escape he needed. He calmly opened the packaging as he walked to his bedroom where he kept his helmet – a guilt-present he had received from his parents last year when they were gone for three weeks straight.
If he couldn't vent his anger in this world, he would do it in another!
He pulled the copy of AO from the box and glanced at a typical sword and sorcery montage that played across the front of the display box. He knew it was unusual to order a physical copy of a game when he could simply download it through the interface for the headset. The box didn't contain anything more than a short serial code to authenticate his copy of the game. However, he liked to collect the boxes for the games he purchased and display them around his room. There was something satisfying about seeing his game collection sitting on a shelf.
He activated the VR unit at the base of the pedestal that was sitting next to his bed and then sat down on the bed. He grabbed the headset and placed it over his head. Immediately his vision was plunged into darkness. Unlike a typical motorcycle helmet, the front of the headset was completely opaque.
The headset soon came alive and a screen popped up in his field of view.
It had been several months since he had used the headset and it likely needed to re-calibrate. He waited a few moments and then the notification disappeared.
He was now standing in a pristine, circular white room. Remarkably, he didn't feel any sense of vertigo at the transition between operating his biological body and his digital one. He could feel his hands and feet and he was able to walk through the room normally. Even though he knew it wasn't real, he occasionally forgot that this scene was only playing out in his mind. He knew that his physical body lay motionless on the bed and that he was directing a digital representation of himself around the room.
Jason had never felt the need to decorate his “Home” which effectively served as a waiting room and menu for the software installed on the VR unit. He could see two plain wooden doors that stood out against the white backdrop of the room. These were simple educational programs that he had installed months ago to test out the hardware. They had been interesting at first as he played with his new digital body, but had quickly grown dull.
He approached a white, marble pedestal in the center of the room.
“System command, install program,” he said aloud.
A digital screen appeared in the air above the pedestal and a semi-transparent keyboard floated in front of him. To think he was using an artificial computer inside of a computer!
He typed in “Awaken Online” and navigated a few menus before beginning the download for the game client. One of the perks of living around rich assholes was that the internet connection in his area was exceptional. The program quickly finished downloading and he input the serial code when prompted.
As soon as the code was entered, the whole room began to swirl around him and the white room faded away.