Mmm. I smell...
Smells of home.
Am I home? I must be. Hannah is probably cooking me breakfast. Oh, what day is it? Oh, I don't really care. As long as I am out of that game.
I should be.
I must be.
I can feel the comfort of a bed beneath my body.
And I can smell food.
But I don't remember coming out of the game.
Or coming out of the Game Emporium.
Or coming home.
Or seeing Hannah.
I might as well open my eyes. I need to confirm whether or not I am at home, or indeed, still in the game.
''Hello, Mr Williams! Did you enjoy yourself?'' the female avatar I met at Montague Manor says to me as I open my eyes. I watch her eat a bacon and egg sandwich with a broad grin on her face as she sits on a chair.
I haven't left at all.
''Did I beat them all?'' I ask her as I begin to sit up on the bed.
''Yes, you did,'' the twins-in-one answers. Well that's good news. I'm guessing the challenge is over now.
''And that means that the challenge is over now. We've decided to award you 1000 points,'' the avatar announces to me.
''The highest points...have been awarded to me?'' I ask again for clarification. This can't be right. Mathilde scored me 200 points, and these girls are giving me 1000?
''You did way better than all of the other contestants, and your challenge was by far the most fun,'' the avatar says with a smile. I swing my legs around to sit up on the side of the bed while I try to get my head around what these girls have just said.
''I can't believe it,'' I mumble.
And I'm back in the game!
''But you aren't first place though. The participant who was awarded 1000 points in Mathilde's level garnered 700 points in this one, so you are 3rd place at this point in the game,'' the avatar of the twins explains.
''How many participants are left?'' I ask her.
''There are 8 left,'' she replies. 8 participants left and I'm in 5th place. I need to do my best in the next levels to catch up.
''Dimple will be waiting for you outside,'' the avatar tells me as she stands up to leave. I stand up too and wait for her to go.
''Thank you very much,'' I say to her as I extend my hand to shake hers.
''No, thank you, Mr Williams. You gave us a very enjoyable experience,'' the avatar says as she shakes my hand and smiles. She winks at me before giving me a kiss on my cheek, and then I watch her leave the room in silence.
''2 down, 4 to go,'' I say after I breathe a huge sigh of relief. I leave the room and make my way out of the house to meet Dimple, who is waiting outside the front door for me like she was in the last level.
''So did you have more fun this time round?'' Dimple asks me as soon as we meet.
''I think so, yes,'' I answer her. I smile happily as I remember that I got awarded the highest points for this level.
''Congratulations on receiving those points. I bet you must be very happy,'' Dimple says to me as we walk on northwards.
''Thank you. I thought they were going to give me low points like Mathilde did. Oh yeah, by the way, are the twins by any chance related to Mathilde?'' I ask Dimple.
''You will have to find out about them later, I cannot tell you much I'm afraid,'' Dimple responds. I nod in acknowledgement and resign myself to the fact that I won't be able to learn more about the level keepers until later on.
''So...these twins have another duty apart from being second level keepers?'' I ask Dimple another question.
''Yes. You may have spotted a strange gentleman with bandages on his face earlier in the level,'' she begins to explain. How could I forget? They were the bane of my existence for the last part of the challenge.
''Nevers,'' I say to myself.
''That's correct. The twins control them. Hence, their duty are Never keepers,'' Dimple tells me.
''And they are all from Neverland?'' I ask her another question.
''Well...that's where they keep them,'' Dimple half-answers the question.
''They come from somewhere else?'' I ask her, noticing that she knows more to it than I thought.
''Yes, they do. But again, I cannot tell you any more I'm afraid,'' she says to me.
''Why not?'' I ask her curious to know why she cannot give more information.
''Because that is not my duty. My duty is gate keeper, not information keeper,'' she responds. OK, so I have to wait until I meet the right person then.
''I'm sorry to keep you in the dark, Mr Williams, but rules are rules,'' Dimple says to me.
''No, it's OK. Oh yeah, another thing. Why did I go back to my home after I finished the challenge?'' I ask her pointing to the house behind us.
''Your mind resets itself after each challenge is finished. It goes back to the one place that is most meaningful to you; in your case, the home that you share with your wife and child. It's like the saving point in a game. Your home is your safe point. You will always go back to it no matter what,'' Dimple explains. At least she can enlighten me on some things.
''Can I think of it consciously?'' I ask her.
''No; your mind automatically resets based on your subconscious memories. Even if you do think of going there on purpose, it will not work, because your mind has been set to go there once each level is complete. You cannot journey when you feel like, or when you are in the middle of a challenge. We have set it up this way for your benefit,'' Dimple answers.
So it is a form of mind control.
''We are not controlling your mind. We are just setting some rules,'' Dimple says, as she uses her extra sensory intuition once again.
''Alright then. So are we going to the next level now or what?'' I ask her.
''Yes, we will. Again, you must choose the means of transportation to the next level,'' Dimple reminds me. Oh yeah, I forgot about that. The last journey was extremely fun for her.
''Will you be joining me again?'' I ask her before I conjure up a means of travel.
''Yes, I think I will come again,'' she replies. I nod as I appreciate the company. But I hope she doesn't do her crazy floating, spinning warp speed trick that she did on the train again. That was insane.
''What shall we use this time, Mr Williams?'' Dimple asks me. I look around the landscape, and glance over at the abandoned amusement park.
''Since I'm leaving Neverland, I might as well take a piece of it with me,'' I say as I make the roller-coaster I had used in the challenge come over to where Dimple and I are standing. I slowly guide it along the floor and let is settle to a stop.
''Well this is a novel idea,'' Dimple says as she looks at the roller-coaster. We both get into the same car as the roller-coaster settles on the ground.
''Going up?'' Dimple asks, as she expects us to be flying again. I pull down the metal bar down on our laps and turn to face her.
''No, I think we should go down this time,'' I say as I change the front of the roller-coaster into a plough and it begins to burrow underground.
''A very novel idea indeed!'' Dimple shouts in excitement as we go down into the ground. The landscape changes from grey clouds to brown dirt as we go deeper into the earth. I look around the soil and gravel that we are digging through and see that the walls and roof of the tunnels are turning into beautiful gemstones.
They look beautiful.
Hannah would love to see this.
''Are you doing that?'' I ask Dimple as I look at her. Her head is turned left in a stiff manner. She's staring at the gemstones quite intensely.
''Hey, Dimple?'' I try to get her attention by shaking her shoulder. She's as stiff as a rock.
Why is she not moving?
Is there a glitch in the game or something?
I look around and I have just realised the roller-coaster has stopped ploughing. It's like everything has just...stopped.
Time has stopped.
But why am I still moving?
''Game Paused,'' I hear a female voice say above my head.
What, the game has been paused?
Suddenly a flash of white stuns my eyes, forcing me to close them. When I open them back up, I am back in the cubicle that I went into to play the game. The visor that was on my head has come away from eyes. As I am trying to adjust to reality, I hear a knock on my cubicle door.
''Come in,'' I say as I rub my eyes and sit up in my chair.
''Hello Mr Williams, I hope you have enjoyed the game so far. We will now be having a 2 hour break, so you can have lunch if you like. Please be back here at 2pm so that we can commence again. Thank you for your participation in Phantasmagoria,'' the girl who serviced me before says when she enters. She hands me back my phone and turns to go.
''Thanks,'' I say to her as she leaves the cubicle.
It feels weird being back in the real world. Every time I close my eyes, I feel as though I am still in the game. I stand up and stretch, and look back at the game I was plugged into for the last...
I look at my watch on my wrist and I see that only half an hour has passed.
Wow, it felt like hours in there!
It felt more like Neverendingland in there! I pause to look at how so much can be contained in one piece of hardware. It's amazing to think where technology has taken us. It's amazing it always finds new ways to control us. I leave the cubicle and go on my way home so that I can meet up with Hannah.
''I sure did miss reality,'' I say to myself as I leave the Game Emporium and look around the street. Yep, it's good to be back home.
But only for 2 hours.
And then it's back to the grind.