"Guys, maybe we should rethink this."

"Aw, the nerd chickening out?"

"Hey hey, Tim, I'm a semi-geek at worst. Real nerds wear dorky glasses, write fanfiction, and have no offline friends."

"Eh, one out o' three ain't so bad."

"Also, a nerd would have burst into tears at that last statement, but I see through you're mock-cruelty, you massive binturong."

"Please shut up, both of you," Casey snapped at his friends they plodded along the dusky, somewhat empty city sidewalks. The streets were crowded, tired drivers behind each wheel. Yes, it was pretty late.

Tim, the fairly chubby kid, huffed, while Maxwell, skinny, but the tallest one there, grumbled, "Need I remind you who the real nerds in this group are? So crazy about the new arcade game with only one level that they're willing to break in and not even listen to the risks."

Casey, the mutual leader of the group, rolled his eyes, which were permanently hidden under his shades. He said, "Fair enough. What were you saying about rethinking the plan?"

"Interested now?" Maxwell snickered, then became serious. "We all know that the arcade was closed this morning for no apparent reason. I thought it may have been a maintenance thing, or some safety violation that needed fixing, but the place stayed closed all day with no announcements, and that's when you made me start this crazy, illegal plan."

"Sheesh, we're not stealing anything," Tim grunted.

"Except maybe electricity," mumbled Casey thoughtfully.

"ANYway, while I was visiting my forums just before..." (Tim muttered "nerd" under his breath.) "...I found out something pretty crazy. All around the country, no, other countries too...pretty much every arcade in the world was suddenly shut down without warning, just like ours. People were complaining like crazy on just about every forum around. Especially, you know, the countries where Wild Side was already popular."

"Well, yeah," Casey replied. "I mean, Wild Side supposedly made arcades worthwhile again. So did ANYBODY know why this happened?"

"Maybe, but I couldn't read the foreign language sites," admitted Maxwell. "But guys, do you understand what this means?"

The two were silent, until Tim's eyes suddenly widened in horror. "You don't think Jack Thompson finally convinced the government that videogames are 'evil,' do you?" he cried.

"Dear God no!" replied Casey, disgusted. "We would've heard about that long before."

"But something is definitely wrong with the worldwide arcades," Maxwell explained, "and the government doesn't want the general public to find out. That's why I think we shouldn't go through with this plan; it could be dangerous."

There was a long silence. The three boys stood on the sidewalk in a disjointed circle, lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Casey smirked and spoke. "You do realize that, now having told us this, we're going to HAVE to go there and find out what all the fuss is about."

Grinning, Tim replied, "Couldn'ta said it better myself, Casey."

"Oh, come on!"

%%%

Several minutes later, the trio was peeking around from the corner of an alley. There, across the street, was the arcade, surrounded by yellow tape and a few cop cars. The flashing lights were off this time, unlike in the morning when they had first arrived.

"This is gonna be tough. We have to get to the back to infiltrate the air ducts," Maxwell whispered.

Tim snickered, "Just like Half-Life."

Casey glared at him, but said to Maxwell, "Well, let's get out the distractor."

In response, Maxwell reached into his backpack and pulled out what he called Arc-1, a remote-control helicopter with a claw on the bottom. "You guys do the honors," he said while pulling out a heavily modified GBA SP that was the controller and two walkie-talkies. "I'll let you know when the back is clear."

It wasn't that Maxwell couldn't pilot his own machine. It was just that Casey and Tim, with all their videogame experience, had much better hand-eye coordination. Even as he was just walking out of the alley, Arc-1 was already launched, rising high into the dark sky. Eventually, it dive-bombed one officer, snatching the hat right off his head.

"WHAT THE HELL!" Even across the street, his yell was quite audible. Casey, expertly dodging the flailing hands, snickered with delight. There was a camera on Arc-1, which let him see what was going on through the Gameboy's screen. To passerby, it looked like he was just playing a game.

"Oh God, look!" Tim whispered, peering over Casey's shoulder. "That one over there is eating a donut. You gotta let me take a turn!"

Casey obligingly handed over the controller. Arc-1, at the drop of the hat, swooped down and knocked the jelly donut out of the cop's hands.

"Crap, I meant to grab it." But Tim still got him pretty mad. The swearing seemed to echo for miles. More cops gathered to try and catch the flying contraption.

"That was fast," Maxwell's voice buzzed over the walkie-talkie. "Now's your chance."

The two briskly walked past the annoyed cops while Tim continued the "game," and safely joined Maxwell behind the arcade. He was unsuccessfully trying to open the air duct.

"Move aside, lightweight," Tim snorted, yanking the seal open, climbing in after his two friends, and shutting it behind himself.

%%%

Casey never went to the arcade very often, (virtual consoles had pretty much rendered those things obsolete to him,) but for the few times he had, there were many lively, colorful, and noisy memories. Machines jingling all kinds of short tunes, kids laughing gleefully as the scores rang loudly. Lights always dancing...

Entering now, in the dead of night, felt like coming into a morgue. The machines weren't alive, no movement in the slightest. They were just boxes. Dead, empty black boxes in dark grey room.

But the biggest box by far was Wild Side. The group had located it based on where they had seen the construction taking place during a recent visit. It took up about fifty square feet by itself, a small room. Maxwell pulled out his flashlight pen, which he was using sparingly to avoid attention from outside, and found the machine's control panel.

"I sure hope you're appreciating all this work," he grumbled quietly. "I already risked Arc-1 for your stupid cause, but my educational career is also at risk." But he soon shut up as he got more involved with the electronics. Casey and Tim had nothing to do, as they had already sent Arc-1 home, so they just sat next to Wild Side and waited. They wouldn't say it, but they'd have preferred Maxwell's complaining than the deafening silence.

Casey was close to dozing off, when suddenly, he heard a clunk of a door. He scrambled to the back, where Maxwell answered his question before it could be asked. "It's ready."

After waking up Tim, (he actually HAD fallen asleep,) the excited teens walked to the front, where the door to the giant box was opened. It wasn't dark inside, for a glowing, almost eerie, orange grid lined the walls, floor, and ceiling.

"Standby mode," Maxwell explained in a whisper. "Once you walk inside, the door will close, and then the game begins."

Casey couldn't believe that he was mere steps away from playing one of the most revolutionary games of all time. A game that you literally had to be in to play. No controller, no screen, just interactive holograms and yourself. He and Tim were rooted to the spot for a moment.

"Well, go on. Wild Side's not gonna play itself," urged Maxwell, giving them a light shove.

"You're not coming?" Tim asked suspiciously.

Shrugging, he replied, "I kinda wanna study this thing more closely. I'm sure glad I brought my notebook."

"Nerd," Tim muttered, earning him a glare.

"Call me that again, and I'll find a way to lock both of you in there." Even though they knew he was joking, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he was capable of doing this. Tim didn't say anything else.

Tim and Casey walked into the gridded room. Sure enough, the door closed behind them, but besides the whirring of machinery in the walls, nothing else happened.

"Now what?" asked Tim. "You don't think that ne-Maxwell locked us in here for real, do you?"

At that moment, the grid lines started glowing brighter, then even brighter, until Casey had to cover his eyes. There was the sound of static, which started getting louder and stronger, but above it all, he heard a noise that all but stopped his breath.

Tim, screaming. Not yelling or whooping like he normally did when excited. A grating, pained scream.

"What's wrong!" Casey tried to yell, but the roar was too strong; he couldn't even hear his own voice anymore, let alone Tim's. Things continued like this for an eternity. This couldn't be part of the game, could it? Was it even part of the game's boot-up, or whatever? Most importantly, what was happening to Tim?

And then, just as suddenly as the noise had started, it stopped.

%%%

Cautiously, Casey opened an eye. Light, but no longer blinding. He uncovered his face and glanced around...

...The first thing he noticed was the grassy field, grass up to his ankles. He could feel the wind blowing it around. A short distance in front of him was small ledge, leading down to a bank beside a sparkling blue lake. Behind him, the field swelled into a slope, where taller grass was blowing, causing the wave of sunlight that Casey had always liked about tall grass. Further still behind, a line of tall, green trees, sprinkled along the horizon and lined the lake ahead.

Casey was in total awe. There was no way...Just to make sure he wasn't imagining any of this, he reached down and touched a blade of grass. It felt like a blade of grass.

No way...this kind of technology must have come from the future. With this kind of thing, one could, in a sense, do anything, go anywhere, see anything...

And yet, Tim was nowhere to be seen.

"Hey, Tim," said Casey, "are you getting this?"

No answer. Only a distant warbling sound like a flock of birds.

"Tim!"

This time, there was a rustling in the tall grass. Turning, Casey saw with dismay not Tim, but a rather bizarre looking lizard...