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The Game was about to begin; the dice had been set, and the old mahogany board had been laid flat against the floor. For Nina and her friends, the world dissolved into a mist at that moment; the sterile white walls, the pristine concrete floor, the explosions heard from outside…it all faded away into nothingness.
It was about wondrous landscapes filled with fantastical creatures, the Game. It was about the derring-do of dashing warriors and the triumph of man over monster, the triumph of good over evil. Nina thought about such things, imagined such surreal circumstances in which the good in the world overcame the negative forces. But Nina knew that the real world, the one filled with men armed with explosives or chemicals, and nuclear wastelands that stretched on for miles, was not that way.
Nina often reminisced about her youth, her perfect youth. Oh how she regretted taking it for granted, naively thinking that the world would always be sunshine and blue skies. Today, it was nearly impossible to experience so much as the cool breeze against your skin. Today, everything was synthetic, psychological; never real. But then again, being subjected to the brutal realism of the outside world was probably worse than spending your entire life inside a subterranean bunker, escaping the cruel grasp of reality only through the Game.
The Game was a virtual simulator that attached links to your spinal cord and brain stem and projected your thoughts onto a personal screen that was inside your mind. In the Game, anything was possible. You could soar high above the clouds, or walk on water, or…feel the cool breeze on your skin. Being linked to the ‘mother machine’ was fake, yes, but it was wonderful. The Game was often the only thing that kept you going day to day, only to take supplements to sustain your health, be educated by computers, and visit a dying relative in the Bio-Extension Unit. Sometimes, a group of doctors in white suits might even take your family members through the Yellow Door. Whenever someone is taken through the Yellow Door, they are never seen again. One day, Nina came to visit her older brother, and he was taken through the Yellow Door for sustaining an infected injury, right in front of her eyes. That day, she spent eleven hours in the Game…
Nina rolled the dice. Snake eyes; two scenes allowed in her imagined world, and then someone else would get a turn. She closed her eyes, and when she reopened them, she was sitting upon the surface of an emerald-green pasture. A flock of wild avian creatures flew overhead in an arc, squandering amongst their kin, and a fifteen-foot tall mastodon could be seen in the distance, lifting its massive trunk into the air. The land seemed to be teeming with life. In the horizon, a glorious knight, armored in chain mail and leggings, sauntered towards Nina, shining blindingly bright in the evening sun. “Brother!” Nina cried, instantly running up to hug the warrior.
As soon as Nina embraced the warm metal suit, the knight placed a gauntlet upon her shoulder and consoled her. “I’m fine, Nina. Don’t worry about me—you’ll make yourself sick. I’m in a better place now, see?” He thought in silence for a moment, and Nina mimicked him. Then he continued, “I’m living my dream now! I’m traveling the world! I’m going wherever I want to, and I’m… free! No one is there to stop me.”
“Oh, brother…” Nina tried to prevent the tears from coming, but they trickled down her cheeks, hot against her skin. She couldn’t swallow, and sobs racked her frail body. “But the door…what did they do to you?”
The knight responded calmly. “Nothing, Nina. Am I not here with you, standing before your very eyes?”
Outside, reality pressed down upon Nina like an iron weight. The shockwave of an atomic explosion reverberated through the earth, and a sickly sweet pre-recorded voice droned on in the distance. “Security threat level four: this is a breach. Abandon all stations immediately.”
The knight dissolved into the ancient mahogany board, and that dissolved into the sterile Game Room. The links manually ejected and severed their bond with Nina, and dropped to floor, writhing around like dying snakes. The white fluorescent Argon light fixtures on the ceilings all switched off, and flashing red emergency beacons were the only source of light within the bunker. Nina scrambled frantically to make it to the evacuation chamber. Remember the drill, she kept thinking to herself, Room 202. Yet, even now, in the midst of panicked masses and stifling darkness, she thought of her lost brother, the knight in shining armor, trapped forever within the confines of the Game. He would never be there again on a weekly visit to recount anecdotes of his battles, about the gunfire, or the fragmentation grenades and flash bombs pummeling the ground like hail…
But what did it matter now? Nina had lost her family, and now she could lose the Game and its mother machine, which with its uncoiling wires, looked so welcoming to a disheartened child. What did it matter whether she lived or died? No one, excluding her personal educating computer, cared about her. If she died, then she wouldn’t have to experience pain or sorrow. She would forever be locked in eternal slumber. And yet, her legs moved by themselves, as if they had a mind of their own.
Room 202 was crowded with a huddled clump of bodies, shaking with fear. Bathed in the crimson light, it almost appeared as if they were covered in blood. Nina crouched into a secluded corner and waited, waited for an indefinitely long time. Minutes turned to hours, and the alarms droned on and on, rising in pitch and then falling back down again in even, metronomic intervals. Heavy, plodding footfalls resounded throughout the room’s metal walls, and occasionally, shouts followed by gunfire echoed from within the hallways.
And then the tear gas came. A slim, seven-inch long titanium canister rolled into the room from under the door, and the noxious fumes stung at the children’s eyes, blinding them, sending them crashing into each other. One by one, they fell to floor, crying, wailing, and incapacitated upon the concrete floor. The last thing Nina was able to see were two men wearing black suits and gas masks, coming towards her, like harbingers of death, coming to reap the soul from her physical body. A bag was then forced over her head, and she was lost unto the stygian void of unconsciousness.
Nina awoke some time later in a box-shaped room with blank walls and a white concrete floor, much like the Game Room, yet there were no mother machines in sight. For a brief time, nothing could be heard but the subtle hum of the power generators and the ethereal flowing of air out of the air conditioners. Then, the clicking of boots against the concrete could be made out. Within seconds, she was face to face with the leader of the insurgents. He was a sinister-looking man; his diaphanous skin bore cold sapphire eyes, which observed Nina like a falcon, a bony, pointed nose, and a small, almost lipless mouth that was kept in a taut line. A black aura of malice seemed to emanate from his countenance, and it frightened Nina. She couldn’t bear to stare into his eyes for too long, and so she occasionally glanced away and looked over at the walls, so white, so pure; so free of any evil.
“Ah, little miss wonder woman is awake…how was your morning?” He jeered at her with a wolfish sneer on his face. “You know, I’m not sure why, but you have an amazing will to live, when really…there is nothing to live for. What will be your significance on this planet? Nothing; in a matter of days, no one will even remember your meaningless existence in this world, just like your friends from the bunker…oh yes, we had to kill them off. It is priceless to look into their faces as they died, one by one…” His words pierced right through Nina like invisible arrows, each one hurting more deeply than the last. “Right now, you are a hostage who will be used to attain a ransom. It might be a blank check, it might be the life of an important political figure, who knows? But the main thing is that if the government refuses to acquiesce to our request, then you will become useless to us, and will die. Really, I don’t think the government will waste its time on such a trivial matter.” A single tear slid down Nina’s cheek. Her eyes were glass orbs gazing into empty space, ensorcelled within a reverie. At seeing this, the insurgent leader laughed, scoffing at her reaction. “What, did you think that the government would give a second thought about you, an insignificant nine-year-old waif? No, you’re going to end up just like your parents, just like your friends, just like your brother; dead.”
At this, fragments of memories flooded Nina’s mind. She could see the light coming from the other side of the Yellow Door, see it slowly being pushed open. A doctor in a white suit looked back at Nina and stared at her pityingly, and then aided the others in pushing her brother through the door on a stretcher. His scarred face disappeared into the light, screaming curses and shouting, ‘No, my sister needs me!’ and ‘You can’t handle me like cattle!’. But before long, the Yellow Door, that hellish portal to some nightmare realm, full of needles and drugs and machines, closed, forever sealing his struggling body away from hers.
“And what did you do all this time? You played a game, thinking that, magically, all your problems would just vanish. You cowered away from life and spent your days trying to escape the war. Well, life is not a game. Escapism solves nothing.”
“No!” Nina cried. The insurgent leader was taken aback by this sudden outburst. “You might be right about some things, and I have my flaws, but you are the true coward! You will live a miserable, empty life, and the taking of countless innocent lives will forever haunt your conscience until you die!”
For a moment, the insurgent leader might have felt a twinge of guilt, a qualm about what he was doing, for he did nothing but stand there stupidly, his hands at his sides, but then he drew a handgun and pulled the trigger in one fluid motion. The world faded in an explosion of light and color and Nina fell slowly, softly, to the floor.
Nina was back in the Game; she was with her brother, and she was a beautiful princess. She was free now; her wild spirit could travel anywhere her heart longed to go. She was rid of the impurities of the world; there was no more good, there was no more evil, there was no war or government or insurgents; there was no more Yellow Door, no more bunkers…there was just a perpetual stretch of grassy hills, and a sun that lasted for an eternity. “You were right, brother,” Nina told the knight, and she walked side by side with him, into the endless region of golden sunlight.
And without any warning other than the distant rumbling of a jet engine, the insurgents’ base of operations collapsed in on itself in a heap of rubble. A gargantuan explosion the magnitude of ten explosions burst into the air, tearing the building and all of its contents into trillions of subatomic particles, utterly blowing it out of existence within a fraction of a second; one of the insurgents had actually been a government spy, and had placed a tracking device on Nina while she was asleep. So her life had in fact meant something; without her, the war could not have been won…
And so justice had been served.