Jason groaned as he slowly woke up. His head hurt. Really hurt…a lot. What had he done, drunk or smoked to cause this? Into this miasma of pain, was a voice greeting him
“Ahh…you’re finally getting up. How’s your head? Transitions can be nasty I’m told”
The friendly voice, male in gender, tenor in tone with a vaguely English accent came from nowhere and everywhere at once. Jason tried opening his eyes. He cried out as the stark white seemed to burn his retinas and increase his throbbing headache even more.
“Lights too bright? Hmm… Oh I am sorry, I chose Alpha Centauri and that is much bright than your Sol”
Jason could tell that lights dimmed some, but still not enough to make him want to open his eyes.
“Just turn them off! My head is splitting”
“Are you sure? It will be quite dark” said the friendly and increasingly annoying voice.
“Yes” shouted Jason and the room went away. As a teenager, his parents forced him on a cave tour and the ranger turned off the lights mid way to show the lack of light. This was darker. In the cave there were watch faces and even a glow from a distant room. In his present room, there was no light. And suddenly he felt like the room was closing in. He sat up on the cot. His head pounded it’s objection. His feet dangled and couldn’t feel the floor.
“Is there a dimmer setting?” He asked and the friendly voice restored a low light. It was at this point, Jason felt truly confused.
“Where am I?” Jason asked.
“You’re in guest quarters” the friendly voice answered without supplying useful information.
He looked around the room. Everything was white: the walls seemed to glow and were the source of light. He was on a small platform that was attached to one wall. The platform was cushioned and had neither arms nor pillows. On the opposite wall, a piece of furniture that could be called a desk spouted from the wall. There was a stool with a back and a keyboard on the desk. To his right was a blank wall. To his left, the wall had a circular indentation about one and half meters in diameter. There were three small seams that met in the middle.
“The guest quarters,” Jason muttered to himself. He had annoying friends who would answer questions like this. OK, he can keep up. “Let me rephrase – where am I relative to my room in Berkeley, California?”
“You are approximately three light years from that location headed to a star in the direction of the constellation you know as “Pegasus”
72 hours ago
Jason had graduated from Chico State six months ago with a degree in Information Technology. While there was plenty of employment, there was little money to repay the five years of college loans he had accumulated. At $15K a year in tuition plus room and board, even with his scholarships he had managed to acquire $75K in debt. And while $55K a year might sound a lot to a college grad from far back country Nevada, it was small pay in the bay area. The rents were high even in rent controlled Berkeley. He had a nice studio apartment but that set him back almost a third of his salary. On seeing his first paycheck and the deductions, he had his first phone call back home that didn’t end in an argument . He and his foster parents suddenly agreed that taxes WERE too high. Then there were all the other bills that suddenly took more and more of his pay: auto insurance, food, utilities, renters insurance (he didn’t even know there was such a thing as renters insurance until his foster mother told him he really ought to get some). After he paid his school debt, he had no more than $100 a month left over.
But he had a job and he wasn’t living at home and that counted for something. The company he worked for was “local sourcing” which was another way of saying they could get new college grads for almost as cheap as labor overseas. When he graduated, he was excited about the new job. The company offered some stock units and was in the bay area. However, he quickly found out what work as an IT guy meant. Most days he worked in the office configuring and repairing laptops. While the atmosphere was relaxed, the programmers needed their computers at all times and he had to work fast. As he did not rate a desk, some days he was told to work at home and work on the help desk phone bank. Soon his visions of nerf dart battles and roller blading in halls gave way to row after row of bullpen cubicles with surly twenty somethings who were a day or two away from their last shower.
His apartment was close to downtown Berkeley. However, he soon found out how much a social life outside of college cost and he spent more time in his apartment. He had always been an online gamer, but with funds being what they were, it seemed it was his least expensive option and he threw himself into online gaming with gusto.
He wasn’t really into “shoot ’em up” games. He wasn’t that into tests of his eye hand coordination and failures tended to send one back to start. Instead, he cultivated his character’s “charisma”. His character charmed his way out of challenges when he could. His character used diplomacy and working deals to gain status, currency, or whatever was on the market. Beowulf’s war axe or Merlin’s cape had no use for him except in trade. He would offer what seemed an exceptionally good price for his finds, and get knowledge or maps or alliances. Few dared cross him because of the partnerships he built. He kept a ranged weapon on hand because the game was not always constrained by alliances AND one had to get treasures somehow. But he never tried to increase his “levels” with force.
The game he was using allowed him to pay for more points or weapons, but the real money in online games was advertising and it was targeted to the demographic. Dating sites promising promiscuous young women were common. When he ignored those, foreign language sites proclaiming the ability to get him speaking Spanish, French or Norwegian with enough flair to woo promising promiscuous young women became common. When he ignored those, the advertising seemed to flay about a bit from foreign brides, to speeding tickets to improving his manhood. He paid the minor fees necessary to continue playing but avoided the advertising to prove he was immune.
He was the top ranked “thief” in the game at this point, people “paid” to have him on the team in the form of points and credits. His ability to end situations with a minimum of fuss and bother was appealing to a segment of players. He was waiting for an interesting offer, when a new advertisement showed up – “Retire you school debt now while traveling to exotic locations.” This was bait he could nibble on. He clicked the advertisement. A new screen opened and there was a moment’s pause as he heard the hard drive of his computer work furiously, as all manner of evil software was being installed. No matter, he thought, this computer was due for a reimage soon anyway.
The screen popped opened and greeted him with his screen name, “Loki, you have $85K in school and credit card debt, please click on the red button if you wish more information about retiring the debt.” He was pretty sure such information was supposed to be private, but it was hard to tell these days. Anyone who stole his identity was welcome to his debt. He clicked the red button. The usual questionnaire came up asking for name, address, phone number. He entered that naively. Then it asked what was the farthest he’d like to travel. He entered India as it was the furthest away from here as he could imagine. It then asked “If you could go farther, would you?” Strange question, but he answered yes. There was a long wait as it processed this answer. And then the strangest question, “Who would miss you?” He looked around and thought. And on a whim answer “No one”. There was a shorter pause, and then a message popped up, “We will be contacting you shortly.” And he was returned to the game where he had a queue of 3 requests for teams.
The next day, he headed into work as usual. The BART train he took stopped suddenly under in the transbay tunnel. Oh please not today, he whispered a silent prayer. He had to get 4 machines imaged by noon. But the deity paid no heed to his supplications and the train was stationary for almost an hour with the driver and system trying to be reassuring. Finally the train started and he tried to get off the train with speed but was blocked by everyone else who was also an hour late. He ran for the South of Market location and ran to his cube. The four machines were still there along with a note from his boss. He started the first machine working and picked up the note which read “See me!” Jason groaned and headed to the office. He walked into the office with “Sorry I am late…BART got stuck…”
The manager cut him off, “I heard about that. This isn’t about that. Jason, you should know we monitor your computer activity. “
Jason was confused, “Of course you do, I set these computers up. I see the logs on occasion. ”
The manager tapped his pen on his desk and said, “Then explain this activity.” He turned around the monitor which showed visits to sites for Russian mail order brides, gambling, dating sites, and worse. All there and proof he had been violating company policy wildly. Wildly, because it wasn’t even consistent: sex, gambling, dating, hacking, even a couple of terrorist sites. The log indicated that he had systematically violated every policy possible.
Jason stared at the screen and then said quickly, “Boss, I didn’t do this. It doesn’t even make sense. People who do this go to one site or a few not….80. It’s all over the map.”
His boss said gravely, “Jason, I agree it is strange and it certainly doesn’t seem like you and we are going to investigate, but I have to send you home now until we figure it out. I am sorry, but I can’t let you stay on the network. Leave your computer here. You are leaving now.”
Jason started to plead, “Boss, it wasn’t me. Please I can’t lose this job.”
The manager tried to look sympathetic as the guards arrived, but Jason could hear him mutter “Should have thought of that when you were surfing smut.” Jason became irrational and started shouting, “I didn’t do it. It’s a mistake….please.” The software engineers looked away and or at their computers as Jason was led away by the two security teams.
He was set out on the street and told he would be escorted in if he returned. Jason sat on street bench outside the warehouse building with glass windows. He put his hands on his head and cried. He felt like the air was leaving. He was dizzy. He couldn’t tell which way was up. Eventually he composed himself, he got and headed to BART. His backpack with his lunch was still up in the office. At least he had his keys and wallet. More out of lack of anything else to do, he aimed for his apartment in Berkeley. At 10:30 AM, he had no problem getting a seat back to his destination. He leaned his head against the window hoping the noise and the vibration might somehow wake him up from this bad dream. He was going to be fired and he had no idea how it happened. The boss was right in his last statement except Jason did know better. Three quarters of the software engineers were sneaking looks at porn, but they didn’t dare fire the “talent”. He knew his position wasn’t that hard to fill so did nothing to put the desperately need money at risk. Whatever smut he was going to view, he had plenty of opportunity at home. The noise of the tunnel finally did overwhelm his thoughts. The train rattled and shook in a way he hadn’t noticed before. The noise pieced into the inside of his skull dulled the pain he felt inside.
The four car train came out of the dark noisy cavern into the light of East Oakland. His cell phone buzzed. Someone had called while they were in the tunnel. Jason looked at the number fearing it was the boss saying the decision was final, but it was an “unknown” number. He listened to the message.
“Mr. McNeill, we are excited at your abilities and availability. We at Notable Enterprise Procurement and Placement think we have a place for you. Please meet me at The Pub in North Berkeley and I will introduce myself and discussion the position. I will be buying lunch.”
Jason looked at the phone and closed it and muttered to himself, “What the’?” The train dipped into the tunnel and worked its way around the labyrinth of tunnels under Oakland and popped up on the track to Berkeley. Jason tried to figure out what he was going to do about his job, about the call, about his life. Notable Enterprise and Procurement and Placement had promised lunch which was more than he ever got in his interview process out of Chico State. After today, he needed someone else to buy the beer. The Pub was down the hill from his apartment. He could probably nurse a cup of coffee until NEPP showed up.
He arrived at the door and the restaurant did not open for another 15 minutes. There were chairs on a patio out front. He took four and set them around a table. Then feeling useful, he set up the rest. That took up 5 minutes and so he sat and watched traffic and people slowly move by. At noon a waitress came out and looked around and then at Jason and came up and said, “What will you have Mr. Helpful?”
Jason said, “I am expecting to meet someone.” He looked in his wallet. He had a $20. If NEPP was a no show, he could afford a beer or two before he headed up the hill. He ordered a tall red lager. The beer arrived at the table at the same time a man in a business suit walked up. The suit was grey. His shirt was a very fine weave and a pastel purple. He had a tie that looked like it could have been a J. Garcia and his shoes were shined just enough. He saw Jason and sat down immediately.
“So smart of you to start without me, Mr. McNeill. I was held up in that horrendous traffic on 80. You wouldn’t guess it was noon. “ The man’s accent was Bostonian or possibly English. It was hard to tell and that wasn’t something Jason really followed.
Jason stood up and said, “I had nothing else to do and this place does have good beer.” Then Jason winced and said, “Could I start over? That is not how I want to start an interview. It has been a very long day.”
The man smiled and sat down, “Think nothing of it. Try again.”
Jason sat as well and said, “I am glad I was able to free up my schedule to hear what you have to offer.”
The man laughed and said, “Much better…Much better. You really are very good at that. I am glad you found a spot on your busy schedule to listen to my opportunity.” Jason thought he saw one side of the man’s mouth raise as he said the last statement.
The waitress arrived and the man looked at Jason who said, “All of their beer is good. Tourists get a flight. I like the amber: it has a good toasted taste and no bitter aftertaste.” The man ordered the amber and asked for some food menus.
The man turned to Jason and said in a very rapid pace, “Now Mr. McNeill, my organization is extremely impressed with your skills. Your abilities in leadership seemed to be unmatched and your problem solving skills work on the abstract and the concrete. We’ll need that kind of flexibility.”
Jason tried not to gawk. And then recovered, “Mr…..”
The man smiled and said, “Jones…Mr. Jones.”
Jason smiled. “Right, Mr. …Jones. So far as I know, I haven’t published my resume and my LinkedIn site hardly screams ‘Leadership’ and ‘Problem Solving’. I have been working as a lowly tech at a pre-IP firm. I do what I am told.”
The man drank his beer and then said, “I’ve read that bit on the web. Tell me how that job is working out for you?” He looked at Jason and Jason thought he saw the man’s eye brow raised when he asked. How the hell did he know already?
Jason looked down at the table, “Mr…Jones, you will likely find out soon that I will be fired for cause at that firm.”
The man nodded, “Rumors do fly sometime. Tell me Mr. McNeill – you’re being fired for cause: was it justified?”
Jason sighed and hoped the man honored his promised to pay for lunch before he ran away. “If you ask the company, yes it was absolutely justified.”
“I’m not asking a young start up with more money than sense. I am asking Jason McNeill, recent graduate of Chico State, paid for by himself, lowly tech, and top ranked thief.”
Jason started, “I am not a …oh the game.” He shook himself and then looked at Mr. Jones and said in as even voice as he could manage, “I did not do any of the things they are accusing me of. I don’t know what happened, but I am not that stupid.”
Mr. Jones smiled, “No Mr. McNeill we have ample proof of your abilities elsewhere that you are ‘not that stupid’. You play with cleverness and think several moves ahead. Were I your boss, I would question the evidence before I fired such a employee. In the game you play, you are quite adept at forging alliances, solving problems without resorting to alliances, smoothing delicate egos. I am placement agency and I have a place for such skills.”
Jason looked startled then stared at Jones and then started laughing and kept laughing until he was crying. It was all so absurd. He was being wooed for his abilities in a game. Whatever job was in the offering probably didn’t even pay. Suddenly the crying became real, “Oh god. I am sorry Mr. Jones. It has been a very hard day.” Jason shuttered with sniffles.
Mr. Jones merely nodded and handed Jason a tidy silk hanky with NEPP initials on it. “Here, keep it. Take your time.” He then looked at his nails and said, “The job pays quite well although we expect you to relocate to a rather distant locale. And we were quite serious about retiring that odious debt of yours.”
Jason said, “What exactly is this job of yours?” coughing and sniffling a bit and then taking a drink of the beer.
Mr. Jones, “It will involve negotiation, working with difficult personalities, reaching positive outcomes without violence…all those things you seem to be so good at.”
“Mr. Jones…with all respect…that is a game.”
“That game…as you call it…reaches much farther than you imagine. It has just recently become available around here. I have been very successful with candidates I’ve recruited from it. I expect no less from you if I can get you to ‘yes’.”
“But it is a game. This job – do I find magic scepters? do I lead groups of people to pillage the temple of Arkosis?”
Mr Jones shrugged, “Not as such. But you will lead at least one person to a necessary destination. You will need to work with and utilize tools you haven’t seen before. You will have to navigate the politics of a new location. We need some with a calm hand and strong anger management.”
“You’ll retire the debt?” Jason asked.
“After three years of work. After that, all your pay is yours. You’ll find the pay and benefits quite generous even with deductions for the debt service.”
Jason said, “What the hell? I find my schedule is suddenly very free. Mr. Jones…you have yourself a negotiator.”
Mr. Jones raised his glass and said, “Then to a fruitful relationship.”
Jason shook his head. He and Jones ate lunch and finished a pitcher of beer. Then Jason signed some contract that required a blood drop. They drank more beer. Then Jones took him to another bar and had him drink Scotch and things started getting fuzzy.
“I am three light years from Berkeley.”
“More or less. Calculating location in subspace continuums can be so tricky.”
Jason laughed and then groaned. The voice said, “drinking water helps. Movement will as well.”
Jason rolled off the couch on to the floor which felt cold to his feet. “What would help would be an answer that wasn’t crazy. Can you open a window?”
I don’t have window as such, but I can project the outside. The wall illuminated showing glowing rainbows of colors whizzing by. It was hypnotizing and mildly nauseous at the same time. “Can I get out of this room?”
The voice said, “I would rather your headache dulled a bit before we go on the tour. You’ll have a lot of time to see me. It is about three months to our destination.”
“A star in Pegasus cluster. Really I thought I said that clearly. “
Jason sighed. Whatever this prank was, it was elaborate. Might as well play along until he could get free. “What is my job there?”
“Didn’t you read the contract?”
“It was a bit vague.” Jason said sheepishly.
The voice filled in helpfully, “You will assist a junior being reach his maturity. You will be responsible for transportation, seeing that he completes his tasks, and that he doesn’t hurt himself, others or too much property.”
Jason parsed that our for moment and then shouted, “I’m going to be a nanny!?”
There was a pause and then the voice said, “That is close although I think the best equivalent in your language is au pair.”