Technology for which we've always yearned. The kind where we fully submerge.
IT FINALLY CAME.
Every one of our senses tuned into a game, leaving our bodies in a sleep stasis.
ONE MILLION COPIES SOLD OUT FAST.
Each player logged in, and then the game changed. Difficulty levels spiked, and the world shifted from fantasy to a macabre version of its former self. The logout button didn't work, leaving the players locked within.
NOW THE TRAPPED ARE DYING IRL.
A hacker claimed responsibility. He demanded the best gamer in the world face him, and only then will the nightmare end.
Well lucky for him...
I'M ON MY WAY.
BIT 00: LOADING…
The blonde reporter stood in front of Epic Possibilities’ Game Studio.
“Do not, repeat, do not play the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, Dark Days. All one million players are being held hostage.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I rocked back in my leather gaming chair. Dark Days had sold out in minutes. Everyone was ecstatic to play the first true virtual reality MMORPG.
The reporter grimaced. “It was fun and games until a hacker known as Z attacked the game’s system. Players found themselves unable to log out, and there came a report of spiked difficulty, then communications ceased. One by one, players have died in real life. No one knows what is happening in the game, but it has taken the lives of thousands in just one week.
“Today, the President herself released a warning: ‘If you come into contact with Dark Days and its VR headset, do not log into the game, or you will be trapped. The top cybersecurity experts are working non-stop to release the surviving players.”
Although I hadn’t ordered it, I’d received the VR gear on launch day, addressed in my name; a prize from one tournament or another. MMORPGs weren’t my thing, so I didn’t open it at first. Now I lifted the box from my desk and tore the tape. Inside, I found a copy of Dark Days along with the headset.
The reporter’s voice droned on. “Z has issued one demand—Only when the best gamer in the world reaches the finale of Dark Days and defeats him in battle, will the death end.”
A grin crossed my face as I snapped the micro-game card from its case and popped it into the side of the headset. There was no way I would let this chance pass.
I turned to face my computer and looked at the email sitting on the screen: a letter to my girlfriend Michelle, explaining why I had to break up with her. I clicked send. The next email was for my mom, telling her I would be the hero this time, and not let anyone make so many suffer like we did at the hands of her ex-fiancé. This was my strength and area of expertise. Control freaks didn’t deserve power over people’s lives—sent—and finally one to my grandma who’d raised me for most of my teenage life. I hesitated on the button, feeling a tinge of guilt; an emotion I couldn’t afford.
“Love, Jason.” Sent.
Gaming trophies lined my shelves. My computers and game consoles were the best that existed. The trapped players were in dire need of a hero. If I could save them, I could save myself and find inner peace.
“I am that hero,” I said. “I am… that hero.”
The news report replayed for the twelfth time. It was like a broken record, so I reached for the remote. The last words from the reporter were: “One million players.”
I kicked up my chair’s leg rest and adjusted the headset. It was a snug fit. Within moments a black screen booted up with the simple login and password sections.
“Don’t worry. I’m coming to save everyone, and mark my words, I will defeat Z.”
It took only eye movement to enter a new username, Zycuh Hunpo, along with my typical password, SilentH21.
I stared hard at the login button. “One million and one.”
With a mechanical click, I left my world behind, knowing I might never return.
BIT 01: SPAWNED
Darkness consumed my senses as I fell away from the character creation screen and through a windy tunnel. My body was bare, covered in a silver sheen. Bit by bit, clothing appeared. First came jet-black boots, followed by dark pants that climbed to my waist. An armored vest manifested on my torso, a longsword on my hip, and a knee-length coat materialized. With a final blast of air, I landed on one knee, sending out a small cloud of dust.
The only light came from a massive crimson moon in the night sky. In all directions were crooked and broken trees. I crinkled my nose as a foul stink floated past. I couldn’t place it, but the stench made its way to my taste buds, tasting like tar. Gross, but impressive for a video game.
Standing, I held out my hands, testing each finger. I bent and curled them into tight fists as my leather gloves crunched and rubbed against my skin. I moved my legs, taking a few steps forward, then back. Finally, I toed the dirt, making a small design.
“Calibration seems about right, and the dirt is realistic; great attention to detail. Epic Possibilities outdid themselves with Dark Days.”
Coldness jolted up my spine, making my neck hairs stand on end. Eyes were on me, but from where? I couldn’t see far enough to tell. Did I have to train my senses?
My hand found its way to my sword hilt. A heads-up display screen flashed before my eyes with a list of menu items. I didn’t have time to check anything, for movement in the shadows caught my attention.
“What first-level monsters are they throwing my way? Dire rats?” I grinned and drew my sword with a metallic shing. The realism had me awestruck.
My wonder ended as a creature stepped from the trees. It towered over me by at least three feet. Standing on two bent legs, it came equipped with lanky arms, ending in vicious claws.
“So, you’re my first opponent?” I eyed the hairy canine-humanoid. “Let me see what they call you.”
I focused in on the monster and a red bar appeared above its head with the number ten. Fading into existence came the title Damned Werewolf.
It swung its arm as I snapped out my sword. Sparks flew as claw met blade. I stumbled from the force of the attack, smacking back-first into a tree.
I wheezed, “Level ten in a starting area? What the hell?”
The Werewolf growled and bared its fangs, gunky black goo dripping from its maw. I held my sword before me and tried to look at the menu. A section labeled Skills hovered in the middle of the list. Scrolling with my eyes, I clicked on it. The menu popped open as the wolf pounced, jaws snapping for my throat. I ducked and rolled away, pressing against another tree. Back in the menu, I found rows of blank boxes with one highlighted near the top. It read, Lightning Jab. I focused on the skill and thrust my sword forward so fast I almost lost balance.
The wolf’s ears pricked and it looked at its ribs where my sword had grazed. Growling, it turned its eyes back on me, having only the tiniest speck of life missing.
“Okay,” I said. “This is not a place for level-one players.”
The Werewolf lunged again, and for a second time, I ducked. This time I kept moving, running as fast as my legs could carry me. I dodged into the trees, my feet pounding the dirt. A silence-shattering howl came from a few yards away. The ground shook under the monster’s chasing gait as my heart raced and my pulse thundered in my ears.
I shook my head. “This is ridiculous.”
The wolf came within range of making another attack, and with the level gap between us, it would be a quick death. I spun and brought my sword straight as claws raked at my face. My weapon caught the attack, keeping the wolf an inch from the tip of my nose.
“Holy crap!” I said, racing through the menus. I only held three small health potions. Not useful enough. I tried to hold the beast at bay, but it pushed me back inch by inch.
The wolf broke its hold and slashed, knocking my sword to the side. My eyes flew wide as a burning pain ripped through my chest. I glanced at the wound and found no blood, but instead missing pixels. I ducked another slash and backed away.
My green health bar had fallen to a tenth. The damn thing had taken ninety hit points in one attack.
“Okay, more running.” I spun and burst back through the trees. Summoning forth a health potion, I chugged it. My HP rose, but the potion only gave me twenty points. I summoned the next two potions as I continued to run and drank those too, but they left me low enough to die from one more hit.
I squeezed between two narrow trees and popped out the other side, only to trip over a root and land on a dirt road. With haste, I leaped to my feet and looked both ways. Sword at the ready, I waited for the wolf to race around the trees and attack, but it didn’t. Had I left its threat range?
Ten silent seconds later my health meter restored to full.
“Health regeneration?” I slumped forward, hands on my knees. “At least there are friendly elements in Dark Days.”
A loud clopping came from the road. I brandished my sword, ready to attack whatever moved, although it’d likely kill me at my level.
Instead of a vicious monster, a mighty horse pranced along the road. With a coat of coal and fiery eyes, it snorted smoke from its nostrils. I focused. Despite its terrifying, muscular display, it had a yellow health bar with no apparent level. Yellow hopefully meant non-hostile.
It approached, drawing an old wooden carriage. On the driver’s bench sat a hunched figure with a tall hat and fancy party coat. When the carriage neared, I stepped aside. The driver pulled back on the reins and lifted his head with a pop.
The near-skeletal man had a blue health bar and his level showed question marks. He seemed to pose no threat.
I exhaled. “A Non-player Character.”
“Hello,” the man said, turning his head to regard me. “I see you are new here.”
“Hello, my name is Zycuh Hunpo, and I arrived in this forest.”
“It’s dangerous out here.” The man waved his hand. “Many rabid beasts wander these trees. I daresay some are even watching us now.”
“This zone is way too difficult for level one.” I raised my eyes. “Are you part of a quest line?”
A white question mark appeared above his head.
“That answers that. What’s the quest?” I asked.
The man pointed to the carriage. “I’m offering rides into town. Although, I cannot say it is much safer these days. If you would like a lift, I will give you one, free of charge.”
“Then come aboard, Zycuh Hunpo”
He pronounced my name correctly—an effective algorithm. Most games didn’t pronounce names, let alone ones made up by the player.
The carriage door opened and I pulled myself inside, shutting the hatch. I slumped into a creaky wooden seat, took a deep breath, and closed my eyes.
“Thank gosh,” I said.
From outside came the snap of reins and the carriage rolled again. I leaned forward and looked at the floor, having a moment of safety to examine the menu. Scrolling to the stats page, I checked out my gear.
“Blader Coat, only five defense. Longsword has an attack of six.”
My stats showed to the side: Strength, Vitality, Speed, Dexterity, and Arcana. Each was below ten; my strength boasted only a nine. Dismal.
A series of loud howls came from outside. I jumped back in my seat, reaching for my sword, but it was stuck in its sheath. I tugged, but couldn’t draw it. Was the carriage a safe zone?
The howls faded away, and I sighed. “I think they gave up, thank gosh.”
A voice came from within the carriage.
“Well, that was indeed terrifying, wasn’t it?”
I screeched and pressed into the corner. A figure leaned from the shadows. Had he been there all the time?
With pale skin and wearing a top hat, he bore a long scar over his left eye. He had a green health bar labeled with the number three. Another player, and a higher level one at that.
“Hello,” he said.
I sighed. “Greetings and salutations.”
“You didn’t notice me?” His name manifested above him: Chyld of Pandora. “You can call me Pan.” He grinned, and I couldn’t help but notice a chill run down my spine once again. “May I call you Zeeka?”
“No.” I rolled my eyes. “It’s pronounced zye-koo. The NPC gets it right, and you get it wrong?”
“My apologies.” Pan gave a solemn nod. “I haven’t seen another player in a few days, you know. I thought the madman Z had wiped everyone out.”
“No other players?” My eyes widened. “One million began the game—well, now one million and one.”
“You’re that one, I see. After being dropped into a hacked starting area, you’re lucky to be alive.”
“I know. What kind of damned game is this?”
“As you said.” Pan sat back in his seat, holding a cane in his lap. “A damned one.”
“I thought this was gonna be easy.”
“Anything but…” Pan sighed. “But it’s understandable that you didn’t see me. I’ve been perfecting my stealth aptitude since the game began. If the enemy cannot see you, there’s no reason to worry.”
“What class are you?”
“Assassin.” He tipped his hat. “A favorite of mine in all games.”
“I’m a Blader.”
He frowned. “Oh… A melee-only class. You’ll be dead within the hour.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Only that you’ve chosen the weakest class in the game. You would have been better off choosing Creature Tamer as a starting point. Noobs always make things so difficult for themselves.”
“I’m no noob!” I said.
“Then what are you? You joined this game after a week, knowing the people who are stuck inside are dying every day.”
I stuck my thumb to my chest. “I joined to defeat Z.”
Pan looked at the ceiling. “Ah, I have my answer.”
“And that is?”
“You’re an idiot. No one can beat this game. We’ll all die here… but let’s make the best of it.”
He didn’t understand my skill at games. He didn’t even know me. I ranked among the best in the country.
“Well, Zycuh, it seems we’ve arrived.”
“Where?” I glanced out the window. Before us was a city filled with buildings, short and tall, each in the style of Victorian England.
Something was wrong; something morbid and terrifying. Around the city’s outer walls hung bodies, names above their heads. Strips of barbed wire held them; dried blood crusted to their every contour. NPCs or players, the scene was awful.
I stared in horror. “What is this?”
Pan lowered his head. “Our own personal Hell.”