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Fiction: Panacea

NEW GAME

Vicki was sitting on the couch with the gum stuck under the cushions and coffee stain on the left armrest. A controller was clutched in her sweaty hands and bits of crumbs and dust were tucked into the crevices circling the buttons and joysticks. She put on the headset, tightening the straps around her skull so her eyes levelled perfectly with her virtual reality. She shifted the blanket around her shoulders, pulling it tight as the screen lit up before her, the video game blooming into frame.

                                   PANACEA 

Three selections appeared on the screen:

LOAD / NEW GAME / OPTION

Vicki selected NEW GAME, her pupils dilating the moment the menu shifted to the all too familiar loading screen. She wiped her nose. Her eyes stung. She started to play the game.

CHAPTER 1: CUTSCENE UNLOCKED

Vicki and Abby were sitting on the couch with the gum stuck under the cushions and the coffee stain on the left armrest. A spinning vinyl suddenly stopped with that sound that old record players make, a little shaky and coarse on the ears.

“I wish we could always stay like this,” Vicki said, her fingers loosely entwined around Abby’s.

“Why wouldn’t we?”

“I don’t know. Things happen sometimes,” Vicki frowned. “Bad things.”

“What’s that face for? What are you thinking?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Hey,” Abby said, her grip tightening. “I will never let anything bad happen to you. I promise.”

LEVEL 1: GAMEPLAY UNLOCKED

USE THE JOYSTICKS TO MOVE AND LOOK AROUND

Vicki stood in the hospital waiting room, listening to the news. “The flood has wreaked havoc all across the city. Streets are blocked off and homes are in ruin as families struggle to adapt to this apocalyptic event…” someone flicked it off. The hospital was still busy, despite the flooding.

As Vicki shuffled by the front desk, the receptionist’s name, Lizzy, appeared floating above her head. Vicki could have asked the Non-Player Character about her doctor’s appointment, or maybe where the bathroom was. Instead she headed down the hallway.

To end the game, all she had to do was find the Cure for Abby, the love of her life who’d gotten sick. But there was more to it than a simple trip to the hospital. As Vicki reached the supply room at the end of the hall and found it completely empty, a new quest objective appeared: go to the warehouse down the street to find the Cure.

The hospital was all out of the Cure because of the flood, but the warehouse that supplied the hospital would have a better chance of being fully stocked. She’d need to exit down the stairs at the back of the hospital on the ground floor to make it past the street barricades.

“I’m coming, Abby. Just hold on,” she thought as she pulled yellow tape from a pair of doors and stepped into the stairwell that would take her to the belly of the hospital and beyond.

CHAPTER 2: CUTSCENE UNLOCKED

“I like this one,” Vicki said, staring at a painting at the local art gallery. Abby turned away from a cloud of scribbles and lines to look.

“It’s not bad,” she said, tilting her chin up.

“Don’t you like the trees? I think the flowers make them so pretty.”

“I think the trees you paint are prettier.”

“Come on, don’t say stuff like that,” Vicki said, blushing.

“Whatever you say, love.”

“Okay.”

And Abby kissed her.

LEVEL 2: GAMEPLAY UNLOCKED

The bowels of the hospital were a wreck. Water pooled across the peeling linoleum and dripped from the ceiling, sending echoes through the ruined wing. In the centre of the floor leading to the stairwell was a chasm, with bits of debris and electric wiring sticking out in all directions. Vicki swayed, staring at the chaos. She’d need to cross over it. She could try a double jump, but looking at the size of the gap she already knew it wouldn’t take her far enough. In the middle of the hallway lay a single board. Vicki wiped her hands on her jeans again and gripped it. It wasn’t heavy, just awkward.

“Like me,” Vicki thought. “You and me, board, we’re in this together.” She exhaled and began to push the board toward the chasm, sending it—

PAUSE

“Vicki! I’m home!” Abby walked into the room, carrying a grocery bag. “I thought I’d get some groceries before heading to work—” she stopped when she saw Vicki scrambling to pull off her headset. “I thought I told you not to play that game anymore.”

“It was just for a little bit,” Vicki said, pushing herself lower into the couch.

“No, not just for a little bit. Enough is enough,” Abby threw the groceries on the counter. “I’m going to work, and when I get home, you better not be playing this fucking game.” The door slammed.

Vicki pulled the headset back on.

PLAY

—squeaking across the linoleum. Vicki slid the board across the length of the hole and stepped back, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Back and forth and back and forth. The board certainly looked sturdy enough to walk across. Sweaty palms, sweaty palms. Abby would have no problem crossing a gaping hole with no guarantee she’d make it to the other side. She would call Vicki a scaredy cat — and she’d be right. But none of that mattered. Abby was sick. Vicki didn’t even look down as she crossed the board to the other side and descended the final staircase, pushing open the exit that would lead her to the warehouse and the Cure.

And as Vicki stood before the hulking warehouse, her bravery levelled up.

CHAPTER 3: CUTSCENE UNLOCKED

“Jesus, Vicki. Can you turn that shit off? I need to talk to you about something.”

Vicki hit pause and set down her video game controller. “Sorry.”

“Whatever. It’s fine. We need to talk.” Abby pulled something from her pocket. “I thought I told you I don’t want you seeing her,” she said, setting Vicki’s cellphone on the kitchen counter.

Vicki’s eyes went wide. “It wasn’t anything like that, Abby. She’s the only friend I have! I was helping her through a bad time, that’s all!”

“Doesn’t she have other friends that can help her through these ‘bad’ times?”

“No… it’s just me. I told you, I’m her friend.”

“Oh yeah?” Abby looked away, and took a breath. “Maybe you need some better friends.”

Vicki stared at the frozen screen of her video game. “Like you’d let me keep them.”

LEVEL 3: GAMEPLAY UNLOCKED

The warehouse was also a mess. Water pooled in corners, and there were boxes, papers, cardboard, and chairs scattered across the hallway.

An objective marker would have been useful, the kind that spools out glowing trails leading to quest points. But Vicki’s quest log provided no location or pinpoint on her useless mini-map. It felt like she was doomed to turn in endless circles.

She opened the door at the end of the hall, and suddenly saw it: piled high atop boxes was a dull green liquid floating motionless within its clear plastic bottle: the Cure.

“Yes!” she said, running forward. The crates were stacked high, though many had fallen from the tower to the ground below where they guarded the cargo in mismatched formations. Slowly and gently, she climbed over one crate and gripped another. She was so close it was practically in her grasp. Everything was going to be okay. Abby was going to be okay. Vicki would fix everything.

Vicki nudged a crate forward to bring herself closer to the Cure. But the crate lurched forward with a terrible noise, and as she let go, it bumped against the tower of boxes balancing the Cure. It happened in slow motion. The camera zoomed in on the Cure, following it as it toppled from the tower, bouncing in perfect arcs down the crates until it reached the ground where it rolled across the floor and disappeared between the grates of a sewer drain.

The camera pulled back. “No!” cried Vicki, collapsing beside the grate. “No, no, no, no, no.” She felt small. Her fingers closed around the grate of the sewer and pulled it up and away. She felt smaller than she had in all her life as she lowered herself into the drain.

CHAPTER 4: CUTSCENE UNLOCKED

“Oh my god, Vicki. Are you crying? Are you fucking kidding me?” Abby’s fingers were pressed to her temples.

“I’m s-s-sorry,” Vicki always stuttered when she was upset. “I can’t help it—”

She’d been stuttering a lot lately.

“You always do this! You always turn me into the bad guy! How come nothing is ever your fault?”

“It’s not your fault,” It was never Abby’s fault. It’s okay to take the blame sometimes. That’s what happens when you love someone. “I won’t see my friend anymore, okay?”

“Well that’s just great,” Abby massaged her forehead, her eyes shut tight. “Now you’ll just hate me because I made you ditch your friend.”

Vicki exploded. “Well what do you want me to do? I’m trying to solve this, but you’re not doing anything to help! You’re just yelling at me—”

“Shut up! Just shut up, Vicki! There’s a reason you only have one friend! Why do you always ruin everything—” Abby doubled over, her head in her hands, and screamed.

“Abby?” Vicki collapsed beside her. “Abby what’s wrong?”

“You make me sick!” Abby said, collapsing to the floor.

“No! No, no, no. I’m so sorry, Abby. This is all my fault.” Vicki took Abby’s hand in her own and pressed it to her chest. “I’ll help you. I’ll find a Cure. I promise.”

LEVEL 4: GAMEPLAY UNLOCKED

Vicki lay curled up at the bottom of the sewer in the damp and the cold with her knees pulled to her forehead. She listened hard in the quiet darkness but heard nothing except the trickle of water.

“Get up,” she told herself, but she couldn’t move. She didn’t want to. “Get up,” she said again, louder this time.

“Come on, Vicki, get up,” said a voice that wasn’t Vicki’s. Abby’s voice-over began to play over the soundtrack.

“Abby?” Vicki raised her head.

“Come on, Vicki. Stop being so pathetic. Up. Now. You’re looking for something, aren’t you?”

Vicki pushed herself to her feet and stumbled forward. “Abby?” she called out, her foot slipping into a stream of water. “Abby!” she pulled out her phone, illuminating the ground. The tunnel system stretched out before her, a stream of water running through it. The water would have carried the Cure away. Follow the water. That’s all she had to do.

“You always quit,” Abby said. “You give up so easily. You were going to give up and go home if I hadn’t stepped in here, right?”

“Abby,” she breathed, stumbling forward.

“You’re pathetic,” Abby’s voice echoed through the tunnels, bouncing and running,  encircling Vicki with every step she took. Abby was right though. She always was.

“I’ll try harder. I’m s-sorry, Abby,” Vicki said, panting a little as she began to run.

“You always are.”

The Cure. The light from Vicki’s phone caught the glint of the bottle, lodged in a pile of stones. Vicki’s fingers closed around it, and her flashlight flickered a little.

“I did it,” she said. “Abby, I did it!”

But Vicki was alone in the damp and the quiet and the dark.

Give the Cure to Abby?

YES / NO

CHAPTER 5: CUTSCENE UNLOCKED

“Abby!” Vicki knelt beside the bed, pressing a cool cloth to Abby’s forehead. The bottle of the Cure lay empty on the floor. “Abby, it’s me. How do you feel?”

Abby’s eyes opened very slowly. “Fine,” she said. A small flush of red was returning to her cheeks. “How long was I out for?”

“Not long,” Vicki said, dipping the cloth back into a cool bowl of water. “And I know what you’re going to say. That this was all my fault, and that I made you angry and that’s what got you so worked up and made you sick.” She wrung the water from the cloth. “And you’d be right, Abby. About everything. You always are.” She twisted the fabric in her hands, balling it up between her palms and then stretching it between her fingers. “And I am so, so sorry.”

“I know,” Abby said, resting her hand on Vicki’s. “You’re going to stay with me though, right?” she squeezed Vicki’s hand, hard. “Promise me,” Abby said, coughing a little. “Promise me you’ll stay with me forever.”

“I will. I promise.”

CHAPTER 6: CUTSCENE UNLOCKED

Vicki and Abby were sitting on the couch with the gum stuck under the cushions and the coffee stain on the left armrest. A spinning record suddenly stopped with that sound that old record players make, a little shaky and coarse on the ears. “I wish we could always stay like this,” Vicki said, her fingers loosely entwined around Abby’s.

“Why wouldn’t we?”

“I don’t know. Things happen sometimes,” Vicki frowned. “Bad things.”

“What are you thinking?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Hey,” Abby said, her grip tightening. “I will never let anything bad happen to you. I promise.”

CREDITS

“Fuck!” Vicki tore off the headset, her head in her hands. She leaned back into the couch, curled in the blanket, and heard the hollow sound of empty potato chip bags crunching behind her. Sallow skin and sunken eyes leered back at her from the glint of the black television screen. What time was it? The blinds were drawn. Morning? Night? Had Abby come home since their fight? Was she still mad about the game?

The game always ended that way. But there had to be something more, something she wasn’t seeing. Something she could do differently to get a different ending, a better ending. She rubbed her sleeve against the controller, cleaning off the sheen of sweat glistening across the buttons. She wiped her cheeks and shifted the blanket around her shoulders, pulling it tight as the screen lit up before her, the pixelated game screen blooming into frame.

                                   PANACEA 

Three selections appeared on the screen:

LOAD

NEW GAME

OPTIONS

                                     Vicki scrolled down to

                                    NEW GAME and selected it,

                                      her pupils dilating as a new screen popped up.

MEMORY FULL

YOU MUST DELETE AN OLD SAVE TO CONTINUE.

OK / CANCEL

294 SAVED FILES. WHICH ONE WOULD YOU LIKE TO DELETE?

Vicki deleted one.

She wiped her nose.

Her eyes stung.

She started to play the game.

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