The trap had been sprung, and within its deadly grasp stood Morgan Asher, a man out of his element. Paralyzed by an unseen force, erect against a cold, granite wall, the physically-fit rogue was helpless against the cloaked woman before him whose intentions were anything but altruistic.
The lady snapped her fingers, and the magic at her command went to work.
A gray light sparkled on the floor underneath Morgan, and he looked down to see his weathered boots turn to stone. A few seconds later, a fierce stabbing pain erupted in his feet, as the magic began to petrify his flesh.
"Tonight, my vengeance shall be fulfilled!" the lady said, clenching her fist in front of Morgan's face, the graceful hands flushing a menacing red from her rage.
"Don't do this, Josie. This isn't what Rheena would want," Morgan pleaded, striving to strike a tender spot in the heart of this menacing assailant, while fighting the urge to scream in agony as his torso turned to solid rock.
"How would you know what she'd want? You were with her barely a year. You haven't a clue who she was."
"I have some clue," Morgan said, flinching in pain. "I knew her better than you ever could."
Listening to Morgan's words, Josie furrowed her brow, the dim lighting of the gloomy, stone chamber and the further shadowing from her blue satin hood exemplifying the depth of her eye sockets. "You're pathetic," she said with disgust. "I spent over twenty years with Rheena, and you presume to lecture me on what she would have wanted?"
"Time didn't form our bond, Josie, the computer did. Rheena's very essence, her thoughts and memories, yearnings and dreams, were all intertwined with me, and mine with her. I knew her very soul, unlike anyone else could."
"Then how could you let her die?" Josie shouted, throwing the hood of her cloak back in fury, revealing the vibrant coils of her blond hair. "How could you murder her like you did?"
"I didn't kill her," Morgan said, feeling the petrification reaching his belly button, while his entire body remained paralyzed from the neck down.
"You did nothing to save her."
"I couldn't. God knows I tried."
His pleas to her better nature fell on deaf ears, as Josie's intentions were clear, and her mind closed. There was no reasoning with her and no way to avoid her retribution.
As the petrification reached the base of Morgan's lungs, Josie took several steps backwards, keeping her eyes firmly on her victim and displaying a grin of satisfaction. "I've waited years for this. You wouldn't believe what I had to go through to learn the necessary spells for this fitting punishment."
"If you wanted to hurt me, you've done it," Morgan said, struggling to breathe.
"Oh, no, Morgan. This initial pain you're feeling is only the beginning; the catalyst. Following the petrification process, your mind will remain here, trapped within your stone body, unable to witness the passage of time or boot out to the real world. You will remain here, a prisoner of time!"
"What?" Morgan asked, terrified by her claim.
"Yes, Morgan," Josie replied, stepping forward again. She stared up at his face, her own height barely reaching Morgan's clavicle. "You will pay for Rheena's death in the most fitting way; to be a prisoner of the program, as she was for so long. Nobody knows you're here, and none have cause to venture here. Perhaps, in a few thousand years, someone may stumble across you. Then shall your punishment truly begin!"
Feeling the stone claim his chest, Morgan experienced a sensation few people could ever know, as his heart petrified and ceased to beat, while his mind remained sharp and cognizant.
The petrification spell's progress hastened, seeking to alter his head before the lack of blood and oxygen could kill his simulated brain. As the magic reached his neck, Morgan mouthed his final words before consciousness faded. "I tried to save her."
As the final, breathless word passed his lips, the spell completed its work, freezing his entire body in a tomb of stone. His flesh stood as a gray statue, appearing both noble and dignified in its pose.
"You should have tried harder," Josie said, turning to leave.
The embers of virtual addiction still smoldered under society's surface. The momentary realization that a simple computer virus had caused mental illness in over half the population had worn off, as the problem was solved and virtual reality was all of a sudden "new and improved!"
Now, after losing billions of dollars purging their computer systems of the virus, the Virtual Reality companies were back in the black, rolling in profits from the public who only sought an entertaining life inside a computer.
There were still many lawsuits pending, some claiming the VR companies had purposely implanted the virus in their programs to make them addicting. However, after a hundred years there was little material evidence, and the companies had ample lawyers and lucre to avoid serious charges.
Few people saw a reason to live in the real world anymore. Why struggle through one insignificant life when you could have your body put on ice and get your mind booted into a computer program, where your dreams became reality indefinitely? There were a hundred worlds to choose from in which you could live an entire lifetime, two or three even, and then boot out to your physical body as young and healthy as the day you first went in.
Thus, society remained addicted to virtual reality, and the companies kept it cheap and affordable, thanks to government subsidies, so anyone could partake if they so chose.
There were a few people who resisted, and preferred the real world to a simulated fantasy. Some called themselves Anti-Virtualists or Wakers, and they opposed the very technology, believing it to be morally depraved and harmful to society. Others simply preferred to keep their minds in the flesh they were born with, and lived out their lives the old-fashioned way.
Morgan Asher had once been a little bit of both types; someone who preferred to live in his own skin, while feeling that virtual reality was evil and destructive to the masses, but he'd rarely taken an activist role to oppose it. He'd mostly shunned it, run away from his great-uncle's VR Empire, and taken to a simpler life in the Montana countryside.
Unfortunately, circumstances beyond his control had finally overtaken him, and forced him to enter the virtual realm, a sword and sorcery fantasy world in which he’d uncovered the true cause of virtual psychosis; the computer virus. To purge that virus and save billions of lives, he’d sacrificed more than he had ever believed possible, and three years later he was still haunted by the consequences of his actions.
He tried to forget her, but nothing could get rid of the memories. A computer error had inadvertently entangled his soul with that of an enigmatic sorceress, Rheena Liszt, and it cursed him to forever sense her loss; her sacrifice to save the entire world from the blight of virtual sickness.
Rheena had died so that billions of others might live a whole and healthy life, and although she had been willing to pay that ultimate price Morgan hadn't been so willing to let her die. He still couldn't face it, even now.
The swing of an axe and the spew of wood chips from the trunk of a pine temporarily drowned out the thoughts of Morgan's mind; all his attention focused on the great log before him, on the direction of his double-bitted blade and the growing notch each swing expanded. The sweat of his brow and the pulse of his heart pounding in his head were comforting to the tortured soul.
All the attention on the wood left him unaware of an approaching man, an individual definitely out of place for the woodland environment. The man in black suit and tie looked more appropriately placed in an office building, or some other urbanized setting, though the cut of the cloth was quite behind the times.
"Morgan?" the man said.
The voice made Morgan jump slightly, but he followed through on his final swing with the axe, breaking through the thick log. With the log at his feet now in several sizeable sections, he set his axe aside and turned to see the individual who dared distract him from his task.
Studying his visitor, Morgan was at a loss. "Have we met?" he asked the young man before him.
"Oh, yes, but I don't expect you'd recognize me. Of course, I appeared much older when last we met. I'm Alan Polansky."
"Alan Rome," Morgan said with a bit of venom, using the pseudonym the man had used in the fantasy program.
Morgan turned around and picked up his axe, then found a new section of log to hack, going out of his way to avoid conversing with his unwanted guest.
"I understand if you're a bit upset," Alan said, walking up beside Morgan.
Morgan took a swing with his axe, spraying a few bits of bark onto Alan's tie.
"I have nothing to say to you, Rome," Morgan said, less than eager to have this living reminder of virtual torment in his life.
"You don't have to say anything. Let me do the talking," Alan requested.
Morgan took one more chop, left his axe stuck into the trunk, then turned to Alan.
"What is there to talk about, Alan?" Morgan asked, glaring at the thin man who stood before him.
"You're still upset with me?" Alan asked, stroking back wavy strands of charcoal hair.
"You bet I'm pissed at you, and I'd be happy if you'd get off my property and never come back. You sacrificed the lives of millions, all in the name of doing the right thing."
"I did what I had to do, what I should have done fifty years earlier," Alan defended. "The fact that I may or may not have killed millions of simulated characters in a computer does not weigh heavily on my conscience when I consider the billions of real world lives I saved by shutting down Fantasan."
"And what of Rheena Liszt? You condemned her to death!" Morgan shouted.
"That was not my doing. If you want to blame anyone, you should focus your anger on the mugger who shot her in the back a hundred years ago. She'd lived longer than either of us inside that system and was more than willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of humanity."
"Humanity be damned!" Morgan said. "I couldn't care less about the well-being of individuals who are so stupid that they willingly condemn themselves to mental illness just for a little fun in a computer program. The lot of them aren't worth one Rheena Liszt."
"I wouldn't know," Alan replied, surprisingly calm despite Morgan's shouting rant. "I didn't know Rheena that well, nor you, for that matter."
"Perhaps you should have gotten to know her a little before you condemned her to death," Morgan said, calming slightly.
"I can't change what I did, and I wouldn't if given the chance. But that's not to say I don't feel sorry about what happened to her. That's why I'm here."
"What, you want to make amends to me, or something?" Morgan asked condescendingly.
"More than that. Morgan, I think we can bring her back," Alan said, folding his hands together.
"Do you mind explaining?" Morgan asked.
"She's still on ice, back at Simworld. They've been experimenting for some time with the process of cold-booting."
"You mean the process of sending someone's mind from their brain to a computer while the subject is already in suspended animation. Yes, they've been attempting it for decades, with no success. You need a live and active brain for mental downloads. It has to be done just prior to the suspension process, no sooner, no later."
"Yes, I'm well aware," Alan said, "but things are advancing quickly, now that the VR companies have been forced to overhaul their systems."
"Do you really think they're anywhere close to making this cold-booting a possibility?" Morgan asked.
"Not just a possibility, a reality," Alan said fervently.
"How do you know this?" Morgan asked. "Who have you been talking to?"
"Your cousin, actually. She's married to a good friend of mine, if you'll recall, and she's on the board of directors at Simworld."
"I see. So, she sent you out here, in the hopes of dragging me back into the whole Virtual Reality scene again? I was beginning to think this was something worth hearing." Morgan turned away from Alan and picked up his axe, preparing to continue chopping.
"No. Nobody sent me here," Alan replied. "I came solely of my own volition, unbeknownst to anyone at Simworld."
"Then you can go back, unbeknownst," Morgan said, swinging the axe over his head, directing it toward the log.
Alan cringed as the blade whacked into the wood, fearing for a second that his skull may become a target.
"Morgan, Rheena Liszt is still alive, trapped in a frozen body that can never be revived. I don't even know her, but I am going to save her from that fate, with or without your help."
"Why?" Morgan demanded, throwing his axe furiously to the ground. "Why do you care?"
"Why do you no longer care?" Alan asked.
"I've spent the past three years trying to forget everything that happened to me in that computer program. I've tried to erase the emotions, wished for some peace of mind, and just when I finally start making some progress, when the memories start to fade, here you are, to stab the knife back into my soul and pour salt on an open wound! Why are you doing this to me?"
"I'm not doing it for you. I was hoping you would do this for me," Alan said, quickly turning away.
The path back to Morgan's ranch was almost half a mile long, and not well-defined, yet Alan was never one to get lost easily. It was a fairly straight walk, and he'd been skilled enough to locate Morgan in the deep woods, so he did not have a problem finding his way to the pasture surrounding the ranch, where his car was parked.
Alan had been told many tales of Morgan Asher; those which spoke volumes about his noble character. Those tales had led Alan to assume that he'd be eager to assist in an endeavor to save the life of Rheena Liszt.
Somehow, after meeting the man in the flesh, Alan felt the stories to be greatly exaggerated.
Alan found his car where he'd parked it, the older model Honda now decorated with a spray of mud on its lower half, the result of driving on these dirt farm roads following a spring rain. The same mud coated the cuffs of Alan's pants, and would have ruined his loafers, had he not changed into a pair of old boots prior to exiting the car.
Pulling out his keys, Alan unlocked the car the old fashioned way, with a metal key in the lock. Many of the newer model cars used digital remotes exclusively and didn't even have exterior keyholes anymore, but Alan didn't care for the latest trends. It had been almost seventy years since he'd lived in this physical world, and he felt awfully out of place.
Sometimes, he had to wonder if it had been worth it; living an entire lifetime inside a computer program, as a great wizard in a fantasy program that had no real substance, except to one's mind. Surely, he would be an old man today, or possibly deceased, had he not entered the virtual program as a young man so many decades ago, but now he came to a world as alien as anything he'd found in the virtual realm.
Alan shook off his ponderings about existence as he opened his car door. The aged hinges squealed. Of course, the vehicle was almost as old as him, approaching its ninetieth year, and the extensive overhaul he'd paid for hadn't included such a minor thing as door maintenance.
As Alan prepared to slide behind the wheel of the cramped car, a mellow, baritone voice sounded. "Did you find him well enough, Mr. Polansky?"
Alan looked over the roof of his car and saw an old farm hand approaching, the same man he'd first met an hour ago when arriving at the ranch. The hired man looked as old physically as Alan was mentally.
"I found him, though not to his liking," Alan replied, facing the old man and leaning his arms on the roof of his silver car.
"Morgan just hasn't been the same since that trip he took a few years back," the man said, rubbing the corners of his gray mustache.
"I don't believe anyone is ever the same after a virtual reality trip, regardless of mental aptitude," Alan said.
"Infernal machines! They ought to burn them all and be done with it," the old man grumbled in a low voice.
"It'll never happen. It's too well-liked by the majority of civilization. Besides, it has its upside," Alan replied.
"I've yet to see it," the old man persisted.
Before continuing their conversation, both men noticed the approaching figure of Morgan crossing the pasture, having emerged from the woods.
Morgan walked up to Alan's car, propped his left foot on the front bumper, and asked, "What do you really want with me, Alan?"
"Firstly, I'd appreciate your willingness to listen."
"You've got it. Now hurry up, before I regret this diversion."
"Come back with me," Alan requested.
"Where?" Morgan asked.
"Back to Fantasan. Rheena's life depends on it."
The old man interjected, "Want me to get yer shotgun, Morg?"
"Not yet, Johnson," Morgan replied.
"Morgan, she's not dead," Alan persisted. "She's alive, somewhere in Fantasan. We have to go back and find her."
Morgan did not respond right away. His mind was elsewhere, focusing on the things he'd fought so long to forget, the emotions and experiences of another lifetime.
Alan asked a lot of him. He asked that Morgan throw himself back into the same system that had ripped his heart out and left him a shadow of a man; such things that would have absolutely destroyed most other people.
Yet, through it all had been Rheena Liszt, that enigmatic woman who had shared more with him than any other living person, even though they had only been together for a short time. His mind was ever thinking of her, remembering her wealth of spirit, and harping on her death. The pain he suffered was guilt, a sense of failure due to his inability to save her.
Now Alan offered the chance to fix that.
At long last, after everyone had had enough time to stew in the uncomfortable silence, Morgan finally said, "I'm not promising you anything, Rome, but I'll look into it."
"You'll come back to Simworld with me?"
"Yes, but not today. It's too late to catch a flight before nightfall."
"Actually, I drove here," Alan said.
"In that thing? A bit cramped, weren't you?" Morgan mentioned.
"The leg room is far greater than it would appear."
"Well, anyway, if you don't have any plans, you can stay here tonight, and we'll head out in the morning," Morgan offered.
"Splendid," Alan said, stepping back from the car and shutting the door.
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Excerpt from "Prisoner of Time," Copyright 2009 by Martin T. Ingham. All Rights Reserved.
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