Lifeline

Have you ever heard of Plato’s cave? No? Okay, here’s the gist: Imagine there is a group of people chained to a wall in a cave. Their entire lives, they sit and stare at the blank wall opposite them. Shadows dance and twirl on the wall of the cave, the prisoners grow attached to these shadows. They name them, give them stories and backgrounds. To the prisoners, this is reality. This is not entertainment or some sick form of torture, no, this is the nature of “real life.” Now imagine that you are the person behind the prisoners, out of their sight, sitting next to the fire that helps you create the shadows that make up their reality.

Turns out, that’s what death is like. When I died—how I died isn’t important—and “woke up” in the afterlife, I was given an introductory speech by a man in a lab coat. He told me that I had died, that I was now in the afterlife, and that things would feel more or less like they felt when I was alive. After I was allowed some time to accept my new reality, I was led by a woman dressed in a suit to what looked like a huge internet cafe. Rows and rows of computers all lined up across from each other. Each one had a person in front of it, each person looking like a stereotypical gamer; headphones, empty soda cans, zombie stares and all. She told me to take a seat and went through a routine that she had clearly been doing for eons.

“This is Lifeline. You will be assigned an avatar, a random seed, and you ‘relive’ another life. The game mechanics work the same way they would in any RPG with a morality meter. Do good things and you advance in the paragon category, do bad things and you advance in the demon category. If your character dies before you are able to reach the level of Nirvana, your memories will be reset and you will wake up here again. You will believe that you have only ever lived the life you just left, or at least, you won’t have any memories of playing this game before.” She stood up and looked down at me, clearly anticipating some questions.

As much as I didn’t want to play along with all of this, I couldn’t help myself. “Weird…how many times have I played?”

She typed some words on the keyboard in front of me and a screen popped up relating my stats.

“101 times. You have a karmic score of 1,432 out of 50,000. You are in the 50th percentile of beings who have been playing. That’s not an awful score, but you do have some ground to make up after the life you just left. In that iteration alone, you scored negative 535 points. You were relatively neutral for a while, but around your early twenties, things started going downhill fast.”

I thought back on my old life. It was true, I had taken advantage of my ex-fiancee, driven around drunk more times than I ever wanted to admit, harbored a deep hatred for a lot of people, and took advantage of others. Even knowing these things at the time, I never took the time to change what I was doing. In fact, I made it somewhat of a calling card. I was the bad guy…’duh.’ Oh yeah, and I was an unashamed, self-proclaimed meme lord. That probably didn’t help me…

I knew that I had been blankly staring at the screen for far too long, so I shook myself out of my introspection and tried to mitigate the awkwardness by saying, “Wow, so this thing tracks everything that I do with my new avatar?”

“That is correct. Everything that you do has a positive or negative effect on the universe. On all of creation. Everything also has a score. Each point will affect your prospects in your next life and will leave its mark on your soul.”

Well, if there was one thing that I was good at before I died, it was playing video games. Well, cheating at them, but it was the same thing, right?

“So…do people cheat at this? Is that even possible?”

“Nothing is ever impossible, though this game has been running for untold ages without any glitches. There have been a handful of players who were so good, that many believe they were either cheating or are pure myth. Aside from that, you will have to find that out for yourself.” She looked at me with one eyebrow raised, obviously suspicious that I was intending on cheating. I mean, clearly I was going to cheat, but she didn’t need to accuse me of that right off the bat!

She appeared to drop the thought. Before she turned and left, she simply said, “Just don’t kill yourself in a hot dog eating contest like you did last time.” Ugh. She just had to bring that up, didn’t she?

I turned to the screen, still smoldering at the insult that the mysterious woman had given me. I hadn’t bothered to ask her name. Maybe I should change that about myself? Eh, that’s something to deal with later. Alright, so I’m supposed to play this thing huh? The screen was black with simple white text that said: “Press Start to Begin.”

I pressed start. The screen started to change. The words faded from the foreground and the screen took on some color. It came in blurry, fading in from the background of black that had been there before. I could hear muffled voices, see the vague outline of faces, and a whooole lot of white and blue fuzzy colors. All of this faded slightly into the background and some text appeared.

“Welcome to Lifeline you have been assigned the character of Libby Palmer. Female. No major defects. Life expectancy: normal. Your actions will all be accounted for and will apply to your overall score which will be shown in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. During key decisions in your life, you will be unable to distinguish between being the one in control, and the one being controlled. You will begin the game at the age of 5. Good luck, and remember, we are always watching.”

Well, that’s cool. Okay, let’s get on with this. It took me about seven years to really get control of mysel—er, Libby. Prior to that, her natural impulses controlled her actions, very little that I did had an effect up until we were 12. At that point, she had learned some self-control and mastered herself enough that we could really begin to experiment. One day, when I was playing the mini-games that pop up when Libby was sleeping, I found something….kinda odd.

These games had been growing in complexity every year that Libby was alive. At first, it consisted of colors and sounds; then there were GIANT floating Woody dolls; then some terrifying ghosts with human qualities. Libby never remembered what I had her do during these dreams (to me they play like mini-games), but I had noticed that when I placed her in just the right spot and had her focus as hard as I could on something recognizable—a staircase, a book, a specific person in the dream—I could give her the slightest little bit of control in the dream. When I say “control” I mean that she would recognize that it was a dream, and she would recognize her surroundings.

It wasn’t a full-blown lucid dream, but it was a start. My gut told me that there was something in the dream world that would give Libby an edge that she probably wasn’t supposed to have, so I kept at it. After the years of practice, on that fateful night, I found that Libby had achieved a real lucid dream. The odd part, though, was that she saw me. When she awoke inside the dream, she freaking saw me. Not as herself, not as a reflection, or as a spectator, she recognized me as her controller.

Libby and I had, apparently, found a glitch in the game. I don’t think that they intended her to have this level of consciousness, nor for her to be able to speak to me. This was going to change the game. I knew that I would find a way to cheat my way through this, and it looked like I had found it.

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