[Book 1] [2. Charlie]
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Gripping my head, I calmed myself with a long breath. Just because I time-traveled, simulation-swapped or whatever, I wasn’t in any better position than yesterday.

If I’ve learned anything from all the sci-fi time-travel movies I’ve seen, it’s that I should have some sort of plan - usually involving making money. Or breaking the AI machines. No, scratch that, poor plan if the simulation inside simulation was true.

So, the goal was to make money and with that fortune I could create a lot of jobs - problem with grim future solved. Right? No more jobs lost because of AI, something along those lines. But how to strike big?

The only thing I remembered about markets in the future was the big cryptocurrency surge in two years. But was it; I didn’t care. Stock market? I didn’t care. Price of wheat or oil? I didn’t care. Super-bowl? I didn’t care. Any other sport? Rimelion PVP, yeah, that was my passion!

Wait. Rimelion!

I can make tons of money by playing the game. Finally, I can stomp on the other “normal” people, not on the other testers!

I was so excited that I went straight into my old version of the capsule with a big red plaque for testing purposes only. It was in the size of my bed, with a silver metallic color. I hopped in and let the system scan my retina; the scan was successful, and I’ve logged into my Rimelion account.

[Welcome back, John.]

“New account, random name. I don’t care.”

[Error, you cannot create a character. You are part of the development team.]

Oh, no! How could I forget? The time-travel thing didn’t change the fact I couldn’t play. Annoying foul mood overcame me. Past repeated, because I also was at the crossroads back then. Today was that damn day, a launch of Rimelion.

With a bonk on my head, I tried to force memories to get back. How was it? Lucas promised me he could get me into the game, but I declined. I rubbed my temples in a vain hope that I would remember why, but how to remember every detail after all those years? Let’s call him to get my answers. The solution was only one phonecall away.

“Hey, John! What’s up?”

Lucas was still alive! My heart raced inside my chest as I spoke. “Lucas, can you get me into the Rimelion?” My adrenalin shot up - if I could get to play the game, I might even find a girlfriend who likes whiskey. What? No! I meant the money to save the world.

“John, just come, as I told you!” Lucas couldn’t hide his anger. “Not over the phone; meet me in three hours at my place.” The line went silent as a slight anger rose in my chest. How could I know I asked him the same thing 20 years ago?

Okay, one more thing left to do before I can get rich. With a determined will, I logged into my corporate account.

[You are about to end your contract, are you sure?]

“Yes.” My finger lingered near the button, and fear gripped my heart. The company was like a family, and if I did this, I wouldn’t go to the coffee-breaks with Lucy to a storage room. With my eyes closed, I confirmed my decision.

After all, I was still full of anger about the lay-off in twenty years. Or it was in another simulation? All that mambo-jumbo was bad for my mental health and my head hurt because the stupid phone was ringing! Wait, what - a call? From the R&D center, no less!

“Hello? What’s going on?” I demanded. “You can’t force me to work anymore!”

“Greetings, John. I wanted to reach out to you as I received notification that you have terminated your contract with our company. Your dissatisfaction with our work place saddens us. However, we value your feedback and would like to extend an exciting opportunity for you. We are currently running a test program for our next-generation capsules, the Mark 3. As a valued member of our team, we would like to offer you the chance to take part in this program and receive a complimentary Mark 3 capsule for testing purposes.”

The lady on the phone was real, because her bored voice sounded so monotone, unlike the lively robotic ones. She must have said the same line over and over. “We believe that your expertise as a tester will be invaluable in helping us refine and improve the performance of our products. By participating in this program, you can continue your role as a tester and help shape the future of our company.”

Has she said Mark 3? My current capsule was only the first model, and it lacked the nutrition feature and sanitary options, so it was an upgrade. There was only one caveat. “Can I play the game?”

“I regret to inform you that the current restrictions are still in effect, and as of now, there have been no exceptions granted by your superiors,” she said in so dead voice I felt bad for her. What a stupid job. “Therefore, I’m afraid that you must adhere to the protocols in place and comply with the regulations accordingly.”

“Then what the hell am I supposed to do with the capsule?” I said, clearly confused. “I terminated the tester contract, so I won’t be able to log into test servers.”

“Dear John, I would like to clarify that, as per my role and responsibilities, I am not authorized to question or challenge any directives that have been issued. My primary objective is to extend the opportunity to you and present the necessary details for your consideration. Therefore, I would like to request a definitive response from you, either accepting or declining the offer presented. Your decision will be duly respected, and we appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.”

Oh yeah, how could I forget about corporate things? Once upon a time I received ten days of holiday to plant trees in Indonesia just because I stumbled around a hallway while half-drunk and the janitor’s son saw me. Yes, I didn’t get it either, but in the corporate world, you just took it and didn’t ask questions. “Sign me up! When I can expect the delivery?”

“We would like to request your permission for our technicians to enter your apartment within the next two hours and install the capsule. Moreover, we understand that this may be an inconvenience, but we assure you that our team will strive to minimize any disruption to your daily routine. We greatly appreciate your cooperation and look forward to hearing back from you at the earliest convenience.”

I checked the interiors of my flat and the only thing of value was my old television and capsule. “Sure, I have nothing expensive at home, so I’ll go to see my friend. Thanks, girl!” She groaned at my remark and closed the call.

I dig in my closet, got dressed in a random plain shirt, jeans and ran outside. Lucas was waiting! The scorching sun welcomed me like any other day, but the last time I walked the same streets, I met only robots. Except for some wolves, everyone was at home playing the game. This time, the streets were full of cars and people! So many living beings!

The smell of cars’s exhaust wasn’t that great, but whatever. Better than the electric outages in the future. I ran around a busy street like an idiot and grinned at other people. One man shook his head and quickened his pace, but I only smiled back and jumped around. I hopped around the street until I paused in front of the ten-story white building.

Last time I checked, that was when commies were yet to arrive, the cheapest apartment there was way above my paygrade. I swung open the door and a usual beige rug welcomed me inside, with a living woman greeting guests at the reception. No way, a real living receptionist! When I was here last time, I met an early generation robot without an emotion; that was around the time for the funeral.

“How can I help you? Do you have an appointment?” she asked and glimpsed at my torn jeans. Hey, that’s intentional. I ripped them with a knife at the same time I bought them!

Well, I was using them even twenty-five years later, but they were only five years old at this time!

We have been friends with Lucas for ages, so I knew firsthand how forgetful he was. With my best smile, I let the scanner to flash my retina and nodded at her. Then I opened my mouth to tell her about Lucas, or to joke with her, but I couldn’t even say my name.

Right. Even though I wanted to see real, living people, I couldn’t communicate with them. How could I forget about that? My stupid brain refused to work even after the transfer? Every time I talked with strangers, I got into a panic attack. I had no problems communicating with them in the game. So, perhaps it was a good thing that people were at home all the time?

After she confirmed that Lucas miraculously left a note, I was knocking at his door. Even that simple thing as a door here was more expensive and decorated that my entire apartment, with pure gold everywhere. Gold!

The door with a golden “Lucas” plate flung open, and Lucas grinned at me. “I thought you’ll just go back to the boring QA.” He looked even better than I remembered, a twenty-five-year-old man with a military figure and hairstyle. Without answering, I stared at him as if I had seen a ghost. That might be right, because he died ten years ago. “John? You there?”

I woke up from my stupor only after he pinched my shoulder. “Lucas, I would never! I’ve been thinking about it and you were right!” Whatever you said to the past me.

He let me in, and as usual I had to drink vodka. After he told me everything about his recent crush, we went to his hacking room. Oh, how I missed the old days.

Have you ever seen a hacker? Yes, he had a computer with three screens, as in movies, even the VR helmet for 3D hacking, but during hacking he had an enormous café and energy drink consumption. That meant that the room was a big energy drink warehouse, with hundreds of them stacked everywhere.

“How should we do this? Do you need to hack my ID or what?” I was still perplexed by how he would do it. Could he somehow delete my company records?

“That’s easy! Because of the launch of the official gov game, Rimelion, we have a once in the blue moon refreeze of the IDs! I can swap your retina with an ID of someone who died and bought the game…” His voice failed at the end, so my eyebrows shot up, but he quickly recovered and said, “That means that you can play.”

“But wouldn’t that mean I would be that person, no?” I asked, and leaned on a shaky closet full of energy drink. “You need the ID for everything!”

“It’s not that big of a deal. Look at it this way—you can play the damn game and you will be like a king! You said that you know a lot of hidden content, so you’ll be number one in no time! Come, come sit!” After he shoved a few bottles aside, I sat on a something that was a mix between sofa and bed.

“Right, look, I have a new contract with my company. They let me test the mark 3 at home. Would that be a problem?”

“Nah, it’s not like anybody would remember you, right?” He laughed and smashed a few buttons on his keyboard. “Thousands of testers are in the wind, so you will be one of many. They store only the identificator of your ID, so it’s fine.”

“But… I would have another body, right? I don’t want a virtual body of some old bald dude!” I shuddered at that thought. “Can you do anything about that? Scan me again?”

“Nope, the body scan is onetime only; you have that body for the rest of your life. If push comes to shove, we can try illegal hospitals, ‘cause the DNA in the ID won’t be yours, right?”

That riled me up, and I shot up and walked towards him, arguing, “Okay, okay, but what about the class? You can’t change that! What if I get a mage? I can’t be a mage! What if the dead person had a debt? What then?” I stopped only an inch from his face, glaring at him.

That was the reason I hadn’t done it. The ID was important for communication with the commie government, and I wouldn’t be able to change it. I would have to stick with it forever, or face an execution. Commies. Wait, normal government set up that.

“Don’t worry too much! Just today died over six thousand people, and there are hundred thousands of unprocessed, so we have an enormous pool to choose from.” Comprehensive list of names popped up on the middle screen. “Filtering… Only without debt. You like the classic warrior, right? Let’s filter them too… Hmm, three hundred Warriors, but none of them has your name, John.” 

I stood beside him for tens of minutes, searching for the right dude, when he suddenly said, “Hm, 21 years old! What about him? Name’s Charlie.” The file had a picture of a young man with an average body, who was jumping into a pool.

“Yeah! That’ll work! Choose him!” I said and hit Lucas’ shoulder. Somehow, I pushed his hand, and he scrolled the list and the filter disappeared! Did he do it on purpose?

“Watch out! Ouch, my hand… Okay, this one looks good. Go to the scanner-”

He did it on purpose. I shook my head and said, “Do you think I’ve never seen a movie? I need to see the ID before you confirm that, or I will end up as a grandpa!” His eyes went wide and shook his head before he grabbed the mouse again.

“Then… Here, see? Tags are [No debt], [Rimelion], [Charlie], [21 years old]. Happy? Let’s do it!”

Reluctantly nodding, I walked to his military-grade eye scanner. What? I knew he was rich, but was it that much? He said nothing about that when we were drinking. Well, maybe that got him killed - this thing must be super expensive and super illegal.

The scanner only blipped once. “Done. You are now Charlie. I transferred everything from your old ID. It will be like nothing happened. Except for the name and body. You still have time before the game starts, it’s two hours - let’s drink!” He handed me a vodka with a big smile. Oh yes, energy drinks and vodka; people died for less. But that couldn’t be the reason; he always drank slowly and not too much.

“When you find some dung, don’t forget to invite your ol’ Lucas! I have the same name in the game.”

Gulping down the glass, I grinned and said back, “You had to log in quick if you got that. They opened the character creation last week, right?”

“Yeah! I wanted to be just Lucas, nothing like SuperLucas85. So, after crushing skulls with your sword, don’t forget about a mage, Lucas.” He tried to sound excited, but I could see that something weighed on his soul. His dejected look and the way he held the glass weren’t normal for him. At least as far as I remembered.

“Mage, you say? I pity you because that will be hard. You must learn all the hand gestures for spells, draw runes in the air.”

His jaw dropped as he listened to me and quickly mumbled in disbelief, “Mate! Like what? Do I need to draw something? I’ll stand in the back and just wave lazily with a staff! I suck at drawing. Why didn’t you say that earlier?”

I laughed and almost spilled my drink. “Sorry, you didn’t ask! You can still make a good char. When you do the first quest for your class, you can choose a magic swordsman - pick that and you are golden. Do you really need me to carry you that badly?”

He drank more of vodka before answering in a serious voice, “I kinda lost a lot of money, you know. That game needs to help me pay off some debts. My friend in the community said that the game’s economy will be big and the virtual money will be interchangeable with dollars.” I looked puzzledly at him with a bemused look. Dollars, really? “You know what I mean! Credits, as they call them now, but they are dollars. With them, I’ll pay off that debt.”

I shook my head and grinned. “Can’t you sell the door or the apartment? Can’t you hack some bank and give yourself the money you need?”

“Nah, mate, I need more than I could get by selling stuff. I don’t know what you take me for, but I am a security analyst, not some a script kiddie. Tell me, how can we get rich, and fast?”

An enormous debt? Why was he living in this ridiculous apartment then? I guess I‘ll never understand rich people, but I can help him with this. After all, the game is my playground.

“We need to get to the level fifteen as soon as possible. After that we can make serious money without making waves, but that will take some time. Don’t expect to be rich in a month, I wanna lie low a bit. Admins can be bitches.”

When I arrived at home, everything seemed to be where I left it. Expect for the new shiny sky-blue capsule. Yesterday, in the future, I left behind my bellowed test Mark 9, so it was a downgrade. Mark 3 will suffice for now, though.

Although as far as I remembered they skipped the Mark 3, it wasn’t for the public market. But I am sure nothing bad is going to happen. I am sure. I checked the nutrients; it was full to the brim.

Because there was still some time left, I lay down on my trusty sofa and turned on Katherine's stream. She was sitting on an edge of her seat in her old room, with a clean bed behind her, and wildly gesticulated about the upcoming game and her plans for it.

This younger version of Katherine already dyed her hair purple and was wearing a cute pink hoodie. Maybe that was the reason I was among the selected few fans, because people usually preferred less clothed streamers. Thankfully, the devious developers in the game created equipment for girls… differently. Oh yeah, she’s going to reveal a lot. Reaching behind sofa I pulled a beer and opened it with my teeth.

Katherine’s stream and beer on my sofa. If not for us both being younger, I would never guess I traveled twenty years back. Maybe I should contact her in the game? No, that would be creepy. Perhaps I’ll talk to her in a shopping center as usual… And fail, as usual. That wouldn’t be creepy at all, right? Me, a stalker. At the same time as Katherine slipped into her capsule, I was already preparing my dive.

[Welcome back, Charlie.]

As I counted the seconds, I closed my eyes and mentally prepared for the grind. If one wants to save the world, one needs to work harder than any other player. With a countdown to 0, the game started.

First thing I noticed was an intensive smell of a pine forest, that was one-of-kind. At first, I could only feel a weight of my body, the rough dirt under me, the gentle wind in my face. Then I opened eyes and saw something that shouldn’t have been there. My hands were a lot smaller than the real ones, but the thing that surprised me the most was a cleavage. Why the hell am I a girl?!