I love my computer. Since I’m what some people would call a “loser,” I don’t have much of a social life. But when I get on the computer, a whole different side of me comes out. I am no longer shy and dorky, but the queen of the chat rooms. I run three mailing lists and manage two newsgroups. My real hobby, though, is creating webpages. I am an expert when it comes to HTML, and many people do not know it, so the business is pretty good.
Life is always shoving it down my throat that I am never going to be a success, or anyone important, however. My older brother, Brian, is a professional webpage designer and a computer programmer. He gets paid a ton of money for doing the same thing I do, and all I get is lunch money out of it. Sometimes I envy him so much; Brian is everyone’s favorite guy. He was always the prize child. Now he is the richest guy in the family. I will never be anything compared to him.
At the same time, though, I can’t dislike him. He’s nicer to me than anyone else is. He makes time to call me at least once a week and listens to my teenage angst even though he’s been out of college for three years already. He is always doing special things for me like buying me little presents or sending me funny e-mails just to make me laugh. Even though I’m jealous of him, he’s really a great guy. And he can always help when the stupid computer won’t listen to me.
I wish Bri was here today. My computer’s been acting funny lately. It’s actually started to be a royal pain. The screen turns blue sometimes for no apparent reason, and distorts the graphics in all my games. One day I found a mysterious document on the desktop when I switched it on. It was called “government.txt.” When I opened it up, it was blank. I threw it in the recycling bin on the desktop, but it wouldn’t erase right away. Then, sometimes when I sign on to America Online, I have these weird e-mails that have my name in the subject line. Usually I just throw out mail if I don’t know the sender, but when I see my name, I can’t help it. They all have really strange messages like, “You are the chosen one,” “Smile; it confuses people,” “I love you too, babe,” and other strange messages.
There are even some letters from a “secret admirer.” They are letters that I don’t even dare to hope for. Whoever sends them must not know me. I am a social klutz; no one would ever want to date me. And my social skills are royal etiquette compared to my pimple-covered face and frizzy hair that I can never tame. I am just not the type of person who gets secret admirer letters. I usually ignore them, but a small part of me wishes they could be real, that someone could be admiring me from afar, but I’m not that delusional.
I say that, yet when I sign on and open my mailbox to see that there are no letters from the mysterious ILoveUCher, I get a bit depressed. I have tried to find out who this guy is. His profile is blank. I have never met him in any of my favorite chat rooms. None of my online buddies know who he is. I guess I’ll never know, but at least I have those passionate letters to read so that I can at least pretend for a short while that I’m someone special.
The most mysterious thing, though, is how the date on my computer has screwed up. No matter what, it always tells me that it is May 27, 1956. That becomes a real inconvenience when I’m trying to find something I’ve saved. They used to be listed by date, but I can’t do that anymore now that they all list the same date. I wonder why the computer picked that particular day. It has no particular significance to me; I wasn’t even born until 25 years later. Yet at the same time, it seems familiar to me.
I have been trying to repair this problem for a few hours, but whatever I do, the date always crashed back to that fateful day in May almost forty-five years ago. I decide to go online so soothe my frustration. Online is my escape, and also my addiction. I quickly log on. Three of my buddies are online. One of them is my only actual friend in real life, Jerry Cornell. The other two are online buddies that I know by their first names—Stacey and Layne.
Jer is a great friend. I guess we kinda go together because we’re both rejects. We’ve been friends for years; we’re practically part of each other’s families. He doesn’t believe me, though, about the secret admirer letters. He tells me I must be making it up or e-mailing it to myself. Once I tried to prove my innocence by forwarding one of the letters to him. He called me up laughing hysterically. He said the thought of anyone actually writing stuff like that to me just blew his mind. He’s so complimentary, I swear. To make it worse, he still, to this day, accuses me of writing the letters myself. “You are allowed five screen names per computer. I don’t know about your others,” he always tells me. He is wrong, though. I only am allowed one account by my parents. He doesn’t quite believe me on that either. The trust is simply overwhelming.
Stacey’s pretty cool. She lives in California, but we manage to talk often. I met her in a chat room for Free Psychic Readings. Neither of us were psychic, and neither were any of the people who claimed to be, but we hit it off right away. She’s hilariously funny.
Layne is a weird guy, but cool. Jer, Stace and I were in a chat room for our favorite band, Drain S.T.H., when we met him. He’s in love with the guitar player, Flavia Canel. He likes to type in song lyrics, by all different bands. He is always yelling at his cat, named Flavor to no one’s surprise. The strange thing is that when he yells at his cat, he also writes it in the chat room. He told us he has shocking blue hair and unicorn earrings. He also claims that he has been in a real UFO, but has been sworn to secrecy about the incident. Despite his idiosyncrasies, Layne is one of my best friends. Jer, Stace, Layne and I are kind of a tight group of friends, even though there are plenty of other people we all talk to online.
I invite the gang into the infamous Drain chat. Layne is already there, gushing about Flavia nonstop. I arrive next. We are soon joined by Stace and Jer.
We are in the room for hours. It’s a good thing I have 150 hours per month of prepaid Internet access. Otherwise, I’d be up to my neck in debt. As usually happens, by the time the first hour has passed, I am no longer aware of my surroundings. I am staring intently at the screen, typing away. Soon all of the other people in the room had left. I think we kind of pushed them out; we are a bit elitist and take a lot of pride in being the “regulars” to the chat room. Soon only the four of us are left. We don’t even end up talking about the band, although Layne constantly interjects praise to their guitarist, when he’s not quoting her or one of his other rock heroes.
I was completely absorbed in my chat room conversation, so when someone tapped me on the shoulder, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned around and almost had to do a double-take. It was Jerry! “Wait, I thought you were talking in the chat room,” I said, confused.
“I thought so too, but we’re in this really weird place,” he answered.
I looked around me. I was definitely not in my bedroom anymore. “I don’t get it. Where are we?”
“Good question,” a high pitched female voice behind me said.
I turned around. The computer was no longer there. “Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Stacey Staley. You must be Cheri Wagner, right?”
“Yeah, and this is Jer.”
“Here I am, on the road again,” sang Layne, quoting Bob Seger and announcing his presence. I knew it was him by the obvious song quotation, and also by that electric blue hair! He would never be missed in a crowd.
“How did you guys get here. Stace, you live in California, and Layne, you’re from Sweden, right?”
He nodded. I guess he couldn’t think of any lyric for that one.
“I think we’re inside a chat room,” Jerry said.
“No way,” I replied. Then I began to think. “Actually, that would kind of make sense, I suppose.”
“That is where we all were,” Stace pointed out.
“I’ve got an idea,” Jerry exclaimed and ran to the front of the room. “Yes, we’re in a chat room. Right above the doorway it says, ‘you have just entered Arts and Entertainment Room Drain S.T.H.’”
“Are there any pictures of Flavia?”
“No, you moron, how could there be? We’re in a chat room, not a Drain picture gallery web site,” Jerry replied.
“Even so, all the stuff in this building looks real,” Stacey commented. There were four comfortable reclining armchairs about the room. The rug was a pale green. There was a coffee table in the middle. It looked like a living room. There were 19 folding chairs against one of the plain off-white walls.
“See? I always knew we were royalty in this room. These chairs are set aside just for us,” Jerry proclaimed.
“I wonder what’s outside this doorway,” I said. Jer might know because he had gone outside for a second to look at the room title.
No one knew so we walked outside to check it out. There were huge hallways. We saw all the Marilyn Manson chat rooms, the Love Advice, the I Rate Your Profile rooms, the Vampyre Tears Taverns and Poetry Recitals. I peeked my head inside a few rooms, but they weren’t at all like our Drain one. In the other rooms, there was just a table with a computer displaying the chat, as I would see on my computer at home. All of the other rooms were extremely small.
“I’ve got to tell you guys, this is weirder than my trip on the UFO,” Layne confided.
“That’s because this is real,” Stacey retorted.
“Wait a second!” I exclaimed. “We have a problem. How are we going to get out of here?”
“Why do we need to leave?” Jerry asked.
“Well, we’ll have to eat dinner soon, and Stace and Layne will be expected home soon,” I replied.
“Actually, I’m really interested to know how we got here, and why none of the other people in any chat rooms are stuck here. What if we can never leave?” Stacey sounded worried.
“I’m interested in why the girls in Drain can’t join us,” Layne said.
Together we tried to find a door to the outside world, but none could be found. I guess it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. We couldn’t really expect the realms of cyberspace to be housed in a physical building. But where exactly were we?
“I see you have found your virtual paradise,” a voice boomed out over some sort of sound system that wasn’t visible. He sounded like James Earl Jones. He had a sexy voice. All of us stopped in our tracks at his words. “Well time is running out.”
“Wha—?” Jerry began to ask, but was cut off.
“You are all infected with the computer virus commonly called ORION. Since you are in the virtual realm with physical bodies, it will be those physical bodies that will get infected rather than your computers. You humans are much more interesting anyway. If you can find a way out, then you’ll be fine. I just thought I’d also send a warning that no one has found a way out yet.”
“Oh no,” Stacey moaned.
“Forget getting home for dinner,” I put in. I was scared, but in a way I was kind of excited too. Nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened to me before. In the back of my mind, I knew I thought we’d be the first ones to survive.
“We’ll find a way. Don’t give in,” Layne stated. That was a Silverchair lyric.
“Your singing sure ain’t going to save us,” Jerry remarked, annoyed.
“Who will save our souls?” he crooned, trying to imitate Jewel. I was about ready to punch him.
“Ok, guys, we’ve got to find out how to escape,” Stacey said. She was our leader from then on. “Let’s see what happens if we go in another room and start typing in that chat room. That is, after all, the way we arrived here.”
We went into one of those many rooms for Manson freaks. Jerry tried saying hello many times. Either the room was full of pompous royal regulars or they couldn’t see what we wrote. Next, Stace tried going into a Free Psychic Reading chat and announcing that she was a messenger of God, but no one noticed that either. I left for a We Love Backstreet Boys chat. I introduced myself by saying how ugly I thought Nick Carter and the rest of that teenybopper band was. None of those thirteen-year-olds even said a word to me. That was when I knew our efforts were worthless.
On the way back to the Drain room, the fluorescent lights above us started to flicker violently. Still, I was secretly basking in the glory of the excitement. Layne tried the door to our room and found it locked. “Great,” he muttered. “At least the aliens on the UFO were friendly enough to eventually let me go.”
“What if the key to our escape was in that room?” Jerry asked, worried.
“Then I guess we’re doomed,” Stacey said flatly.
“And it feels like the end is near.” Screaming Trees was one of Layne’s favorite bands, so it didn’t surprise me that he’d quote them.
“There’s got to be a way out,” Jerry said with conviction.
“Um, maybe we could try finding any kind of door beside a chat room door. I mean, there has to be a bathroom,” I said.
“Not necessarily. There are no online bathrooms,” Stacey responded.
I moaned. I needed a bathroom. It seemed I wasn’t the only one. As time wore on, we all began complaining of stomach pains. I felt really sick. “Guys, the virus is starting to take over!” I moaned. The excitement factor had just flown out a virtual window.
In a panic, we all ran around the building like maniacs, looking for any means of escape. The lights soon turned off completely, and we were left with only some dull glows around chat room doors.
“Hey guys!” Jerry called. “I found a small door.” We all ran over to him, which took some time without the light to show us all where he was. We crawled inside the door one by one; it was extremely small. However, once we were inside, we found that it was a long passageway that we could walk in easily. We walked quickly down the hallway until we reached a fork. Which way were we to turn? It was a unanimous decision that we would stay together. We decided to go left. Two minutes later, the hallway split again. This time we went right.
It continued on and on like this. I began to think we were lost in a never ending maze. I was beginning to get a pounding headache. This was one painful virus. I suggested we try to retrace our steps. The rest agreed. We were getting nowhere.
However, it was much easier said than done. It soon became apparent that we were totally lost.
“Need a pathway, need a guide,” Layne moaned, again quoting Silverchair. To our surprise, a small, but eerie-looking man appeared around the next corner. Maybe Layne’s lyrics would do us some good after all.
Maybe not. His first words were, “I knew you were in there, and I knew I was going to get you.”
“Huh?” Stacey asked.
“Oh never mind.” The old man sighed. “You aren’t supposed to be here.”
“Well, we’re trying to find a way out, sir,” Jerry informed him at the same time that I asked, “If we leave, will it help us escape the virus?”
The man laughed heartily. “I am the virus.”
OH NO! I screamed silently.
“But I can help you escape if you want, and if you promise to never tell anyone of these passageways.”
We all agreed readily. We followed him for what seemed like ages until he halted. We were still in a dark, damp hallway when he did. He turned to face us. He reached up and pulled his eye out of his socket! Suddenly that stomach ache before turned to a happy memory. I turned my head and vomited. Geez, this guy was sick. After holding out his eye for everyone to see, he popped it back into its socket. “This is what will happen to you if you tell anyone about this place.” If he hadn’t had our full oath of secrecy before, there was no question of it now. He quickly turned back around and led us further into the tunnel. We had no choice but to follow him. We were now so far into the secret passage, and so lost, that we’d never make it back on our own.
A few minutes later, the man repeated his show again, this time removing and replacing his hand. Again, he warned, “If you ever say a word about this maze, this will happen to you.” I managed to keep my lunch down this time.
Soon we reached a room. The walls, ceiling and floor were severely white without a blemish. There was not a single window. There was a bar that reached from one of the room to the other. The old man instructed us to jump up, grab it and perform a perfect pull-up. Great, that was the part of the physical fitness test that I always failed. Actually, I usually failed most of them, but the pull-ups were by far the most torturous.
“This is going to help us escape?” Stacey asked doubtfully.
“I don’t believe you,” Jerry declared.
“Believe what you will. It is your virus, not mine. And you’ve seen what I can do if you don’t cooperate.”
We all took hold of the bar promptly and began trying to pull ourselves up. I was concentrating so hard that I totally forgot about my surroundings. I was focused on that one goal of getting my chin over that bar, or at least near it. I kicked my legs and tried to scrunch myself up to the bar. It seemed hopeless, but there was no way I was giving up.
Finally, I made myself be still and tried slowly raising myself with my arms. I was trying harder than I ever had in Gym class. I realized I was actually making some progress. That only gave me more confidence. After a few more pained minutes, I had reached my goal. I rested my chin on the cold metal bar and tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but it was hard because my arms still had to work so hard to keep me up there.
“Cheri?” Jerry said cautiously.
“Yeah?” I asked, breathing hard.
“The dude with the freaky eyes left,” Stacey said.
I felt the energy go out of me. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. I think he was lying. We’re all up here and nothing is happening. We’re doomed.”
“Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon,” Layne proclaimed, quoting Tool.
“Will you shut up with the lyrics?” Jerry shouted.
“All apologies.” He was now singing a Nirvana song. We all rolled our eyes.
“Guys?” Stacey said with fear, “Why does it look like the ceiling is caving in?”
“Maybe because it is!” Jerry shouted.
“Oh I wish Brian was here,” I moaned. “He probably knows how to fix this virus.”
“I’m sure he does,” Jerry said. He knew what a genius my big brother was.
“Brian! Save us!” I yelled, knowing it would do nothing.
“Won’t you come and save me, save me,” Layne chimed in. That was Alice in Chains.
“Will you stop?” Stacey demanded.
“Hey guys! I’m here to save you.” I looked down to see Brian.
“Are you real?” I had to ask.
“Of course. I’ll help you guys get down.”
“You came just in time, dude. The ceiling is about to smash our heads in,” Layne told him gratefully. That was not a song lyric.
Brian helped us all down one by one, until we were all safely on the ground.”
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“You called for me.”
“Do you know how to get out of here?” Stacey asked him.
“Sure do. Follow me.” He led us through some more of those freaky hallways until we entered a room that looked like an empty roller-skating rink. There were flashing lights on the ceiling. We sat in the center of the room on the smooth floor.
“Now, in order to get back, we all have to sit here, hold hands and concentrate on being back home. This room is the portal to reality,” Brian instructed us.
“We don’t even have to click our heels and say ‘there’s no place like home?’” Layne asked.
“The ending is this simple?” Stacey asked suspiciously.
“Well, you would all be flat as a pancake if it weren’t for me. Give me some credit,” Brian teased.
“Why is that?” I inquired. “How come you know all the answers?”
“Because I made the game.”
“Huh?” Jerry asked, confused.
“I made the virus.”
“Why?” I asked. My brother was usually a really nice guy. He wouldn’t be messing with evil stuff like this.
“Because my little sis needed some excitement in her life, and because I wanted to see if I could really use the technology of computers to bridge the gap between reality and cyberspace.”
“Hold on a second. I needed excitement in my life? Since when? And if I did, I don’t think a close brush with death and a guy who ripped off his eyeballs was exactly what I was looking for.”
Brian laughed. “Almost every single time we talk, you complain about how mundane your life is. I thought I’d spice it up. Besides, you were never in any danger. It was not possible. It was not coded in.”
“Well, I guess now I’ll have something to talk about in school,” I said ruefully.
“And now you know you can do a pull-up if you really try,” Jerry pointed out hopefully.
“I guess. So you did all that stuff to my computer? You made the date crash? And sent those freaky one-liner e-mails, and that ‘government.txt’ message? And the secret admirer letters.?”
“Secret admirer letters? I want to make you feel special, Cher, but there is a limit.” He looked pointedly at Jerry.
Jerry blushed and looked down. “I sent those letters.”
“You? But you’re JerBear77.”
“You are allowed five screen names per computer. You don’t know my others.”
“Sounds familiar. So you were trying to convince you that I’m not a loser, right?”
“No. Why would I want to do that? I already know you’re a loser. But that doesn’t matter. I’m still madly in love with you.” We all laughed. I didn’t even know whether he was serious or not. Nor did I care. Well, maybe I did, but just a little. I always had thought Jer was pretty cute.
“So, are we ready to leave?” Stacey asked.
“Can you see me? I am gone,” Layne sang. The lyric didn’t exactly fit the situation and I suspected he was just trying to throw in a Drain lyric before the adventure was through.
“We’d better get back soon. Our parents will kill us for being online so long,” Jerry said.
“Yeah, exactly what are they going to think happened to us?” Stacey inquired.
“They will think that you were just incredibly absorbed with the computer and were very unresponsive to stimuli. To them, though, it has only been a few minutes so they won’t be too worried.
We all said goodbye to each other and promised to meet the next day in the Drain chat to talk. We all agreed that it had been pretty cool to meet each other in person. Brian said he would project himself home with me so that he could visit our parents once they returned home. He hadn’t seen them in a while and wanted to drop by.
I returned home quickly. After saying a quick goodbye to my friends, I signed off of America Online and shut down the computer. It then dawned on me that Brian had not materialized yet. I began to worry.
A few minutes later, Brian appeared. I hugged him. “That was cool, even if it did scare me,” I told him. He just smiled.
“So what was May 27, 1956 anyway?” I asked.
“Oh, it was the date of the conception of the computer virus idea.”
“But that’s not too long after the first computer, is it?”
“No, not really. Humankind is always trying to find a way to hurt itself.”
“Yeah, I know, we’re inherently evil.”
“Something like that,” Brian muttered. His voice seemed distant. I looked at him closely. There was something different in his eyes, something I’d never seen before. He looked sort of haunted. He almost looked infected.