“Online... Connected... Game Running...”
Danny entered the code he had downloaded, selected an avatar, and started to play.
The dragon had long ceased to be fearsome. Its faded golden flanks were chipped and scratched, and the wooden flames from its nostrils all but knocked off by numerous collisions with the safety barrier. As roller coasters went, this should have been a health and safety hazard. Many modern rides were ten times as scary, taking their riders virtually into the stratosphere, upside down, and with centrifugal forces only astronauts experienced. The modest height of this track was reassuring and promised a trauma free trip, even if the dire state of its maintenance threatened sudden death.
The roller coaster belonged to Jacob’s Amazing Funfair, which was full of rickety rides and side stalls inviting sharpshooters to try their luck using rifles with misaligned sites, or knock down coconuts with wooden balls hard enough to fracture the skull of an elephant. Small wonder it had not appeared before. It was probably trying to avoid the authorities who would close it down as a danger to public health.
Howie, Donnie, Sabrina and Annie were horribly fascinated. No travelling funfair had ever dared pitch its rides on this marshy meadow before.
The young adults decided to try shooting the rotating ducks first. Tokens were handed to the stall holder who promptly stepped out of line of fire further than was necessary. Sabrina was the most competitive, and furious that the ducks swerved aside when she knew full well that her pellets should have hit them.
Frustration soon set in, so the friends decided to try the ancient swingboats. When they took their seats they wobbled unnervingly and as soon as Donnie and Annie tugged the ropes their boats took off as though trying to loop the loop. The scary experience jolted forward the inexplicable thought that they been here before. But that was impossible... surely?
As soon as the attendant stopped the boats with the braking ropes, the friends leapt out. Sabrina was predictably annoyed at having her hair mussed. She was not experiencing the same feeling of déjà vu, but reluctantly followed the others to the roundabout of horses with manic looks in their eyes.
The ride should have been safe enough for infants, with mounts that only gently dipped and rose at a moderate speed, so they climbed aboard. As soon as they did so the eyes of the prancing horses lit up and the roundabout spun so fast the companions were thrown off onto the sodden grass.
The others only just managed to persuade Sabrina not to storm off.
As they plunged down the first dip the companions screeched with the obligatory euphoria, which immediately turned to terror when the buckled track reared up and pointed them heavenwards. They were shot into the sky, clinging desperately to the safety bars of the dragon car as they entered Earth’s orbit.
It was then Sabrina disappeared.
Danny’s screen flashed triumphantly and announced ‘GAME OVER’ as the program announced that its creator it had defeated the user.
“This game is rubbish!” he groaned. “What a waste of time. Whoever wrote it really needs to get a life.”
As the dragon roller coaster carriage continued in its orbit Howie, Donnie and Annie gazed at the radiant planet below everything flooded back.
Now they knew what they were doing there.
“We made it then!” Howie should not have sounded so surprised.
“It was inevitable someone would play it eventually,” Annie said.
“Just as well they never reached the coconut shy and won – our minds could have been wiped.”
Donnie hardly dare believe what Howie had just said. “You have to be joking? Writing this software is one thing, but sodding around with our brains is another.”
“I’m sure there wasn’t any danger of that,” Annie tried to persuade herself.
“And how do we get back? You did include an escape hatch - didn’t you?”
“The electrodes should have cut out when the game ended. I don’t understand how we got trapped here.” There was an edge of panic in Howie’s voice.
“You designed the interactive program so we could enter it. You tell us why they didn’t.”
“I knew it wasn’t a good idea to upload that demo. We should have listened to Sonnie.”
“You know she would have stopped us.”
“Wish she had,” whimpered Annie.
“You knew that as soon as some kid decided to play it we risked being up stuck here!” raged Donnie.
“Bet he was really pissed off.”
Xing, known as Sunny, returned from lunch to see her three young techs sitting stock still and staring blankly at their monitors. She had only been gone for an hour, yet during that time they had managed to send their minds to some electronic la-la land. This was the trouble with giving kids with too much talent for their own good a free rein. They would have been safer in GCHQ who could provide better supervision than her agency.
Sunny could have pulled the electrodes from their tousled heads and hoped for the best, or just terminated the program. Neither option was a good idea. There was only one thing for it.
She picked up the spare headset, attached the electrodes to her head and entered the program. Reality took a nose dive and dropped her into the dilapidated roller coaster carriage from Jacob’s Amazing Funfair. It was immediately obvious that Howie, Donnie and Annie were having anything but fun. This had to be Howie’s work: a mind that hovered between elation, hallucination and depths of despair. After this he was definitely seeing that therapist.
The techs had hardly dared hope their superior would try to rescue them, but there she was, perched on the dragon’s head in the carriage orbiting the Earth.
“Okay, you’ve all proved what smartarses you are. Next time remember where you put the exit code.”
They all turned to Howie. He looked uncomfortable.
“You can remember where it is, can’t you?”
The young tech fidgeted uneasily. “It’s like this, you see...”
“Oh, for pity’s sake!” exclaimed Annie. “The dork’s forgotten.”
“I bet Alan Turing never had this problem,” agreed Donnie.
“Alan Turing didn’t have to work with twits like him.”
“I know it’s somewhere in this carriage,” Howie prevaricated.
“If we ever manage to get back, you’re relegated to writing software for local government schemes to save frogs,” Sunny promised. “That equipment belongs in the hands of neuroscientists, not inept adolescents.”
The young people muttered various subdued, “Sorrys”, “Won’t happen agains”, and “We’ll sort it...” promises.
“I know!” Howie suddenly recalled. “Pull the dragon’s beard!”
Without a word, Sunny reached out of the carriage and yanked the decaying wood.
Panic set in as they hurtled towards the Earth. Once they had crashed back to reality they snatch off the electrodes glued to their heads.
Silence ensued for some time. The screensavers on their monitors kicked in and they watched bubbles and morphing boxes through monstrous headaches.
Only Howie could have asked after that experience. “Think we should patent it, boss?”