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LifeGames Corporation

By Michael Smorenburg All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Thriller

Blurb

Ad-agency boss Catherine Kaplan is a danger junkie. Bold and brave, she’s cornered the juiciest prize in the global arena, a LifeGames Corporation contract. But now it’s time to pay the price—a dare to cross the forbidden line. There’s a deal sweetener—give a little… and enjoy some intriguing secrets. The first… Artificial Intelligence runs the LifeGames operation. Key to the success is an automated hypnosis sequence that suppresses each subject’s mind, convincing them that the immersive Virtual Reality crisis they’re about to experience is reality. The training technique has been fabulously profitable, allowing company founder Kenneth Torrington to indulge his every perverse fantasy. Governments, militaries and business are so reliant on LifeGames that it is said to control mankind’s future. Yet, nobody has realized—a door has opened and a character of unfathomable capacity and unknown motives is looking back, pondering the next move.

Chapter 1

“I’m God...”

The man’s voice is soulless and matter of fact, the green murk before him a meandering network of tracks through scrubland. Telemetry data and a compass ticker scroll with leisurely precision.

“...I’m all-seeing, I’m Jehovah hovering above. My lightning bolts reach out and touch the wicked.”

The camera tracking the night below drifts onto a deserted rural village. Half a dozen phantoms busy themselves around a pickup as it falls squarely into the cross hairs. The scurrying figures are ethereal, pale green spooks on a hurried mission hefting loads into the vehicle.

“They make bad choices. Bad choices makes my good choices easier.”

The almighty sounds a bit Southern.

“This God business…” He pauses unhurriedly. “It has consequences all round. First rule; don’t think too much, let them make the decisions… make them responsible for my actions.”

Threadbare lightning bolts streak away, fairy lights of death diving toward the green unfortunates. The vehicle has swallowed four of them; six have become two and then the two evaporate into the vehicle just as the tracers stitch the ground toward it.

BOOOOM!

The night vision blows for an instant to white light.

“Go with God.” His intonation is matter of fact, ”Allahu Akbar... straight to hell.”

It’s eerily silent as the burning flotsam of the explosion rains to stillness.

Moments later startled greens come pouring out of the houses, scattering or running toward their dead.

“What a peculiar Top Gun I am... delivering justice from half a world away. I hang up the headphones and grab milk and a Big Mac on the way home.”

The view widens... retracting, pulling back from the action.

God’s a bald guy.

The screen with the dead ghosts still alive beyond his silhouette.

“The right choices take training,” he rambles.

The camera pulls back further still, revealing a man topped by a virtual-reality helmet—it’s been a simulation; the man only imagining he’s playing God in a make believe situation.

“…You can relax now… sleep…!”

The man obeys the hypnotic instruction and slumps to unconsciousness, hanging crucified in a gyroscope.

The movie fades to blackness with white writing; an android female voice reading the words, “…The Raw Power of LifeGames Corporation...”

She sounds hollow and timeless.

“…Your Future... safe in our hands.”

     *****

Lights in the boardroom rise warmly to life, the curtains role back and daylight streams in.

The android’s words are still paused across the wall monitor.


“That’s the cripple’s work?” Ken sounded unimpressed.

A shard of ice plunged through Catherine, the provocation twisting her gut.

“Yes Ken, Mark led the team…” She parried him with all the restraint she could muster.

This relentless game of taunts with smiles was never ending. Kenneth Torrington always controlled his environment with contempt and charm.

“…I’d really appreciate keeping with the review,” Catherine urged. It was all the rebuke she dared venture.

“I’m not saying it’s bad, Cath, I just don’t see how you can work with such a freak show, they sicken me. If they’re not faggots they’re rolling obese or wrapped in tattoos. Don’t you creative types come in any flavour but weird? It’s depressing...” He huffed, “…Somehow you’re alright though.”

As always, this session of creative review was degenerating into another grueling ordeal; a grinding tribulation played out at the whim and tempo of the boss-man. She pressed her hands to the desk till the colour drained from their margins, physically restraining her shudder of fury. She would not rise to the bait. There were good reasons for taking on the many who nobody else would employ; they repaid her belief in them with results that no competitor could match.

“I’m glad you at least approve of the work...” she said it with as steady a voice and gaze as she could find. “Shall we move on to the next?”

Ken eyed her with an engaging smile, one crafted to melt an unaccustomed stranger. Without breaking eye contact, he dabbed the intercom button on the conference table, “Nance, before you leave, a coffee for me and one for Catherine; she’s got a long evening ahead.”

As the confirmation reply began, he cut the connection.

Catherine tried but couldn’t hold his gaze. “Thanks,” she offered and looked down. When she looked back he was dabbing at his pad.

She waited patiently, the uncomfortable noise of silence stretching time. Determined to roll with Ken’s punches, she pushed the awkwardness aside, silently repeating her drilled pledge to avoid snapping at the lures of goading he tossed her way, laced as they were with devilish charm.

Catherine Kaplan’s presentation represented her team’s best efforts; these video clips and her team at Kaplan Advertising & PR, were world-class, nothing he could say would diminish that fact. It wasn’t her first choice, but he’d insisted on shock and gore and she’d delivered.

Months of exposure to his manipulation had taught her to stay a step ahead of Ken’s maneuvering. “A greedy man,” she thought, “so competent at humiliation.”

Finally Ken placed the pad aside then slowly reclined his chair, deliberately making a show of gently touching thumbs and fingers together before his face; his index fingertips tapping out the rhythm of a cat’s tail before it pounces. It was his standard pose that always preceded a monologue; “From what we’ve covered, I give you points for effort. It’s reasonable stuff...”

He paused, nodding, agreeing with a thought in his own head, and then he smiled ingratiatingly in a most unsettling way.

“…You see, I’m always right in the long run. Always... But I give you some credit, you take criticism well... it spurs you, you need it—kids always do. You produce when I push you hard enough.” He paused a moment and declared what she’d not expected, “Good thing I didn’t drop you the end of last quarter.”

Again he initiated an uncomfortable and challenging stare-down, contemplating his own wisdom as he tapped at his pouting lips with the married index fingers, the other fingers now laced together.

“I was on the chopping block last quarter?” Catherine attempted a polite smile and suppressed shuffling her feet, but the smile hung at the awkward angle of an unloved painting. Ken didn’t acknowledge the question, rendering it rhetoric. He just sat, comfortable and powerful in the charged silence. “Run it again or move on?” she offered again, hoping to propel the conversation out of the quicksand of Ken’s mind-games.

Ignoring the question, Ken studied her intently. His fingers unmarried and began tapping once more to the slow feline rhythm, and then they stopped and he looked hard at her, square in the face; I know exactly what you’re thinking, honey.” His forefinger and thumb began to smooth a non-existent moustache. “I’m a difficult son-of-a-bitch. But put yourself in my shoes,” a moment of dramatic pause; “…I’m only interested in dealing with adults, you see... with...” he searched for the word, “...professionals. But here...” he indicated the screen, frozen on pause. “We can see the results... I eventually get acceptable work.”

Catherine was silent, waiting for him to finish.

Ken remained silent too—allowing for the thought to resonate. “…People don’t understand me, Cath,” he suggested in contemplation, seeming suddenly bipolar in his warmth. “I don’t intend to be a tyrant, I’m pushed to it.” He huffed the sigh of a tired man, then suddenly snatched the pad up and began poking at it as he spoke, “You stick with me young Catherine... Stick with me and I’ll make something out of you and your little company.”

“Just glad you approve, Ken,” Catherine gagged on the involuntary response that spilled from her mouth. “The last three reviews he said the same thing,” she silently consoled herself as the lava of insult for ‘little company’ boiled within. She hesitated a moment, collected her composure like tattered rags, and when she felt she’d given him enough of her expensive time, volunteered once more to press the meeting ahead, “Run the spot again or move on?”

Ken declined to acknowledge Catherine’s question as he persisted with the distraction in his hands. She sat silently, waiting.

While she waited, Catherine’s thoughts detached and a frigid trickle of memories seeped within, Ken’s snide abuses triggering emotions that cartwheeled her back through time. For long moments she slid deep into the morass of nearly forgotten territory—an archive of pain suffered at the hands of an estranged father, a charmer who’d so closely resembled this arrogant man.

Ken flicked leisurely back and forth across his screen, occasionally dabbing at it while conducting two brief monosyllabic personal calls when his mobile buzzed.

As the moments labored by, an agonizing procession of submission to the whim of this anchor client, Catherine reeled her thoughts back to the present. She began to contemplate the months of grind that had transported her to this moment. Bruised by Ken’s affront, she took refuge in assessing how professionally she’d overridden so many instincts to turn the contract down time and again. But this was undoubtedly her desperately needed break into the big-time of the industry.

In spite of her instincts she’d stuck it out and miraculously held her ground against the biggest competitor names around the globe. It had been a coup that bore testimony to work that was fast becoming legendary for its creativity and attention to detail. Half a year of groveling had brought her from that day of signing the contract to this, a review of the finished product—twenty-three weeks of endless re-edits. “But worth it?” She now thought, “Christ, yes! Contracts like this seed empires.”

“Run it again,” Ken ordered the answer to Catherine’s question asked many minutes before, and it tugged her from the daydream.

Immediately the monitor responded to the dab of Catherine’s finger and the sequence replayed through and ended.

“Again?” Catherine queried.

“Again,” Ken insisted.

For forty minutes Ken demanded that the same thirty-second slot be relentlessly repeated, occasionally querying something, taking a note or making a call. Catherine knew all too well that Kenneth Torrington was a stickler for perfection, an obsession driving the man on his maniacal quest to find criticism. But, try as he might, during the rest of the session he could find little room to gripe with any of Catherine’s several commercial masterpieces that all screamed the same message; “benefits to mankind through the best training technology can offer.”

The review was endless, but the view out of the Board Room window was magnificent. Having weathered Ken’s initial thrusts and having shown him her firm but accommodating stance, Ken had moderated his attitude. He dropped the sparring and was now focusing entirely on results and outcomes. Catherine was having an easier time of it.

He broke from review to take more calls and she entertained herself, soaking in the vista of meadows draped around the private lake on the outskirts of the city where Ken had erected this, the headquarter of his empire. Though the meeting had been set for midday, she’d canceled all appointments into the evening; fully anticipating that the constant and endless interruptions that always swarmed around the man would stretch the review till the black of night, and so it was proving to be.

Catherine maintained a resigned temperament until the sun pulled its final rays over the lip of the horizon and twilight set in. At this point, even her Job-like patience could endure no more. “Satisfied?” she ventured at the conclusion of another run-through of the last video-slot. Even after so many hours of grind she maintained a flat tone that divulged no hint of the irritation seething within.

“A few more runs before we call it a day.” Predictably, Ken had found it necessary to entrench his authority, prolonging the moment.

Ten minutes later, his appetite satiated, Ken closed proceedings “Not bad, Cath. Overall; a pretty good effort.”

Catherine was astonished. For Kenneth Torrington, ‘pretty good effort’ meant giving a piece of himself, and she reckoned he must have heard his own voice speak the words before he could bite them back. Her eyes glinted with triumph and she cocked a brow, “High praise indeed,” she crooned with practiced effort, her expression stoic but her tone spiced with a hint of all the sarcasm she dared.

As the hours had tumbled by, Catherine noted how Ken’s personality would alter. “Now calm and complementary, then ranting on the intercom or into the phone like a maniac. Now rational and calculating, then passionate and fixating on some apparently immaterial detail.”

During the multiple interruptions of conference calls and intrusions she’d had ample time to consider the turbulent eddies of Ken’s character as he careened through a morass of confrontations. She’d noted how his frequent sorties to the restroom had invariably brought on a mood swing.

It’s a nasty habit,” she’d privately thought. Catherine was sufficiently streetwise to have a reasonable idea where Ken’s vice lay—it was an old story she’d seen many times before—designer narcotics fueled so many in the highest executive echelons.

It was clear he could barely cope otherwise. Ken piled his plate impossibly high with commitments and stress. That fact stirred an uneasy empathy within her for his interminably objectionable character, a primitive and irresistible admiration for the hunter who brings in the kill. Try as she might, the enigma Ken presented choked her ability to reject this master of men.

No matter how much she felt she should hate this man, she could do little but admire his legacy: In less than a decade Kenneth Torrington had grown the LifeGames Corporation from concept to knocking on the door of being a Trillion Dollar gargantuan. Even now, surrounded by a team of executives with the keenest minds money could buy, Ken remained distrusting of delegation stubbornly clinging by only the most slender of autocratic threads to dominate every facet of management.

“How to sum the man up?” Catherine had often pondered. “Obsessive...? Sure. Megalomaniac…? Psychopath? Definitely! Like he’s possessed.”

While Catherine shuffled her belongings into her bag, Ken launched into another round of phone discussions with someone buried somewhere in the depths of the monolithic building. She waited patiently for him to finish before making obvious gestures to leave.

His questions answered by the voice beyond the line, Ken truncated the conversation with a grunt as he turned his attentions back to Catherine, “Let’s call it a day,” he instructed, then offered a consolation to a tedious afternoon, “Stick around and I’ll buy you dinner?” He was suddenly charm and roses.

“Thanks... I’ve got plans.”

“They just changed…” he assured her.

She checked her watch.

“…I’ve made a booking already,” he disclosed with an incline to his head that left her no doubt that they’d be dining together.

There was no real way to refuse the man, so she did the best she could to make a show of it; “Hmmm... not sure, I’d make a call but my battery’s dead.”

Ken held the door open, “Use Nancy’s line.”

As they moved through the deserted corridors of the administration block, Catherine wrestled with the prospect of spending more time in Ken’s company than duty required. Better instinct urged her to refuse the offer, yet and equally, there were many questions she desperately wanted answers for and dinner seemed the ideal forum to conduct an excavation of truth.

Since Ken ran LifeGames on a strictly need-to-know basis, details of the company were deeply opaque. The door to understanding its operations and technologies had only been opened a sliver, a barely sufficient overview of intricacies that forced Catherine to interpret much of what she’d produced, and then weather Ken’s abuse and castigation for errors she’d inevitably make. With a barely sufficient grounding to get her job done, through the months she’d become intrigued, eaten by curiosity to understand what truly lay at the heart of this tightly guarded, still private, empire.

As they walked, as if to goad her interests, from several floors deep below their feet came the vibrations of life and the tremble of heavy machinery. Catherine knew she could not resist, silently she had already accepted the date regardless of the sham telephone call she would make.

They entered Ken’s private wing and Catherine stopped at Nancy’s desk where she rode one cheek of her pencil-skirted rump onto the corner, leant over and scooped up Nancy’s receiver. Ken walked on alone then stopped to flip through a clipboard hanging on a hook. It was an uncharacteristically clumsy maneuver, but he milked it enough to gather the first part of Catherine’s conversation before he walked on into his adjoining office: “Hi Jacks, I’m going to be in late, hope the flight went well—Love ya, sweetie.”

A resonating quality from the excerpt of Catherine’s voice piqued Ken’s curiosity, but he drove the thought away as he swung in behind the mahogany desk, braced and ready for action.

Back at Nancy’s desk, Catherine replaced the handset but delayed making her way into Ken’s office—he sounded demented, tearing through three abrupt telephone conversations in quick succession. Something was up and it sounded big, it sounded big and bad. She tried to tune-in but her mind kept drifting and sifting through the events of the afternoon: She recalled with inward embarrassment the unfamiliar feelings of lust that had knotted in the base of her gut as she had watched the sun’s shadows creeping across the floor bringing on inevitable dusk. She remembered now knowing, as only a woman can with a man like this, that this dinner invitation would be inevitable tonight. And, strangely, she’d decided that perhaps the interruptions that had drawn the meeting out were fateful.

But, as Ken’s voice ebbed and flowed in the other office, she had time to delve deeper. Catherine found her feelings of sexuality toward this man both repulsive and titillating. But try as she might to divorce from a lust she could not fathom, it remained there, ugly and lurking in the shadows of her mind, attached by a primitive umbilical cord to a past she’d never managed to uncover. Intellectually, she grasped well enough how her father, a man so similar yet only a waif of this monster, had snared her with his noxious charm, opening the floodgates of her emotions to the string of lovers who’d possessed that same ability to manipulate; yet emotionally she remained powerless to resist the fierce who prowl, seeking willing participants in their game of persecutor-and-victim.

Catherine turned her thoughts about Ken over in her mind, trying to uncover the foundations of electricity that sparked and danced between them. With this knowledge she hoped she might free herself of his unwanted spell. Though brusque and rude, she could not deny; Ken could be fired with rare charm when the mood took him. But, admitting what came next to her mind felt like a personal-heresy to the point of revulsion—it horrified her that it was Ken who continually crashed into her fantasy world at night as she slept. The dreams of him, potent and real, had begun the moment they had first met and the specter of all he represented had gripped her.

For so many years no male had spontaneously appeared on the stage of her mind, yet somehow, this one had slipped through and it plagued her.

As though someone had walked over her grave, Catherine felt a cold shudder rack her body. Alone in the deserted office wing she began to feel vulnerable, as if eyes were leering, prying into her soul and gloating on her every lurid thought. It seemed suddenly cold and forbidding in the room alone.

She slipped off the desk and made her way toward the ranting that emanated from Ken’s lair.

Catherine settled into a sofa arranged around the low-slung coffee table off to one side of the expansive office. With her back to the corner, tranquility returned and she resumed mulling the events of the day and her thoughts of Ken.

Just then Ken hung up, “I’ll be another while,” he warned. “Strife in the Korea division,” he grimaced theatrically, “grab yourself more coffee or a drink, and make me a Chivas on the rocks.”

He had instructed Catherine with such an ease of instruction that she was halfway to the liquor-cabinet before she could consider the impertinence in his order. She poured two whiskeys and turned to see wildfire blazing in Ken’s eyes as he began a harangue into the phone in a language that sounded like bad Italian.

After receiving no acknowledgment for her efforts, Catherine swished across the room and sprawled in the leather lounge suite. Mirroring to Ken his lack of acknowledgement for her presence, she began leafing through the coffee-table books as she sipped the astringent honey-colored spirit.

She worked carefully to cultivate an air of disinterest to Ken’s presence and conversation, yet in truth she remained finely tuned to his every nuance, gleaning whatever she could from the stream of visual cues that punctuated the flow of communication.

Call after call were business matters; surveys, pricing structures, marketing matters, and details of technical jargon far beyond her knowledge or interest; all batted out with commanding eloquence; often switching through an impressive range of foreign tongues.

Then came a call in English, and Ken’s demeanor became guarded, his tone hushed, his answers truncated. Chemicals seemed to featured heavily—technical terms and talk of polymer strings, peptides and the like. “No, more like Pharmaceuticals”, Catherine thought. “His dependence?”

She listened more carefully—the context seemed to definitely relate to the LifeGames operation.

Catherine reclined deeper into the luxurious embrace of the leather and sighed with an audible show of boredom, magnifying her sham disinterest in the hope that Ken might be lulled into speaking more freely. Her ploy proved wholly unsuccessful, Ken remained guarded to her presence; allowing her to snag only a few shards of seemingly unrelated details from the conversation flow—none of which made sense in isolation.

Catherine focused her attention on Ken’s jerky hand-movements as they fidgeted, uncharacteristically rattled; the down-lighters glinted off his forehead, prickled as it was with a fine rash of adrenaline sweat. Before she could gather more information, Ken abruptly ended his conversation.

“Ready?” he shot Catherine a smile that could not have been more dissonant to his mood an instant earlier. His disposition flipped to charm, a boyish mischief twinkled in his eye.

On instinct, Catherine beamed Ken a wide smile, “Guess so,” she replied, then she cursed herself for so readily snapping at every consolation tidbit he casually tossed her way.

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