It was cold. Ian couldn’t feel anything but the cold. He tried to move his limbs, but nothing seemed to work. He didn’t even feel like he had limbs. He found it hard to think, like his mind wasn’t all there. All Ian knew was that it was cold.
Slowly, like a bubble rising to the surface of a lake, Ian felt his consciousness emerge into his mind. It was still cold, but there was a new sensation; a tingling that ran from his mind down his spine, spreading slowly over his body. He felt his shoulders shudder, his skin beginning to crawl on his chest, his biceps and triceps twitching as the tingling continued downward. His mind was feeling out his body, reconnecting itself to the nervous system. As soon as it reached his toes and fingers however, another sensation bellowed up from every single cell in his body: Pain. Like sticking your hand in a fire, this pain started low and increased in intensity with every second passing. Soon it became too unbearable, and Ian began to scream. Why did it hurt so bad? He couldn’t even think straight, the pain was so bad. But amongst the screams coming from his mouth, he noticed that there was a pitch that wasn’t his own. Straining his ears, Ian realized that he wasn’t the only one screaming. Somebody else was screaming too, a desparate scream that indicated that the other individual was in just as much pain. Soon more screams could be heard, as well as a banging noise.
As quickly as the darkness has overcome them, light poured on to Ian’s face. Blurry, another formless figure appeared in front of Ian. He could hear voices all around him, talking and yelling frantically. Ian felt himself being yanked upwards, out of the darkness. Things were starting to click. As he was carried away, Ian saw the pod that he had been in when he was playing the game. Ian was hastily thrown on his back and he felt hands planting themselves all over him. Slowly, his body returned to normal, and the pain subsided.
“W…What?” Ian choked out.
“Don’t talk,” a muffled voice told him, “You need to give your body time to recover. You’ve just experienced a manual reconnection. Everything will be explained in detail later, but for now you need to relax.”
Ian nodded and laid his head back. Before he knew it, he was asleep.
Ian woke with a jolt. He was still in the arcade, laying against the glass wall next to the door. He felt like all of the energy had been drained from his body, and every joint was stiff and unmoving. Something that shocked him even more though, was the soft face resting on his shoulder. As he went over the features, he realized who was using him as a pillow: The girl from the elevator. ‘But why is she here?’ Ian thought to himself. In an attempt to stretch his back without moving her, he accidentally shuffled, nudging her cheek. Deep green eyes slowly took in Ian’s face uncomprehendingly, still half-asleep. Suddenly, the girl’s eyes snapped open and she shoved Ian away.
“What the fuck, man?” She yelled at him. Her cheeks flushed a bit from embarassment and anger, and her eyes shot out daggers at Ian, clearly wanting him six feet under.
“Woah, hey! It’s not my fault!” Ian waved his arms in front of him in an attempt to defuse the situation.
“Calm down, both of you. You were out cold because of the power outage. Just take it easy, relax and breathe.” An EMT approached them and knelt down in front of the girl, taking her arm and feeling her pulse from her wrist.
“Your heart rate is normal. We’re going to have to perform a full evaluation on both of you, but it shouldn’t take long. You’ll both wait here until we’re done with the other survivor.”
Ian and the girl both widened their eyes.
“What do you mean, survivor?” Ian asked hesitantly. The EMT looked back at Ian and shook his head.
“One of the players in the full-dive system didn’t return to their bodies. The safety feature on the unit hadn’t been operational for months, and the arcade knew it. The family has the option to press charges because of negligence.”
Suddenly the girl stood up and grabbed the EMT by the shirt, spinning him around to face her.
“Who was it?!!” She screamed at him. Tears began to well in her eyes. The EMT looked away, trying to not meet her gaze.
“…A young man named Corbin,” The man replied finally. The girl loosened her grip slowly and took two steps back.
“What about.. What about Matthew?” She asked, her voice wavering.
“He’s fine. He was the first out of the system. We’ve already performed his eval. Last I saw him, he was heading towards the food court.”
“Thank God,” the girl shed a tear of relief.
Ian couldn’t believe his ears. Corbin, the guy he had just been playing with, was gone. Everything that Corbin had been, everything he stood for, everything he believed in or wanted to achieve or dreamed about, was gone. Ian’s legs suddenly felt like rubber, and he fell back to the floor, leaning against the glass wall. How was that possible? Ian had known people to die before; it was a normal part of life, having people die around you.
“This way sir,” The nurse ushered him. Her hands were small and soft as they gently took hold of his right forearm, and she pulled him behind a erected curtain within the arcade. Without a word, she began to pull off Ian’s clothes, much to his shock. He took a step back as she negligently tossed his shirt on the floor and reached for his pants waist.
“What are you doing?” He wispered, covering his chest.
“Relax. I’m just performing a physical evaluation,” She smiled at him. Ian relaxed for just a second, but that’s all it took. The nurse quickly grabbed the waistline of his pants and thrust them downward. Ian quickly covered himself, and began to shiver. The air conditioning in the arcade was on full blast, casting a steady stream of cold air directly down his backside. Ian blushed furiously. Why was this nurse so determined to perform this evaluation?
While Ian was busy covering himself and clamping his eyes shut in embarassment, the nurse quickly touched ian’s limbs and his cheeks, looking for any discoloration or swelling. After she was satisfied that he was physically sound, she threw his pants back at him.
“Everything looks good with your body, shy boy,” she smirked at him as she walked out, “Hurry up and get dressed. The doctor is waiting for you.”
As if the mischevious nurse hadn’t been enough of a shock, the doctor put her to shame. Sitting on the floor with his pink tongue lolling out, sat a large golden retriever in a lab coat. Ian stiffled a laugh. Surely this had to be a joke! And yet, the dog just sat there, his eyes intently fixed on Ian’s.
“Woof,” the dog spoke.
“What do you mean, ‘woof’?” Ian asked.
“Just making a joke. Come sit in this chair,” The dog-doctor directed. In a world of strange and unusual things, Ian certainly felt that a talking dog that worked as a doctor took the cake.
“You look nervous,” the doctor gave a dog-like grin.
“I mean, I’ve never met a doctor like you,” Ian replied carefully.
“Yeah, I am pretty young to be a doctor, but I worked hard to be here,” The dog replied.
“That’s not what I meant,” Ian mumbled under his breath.
The dog jumped up on a stool next to Ian and pulled a helmet with wires onto Ian’s head. He then began to type on an oversized keyboard.
“Alright, we’re about to begin. You ready?”
“Not really. Will this hurt?”
“Of course not! But if it does, try to bear with it.”
The dog then pressed a large red button, and Ian’s head felt like it had been dipped in molten lava. He grit his teeth and tried with all his might to bear the sudden burst of pain. Then, as quickly as it had come, the pain disappeared and the helmet was nudged back into it’s standby position with a black, wet nose.
“Alright, we’re done here,” The doctor said. He jumped off the stool and walked to the white curtain door, brushing it open.
“So, am I alright?” Ian asked.
“Woof,” The dog replied, and Ian shook his head, stepping into the arcade again.
Marie had her evaluation done in relatively less time. When Ian tried to talk to her about the creepy nurse, she looked surprised; she wasn’t required to strip down for the physical evaluation. The dog-doctor, however, had caught them both by surprise. They laughed about the mental thought of the doctor performing health visits for patients.
“Alright, you two are cleared. You may leave whenever you want,” The dog called to them.
“What will happen to the rest of Corbin’s mind?” Marie asked hesitantly.
“Well, as long as the server stays up, he’ll still live on inside the game. But the game won’t back up his mind. If the server goes down, he’ll vanish for good. But don’t worry, we plan to keep the server up on our own network.”
“That’s good,” Marie breathed a sigh of relief, “At least he can still live out his life in the game.”
Ian and Marie, turned to the entrance of the arcade and walked outside into the main atrium. The morning sun poured in through one of the many skylights, illuminating the food court below. The various smells from the restaurants hit his nostrils, and his stomach began to growl ferociously.
“I guess I’m hungry after all of that,” He said quietly.
Marie nodded in agreement. “Let’s get something to eat.”
Before they proceed downstairs, Ian looked back at the arcade and stopped in his tracks. The nurse and two large men were systematically destroying the full-dive units with sledgehammers. Chunks of metal and plastic were strewn across the arcade floor. Once the units had been sufficiently demolished, they began their work on the central networking tower in the center of the pods.
“Wait a minute!” Ian cried out as he sprinted back towards the door. Before he could reach it, two burly men in uniforms grabbed him by the arms and forcefully drug him away from the arcade. As they carried him backwards into an elevator, he caught a glimpse of Marie, crying on the floor as another officer began to escort her out of the building.
And with no more effort than a sack of garbage being thrown into a dumpster, Ian was tossed out the back door into the cool evening air.