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Ready To Rumble

''Hello, Mr Williams! Thank you for coming today to the Game Emporium. In a few moments you will be entering the virtual imagination game Phantasmagoria, the ground-breaking game that is generated purely from the imaginative creations of one's mind. It is the next generation of 'free games', a term given to games that gives the player almost absolute freedom without subscribing to restrictive rules in the game. Thank you for considering to participate in this game, Mr Williams. I do hope you have fun, and best wishes in completing the game!'' a computerised female face-projected hologram tells me as I enter a section of the Game Emporium which has a banner floating above my head with the word 'PHANTASMAGORIA' on it. Yep, I think I'm in the right place.

''Thank you,'' I reply to the artificial woman. She just continues to smile, waiting for the next participant to speak to, scanning their face and repeating the same message. I stride into a section full of people walking in different directions. I see employees of the Game Emporium, wearing purple t-shirts and pants for the uniform, helping with queries from people, showing people how the game instruments work, showing examples of pre-recorded game play on large screens and showing what the instruments look like for the participants when they enter into the game. I'm surveying the area, looking for any government workers who might have came into make sure I came, but I didn't see anyone looking particularly like a stone wall with shades yet.

''Glad you could join us, Corporal!'' I hear a deep, gruff voice address me from my right. I turn to see a tall, wrinkled, gray haired white man in a black suit and shoes coming over to me with his arm outstretched ready to shake my hand.

''Major Travis Crispin!'' I say, shocked to see him in front of me while I grab his hand to shake it. Travis Crispin was my old Major in the army.

''Long time, huh? What have you been doing since leaving the desert?'' Major Crispin asks me as he puts his hand on my shoulder.

''Nothing much, just trying to make a living in construction. However, I've mainly been looking after my family. You know I have a son, Major?'' I say to him.

''No, I didn't! How old is he?'' he asks me.

''He's 8 in September,'' I reply.

''Oh wow! Same age as my grandson!'' he beams.

''Rachel had a son? Oh, congratulations, Major!'' I say to him, as I shake his hand once again.

''Yeah, well, time flies doesn't it?'' the Major says. I smile, reminiscing on memories of my time in the army as he says this.

''Yeah, and it's showing no signs of landing,'' I muse. He chuckles as he pats my arm softly.

''So, what brings you here, son? Want to win the money for yourself?'' he asks me frankly. I'm bit unsure of how to answer, but the Major begins to laugh.

''I'm just kidding! But if you are here for that, I'm not judging you. There's a few guys here with the same intention, but I know you're an honest man, Williams. I know you are doing it for your family,'' he says to me. I nod slowly, showing that it is for that reason, but knowing that it's really more of a mission for the government.

''Thank you, sir, for understanding,'' I say to him seriously.

''Hey, no formalities, son. Call me Travis, or if you prefer, Mr Crispin,'' he responds in a friendly manner.

''So what are you here for, Travis?You're a little too old for gaming, am I right?'' I joke with him. He laughs heartily, making his deep voice reverberate around the area.

''Yeah, you're right, I am a little too old. No, I'm here to see if my investment in this game is paying off,'' he replies.

''Investment?'' I ask curiously.

''After the army, I got into technology. Became the C.E.O. of TechWare International, and our company helps develop the machinery and technology that holds Phantasmagoria together,'' he explains.

''Oh really? Wow, you did really well for yourself, Mr Crispin,'' I say to him.

''Yeah, so I came along today to see how successful the game is with our backing,'' he continues.

''You haven't come before?'' I query again.

''Oh no, I've been too busy with setting everything up at the company I haven't been able to come down to see things progress. So this is the first time that I could find the time to come in and see if my company's money is being used effectively,'' he responds.

''Want to see the fruits of your labour, huh?'' I say to him.

''Yep,'' he replies.

''Hello, Mr Williams, we're ready for you now. Would you like to come over so that we can go through the instructions in using the game instruments?'' a short, slim girl with long brunette-hair has come over to my left side and speaks to me. She is an employee of the Game Emporium, and she is getting all the participants ready to play.

''Oh yeah, sorry. Hey, it was nice meeting you, Major, I hope to see you again some time. And I need to meet your family, too,'' I say to Travis before I leave.

''Yes, and I need to meet yours as well, meet your son,'' The former major responds as we both shake hands and part. The girl leads me away through the crowd of people in the area and into a back door that had the phrase 'Enter into Virtuality' plastered on it. I go through and I am greeted by the sight of a white room with closed off cubicles with numbers written on them. The girl leads me to a cubicle on the right, which has the number '4' on it.

''The number denotes which participant you are,'' she says to me as she takes me into the cubicle. As I enter, I see a reclined chair beneath a black helmet-like contraption, with I surmise is where you put your head in so that you can enter the game.

''Please take a seat, sir,'' the girl orders me. I silently obey and head over to the seat to sit down.

''You will hear a voice which will command you when the game will start. The head controller will then come down automatically over your head and will cover your eyes. You may see a slight spark come over your eyes when this happens; but don't worry, it's all part of the game. You will then be introduced to the game's gate keeper, who will guide you to the first level, and will take you to each other level if you get through. If you need a break at any time, just shout 'Pause' and the game will be paused, at which point the head controller will come away and you will be free to come out of the cubicle. The cubicle is locked from the outside, but we will know when you are out of the game as your cubicle door will illuminate green. When you're inside, it illuminates red,'' the girl explains to me.

''Green for vacant, red for engaged, got it,'' I say to myself.

''Do you have any questions at this point, Mr Williams?'' the girl asks me.

''No, thank you,'' I reply.

''By the way, I need to take your phone. It's just so that you aren't disturbed by it if it rings or vibrates,'' she says to me.

''Oh, OK,'' I say as I go into my jacket pocket and hand over my phone. She leaves me and heads out of the cubicle, which locks the moment it is shut. I stay in silence for a few moments, contemplating when the game will start. I think I have to wait for the other cubicles to be filled. I can't hear anything outside so I wonder when others will come.

''Welcome to Phantasmagoria,'' a female voice suddenly says over my head. I guess it starts now. The head controller begins to descend down towards my head, and soon I am greeted with the sight of darkness. It becomes silent for a while more, and then I see a strange blue light flash in front of my eyes, making me blink long and hard. When I open my eyes, I'm in a different place.

I'm inside Phantasmagoria.

''Let's get ready to rumble,'' I say as I brace myself for impending unpredictability.

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