I am an old man now – I can feel it with each minute movement of my frail and failing body. I ponder the realities of being able to count my remaining years on the fingers of my hands, or perhaps even just one hand. As I reflect back on the events I have related to you here, I know without doubt that years were shaved off my life in the despairing darkness I found myself in when I was pulled from one reality to the next.
My last vision before the darkness was of my daughter’s bright and shining form before me – my first vision as I came roughly back to consciousness was of her mother, seated next to my hospital bed. Her silhouette in the window blocked the rectangular framing around the window panes, but beyond those solid geometric patterns there was another more extensive grid across the strangely orange sky in the distance.
“Jeffrey?” her voice called to me out of the fog in my mind. “Can you hear me?”
“I can see you, Elizabeth,” I replied. I clenched a hand I had not used in some time around what I soon discovered was her own hand. My voice was weak and tremulous, dry and cracking like sandpaper over pebbles.
She leaned forward and her smile brightened the room. Her face came into sharp focus, as well as the tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Coraline?” I asked, my daughter’s face still fresh in my mind from the other reality.
“She’s wonderful, Jeffrey,” she replied with joy. “We’re so happy that you’re well.”
I managed a smile of my own as I gazed at her, but my eyes fell slowly to the window and the great cage I had seen in my visions in the other reality – the game.
“The cage. It’s the environmental shield,” I remembered. “This is Dreides VII.”
“That’s right, Jeffrey,” she confirmed. “This is our home.”
I clenched her hand tighter. Memories, fresh ones full of life, were flooding back into my soul like deep dry hole being filled for the first time in centuries. Cracks and crevices in my recollections were quickly being filled. “When can I see Coraline?”
“Soon, darling,” she said soothingly, rubbing my hand with her own.
“How much do you remember about what happened, Jeffrey?” said a voice to my other side. I recognized it, but the associations I made with it were laced with fear and turmoil. I turned my head to see the source of the voice and there stood the Doctor, the man who had apparently saved my life.
“I suppose we have you to thank for saving me?” I asked him.
“You have yourself to thank, Jeffrey,” he replied. His eyes belied something unsaid and I knew from his gaze that whatever danger I had just been extricated from, it was not over. “But I really must insist you try and remember what happened. Your mind endured an incredible amount of stress when we brought you out of the game. I was afraid you wouldn’t make it.”
I looked to Elizabeth, trusting her guidance. She nodded her head and I settled back against my pillow and tried to assimilate the memories of my ordeal.
“I was Dr. Watson.” I began. “Holmes and I were investigating a case in Yorkshire.”
I hesitated. The scenes were blurry in my head and it felt as if they were faded by time – even crumbling before my mind’s eye.
“What happened while you were on the case?” the Doctor cued.
“We were diverted – a man was on the tracks and vanished.” I explained, but as I did so a nagging doubt rang from somewhere in my subconscious. There was a missing piece here that even the Doctor had not considered. I could not hold onto it, and it slipped away.
The Doctor moved from his position beside my bed and went to the door. Calmly he opened it and leaned out briefly, speaking to someone in the hallway before coming back to stand next to me.
“Was he described as looking something like this?” the Doctor asked.
A man with bright yellow hair and thick rubber-soled boots entered my room. I recognized the man, and suddenly made the connection to the alternate reality – a clue I had been unable to discern previously while still in the game.
“Chief Galen!” I exclaimed. “But then – you were in the game?”
The chief nodded silently, a smile on his face.
“Without his expertise, we’d likely never have found you,” the Doctor explained. “Chief was the first man to go in. Unfortunately, the Prime Machine didn’t want him there, and placed him in quite an uncomfortable position.”
“That’s the last time I ever want to look a roaring locomotive in the face, I can tell you,” the Chief said cheerfully, his gruff demeanor bringing a smile to my face.
“And the Rubidium?” I said, beginning to place the puzzle pieces closer together.
“Well,” the Doctor said, “I suppose I could have been more help in Leeds, but it was important we didn’t reveal too much to you at once. As I had said to you before, the game world is actually a miniature universe. The Rubidium was simply a by-product of entering that universe from this one. You’re lucky you didn’t blow yourself up.”
“You knew what it was all along!” I accused.
“Yes, well, er,” the Doctor juggled a response. “You were perfectly safe.” And again, that ridiculous smile.
There was a silent pause.
“Sort of,” he quipped. “But anyway, you’re here safe now and soon you’ll be able to see your lovely daughter, Coraline. I’ll be adjourning to take care of the little Huulanix problem we have, and that should sort things out rather nicely then, right? Right.” The Doctor clapped his hands together and rubbed them excitedly. “It’s wonderful to have you back safe and sound, Jeffrey. We had quite the little adventure didn’t we?”
“I should say so,” I replied with a hint of fury. “I wonder just how much safer it could have been.”
“There’s that fiery charm I’ve come to love,” he joked, beaming his smile at me. “Now, I believe there’s someone who has been dying to see you. Mrs. Peterson, may I have the honor?”
Graciously, she nodded her approval to him and he leaped to the door and threw it open. “Coraline?” he called down the hall.
My daughter, just as bright and full of life as I remembered her, ran into the room and jumped on my bed, embracing me a slightly painful hug, but one I took with grace and showering relief.
“Daddy!” she exclaimed, burying her head into my chest. It was the happiest I had felt in a very long time. The ages it seemed I had been trapped in the game fell away from me like ice breaking away from a melting glacier. My soul shined forth from deep within me.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the Doctor smile to himself and surreptitiously exit the room.
I pulled on Elizabeth’s hand and together we all embraced each other, tears of joy running down our faces.
It was the last time we would ever embrace in that way.
After our initial reunion, I drifted off to a deep slumber and was haunted by visions of the ordeal I had endured in the game. Voices spoke to me of lies and hidden truths – an entity tried desperately to convince me that this life I had returned to was not real, that Elizabeth and Coraline were not really there in my room with me. When I sought out this entity in my dreams I found myself, and standing behind me was the figure the Prime Machine had conjured out of my head to represent Sherlock Holmes.
I awoke, covered in beads of sweat, with the cage in the sky filling my view.
That morning, several medical doctors looked me over and eventually agreed to allow me out into the lush garden on the grounds of the medical unit I was staying in. Elizabeth took time to rest and recover, having been sleepless by my bedside since I was pulled back to reality.
Coraline and I sat in the garden watching the butterflies flit carelessly from flower to flower. I listened contentedly as she recounted all the things she had done over the period of my absence.
I ate real food, devouring cheeses and breads and meats with passion. Coraline entertained me with her tumbling skills and a thousand pictures she had drawn of myself, Elizabeth, and a little girl grinning ear to ear. “That’s me Daddy!” she would explain. “I’m happy you’re home.”
In one picture she had drawn a man with an unnecessarily long and colorful scarf, who stood next to a large blue box.
“Who is this man, Coraline?” I asked.
“That’s the Doctor, Daddy,” she said matter-of-factly, as if I should have known better. “And that’s his shapeship.”
“Spaceship, you mean, sweetie,” I corrected.
“Nope, its a shapeship,” she insisted.
The morning flew by too fast for my liking and eventually Chief Galen came out to bring us back to my room. I could tell he had spent many sleepless nights since my ordeal began in earnest, as well. Quickly, his position as close friend to myself and my family came flooding back to me. I remembered the many hours he and I spent discussing integration with the Huulanix supercomputer when the strange gaming race had come to Dreides VII to challenge me. With Chief’s help, we had built or advised the construction of a hundred or so gaming units across the human-controlled sectors of the galaxy.
“It’s a shame it fell to such bad things,” he said to me as we walked back to the medical building. “It had such potential.”
I listened, watching Coraline skip happily to the door ahead of us.
“Well, no real harm done, right?” I said, smiling at my daughter’s antics.
“You mean you don’t know?” Chief said suddenly, grabbing my arm and stopping me.
“Know what?” I asked, growing wary.
“The game is still going,” he said. “There’s still people dying in there.”
His last sentence stayed with me.
“The Doctor thinks he can get them out by going to the Prime Machine and interfacing directly with it.”
“What do you mean there’s still people dying?” I queried. “I’m not in the game. It’s over. No one else was in the game.”
Absentmindedly, I watched Coraline skipping across the grass in front of the door leading back to my hospital bed. I knew exactly what Chief meant. The scene seemed to slow down before me. My daughter’s skipping grew slower and slower as the truth washed over me and chilled my spine.
Chief was silent, but I said what he was afraid to admit.
“Those people really died, like I would have. It’s my fault, and there’s still people trapped there,” I surmised. “My God, it’s my fault they died.”
Chief looked unsure of what to do. He put a hand of my shoulder and I brushed it away. Silently, I gathered up Coraline in my arms and went back to my room, leaving Chief to stand stupidly in the garden alone.
I did not speak to anyone the rest of that evening and feigned sleep until the day’s light gave way to darkness. Stealthily, I exited my room and cut across the hallway to an open door. Listening for sounds of the presence of others, I waited in the darkness. Down the hall I could hear a few nurses speaking to each other in hushed tones. In the direction of the voices, brighter light cast shadows of human movement on the wall. Slipping quietly away, I went in the opposite direction.
At the time, I did not know exactly what I was looking for, but I soon came upon the Doctor’s blue box tucked away in a shadowy corner of a large room used for storing large medical machinery, monitors, laser-surgical devices, and scanners. I tried the doors to the strange blue box, but they were locked.
As I stood there, Chief and the Doctor entered speaking heatedly. I quickly ducked around the backside of the Doctor’s box and listened to their conversation.
“I told you he wasn’t to know those people were still in there, Chief,” the Doctor said in frustration.
“I thought you told me that so you could tell him yourself, Doctor!” Chief exclaimed. “He’s got a right to know. Maybe he can help.”
“He’s helped enough,” the Doctor snapped. “He’s just one man. He’s been through a terrible ordeal. The last thing he needed was to be told that he may have inadvertently killed people without knowing it. I mean, how would you feel, Chief?”
“I would want to know.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” the Doctor said quietly. “I speak from experience. You wouldn’t want to wake up to the screams of people you never knew, people you couldn’t save. I know.”
“What can we do now?” Chief asked. “He knows. He’ll want to help you.”
“He can’t. He has a wife and child that very much need him at the moment,” the Doctor said, opening the door to his box. “Just be there for him. That should be punishment enough for you, seeing it in his eyes as he dwells on the lives lost.”
“I’m sorry,” Chief said.
“You should be,” the Doctor said, slamming the door behind him. I heard Chief’s heavy footsteps leaving the room and after a few moments of silence, I slipped around to the front of the box and tried the door. It opened.
I stepped through the threshold and found myself in an expansive room, impossibly larger than the blue box I had entered. In its center a large complicated looking console reached up to the ceiling, strange noises came from all around me.
“You don’t looked shocked,” a voice said behind me.
I casually turned to face the Doctor.
“I get slightly miffed when people don’t say things like ‘It’s bigger on the inside’ or various other obvious exclamations of wonder and awe. No, not you though. It figures. Oh well.”
He strode past me to his console, patting my shoulder on the way.
“You can’t come with me, Jeffrey,” came his frank declaration.
I did not answer his refusal right away.
“Coraline calls this your shapeship,” I said. “She’s not far off, I think. You’re a shapeshifter, Doctor. I’m sure, given the obvious technological advances you may have at your disposal, you fashion yourself as some sort of savior of time and space, but you’re just a meddler – changing faces for each fool you goad into helping you.”
The Doctor stopped what he was doing and stood with his back to me.
“You’ve been where I am. You know what it feels like,” I spoke carefully, hoping my words would change his mind. “To not be able to save everyone – to feel a responsibility to right wrongs that you yourself may have caused. But you hide behind that mask of yours, the one that says you’ve seen and done everything and can save anyone.”
“Don’t speak to me as if you know me, Jeffrey. My mind is much bigger on the inside than yours. I can hold and have held an entire species’ death rattle in my head. I have been where you are, a thousandfold, a thousand times. I’ve felt the responsibility of an entire universe – knowing every step that I take, every second I breathe air into these lungs I could be bringing about the destruction of everything ever.”
“This is my fight, Doctor!” I yelled, losing control. “Every day of my life I will have to look into the eyes of my daughter and know that somewhere out there they may be another little girl whose father didn’t come out of the game alive!”
His head sagged a bit, and he drew in a long, tedious breath.
“How many more are there?” I demanded. “How many more people are trapped in that computer’s insanity?”
The Doctor mumbled something.
“What was that?” I barked at him.
“Thousands,” he said, quietly staring at his console.
“Why didn’t the game stop?” I asked. “I thought you said that if I was gone, this would end.”
“It was logical. You were the computer’s opponent,” he rationalized. “No opponent, no game.”
Again, something in the back of my mind screamed at me to see the clue I had yet to open my eyes to. Giving up hope, and ignoring the nagging doubt in my head, I turned to leave the strange ship and return to my room.
“Jeffrey,” the Doctor said, turning to face me. “I can take this. These thousands might still die, but it will be my fault if they do. Let me take that from you. Let this be my burden.”
“This will forever be my burden, Doctor. There’s nothing more you can take from me.”
With that last statement, I left his ship and stood alone in the storage room. Behind me, a horrible, grinding noise grew in volume and I turned to see the Doctor’s blue box vanish into thin air.
At that moment, as the grinding sound faded into nothingness, I knew what I would do. I pocketed a hypogun from a nearby medical kit and headed for the building which housed the interface to the game. I struggled painfully with the notion of saying goodbye to my wife and daughter, but I could not bear the thought of seeing either of them realize it would be the last time they would see me.
I strode purposefully across the garden and found the man I was looking for, staring skyward at the stars through the environmental shield above us. Chief Galen looked beside himself, not noticing my approach. Silently, I walked up behind him, hypogun in hand, and pressed the barrel of it against his back.
“Don’t make this difficult,” I said to his back, pressing the hypogun forcefully against him. “I just need you to help me get back in the game.”
“Jeffrey, don’t do this,” he pleaded. “Let the Doctor handle this. He can do this without us.”
“I don’t care if he can change history to his whims. I’m doing this, and you will help me.”
Chief nodded his intention to yield to my desires and I guided him toward the Entertainment building.
“You’re going to miss the arena opening tomorrow. We have three teams coming in from the outer orbits. Should be a good match or two.”
“Don’t bother, Chief. I’m not interested in mundane activities. I have to do this.”
Together we marched across the expansive garden and Chief used his security clearance to enter the building. A sign had been posted on the door indicating the Entertainment building would be shut down until further notice.
“We were able to get all the Dreides residents out of the game while the Doctor was in the game with you,” Chief offered.
“Be quiet, Chief. Just get me in the game.”
We walked down a long hallway, our footsteps echoing throughout the complex, which had been devoid of people since my extrication from the game.
Using his security card a second time, he lead me into a giant spherical room. An apparatus, similar to a dentist’s chair with wires and hoses leading to and from it, occupied the center of the room. Large metallic spheres set into the walls were spaced at intervals all around the room.
“It will take some time to reboot the system and establish a connection,” Chief explained, looking over his shoulder. “It would be a lot easier if you’d take that empty hypogun out of my back.”
Sheepishly, I allowed my arm to drop. I expected Chief to detain me and drag me back to my room, perhaps strapping me to my bed. Instead, he continued the process of rebooting the system.
“I’d have helped you if you’d have just asked, you know,” he said. “You weren’t alone in what happened. You and I were in this together from the beginning. It’s as much your fault as mine.”
“That’s not true, Chief,” I said, attempting to reason with him, but feeling better for not having to go through this final battle alone.
“It is,” he said with hesitation. “You couldn’t have done any of this without me.”
I sighed and patted his shoulder. “Thank you, Chief.”
Before I could react, he spun his large frame around and embraced me in a rough hug. “We’ll make things right, Jeffrey.”
I attempted a smile and he eventually released me. I walked over to the chair I would most likely die in and feelings of intense fear and dread washed over me. In contrast to those feelings, I heard a voice in my head, like a siren’s song, calling me back to that devious reality – the hell the Prime Machine had created to best me.
“Don’t lose me in there,” I instructed. “I think I may know a way to divert the Prime Machine’s attention away from interacting with the other people in the game, but you’ve got to be monitoring me at all times. Can you hack the other signals and shut the others off?”
“I can try. We’ll get as many out as we can.”
“No matter what happens, do not pull me out. Do you understand?”
“Jeffrey, if you get in trouble, I’ll -”
“You’ll do nothing. I have to try, and if it kills me, so be it. Then the Doctor will be our last hope.”
“Do you trust him?” Chief asked, not sounding too sure.
Chief made the final connections to my physical body as i tried to settle into the oversized cushions of the interface.
“Five minutes, Jeffrey. Good luck.”
The five minutes passed in silence and then Chief activated the connections.
Darkness flooded my vision and for several minutes I could not draw breath. I felt myself falling through a void in space, then speeding my descent until I felt my body being ripped apart into a billion smaller pieces. A light grew in the distance and I flew still faster towards it until slowly it began to fill my perspective. I experienced the sensation of being assembled particle by particle and the scene before me slowly cleared into focus.
I was tied tightly to a lounge chair in Holmes apartment. Before me roared a fire in the fireplace and wisps of smoke wafted gently over my head from some source behind me.
“Ah Watson,” a voice said. “I trust your respite into unconsciousness has not left you without your senses. It’s good to have you back with us.”
I struggled in vain against the bindings and attempted to speak, but quickly realized I had been gagged as well.
Sherlock Holmes’ gaunt form walked leisurely around the chair to stand in front of the fire. He puffed pensively on a wooden pipe and regarded me with a smirk.
“Don’t fret about the bindings too much, dear Watson,” he said. “You’ve been a frightful state since the debacle at the opium den. I had no idea you would have such a reaction to the fumes in the place. You should count yourself quite fortunate that I was able to pull you from that place before you went into shock.”
I grunted and tried to speak around the gag, but could only managed to growl incomprehensible gibberish at him.
“Oh yes, sorry about the gag as well,” he said waving his hand absently at me as he tamped down the tobacco in his pipe. “Best for you to breathe through your nose until the narcotics have fully exited your system. You really gave us quite a scare.”
I realized then that I was having trouble conjuring up images from Dreides VII. I tried to remember how I had come to this place, and could not reconcile the images into any sort of substantial memory. It was if my mind was being erased with each image I attempted to conjure up. I quickly stopped, fearing that further thoughts would erase my reality completely from my mind.
“Now, Watson. Let’s discuss our next course of action. We had to abandon the cow business after your accident, and good timing has rewarded us with quite the intriguing replacement. All we need is some suitable bait,” he said, gesturing towards me. “and the perfect place to draw my nemesis to his final ultimate demise. Do you know know who I speak of, dear Watson?”
I spoke against the gag and nearly choked. Smiling, Sherlock carefully removed the gag from my mouth, being careful not to get his fingers near enough for me to bite him.
“You mean Professor Moriarty,” I said, knowing who the ultimate nemesis for Sherlock Holmes would be.
“No, you fool,” Sherlock said, removing a blackjack from his coat pocket. “I mean the Doctor.”
With force, Holmes bludgeoned me and once again I found myself descending into deep darkness.