Hi everyone! First I just want to say that I really enjoyed writing and reviewing this story. I like writing all the stories I come out with but only occasionally enjoy reviewing them. It’s a part of the process and not a part I generally see as anything other than a necessity. Secondly, I’m not going to say much about this story other than it’s a little Matrix and Tron inspired. Though, to be honest I wasn’t thinking about either at the time. Funny really. Anyway, enough droning on from me. Time to get into the story. Hope you enjoy, Overcharge.

“You seriously must be joking?” Sanjiv exclaims with a look of disbelief carved into his round face. His mouth is agape before and after the words have passed his lips, while his arms are hanging down at his sides as if he has dislocated both shoulders. He hasn’t but shock has removed all thought of where he could or perhaps should position his limbs right now.

“No I’m not joking San. You know I’m not. Why would I be? Nine hours ago there were thirty Datastars. Now there are three, us three.” Warren signals to Sanjiv, himself and the other person present in the room, Dana. Afterwards he continues, “You know what that means. It’s up to us. We are the admins for the construct. If we fall the construct might to. We can’t let that happen especially when we don’t know who or what dispatched the other Datastars and how they managed it.”

“But come on man. This is such a bad idea. You know it. Or you should know it. Even you can’t be this reckless without being able to see the risks. Like you said, we don’t know what has done this. Whatever it is has to be in the construct. We should…” Sanjiv is arguing against Warren’s plan to enter the virtual world created for everyone so they might get a release from the pressures of the modern world.

Well, that was its original intent. In the century since its completion by Helena Tabar the construct, no it was never given any other name, has gone from being a novelty of light entertainment to a daily necessity of human interaction. Still, no one can spend all their time in the construct. Long term affects of doing so are well documented, mental deterioration. Put simply those who over commit to the construct end up going mad. There are a number of long since filed away cases so the exact the descent for those who suffered the deterioration is foggy to most of the Datastars who oversee the proper running and maintenance of its computational and virtual structure as they exist today.

 Regardless, the construct is limitless. The scenario’s capable of being plotted, planned or imagined are as vast as those who might wish to create them and are done so using the thoughts of those who inject themselves into its matrix. However, it would be inaccurate to say that since Helena created the virtual world embraced by mankind following a string of serious global viruses and reconciliations previously thought impossible; that the construct has not seen comprehensive re-works. Sadly, none of those prevented the untimely death of Doctor Tabar at the young age of thirty six.

Many like to imagine what might have been the constructs path had her life not been claimed in a vehicular collision of which she was an entirely innocent party. Her car having been wiped out due to an armoured truck which was being driven by a narcotic fuelled security company employee who their employer had given one final chance for her to get her life straight.

Following the death of Helena, the drug addicted driver, Martina Welty, was sentenced to nineteen years in prison. She never saw her time through. Instead, she took her life a few months into her sentence once the prison had got her clean and off drugs. The note left behind detailed how she could not live with the guilt she felt for having taken Helena Tabar’s life, regardless of it having been when she was in a drug addled state or not.

“We should what? Leave it to somebody else. Who are we going to leave it too?” Warren’s tone is adamant. He understands Sanjiv is afraid. He is too. He might not look it to his friend of eleven years but that is the reality. He doesn’t want to go into the construct and face whatever the hell has caused the deaths of all the other Datastars but the system is at a halt. That means anyone that was connected to the construct when this catastrophe struck is still in there. If they delay, waste time, chat, then those people might be the first in more than fifty years to suffer affects from overcharge. Overcharge being the name given to those who spent too long in the construct. Though, to be honest the term is generally used as a form of mocking against those who are still within, barely, acceptable limits of time investment.

Yet, for Datastars the original definition remains a part of their vernacular. After all, they are not like the users, the general populace who engage in the virtual world for business conversing or relaxation. No, they are rigorously trained and vetted individuals with a higher than average mental resilience. It’s why there are so few of them. It’s a specialisation and not one any Tom, Dick or Harriet can walk into.

“I…I don’t…” Sanjiv stumbles over his words. For the dark haired man who has surprisingly light coloured brown eyes that is quite unusual. In fact, Sanjiv’s eyes are so pale in colour that in certain lights could pass as hazel.

Ultimately, Sanjiv gives up whatever it was he planned to say. Instead, he shrugs defeated. Perhaps he thinks his intended statements would come across too harsh, unfeeling and cold, or perhaps he wasn’t settled on what he wanted to say. Regardless, Warren has him fixed with a stare from his ice cold blue eyes.

Dana, as yet, hasn’t said a word. That is pretty normal for her. The auburn haired woman who currently has it dyed a dark shade of blue often only speaks when she feels the need too. You can’t coax her into her offering opinions until she is ready to share them. Those that try, or have tried, are met with a blank couple second long stare following which she always shifts her gaze to a point somewhere in the middle distance.

Warren made the mistake of pushing her for an opinion once when they first met. It was back when he had first started down the route of becoming a Datastar. It’s why he hasn’t tried since and knows exactly what the reaction is. He doubts anything could have made him feel any more comfortable in the minutes after that mistake all those years ago.

You might be wondering as to why they’re called Datastars and not administrators, engineers or some other moniker more commonly held by people who work or have worked in and around technology. Well, the reason is that Datastars, as their name implies, oversee the constructs data but in addition they are stars and by that it is meant in the fame sense. Every one of them, like it or not, is renowned the world over. Thankfully, their fame is construct bound; as in the avatars they designed and use within the virtual world are heralded like kings and queens of many centuries since past. A more modern analogy would be the A-list actors of the twentieth and early twenty first century; before cinema died as a result of the construct. After all, there isn’t much call for pre-determined linear stories imagined by another’s mind that cannot be altered and only viewed externally when the construct allows for interaction with and creation of whatever your mind desires.

If you don’t have an imaginative bone in your body, then you load someone else’s creation and then alter, in whatever way you see fit, it so that you can experience whatever it is you wish or feel compelled to. There are no judgements rendered.

Mostly these pre-defined creations serve as backdrops for business confabs, negotiations and so forth. At the end of the day few PA’s have the time to construct something that would be to their bosses exacting tastes. That is especially true when these meetings are frequently scheduled with so little notice, a couple hours warning is typically the norm. That is both the beauty and the curse of the construct. Sure, it has revolutionised the way in which human’s interact with the ‘world’ around them and the people in it, but it’s also seriously reduced the ability to delay or defer interactions to better, more suited pre-determined points in time. All progress has its casualties.

“You know we have no choice San. We can’t leave those people in there. Hasn’t enough been lost already?” Warren’s tone is no longer adamant. It’s take on a remorseful note in place and with good reason.

Warren, unlike other Datastars has more emotion in his decision making. It’s why he was at first considered a non-starter for the programme. Only when he pursued and urged the professors to test him did it become apparent that while he was more emotional, heart of his sleeve kind of guy, he possessed a great deal more than the bare minimum mental resilience to become a Datastar. From that point on his position and path were set.

Sanjiv in response nods. His eyes are focused on a point between his black trainer wrapped feet while his tongue runs across the upper and lower caps of his teeth simultaneously. Sighs leave his mouth. He doesn’t like this. It sounds like suicide. He doesn’t think he can go in. He wishes he had the fearlessness of Warren but he doesn’t, and if this were anyone else he’d press his reasoning further. With Warren he knows it’s useless. The blue eyed man’s mind is made up. That is the downside of a man like his friend, who wilfully uses his emotions to galvanise his opinions because once he’s settled on something there is no way that anyone will ever deter him from his decision.

Sanjiv raises his head finally. He doesn’t look to Warren however. Rather, he looks to Dana. He needs her to chime in. Warren might not be able to be reasoned with directly but maybe he’ll still listen to his ex, Dana. Their time together may have been brief but Sanjiv hope it counts for something; she managed to sway him previously. It was rare but still it’s worth a try.

Dana is fully aware that she is caught between the two of them. She doesn’t like it but they are all that is left. Still, they can’t all leap into the construct, at least not right away. That is if they are capable of gaining access in the first place. The virtual world is on lockdown. No one has been, from what she’s reviewed of the data logs, permitted departure or admittance, bar the last Datastars who got in quite mysteriously. So there is a good chance they won’t be breaking in. The construct is far too resilient, security wise, for that. If it weren’t it would’ve been exploited and corrupted a billion times over. After all, there is nothing on Earth that holds more data than the construct. People thought tech companies used to know everything about a person, but they only ever had access to a fraction of the data the construct holds. At the end of the day those tech companies had search and purchase data. The construct, it has data on the thoughts, creations and narratives of every person on the planet, all twelve billion of them. Imagine that. Scary isn’t it? It would be if the construct were the property of any one individual, corporation or national government. Thankfully, it isn’t. Doctor Tabar gave the construct to the world and its people. The data held within is accessible only to the construct itself. Not even the Datastars can get access. They simply oversee the running of the code that governs the virtual world. Yes, there is a difference. No, they couldn’t alter it to give themselves access. Doctor Tabar made sure of that too.

She was more brilliant than any mind that came before or has come since. There’s a chance no one will ever be on the same level as she was. If there ever is it could be a long time until that happens but only time will tell.

“We don’t know what’s in there. Diving in would be reckless. Especially, as we’re the only three Datastars left.” Dana sees Warren go to interject and with a slow shake of her head cuts him off. He gets as far as opening his mouth. No sound has come out, but if it had it would not have stopped her from continuing like she does.

“However, Warren is right. We can’t leave those people in there. Some are fast approaching the limit. If we do nothing and leave them in there, they will suffer psychotic episodes. We can’t have that. Plus, we need to know how this has happened. Is it malicious code? Foreign or due to something we missed. This is our responsibility. We cannot shirk it.” This time Sanjiv goes to speak. His tell is more obvious, a raised hand with an extended index finger. Dana offers no pause but does give him a look that informs she is not finished speaking yet.

“But Sanjiv is right. We don’t know what’s responsible. We can’t afford to go in without knowing more. And yes Warren I know the only way we can know is by going in. I agree. But you should ask yourself why the other Datastars were permitted access when everyone else before and since has been locked out.” Dana finishes with a consideration. It’s food for thought. Whether already contemplated or not. Very on brand for the woman whose green eyes flit between the two men in the room with her.

They’re stood in the shared accommodation that they elected to purchase several years ago. The pooling of resources wasn’t done because of a lack of capital. Datastars are swimming in money. No, it was done for other reasons, mainly professional. After all, being a Datastar can be lonely. At least it can when you are in the real world and not the virtual one, and on top of that you have to consider that no Datastar wants their real life plagued with fame. Virtual renown is more than enough for anyone to want to have to handle. Though, popular belief among the general populace is that they would never keep to such a private life if they were Datastars. Yet, everyone who has ever become one has kept their two lives segregated. Funny how often the reality of something alters your perceived beliefs, isn’t it?

“So what are you saying Dana?” Sanjiv asks. His voice breaks the silence that has hung in the air around and between them for several minutes. If they were not so closely bonded and used to one another the silence might have been awkward.

“I’m going in alone.” Warren offers out of left field. Sanjiv’s jaw drops, fully, leaving his mouth hanging agape. It gives Warren and Dana a good view of the state of his teeth as well as his tongue and tonsils.

He doesn’t know where that sudden declaration has come from which is why he cannot believe the words out of his friends mouth. He knew Warren wanted to go in, but alone sounds like madness, pure and simple. After all, the construct could be in any state. So if things are as dire as they seem it is doubtful one will be enough. It’s like Warren has forgotten that almost twenty went in after this disaster first began and that none of them have been heard from since. On top of that, those that were already in when this occurred seem to have disappeared. There was no answer from them. Hence why this trio believe thirty souls in all have been lost. Warren, Dana and Sanjiv cannot confirm beyond doubt that they are all dead though. However, there seems to be no other explanation they can give. The thirty certainly are not in the physical world as the construct is showing no exits from the system, and yet what little the trio can gleam from the construct is that they are not present in the simulation anymore either. In simple terms that should mean that they’re brain dead. It’s not supposed to be possible when someone uploads their mind into the simulation. Not with the safety measures, all of which continue to show they are active, but that is what the data they can claw out of the walled and locked down virtual world is showing. They checked not once or twice but six times, each!

The trio were in shock when they finally accepted what they had discovered. They still are honestly. But right now there isn’t time to mourn. That will come later. If there is a later, that is. They might not wish to admit it, but there is a chance this cannot be fixed. If Doctor Tabar were here then yeah the construct would likely be salvageable, but she is long dead. No one, not even the Datastars, know the construct as well as she did. She was the creator after all, and though there have been comprehensive updates and enhancements the system remains fundamentally the same at its core. For the most part the updates have been to strengthen what already had been built and expand data stores.

“Ren, is that a good…” Dana begins only to trail off when she realises she has used her nickname for Warren. She is the only one who has ever called him that and since they broke up hasn’t uttered that name even once, until now. At any other time Warren would feel… He doesn’t know. He can’t think about it at the moment. The people in the construct have to be his concern not his personal relationships. After all, they are the ones who need to be saved, if it’s possible. He is fully aware that it might not be and that him declaring he is going in could bring about his demise. The blue eyed man should be terrified but isn’t. Not to the degree he would’ve expected anyway. If he was to dig down just a little his terror would be unleashed. It’s why he hasn’t. Not the time or place he keeps reciting over and over in his head to keep himself where he feels he needs to be.

Before long his blue eyes flick from Dana to Sanjiv and then back to Dana. Whichever one of his friends speaks next, because he knows what they’ll say regardless of which it is, he’ll shoot them down. They have to know that. This isn’t up for discussion. They both need to accept his decision so that they can move forward. Because the longer they delay the worse things will get.

Warren isn’t doing this to be a hero. This is his job. The reason he exists is to protect the users and right now, they are not safe. He’s failed in his duty. All Datastars have and yet how this has come to pass he cannot fathom.

Quickly he becomes cognisant that his mind is running in circles. Retreading ground it has previously covered on the sole matter in his head. He tells himself it’s delaying tactics while he waits but isn’t convinced.

Finally, Warren comes to the conclusion that neither Sanjiv nor Dana knows what to say and so with time being of the essence he breaks the awkward uneasy quiet.

“I know neither of you like this. I don’t either, but…” Warren pauses. He isn’t sure why he does, only that it feels right too. His mind wanders and he considers that in many ways the physical world no longer feels like the one he should be in. Is that why me and Dana…? He trails off, breaking himself from his thoughts. Right after he turns his focus back to what he was going to say. “…I need to get in there. Just me. We can’t risk all of us. That why if I get trapped there are still people left on the outside. We cannot leave the world without Datastars. If…” Warren doesn’t want to say what he intends to next but knows it needs to be said. Still, he pauses. He feels a catch in his throat. He struggles to get past it. It takes several attempts to bypass and is only conquered when he swallows hard.

“…if I can’t fix it and don’t come back. The world is going to need you two, and you’re both better at the real world side of this life than I am. That makes me the perfect candidate; the expendable amongst the nonexpendable.” Warren shrugs and forces a smile. Dana hates it when Warren talks as if he isn’t the most gifted Datastar she has ever met. He is. None of them come close to him. At least none that she has ever met; and she’s met a fair few current and former. Still, she can’t argue that Warren is the best person for the job. Just not the reasons he’s insisted on giving. Doesn’t make it any less of a risk or change the fact that she hates the idea for more reasons than she feels willing to get into.

“Warren, man, you don’t…” Sanjiv begins but doesn’t get to finish. Warren waves him off. At one time Dana and Sanjiv would not have been so close to tears if this situation were to have taken place. The fact they are is a clear indication of the effect Warren has had on them over the years they have known one another. Simply by proximity they have become more like him, more in tune with their emotions.

Sanjiv thinks about how he doesn’t want to see another body wither away. He had to watch his brother face that particular fate. That wasn’t a result of the construct however. That was cancer. The outcome is the same though. The body cannibalises itself to maintain its core functions. If not for the virtual world Sanjiv’s brother, Ira, wouldn’t have gotten to live at all. Instead, he would’ve been in constant agony, trapped in a body that wasn’t fit for purpose, dying slowly. Still, the virtual world had made it no easier to say goodbye or visit the hospice so he could spend time with Ira in the private instances of the construct.

Private instances are offshoots of the core virtual world which can only been accessed locally instead of across the entire network that forms the backbone of the construct. Private instances are used exclusively for sensitive matters such as hospice/hospital visits and police interviews. At one time there was talk of making prisoners serve their sentences in the artificial world, but due to the risks of mental deterioration on what are commonly already mentally fragile minds it was deemed unethical, cruel and potentially dangerous. As such criminals continue to serve their prison time in small cells under heavy guard by predominantly computerised security systems that are remotely located, operated and maintained. That means even if there is a prison break the security system cannot be circumvented or corrupted to serve the whims and wills of the convicts housed within the structures which are hundreds of miles from land on platforms, akin to oil rigs from around the turn of the millennium.

With the decision made and about all the words spoken that any of them feel able to, preparations are made to send Warren into the virtual world. First, he gets settled into one of the reclined chairs he, Dana and Sanjiv always use. The three seats are arranged in a three pointed star shape. His head is at the centre of the star. Dana affixes monitoring pads to both of the man’s temples and then gazes at him wishing she had the words to tell him how she feels. She doesn’t, he’s unaware and that might be for the best.

His blue eyes are closed. He’s preparing his mind. All Datastars have to do so prior to injection. Users don’t but Datastars are quite different. They feel pain when they enter, users do not. Something to do with the integration into the system, its network and software is what Warren was told within the first couple hours of joining the programme. In Warren’s vernacular the pain is the price you pay for access rights. The more rights you have the more pain you have to deal with on insertion. It’s fleeting, at least in terms of duration, but boy does it feel as if you’ve been set aflame to begin with. Or at least how Warren expects it would feel to be burned at the stake. Obviously he has never experienced such a thing. Barbaric kind of torture, execution, whatever. His skin crawls in response to the thoughts which results in a query of, “You ok Warren?” from Sanjiv.

“Yeah.” Is the succinct reply that Warren delivers only to return to his mental preparations. He knows the pain he’ll feel. How it will affect him. It affects every Datastar. Though each of them experience something different and he hasn’t a clue as to why that is. He does not consider it or anything else. Now is not the time. He must put thoughts of places and people out of his head. His focus must be on where he will be going, what he will be feeling. The only reason thoughts entered his head and because he’s afraid.

If he didn’t do this then he would be unable to integrate into the simulation without… issues. The effects of such issues are seldom these days, little more than a few days of a pounding head, maybe dizziness and a little light vomiting. But in the early days, following Doctor Tabar’s death there had been a transition period where insufficient preparations had resulted in visions. Flashes of images that would plague a Datastars mind for weeks. These images, by all accounts, made no sense and were surmised to be a result of data fragments from other users, and perhaps Datastars, that got trapped in areas only accessible to Datastars during a crash incision. Crash incision being the name for a rough integration into the construct and believed to only occurred if those fragments were not connected to the wider network any longer. A simpler way of putting it would be the fragments are like driftwood that has split off from a beavers damn. They are still in the river, which would represent the construct, but not a part of the whole. This might surprise some but at the end of the day the construct is a computer network with data storage and so like any form of storage it suffers a certain degree of fragmentation over time.

Had Helena not died the world could’ve known for sure. It would also not have needed Datastars, especially ones with such stringent requirements. Alas, that is not the hand the world was dealt. Still, they managed to get through said transition period relatively unscathed and since have prospered without a hitch to where the simulation was, prior to the lockout earlier in the day of course.

“All checks are blue. Warren we’re ready when you are. Just give the word.” Sanjiv informs while continuing to run his tongue over the caps of his barely parted teeth.

He’d like Warren to chicken out, not that Sanjiv would consider it in such terms, yet he knows his blue eyed friend will not. His mind is made up. As soon as that happened any chance of him backing down went out any one of the windows of their secluded house of glass, concrete and steel which sits on a three acre estate in northern California.

“Get me in there San.” Is the reply Warren gives in the moments prior to Sanjiv attempting an injection. It doesn’t work. He’s blocked. A second earlier he was not. The round faced man finds that unsettling.

“What is it?” Dana queries in response. She’s spotted the furrow browed expression of irritation and confusion carved into her friends face as he sits nearby.

“I’m being blocked. I had an insertion. Then it just… disappeared.” Sanjiv explains only for Dana to remark, “That isn’t possible.” Sanjiv knows it isn’t possible, which is why he feels the way he does.

“Yet that is exactly what happened and now I can’t…” Sanjiv lets out an exasperated growl. He hopes it does a successful job of concealing his panic. He doesn’t dare glance toward Dana. He knows his eyes will give him away. The look in them always does. Instead, he keeps them focused on the screens before him. There are six in total. All of them serve a different but equally vital purpose. Yet none of them are giving him answers as to how, why or where he can insert Warren.

“I’m drawing a blank. Something in there is very weird. I can’t find any of our usual insertion points. It’s like they’re all gone. No not gone. What am I saying?” Sanjiv can’t find the word he’s looking for and that makes him overthink and that in turn makes his stumble, mentally, that much more.

Finally, the word strikes him. It comes just as he was ready to give up on what he had been attempting to convey to Dana. “It’s changed. Not as it was. As if the system is different. But it can’t be. Insertion points are static. They don’t change. But even if they did that would mean they’d have shifted but they haven’t. They are simply not there, at all.”

“Let me take a look.” Dana sidles up beside Sanjiv. Unlike him she looks at the data feed. It means something to her. It means nothing to Sanjiv or Warren, who has remained laid out waiting to be dropped into the virtual world. He’d like to ask questions but needs to keep himself in the moment, prepared and ready to drop. It could happen at any time and the last thing he wants to do is enter the simulation and end up being useless.

“You’re right, the code is wrong. Everything is wrong. I don’t get…” the dark blue haired woman trails off while her green eyes scan the lines of data being fed to them from the computer system. All of a sudden she spies something. Instinctively she stabs a finger at the monitor and declares, “There, an incision point. Sanjiv, do you see it?”

“Already on it.” He replies. His fingers rapidly tapping at the keyboard beneath as he enters, re-jigs and sorts the insertion. The process takes fifteen seconds at most and once satisfied he exclaims, “Delivery in three, two…”

Warren never hears Sanjiv finish.

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