Snippet #2 – Too Young To Die
What do you do with an immersive gaming pod that’s too expensive for gamers? Find out what just might work!
Nick’s smoothie, which had seemed like a good idea when he ordered the box of mixes delivered to his house, had now begun to separate into two distinct and equally unappealing sections at the bottom of his Nalgene bottle. For some reason, he couldn’t stop watching it.
With a sigh, Amber picked it up and lobbed it at the sink. It missed and bounced off the floor on the other side of the counter. After she’d stared at it for a moment, she shrugged as if to say, “Good enough”, and looked at him.
“Can we focus now?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” He slouched in his chair. “Will you keep saying depressing things?”
“If by ‘depressing things’ you mean the numbers in our financial reports, then yes.” She gave him a smile that showed her teeth. “Let me put it this way, Mr. Ryan. Neither of us will leave this office until we have a plan in place.”
“That’s not fair,” Nick complained. “Jacob doesn’t have to be here. Why do I?” He picked at his sleeve. “Lucky bastard, having his grandmother in the ICU.”
Amber’s kick, when it came, was direct and to a particularly sensitive part of his shin. She jabbed a finger at him. “You never say things like that,” she told him severely.
He nodded, chastened. Put her in front of a problem and she would do whatever it took to solve it. It was one of the things that made her an incredible engineer—and one of the reasons he hoped she would never decide to take up politics. Or a military career.
Nick shuddered. The thought of Amber in charge of high-grade explosives was terrifying.
But as utilitarian and cold-eyed as she could be about problem-solving, she had no tolerance for black humor. Make a joke she thought was tempting fate or mocking someone’s pain, and she’d let you know about it immediately.
You knew you’d really messed up when she devolved into Spanish. Once, he and Jacob had secretly recorded one of her rants and translated it later—a lengthy process due to the fact that popular translation dictionaries didn’t have quite as varied a vocabulary as their friend. The results had convinced them both to never get on her bad side.
Now, Nick cleared his throat, leaned forward on the table, and paused briefly when the rusted metal legs creaked. They’d retired to the kitchenette part of the offices for a working lunch, which hadn’t exactly worked out. Amber had forgotten to order food and his food…
Well, whatever that was, you couldn’t call it food. His stomach rumbled and he grimaced.
“It’s not so bad,” he said after he’d stared at the numbers for a few more minutes. “I mean…it’s not much worse than last quarter.”
Her sigh was less angry than despairing. “But it is worse,” she said. She sat with her head tipped back and stared at the ceiling. “We made a thing that…” Her voice trailed off and she sighed again.
Nick cleared his throat awkwardly. The numbers hadn’t been great for a while now, but he hadn’t realized she was this worried about it. He’d watched things work out for them, over and over, from the early technological hurdles to the Hail Mary presentations they’d given time and again to investors.
Something always came through. This was Silicon Valley. Money was nothing and there was always someone willing to pay for the latest cool thing.
Now, he tried to reassure her. “Amber.” He leaned back and waited until she opened her eyes and looked at him. “Things come through. They always come through. We’ll think of something.”
“I don’t want to think of something,” she said, her tone crisp. “I don’t want to patch this until it’s two months from now and we’re looking at another quarterly loss, and we’re deeper in the red.”
“By then, we’ll have plenty of interest.” He saw her face harden and held a hand up. “No, no, I don’t think you’re giving this enough credit. Let me get the—”
“The articles!” he called over his shoulder. His mother had printed them and sent them to him, although he’d rolled his eyes at them when he opened the envelope. Now, however, they would make a good case to show Amber.
He dodged around the glass-walled laboratory. One of the pods was open and looked rather like a cross between an iPod, a spa bed, and a tanning booth, and another two hummed faintly as they processed information. Their operating systems were updating with the latest story components for the MMORPG, and the LED panels around the side flashed orange as they did so.
Nearby, a sterilized compartment held the headset hookups and a veritable wealth of heart rate monitors, blood pressure cuffs, and thermometers were piled in a basket in the corner.
“Nick,” Amber said again, as he returned to the room. She had rolled the sleeves of her Henley up and pulled her hair into a ponytail. “The problem isn’t—”
“‘PIVOT unveils the first look at its groundbreaking virtual reality pods,’” he quoted with a flourish. He propped one foot on his folding chair and leaned forward, really hamming it up. “Listen to this. ‘One of the most popular booths by far at E3 this year was PIVOT, who gave live demos of what they simply call pods. These come preprogrammed with a surprisingly gripping MMORPG called Alt IRL, which—’”
She stretched impatiently and twitched the printout out of his hand. Without breaking eye contact, she flipped to the second page of the review, paused for a moment to find the section she was looking for, and read aloud. “‘While the Kickstarter campaign raised four hundred and thirty-eight percent of its goal, early prototypes of the pod, priced at seven thousand dollars apiece, have not found a significant market.” She tossed the sheet of paper onto the table and fixed him with a steady look. “The problem isn’t the interest. Nick, people can’t afford it.”
“So we rent them,” he said.
“Jesus Christ, we’ve gone over every freaking scenario and there is not one that is viable.” Amber waved her hands as if she tried not to swipe the whole set of papers off the table. “For. The. Last. Time. The numbers don’t work.”
“They will work,” Nick assured her. “They’ll work until the price point comes down.”
“But it doesn’t come down.” Her face was pale. She pulled a piece of paper out of the pile and didn’t even have to look to check which one it was. That alone showed him how many times she’d been through this. “It’s like…it’s like making a bigger LED TV, si? The expensive part is making it, not the materials. And in our case, we gotta maintain them too. They need updates. They need regular checks to make sure they don’t turn someone’s brainstem into a Krispy Kreme—”
“There’s an image I’m never gonna be able to get out of my head,” he muttered.
“Nick, we need every one of these machines running at fifty dollars an hour, ten hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five simply to break even.” Her eyes had shadows under them, and he wondered when last she had slept. “And that’s the machines. That’s not renting the space to use them. It’s not the advertising or the tech support or the sales or the shipping or…” She sighed and said bitterly, “It’s an expensive toy.”
Nick’s eyebrows raised. He’d never heard her say something like this before and he was a little thrown. He scratched his ear and considered. “Uh…Amber.”
“What?” She didn’t look at him.
“Are you okay?” He folded his arms awkwardly over his chest. “You seem a little down.”
“What gave it away?” She looked at him with a flash of her trademark humor.
That made him feel a little better. His friend was still in there somewhere. He and Amber had met at MIT eight years before when she was dating Jacob, and although that relationship had broken up within a couple of weeks, the three of them had been inseparable since. They’d all gotten their first apartment together, helped each other through a string of job rejections, heartbreaks, and family disappointment, and—
“Your parents called,” he said. “Didn’t they?”
Amber gave him a hollow-eyed look and blew out a breath.
Nick fiddled with one of the pieces of paper on the table. He didn’t like to say too much when it came to her parents because if he did, he’d end up saying things she didn’t like and she’d tell him he was only mad at his parents.
Which was true. His parents and hers were very much alike. Of the three of them, only Jacob had a family that supported his life choices. Nick and Amber, on the other hand, got regular calls about how they should go to grad school, or get married, or move back home.
She folded her arms to mirror his stance. “They said they put up with everything because I told them I would change the world,” she said bitterly. “And now, I’m making toys for rich kids.”
“Toys for…what does that even mean?” He rolled his eyes. “And what do they mean, put up with everything? What’s everything?”
“This.” She made a dismissive gesture at herself. At his frown, she sighed. “Oh, come on, like you haven’t noticed my mom always asking me if I have a man?”
“I thought that was merely what parents did,” he joked.
Amber tried to smile, but her heart wasn’t in it. “They don’t get me. God, I sound like I’m thirteen and writing bad poetry. But I thought…Nick, I thought they’d figure it out someday, you know? I wanted to go dirt bike racing for my Quinceañera. I never liked wearing skirts. I’ve told them since I was a kid that I didn’t want to have babies. I only…I always thought they would believe me someday.” She crossed one booted foot over her knee. “And now, the stupid thing is, they understand me enough to make it all hurt.”
“What d’you mean?” Nick leaned forward.
“I wanted to help people!” Her eyes were suspiciously bright. “I intended to write the programs that…I don’t know. I planned to work for people curing diseases. I was gonna cure diseases. And I thought maybe this would all get off the ground and I could go do that, you know?”
“You don’t want to do this?” He looked over his shoulder at the pods. “I thought you liked building this.”
“I did—I do! It’s not that!” She hunched her shoulders. “But it’s falling apart and now, I’ve spent four years doing something that’ll go down the tubes and I haven’t done any of the stuff I wanted to do and what can I even say to them? That—” She sighed.
“You know…” Nick cleared his throat. “My sister said to me not too long ago that making Mom and Dad happy wasn’t the price I had to pay to be happy myself.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “Maybe that’s worth—oh, hey, is that Jacob?”
A door had opened and closed at the front of the building.
“He said he’d be back when he could.” Amber straightened and her anxiety seemed to melt away into gladness.
This was one of the things Nick wished her parents could see about her. She was one of the kindest people he knew, so happy about her friends’ well-being that their good news could make her forget even total misery on her part.
But when Jacob walked into the room, it was clear that what he had to report wasn’t good news at all. He didn’t look like he’d slept in days and he had the air of someone walking through a nightmare.
“Jacob?” Nick tried to catch his friend’s eyes. “Uh…”
“Is everything okay?” Amber’s voice was a thread of sound.
Jacob looked at them and his eyes were bloodshot. From the momentary confusion on his face, he didn’t seem to remember how he’d wound up at the office. Nick pushed a chair toward him and went to start a pot of coffee. What the man really needed was sleep, but he wasn’t sure how soon that would happen.
“What’s wrong?” she asked gently. Over their friend’s head, her gaze locked with Nick’s. A week before, Jacob’s grandmother had suffered a stroke and there had been numerous close calls since then.
“They’re going to…” Jacob’s voice trailed off. “They have to…take her off life support.” His face crumpled as he said it and he bent forward over his legs, his arms wrapped tightly around his chest.
“I thought she was getting better,” Nick said quietly. “I thought the doctors said—”
“They did.” Jacob hadn’t moved. “But we don’t have time.”
Neither Amber nor Nick could make anything of this.
He straightened finally and his face was stricken. “The doctor says it could be weeks,” he managed to say. He saw the looks on their faces. “We can’t—it’s—” He took a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Amber.
Nick watched her eyebrows raise.
“Jesus Christ.” She shook her head. “This can’t be right. Five thousand dollars a day?”
Jacob remained silent.
“A day?” she mouthed again in Nick’s direction.
He came to look over her shoulder as he opened the coffee bag, and his jaw dropped. She wasn’t kidding. Between all the various services and scans and monitoring thus far, it was costing that much or more to keep Jacob’s grandmother in the hospital. He leaned closer.
“It kind of puts our price tag into perspective, doesn’t it?”
From the way she went still, he thought he’d fucked up enough to have another angry tirade in Spanish. But when she turned her head, there was something new in her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it does, doesn’t it?”
Nick stared at her for a moment before he straightened abruptly. “Oh, you can’t be serious.”
Amber had turned to look at the pods. “It’s climate-controlled,” she said carefully. “The oxygen levels can be adjusted. It’s made to allow easy monitoring of brain waves, heart rate, blood pressure… And what’s the one thing people have tried to figure out how to do for coma patients? Re-engage them. Wake them up. A game, an interactive game that breaks through all their outer perceptions—”
“You can’t be serious,” he said again and couldn’t seem to think at all. His mind whirled.
But Jacob had looked up with the first real human emotion they’d seen from him in days. “She could come here,” he said. “She could—she could come here. Guys, you’d do that for me?”
Amber began to laugh. “For you, for…anyone. Jacob, don’t you get it? If your family can’t afford this, how many other people can’t afford it?” She looked at Nick. “I’m not crazy, right? We found our target market.”
So, what do you think? Does this give Jacob’s grandmother a chance?
Pre-order Too Young To Die today! For a live delivery this Friday!