Chapter 1

The rain coming down my back as I waited for the taxi was cold. My breathing mask came loose, so I adjusted it again. It has been years since I needed to wear it all the time. Well, more like everyone is required to wear one. Apparently, it was worse down near the equator where the air was so hot that just breathing hurt.

Finally, the taxi shows up, and the back door opens automatically. Getting in, I sit down in the plastic-covered seat, and the door closes behind me.

“Destination Citizen?” says the metallic voice of the taxi’s AI.

“Paradigm Alpha Building 4,” I tell it, my voice muffled with the breathing mask.

“Very good, Paradigm Alpha Building 4. ETA is ten minutes, is that acceptable, Citizen?”

Sighing, I tell it, “Yes, that is fine.”

The taxi moves into the traffic lane, and I am on my way. Not sure what this is about, but the managers at Paradigm Alpha wanted to see me urgently. I have been working for them now for well over twelve years. With Earth going down the toilet, with barely places livable on Earth with decent levels of oxygen, the wars going on between China and Russia, and now possibly the USACan coalition getting dragged into it, it isn’t looking good, folks need an escape. And that is where Paradigm Alpha comes in. Virtual Worlds. Free from war, famines, or even lack of air to breathe. 

Looking out the window, I wonder what the sun looks like again. I haven’t seen sunshine in Alaska in over a year. With the devastation of Beijing after Russia nuked it, the cloud cover has started to cover much of Earth. Most food is now grown underground, away from any kind of radiation. Or so they say, but I think it’s just because we are waiting for the day when all the nukes start to fly. USACan is the last big country that has stayed out of it. Not for lack of being dragged in. Europe is defending itself from Russia, who is trying to get a foothold there since they want the land grab and the resources since the Russian military stripped theirs bare.

India is siding with China. The Islamic states have cut off access to all their countries, and nothing is going in and out of it. Most places on the equator are unlivable, so countries like Mexico, South America, and even the older states like Florida and California are deserted with barely any breathable oxygen. I mean, there are holdouts, but now most of the world lives near the North and South pole locations. Alaska might be wet, but at least it’s not killer hot. I feel the car stop, and looking up, I see that we have made it to Paradigm Alpha Building 4.

“You have reached your destination, Citizen. I have deducted the amount of 32 credits from your account. Thank you, have a good day,” says the Taxi’s AI, and the door opens.

Getting out, I am back in the rain and looking up at the tall building. This is the fourth major building that Paradigm Alpha owns. And it’s one of their newest and biggest. If I remember, it’s over 100 stories high. My meeting was actually on floor 99. At least the power is on, so I don’t need to climb up those steps. Though knowing Paradigm Alpha, they most likely have underground generators.

Going into the building, I take off my mask inside and store it in the side pouch that everyone now wears, almost like someone who is wearing a watch. You never leave home without it. Taking a deep breath of the clean air, instead of the canned air, feels good. Oh, I am sure the air in here is canned too, but it’s also not a mask on your face. Looking around the area, I see that there are security personnel near the elevators, with force fields cutting off the area in sections.

Walking towards them, I flash my badge at them, and they let me through. I have one of the rare gold passes. Meaning I am someone important. Which I am not. I am an overworked bug reporter. The fact that I am also one of the rare people who can connect to the VR system at a deeper state means I can find bugs easier. So upper management wanted to make sure I can get to work easier and faster. So gold pass it was. Though, if you look at the salary of the gold pass employees of Paradigm Alpha, I am the lowest. By millions and millions of credits. The pay for this job honestly is meager, but it’s paid my rent and oxygen fees for the last 12 years.

Once I am passed security, I head towards the bank of elevators and press the button. While waiting, I wonder again since I got the call to come in what this is about. My boss Max said nothing other than I needed to come in, that this was urgent. Probably a bug they found and needed help to narrow down its impact. In the last 12 years, I have learned to be fantastic at what they call Impact Assessment. Telling upper management what the effect of a bug would be. Especially if it was monetary in the real world.

One thing that Paradigm Alpha protected fiercely was its ability to make money. Most games that Paradigm Alpha created that were for VR were moneymakers. Folks would spend in-game credits for items they would not buy in real life here on Earth. Right now, Paradigm Alpha had nine games going that catered from young kids to older adults. From kiddy stuff to adult stuff. So, most likely, they found something that is making them lose credits.

When the elevator arrives, I get in and press the number 99 on it. Some of the folks who get in with me look at me enviously. Most employees know who I am by now—a poor employee who has access to floor 99. Talk between some of the workers starts up as we go up.

“Did you hear that Russia is thinking of retaliating with us because we refused to send them food?” one girl says.

“I doubt they would do that, USACan would hurt them badly. I mean, we aren’t involved, but that’s because we are too strong to get involved,” says a young male, trying to sound smart. Ah, I think to myself. We have stayed out of it because we have our own problems already. Like keeping our own people fed, oxygenated, and well, that’s pretty well it. Our military isn’t remotely as large compared to Russia or China. What we have is technology and our nukes.

“I was watching a show that they say there is a 38 percent chance that Russia or China would nuke us,” another girl starts up, but thank God the elevator stops on floor 32 and lets them all out, leaving me alone. Once the door closes and their voices fade away, I go back to thinking about this meeting. Sigh, I just want it over. I am supposed to be on a required one week vacation that I have every year. They aren’t supposed to be calling me into work.

Once on the 99th floor and the door opens, I head down the hallway. Compared to the other floors, this one is quite opulent. It’s meant to impress guests, and that it does. The floors are all marble with artwork from all over the world on the walls. Some are on loan, but I am sure some Paradigm Alpha owns. There is even the Mona Lisa here. It might be a copy. It might not be. Paradigm Alpha can afford it, even to rent it.

Once at the end of the hallway, there is a desk with a single person at it. The woman who is there could have passed as a model. Nothing but the best for the rich upper management here. Nodding to her, I say, “Hi Nadine, any idea what is going on?” I say, nodding towards the double doors.

“I am sorry I cannot say, Mr. Grady. Please go right in, I have let them know you are here,” she says in a quiet monotone.

Oh boy, this is bad. Nadine always called me by my first name, Jeff. If she is calling me Mr. Grady, something big is going on. Nodding to her, I say, “Thanks, Nadine,” and I walk towards the door and open it. In the room are four people. My two bosses, Mr. Broady and Mrs. Laman. Right now, the two richest people on Earth, and off if you believe they have a moonbase. The other two, I don’t recognize. They are both males, large and wearing suits.

“Mr. Grady, come in,” says Mrs. Laman. “Please sit there,” she says in a commanding voice, brooking no discussion and pointing to the only empty chair across from the four of them. What the heck is going on? Nodding to her, I go sit in the chair she mentions and wait to see what this is about.

Mr. Broady looks nervous, and the two suits don’t show any emotions but simply stare at me. “Now, we had some questions for you, Mr. Grady. These two gentlemen here are from the FBI. Based on the answers we get, that will tell her the way this discussion will go. But first, please sign this.” And with that, she places a piece of thick paper in front of me. Looking at it, I see that it’s an NDA or a non-disclosure agreement. I have signed many of those. Including one I had to for the job I do as I am not allowed to tell anyone what I actually do here, even with other employees, with the exception of Mr. Broady and Mrs. Laman, who already know what I do.

Reading it over, I see it’s a standard one that I will not talk to anyone about what is being discussed in this meeting with anyone, and that the fine for it would be two million credits and possible jail time. Holy heck! Two million credits? What is going on here! That part isn’t standard. My own contract was a fine of 25,000 credits. Looking up in surprise, I see that the two suits are still only staring at me, Mrs. Laman seems impatient, and Mr. Broady keeps wiping his hands on his pants.

“What is going on here?” I ask slowly.

“Please sign, and we can discuss it,” she says, tapping the contract on the table.

“And if I refuse to sign?” I ask, slowly looking at her in the eyes. As soon as I see that, I see a predatory look in her eyes.

“Then, these two gentlemen here will be taking you in cuffs on charges of espionage against the government of USACan for giving technology secrets to China,” she says with an enormous smile on her face. I always thought Mrs. Laman was a beautiful woman for her age, which I pegged at around the late forties, but now her face is nothing but ugly with greed.

Looking at Mr. Broady, he still has that nervous look, and he simply says, “Just sign it, Jeff. Otherwise, these men will take you away, you will be charged, and the outcome for espionage is the death penalty, as I am sure you are aware.”

“Shut up, William. Let Mr. Grady make his own choice,” she snaps at him.

“Thelma,” he snaps back at her, “I still own this company or a majority, so I would be careful who you tell to shut up.” And there is the backbone I knew he had. He didn’t get to where he is being a nice guy.

Mrs. Laman flushes, from embarrassment or anger, I am not sure, but she says, “Sorry, William, but this is too important, and you know it.”

“I agree, but I don’t like the method.” What the? The method? What is he talking about?

Turning back to me, she says again, but without a smile. “Sign. It.”

Looking at the two suits, one of them takes out a pair of handcuffs and places them gently on the table, with no change of expression at all. What the heck is going on? There is no way I did any kind of espionage, especially with the Chinese. So the choice is, sign the paperwork for an NDA that I have no clue what the discussion is about, or get charged, jailed, and executed for something I didn’t do?

Taking the pen that is on the table already, I sign my name at the bottom. In the spot where you put your fingerprint on the smart e-paper, I press my thumbprint to it. I then turn the paper around and offer it to Mrs. Laman to look at. She confirms that I signed it, asks for the pen I still have in my hands, signs it herself where it said witness, and thumbprints it as well.

“Thank you, Jeff, but I am sorry I had to do this, but once we talk about it, you will see why. These two gentlemen are from the FBI, but from a small division you would not have heard about,” Mrs. Laman says, her demeanor changing a total 180. “And I am sorry I had to do this to you,” she says, and with the contract on the table, she pulls away a section that to me seemed blank. I see that underneath it, there is writing.

“What the hell!” I say in shock, I grab the contract and read the section that was just uncovered.

I also hereby give my body and my mind to Paradigm Alpha. I agree to abide by their choices for my welfare, work location, and job title from now until I die. I shall not, in any way, shape, or form fight Paradigm Alpha in any Court of Law for this contract. I also agree not to mention it to anyone, as I have given away my rights to Paradigm Alpha with my admission of guilt for espionage against the government of USACan for giving technology to the Chinese government that would have allowed China to bypass the Satellite Defense Network and kill millions of USACan Citizens.

“What?” I scream at them in horror. “I did none of those things, and you know it!”

“Be that as it may,” one of the suits finally says, “You are now the property of Paradigm Alpha and the USACan government to do as we see fit.”

“Agent Mead? If you will allow me?” Mr. Broady says to the agent.

Nodding, the agent sits back. “Now, Jeff, we are sorry we did this to you, but you have to understand we have a good reason.” He starts.

“Mr. Broady, what good reason would you have for making a damn slave!” I tell him hotly.

“Willian, call me William,” he continues as if I didn’t have my brief outburst. Sighing, he sits back. “Trust me. We had a significant reason. Where do you think we will be in, say ten, twenty years from now?” he asks me. The question throws me off guard, and my anger disappears in a puff of smoke.

I look at him oddly and ask, “You mean Paradigm Alpha? Probably richer, better tech. Why?”

“No, not Paradigm Alpha, the world. Earth?”

I laugh at him at that question, “Knowing the way things are going. Probably in a nuclear apocalypse.” But I stop laughing when he isn’t, or anyone else at the table isn’t laughing with me. “What seriously?”

“Seriously,” says the other suit. “Name is Agent White. No. it’s not a code name,” he says at my raised eyebrow. “Our projections say that within a year, there will be another nuclear warhead detonated somewhere on Earth, and the chances of it being in the USACan are very high. So, with the help of Paradigm Alpha. The USACan government has come up with a plan to save as many of us as possible.”

“You mean the rich and those who can afford it,” I tell him bitterly. Yeah, sure, save the human race. Right. 

“No, we will be saving many genetic samples. We have been for the last two years,” he says.

What? Genetic samples? How are genetic samples from people saving them? “I don’t get it? What do you mean samples? You have been collecting humans?” I ask him, confused.

“No, samples. Blood DNA samples,” 

“And how is that going to save humanity?” I ask, perplexed at his reasoning.

“Are you sure you want him in on this?” he asks both my bosses, but both of them answer quickly, “Yes!”

Sighing, he turns back to me. “We have collected over three million blood DNA samples. Over one million female egg cells, or oocytes, and over one million male sperm cells. These are stored in a deep bunker on the moon. What we need is an administrator to watch over the system,” he finishes.

I gape at him in shock. I am not sure if it’s the number of samples they have gotten or the fact that we have a base on the moon. I guess my brain knows which one since I blurt out, “We have a base on the moon?”

“We do, but we need someone to watch over them, for when, as you called it, the nuclear apocalypse happens, and it’s over. We need someone to watch the systems with all the human minds in it.” It takes me a second or two to finally clue in to what he just said.

“What! What do you mean, human minds?” I ask him.

“And this is where we get to the chief topic. We cannot take humans as they are. They would die. So, we will upload folks onto what we call The Doomsday System. Think of it as a big VR system, but for human consciousness. The technology works, thanks to Paradigm Alpha. Most folks we can upload, but they are just on pause as it were. Not able to interact with The Doomsday System. Think of it more like storage,” he says, explaining it.

“But wait, so you want me to get uploaded with them, to watch over them, but how is that going to work, when my brain will be in storage? And I hope you aren’t going to say you have some kind of new technology that will make me immortal,” I tell him with a nervous laugh.

“No, you will be uploaded. But you have something unique,” Mrs. Laman says quietly.

I look at her with a questioning look and ask her, “And what’s that? I am a simple bug tracker, Mrs. Laman. You know that. I have been doing that for the last 12 years. And I am not being vain when I say I am quite good at it.”

“And do you know why you are so good at it?” she asks me instead of commenting on mine.

 “I pay attention to details?” I ask her, perplexed with her question.

“Nope,” she says with a smile, a truly genuine smile. “The reason you are so good at it is that for some reason, your brain is able to separate itself from what is real, and what is not. When you are under for VR, your brainwaves, for some reason we have not been able to validate or copy, goes into overdrive, which allows you to go past the boundaries of the normal systems. Honestly, we are studying you while working for under VR, which has allowed us to create some of the technology we have today for the new VR systems.”

“What do you mean real and not real?” I ask her puzzled.

“When most folks go into VR, it’s hard for them to tell what is real and isn’t. You, on the other hand, can, which is what makes it so easy for you to find bugs in the game. You can pull yourself away from the ‘game’ long enough to see it’s not meant to be there,” William says now.  “Do you know why we tell you not to tell folks what you do for your job? As a bug finder, I mean?” he says.

“I just thought it was because of the NDA,” I tell him.

William shakes his head, “No, it’s because you are the only one,” he says.

“What? No, that’s impossible! You have an entire team on floor nine here that does only that, they find bugs,” I say in disbelief.

“Oh, they do. But in the code itself. Not in the game. You are the only one who does that since you are the only one that can.”

I stare at him in utter shock. What does he mean, I am the only one! I can’t be the only one finding bugs and glitches while in the games that Paradigm Alpha creates! That would be ludicrous.

“Why do you think our games are so much better than the competition, Jeff.” Mrs. Laman says with pride. “It’s because of you. You find errors that our coders or debuggers would spend months, or even years finding. That is why we are able to get games to market faster.”

“I honestly don’t know what to say, if I am so important for this company, why are you doing what you are to me?”

All four at the table have the grace to blush at that comment. Mrs. Laman is the one who answers me but also shocks me by putting her hand over mine. “Because, in a way, we need you. Jeff, we are entrusting you with our care for a long time. There isn’t anyone else who can. You will one day wake up, and if the worse comes to be and us on Earth have destroyed each other, you will be our last bastion of hope. You will be our protector, our savior, and our salvation.”

“Laying it pretty thick on there, aren’t we Thelma?” William says with a soft laugh.

“No, he needs to know how serious this is, and why I have spent most of my own money and time into this.”

“So,” I say awkwardly, “how is this supposed to work? I hope I am not going to the moon? I mean, how are you going to keep me alive for what may amount to be thousands of years, until the Earth can be lived on again?”

Here, the two owners of Paradigm Alpha look at his other oddly. Finally, Thelma is the one to look back at me and answer. “Your body won’t be alive.” She tells me softly.

“But,” I tell her, confused, “How am I supposed to watch over everyone in VR if I am dead,”

“We will upload your mind to The Doomsday System servers, and there, you will live your days out in a game, until the AIs of the system feel that it’s time, and you will be pulled out of the game to begin the reseeding of Earth. We cannot trust this to the AIs at all. They are smart, but they aren’t human,” Thelma says softly.

“Wait, you want me to play a game for thousands of years?” I tell them all in astonishment.

“Yes, but to you, it won’t be thousands of yours. We will be telling the AIs to make it so that the time dilation for you is 10:1. So for every ten years outside the game for you, it will be one year in-game. So if you are in-game for say 1,000 years, you will only feel like for 100 years. And if you play a long-lived race, you should be fine,” William chimes in.

“Wait, what game am I going to be playing?” I ask them suspiciously. If it’s the pirate game Hooked Ships, forget it.

“You will be playing a completely new game that has been created with feedback from all the other games and built by the AIs. We have shown you snippets of it to find bugs that you have found none. So we know the game is solid with no bugs,” he says proudly.

“Wait! Are you talking about game X? I thought that was a new game coming out next year and that you just didn’t have a name for it!” I exclaim.

“No, you will play that one, but we are not giving it a name. This will be a new world for you to explore.”

Looking around the table, at the eager faces, I don’t know what to say. I mean, I don’t have much choice but to play a game for a long time and be that character? I mean, how many times have I wished while playing a game for fun that I can just escape and be in the game forever as my characters? So, instead of trying to escape this, I grin at them and say, “Sign me up!”