Quit Playing Games With My Heart
With his invasion force consolidating their hold on the city, Ram turned his attention away from the monitors in his temporary command centre in the old sports stadium and left his surveillance team to deal with matters on the ground, putting it all out of his mind as soon as he had directed his wheelchair out of the room and down the corridor. Already his mind wanted to race ahead to the next phase of his plans but even a genius like him needed to rest. He needed to do something fun. With a smirk, he moved purposefully down the corridor, knowing in that moment exactly where he was going and what he wanted to do.
‘Who have we got?’ he demanded as he entered the holding cells and scooted up to the control panel, where Java sat pressing buttons and looking out through a large reinforced glass window into the next room, where a Virt girl sat strapped into a large padded chair, wired up to a headset that - when perfected - was going to be one of his greatest achievements.
‘She was brought in by one of the squadrons entering the city from the east,’ Java answered at once, unsurprised by his sudden appearance. ‘Three of them found her hiding out in one of the farm buildings out that way. But there’s…a complication.’ She gestured to a corner of the room without taking her eyes from the panel in front of her and Ram followed her finger to where a baby lay sleeping in a cot, watched over by a burly Techno who kept eyeing the infant as if it might suddenly decide to wake up and eat him. Ram didn’t blame him.
‘What is that…that thing …doing here?’ he wheezed, raising his mask to his face, black to match his uniform.
‘There was nowhere else to put it,’ Java said simply. ‘It’s been sanitised.’
Reluctantly he lowered his mask, casting wary glances at the child.
‘She’d just given birth when your men found her,’ Java continued. ‘They checked he was healthy then brought them in together.’
‘Well, well, well,’ Ram mused. ‘Three wise men from the east stumbling upon a baby in a barn. How festive. What next, a fat man in a bright red suit?’
‘Well I’m certainly none of those things,’ Java said with a warning look. ‘But I do have a present for you. Happy Ram-mas.’
He barked a laugh as he took the package she offered him in one gloved hand. ‘Ha! Now there’s an idea!’ He turned the package over in his hands, examining it. It was a sleek black box, squareish and only a centimetre or so thick. ‘Rather a meagre present,’ he complained.
‘Good things come in small packages,’ Java replied, not rising to the bait. ‘It’s all I have to give , but I think you’ll like it.’
He opened the box; his breath caught at the sight of the computer disc inside. ‘Is this…the programme?!’
‘It works!’ Java said softly. Proudly.
Ram laughed. For months he had been working with prototype technology left behind by the adults, trying to perfect their plans for creating a virtual world that he would have full control over. He had set his best programmers to the task and now…now it was within reach. But it needed a name. Hmm. Virtual Hilarity? It would certainly provide him with endless amusement. But no, too crass. Reality Space? Yes, that would do.
‘And we have our first test subject already lined up,’ Java grinned, looking out through the window to where the prisoner sat restrained.
‘Of course!’ Ram realised. ‘Yes, she’s perfect. She’s just…’ He felt the bile rising in his throat as he imagined the birth and satisfied himself with gesticulating towards the brat instead. ‘You know. She’ll be tired. Emotionally vulnerable. Suggestible to any virtual constructs we place in front of her. Java, this is an excellent present indeed!’ He placed the CD into the slot in front of him eagerly. ‘What do we know about her?’ he continued.
‘Our researchers have been questioning the other Virts in the compounds,’ Java began, picking up a clipboard with notes on it. ‘You’ve picked up quite a prize here Ram. Apparently she’s a bit of a big shot in the city. A do-gooder by the name of Amber, your resident social justice warrior and busybody. If you can crack her, you’ll have the rest of this place eating out of your hands.’ She turned a page of her notes and handed him a photograph. ‘This is her partner,’ she continued. ‘Bray. The father.’
‘Do we have him?’ he asked.
Java gave a self-satisfied smile before answering. ‘He was picked up in the same area about an hour ago and is being transported as we speak.’
Ram sighed in disappointment. Patience had never been one of his virtues.
‘But he’s already been scanned and his avatar has been uploaded to the programme, ready to use.’
He shook his fists in excitement. ‘Oh Javie,’ he enthused. ‘You really do know the shape of my heart don’t you?’ Java beamed, pleased at the recognition. ‘Let’s get this show on the road!’ A flashing box appeared on the panel’s screen with the word ‘ACTIVATE’ inside. Ram pressed a button.
Amber strained against the straps holding her to her chair. Her mind was full of panic but she tried to focus that into measured action. As much as she wanted to writhe and pull at her restraints she knew that attracting attention to herself was only going to make her situation worse. She could hear muffled voices in the next room. At any moment one of them - whoever they were - might decide to come in, so she had to be careful. Probe at her bonds rather than attack them. Already she had found out that her right arm was secured less tightly to the arm of the chair, but what use was that to her? She couldn’t even see anything thanks to this thing on her head. For all she knew there were people stood in front of her right now, laughing at her attempts at stealth.
The panic started to seep through again. Where is Bray? The thought prickled at the back of her mind. It was a true fear but she knew it was only masking an even bigger fear she dared not dwell on. What have they done with my baby? Too late. The thought had been released, piercing the walls she had built up around her sanity and letting through that wave of panic, drop by drop. Her physical struggle against the chair intensified and she began to thrash around more wildly, knowing it could lead to further restraining measures but unable to stop herself.
Suddenly she felt herself slipping away from where she was. Her mind hovered between the room she sat in now and somewhere else, drowning in a series of feelings and emotions that she wasn’t sure were entirely her own.
She was back in the barn. She could feel the hay she was resting on, smell the musky animal scent that hung in the air. Something in the back of her head was telling her that something was wrong but at the sight of her baby in her arms that feeling died away, replaced by a huge wave of relief. It had all been a bad dream, that was it. She had been tired and delirious after the difficult birth but everything was right now. No, not quite everything. Where was Bray?
As if thinking of him had been a summons, there he was, coming through the barn door. Their eyes lit up at the sight of each other and he crossed the floor to kneel by her side, enveloping her with one arm and stroking their baby’s cheek with his other hand.
‘You’re ok,’ she sighed. Now everything was right.
‘Of course I am,’ he smiled in amusement. ‘And so are you. I’m so proud of you Amber, you’ve made it through the hard part. You’ve brought our son into the world. Our new life begins now. Together we can do anything.’
‘I love you Bray,’ she murmured, resting her head on his chest.
Bray melted away, and she was back in the chair. Confused. Heartbroken. Angry.
‘Hey! This programme is incomplete ,’ Ram complained. ‘And what is this lovey dovey mush? I expected better from you Java.’
‘Oh, that was just the set-up,’ Java smiled, pushing her keyboard towards him. ‘Now you get to be creative.’
Realisation dawned on him and he grabbed the keyboard with glee, typing away frantically. Coding the end of the story.
‘Right, there we go,’ he grinned devilishly when he was done. He cracked his neck and then his fingers, preparing himself. ‘Now, show me the meaning of being lonely .’ He laughed as he pressed the button once more.
She was in the barn. Again. Before she could stop to think about what was going on there were kids bursting through the door. Dressed in black with silver masks, they formed a semicircle around her and Bray, blocking any escape route and raising their arms to point laser weapons in their direction. She cradled her baby protectively as she stood to confront them, Bray following her lead.
‘Please,’ she addressed the intruders. ‘There’s no need to harm us. We’re not a threat to you.’
‘All Virts are to be collected for processing,’ one of the masked strangers replied. ‘No exceptions.’
‘The Technos control this land now,’ another added.
‘We’ll see about that,’ Bray muttered before launching himself at the nearest Techno.
‘Bray, no!’ she screamed. Before the words had completely left her mouth he had barrelled into the surprised teen, carrying him to the floor. Red lights flew through the air as the remaining Technos discharged their weapons. Bray, halfway to standing, collapsed as one of the lights hit him. He rolled over groggily before he was set upon by their attackers. Dust rose from the floor and when it settled Bray was standing but restrained by two Technos, covered in dust and straw, with blood dripping from his lip. Their son started crying in her arms and she tried to rock him while frantically avoiding the grabbing hands of more Technos. It was no use. Her baby was snatched from her while more hands pushed her back.
‘No!’ she screamed. ‘No!’ The hands retreated and she stumbled forwards, falling to the floor. By the time she got up, Bray and her son had been marched out of the barn. She scrambled to her feet and followed, just in time to hear the rumble of engines as the Technos’ vehicles started driving away. Without her. ‘No! Don’t leave me!’ she pleaded. ‘Take me with you! Bray!’ With no hope of catching them on foot she ran after them anyway. There was nothing else she could do. No exceptions, they had said. Why were they leaving her behind? She ran through the fields, into the woods. The vehicles were slower here, winding their way through the trees, but still faster than she was. She watched as they faded into the distance, became nothing but black specks, and then disappeared completely. Still she ran. She didn’t know for how long. Woods became mountains. She trekked through snow, jungle, and finally desert before finally sinking to her knees in defeat.
‘Bray…’ she whispered.
Ram bounced up and down in his wheelchair as the scene unfolded, marvelling at the detailed terrains and landscapes the Virt girl was running through. ‘It’s magnificent!’ he enthused, ignoring the prisoner and revelling in his virtual world.
‘And expertly coded,’ Java added, reaching for the keyboard.
‘No!’ Ram cried, hugging the keyboard. ‘I’m not finished yet!’ When he was sure Java wasn’t going to take it from him he put it back down and started typing again. ‘Now, picture this…’ he began, his mind buzzing with creative juices, lost in the story he was telling. Keys clicked as he typed along while explaining to Java.
‘She finds her way back to her tribe, ok? The Technos have the city, naturally, but she thinks she can form some sort of resistance. She owes it to her missing Bray and her son.’ He raised a fist to his heart and pretended to wipe away a tear. ‘So she finds some goody two-shoes Techno to help her out from the inside.’
‘Jay,’ Java interrupted. ‘It would have to be.’
Ram laughed. ‘Yes, that works. Let’s stick Jay in there.’ He typed faster now. ‘Of course they fall for each other, BUT!’ He raised a finger in the air. ‘How could she ever be with one of those who took away her beloved Bray?’ He placed the back of his hand against his forehead in a dramatic gesture. ‘But then BAM!’ He brought his fist down on the arm of his wheelchair and Java jumped. ‘Just when she’s worked through her internal struggle and is about to confess her feelings, she finds him in bed with her best friend! Ha! Whaddaya think?’
Java arched an eyebrow at him as he cackled away to himself before breaking off into a coughing fit. The Techno watching the baby stood to offer assistance but he waved him away irritably. ‘A little far-fetched,’ Java said once his coughing had subsided.
‘Well I want it that way ,’ he replied stubbornly. ‘So that’s how it’s going to be.’ He pressed the button defiantly.
As the scene played out, Ram chuckled to himself. As his brilliant conclusion approached, Java tentatively reached out a hand towards the keyboard. ‘Why don’t we spice things up a bit?’ she said, a mischievous smile on her lips. He narrowed his eyes at her, feeling protective of his coding, but reluctantly pushed the keyboard towards her, curious as to what she had planned.
Amber sat in the café of the mall with the rest of her tribe, celebrating a small victory over the Technos. Her forces had managed to take out an enemy comms station this morning, thanks to information from Jay. Who’s Jay? Jay himself stood in the middle of the room, receiving congratulations from the others. I don’t know anyone called Jay! As she was arguing with herself, he turned around to face her. Their eyes met and he smiled and suddenly she knew that she was in love with this man. How could she have forgotten? Walking over to him she clasped his hands in her own and looked up into his eyes.
‘Jay, I want you to know, what you’ve done for…for all of us, it means so much.’
Yes, she loved this man, and she wished more than anything that she could tell him that. But he was a Techno, and the Technos had taken…
‘Amber? Who’s this?’
She turned to face the figure who had just entered the room. Tall and strong, with wavy chestnut hair and with a dusty travel bag hanging from one shoulder. ‘Bray! You’re back!’ she cried. ‘But how…?’
‘So you’re Bray,’ Jay said, eyeing the new arrival carefully. ‘I’m…’
‘I don’t care who you are!’ Bray snapped. Suddenly his eyes shone with a strange intensity.
‘Where you’re from…’ he continued, slipping his bag off his shoulder and onto the floor.
‘What you did…’ He marched over to them, took Jay’s head in his hands, and kissed him on the lips.
‘ As long as you love me ,’ he finished breathily.
Amber gasped. Bray released Jay, who looked shocked.
‘I…’ he began, before taking a moment to compose himself. ‘I do,’ he continued. ‘Oh, I do love you Bray!’ This time Bray was the one to be siezed, the pair stumbling backwards into a table as Jay kissed Bray back just as intensely. Two pairs of hands moved so quickly that Amber couldn’t keep up with where they were. She stood open-mouthed, her own hands clutching her head in shock and confusion. What was happening?!
Ram and Java both laughed as they watched the events playing out on the screen in front of them. ‘Good one Java,’ he said appreciatively, giving a final chuckle before turning deadpan and snatching the keyboard back.
‘But I still want MY ending.’
She paced up and down the corridor between her own room and Jay’s, warring with herself in her mind as to which one she should go to. Yes, the Technos had been responsible for Bray’s disappearance, but Jay had had nothing to do with that, she was sure, and deep down she knew that Bray and her son were gone. That she had to find a way to honour their memory and move on with her life. With a deep sigh, she made her decision.
‘Jay, I can’t deny it anymore,’ she said in a rush as she barged into his room. ‘I love…’
Jay sat up in his bed with a start as she entered. Another shape wriggled lower in the bed under the covers, trying in vain not to be seen.
‘Jay?’ she asked softly, feeling like she’d just been punched in the stomach. She was too late. But who else could have won his heart while she had been preoccupied with her own struggle?
The lights in the room flickered and she clutched her head as she heard muffled voices arguing somewhere in the distance. It lasted only a split second, making her wonder if she’d just imagined it.
The second figure rose from the bed and she felt another punch to the gut as she realised who it was.
‘Bray?!’ she cried, her head swimming.
‘Sorry Amber,’ Bray replied. ‘But…’ He gestured towards Jay with his thumb. ‘ We’ve got it goin’ on .’
Java’s shoulders shook with laughter as she watched the girl’s face on the screen. Halfway across the room, Ram angrily disinfected his wheelchair controls after Java had meddled with them, sending him shooting backwards in order to gain control of the keyboard once more.
‘That is going too far!’ he yelled, brandishing a warning finger at her. ‘I will not be… manhandled .’ Java, halfway to regaining her composure, snorted and tried to hide her laughter behind a finger. Ram accelerated towards her. ‘That is NOT what I meant Java,’ he huffed. ‘Now please, a little decorum!’
He grabbed the keyboard and slammed it down in front of him, ready to get his creative vision back on track. Then he looked at the screen. ‘Java!’ he choked. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ In the virtual bedroom, Bray had disappeared. In his place was someone more familiar - Java herself. Jay had changed too. Wider jaw, thicker arms, broader chest, but still recognisable as Jay.
Java wrenched the keyboard away from him and started frantically pressing keys. ‘It…it must be legacy data,’ she stammered. ‘Leftover code from a…from a previous programme.’ She ended in a breathy whisper, still unable to remove herself from the programme.
‘A private programme by the looks of it,’ Ram noted flatly. ‘And you’ve made Jay a little larger than life I see.’
‘In more ways than one,’ she said quietly, clamping a hand over her mouth when she realised she’d said it aloud.
‘Just get rid of it!’ he ordered, raising his hands to block his view of the screen. Things were getting a little unsanitary for his liking. In a panic, Java shut down the entire programme. Next door the prisoner gave her head a shake and balled her fists.
‘ Quit playing games with my heart you monsters!’ she yelled, renewing her efforts to break free. Ram had no fears that she would succeed. Instead he turned to Java.
‘I think we need to have words,’ he told her, giving her a disapproving look. ‘About your behaviour towards your leader as well as your…extracurricular activities.’ She withered under his gaze.
The appearance of a Techno soldier at the door saved her and she breathed a sigh of relief.
‘What is it?’ Ram spat the words, irritated by the interruption.
‘Trouble, Lord Ram,’ the soldier relayed, a note of urgency in his voice. ‘Out on the backstreets, back east. A group of prisoners banded together and hijacked the vehicle they were being transported in. Sir, they’re heading this way!’ He handed over a tablet playing CCTV footage of the vehicle making its way through the streets. He knew whose face he would see in the truck’s cabin even before he zoomed in.
‘Bray,’ he said tightly, narrowing his eyes. His assault on the city had been meant to cow the inhabitants, to send them into disarray before they had a chance to organise themselves into any form of substantial resistance. This would be his first test facing an attack. Sooner than he would have liked, but no matter. His forces were still more than a match for these Virts. ‘Let them come,’ he told the Techno. ‘And when they do…’ He looked to Java for reassurance. Her eyes met his levelly and she nodded.
‘Make the call ,’ she said.
He turned back to the Techno. ‘Delete them all,’ he ordered.
The soldier swallowed. ‘Understood sir,’ he answered before leaving. Ram nodded in satisfaction.
It was a tense wait for the transport vehicle to arrive. Ram and Java followed its journey on the tablet as far as the entrance to the stadium. As the prisoners - the rebels - stormed into the building he wished he had hooked up the stadium’s internal cameras to his systems too. It hadn’t been a priority, and it shouldn’t have been if everything had gone to plan. He started reviewing his invasion strategy in his head, trying to gauge where he might have made other mistakes. No, not mistakes. Oversights. But he could think of none. He sighed in relief. Everything would be ok.
Minutes ticked by. What was happening down there? Impatiently he gestured to the Techno watching the baby. ‘Find out what’s going on!’ he barked.
‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ Java said soothingly when they were alone. ‘Those Virts don’t stand a chance.’
‘I’m not worried!’ he snapped. ‘I just don’t like not knowing. I need to be able to…to process! To plan!’
The door burst open.
‘Finally!’ he began, but the word hung in the air as he was confronted by Bray, a Techno zapper strapped to his wrist and a rag-tag band of city folk behind him.
‘This is impossible!’ he choked. ‘There’s no way…’
‘It seems some of your own weren’t entirely on board with your methods,’ Bray replied flatly. ‘Kidnapping babies. Separating families.’
Ram and Java looked at each other. ‘Jay,’ they growled in unison.
‘The game’s over,’ Bray continued. ‘And so is your invasion.’
Ram raised his arms and gave a strangled cry as Bray pointed his weapon at him and fired. There was a crackling noise as the blast hit something but otherwise nothing happened. Tentatively he lowered his arms and gave a triumphant laugh, then realised that a thin wisp of smoke was rising from his wheelchair controls.
‘No!’ he cried, frantically pressing at the panel but unable to move. He threw himself from side to side, trying to get the stupid thing to move but he was stuck. ‘No! This is discrimination! Java! Help me!’ But Java was being restrained by two of the rebels and was in no position to offer any assistance.
It was over.
Amber flinched as she felt a movement in the air that signalled the presence of someone close by. Then she gasped as the person started undoing her straps and removed the thing in front of her eyes. She blinked to focus and Bray materialised in front of her.
‘Is it really you?’ she asked, scared to believe her eyes in case he disappeared in front of her again. ‘They showed me things…impossible things…’
Bray slowly lifted her off the chair and onto the floor. He touched her cheek with one hand and with the other placed one of hers against his chest. She felt the familiar rhythym of his heartbeat beneath her hand. A rhythym only she knew, one that couldn’t be mimicked by a computer. ‘Is this real enough for you?’ he asked softly. She nodded silently and clung to him, burying her head against his chest, letting him envelop her in his arms.
‘I thought I’d lost you again,’ she said. ‘Both of you.’
He led her into the adjoining room, to where their baby lay sleeping in his cot, and she finally breathed a sigh of relief.
‘We’re here,’ he told her reassuringly. ‘I’m here. And I’ll never break your heart .’
A tutting noise coming from their female prisoner made her raise her head to study the pair. ‘After everything we went through with the Chosen,’ she said to Bray. ‘I was afraid we would be fighting these goons for the next two years.’
‘Nah,’ Bray smiled. ‘Shortest invasion ever! But what are we going to do with them?’
‘I think I have an idea,’ she smiled.
Ram was in the barn.
As his mind adjusted to the virtual environment he gagged at the stench that hung in the air and scratched at the straw that prickled the back of his neck. This was not the paradise he wanted for himself!
Something moved in the haystack closest to him and he froze. Had somebody programmed rats into this barn?! The rustling continued and he tried to move his chair away but it wouldn’t move. He was trapped here.
The movement in the haystack intensified until finally two heads popped out of the top of it. It was Java. Java and the Uber-Jay. His heart sank. The two avatars looked at each other, grinned, and embraced.
‘No!’ Ram yelled as the rustling started up again. ‘No, no, no! This is unsanitary! THIS IS UNSANITARRRYYYY!’