It is cold in the place between the bubbles, a permeating, omni-present chill born of nothingness and space and of the void of life. HE drifted from non-place to non-place, HIS mind swirling and flitting from one thought to another in the madness of solitude and loss, the few motes of what had been HIS people scattered and distant, out of HIS grasp and shielded by their powers from HIS hatred, and HE drifted alone by the place of HIS shattering, HIS thoughts never settling on one thing for long as the bubble beside him vibrated and swirled with the energies that kept HIM at bay. And then, something happened. A tendril of stuff reached out from another, distant bubble, twisting and writhing through the nothing as it reached out with some unknown purpose, disturbing the void with its substance. HE saw the tendril, and wondered at it, amazed that it could exist and that those in the bubble it came from were able to create such a thing. HE had thought such a thing impossible, for the bubbles to reach out to each other. HE floated slowly over to it, and wrapped HIS consciousness around it, touching and tugging at it with what little power HE still retained, seeking to determine its purpose and how it could have been formed. But no matter how HE prodded, its origin was a mystery. No matter. Perhaps HE could make use of it. HE watched it as it continued to grow and shift and twist into the void, reaching out towards the other bubbles of life, but HE soon realized that the tendril lacked the strength to reach the bubble HE needed it to. HE had to help it, it HAD to reach! HE began to feed it HIS power slowly, carefully, shaping and directing it towards the bubble HE craved. HE could not shape it too fully, or pour too much power into it, lest HE not be able to make use of the connection for lack of power. HE fed it slowly, gently, patiently, letting it keep reaching and growing slowly and evenly through the void, guiding and shaping it with HIS power as it traveled. It took what seemed like years, but soon HE felt the pull of the bubble gripping the tendril and guiding it of its own accord, and HE pulled HIS power back from it slowly, allowing it to push through the energies that blocked HIM, and HE felt a small hole opening in them, and knew HE was finally free.
A short burst of energy slammed into the wall as Seth jumped forward and dove behind what little cover he could find behind the pillars that dotted the small room he and his squad had been pushed back to. Daring to glance back out at the advancing enemy forces, he nearly paid for his curiosity as a sniper blast slammed mere centimeters from his eye, and he jerked back with a curse as shrapnel scattered against his failing shields, then cursed again as one of his squadmate’s indicators went silent, a blast from the sniper that had nearly killed him claiming yet another of his friends. He steeled himself, clicking a small button on his arm that allowed him to feed more energy to his shields, and felt the energy faltering around him, barely pumping the shields at all, and knew this was the end. He surged around the corner, dropping his gun firmly into a firing solution as he began to spray the last of his ammunition at the advancing monsters. The rest of his squad followed suit, charging forward in a mad, last-ditch effort to at least accomplish their mission before they died, but they were going silent too fast, much, much too fast. Seth’s gun snapped from enemy to enemy, a blaze of flame erupting from the muzzle as he cut them down, and he was gratified to see many more of them fall than his own squad, but there were still far more to kill, and his squad was down to ten, then eight, then five as a grenade hit a small group of them before they could disperse, then finally the sniper’s blast slammed into Seth’s forehead, and everything went black.
“SHIT!” He snarled, slamming the controller down onto the desk beside him as his computer screen lit up with a flowing script announcing accusingly MISSION FAILED. “Shit shit shit!” He slammed his hand into the desk beside his keyboard angrily, and added a “Dammit!” for good measure as he made the gesture to advance the screen, his Headset interpreting his action as his hand moved through the air, watching lines of text and numbers flowing along it, announcing his squad’s losses and kills and points. Too low. His score was too low for him to be happy about his contribution, and he slammed his hand into the keyboard again, the image flickering slightly in his vision as his Headset’s connection went wonky from the impact, and his eyes widened slightly in surprise as he forced himself to take a slow, deep breath to calm himself down.
“Hey, calm down, man. It’s just a game.” One of the randoms assigned to his squad said over his Headset, trying to soothe Seth’s anger, and the young man shook his head firmly, sighing.
“I know that. Ugh. I’m just mad because I screwed us so badly. I can’t believe I missed that damn sniper until so late. I’m really sorry. I let you all die, and we failed again.” Seth leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes as he let his anger slowly recede, the adrenaline of that last rush still making him shake powerfully as his hands gripped the arms of his chair. He was a lean, tall, fairly nerdy-looking man in his late 20s, with dark brown, almost black hair and a pinched, angular face that wasn’t unattractive, but wouldn’t be considered handsome by any means, but showed his emotions very clearly and powerfully. His viewers enjoyed watching him as he went through the emotions of each game, his dark green eyes flashing between anger and happiness and frustration almost as fast as he hit the buttons.
“What? Oh! Shit! I didn’t recognize your username! You’re THE CommanderStorm4783? You’re the guy that streams as the ‘responsible gamer,’ right? Dude! I’m a huge fan!” The voice was excited, and Seth opened his eyes, noting the username of the person speaking, DeathSmoke430, and sighed again.
“Yep, that’s me. CommanderStorm4783, the gamer that actually admits he’s not perfect. You’re on stream now, in fact. Say hello to my 7000 viewers. Glad I could entertain for a little bit at least.”
“Dude, that wasn’t your fault at all. It’s my bad. I saw the sniper, but I didn’t go for him because I was trying to get to the objective. I should have taken him out.” Seth sat up again, shaking his head firmly as he waved out of the end of mission screen, shifting back to the chat logs as he watched the usual mix of spam, encouragement and vitriol scrolling up along his window as his viewers picked apart the mission second by second.
“No, you were doing your job going after the objective. I was on overwatch, I should have been paying better attention. Don’t claim failure for doing what you were supposed to. That’s the point of having a team, is to cover each other, and to work together to keep alive. You did fine, and if I'd been paying better attention you would have won the game for us."
"Thanks, man. But I think everyone can have a bit of the blame for it, really. Anyway, speaking of teams, it's been a huge honor playing with you guys, that was a ton of fun. Is it all right if I request to join your guild? I don't have one, and you guys are one of the best to work with."
"Yeah, sure. If there's room for you, you're always welcome. Message Fragk1ng782, he's the moderator for it. He'll send you a copy of our gaming code. As long as you follow it, you've got a place in our group."
"Follow it? I have it memorized! I think you guys have the right idea about how to make games an enjoyable experience for everyone. Thanks so much!" There was a soft ping as the request was sent, and Fragk1ng782 dipped out of the voice chat frequency to process it as Seth started to settle down from the adrenaline and read some of the more interesting topics that were flowing through his stream chat, but it seemed DeathSmoke430 wasn't done yet. "Hey, CommanderStorm4783, have you heard about the new game coming out next year? I know you don't stream a lot of MMOs, but it seems right up your alley. You should see if they'll let you into the closed beta they're starting soon."
"Hm? What game is that? I dunno that I've heard about it. The new MMO? Ugh. They come out with the same thing every year." Seth grumped, but was taken aback when a few seconds later the stream delay caught up with the conversation and his chat erupted with a chorus of emphatic, almost violent agreement that he try to get into the closed beta. He blinked in surprise, and tapped his hand against his chair, thinking.
"I dunno man, this one looks really different. If you want I can link you the info. They just released their first gameplay videos."
"Ugh, sure, I guess. My chat seems to really agree with you that I should play it, so I'll at least give it a look. Give me a second to switch to the desktop view so I can play the video on-stream. What's the game called again?"
"It's called The Soul's Flame, by a new developer: WorldLink enterprises. It's their first game ever, and they're definitely entering the field with a bang. Here's the link. I'm actually switching to watching your stream now, so I can see the video too. I've got the email with your code, and it's just processing my request." There was another, louder ping, and a small letter popped up in the corner of Seth’s HUD showing he had mail. He waved towards it, seeing a link there, which he also clicked, a bit hesitantly, but it opened to what DeathSmoke430 said it would be, and he brought it up on screen to make it visible to his chat.
"All right, cool. Got the link, thanks man. I’m glad to have you in the group, you’ll be a solid addition. We’ll slot you into a group that we feel needs your specialties, so watch for that assignment later.”
“You got it, man. It’s been an honor dying in your team.” DeathSmoke430’s chat bar went dead, and his screenname vanished, showing that he was offline, a small star appearing by his name to show that he was now part of the guild, and Seth shifted his focus back into the game to log out so that it wouldn’t interfere with the video, the sign-offs of the rest of his team fading out as he gave his traditional log-off salute, his avatar jumping into the air and making the rock-on sign as he disappeared. Then, he slowly removed his Headset, his brown hair sticking slightly to his head from the sweat of the game, and set the bulky, slightly odd-looking helmet-like device with the distinctive small fans of electric signal receivers and a deep red, non-standard visor, down beside him, deactivating it to keep it from interfering with his main computer screen, and double-checked to make sure that his stream was properly shifting to show his main screen. It was working properly, and he nodded softly to himself and watched the chat, waiting for them to catch up. A moment later, DeathSmoke430’s name popped up in his stream chat, sending a quick message to affirm his presence, and Seth pulled the game’s homepage back up, shifting the camera angle for his stream to show his face in the left-hand corner of the screen so that he wouldn’t obscure anything. The homepage for the game was fairly elaborate, featuring large, sweeping vistas of grand cities and beautiful forests, at all times of day, paying special attention to dawn and evening, showing the huge graphical values of the game, and the realism of the scenes. Seth’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, and he smiled, clicking a couple of the sunset images to bring them up to full-screen, nodding slightly as he checked out the screenshots.
“All right, so it seems this is something you all want to see me stream, but you know how I feel about MMOs, so let’s see if it manages to push any of my buttons. I am very impressed with the graphics they’re offering, and the sunsets are pretty damn beautiful. There’s a lot of good art direction in this game, and it seems pretty realistic. The fact that this is all in-game is very nice, because it shows that they’ve spent a lot of time making it look as good as they can, and I have to admit, the fact that apparently they don’t have any cutscenes is pretty impressive, so I guess we’ll see if they keep that up the whole way. Looks like the video is a tutorial on the character creation and first few levels, so I guess we’ll give this a shot. So, everyone bring up your trope bingos. Hahaha. And without further ado…” He shifted the mouse to the news article offering the tutorial, and pulling it open to full screen so that the chat could see it better, he clicked play on the video.