Theodore looked at the setting sun. Winter was coming, and days were getting progressively shorter. He had to prepare himself for the cold. Winter was a demon for Canadian people, especially since the global freezing the world knew some years ago, as the media would put it.
His feet didn’t stop walking through the crowd packed streets. School was averagely close to his home, half an hour’s walk.
His thoughts couldn’t stop whirling around Origin. It seemed like an interesting game, but from the details he heard from his friend, it was doomed to become boring in a while. He didn’t want to invest time in such a thing.
Theodore wondered about what to pass time with once he got home. His life had become boring lately. It was partially due to him losing interest in everything. He considered for a moment, and then decided to visit his friend Eduard. He was living quite close to his house. Hopefully he would be home, he prayed in his heart.
They weren’t in the same school, as Theodore had opted for the farther high school from his house. He had wanted to be in an environment where no one knew him. He preferred not interacting much with his peers. They were just too different, and dealing with each other would only bring harm to both parties.
He didn’t need to pay attention to directions, as his feet were already used to the whole neighborhood. He paused for a moment, and gazed at an empty alley between two ordinary houses. A look of reminiscence crossed his face for a second, before disappearing.
One of the voices took the opportunity to chime in:
‘You are bound forever’
A smile tugged at Theodore’s lips, as he resumed walking. ‘Yeah right’, he thought sarcastically. Not that the voice would answer. It seemed oblivious to his existence. If at least they could converse properly, it would be less annoying. Having an insane voice screaming randomly inside his head was grating his nerves. He couldn’t even understand what the voices were talking about.
He wondered if he should talk about it with Ms. Ginger. His weird issues must be already be annoying enough to her, and it didn’t seem wise to top it off with something as ridiculous as this. She may end up having a fit of hysteria.
He chuckled. Sometimes he wondered if she was actually the patient to be treated here.
He stopped walking. He had already reached his destination. The two stories lavish house of Ed stood in front of him. His face sported a genuine smile as he ringed the bell. He heard a groan, and the sound of footsteps as someone made way toward the door. As it opened, an annoyed face came into view:
“Theodore”. His voice was full of weariness.”What the hell do you want? I’m busy here”
Eduard was an odd fellow. He could do anything, be it sports, games or studies, but excelled in nothing. The word ‘normal’ would never be a better fit for anyone else in the world. He was so normal that it was weird and creepy.
He had short, curly brown hair, brown eyes, and average height. From the look on his face, Theodore was clearly unwelcome.
“You won’t let me inside? I was just want to have a short chat with you”
He saw Eduard’s brows furrowing in thought, annoyance not leaving his face.
“Why are you even hesitating about it? Shouldn’t you be happy to have your friend at your house?”
Eduard glared at him, and said:
“You already knew I am in the middle of playing at this time, and yet you always choose it visit”. He rolled his eyes. “What meaning is there for it besides you wanting to annoy me?”
Theodore tried to act like he was hurt, and failed at it miserably. Eduard’s glare intensified.
“Are you really going to keep me outside like this? This isn’t a proper wa-”
Eduard shut the door. Theodore couldn’t hold himself from chuckling. His friend was really starting to get annoyed by his antics. His hand went for the bell, again, again, and again. The door opened fully this time, and Eduard stood glaring at him.
“What do you exactly …? Fuck, just go inside”
He made way, and Theodore went inside, bypassing a glaring Eduard.
His friend was living alone in the house. He was the only child of parents who spent all their time traveling around the world. He felt slightly envious, thinking of Charles and Chloe. Why were they able to have so much fun around the world? He then wondered how those two oddballs could have such a normal son. True, he was so normal that it became abnormal, but such normalcy shouldn’t be found in the offspring of those two.
Eduard closed the door and started walking toward the living room. The house was as tidy as always. Loyal as always to his meticulousness, Theodore’s friend was also good at tidying the house. He really couldn’t be the offspring of those two messy people.
A thought then struck him, shattering all his beliefs. If Ed really liked Origin, a VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role playing Game) no normal person would like, then there was no way he would be a normal person…
Theodore felt like he had been living in an illusion till now. He started panting. All their friendship was built on lies. He felt everything shattering around him. In a slightly hysterical voice, he croaked:
“So… you are abnormal…”
Eduard stopped in his tracks, and turned at him, his face showing a mixture of surprise and incredulity, followed by a weary expression. He sighed and turned, clearly ignoring him.
Theodore tried to bring up the matter again, but then noticed. His friend’s normalcy was in him being able to do anything, but excel in nothing. That also meant he could be able to be abnormal, but not excel at it. He promised himself to think about it more in depth later.
As they made it into the living room, Eduard sat a sofa, and not inviting Theodore to sit, he said:
“Don’t start fucking around now. Why did you come?”
Theodore chose to not answer. Instead, he turned his head, looking around the house. In what he recognized as Eduard’s room, he saw blinking light from the small opening in the door. He turned toward his friend, hoping he’ll buy the apologetic act and said:
“So you were about to go online? No wonder you looked so pissed off…”. A look of realization crossed his face, trying to divert the subject. “Origin, right? Just what do you like about it?”
He knew he was always annoying his friend with his childish behavior, but he couldn’t stop himself, as he was one of the few people he could be at ease and natural with.
Eduard stared at him for a while then opened his mouth, sighing, and said:
“You need to try the game to understand. The online descriptions aren’t showing its real worth”
Theodore went for another sofa and sat down. His hand sweeping a hair lock of his grey hair to the side. It was getting a bit long, already at eye level. He should cut some of it later. His grey eyes looked back at his friend, and he said:
“But do you seriously think there cab be some fun without monsters? Fighting monsters had been repetitive in the last VR games, but it still has its charms”
Ed seemed to ponder a little. He hesitated a bit before saying:
“Do you know that we, players, are waging war against Non Player Characters in the starting country Brenton?”
Theodore lifted an eyebrow.
“No, the NPCs just reacted badly to the arrival of players. Very badly. The level of realism of that game is too much”. Ed chuckled. “Of course no normal country would want weird people appearing and disappearing as they want on their soil, right?”
Theodore still found it hard to believe… And very interesting.
“Are you sure it’s not a scripted event?”
Ed sighted, and waved his hand dismissively.
“Look at the first beta players’ arrival on the net. One of them made a video of everything. You will understand everything then. It’s one hell of a game that makes you forget that it’s a game. You won’t regret trying it”
Theodore was almost convinced. Almost. He then remembered.
“So you want me to play a game with pain settings of 100%? Sorry Eduard, but playing Yggdrasil with pain settings of 50% was painful enough”. He vehemently shook his head. “I will never try such craziness again”
Eduard smirked, remembering those days. He looked at Theodore with eyes where pity and mockery swirled, and said:
“So, someone who was cooked alive with 50% pain settings is having problems with 100% pain of stabbing? Quite funny”
Theodore smiled weakly. He wished if he could erase that experience from his memory. He had bathed in the fiery breath of a dragon, all because of his arrogance. He hesitated for some seconds, and then asked:
“So… how are you coping with the pain?”
Eduard revealed a pained expression, and said:
“I still can’t get used to it. It’s painful as fuck. It’s a great motivator though. You struggle like a beast in order to avoid the pain”
Theodore chuckled, trying to imagine it. He then frowned. Why fight like a beast to avoid the beast, if you could just not fight or play the game at all? Ed’s voice woke him up from his reverie:
“Theodore, I won’t force you into playing, but don’t judge it before trying” Ed stood up, and then crunched his face. “I want to play now though, and there is no way I’ll leave you alone here. Having you here alone is more dangerous than owning a nuke”
Theodore frowned in confusion.
“How am I supposed to feel after hearing that I’m better than a nuke? Should I feel happy?”
“Feel whatever you want, just get the fuck out”
Ed went and opened the door wide. Theodore sighed and walked toward it. He heard his friend again:
“If you start playing the game, choose Brenton as your starting country”
Theodore stopped and with a small smile, lifted an eyebrow at Ed.
“Why? You said there is a war there. I don’t think that’s a playing ground for a beginner”
“Brenton is the only country where players have a foothold. In some other starting countries, NPCs have started a witch hunt, or better to say a player hunt. Once they spot a player, they’ll keep burning him alive till he quit the game”
Theodore opened his mouth, his thoughts completely coming to a halt. He closed his mouth, and then opened it, only to close it and open it again, unable to find proper words. After some moments, his voice came filled with shock:
“They are burning them alive with 100% pain transmitters?! Who the fuck would continue that game?! And shouldn’t the developers interfere?”
“The company that made the game wouldn’t interfere in any way, they have no reason to. You can only start the game after making a contract about them having no responsibilities, and only people above 16 years old can play. The government is silent too, for nobody knows why”
“It must be because of bribes. I’m surprised there are no manifestations in the street yet. People wouldn’t stay silent about it”. Theodore put a hand on his chin. “Makes me wonder why someone would make such a game. It wouldn’t give much profit”
The pods were very famous for being completely safe. No matter what situation you were in, with pain settings two times more than in reality, you won’t have any effect on your real body. The same couldn’t be said about the mind. Some people could have some lasting traumas because of those experiences. Theodore shuddered, and his hand went clawing at his left arm.
“Remember to start in Brenton if you feel like playing Origin”
The young man nodded mindlessly at Eduard’s words, and he went through the door, not paying him any attention. His hand gripped his left arm tightly. He went straight home, his thoughts in disarray.
As he went into his residential bloc, his mind became clearer. He had to know more about Origin.
He went up the stairs, unlocked the door and went in. His apart lighted up on its own. It was small and had simple furniture. A small bedroom and a kitchen. He put his pad on a table, and his feet went to the big pod in his room. It had been expensive in the first months after its advent, but now after ten years, it had become pretty cheap, thanks to the help various organizations provided in the production.
The virtual pod was a grey oval shaped device. It had a screen in its side for controls. His hand went for it, and he scrolled various publicities till he found it. Origin. He considered for a moment. He thought of people burned alive.
He had to face his trauma head on if he ever wanted to overcome it, had said Ms. Ginger last time.
He clicked on the buy button. The game wasn’t that cheap. He would have to sit tight on money this week. At least, he wouldn’t have school for two months. He could work part time in these holidays.
He went back to the kitchen and took his pad. With a quick search on the net, he found what he wanted. The first log in into origin. The video was fairly popular. It would have been best with the 3D visualizer, but he would make do with what he had. He made some food to eat, and then started watching.
It started with five players appearing in a plaza. The surroundings seemed a bit similar to all the medieval fantasy games he had played. The players were wearing shitty leather armor and wool pants, and had a rusty dagger behind their belts. The usual beginner equipment. Four guys and a girl. The girl smiled at the boy near her, and held his hand. He smiled warmly back at her. They must be a couple. The others eyed each other and the surroundings carefully. Some people that looked like merchants were looking at them with wide eyes. The plaza wasn’t that full, and their arrival was noticed by everyone. A man looking like a guard drew his sword, panic appearing on his face. He shouted something. It was in Bhama. It meant something along the lines of intruder and attack.
The guard approached the players with caution. People around them started backing down, but some remained, very curious or still stupefied. The players only looked around, not understanding much. Theodore could understand them. Even in games with very high realism and very intelligent AIs, the NPCs never reacted this way to the coming of the players, unless it was an already prepared event. The guard, ever so cautious, asked them about who they were and how they did get there. His words had a dialect that made it very different from the Bhama they learnt at school, or heard in games.
The players couldn’t answer. What could they say? One volunteered and said had come from another world. The guard then glared at them. He eyed the daggers behind their belts, and his glare intensified. Footsteps were heard behind them. The guard slightly relaxed. Help was coming. He told the player to come without resistance. They were to be imprisoned and interrogated.
The players looked at each other, then at the soldiers that were coming from behind. The four guys nodded, about to comply, but the girl got angry and cried out about NPCs getting cocky. Theodore frowned. The girl must have been a complete novice in games. It was obvious it was a scripted event. The best would be to comply in order to start the game properly. The guard looked at her uncomprehending, but his grip on his sword tightened, clearly feeling the hostility in her words. He pushed her forward, saying something about her shutting up before he shoved his sword up her little cunt.
Her boyfriend, supposedly, took it upon him to protect her, as he caught the hand of the guard. One of the soldier’s sword flashed, and the boyfriend’s hand got cut off. He screamed, clutching his arm, and Theodore shuddered. 100% wasn’t something to be trifled with. The girl looked at her lover in horror, then drew her dagger in a clumsy manner and stabbed the guard pushing her. The dagger went into his throat. Blood started sprouting out. He threw his sword and tried to stop the blood with no avail.
The girl threw herself at the sword, but a soldier’s spear pierced her in the gut. She fell, not having the strength to scream.
Two of the remaining players just backed down slightly from the scene, got on their knees and lifted their hands in submission. The last player looked at everything while still stupefied, then lifted his hand, made some signs in the air, and winked out of existence. His log out drew the attention of the soldiers, who just stood uncomprehending, before hitting the last two players and asking them about the escapee’s whereabouts, clearly angry about the death of the guard. The video ended.
Theodore didn’t move from his chair, his mind still processing what he just saw. He felt like the hostility directed toward the players was too much. He looked at the video’s description. All this happened in a frontier city of Gobath. It wasn’t in Brenton. He remembered his friend’s words about a war with NPCs. Did really such a simple event escalate into a war? He frowned. It must be something else. There were burnings in other countries unrelated to this country, and that meant there was something more to it.
He scrolled down. There were thousands of comments. He read some of them briefly, and then started reading more. After some moments, he stopped and sighed. It made sense. Later, new players had found out that Gobath was in war with another country. The starting city the players had appeared in in the video was usually under attack. The citizens and soldiers were suspecting anyone to be enemies spies, especially some people that appeared out of thin air.
Was all of this a scripted thing, or was everything because of the players’ actions? Numerous questions swirled in Theodore’s head. Why were players burned?
He made a new search. He found the video he wanted. He hesitated for a bit, and then steeling his nerves, he clicked on it.
A man was attached to a wooden pole. His hands and feet were tied to it. A lot of people, wearing peasant clothes were around him. They were screaming something. All their faces looked gaunt and haggard from malnutrition.
A short man was carrying a torch. As dry branches and pieces of wood were piled under the tied up man, the short one approached. The player tried to move his hands, and to make signs with his fingers with no avail. He was tied up very tightly. No sound made it out of his mouth, muffled by the cloth put inside it. He had no mean to log out.
Two other peasants approached and poured a black liquid on the player. The short man threw his torch at the pile of wood. It ignited instantaneously. Theodore shuddered, his hand clawing again at his left arm.
The player twisted. The fire slowly expanded over his body, burning through the thick black liquid covering him. Fire got to his mouth, burning the cloth inside. He started screaming. His eyes started melting. The fire glazed more powerfully, and covered him entirely. Nothing could be seen anymore but a big pillar of fire.
Theodore put a stop to the video, got up and started pacing. His hand couldn’t leave his left arm. He could remember his fight with the fire dragon, back then when he was playing Yggdrasil. He had been burned to death then. His breathing became ragged. He could remember everything becoming red, before becoming black. He could feel the pain in his eyes. He could remember the feeling of his blood boiling and then evaporating, of his flesh melting. He could remember that scorching heat. Though he had felt but 50% of the pain, being burned by the fire of a dragon was far more painful than being burned like in the video. His fingers tightened on his left arm.
He breathed deeply, and looked at his pod. The game was ready to be played; only he had to be ready. Never in his seventeen years had he felt so anxious and scared. He changed his clothes, and ate the remaining of his food. He stood in front of his pod, thinking, his gray eyes not leaving it.
He activated the pod, chose Origin as the main game, and went in.