Virtual Love Pt. 01bybrightlyiburn©
Fern Colville frowned, taking in the interior of the shop with one quick glance. She had expected a shop called "Virtual Love" would be a shop for video games, but the dusty shelves held mostly books and odd trinkets or knick knacks. This won't do at all, she thought, turning back to the door. Why do I have to have five male cousins who all like video games and want the most expensive ones? Fern was barely going to manage Christmas this year as it was.
"Excuse me. Can I help you?"
Fern jumped and spun around. Where the space behind the counter had been empty a moment before, there was now a shopkeeper there. And the strangest shop keeper he was. If that was actually a he. When she looked at him, she felt as though her gaze were constantly shifting; his face was androgynous, making him seem feminine, but his chest was flat. What a weirdo, Fern thought. Still, she liked his voice; it was soft and had an edge that made her think of silver.
"No thank you," she replied, shaking her head. "I thought this was an electronics shop, but I guess not."
"What are you looking for?" the shop clerk asked. "Perhaps I can point you in the right direction."
Fern shrugged. "Perhaps. I'm video game shopping for relatives. You know boys, they always want the latest, most popular games."
The clerk nodded. Instead of answering her, he disappeared into the back room. What, does he need a map or something? she wondered, feeling her patience thin. He was gone so long that Fern was ready to leave the shop. As before, he appeared just as she was about to leave. He was holding a box; it was pink, with the words "Virtual Love" printed in silver across the box. Some kind of promotional game? Fern wondered, lifting her eyebrows.
"Nothing for boys," the shop clerk admitted. "But this is very popular with the men and women who frequent this shop."
Fern sighed and reluctantly took the box from him. She turned it over to see what it was about. A blurb on the back advertised "handsome men and sexy women" who were "waiting to sweep you off your feet". A dating simulation game? Fern thought, rolling her eyes. God, I thought they only made these things in Japan. How lame. She shoved the box back into the clerk's hands.
"I don't know anyone who would want that," Fern said. "I'll be going."
"What about yourself?" The clerk asked, smiling.
Fern snorted. "What makes you assume I'd need a game like that? Besides, it's Christmas. I can't be buying things for myself."
"Tell you what," the shop clerk said, handing the box back to her. "Just promise to do me one small favor, and you can have the game."
"Fine, I'll bite," Fern said, folding her arms across her chest. "What's the favor?"
"Simply fill out the survey upon completion of the game," the clerk told her. "Let us know if you were satisfied."
Fern's eyebrows lifted. She pushed her glasses up onto her nose and studied the box again. I'll never play it, she thought. Although I do know a couple of geeky guys who might find it amusing. It probably wasn't popular at the least, and the clerk was giving it to her because he wanted to be rid of it. Fern imaged that the imagery was cheap and, while it said it was voice activated, she bet it didn't work properly at all.
"Sure, whatever," Fern said. "Have a nice day."
"You, as well," the clerk responded. "And there's a Circuit City a couple blocks away, down Sockonosette St."
Fern glanced over her shoulder to thank him, but he was gone. She dropped the game into one of her shopping bags and forgot about it completely while she finished her shopping. Finding the Circuit City, she bought the games her cousins wanted, which nearly cleaned her out. I'm going home, Fern thought, dropping her bags in the backseat of her car. I've got most of this done, and there's still time until Christmas. If a week counted as time.
The drive home was frustrating. Nearly every person in the world was out Christmas shopping, it seemed. Fern nearly skidded on a patch of ice in the parking lot of her apartment building, too, which was really the icing on the cake. Or is that gingerbread house? she wondered, pulling her bags out of the back seat. She was unable to avoid a giant puddle of slush, as well, and so her fleece-lined boots got soaked through.
I hate the holidays, Fern thought, scowling. She peeled her boots off first, and her socks, which were also soaked. Her coat, scarf, mittens and sweatshirt were left in a messy pile on the floor. She began removing her purchases from the bags and setting them on the kitchen table where the rest of the presents, wrapped and unwrapped, were sitting. Fern came across the game again at this point.
"This thing..." she muttered. "Who would play it? What a lame premise...still...I haven't got anything better to do..."
It would be interesting to see how bad it was. Probably laughably bad. Fern headed into her bedroom, where a computer was set up, opening the box as she went. She had to hook her microphone into it before she could use the voice activation in the game, which the box claimed made it more "realistic". Fern sat down at her computer and put the disk in the drive, then grabbed some socks as she waited for the game to load up and ask her how much of it she wanted to download.
It did no such thing. Fern was caught off guard by soft music and she looked up, her socks only half on. A screen had come up, designed to look like a plush room; soft, dark carpet, thick cushioned couches, a crackling fire. Someone walked onto the screen, and Fern recognized him immediately: the shop clerk. Oh, god, this is lame, she thought, laughing. Definitely a promotional game for the shop!
"Hello," the clerk said, smiling. "I am Icelos, and I will guide you. Please tell me your name."
"Fern Colville," Fern said into the microphone.
"A pleasure to meet you, Fern," Icelos said, impressing her just a bit. "Virtual Love was designed to help you find your soul mate. Would you be so kind as to enter some information about yourself? This is to help us in our search."
Fern shrugged. "Sure, whatever."
"Wonderful!" Icelos exclaimed, clapping his hands. "Very well, then, let's get started."
He snapped his fingers and a scroll appeared out of thin air. Fern watched, mildly impressed, as he unrolled the scroll and it grew to a size large enough for her to see. At the moment, though, there was nothing on it, and she wondered how she was supposed to answer nonexistent questions. I bet this is a glitch, Fern thought, leaning back in her chair. And it was actually kind of interesting, too. Too bad.
"Now," Icelos continued. "How old are you?"
The words appeared, in flowery, silver writing, on the scroll. Surprised, Fern felt a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. That was clever, for sure. She wondered if she had to type her answer, or if speaking it would work.
"Nineteen," Fern replied, deciding honesty was the best possibility. "Well, I'll be twenty in a couple of months."
Her words, exactly as she had spoken them, appeared on the scroll. The writing was in pink, though. That's crazy, Fern thought, staring at the screen in amazement. I didn't realize they'd gotten voice recognition to work so well. Even if the game proved to be a flop, and she was pretty certain it would, this part was amusing for the time being. Something to keep Fern's mind off the holidays, which always left her depressed.
"Have you been in a relationship before?" Icelos asked, and the words appeared on the scroll.
"Um...once," Fern answered, feeling her cheeks heat. "It's not something I like to remember too much, though."
Icelos nodded. "Understood. When was your last relationship?"
"It's...been a few years," Fern admitted. "I guess...well, some girls are pretty, sweet, and gentle. I'm just plain, mean, and stubborn. Guys aren't interested in me."
"Which is why we're here," Icelos said, clapping his hands. "Now, kindly describe yourself, i.e. physical appearance, personality, likes and dislikes, etc."
Every word he and she spoke appeared on the scroll, which extended to fit everything it needed to. A list was growing of the things Icelos had requested, and as she answered them they were filled out on the screen. Actually, it began with personality traits, in which Fern was brutally honest. My main traits are coldness, hardheadedness, and bitterness, she thought wryly. Pink words appeared rapidly on the screen, and it wasn't long before she was through the personality section.
"Let's see..." Fern murmured. "Eyes...hazel brown...not that anyone has ever heard of that before. Hair...brown. Well, if we're being poetic, brown with copper highlights. Height? Ugh, too short...can I put that?"
Icelos laughed at some of her answers, and she was amazed at how real his amusement seemed. By the time she was done her eyes were starting to hurt. She sat back in the chair, stretching out, as she watched Icelos fold up the scroll. It changed back to normal size, and he tucked it away out of sight.
"Thanks for your time, Fern," Icelos said. "We will contact you as soon as we have found your match. Have a good night."
Fern stared as the game screen winked out. What the hell? she thought, opening the drive. The CD had no scratches on it, nothing she could see that would make it just stop. She put it back into the computer, but the game did not load up again. Sheesh, I'm glad I didn't pay for that, Fern thought, rising from the computer chair to go back to wrapping presents. Turned out to be a waste of money, after all.
The screaming of children still echoed in his ears. Heath Jones was not enjoying his holiday at all. At least he could go home at the end of the evening, away from the house full of relatives and, more significantly, spoiled, screaming, crying cousins. Who's bloody idea was this stupid holiday, anyway? he wondered, lifting a hand off the steering wheel to rub his forehead. To think, I used to believe that Christmas was magical! Ha! Christmas was the "gimme-gimme" season, as Heath liked to call it.
And the driving! It seemed that every idiot driver in the world was on the road every day these days. Add to that the iciness from cold and snow, and he was always amazed that he ever got back to his apartment. Heath should have been grateful for a break from school, but he just wasn't. His girlfriend had broken up with him, he was barely passing the year, and now he had to deal with the holidays.
It would be awful nice if the landlord would plow this stupid parking lot, Heath thought, shoving his way out of the car. He scowled and cursed as he stepped through the knee deep pile of snow surrounding his parking space. A stop at the mailbox yielded bills and, to his great surprise, a key for the package box. I didn't order anything, did I? he thought, pulling the package out. It was a giant envelope with what felt like a box of some sort in it. Heath shrugged, tucking his mail beneath his arm and heading up into his apartment.
He dumped the bills on the table and studied the package. There wasn't even a return address to indicate who or where it was from. Heath dropped into the comfortable chair in front of his computer and tore the envelope open. Ah, he thought, as he pulled out a wrapped present. Must be from a relative...but who? There was no card, no tag, nothing whatsoever to indicate who sent it. It's early, Heath thought, but I might as well open it. Maybe they put the card inside the box?
No card fell out of the wrapping, and the box turned out to be a computer game. He scowled as he studied it; silver writing pronounced the title "Virtual Love" on the blue box. Flipping it over, Heath read the descriptive blurb on the back.
"The woman of my dreams, huh?" he said aloud, rolling his eyes. "I didn't thinking those match sites had things like this..."
He studied it for an indication of the hardware needed, but there was no indication that the game went online. In fact, closer inspection showed the word "Sim" under the genre description. What the hell...? Heath thought. Why would...ah! Jack! Of course, who else could it be? Who but your best buddy would send you a dating simulation game as a Christmas present, right after your girlfriend had broken up with you? Shaking his head, Heath picked up the phone and dialed.
"Brighton residence, Tina speaking," a small, squeaky voice answered.
Heath chuckled. "Hey, T, it's Heath. Is your brother there?"
"Hold on a sec," Tina said.
She didn't bother to cover the phone, so Heath was blasted with a loud "Jaaaaaaaack! Phoooooooone!" He pulled the phone away, grinning wryly, and rubbed his ear. Jack had seven siblings total, two brothers and five sisters, and his house was always noisy. And yet it's still more peaceful than mom and dad's on the holidays, Heath thought. He actually liked Jack's family more than he liked his own.
"Yo, Heath, dude," Jack said into the phone. "What's up?"
"Very funny joke, man," Heath replied. "Although it's a bit insensitive of you."
"Joke? What are you talking about?" Jack asked, sounding perplexed.
Heath rolled his eyes. "Don't play that game with me. You're the only one who knows that Christa dumped me, so who else would have sent it?"
There was a long moment of silence on the other end of the line, then, "Sent what?"
Heath frowned. Jack liked jokes, but he generally didn't carry them this far. But it has to be him who sent it, Heath thought. No one else knows, aside from Christa, and she wouldn't spend a penny on me even when we were still dating. Jack wasn't the sort to blab, although it was possible that Christa had let a lot of people know. He doubted it, though; she was so self-absorbed, she probably wouldn't say a thing until someone caught her kissing someone else.
"The game," Heath said. "Come on, man, this isn't very funny anymore."
"Look, I didn't send you anything," Jack insisted. "I swear, man."
"All right," Heath said, unconvinced. "I guess I'll see you...what, the day after Christmas?"
"Sure," Jack said. "Later, man."
Heath hung up the phone and set it down, frowning. He still thought Jack had sent the game, but there was a niggling doubt in the back of his mind. With a shrug he picked up the box and opened it. There was no instruction booklet, merely a disc. He put that in the drive, and was surprised when the game screen came up automatically. There was no download option anywhere he could see in the cozy little room. Heath studied it, and as he watched, a man walked onto the screen.
Or, at least, he thought it was a man. A small, slender, feminine looking man, but a man nonetheless. Or a manly looking, flat-chested woman, Heath thought. He leaned back in his chair, considering what to do, but before he got a chance, the man spoke.
"Hello," the man said, smiling. "I am Icelos and I will guide you. Please tell me your name."
Heath picked up the box again and looked at the box. Voice activated, it said, although that didn't tend to work very well. Even voice activation can't make a simulated date seem real, he thought, picking up the headset he used with his computer. It settled snugly above his ear and he could adjust the mouthpiece to be closer or further away. For that matter, Heath thought, shouldn't my guide be a woman?
"I'm Heath Jones," Heath answered.
"A pleasure to meet you, Heath," Icelos said. "Virtual Love is a game designed to find your soul mate, the woman of your dreams. Would you be so kind as to answer some questions? It will aid us in matching you properly."
"I don't know," Heath hedged, frowning. "I'm kinda busy with the holidays...maybe after the New Year, when I have time to get into something..."
Icelos shook his head. "I'm afraid that will not be possible. The contract will be void once the holidays end."
What a gyp, Heath thought, frowning. Come on, that can't be real. A game doesn't function only during one season. But maybe if he played along, and acted like it would, he would see something interesting. It couldn't hurt, and really he wasn't as busy as he claimed to be.
"Yeah, why not," Heath said, shrugging. "I don't have anything better to do at the moment."
"Very good," Icelos said, clapping his hands together briskly. "Let's get started, then."
Heath watched him pull out a scroll. This game is really well done, actually, he thought, watching as the scroll expanded to take up half the screen. It's a shame they're wasting this sort of thing on a dating game. Yet there were no words on the scroll, no questions for him to answer. Heath's fingers hovered over the keyboard, waiting to see if the game had frozen.
"Kindly tell me your age," Icelos instructed.
As he spoke, words appeared on the scroll, in flowing silver script. Well, okay, I'm impressed, Heath thought, raising his eyebrows. That looked cool. He liked games well enough, although he didn't play loads of time playing them. Still, he could appreciate interesting effects when he saw them.
"I'm twenty-three," Heath answered, and his mouth dropped open as his words appeared in blue writing beneath the silver.
"And have you been in previous relationships?" Icelos continued.
"Yeah," Heath replied. "My girlfriend dumped me a few weeks ago, though. Which is, I suppose, why some jerk sent me this game."
Every single word he said appeared on the scroll, exactly as he had spoken it. Icelos took him through a serious of questions about himself, what he looked for in a partner, and physical appearance. It should have been boring, but Icelos has a good sense of humor, and Heath actually found himself laughing. I'm acting like this is real, he thought, giving himself a mental shake. Maybe I should stop...
"Thank you," Icelos said, rolling the now normal sized scroll back up. "Please wait a moment...ah! Match found."
Heath's eyebrows lifted. "That was fast."
"This is the information on the match we found for you," Icelos said, bringing out another scroll from thin air.
"I only get one?" Heath asked.
"You only have one soul mate," Icelos replied, smiling. "Please review the information and tell me if you would like to speak to her."
The scroll opened, expanding to take up half the screen once more. Heath was surprised by the picture at the top. The girl, while not ugly, was little more than plain. Her brown eyes were heavily lashed, giving her a somewhat dreamy look, but her mouth was thin and her nose slightly roman. Brown hair framed her face and fell to touch her shoulders. This is the woman of my dreams? Heath wondered, feeling skeptical.
Not that he thought looks were important; on the contrary, he'd had some bad experiences with attractive girls. Only he would have expected a game like this to come up with a girl who was everything: great personality and great looks. The ultimate male dream. I like her eyes, though, Heath thought. You can tell just by looking into those eyes that she's an intelligent girl.
He began reading through her information and was surprised. It was really amazing just how human the script was. The answers had the feel of being written by someone who was taking a survey, not making a game.
"Favorite season," Heath read aloud, smiling slightly. "'Any time I'm not freezing my ass off is good'...geez, these designers didn't hold anything back."
She was greatly amusing. Very few questions had simple answers, even the yes or no questions. Each thought was expanded on, and brutally honest. She didn't like men and no, it wasn't anyone's business why. No, that didn't mean she was a lesbian...girls are even worse than guys. The last time she had sex was also no one's business; she wasn't going into the sordid details. Heath found himself grinning.
"Life goals," Heath murmured. "'I want to be successful, of course. I have to be. I'm too plain and mean to live any other way.'"