Tell Me What the Rules Are Going to Be
I received the first call some time around 11 in the morning while helping a new housemate move in. That was the first time I answered anyway, the call log showed I’d rejected the same number a few times already. Most likely while half-asleep, assuming it was debt collectors again.
The other thing is, I’d gotten a new phone recently and forgotten to transfer the contacts from the old one. Which meant a nontrivial chance that every unfamiliar number which called me was some friend I’d not yet had occasion to add back into my contacts list. So despite having my hands full unloading the new guy’s car, I answered.
“Hey, who’s this? Make it quick, I’m in the middle of-” It immediately cut in. Scratchy signal noise, like old drivethru intercoms. The voice itself sounded garbled, like someone talking with food in their mouth. “Tell me what the rules are going to be.” I waited for more. When there wasn’t any, I asked again who was on the other end. “Tell me what the rules are going to be.” Prank call. I hung up.
It rang again only a minute later. I put the phone to my ear, ready to tell him to fuck off. Instead, a piercing garble of digital noise accompanied by the most intense pain of my life. I collapsed, the phone’s battery and case coming apart on impact.
I fell silent. Not because the pain stopped but because I found I couldn’t scream. My vision blurred and several times darkened as if I would pass out. Becka found me first. “Oh my god, what happened? Did you hurt yourself? I told you, don’t try to carry the fooseball table yourself but you...shit, you’re really messed up. Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
I couldn’t tell her not to, so she did. I passed out before it arrived. When I awoke I had a pounding headache and couldn’t initially remember how I wound up there. Dad sat hunched over asleep in a chair. Mom got the closest thing to a bed, a sort of padded surface by the window.
I made enough noise to rouse them. “I’m so relieved. I said it was a stroke. Did they tell you anything? Your father says there’s a history of epilepsy on his side, I said-” Dad cut her off. “You really had us worried. What were you doing when it happened?” I struggled to recall. “Helping move RJ in. The guy who answered the Craigslist ad.”
“Oh, that’s sketchy. Maybe he slipped you something?” I smiled. “No, Mom. Nothing like that. Seems like a solid guy. I just…I remember getting a phonecall. Then loud noise, then everything after that’s a blur.” They pestered me for more information despite repeated insistence that I’d already told them everything I could remember.
Three days of routine tests and cafeteria grade meals later, I was back to my old routine. Becka made a big deal out of it. I think because not a lot goes on in her life besides her internet dates, which she also tells us every detail of. “So do you have like, a tumor in your brain that could kill you at any moment? What happens to the lease if you die?”
We’d gone in three ways on a pizza. It has to be cheese because Becka’s a vegetarian. Won’t do half and half because “The meat fumes go from one side to the other inside the box during delivery. I don’t want those juices on my side of it.” Having learned long ago that my happiness is contingent on how little I argue with her, I simply learned to like what she likes.
“It was just some creep. Prank call I think. Must have done something to make the phone blast my eardrum, I dunno. There’s still ringing in that ear.” RJ said nothing. Being new, I figured he was observing us to get an idea of our dynamic so he’d know where best to fit himself into it.
Weeks passed without incident. I scheduled my classes at the local community college, bought another minidisc player online, and spent a weekend house cleaning. Cleaning up after Becka, I should call it. Grocery shopping is “replacing stuff Becka ate”. To her, the fridge is a socialist republic.
When the phone rang again while I was vacuuming up her cigarette butts, I nearly answered by reflex. Then, checking the number, I rejected the call and put the number on my block list. One of those little acts of despotism that the average man relishes. It didn’t cross my mind, then, that it would not be so easy.
The next call came at four in the morning. I checked, and found it was Dad’s cell. When I answered, he sounded frantic and out of breath. “I’m on the way to the hospital with your mother. She collapsed while on the phone. Still breathing, they say her pulse is erratic. It looks like the same thing you had. I’ll text you the room number, bring your wallet, they’ll want several forms of ID.”
My heart raced as I pulled my clothes on. How could this happen? He must’ve called her when I blocked him. If I could find this guy, I resolved, I would choke the life out of him and feed the remains to pigs.
As ever, I was hardly the only one speeding, yet the cops managed to pick me out of the herd for special attention. One of those cop cars that outwardly looks like any other until the discreet red and blue LEDs start flashing.
My expression and reason for speeding unexpectedly did the trick. I thought that only happened in movies. I saw him follow me a ways though, presumably making sure I was going to the hospital. On the way, my phone buzzed, but speeding and texting is a good way to wind up road jelly so I ignored it until I was parked. It buzzed again. Fucking Dad, so insistent.
Only, it wasn’t Dad. Nor was it a text. Cautiously, I slid the green circle to the center and raised the phone to my ear. “Tell me what the rules are going to be” the scratchy voice demanded. “You did this you little rat fuck, you pustulent fag turd. I’m going to find out where you’re calling from and show up with some friends. Your life’s already over, you just don’t know it yet.”
The voice came back, sounding muffled and tired. “It will be your father next.” I fell silent. He repeated himself. “Tell me what the rules are going to be.” I trembled with a mixture of rage and fear. Was he watching me? I looked around the parking lot but saw no signs of surveillance.
“I...I can’t hang up on you.” Mild crackling. Then “Very good. What else?” Inwardly, I raged. Who would do this? Yet, I saw no way out of it. If he could target my family, and just change his number, waiting for one of us to let our guard down, we’d never be safe. “I don’t know. Uh...don’t involve the police?” This also pleased him.
“That’s enough for now. Go see your mother. I’ll call again soon. Make sure to pick up.” I fought to control the shakes on my way in. After presenting my driver’s license and social security card, I received something called a visitor pass, and was able to continue to the elevators. Room 402. Fourth floor, then.
I found Dad doting on Mom the way I rarely see these days. They’ve been married for so long, I think he assumes she knows he loves her by now. They fight more than anything else but it’s never serious, I’ve never known a more solidly, inseparably joined pair. Hurt my heart to see Mom so weak though.
She’s getting on in years. Dad and I talk about buying her one of those folding mobility scooters you can take on planes. Medicare will only pay for the huge clunky ones you can’t take anywhere. He’s suggested a segway before as it’s more dignified but I tell him, “She’s clumsy. Even if it’s self balancing she’ll find a way to fall off it.”
At her age, a fall means potential death. Which is why learning that she’d collapsed gave me palpitations. I’ve known one of these days I’ll get that call, and was terrified that today would be it. Yet everything the nurse told me sounded promising. Same symptoms I’d shown, and an equally rapid recovery. Just sleeping, not comatose or anything similarly serious.
For the time being, anyway. I stayed the night at the hospital with dad. We took turns watching over Mom. There were vending machines and a 24/7 coffee shop inside the building which made it somewhat more bearable. We went home at the same time the next day, but were back a day later to pick her up.
I wanted to threaten him. To make good on what I’d promised to do already. I’m sure he anticipated that. Display of power first, to show me he could take away what matters most whenever he pleases. I deliberated whether to call the police. I had nothing to give them but the number. Should that not lead anywhere, he’d discover I’d broken the rules, bide his time, then strike again.
No, no cops just yet. First step would be to see what I could find out on my own. I did a whois on the number. Took me a few tries to find a site that didn’t want me to pay for the results. It returned a bunch of nonsense. Wherever possible, fields were blank. The rest were garbled text and numbers.
Predictable. Nobody would piss off a stranger so badly without taking basic precautions against retaliation. I did my best to think about the situation from his point of view. Assuming it was in fact a man. I decided I shouldn’t rule out use of a voice filter. I began to diagram possibilities in my notebook on the bus ride to and from class. Looked for all the world like a paranoid schizophrenic’s diary.
I popped open the minidisc tray and loaded in the next one. Horribly impractical compared to just using my phone or something but I like physical media and never got tired of the stereotypical retrofuturism of tiny discs. This was a later model you could write files to directly from your PC. The older ones were like tape players, you had to record the songs you wanted and manually make your mix tapes.
I zoned out, watching raindrops slither down the immense bus window, until I heard a familiar voice. “Tell me what the rules are going to be.” I bolted upright, choking slightly. I checked my phone. Nothing. Could it be…? I hit back, and listened carefully. Sure enough, at the same point in the song, his voice cut in. My body went cold. I could feel beads of sweat forming individually as every little hair, head to toe, slowly stood on end.
When had he done it? Could it be that he broke in? More likely he’d somehow accessed it through my PC while it was connected. Who can do that sort of thing? But then, who can trigger epileptic fits over the phone? I sat there quietly as panic consumed my mind. Just as I reached the threshold of madness, my stop came up.
It continued to trouble me through my classes. It was useless to fight it. I knew somewhere, he was laughing about it. About how a couple of phonecalls and a parlor trick was all it took to hijack my life, occupying my every waking moment with paranoid ideation. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction but could find no way to think of anything else.
“Tell me what the rules are going to be”, it said in small text at the upper left of the digital whiteboard. New installations, all the professors love them but it’s unclear to me how they benefit students. It was almost unsurprising to see it there. Another display of power, calculated to collapse my will to resist.
I saw it again on the LED traffic sign on the way home, as well as a video billboard. If anybody else noticed, they didn’t mention it. A glitch, they must think. Only meaningful to me. I looked down at the little LCD display on my minidisc player. “Tell me what the rules are going to be”, over and over, slowly scrolling by.
I sat by the phone, fidgeting nervously until he called. Before he could ask, I answered as I assumed he wanted me to. “I can’t tell my housemates. Or anybody else. Right?” I heard a faint chuckle. “Very good.” Absolutely maddening. “What do you want from me? Why do this to anybody?”
“Soon, you will receive a package. It will resemble junk mail. Do not discard it. There will be instructions inside.” I fought the urge to throw my phone at the wall. If only he’d slip up, however slightly. All I need is the smallest clue. I waited for more, but after a time, he hung up. I sat there bewildered, nerves shot and on the verge of tears.
The next day after class, I checked the mailbox. Sure enough, loads of junk mail. Not sure what I was looking for, I opened all of it. Looked pretty standard. No obvious messages anywhere. Until I got to the “50 hours free internet trial!” CD.
It would be consistent with his methods so far. Not really something I wanted to put in my PC for fear of giving him access. But he evidently already had that. When I pushed the disc tray in, following the whirr of the disc spinning up, a splash screen appeared. But for a game of some kind.
“World dot com, premier multimedia virtual reality cyberspace experience.” A variety of low quality sprites of pre-rendered 3D characters stood in a pixellated 3D room. Not much I could discern from the screenshot. The copyright was dated 1996. I waited in confusion while the installation finished.
The installation dialogue closed, and the icon appeared on my desktop. I hesitated before clicking it, wondering what to expect. Upon running it, a window appeared and I found myself controlling a 2D penguin in a large, low polygon atrium of some kind. Spinning signs here and there advertised long-irrelevant bands, websites, and TV shows.
The whole mess looked like a 1990s time capsule. At some point this must’ve been the latest and greatest, an MMO of sorts where people could chat, sell shit, and whatever else. But then it became obsolete, was abandoned, and the content wasn’t updated after that. Everything frozen how they left it, a digital ghost town.
The personalized rooms proved stranger than the rest. The door to each bearing the name of whoever created it, the interior customized to their taste. As much as the primitive 3D engine was capable of. One had aquarium wallpaper and a slowly spinning low poly model of a teapot inside. Another was plastered with posters for a Pauly Shore movie, Beavis and Butthead, and some Playstation hockey game.
Somebody made each room. Spent time decorating it, so that it reflected them. Then one day, they left it behind, perfectly preserved. Probably assuming the game’s servers would stop running one day. Which made me wonder how in the hell I could still connect to it.
I did a bit of Wikipedia sleuthing and discovered the game was the work of one guy, who kept it running as one of the criteria necessary for his lawsuit against the creators of a much newer, vastly superior game based around the same concept. His hope seemed to be proving that he’d come up with it first, but successful litigation required maintaining the pretense that it was still relevant and used by a significant number of people.
That was the biggest shock yet. A few times, I glimpsed other users. Who could possibly still be on here? Inhabiting this abstract time warp nightmare of low resolution clip art and janky low poly environments. I tried pestering some of them for answers. Some kind of armored minotaur first. He ignored me, then warped to some other region.
Next, another player using the default penguin avatar like mine. Again, silence. Finally I asked a neon pink mickey mouse imitation in a party hat. “My computer’s old, it won’t run new games. I put a lot of work into my room, too. All my stuff’s on here, and a few friends still use it.” Fair enough. “But look out for Nexialist. He never leaves. And if he catches you, he’ll send you to the bad place. It’s a bitch to escape from.”
Who? Send me where? I pressed her for details, but she’d told me everything she cared to. Studying her name in the chat, I noticed next to it was a number listed as how long she’d been online for this session. An appalling 19 hours.
Like the minotaur, she disappeared abruptly. A skill I had yet to learn. Clicking around the interface eventually brought up a map of the surprisingly limited areas possible to teleport to. Everywhere I went just looked like a 3D Geocities page complete with cliche gifs of spinning 3D skulls, a CG dancing baby, wireframe skulls (when were skulls so popular, and why?) and so on.
Some areas had auto-play midis, ear splitting renditions of the themes to television shows popular at the time. I recognized one as the opening to Sea Quest, in a room with a flickering animated sprite of a whale hanging overhead.
When I exited the room, across the atrium I spotted a strange figure. All black, textured as if burnt. Wearing a robe or gown of some sort reaching all the way to the floor. The head resembled a deer skull, complete with antlers. I typed out “Hello”. No response. I didn’t move, nor did the black figure.
A moment later, it was in front of me. Filling my screen. Despite the terrible graphics, I yelped in surprise and nearly fell out of my seat. Somehow it teleported me to a region I’d never seen before, and trying to use the map to leave it proved fruitless. The walls and floor were pulsating, swirling red flesh.
I never thought such a joke of a game could pull me in this way. Hunkered down in front of my computer, flickering light from the monitor playing over my face. “Tell me what the rules are going to be” appeared in chat. I objected that I’d already guessed as many as I could. He just repeated himself.
“Why don’t YOU tell ME what the rules are going to be?” This shut him up. Briefly. He came back with “I want out. But I can’t leave without help.” Out of where? This game? For the first time I thought to check the session length next to his name. 166,302hr. An error, surely. Some quick math in my head turned that into nearly 19 years.
As I’d been warned, there was no obvious way out of this region. Room after room of bizarre nonsequitorial models and textures. Most of it gore. By far the largest, most elaborate private area in the game based on what I’d seen of it so far. “I didn’t want to hurt you. Or your family. I just want out. It won’t let me go until I carry out the instructions. This is the only way.”
I hammered him with questions but he only told me what he saw fit to, none of it directly answering anything I’d said. I considered for the first time the possibility that somebody was making him do this. Using the same methods he’d used to control me. Finally, something useful appeared in the chat window. Two long numerical strings.
Plugging them into Google confirmed my suspicions. GPS coordinates, albeit in the lesser used of the two formats I’m familiar with. I took a screenshot for good measure, then closed the game. After a while I realized I was trembling again. Afraid, but now unsure of what to be afraid of.
For all I knew he was someone like me, roped into this scheme by another mysterious voice on the phone. Who could well be yet another innocent person, trapped in a long chain of tormented and tormentors. Who sits at the end of it? Would I find them at the coordinates? An invitation which felt more like a dare.
Days passed before I worked up the courage. The coordinates indicated a forested region near the coast, some four hours of driving. I expected he wouldn’t have picked me if I couldn’t reach it. I hated to spend so much on gas, but had long since resigned myself to following the breadcrumbs, wherever they led. Forward is the only way out.
I expected something monumental when I arrived. For all the tedious offroading I’d done to get there. What I found was a grassland strewn with boulders and smaller rocks. When the GPS told me I was right on top of the indicated spot, I briefly wondered if this was the point of it. To send me on a wild goose chase.
Then I noticed the edge of some concrete mass sticking out of the dirt. I might’ve missed it had I not stuck around. Looking at it from afar, I could now see there’d been a house here at one point. The raised area was plainly what remained of the foundation, now covered in soil and grass. A few bricks jutting up along the edge confirmed it.
I did my best to scrape away the soil but couldn’t do much with my bare hands. I drove to the nearest gas station. Had all kinds of shit on account of this being a popular area for campers. Ammunition, fishing gear, and what I came for. A short but sturdy shovel. I winced at the additional cost and hoped I had enough gas to get home without stopping.
With the shovel it was easy work removing the layer of soil, and soon enough I found a trap door. Rusting steel, lined with rivets. But not locked. Once all the soil around the edges was removed, I found I could easily pull it open. I contemplated calling it good for the day. The sun was no longer directly overhead as when I arrived, but creeping down towards the horizon.
Not relishing the idea of a second expensive trip out here, I instead pushed on, descending a concrete staircase into some sort of basement. At least that’s what I figured it for until I touched the walls. More rusty metal, and corrugated, like a shipping container. Somebody’d buried this, and poured concrete around it as reinforcement.
I came to a heavy steel door. As I moved to take the handle, I heard a loud motor whine, then a kerchunk. The door came loose, and hung very slightly ajar. I didn’t feel ready to open it. But I’d been afforded no other path. If I went home, it would simply resume. He’d go after my Dad next. Maybe my housemates. Appearing everywhere, however desperately I’d try to evade him.
So, I opened the door, and went through. I found myself in a dank, pitch black musty room. What little light came through the doorway illuminated something difficult to resolve at first, unfolding before me as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.
At the far end of the chamber sat a pale, obese man covered in weeping lesions. Shackled into a chair that, by the looks of the pipes coming from the base of it, was also a toilet. He wore some sort of antiquated early nineties virtual reality helmet, with “Forte VFX-1” etched into it. He struggled slightly and whimpered as I approached.
When I got close enough I understood why he was silent. The helmet included some sort of medical mask which performed both forcible respiration and intravenous feeding. A beige liquid, piped in from somewhere unseen, periodically deposited into his stomach to prevent starvation.
The shackles suddenly opened, and the helmet lifted via a motorized mechanism. The pale fat man thrashed his stickly thin bony arms and wailed. With what I initially mistook for anguish but soon realized was relief. A hatch in the floor just in front of the chair slid open. The chair itself tilted forwards, dumping the pitiful creature down the chute. He did nothing to resist. Echoing up the chute I heard a brief, shrill scream. Abruptly followed by silence. The hatch slid shut, and the chair turned towards me.
I backtracked towards the door, but its motorized locks re-engaged before I could reach it. I screamed until my throat was raw, pounding on the heavy steel door in vain. Finally turning, slowly, towards the terminus of my strange journey. The chair, revealed faintly by flickering light coming from the eyepieces on the headset.
With nowhere left to go, after some hours of agonizing over it, I stripped from the waist down and sat in the chair. The shackles immediately closed around my wrists and ankles, and the VR headset slowly lowered into place. I found myself in the elaborate red labyrinth of World dot com, seen through the eyes of the black antlered figure.
As the mask closed over my face, feeding tube invading my mouth and beginning to secrete beige nourishment, a message appeared in the chat window.
1. If you resist breathing, eating, or otherwise attempt self-harm, punishment will result. First you, then your loved ones for every subsequent infraction.
2. If you overtly describe the nature of your confinement and how you arrived here in a way which deters others, punishment will result.
3. If you attempt to contact law enforcement or anyone else with the intent of having them extract you, punishment will result.
4. You will be released when you secure a replacement.”