Rodney Tavistock felt compelled by the offer, no two ways about it.
There were simply no more exciting immersive reality platforms out there in the gamespace than the one that had wormed its way into his inbox with the sharpness of a bolt shot by a deranged Phrenologist into the side of an unsuspecting patient's violently-trepanned head.
The offer, in the first instance, seemed simple enough: you could become any major pathogenic disease. Become surely wasn’t right, he thought, catching himself fall prey to the knee-jerk sceptical questioning response so systemic of this age.
But no, they had it right. His eyes scanned further, looking quietly dumbfounded. You were rendered as a floating digital “interact”, seeing out from one of a million nanocams seeded throughout the general populace of the earth. The aim, novel, he thought, before remembering he’d seen something similar in a treasure hunt book as a child. The nanocam Intellibot had to return to sender or, in Rodney’s case, to him. Still, the subset game… that was infinitely more complex: you would work your way through as many people and population centres as possible, seeding unwilling victims with your particular strains of diseases, infecting along the way.
Terrifying, the feeling sat within his gut and made words a struggle, numbing the tip of his tongue inside his mouth. He was hooked: one quick digipay transact here, a few affirmatively ticked limited liability conditions there and before he could think encephalopathy he’d saddled up, entered his head-feed, greedily entranced in readiness for the multi-sensory foray.
Rodney, who had somewhere in a forgotten past been known to leave his apartment from time to time, dived into Pathogen-X with abandon, losing sense-time roundabout three months in. The benefits of his medical condition lay in being amicably funded and fed by the state for at least six months before the deskbound food dispenser ran dry, the poop-chute macerator packed in and his monthly stipend soon followed by electricity got cut.
He was among the most serious of gamers and felt he must weather this risk for the chance at reshaping game history. He would return to the only sender that mattered: himself. Moreover, he would be the first.
His interaction unit sat at his studio apartment’s centre like a beached, craggy island of calmness at the heart of a rapidly rising sea of volatile organic matter and rubble. The apartment might have once passed for living space. Now… he started to notice his own smell, along with an inability to articulate the lower extremities, four and a half months in.
As every good multi-interactionist knew, you weren’t worth salt unless you could game as a panoply of semi-simultaneous virtual entities. If you weren’t serious why else would a person assimilate with their chair?
In the AM he was AIDS, attaching himself to sexually prolific philanderers of all ages, sizes and genders, as well as intravenous users who thought they had dreamt the subtle whirr the nano cams made while attaching themselves to their needles and coagulating syringe-wounds.
Afternoons were devoted to highly viral, esoteric viruses like Zika and Ebola, but no-one could be expected to wait for microcephaly mutations to manifest nor spend any serious length of time watching people bleed from beneath the skin. Evenings belonged to avian and pig influenzas and these were the most fun of all. Oftentimes, the imaged overlays of symptoms were so realistic that Rodney furtively wondered if these were actual diseases, carried by the nano floaters. The prospect he might have wound up taking part in an international human culling programme disguised as a game was too shudder-inducing a plausibility to calmly withstand.
When his ticket came up trumps on some long spread bets he’d placed aeons ago, he knew he’d bought himself a further six months of gaming. All seemed well with the world.
Things took a turn when he realised the game mirrored his own condition. Gamer Syndrome, or rather Gamer Sclerosis, a title whispered by those in the medical profession that gave it just enough credence to be considered an epidemic by mental health departments, affected the hands first, followed by the rest of a gamer’s inactive muscle areas, both internationally and across every state.
Gamer Syndrome sufferers were mentally palsied by their physical inability to do anything but game, exclusively using their minds, without suffering a kind of toxic physical and perception shock due to doing anything else. Critics warned gaming stopped being an appropriate term when it ceased to be fun and more accurately mirrored the circular nightmare of a junkie’s pains. In Rodney’s mind, his was a disease for which he was secretly fearful there might one day be a cure. He was under no illusion that his love of games was anything but potentially fatal.
A prolific and talented player, Rodney felt a sense of pride and elation when he neared and arrived through the vent shaft to sit staring back at himself through the nanocam Intellibot perched near-microscopically at the edge of his desk.
The calls would follow, magazines and gamers worldwide wanting to congratulate and bask with him in the glow of his audacious win. He had done it, the first to arrive at its end user.
He removed his head-feed and withstood the pain of manually raising and taking a thirsty sip from the real, bottled beer he’d set aside for this very occasion. Imbibing slowly, he didn’t notice as the floater’s autopilot sent it up and into his nasal passage. All he felt was a sudden awkward itch.
It wasn’t long before he started to cough. He dropped the beer as all but ocular articulation failed. Rodney gagged, incapable of raising his hands to see himself in the prismatic memory disc he typically used as a mirror. Had he been able, he would have seen what he had become: bulbous, discoloured and dourly blinking through spider vein beset eyes, Rodney was now a rotting skeleton of the gamer he’d once been. Even if only for a brief moment.
Meanwhile, in a small gaming cafe under broken streets in a poverty stricken town above her head, the player that hijacked Rodney’s nanocam floater watched with a smile as her name rose above his on the digitised leader board.
She watched with a detachment that bordered on meditative, utterly impressed by the digitally artisanal overlay that showed this corpulent man’s bloody, detritus-covered chest becoming even more covered, by the slump springing forth from a mouth seemingly incapable of anything but hopelessly blubbering into the unknown.