“Good morning, Guardsman Miller! The date is Thursday, November 13, 3400. It is 3:48 a.m.,” a female computer voice chirped at the patient man. He lay in the pod, awake, for over 40 minutes while it checked his vitals. The greeting was the final step of the wake-up protocol; it confirmed that he was healthy enough for watch. The top of his pod slid open to let Ralph Miller climb out of the soil. He stepped barefoot onto cold, black tiles and ran to his bathroom.
He hopped into the shower to rinse the soil off his back, after spending an ecstatic three minutes relieving his bladder. Finally, after getting dressed he felt ready to check in. Ralph went to his pod and retrieved his node, a clear rectangle the size and thickness of a playing card. The display lit up when he touched it. After several swipes and taps, a woman’s face appeared on the small screen.
“Guardsman Miller ready for duty,” he nodded at the distinguished woman. She nodded and gave a slight smile. Her laugh lines became more visible as the corners of her lips pulled upward.
“Good morning, welcome to the waking world. I assume you did the training program once you were chosen?” She asked.
“Excellent. I’d prefer not to be left short-handed by sending out trainers,” she gave him a matronly smile. “Technically your first day is off, but it would be a good idea for you to take a patrol and fill out a report. You’re the first Guardsman in your area, and our last global patrol hasn’t been there in six months. We’re kind of eager to get a report, I’m sure you understand,” she said.
“Is there a problem?” Ralph asked. Her eyes softened and the worry lines on her forehead became more prominent than her laugh lines.
“Not that we know of. All the pods in your area are giving us strong life signs,” she said. The Commander looked left and right as if checking for someone, then she leaned closer to the camera. “I can’t explain it, but I’ve got a bad feeling,” she shook her head. “The human race is basically running on a skeleton crew right now. I can’t spare the resources or the people to go check based on a ‘feeling’, but you’re there now. Please,” she asked. “If you find anything unusual, let me know directly.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ralph nodded. “I’ll get you a report as soon as I can.”
“Thank you, Guardsman.” The woman disappeared leaving the display transparent again. Ralph tapped it with a finger to check the time. It showed 4:03 a.m.
“Let’s get started,” he decided. He walked out of his small, one-story house into the soft blue moonlight. Other than the porch light he left on, there was no artificial light for miles. Ralph lamented the lack of light for a second until he remembered his training. “Oh man, is it going to work?” He wondered as he swiped through the node until he found an icon that looked like a sheriff’s star. After tapping it an animated, black, featureless face appeared on the display.
“How can I help you, Guardsman?” the figure asked with a gentle, female voice.
“Light the streetlamps, give me a route to the Core.” The street lamp at the edge of his property lit up, as did the one across the street. More and more lampposts came to life along the street to his left. The road to the right stayed dark.
“Not right now, thank you,” Ralph replied. The figure disappeared from his screen. Ralph hopped in his pickup truck and followed the lit path. He knew where he was going, but he appreciated the comfort provided by the lights. He’d been to the Core many times when it first opened. The Core in his area, was the first “permanent resident” VR center in the world. He applied for a spot but they rejected him. He gave up hope, but once most of humanity escaped into VR it felt like they just gave the rest of the pods away. By then the Core users had a yearlong head start over the rest of the world.
He reached the building. A single light shone by a small door, but the rest of the giant building Ralph knew was there seemed hidden in the dark. He parked by the door and exited the truck. At the door he inserted his node into a security dock, then the heavy security door unlocked to let him in. He stepped into a dim hall. Every third Fluorescent light glowed with sterile white light.
“First things first,” Ralph smiled to himself and moved towards one of the resident halls. He stopped at a door labeled, “Unicorn Hall” and used his node to get in. The room resembled a giant warehouse, at least twice the size of a soccer field. Rows of pods stretched out in front of him in both directions. “78Y,” Ralph repeated in his mind. A label indicated the row in front of him was row “A”. He looked to the right and saw the next row labeled “B”. He turned the other way and saw the row on his left was labeled “AA”. He turned right and followed the rows. Along the way, he brought his node up and tapped the sheriff icon.
“How can I help you, Guardsman?” the animated woman asked.
“You can patch me through to the AlterNet, right?” he asked. He reached row Y and turned left to go down the row.
“Yes, but only to the contacts on your friends list,” she replied.
“That’s exactly what I want.” He counted the numbers as he walked.
“Which contact?” The computer asked as he reached the 77th pod on row Y. He glanced in the 78th pod and saw bright blonde hair through the glass.
“Hold on,” he replied. “Sorry babe,” he apologized mentally. Ralph met someone in the game when he first logged in. As they became closer they discovered they had a lot in common, even living in the same city. When Ralph was chosen to be a Guardsman he promised to check in on his girlfriend’s body and show her.
Secretly he was eager to see what she looked like in real life. He stepped closer to pod 78Y and saw a beautiful woman lying in the soil. She looked almost exactly like her AlterNet avatar, except without pointy ears.
Except for one small feature that bothered Ralph very much. According to the pod, she was still alive. The pod’s readout made him very uneasy about the fact that it looked like a small sapling grew out of her chest. Her shirt was torn through from the inside. Thin, young branches with green needle leaves protruded from the hole leaving her white shirt stained red. He tapped the star icon.
“Did you decide a contact?” it asked.
“Crystal!” he blurted her name. The figure nodded and disappeared. After a few seconds, a cloaked elf appeared on the screen. She smiled at Ralph.
“Hey, babe! How’s it going in the real world? Are you checking me out yet?” Relief, panic, and confusion flooded Ralph at the same time.
“Not yet. I’m headed that way, just wanted to check in and let you know I woke up okay. I love you. I’ll call you back a bit later, okay?” The elf nodded and blew Ralph a kiss before disappearing from the display.
“Okay, think,” He tried to relax and looked around at the other pods. He looked into pod 77Y and saw a sapling growing out of a man’s chest. He started walking back to the front, this time paying attention to the pods, and saw each body sprouted a sapling. He swiped on his node until the Commander’s face appeared. The older woman nodded to show she was attentive.
“There’s a big problem. At least 78 people in the Core have trees growing out of them. In the pods. I haven’t checked them all yet, I’m still walking around. I thought you should know. Also, one of them is my girlfriend. I checked in on her and she’s still alive in the AlterNet, but,” he shrugged. “There’s a tree growing out of her.” The Commander nodded again.
“Thank you,” she shook her head and mumbled under her breath. “I knew that Sharp woman couldn’t be trusted.” She looked at Ralph. “Guardsman, you have my authorization. Wake everyone that doesn’t have a tree growing out of them.”