Virtually True by Paul Stewart
Sebastian Shultz. It isn't a name you come across every day. But there it was, large and clear, at the top of the newspaper article in front of me.
The reader of the newspaper was a big woman. I couldn't see her face, but I could hear her wheezy breath.
MIRACLE RECOVERY, the headline said. Sebastian Shultz, a 14 year-old schoolboy from South London, awoke yesterday from a coma that doctors feared might last forever.
It couldn't be the Sebastian Shultz I'd met. I leant forward to read the rest of the article.
Six weeks ago, Sebastian Shultz was badly injured in a motorway accident. His condition, on arrival at the General Hospital, was described as critical though stable. Despite doctors' hopes, the boy did not regain consciousness. His parents were informed that their son was in a coma.
At a press conference, Mrs Shultz said, "The doctors were doing all they could, but in our hearts we knew we needed a miracle."
Now that miracle has happened ...
At that moment, the woman's hand moved. I suddenly saw the photograph that went with the story, and gasped. The boy in the picture was Sebastian. There was no doubt. "But how?" I muttered.
Sebastian Shultz, the boy I'd got to know so well recently, had apparently been in a coma for all that time. I felt nervous and shivery. It didn't make any sense at all.
I stared out of the train window, and ran through the events in my head.
It all started a month ago. Dad and I had spent the entire Saturday afternoon at the Computer Fair.
Dad's nutty about computers. He's got a Pentium 150 Mhz processor, with 256 of RAM, a 1.2 Gb hard disk drive and 16 speed CD ROM, complete with speakers, printer, modem and scanner. It can do anything. Paint, play music, create displays; even when my homework's rubbish, it looks fantastic.
Best of all are the games. Tornado, MeBabash, Black Belt, Kyrene's Kastle - I've played them all. With the screen so big, and the volume up loud, it almost feels as if you're inside the games, battling it out with the Z or Bs, Twisters, or whatever.
Technology was advancing every day, and Dad couldn't resist any of the new gadgets or gizmos that came on the market. That was why we went to the Computer Fair. We came away with a virtual reality visor and glove, and a handful of the latest interactive psycho-drive games. They're terrific. Not only do the visor and glove change what you see, but better than that, you can control the action by what you are thinking. Well, cool!
When we got them, I remember some of them were not new.
Anyway, back at home, I launched myself off into the first of the games. It was called Wildwest.
That's what I like about computers. The more futuristic they get, the better you can understand the past. I wasn't standing in the converted loft-the Powerbase as Dad calls it-anymore. I was really there, striding down the dusty track through the centre of town. There was a sheriff's badge pinned to my shirt.
As I burst in through the swing doors of the saloon, everyone went silent and glared at me. I strode over to the bar. 'Sarsaparilla!' I said and a glass of fizzy red stuff came sliding along the bar towards me. As I took a sip, I heard a loud crash. I spun round. There, silhouetted in the doorway, was Black-Eyed Jed, the fastest gun in the west. 'This town ain't big enough for the both of us, Sheriff Dawson,' he drawled, and fingered his guns lightly. 'Outside. Just you and me.'
I can remember grinning. This was really cool!
I finished my drink and slammed the glass down on the bar. Jed had already left the saloon.All eyes were on me again. I wondered what sort of score I was notching up.
All at once, something strange happened. Up to that point the game had been pretty much as I expected. But when the second sheriff appeared through the back door, shouting and waving his arms about, I realized that the game was more complicated.
'Don't go out!' the second sheriff shouted.
'And who are you?' I asked.
He wasn't like the other characters in the saloon. For a start, he was about my age, and though he looked like a computer image, he somehow didn't move like one.
'There's no time to explain,' he shouted. 'Just follow me.'
I did what I was told. We raced down a corridor, and through a door. We ran past some men and out through another door.
'Come ON!' shouted the other sheriff.
We went on through another door, and another,-and ended up back in the saloon.
'NO!' screamed the second sheriff. Then he ran to the back of the saloon and dived through the window. By the time I climbed out after him, he was already sitting on a horse. 'Jump up!' he cried.
He kicked the horse, and we sped off in a cloud of dust.
'Who are you?' I asked again.
But the second sheriff didn't answer. He'd seen the posse of men on horseback speeding after us. 'Keep your head down,' he said.
At that moment, the sound of a gunshot echoed round the air. The second sheriff groaned, and slumped back against me. Ahead of me, in bright neon lights came a message.
As I slipped off the visor, the empty desert disappeared and I found myself back in the Powerbase. I took off the glove and headphones. I glanced at the score on the screen. 21,095. Then I noticed the printer had come on. I picked up the piece of paper from the tray.
At the top was a picture of the second sheriff. This time though, he was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Printed over the bottom was a message. I'M STUCK. PLEASE HELP TO RETRIEVE ME. TRY 'DRAGONQUEST'. Sebastian Shultz.
I wanted to go straight into the game he'd suggested, but it was already half an hour after lights out.
Next morning I was up and back on the computer, and was soon walking through the massive studded doors of the dragon's castle lair.
The aim of the game was simple. I had to rescue the fair princess Aurora from the wicked dragon, and collect the wicked creature's treasure along the way. I'd already got loads by the time I reached the Princess, who'd been imprisoned at the top of a tall tower. She was a young woman with long golden plaits.
'My hero!' she squealed. 'Take me away from all this.' Behind me I could hear the dragon roaring. 'Rescue me now,' the princess said urgently.
'Never mind her,' came a voice, and a second knight appeared from the wardrobe. 'It's me who needs rescuing!'
'Sebastian?' I said.
The second knight nodded. 'Quick,' he said, 'while there's still time.' And with a pair of scissors he chopped off the princess's two long plaits. Then he tied them together, fixed one end round the bedpost and threw the other end out of the window.
'NOW!' he screamed, as he leapt for the window and down the hair rope.
At that moment the dragon appeared. I gasped, and leapt too.
As I lowered myself down I felt the dragon's fiery breath.
Across the moonlit battlements, we ran down a spiral staircase and through a secret passage on the other side of a tapestry. And the whole time I could hear and feel and even smell the evil dragon following in close pursuit.
'The dungeons,' Sir Sebastian cried out. 'They're our only hope.'
We went down the cold stone steps, swords drawn. Suddenly, the dragon appeared at the end of the corridor. Before we even had time to turn around, the dragon was upon us.
I swung my sword. But it was no good. The dragon was only interested in Sebastian, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it getting him.
This time, the message in the printer said: BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME. PLEASE DON'T GIVE UP, MICHAEL. OTHERWISE I'LL HAVE TO STAY IN HERE FOR EVER. TRY 'JAILBREAK'. I THINK IT MIGHT JUST WORK! CHEERS, SEB.
I didn't even bother to read the rules of Jailbreak before going in. I knew that my task would be to rescue the boy. And sure enough, my cell mate was prisoner 02478: Shultz.
'I've got to get out of here,' Sebastian sighed. 'Are you going to help?'
'Of course,' I said. 'Have you got a plan?'
Stupid question. With the help of a skeleton swipe-card, we were soon out of the cell and racing down corridors. Sirens wailed, guard dogs howled, heavy boots came tramping. Behind us, steel-barred doors slammed shut. We dodged the guards, we fled the dogs, we made it to a staircase and pounded upwards.
On the roof, Sebastian looked round, and glanced at his watch nervously. 'It should be here by now.'
'What?' I said.
'That!' said Sebastian and pointed.
'A helicopter!' I exclaimed.
'That was my idea!' said Sebastian excitedly. 'If only it would go a bit faster ... '
At that moment, the door behind us burst open. Twelve guards with vicious dogs were standing there. The next instant the dogs were hurtling towards us, all bared teeth and dripping jowls. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sebastian take a step backwards.
'NOOOOOO!' I screamed.
But it was too late. The boy had slipped and was tumbling back through the air, down to the concrete below.
As I removed my visor I looked in the printer tray. This time it was empty. I felt really bad. I'd failed Sebastian; I'd failed the game. It was only later, when the scenes began to fade in my memory, that it occurred to me that Sebastian Shultz was the game.
Strangely, although I went back to Wildwest, Dragonquest and Jailbreak after that, I never met up with Sebastian again.
Then, yesterday, I heard from Sebastian. In the printer tray, was a sheet of paper.
CAN WE HAVE ONE LASTTRY? it said. I THINK THE HELICOPTER WAS THE RIGHT IDEA. THERE'S GOT TO BE SOME KIND OF AN ACCIDENT ... GO INTO 'WARZONE'. IF THIS DOESN'T WORK I WON'T BOTHER YOU AGAIN. CHEERS, SEB.
I couldn't tell which war zone we were in. It was a city somewhere. The tall buildings were windowless and riddled with holes. Machine gun fire raked the sky. Walls tumbled. Bombs exploded. All I knew was that Sebastian and I had to make it to that helicopter in one piece.
We ran across a no-man's-land of rubble and smoke, dodging sniper fire. At the far end we went through a door in a wall. The helicopter was on the ground, waiting for our arrival.
We started to run, but the tank fire sent us scuttling back to the wall.
'A jeep,' Sebastian shouted to me, and nodded at a vehicle parked by the road.
He jumped in, turned the ignition key and revved the engine. 'Jump in!'
I climbed into the passenger seat and we were off.
A tank was hurtling after us. Suddenly, Sebastian slammed on the brakes and sent the jeep skidding into a spin. I leapt clear, and jumped into the helicopter.
The helicopter started to go upwards. I looked around. Sebastian wasn't there.
'Wait!' I shouted at the pilot.
I looked back. The jeep had stopped, but Sebastian hadn't got out.
'COME ON!' I yelled. But Sebastian was sitting as if his body had been turned to stone.
The tank crashed into the jeep. Sebastian was thrown into the air.
Round and round he tumbled, closer to the helicopter. He landed with a thud, just below the hatch. I pulled him up. As he sat down beside me, the helicopter soared into the sky.
I'd done it! I'd rescued Sebastian at last! Before I had a chance to say anything to him though, the helicopter flew into thick cloud. It turned everything blinding white. I couldn't see a thing-until 'GAME OVER' flashed up.
When I removed the visor, the screen was flashing a score of 40,000,000.
I'd hit the jackpot. I'd finally cracked the game.
At least, that was what I thought then. Now I knew that Sebastian Shultz, the boy from the game, really did exist. I'd seen the proof in the newspaper.
But how? I wondered as I got off the train.
At home I checked the Net. I wanted to learn more about the MIRACLE RECOVERY story.
I found what I was looking for quickly enough. Apparently, at the time of the accident, Sebastian was using his laptop to play one of the same psycho-drive games that I've got.
My heart pounded furiously. What if, because Sebastian had been plugged into the computer when he banged his head in the accident, the computer had saved his memory in its own. And then what if the weird versions of the games 1'd been drawn into had all been attempts to retrieve that memory?
After all, Dad always says about the computer's memory - 'It can never forget, Michael. Nothing ever gets lost.'
But, even if it was possible that Sebastian's memory had been stored on disk, how had it ended up on my computer? Scrolling down the article I found a possible explanation.
Answering a reporter's question as to what the family was going to do next, Mr Shultz said that they were off to stock up on some games. 'It was while we were in the hospital, someone stole the lot. I don't know what happened to them.'
I said quietly. 'They ended up at the Computer Fair. And we bought them.'
I left the Net and checked my e-mail. There was one from Sebastian.
With trembling fingers I clicked in, and read the message.
DEAR MICHAEL, it said. THANK YOU! I'M NOT SURE HOW IT HAPPENED, BUT THANKS. YOU SAVED MY LIFE. LET'S MEET UP SOON. CHEERS, SEB. P.S. KEEP THE GAMES. YOU'VE EARNED THEM.
I shook my head. A real message from the real Sebastian Shultz. We both knew that by reliving the accident, something wonderful had happened. But then again, now that there are two advanced intelligences on earth, who can say what is and what isn't possible.
What I know is this. Everything that I've described is true - Virtually!