Dedicated to a fellow writer.
<to be updated at a later date>
What is reality anyway?
What is real to one person, is it real to another?
It's what I hear, all the time; if real people are involved,
but the place is not real, it means the people cannot feel real things.
But... if that's the case...
... then why are we writing at all?
The night sky was stretched out above us, pinprick stars scattered like glitter over black velvet. It was immense, and the weight of it felt heavy on my mind. How far away…? Light-years and light-years away, I knew, but the longer I stared, the more the facts blurred together and became easily summarized by one word: fear.
'Actually, I think it's more… awe…' the gentle voice cut through my thoughts.
I glanced next to me at the speaker. 'Awe?'
Jonathon nodded, scratching at the grizzly stubble on his chin. 'Yeh, it's awe, not fear. Fear is when you're scared of something bad... this isn't particularly bad, it's just… too big for a human mind to handle. Although... then again, it's so big that I suppose something truly fearful could be hidden in plain sight, and we could miss it, won't notice until it's too late... fear of the dark, of the unknown...'
How did he know what I was thinking? Never mind, he did that a lot, guessing what was on my mind with ease. But as for his statement, the thought was intriguing for me, and I pondered over it while my eyes still rested on his face. Unremarkable as he was, there were moments like this when his hazel eyes burned with a passion, a desire to know everything, to think about everything… and I found my cheeks burning and my heart racing.
Teenage crushes are embarrassing, but ever the skeptic I kept telling myself it would pass. Firstly, most obviously, Jonathan was five years older than me. Maybe for people in their eighties, that's not a big deal, but when you're sixteen, it's a bit of a difference between 'teenager' and 'adult'. Secondly, I may have said that he looked unremarkable, but then again, I was no better, just a skinny, bland girl. A nobody. Why was I even out here, in the middle of nowhere? Father thought a camping trip might help us "reconnect", but after booking an RV that, in his own words, was "so big" it would be too lonely, he also managed to somehow convince the computer-dependent Jonathan to come along with us. Jonathan, the man I'd had a crush on since I was thirteen but who always seemed to be living on another planet, ended up sleeping every night on the bunk below mine.
I stared at his profile. Skinny faced with huge, thick-rimmed glasses, ever-present stubble, and loose reddish-brown hair that grew in a tangle mess, it was hard to call him physically "attractive". It's not something I even said, it was simply a fact that I'd heard whispered around the office before, and among my school friends. The girls from class sometimes came for sleepovers to my place, and if Jonathan was also over, working on a project with my father, I heard the girls snickering about him, the "ugly nerd". But for me, at that age, I noticed something else. His passion. Somehow, I looked at him, saw that blazing passion in his eyes and I knew it as something amazing and special... no, it was more selfish a thought than that. I wanted him to talk about me like that-! He turned, frowning at me.
Did he hear my thoughts? Sense my mood? Or… more than likely, realize I was still staring at him…? He raised an eyebrow. 'April-?'
As if detecting the awkward moment, someone clambered into the gap between us on the blanket, grumbling a weary "move over" before handing a beer to Jonathan.
'Dad-!' I pulled away to the edge of the blanket. 'Did you have to-'
My father turned, grinning back at me. In the moonlight, I could barely see the tired aging that had started to crease his round, ever-cheerful face. 'What did I have to? You two looked like you were having fun. I just wanted to join in-'
At that, Jonathan glanced at me, pulling a face of mixed amusement and disgust. 'Hm,' he made the simple sound and shook his head, staring back up at the sky. 'Then what about your thoughts on the sky, Master?'
Father rolled his eyes at the "Master" jibe, and elbowed the younger man in the ribs. 'Shut up with that. As for the sky,' he stared up proudly, unafraid. 'It's endless possibilities!'
'Endless?' echoed Jonathan. Somehow, the two men could say the same word with such different feelings. Father was excited. Jonathan seemed horrified. To be honest, staring up at that night sky, and the ever present twinkling of stars in the fabric of forever, I had to agree with Jonathan. Endless possibilities? That was something to be feared…
Eight years later…
Funerals are always such morose events, but in this case, even the sky bled tears upon the mourners. That was programmed, I was sure. What a joke…
I had already done my duty, attending my father's funeral just yesterday, on a bright, sunny spring day. The flowers were in full bloom and I admit that my eyes were more red from allergies than crying. Somehow, it wasn't real yet, even as I walked behind the procession carrying the coffin, a part of me kept thinking that father would soon fall in step beside me, cracking some inappropriate joke to try and lighten the mood. He hated heavy moods.
He should have hated this second funeral, then. The sky was suffocated by clouds and the very air seemed thick with tears. I looked around at the gathered people, all of various heights and sizes and skin tones and shapes; Elves, Faeries, Imps and Beasts, to name a few. This wasn't the real world. This was within our company's flagship VRMMORPG; Copper Dominion; Island Skies expansion. Virtual Reality in such detail that you could come to believe it was real… at least, that was father's aim, and I admit he was really close to hitting that target.
Looking at my own skin, when I let my eyes focus, I could even see the slight patterns and creases that made skin, well, skin. These weren't super smoothed rendered polygonal shapes. Naturally. Because at no point did the virtual reality environment program expect the human mind to simply accept such rough-rendered objects. The human brain is amazing, and our Visiongear tapped into that, sending signals to specific parts of the player's brain to allow them to see, hear, touch, and smell what was programmed into the environment.
Moreover, the gear stimulated the player's own imagination. So my very own brain was using its visual processor to stare at my skin, and fill in the gaps of missing details such as the ridges on it, and at moments, even the veins. It was what I should be seeing in reality, and my brain was being told to make me see that here, too. We changed the face of programming a VRE, but it was our best-kept secret. We were the only ones. There was a reason father called his company, Vi-Real Industries. The Real was simple enough, that was his goal. And of course, he wanted it to be popular, a viral company that spreads its power across the globe. He hadn't done too bad there, either, but it wasn't like he had much competition…
So here I was. Inside a game. At a funeral. This time, it wasn't a coffin being buried in the dirt, but a shrouded player's body placed atop a funeral pyre that was about to be set alight. I momentarily wondered who would be given the privilege to light it, and my question was soon answered.
He was taller than me, of slim build made obvious by his well-fitted, regal white robes, embellished with shining bronze buttons and golden embroidery along the hems. I'm pretty sure even his boots had a raised heel, shiny and golden. Just in case, you know, you wanted to look down on him. There was a simple golden ring around his head, showing his position of power at the Ivory Palace, and flaming burning red eyes the same shade as his long hair which was tied back in a ponytail over his shoulder. High Elfine ears - they were pointy and stuck straight up as thought standing to attention, unlike mine that were also pointy but pointed straight out either side of my head - told me his race, and the staff in his hand told me his class: Mage.
He spoke, his voice smooth yet powerful, cold and stern. 'It is with great pain and distress that LordBridges has passed away, and requested for this event to take place. The Ivory Palace will no longer have a live-in ruler, we are to rule for ourselves in this land. We farewell him, and continue our duty; to keep Coppion the place it is, and to continue to strive to make it better. Goodbye, Bridges…' he concluded the awkward speech and raised his staff, muttering a couple of words so that a flame appeared at the tip of it. The staff was lowered slowly, and the fire caught the wood. Soon, the entire pyre was engulfed in flames and smoke, while I stood and stared at it, still wondering what the hell this farce was about. Funerals, memorials, held within an MMORPG? Unheard of… well, not entirely… just not done.
Father ordered this though. LordBridges was his handle. Usually it was run by a specialized AI to look and act like an NPC, and father occasionally inhabited the body and took himself on quests and adventures within the game he had created. Only a few people knew about that. And in father's will, there was an entire page detailing this scenario, to be played out in the event of his death.
Apparently, the people who attend would gain an extra couple thousand XP just for showing up. Ever wanting to be the centre of attention, both alive and dead…
I flinched myself out of my thoughts and stared at the speaker. It was the Elf from earlier, with the flame red hair. Up close, his blood red eyes seemed more frightful than I originally thought, and I instinctively stepped back. 'Ah… uh… how'd you know my-?'
He pointed to a spot above my right shoulder. 'It's on my HUD.'
'Oh…' I tried to focus my eyes a moment on him, raising my left hand to bring my own information screen, straining to figure out his name.
With a weary sigh, he pointed above his own right shoulder. 'Should be here…'
'I haven't done this for like four years,' I replied, frowning as his name came into focus. Hoax. That was a short and simple name. I echoed it out loud, and he nodded at me. Then he repeated his own question. At that, I looked away. I didn't feel like explaining my own name. ApricotPeach was what I picked out years back. Father always called me Apricot, a play on my real name, April Caulfield. And Jonathon… maybe I was blushing. It was an embarrassing memory after all, and one I then based my character's name on. How stupid was that…? I didn't feel like telling the stranger anything, and the silence dragged itself out, longer and longer.
Finally, Hoax sighed. 'Whatever, just trying to converse. This whole thing was your father's plan so that I could contact you, though.'
'Huh?' I saw his will, and it only stated the details of this funeral, not anything about Hoax. My face must have betrayed my thoughts, and he was already nodding.
'I know, he probably didn't mention it this far. Anyway, I know you're fuming over this situation, and I know your mind's not on task-'
My cheeks burned red. My father passed away a week ago from a heart attack, how dare this creep casually downgrade my current state like some sort of momentary distraction!? I glared at him, but he was still casting a cold gaze across the mourners who had just started to leave the hillside near the Ivory Palace.
'-but there's a reality to discuss,' he continued, unaware of my staring daggers at him. 'The reason this funeral was held within Coppion - against most RPG ideals - was actually so that I could contact you about the future of this place. You father organized that all, and he expects you to work with me to that end, so please respect at least that once you stop pulling faces at me.'
I blinked. I wasn't pulling faces per se. Just… staring daggers. Evil eyes. Stuff like that. I felt like a scolded child. His tone was condescending and authoritative, but… something was also off. As though he was tired, forcing the words and really wishing to be somewhere else himself.
Maybe he didn't want to be here, the same as I.
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I nodded slowly. 'Fine. We can meet tomorrow in my father's… I mean… mine, now… my office. Let's say noon-?'
'No.' That was an immediate response, cutting me off before I even finished the word! 'There is a room in the Ivory Palace, no access for players, unless you have the original version of the Visiongear - which I assume, naturally, you would have. You father and I used the Boardroom as our office, for uh, meetings.'
'Hang on, what-?'
'Get used to it, ApricotPeach, your father and I held our meetings in here, within the game. Complex reasons, I don't have freedom of travel and other… issues, so your father devised this idea. He was the one in charge of creating this project, after all, so naturally he extended certain extras into the game that he could use, including a solution for business meetings between us. So, we will meet here tomorrow, at noon. That's final.'
I glowered at him. Who the heck was this guy anyway? I'd never heard of him. No, wait, that would be a lie. His name, Hoax, that was bothering me, I was sure I have heard it before, I just didn't remember why. The more pertinent question then, was why on earth did he feel like he had the right to boss me around!?
'What the hell's so special about you anyway?'
The question made him flinch. Then he turned those cold, empty, flaming red eyes on me. 'What's special about me…? Hmph, indeed…'
Immediately after that horrid encounter with Hoax, I opened my HUD and let my fingers hover above the <log out> button, but for some reason, I froze. It had been years. I was here years ago… our company had been still running the game all that time, adding expansions, patches, and raising the level-caps to match. I missed out on a few years worth, then… my fingers clenched tightly into a fist, as though I was ready to hit something, but then I dropped my hand by my side, cancelling the HUD which promptly dissipated. This place was a miracle, the first ever MMORPG where you could physically run around a make-believe world. And being here was a step closer to…
With a sigh, I turned away from the burning pyre to look at the scenery around me. We were halfway up the side of Mount Vandé's western rise, a hill that overlooked Vandé City and the Ivory Palace. The rain and heavy clouds blurred the view, blanketing the city with fog and mist. Today had been labelled Day of Mourning. The gamers would know soon enough, if they hadn't already stumbled upon the information, that the producer of Visiongear and CEO of Vi-Real had passed away.
The Day of Mourning was for him…
I honestly didn't know the old man had it in him to create such a pitiful, sombre event. Behind me, I could hear another round of speeches, and I recognized some of the voices as our staff. Musgrove was talking… sorry, no, here his name was something else, Mully#1 or something. I'm not even sure how he decided that would be pronounced… Mullynumberone? Or Mullyhashtagone…? I ignored our games designer's speech about… whatever it was… and walked back down the hill towards the city.
Vandé was the largest city in Coppion, with sprawling streets and markets, as well as rooms for rent and rest. People bustled forth, a mixture of creatures and races, and based on their gear, I could tell it was a mix of levels, too. Vandé was also the home city, the one everyone starts from; the Platform of Birth was at the north-east gate of the city, and new players would log in to there the first time, before proceeding with their adventures. But this place became home for so many, purely because it was the first place they saw with their eyes and truly experienced with all their senses. No videogame, even popular 3D titles on PC, could rival this; the ability to walk along a street full of merchants and actually see the wares they sell, to smell the aroma of foods sizzling on a street stand's grill, to run their hand along the wall of a building and feel even the tiny bits of grit rolling underneath their fingertips…
I smiled at my own memories of this place, so long ago, my hand absently tapping my satchel. It was a General Satchel, a bag everyone received when they started the game, and you could place a few miniaturized items out from your inventory into the satchel for quick access. I didn't have anything in there, from memory, and out of curiosity, I opened my HUD to look at my inventory. Well, that was almost empty. There was only my healer's staff and dagger as I had figured weaponry probably shouldn’t be worn to a funeral, even in this place, and a few other bits and pieces from previous quests. A healing stone gleamed in one of the slightly 3D boxes before me and I reached out for it with my hand, just as it materialized properly. If I finished grabbing it, it would be in my hand, but if I just waited a moment, information would show up next to it. It took a moment, then the box appeared.
<Rock of Honour. Lvl 4. Heals 50 HP per minute for two minutes. No sale value.>
I rolled my eyes. I was level 18 when I last played, and there was no loss of level penalty for not playing for a while, but this piece of junk… I shook my head. I must have received while still in the training centre for those under level 8. The other things in my inventory were even more ridiculous. My class was Healer, and unlike pure fantasy games where healing was based on magic and skills, Coppion had an obsession with combining fantasy and reality, so even if some of my healing skills were basically magic, most actually required me to build up my Apothecary skills by collecting various materials which I could then combine to make potions and healing items. The only thing is… plants expire.
A whole row of my inventory was filled with dead plants.
One by one, I materialized them in my hand and dropped them on the ground. Other items would stay as solid, interactive shapes, even if dropped on the ground, but these plants had already expired, and they fragmented into a twirl of blue tears before erupting into nothingness. What a beautiful way to take out the trash…
'Talk about a green thumb…' somebody muttered as they walked past me, snickering with a friend. I ignored them, but then wondered if perhaps it would have been better to go somewhere private to clear out my inventory. The quiet back street wasn't completely without traffic, after all.
'Shut up, stupid, I haven't logged in for a while…' I grumbled thoughtlessly in return. And froze. Why did I do that? I had no reason… there was absolutely no need for me to say that…
The somebody came back, their wolf-like Beast-face filling my view. '"Shut up, stupid"?'
I glanced at their companion, a smaller creature with wrinkly down-turned ears and a longer, flatter nose. Her skin was milky blue colour, and her hair was deep violet, spilling past her over-sized scarf and dangling to her waist. An Imp. Somehow, that seemed a funny juxtapositioning; a Beast, the largest-sized playable race in Coppion with the most starting strength points, and an Imp, the smallest-sized playable race in Coppion with the least starting strength points. I smiled at the comparison, and wolf-face got annoyed.
'What are you smiling at!?'
'Just leave her alone, Kabu-' the Imp came over and slipped her thin, bony fingers over Kabu-wolf-face's shoulder, steering him away. Then, over her shoulder, she smiled weakly at me. 'Welcome back, by the way, if you haven't logged in for a while… sorry…'
I watched the pair leave, frowning. Well. Those were two very different interactions. I thought wolf-face was going to punch me, but then again, inside the city, that would've been a pointless waste of time. It was a safe zone. I wouldn't lose any HP… though… the impact would still knock me over, and it would smart a little. Only pure physical attacks still had any reaction in a safe zone. If they blasted magic attacks or skills then it would be a complete waste of time, as the system would annul their affect immediately.
My blood ran cold as a thought crossed my mind. I knew why physical attacks still worked, even here. It was simple. Because you could shake hands here, too. You could tap someone on the shoulder, and they would feel it. You could hug someone, and they in return would feel the pressure, the weight… physical attacks…? I grimaced. I was a Faerie Healer, level 18 and weak. My strength stats were low, along with my agility, speed, endurance, and recovery. I hadn't worked on those much, the points being randomly allocated across all areas.
I was weak.
The sudden realization was almost sickening. I could be attacked, even in a safe zone…! What was the backup we had for that? A harassment warning… oh, right… if someone tried to attack me, a harassment warning would pop up, and I could instantly send them to jail for two hours game time. I was weak, but the game had a protection… if only real life could have such a simple button.
I walked along the cobbled path, feeling the chill as the cool evening air started to roll in. Time past differently here than in reality, one hour IRL would be about three here, which only meant that the days were much shorter. It allowed for players to experience more variety with the day/night modes. As for the rain, that had finally eased up, leaving only petrichor in its wake.
My stomach rumbled, and in surprise, I froze. How long had I been wondering around anyway? I hadn't even left Vande, as I'd walked up and down the streets, at first to remind myself of my earlier attempt at playing Coppion, but eventually I got distracted, looking into shop windows at high level armour or clothing, or the various artisan stores and their goods. Now, the smell of cooked meat wafted over from a street vendor, and my stomach had decided to holler in response.
Thumb pressed to pinky finger, I waved my hand to activate my HUD, and searched for the realtime. It was already well into the afternoon and I hadn't had lunch before coming here. My stomach IRL must be also rumbling away. It was a good safety feature to remind players to logout - any needs your body suddenly had, you still could feel it here, even if in reality it impaired all your movements so you didn't accidentally pee yourself while lying on the couch IRL, or even roll out of bed while fighting some strange creature here.
I clicked <logout>.
Vi-Real had made plenty of games before, for a variety of game consoles as well as traditional PC, but the real goal my father had always dreamed about was full-immersion virtual reality. He worked hard at that for years, employing a research team with members from around the world. He used his money to entice them over, and when the allocated money and the workers' drive started to run low, he heard about a lost genius.
Jonathan Luca Williams was making a name for himself in all the wrong circles - hacking various companies' sites for fun and being caught by the cyberpolice on more than occasion, but my father had ears everywhere, and pulled the then-fifteen year old boy into his care. He set up a scholarship for him, and took care of Jonathan's employment in the company when the young man was still only sixteen. And Jonathan made it all happen; he found the missing pieces, he helped join the ideas that the others had overlooked. Well, it helped that he had a deep interest in neuroscience, and my father again had gotten the young man the chance to work side-by-side with experts in the field, watching, learning… I said Jonathan had been passionate.
There were only three things that mattered to him; the human brain, programming virtual reality, and art. How many hours did I just sit in his computer lab at work, watching him put the detailing on a digital art project that he'd been working on for three weeks…? I knew it was three weeks because I came to watch each day. Once he'd set up the virtual reality environment program, he started creating art pieces there, 3D sculptures or paintings that you could reach into and almost touch… no family, no friends, just those three things to which he dedicated his life.
Father and Jonathan seemed, oddly enough, to get along quite well. Loud and busy, my father left Jonathan with no choice but to simply obey, and at the same time, my father seemed to have taken to treating him like a lost pet or child, although he also gave the young man free reign when it came to his ideas and suggestions. In a way, they really were a master and apprentice.
And this game was their creation.