‘Player-feed: GreySkull launches +500 nuke attack on The Immortal. Critical hit −500 life force.’
“Back off, asshole,” he shouted down the microphone.
Players in their thousands were populating the game space.
He considered a hard reboot but it would leave his avatar completely unprotected.
He didn’t have an escape plan for this eventuality.
There was a scurrying of claws. “You!” The animal yowled again, deep and low, from the yard. It had been calling out with increasing regularity, determined, like a scared child crying in the night.
The sound sent physical shivers down his spine.
It was an uncomfortable feeling.
Every time it shrieked, a snaking detachment clawed deep in the pit of his stomach, pulling him into a cavernous and cold unknown.
He’d even given the feeling a name.
He called it spiralling.
He hadn’t dared mention it to Claire.
He hit the keys but his controls were still frozen. “I’m so dead,” he said, just as a new player teleported into game space range.
‘Player-feed: Hotei raises shields around The Immortal +1000. Hotei launches +5000 nuke attack on GreySkull. Critical hit −5000 life force.’
GreySkull was obliterated.
The Immortal had just been saved by an unknown player.
A private IGM popped up.
The box began to scroll data at speed, so fast that it was impossible to read; numbers and images, blurred information, until eventually it settled to display a single message.
“Tengu is watching _._.”
The cursor blinked.
The screen re-booted to black.
Sudden recognition sent the spiralling sensation twisting to new depths as he realised that the creature was calling out a word.
It was saying “You!”
Lars climbed onto the office chair. It swivelled dangerously. He looked out of the window and directly into the shining eyes of a fox.
The animal stood by the bins and stared back.
Piercing eyes illuminated deeply, fixed as fast as headlamps.
It wasn’t scared.
It didn’t move.
It was totally aware of him.
With a flicker of fur the fox raised not one, but nine bushy tails.
They twitched individually in the moonlight.
Lars struggled to focus, trying to clear his vision, unsure what he was really looking at.
The fox lifted its head and screeched a long and conversational cry, telling tales that only foxes could understand. It looked at him and was gone. In the far distance, he heard it cry out once more.
He didn’t see her standing in the doorway. Claire was dressed and ready for work.
“Why are you standing on the chair?”
Hours had seemed like minutes. The night had evaporated quicker than ever.
“I’m looking for my phone.” The chair swung and he almost fell.
“Be careful!” she scolded, disappointed that he’d just lied.
He climbed down and checked the screen. The familiar logo of Atari Shock was back.
He tapped the keyboard, trying not to appear desperate. To his relief the game space was operational. His controls were working again but there was still a problem, the super clan had hit one hundred and fifty thousand players and the numbers were increasing.
“Can you just leave that game alone for one minute, please? At least while I’m in the room.”
He raised his hands in a hostage situation. “Did you hear something, just now?”
“Like a fox?”
“What does a fox sound like?”
Lars wondered how best to explain what he’d just seen.
He could still sense the shrill echo of the call.
A klaxon sounded and an exit presented itself. This was his chance. He looked at her.
“Don’t you bloody dare touch that keyboard, Lars Nilsson,” she threatened. “I mean it.”
“I just need to do one more thing,” he pleaded.
“There’s always one more thing.”
He selected the hotkey sequence and The Immortal vanished into player-safe mode.
She snapped. “Why do you keep doing this?” Her lip quivered on the verge of tears.
Lars and Claire had met at university, at a time when he imagined that anything was possible, when he was Captain of the indestructible Galaga.
He had put more time into her pursuit than he did his economics degree, and he still managed to get in a solid twelve hours of gaming every day.
He used to write her cryptic love letters, verging on the scientific, leaving her with no option than to meet him down the pub at eight.
After a typical night out; couple of pints, packet of Cheese and Onion, when she went to sleep, he went to his keyboard.
He was a serious gamer even then.
They shared a house in their final year.
Claire fell in love. Lars fell into an online routine.
At first she thought his obsession was cute, but she didn’t realise the extent to which he was hooked.
She expected him to change but he didn’t.
The attention to companionship, partnership, and their relationship that she longed for, he spent gaming. A year out of University and they were married.
The real world came flooding back the instant he knew that his avatar was safe. “What time is it? Shit. I’m going to be late.” He stumbled to the bathroom.
“I don’t care about the games,” she shouted after him, “or whatever it is that you’re doing all night, but why don’t we talk anymore?”
“Have you seen my phone?”
“No, Lars,” she sighed. “I don’t know where you left your stupid phone.”
“I’ll book us a table,” came a mumble from behind the bathroom door. “Dinner, tonight, ok?”
There was the sound of the toilet flushing.
She had been rehearsing the conversation all night during uncomfortable bursts of sleepless exhaustion, but she hadn’t expected it to go like this. She hadn’t expected him to play the game until dawn and then just ignore her.
She mouthed the words that were meant to inspire an altogether different encounter.
“Lars, I’m pregnant.”
A fin broke the waterline as Mr Chips began swimming at an angle.
Daylight shone through the grey bus window.
It was raining.
The top deck smelled of damp bodies and shower gel, wet hair and wetter shoes.
Lars watched the crowds push along the pavement, keen to get to work so they could count down the minutes until they would struggle in the opposite direction home.
Everyone was staring at their phones; some head first in Facebook, some scanning the Atari Shock forums.
He opened the app and checked his life force.
The situation was bleak. He’d taken a serious hit.
The thief forums were discussing the super clan attack.
One theory claimed that the game had become self-aware and was preparing to raid every single player to fund its own A.I. programme.
Another thread suggested that The Immortal didn’t exist after all, and was just part of the game mechanic to encourage players to spend more on micropayments.
Lars preferred the A.I. theory.
In the light of day, the events of the night before seemed at a safe distance. He thought about the fox, and wondered if what he’d seen was just the result of tired eyes in bad light. Perhaps he should get his eyes tested?
He watched raindrops slide down the dirty bus window.
As the lines of water spilled, they formed the familiar geometric shapes of Tetris; inverse skew, left gun, right gun, square and straight stick.
He rotated them in his mind, clearing the way for more.
A new theory occurred to him as he watched the rain streak the glass.
What if he was exactly like his avatar, trapped in a game of chance that would never end?
What was the point of trying if everything just re-set to make way for more?
The spiralling sensation twisted in his stomach. He swallowed back sickness.
Something was changing.
He felt like a diseased man waiting for the symptoms to show, convinced that it was learning how to manifest itself physically.
He’d been getting stomach pains.
It was just a matter of time.
He felt claustrophobic, spinning in circles, drifting downwards, his defences weak.
He had slipped through the cracks of life to become someone that he wasn’t, a man who thought things that he didn’t, a version of himself who was scared of the shadows.
He wasn’t going to work.
If there was anyone who could give him answers − it was Wiki.