The Next Level (She Wrote, Week 6)

by Christine Hawks

For at least the third time that morning, I reminded myself of why I was out in this asphalt desert plastering flyers to windshields already pre-heated from summer’s extended morning sun.  Old-timers say that you wear summer in the south.  I now understood what they meant.  I adjusted my brother’s ball cap I’d borrowed and felt a few tendrils of my sweaty hair attempt to escape from underneath.  Hastily, I pushed them back up under the hat and decided that now was a good time to rehydrate.

I made my way back to the mall and entered into the food court.  My best friend, Connor, worked at the Diary Queen and was at the register today. Thankfully, I didn’t have to apologize for my appearance or give any details about why I was at the mall looking like that.  On a Sunday morning, the mall was definitely not the place to see and be seen.

“Hey, Ellie!  How’s it going?” Connor was full of his usual brand of morning chipper.

“Hey, Connor!  Same as you, I suppose.  Working through another weekend.”

“I take it that it’s break time?  What kind of cool and wet can I get you?”

Though tempted by the thought of my favorite Blizzard or even a brain-freeze inducing shake,    I was committed to the responsible choice. “Just a water with lots of ice and a to-go cup, please.”  I dug into my jean shorts pocket for the $.25 to pay for the cup.

Connor waived the change away.  “Every little bit counts, right?  Just don’t tell anybody,” he winked. “You’ll owe me a ride to school when you finally buy that car.”

“Fair enough,” I grinned.  “Thanks!”

I took a seat on a bench in the shade outside the food court entrance to savor a few sips before finishing up with the last stack of flyers.  I picked up one of the flyers, noting that it was printed in color.  Someone had spent more money than the norm.  I scanned the ad.  It was a call for video game testers.  Paid video game testers.

I weighed the potential opportunity in my mind.  It probably paid at least as much as papering car windshields.  And, it would be air conditioned.  But, I knew nothing about video games.  My little brother, on the other hand, was probably just the right type.  He had done odd jobs for neighbors, finally earning enough to buy his Xbox after a year and a half of saving. Between school, homework and filling every other available hour with trying to earn money to buy my own car, I never had the time to spend with him in front of the TV.   I likely wasn’t who they were looking for, but, still, how hard could it be?

I scanned the paper for contact information.  You had to text to apply.  Well, at least I had a cell phone.  I pulled it out of my front pocket and responded.  After I hit, “send”, I noticed the time.  I still had to finish distributing this stack and walk home to get a book finished and reported on for my extra class I was taking in summer school.  Such a glamorous life for a sixteen-year-old, I sighed.

***

The chirp of my cell phone, alerting me of an incoming text, awoke me from my unplanned nap.  Startled, I noticed that I had fallen asleep, face-down, in the middle of Catcher in the Rye.  Oops!
I rubbed my eyes and stretched across my bed to retrieve my cell phone.

“Congratulations, Ellie!  You have been accepted into the BETA testing program for our new gaming experience,” read message number one.

Interesting, I thought.  No need to apply?  No qualifications or experience necessary?  No concern for demographics?  And, I don’t remember giving them my name, just my number.  My phone was registered to my Mom.  My grandmother’s warning of “If it seems to good to be true, it probably is,” popped into my head.

Message number two followed with a date, time and address for the first test.  Next Friday night at 7 at an office park not far from my house.  It even included a link to Google Maps from my address to the testing site.  A walking route, no less!  I know I didn’t text them my address, but maybe they could get that from phone records?  Internet?  And, how would they know I’d be walking?  Most of my friends had cars already.  I shrugged to myself.  I had a week to decide if I wanted to go.  In the meantime, I had to focus on my homework if I had any chance of enjoying a few free hours of what was left of this weekend.

***

Friday night and I had decided to try my hand at testing video games. I wrote a note for my Mom, letting her know where I’d be, what I was doing and that I’d be home sometime after she finished with work. I tried to make it sound more mundane, less creepy than how I felt from those original texts.  I was probably just being dramatic.  But, when I looked back at my original text in response to the flyer, the only personal information I had given them was my phone number.  I was still puzzled about how they got my name and address.  I calmed myself by chalking it up to advances in technology – they are in the business of designing video games, after all.  So, after letting my brother know that I had heated up some frozen lasagna for him and Mom, I left, locking the door behind me.

The walk to the address I was given was just under a mile.  Being late summer, there was still plenty of daylight left and office park was located in an upscale part of town, known for start-ups backed by venture capitalists.  Despite that, I still couldn’t shake the uneasiness I felt.

I uttered a sigh of relief when I arrived and saw a real logo on the glass door of the office building.  i2 Interactive.  Okay, it least it was a legitimate company, or appeared to be so, anyway.  I walked inside and was greeted by a twenty-something hipster, complete with plaid flannel shirt and suspenders.  He reminded me of a skinny lumberjack.  The permanent maker on his “Hello! My name is” tag read, “Sean”.

“Hey, Sean! I’m – ,”

“Ellie,” he finished.

He must have noticed the wide-eyed look I gave him when he finished my sentence, already knowing my name.  Though, if he was surprised by my reaction, he didn’t give any obvious indication.

Sean smiled warmly and dismissed my look with, “We do a basic background check on everyone applying to the program.  Gaming is a seriously competitive business.  We have to be sure we’re not letting the competition get a look at our goods before we’re ready to launch.  Doing a BETA test and soft launch like this is risky enough.”

Okay, I suppose that makes sense.  But, what do I know about business?  Or, the gaming industry?  I’m a sixteen-year-old kid!

Before I could say anything else, he handed me a iPad and told me to click “Start” to complete the tester’s application, read and sign the non-disclosure agreement and submit the address where I wanted the check for my services to be sent.

I scanned the room and noticed a handful of other people with iPads, who I assumed were also testers completing the form.  I was the only female.  Fabulous, I thought sarcastically. I am breaking the stereotype.  Though, I’d be an unlikely heroine, having no time before now to hone my skills.  Hopefully, I’d still get paid for doing this, regardless of the score I earned or level I did or did not complete.

When all of the tablets were collected, Sean led the group of us down a long hallway.  We stopped at the first door and he called out, “Jason.”

A stocky, red-head with a Darth Vader t-shirt, raised his hand.

“This is your stop,” Sean said and held the door open for Jason to enter.

And, so we proceeded down the hallway made up of just unadorned walls and doors.  There were no windows looking into or away from the hallway.  Testing must happen in the confines of strictest secrecy, I thought to myself.

My door was up next, apparently, since I now heard Sean calling out my name.  I took a deep breath and headed through the doorway.  To my surprise, I was greeted by a young woman.  She extended her hand and introduced herself.

“Welcome, Ellie.  I’m Colby.  Thanks for helping us out with the testing.”

“Uh, sure,” I shrugged.  “I’m not sure how helpful I’ll be, but trying to earn money for a car.”

Colby smiled reassuringly.  “We all have to start somewhere.  Here, put this on,” she directed, handing me what looked like an elastic headband, the kind I’d wear during track practice to keep my hair off of my forehead.

Puzzled, I asked, “What’s this?”

“Next generation controller.”

I was skeptical, but complied, pulling the band over my hair.  Colby approached me and positioned it where she wanted it and then opened the door to a second room.  The sign warned, “Testing in Progress.”

“We’ll be out here in the observation room taking notes, watching for bugs, etc.  We expect that it’ll take you about an hour to complete this level.  If you need anything during that time, call out  ‘Pause’.  The game should automatically respond and I will tend to whatever you need.”

“Ok.  Seems simple enough.”

“Ready?” she asked me.

“As I’ll ever be,” I said, reminding myself that I did not want to walk to school my senior year.

Colby opened the door.  Aside from the light from the observation room, the testing room was pitch black.  I turned back to look at Colby.

“It’s ok.  It’s supposed to be like that.”

Deep breath and in I went, hearing Colby shut the door behind me.  Without the light from the observation room, I had no way to navigate in the room until my eyes adjusted.  Having nothing to do until they did, I remained still and tried not to focus on the weirdness of my situation.  I noticed after a few minutes of this that there was no light source, at all; not even from under the door in which I had entered.   I had never been afraid of the dark and silently reminded myself that now would not be a good time to start.  This was just a game – just like the flashlight tag my brother and I used to play on summer nights.

I took a few steps backward and felt a hard surface behind me.  It must’ve been the entrance, thought there was no door handle or hinges that I could feel.  I turned to face it and put my hand out, letting it run along the wall, trying to get a sense for the size of the room.

“A flashlight would be nice,” I thought, thinking of our childhood game.

I heard a thud and kicked something with my foot.  Bending down, I felt something cold and metallic next to my foot. I retrieved it and wrapped my hand around it, blindly feeling the object.  Coincidentally, I was holding exactly what I had requested.  My thumb flicked a switch and a welcome glow filled the room, courtesy of the flashlight I’d just found.

“That was good timing,” I whispered.

I directed the beam around the room, looking for anything that would identify where the screen was or when the game was going to begin.  The walls appeared seamless, there was no indication of any door, though I knew the general direction from which I’d come.  I’d not ventured far from that wall.  All the walls, the ceiling and even the floor were painted white.  The only contrast were the black devices in the upper corners of the room.  I assumed those were the cameras that they used to observe the testers.

A flicker of light caught my eye and I pointed the flashlight in that direction.  It was gone.  Chastising myself, I realized that I wouldn’t be able see what it was by shining a spotlight on it.  I switched the flashlight off.  Total blackness, again.  I waited, letting my eyes adjust once again to the darkness.  I scanned the artificial midnight, looking for light, movement, anything that broke the monotony.  From the corner of my eye, I caught another, nearly imperceptible pinpoint of light.  A flash and it was gone.  Was this the game?

Suddenly, above me were hundreds of these little specks of light.  It was as if I had gotten up too quickly.  I felt like my vision was filled with these white glimmers of light, yet the room remained dark, despite their apparent glow.  The flashes blinked on and off, almost like fireflies at dusk.  Several were nearly close enough for me to touch now.  I reached out and tried to catch one in my hand.  My fingers gently closed around one and before I could open my hand to look closer, I felt a stab of pain in the meaty part of my palm.

Reflexively, I opened my palm and the blinking flash floated away.  Blindly feeling the ground around me, I once again found my flashlight.  I turned it on and aimed the light at my hand.  It was bleeding, a minor wound, but whatever I’d caught had drawn blood nonetheless.

“What the hell is this?” I wondered.

Thinking back to my childhood again, I remembered we used to catch fireflies in my grandparents backyard.  We’d use old mason jars to capture them, but we always had to let them go before bedtime.  My grandmother reminded us that they’d die if we didn’t release them back into the night.  I wished I had one of those jars right now to see what I was dealing with.  I tried hard to remember being bit by a firefly.  Mosquitoes, yes.  Fireflies, never.

I was startled from my thoughts as another soft thud sounded near my feet.  I shone the flashlight in the direction of the noise and noticed a mason jar.  Unreal timing!  Or was it?

I reached for the jar and unscrewed the lid.  To see the creatures better, I turned off the flashlight and shoved it into my waistband.  After my eyes readjusted again, I could see the flickers of light all around the room.  I moved towards one, extended the jar and once I had it captured, sealed the lid back onto the container.

“Let’s see what we’ve caught.”

I held the jar closer to my face to examine the contents.  It appeared to be almost bat-like, but only the size of the nail on my little finger.  I wondered if this was a holographic or other computer-generated image, but then reminded myself that the bite and the blood were real.  As soon as that realization hit me, I felt another pain in the back of my neck.  I instinctively swatted at what I assumed was another glowing bat-like bug.  I grabbed the flashlight from my waistband to see if I now had bug guts mixed into my bite.  To my horror, the creature was on my previous wound and appeared to be feeding on the blood!

I dropped the flashlight, unscrewed the lid on the jar and scooped the second creature in.  I hadn’t noticed that I’d also scooped in some of the blood from my hand, now a drop slowly oozing down the smooth inside of the jar.  As I replaced the top, I noticed that the blood instantly attracted the two captured creatures.  That gave me an idea as I noticed more were beginning to circle me.

Carefully, I removed the lid again from the jar.  I squeezed a few more drops into the jar and held it out in front of me, slowly inviting all of the winged creatures into the jar.  It was working.  They were definitely attracted to the blood.  I looked at down at my injured hand and the wound had begun to scab over.  Hopefully, what was in the jar was enough to attract the rest or I’d risk getting bitten again.

After capturing a few dozen, the rest appeared to fade away just as quickly as they had appeared.  I replaced the lid on the jar and set the flickering glass on the ground beside my feet.  With the immediate threat gone, I wondered, “Was this a video game? Virtual reality?”  There was no TV, no controller beyond the flimsy headband I was wearing and no one actually got hurt from something in the game.

I shone the flashlight on my hand again.  Yep, the scab on my palm was still there. That had definitely happened. And, what about the flashlight and the mason jar?  I was given the precise tools I needed, exactly when I needed them.  I was feeling like I was on the verge of some sort of realization and then, my thoughts were interrupted by Colby’s voice being broadcast into the room.

“Congratulations, Ellie.  You’ve advanced to the next level.”

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