Don't Break Character

Submitted into Contest #250 in response to: Write a story in which someone is afraid of being overheard.... view prompt

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Science Fiction Suspense Thriller

“How does this number look to you?” The man opposite me slides a piece of paper across his desk and my eyes have to scan over it three times for the number to register in my brain. It’s at this moment that I believe in God again. Almost a decade of rejections, doors slammed in my face, and scraping by on instant noodles now, finally, all seem worth it.

I look up at the man, who, upon seeing the stupefied expression on my face, breaks into a big smile, his straight white teeth revealing that he hasn’t seen the bottom of an instant noodle cup in a very long time. “I take it you’re pleased with the number?”

“Mr. Murdoch, I don’t think Hollywood actors get paid these kinds of sums.”

“It’s Neville, please.” He flashes that smile again. “The compensation is proportional to the difficulty level of the job. It takes a very special kind of actor to perform in a virtual reality simulation for our thrill-seeking luxury clients. You’ll portray a range of characters of different genders and ages, and the script can be flipped at any moment.”

“That’s the reason I signed up,” I say honestly. “Acting in a simulation sounded like a really interesting challenge.”   

Neville leans across the table and pats my forearm with his neatly groomed fingers. “And that’s why we picked you. You were the perfect blend of versatility and improvisation skills we’ve encountered in an actor.” 

I feel my chest swell with pride. He leans back in his chair. “Now, today is your final audition, which means you get to try the simulation, see what it’s like to act as different avatars, and think on your feet. You’ll be acting opposite the Professor — a grand actor whom you’ll absolutely love — and the setting of the story is a lab where the evil government is out to get him.”

He makes a mock “oooh” gesture and continues, “You’ll be playing three different characters and we’ll make our final decision based on your best performance. Have you had a chance to look at the script yet?”

I nod and pull out the stack of papers I’ve highlighted with a yellow marker. “Yes,” I say. “Many times over and I have some questions.”

Neville nods. “Absolutely. You can ask our director in a minute when you meet her. Now, let me show you to your pod.”

With one swift movement, he’s up on his feet, holding the door open for me. I shove the script awkwardly back into my bag and get up from my chair. 

He leads me down a long corridor that’s the kind of white that blinds your eyes, peppered with the latest tech, oozing money and power. Our footsteps sound almost illegally loud in the thick silence. 

We pass an unlabeled room that’s open and, just before the door closes in my face, I catch a glimpse of a man wearing a helmet lying inside a white pod with a laser-like light scanning his body. 

“Hey, is that the other actor?” I say, pointing at the closed door.

Neville nods. “Sure is.”

“Do you mind if I go say a quick hello? I always like to meet my colleagues.”

Neville gives a slight shake of his head and places his hand lightly on my back, leading me away from the door. “I’m afraid that’s not such a good idea. The Professor has a very specific process that he doesn’t want interrupted.”

“Oh.” I nod and don’t insist. Far be it from me to interrupt a fellow actor’s process. 

“And we’ve arrived.” Neville scans his retina outside another room and I hear the heavy door open with an impressive clunk. “After you.” 

I step in, and am greeted by a white pod, just like in the room we passed by earlier, and a wrinkly, sour-looking woman standing by it. 

“This is Amanda, our genius director,” Neville introduces her. 

I grasp her clammy hand with mine. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I say. The woman forces a smile that looks like a real effort to produce. “Hello,” she manages.

“Rose has some questions about the script,” Neville says brightly, and Amanda’s head snaps toward me. “Oh?” 

“Yes,” I say, pulling the pages out of my bag. “For example, on page 2, Robert says ‘Hello, how are you?’ I was wondering if I could say ‘Hey, what’s up, man?’ instead? I think it would fit his character better.”

Amanda stares at me like you would at moldy cheese and gives me one of those smiles again. “Sure, honey, say ‘What’s up?’” Then she gestures towards the pod. “Lay down there.”

I slide into the smooth bean-shaped device, and Neville helps place a helmet with a reflective surface on my head.

“I don’t know if you’ve experienced a simulation before, Rose, but you’ve never experienced anything like ours,” he enthuses. “Everything feels completely real. You can taste an apple and feel the sun on your skin. You don’t need to move a muscle in the pod. You just move your legs in your mind and, ta-da, your avatar walks.”

“Cool,” I say. 

“Just remember our one cardinal rule. Don’t…”

“…break character,” I complete his sentence.

“That’s right.” He nods approvingly. “Now, if you’re ready, I think we can begin.”

I feel my heart rate go up, not knowing what I’m up against, but as I don’t want to appear difficult by asking too many questions, I just shrug and say “Sure.”

“Marvelous,” Neville trills, then proceeds to push a button on the side of the pod. “Scene 1: Robert,” I hear him say and the next thing I know, I feel water flowing over my hands from a faucet. I look up and startle a little as I see a clean-shaven man staring at me, but then realize it’s just my reflection in the mirror. Well, my avatar’s reflection. Robert. 36 years old. PhD in experimental physics. Best friend of the Professor. 

Neville wasn’t kidding. This tech is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I locate the hand towels quickly, wipe my hands dry, taking a second to marvel at how I can feel the texture of the paper rubbing against my skin. But then, since time’s a-wastin, I snap back to my current reality, to page 1 of the script, and step out of the men’s room.

“Whoa!”

I literally bump into a man with a bushy beard and thick black glasses.

That’s the Professor, I hear Amanda’s voice in my ear, and my startlement switches into a friendly smile. “Hey, what’s up, man?” I say with my character’s deep bass. “Sorry about that. You okay?”

“Yeah, fine, fine,” the Professor says absent-mindedly.

“Yeah?” I say, returning to the script. “And how’s the project?”

“The project…” the Professor says but instead of finishing that thought, he does the very thing Neville warned me about — he flips the script. 

His gaze drops and his body starts to tremble, and I realize he’s crying. I freeze for a second, but then my improvisation training kicks in.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” my bass voice says and I land my big manly hand on his shoulder. The Professor keeps sobbing.

“You wanna talk about it, man?” 

When he still doesn’t answer, I hook my arm around his neck. “Come on,” I say and start leading him towards the men’s room where I figure we can talk more privately. But just as we reach the door, he stops and looks up at me, his gaze turning steely. He flicks my hand off his shoulder as if it were a tarantula and shakes his head at me. “Robert would never do that,” he says, and I realize I might have just blown my shot. But before I can rectify the situation, I feel the helmet being removed from my head and then I’m back to the old me again.

I sit up, giving my brain a second to adjust to the quick change of scenery. Neville’s smiling at me like you do to a child who missed the goal but still tried their best. I look up at Amanda, whose eyes are fixed on her tablet, not at me, and realize the gravity of the situation. “I blew it, didn’t I?”

Neville offers a calming gesture. “No, no, no, don’t worry about that. This was just the first scene. Remember, we’re using the best out of the three.”

I give another glance at Amanda, who’s still not looking at me. “Maybe I could get some feedback?” I say. “To understand what I did wrong?”

Upon realizing that Amanda is more interested in staring at her tablet than actually directing me, Neville jumps in. “It’s just that men of that generation don’t usually go to the restroom together. That’s why the Professor called you out. But don’t worry, we have now rebooted and you will start again in another role.”

Ugh, of course! I could kick myself. I did so much preparation for my new role as a guy and yet I managed to break that one fundamental rule of dudedom. I just hope that I do better next time around.

Neville holds out the helmet for me. “I must apologize. We’d normally give you more time to recuperate between the scenes but since we’re in a little bit of a time crunch…”

“I understand,” I say and put the helmet on. “I’m ready for my next scene.”

Neville smiles gratefully. “Very well. Here we go, then.” He pushes the button. “Scene 2: Christy.” 

And then the next thing I know is I’m sitting in an office, staring at my reflection on a window to my right. I’m a woman in her early 40s, and boy am I stunning with my long wavy red hair cascading over my shoulders, framing my graceful oval face. 

I hear the door unlock and in walks the Professor. He stops in his tracks and stares at me, bewildered. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, hello to you, too,” I purr. “Do I need a reason to see my husband?”

He shakes his head with a little smile and comes to give me a peck on the lips. 

I pat the brown paper bag next to me. “I brought lunch.”

“You’re an angel,” he breathes and sits down on the chair opposite me. 

So far everything is going according to the script.

“So, how’s your day so far?” I say and my simulation husband looks down. “Fine,” he says.

I let a moment pass between us, then take his hand, just like in the script. “Come on, I know my husband,” I say, “I know when something’s on your mind.”

He looks up at me, and I notice a slight shimmer in his eyes. I can’t help but marvel at his subtle acting style. He makes everything feel so authentic.

“If anything happens to me,” he whispers in a panicked rush, “I need you to get something for me, to protect you and Cody.”

He’s doing it again — flipping the script.

“What?” I ask with a frown, playing the part of the concerned wife to perfection. “What are you talking about?” 

But the Professor shakes his head. “No. Don’t ask ‘what.’ Ask ‘where,’ and ‘how.’”

I shrug. “Fine. Where? How?”

He nods pointedly. “You know. You of all people, Christy.” 

Before I can say anything else, I hear Amanda in my ear: Ask him to elaborate.

“You need to give me more, honey,” I say with a voice that’s part confused, part terrified.

You will know,” he repeats. “The less I say the better. There’re ears everywhere. All you need to know is that it's in a safe place. Do you understand?”

I don’t understand at all. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that his wife understands. And she would. These characters have been married for fifteen years. 

I nod. “Yes,” I say, offering him a knowing look. “I think I do.”

And then the helmet is being removed from my head again.

My brain takes a second to adjust back to the real me, but when it does, I see Neville looking pleased and even Amanda offers me a tight smile and a nod.

“How did I do?” I ask, still out of breath from the quick change of pace.

Neville flashes his perfect smile. “You nailed it.”

“Yesss!” I say, my excitement only shadowed by the fact that this was the easiest role for me to play — a cisgender straight woman. But I know that the role that’s coming up next is going to be my true trial by fire. 

“I made some changes to the script. Work these in.” 

I flinch as Amanda slaps her tablet onto my lap.

Would it kill you to say ‘please?’ I think, but then scan the changes quickly and look up at her with a perfectly pleasant smile. “Sure thing.”

She nods in tight-lipped approval and Neville helps me back into my helmet. “Again we’re moving at a very quick pace here but are you ready for your final scene, Rose?”

“Ready,” I say.

“Perfect. Scene 3: Cody. Action.”

As soon as he says that and pushes the button, I find myself staring at the Professor’s door. 

From the outside. 

It takes me a moment to adjust to this much smaller body, but when I do, I get right into the action on page 23. 

“Daddy, open up!” my little boy’s voice says as my tiny fists hammer on the door frantically. “Daddy! Daddy!”

There’s a sound of unlocking the door. The Professor appears in front of me, hair disheveled, tie crooked. From this perspective he looks a lot taller than before. He stares at me in disbelief. “Cody? Get in! Quick!”

I do as he says and he locks the door behind me. “What’re you doing here? Where’s Mom?”

This is where I get to demonstrate my versatility as an actor. My bottom lip starts to quiver and my eyes fill with plump tears. “They took Mommy,” I sob.

The Professor squats to my eye level and firmly grips both of my shoulders. “Who? Who?” he repeats, shaking me with each word. 

“The bad guys,” I say and he gets up, looking almost paralyzed by fear, running his fingers nervously through his hair. Again I marvel at his acting ability.

“Mommy told me to tell you there’s a map,” I say.

His head snaps in my direction. “What map? Where?”

“Mommy put it in the safe.” This is the change that Amanda added to the script.

The Professor looks at me, wide-eyed. “What the hell was she thinking putting it there?”

“Daddy you said ‘hell.’” 

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he runs to the wall with a picture of his family — my scene 2 and scene 3 characters —, and opens it as if it were the cover of a book, revealing a rectangular steel safe behind it. 

I hold my breath. I can sense Amanda’s eyes zeroing in on his hands, now poised over the keypad. Her intrusive, thirsty gaze prying where it’s not wanted makes me suddenly feel sick to my stomach. 

A memory is nudging at the back of my mind. “Robert would never do that,” said the Professor in the first scene. 

He broke character. Why would he go against the one cardinal rule? 

Unless, of course, he didn’t.

The words come out of my mouth unannounced, no louder than a whisper: “There’s no map.”

My simulation father stops his hand in mid-air and turns to look at me. “What?” he says.

I clear my throat. “There’s no map.” I speak with more conviction now, although my heart’s pounding. None of this was in the script. 

“Then why did you say there was, buddy?”

I shrug, my gaze downcast. “I dunno.”

There’s a short silence, then a gentle hand ruffles my hair. “It’s okay,” the Professor whispers, then kneels next to me and lifts my chin, looking into my eyes. “Listen. There’s something I need you to know.” He pulls me into a tight hug, his mouth so close to my ear that I know no other person can hear what he says next: “Some bad guys are trying to get what’s inside that safe,” he whispers. “They’ll do anything to get it. If they take me, I need you to remember these numbers and keep them a secret.” And then he whispers a sequence of numbers in my ear, repeating them over and over, until I feel my helmet being removed from my head, and I’m back in my body again.

My head’s spinning and my heart’s in my throat as my gaze travels around the room. No Amanda in sight, only Neville. He’s smiling, but it feels just a tad forced, something my acting coach would point out as “disingenuous.” 

He clears his throat. “I see you took some liberties with the script.”

I speak, my voice just the right level of bright: “Improvisation is one of my fortes. I wanted to show you that I can think on my feet.”

“I see.”

A silence passes between us. 

“Just out of curiosity,” he says at last. “What did the Professor whisper into your ear at the end?”

I give him a smile. An innocent, sweet, naive, and totally believable smile. Because that’s what I do; I’m an actor. A damn good one. And right now I’m acting the part of the clueless little girl they’ve written me off as. 

“He told me I did good,” I say with not so much as a blink. Then I say goodbye, rise from the pod, step into the elevator, and exit this high tech building – all without ever breaking character.

May 16, 2024 05:52

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3 comments

Daniel R. Hayes
22:08 May 23, 2024

Oh, wow, this was really good! I thought it was super creative and they way you wrote it was fantastic. The dialogue and cool descriptions brought this story to life. The ending was awesome. I bet you could keep this going like a series. It's that good. I know the word limits are a pain sometimes, but you added so much and I applaud you! Great job!! :)

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Katariina Ruuska
07:04 May 24, 2024

Thank you so much for your super nice comment, Daniel :)! I appreciate you taking the time to read it! Good luck in the contest!!

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22:19 May 24, 2024

Love it

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