LifeGames Corporation

By Michael Smorenburg All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Horror

Chapter 3

“Fuck-sake, Ken. You knew there were risks. This is experimental and we’ve pushed it into operations too fast.”

Craig Angelis was, with good reason, a very worried man; the stakes were greater than just his career.

It seemed an age since Ken had first put his nomination to the Board, a nomination that was unanimously rejected.

Passions had been ignited when Ken refused to back down, insisting that the nomination be carried. To emphasize it, he’d walked over and locked the door, pocketing the keys. A Mexican wave of nervous glimpses had orbited the Boardroom table.

The Board meeting had run on for three hours; that single issue relentlessly on the table. Craig’s fourth tabling for nomination was grudgingly accepted, and Craig’s name had duly been added to the stationery. From that moment forth, LifeGames had consumed Craig, becoming the focus of his existence.

With a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Craig’s Chief Operating Officer responsibilities included peculiar language; “the ongoing development of nutritional supplements, procurement of raw materials, and maintenance of supplies.”

“What does he bring, Ken?” Henry Fowler had stood firm, deeply opposing the nomination. As the largest shareholder after Ken, Henry had a sizable vested interest in the company and, in theory at least, he carried persuasive clout. But Ken did not take well to democracy in matters beyond lip service.

“Cash injection to start with, Henry,” Ken had insisted, “The dilation project has pushed us deeply into the red, our cash-flow could use the injection,” Ken had then shot a glare at the Chief Financial Officer, Grant Poole; the one man who could and should have disagreed strongly—it was nonsense. Ken was gambling on Henry’s sketchy comprehension of accounting matters to confound his seeing through the lie.

Grant dutifully nodded in agreement. If he had planned to correct Ken’s statement the idea had been withered by Ken’s glare worn on a head carefully cantered so that only Grant could see it.

“If you ask me, the only money he can offer us is black market,” Henry had grumbled, irate at being dragooned into accepting onto the Board a “zonked out ex-hippie type,” as he’d labeled Craig.

“Black market money’s as green as anybody’s, Henry,” Ken had pointed out in off-handed fashion, uncluttered by ethics as he was.

To the silent Board members the most curious aspect of the election saga had been the reason for Ken’s obsession with Craig’s inclusion.

Financial considerations aside, LifeGames already had better qualified employees more suitable to pressing needs than any skills that Craig brought. In short, from the perspective of the Board, there would no task to occupy Craig.

More curious yet, a fact that only Ken knew; Craig didn’t possess a penny to invest...

Ken had secretly taken a life policy on Craig, nominating the beneficiary for any payout into a spaghetti of trusts that found their way back to him; on the strength of that surety, he’d seeded Craig the millions in order to make the purchase of his shares. Had that truth ever leaked, the well-founded suspicions of fraud, corruption and gross nepotism would certainly have ripped a hole in the company.

Equally hidden was the murky history of Ken and Craig’s skullduggery half a lifetime before. The two had met twenty-five years previously while backpacking around the world. At the time both had been flirting with dangerous street narcotics.

Craig was several years Ken’s senior, a university grad with a genius ability to concoct hallucinogenic potions.

Having nearly killed the pair of them twice with his brews, a third mistake had proven less fortunate for an acquaintance with them. On that occasion the victim had been another drifter whom they had befriended. Ken was in the habit of always befriending others and magnanimously letting them take the first hit whenever Craig brewed up a new batch.

When it went wrong, they’d left the unfortunate comatose on the roach infested floor of a brothel hotel in the cheap back streets of Athens.

Soon after that incident they’d gone their separate ways, only to re-establish contact many years later. By that time Craig had come late to employment and was pigeonholed. He’d settled into a neat nine-to-five, two-and-a-half-dog, suburban lifestyle. With his career stagnated well short of his ambitions, his most precious asset was his wife and toddler son. Ken, by contrast, had been high rolling in the hedge fund business; fast cars and faster women. Their divergence had posted them to opposite sides of the financial spectrum; Craig, drowning in debt but devoted to family.

Ken had subsequently launched LifeGames with a grand dream that would bring Craig in; but in order to capitalize on the idea he knew that he would have to remain patient and wait until the company had built a proven track record.

Then, as soon as the track record had been established, he’d gone to Craig with the teaser, inviting him out for a social evening of discussion and “a few laughs about the old days.”

As the evening had worn on, Ken had cast the lure across Craig’s bows, “You’re pretty familiar with our virtual reality business? What would happen if someone were tripping? Let’s say he was on one of those hallucinogens from the bad old days?”

“Whoa!” Craig had blurted with not a little bit of shock and terror at the thought, “...from the little I know about your operations, if you coupled hypnotic hallucinations with chemical hallucinogens... Jeez, brother... you’d probably overload and fry a brain.”

The image of his own words had instantly plucked Athens from his long hidden vault of suppressed memories and he’d shuddered with guilt.

Ken knew full well that Craig had gone cold turkey immediately after the Athens incident and never touched the dope again.

Ken also knew that Craig had done it alone and in a strange foreign land; an experience that had nearly killed the man. Though Ken had spotted the agony and guilt of the triggered flashback, he wasn’t about to let sentiment derail his important goal; “Ok, something other than a main-line, Craig... What about something more sophisticated? More current...? Something kinder, gentler... softer? Maybe electronically monitored and controlled?”

“What’s soft about drugs? Everything’s got side effects, it all does damage,” Craig shrugged, quickly sobered from his initial reaction and trying to distance himself from the proposal.

“Granted... But what I meant was to tailor something. A natural amphetamine to boost the central nervous system?” Ken had pressed ahead, deliberately keeping their conversation informal, but calculated to pique Craig’s natural curiosity for experiment. “It’s just something I’m toying with... if we don’t do it, our competitors will... and it’s big... I mean BIG-BIG dollars. I’m musing with it... but it’s still strictly off the record, you understand?”

He had waited till Craig committed. Craig knew his propensity for a violent outcome to broken promises, and enthusiastically agreed.

“Good... What I’m imagining, Craig, is that we hook a subject up for an hour of training, but instead of experiencing an hour we get the mind racing and introduce the computer-generated data stream into the subject at the elevated rate... I’m estimating we could get a full working day of training into less than an hour. What do you reckon?”

Craig had fallen hypnotically into Ken’s nodding affirmations. Earlier in the evening, Ken had prepared this fertile psychological soil; he’d complimented and re-complimented Craig, bolstering him... always tapping his nails with a little distracting clickety-click gallop on the table top with each smiling and nodding ego-stroke; and then he’d used this neuro-linguistic trigger to dock Craig’s mind with the task he needed him to commit to—the clickety-click gallop sound helped him to drive home his proposition;

“I estimate we’ll cram the illusion of three months of real life training into a three day session; you’ll come up with the pharmaceutical to do the job... Consider what your life will look like in three years when we float this success on the NASDAQ, Shanghai or London markets?”

Ken painted gold gilt grandeur and Craig had fallen for the concrete foundation he’d yearned to give his family.

Always the master of manipulation, Ken had steadily smuggled the idea into Craig’s mind and, by the end of the evening Craig had been thoroughly convinced that it was his life’s calling to solve the challenge.

Ken was a disciple of the notion that every man has his price, and he had been pleasantly surprised to discover how affordable Craig’s was.

The tariff that Craig had levied on the price of his conscience had been a bargain when weighed against the return that his expertise would yield.

“I’ll sponsor you the entry fee,” he had told Craig, “we’re going to have some resistance getting your nomination past the Board, and we’ll have to dangle some bait to make it attractive for them. I’m going to transfer you the entry money to buy your way in.”

He’d then shrewdly plied Craig with more celebratory champagne before continuing with business, “Naturally I’ll have to protect the investment. My private attorney is drawing the contract, I don’t want you to skip out on me without first earning your keep,” Ken had grinned widely as he’d sealed the deal with a backslapping embrace, his Shylock tactics obscured by friendly ambiance.

If Craig had been possessed by any modicum of business sense he’d never have put pen to paper on the contract that Ken had produced, for, when the contract had been presented, it had been brim-full of fine print, double negatives, Latin phraseology and arcane word tangles that appealed to precedent law that gave Ken all the power and reward.

The cleverly constructed wording had effectively overridden any estate or equity that Craig intended for his family to inherit through his will and testament. In short, in the event of Craig’s death, Ken would inherit everything that he owned.

Within a few short weeks the Board had been swung, and Craig was spending his every waking moment wrestling with the problem, sequestered away like a hermit, his family life in the tatters that Ken had manufactured in order to keep his mind on the task. Ken had run interference, keeping the company Directors from pressing Craig into justifying his position.

Then the breakthrough had come—Craig had hit on triggering the temporal lobe epilepsy;

“There’re still some minor side-effects, but we’re almost there,” he’d reported excitedly to Ken, “I’m still having trouble because the lab-chimps go into convulsions and fatal epilepsy if the dose goes even a fraction out of spec, I’ve got a suspicion that it’s the beta-globulin in the formula. I’m pretty sure that in a couple more trials we’ll be ready to test it on a volunteer.”

They’d both been elated.

All of that had transpired during the previous year, and during the interim, Craig had succeeded in fabricating the prototype sample to achieve time dilation.

Together, he and Ken had secretly applied the product to the NASA patches. They’d flown out to Brazil, via two different travel plans; keeping the rendezvous utterly secret.

Although the elementary NASA patches, together with the hypnosis and software adaptations had already achieved a degree of Time Dilation, the introduction of that first minuscule narcotic dosage—barely a detectable trace—had catapulted Time Dilation to an astounding four-fold leap in efficiency.

The results had been remarkable… so astounding that they’d bordered on arousing suspicion, and, since nobody but Ken and Craig had any idea of the true reason for the sudden breakthrough, the champion of the accomplishment, Craig, had received no portion of the praise.

The achievement had not gone by without some appreciation from Ken. In lieu of broad praise he had slipped Craig a hefty cash consolation prize.

Months had passed and the Time Dilation program was through the Research and Development phase. Against the cautions of the development staff, it was being pushed too fast through test marketing and into full production. The Board and employees remained ignorant to the true magic behind the breakthroughs; accepting the simplified version of truth; the software department had also achieved breakthroughs, and the entire improvement in function was ascribed to them.

Profit projections were obscene, and the executive staff had been in overdrive, preparing for a commercial launch when the disaster had struck...

The kettle of fish was now hanging in the balance, looking as if it was about to tip its load of wretched deceit.

There had been a meltdown; a high-ranking military client had suffered a severe psychological trauma.

Fate had picked the worst possible subject to visit its mischief onto; the individual under training was a top ranking General on the payroll of the Joint Special Operations Command and the Pentagon; a senior reconnaissance operative who had formerly trained in the battle hardened Selous Scout battalions of the old Rhodesia, weaned in wicked wars deep in the treacherous savannas of Third World conflicts.

The catastrophe had occurred when the man was on-line, undergoing a twenty-fold dilation experiment in a lengthy fifteen-hour stint.

From the General’s perspective the fifteen-hours had translated into two weeks of intense jungle-warfare. Until the point that he’d been brought out of hypnosis and the virtual world, back to reality, it had been a textbook procedure, perfectly on schedule and without any hint of a hitch.

Nothing untoward seemed apparent until he’d been in the recovery phase, undergoing stabilization and debriefing. Then, suddenly and without warning, he had gone flashback and unleashed his deadly hand-to-hand combat skills onto the medical staff.

They’d darted him full of sedatives, yet terrifyingly it had only served to inflame the situation. In-house security had been called, and they had tasered ten thousand volts into him with little effect.

It had taken three point blank rounds from beanbag projectiles to knock him off his feet, and he’d gone into arrest, convulsing on the floor, then slipping into a deep coma.

The Board of Executives had been called to an emergency sitting and, since they had all been ignorant of the drug content in the patches, blame had been lobbed and slammed from department to department as though it were a live grenade.

First under the cosh had come the psychology department. They had been grilled but defended their electronic hypnosis routine as having been per protocol—hundreds of thousands of lines of code were picked over, seeking a bug; an industrial espionage and attack was painstakingly considered, A.I. self-audits had come up clean.

Video and telemetry data of the routine was run through digital analytic and forensics protocols; procedures were rapidly reviewed; all had proved faultless.

Next to face scrutiny had been the Chief Information Officer, Max Schneider, defending his department, “We’ve run every conceivable version of anti-virus and self-analysis several times over without the slightest hint of an issue,” He’d stated confidently, “If anything, the files are surprisingly intact—far less than statistical probability predicts.”

No conclusion reached, the Board Meeting adjourned with a vague verdict stating; “extreme and unfortunate incompatibility of subject to content.”

It had only been in the early hours of the following morning when, back at Ken’s mansion, Ken and Craig could finally come to blows over the true cause of the afternoon’s debacle.

“Yes, fuckit... YES!” Ken boomed as he paced back and forth, shades of Athens looming again on their mutual horizons, “there are risks in everything... you don’t have to waste time with the obvious. Stop fucking whining about the outcome for this asshole; I don’t give a shit other than if he croaks, they’ll stick their probe up our ass till their elbow’s gone. Let me explain something...” he was suddenly calm—too calm, “You are going to fix this, and you’re going to fix it quickly. You’re administering the antidote, and I don’t care if that hasn’t been tested and I don’t care about its effects; you just get this prick down to earth and walking out of there in more or less lucid fashion. We’re about to go with the PR campaign and I don’t need your fuckups and shortcomings derailing this... understand?”

Ken’s mood was inflamed by an evil hangover—a legacy of the previous night’s indulgence with Miss Catherine Kaplan.

“For all of these problems, my other plans are very nicely on track,” he’d consoled himself.

He’d ensured that Nancy Mitford, his Personal Assistant, had dispatched a floral arrangement to Catherine at Kaplan Advertising & PR. In it he’d thanked her for her spectacular efforts in creating the commercials; it was more than the retrospective thanks, and she’d smiled knowingly when they’d arrived.

“Worst case scenario,” Ken continued, pacing like a caged tiger bordering on dementia, “If this fucker kicks it, what will an autopsy uncover?”

“The lab chimps have consistently showed nothing... not a trace. Zero. I went down that avenue a hundred times. I must have overdosed a zoo full of other primates, nothing has ever showed!”

Craig was an emotional wreck, falling apart under the stress, “This could be murder!” he thought. “What if they start digging and discover Athens? Interpol will have my prints from the site... Christ, I’ve got a child to think of. How the hell did I let Ken drag me in so deep again?” The terror racing through his exhausted mind pushing him ever closer to nervous breakdown.

“Primates?.... Fucking PRIMATES, not humans?” Ken thundered in a murderous rage.

Craig cringed away from the beast that had suddenly gripped the man. He’d never seen such a savage switch before, and he recoiled. “Jesus! You’re not serious?”

Craig’s illusion of Ken was splintering, the delusion of his blind respect for the man ripped away. He had always held Ken in the highest esteem, rationalizing Ken’s vicious history as a symptom of an Alpha personality.

What raged before him now revolted and shook Craig to his core.

“You’re FUCKING RIGHT I’m serious you dumb cunt!” Ken thundered, “I told you that we needed a terminal test before we went commercial.”

He’d said it before, but Craig had never thought he’d meant it literally; now as the angry throbbing vein snaked across the thinning hair of Ken’s forehead, there was no doubt.

It dredged back the shocking memory of Ken pushing for this outcome; too late now, Craig realized he should never have glossed over it at the time;

Lounged in a fashionable nightspot near the city’s center, Ken had casually broached connecting an unsuspecting drifter to test the drug to expiry.

Then, as had been the case too many times before, Craig’s next recollection had been connecting a hastily befriended stranger up to the contraption.

It had been the early hours and the facility was unusually deserted. Ken had persuaded Craig to administer a dose of his new serum to the homeless man that far exceeded the understood limits.

The hard-life out on the street seemed to have steeled the man’s metabolism, making him impervious to their dose. Insisting on a reaction, Ken had driven on, pushing up the dosage, but the night had slipped rapidly by, Craig delaying as best he could until the day-staff were due to arrive, forcing an end to the experiment.

By the time the unfortunate was dumped up a dirty alley; at Craig’s insistence, a block from the hospital; the sun had been rising. The man had been breathing—barely breathing—but Craig had convinced himself that he’d pull through.

Now, being honest with himself, Craig wasn’t that confident.

“If you’d FUCKING WELL LISTENED..." Ken was still ranting, charging himself into a frenzy. He picked up an ivory handled, six-inch, sterling silver antique letter opener and was brandishing it, hacking away with it at invisible demons.

Craig was terror-struck, mortified by what he knew Ken was capable of and might do next; they were two men reduced to their wild state; Ken out of control with rage, Craig blind with terror; he began inching toward the door—studying Ken, timing his dash to coincide with Ken at the furthermost point away in his pacing.

They were in the banquet area of Ken’s mansion and Craig’s car was a corridor, two doors and a flight of six steps away when he bolted.

The gulf to his car was an infinite span ahead of him, time slowing and the distance stretching ahead with surreal elasticity. His timing was perfect and he caught Ken off-guard enough to put another dozen paces between them before Ken gave chase.

As he ran, Craig fumbled with his keys for the ignition fob. He dived into the driver’s seat, slapped the electronic fob into its recess and hit the “Start” button. The Maserati’s engine roared to life. He stood on the accelerator and the engine bellowed mightily, the back end drifted wide with the tires spinning on the spot, trying to grip the surface; Ken slammed into the driver’s window as they bit and the car slapped him aside, taking off on a shrieking, snaking, plummet down the driveway, careening out of control toward the locked cast-iron gates at the exit onto the street.

With a deafening crash and a shower of sparks, the vehicle burst through the barrier, shearing the hinges off at the gateposts.

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