Too Close For Comfort
July 22nd 2031
Edmond scrolled down the page, reading each dash marked tid-bit of information with ease. He had been waiting for almost six months for this moment. Reception for the game he was tirelessly reading about had been dismal to say the least.. However, with the promise of the removal of bugs, countless demonstrations, and of course, videos upon videos of the “log out” feature working properly, Sword Art Online, had finally been distributed to the U.S.A, The U.K. and Australia. Superstition had been conquered.
The “seed” had been released in Japan almost half a decade earlier, which lead to a multitude of independent server based games being created. Edmond, however, was only interested in the one that promised to be an exact replica of the “death game” of so many stories and tabloids. Finally, after months of cross continental Beta testing, the game was slated to be released in five minutes…in counting, at exactly 12:00 a.m. on July 23rd, 2031.
Edmond looked again at his tri monitor set-up. He’d hoped to purchase a new, larger, monitor rig for the occasion, but his budget working part time at a technology outlet, wouldn’t quite cover it. Truthfully though, it wouldn’t matter. Back in the early decades of PC gaming, monitor size was everything. But with the advent of nerve gear, all gaming was done inside the provided helmet. This was to give those less financially well off players the ability to experience the same level of gaming as those with costly rigs.
The clock counted down by the second. Edmond was impatient, ready to log in, and running on his third pot of coffee. It’d been a long week waiting for this night. As he tirelessly awaited for the “PLAY” option to light up with a blue glow, he decided to hop to another tab on his computer browser.
“Nerve gear technology, Seamless communication with ALL people in ALL available countries, via a voice and language recognition engine…endless class options…man, this could actually be better than I thought.”
Edmond tossed back his final large gulp of coffee, and stood up once more to stretch.
“We’ll see, these games usually have a 70% decrease in player population after the first few months or so.”
Edmond generally had a critical opinion about…everything. For this reason he stopped playing games after a few weeks. Usually, the games had the same problems: “The quests are boring” or “Bots, gold farmers, and scammers are abusing the player driven economy making the game less challenging, so what’s the point?” Playing a game simply for fun wasn’t his style. Edmond liked a challenge in everything he did. Honestly, if the stigma of the past hadn’t been attached to it, he would have never even considered this game.
As this thought came to his mind, Edmond took another look at the game clock. A little less than two minutes remaining…just enough time. Edmond opened a new tab and began to type: “SAO fatal logging error.” Instantly, the page filled with excessive amounts of search engine options. Edmond, naturally, clicked the first option and waited for the page to load.
“Upon release in Japan, a strange epidemic swept over all players of the game Sword Art Online. After initial entry into the game, players were sent into comas due to improper nerve gear glitches. Many players, over the course of almost 28 months, actually began to die from neurological damage caused by circuit short outs in the seemingly “perfect” nerve gear. There was no way to determine the cause of death, and no way to prevent it. “
Edmond clicked on the “next page” option as he reached the bottom. He continued to read…
“As oddly as it began, the end of this nightmarish episode began to come to multitudes of these players as many of them began to wake up in the hospital. Extreme neurological damage was so terrible in these subjects, that they actually claim that death in the game, meant death in “IRL” which is gamer lingo for: “in Real Life.” Many subjects went into seclusion, and many more went through psychosis treatment. Virtually all subjects, however, hold on to the fabrication that their experiences in the game actually occurred. However, this is proven to be impossible: After interviews and the collection of many different records from various “players,” a talented group of IT specialists as well as neurological experts have researched the claims on axiom. The final conclusion was: NO, the game couldn’t have continued with faulty nerve gear, and would have stopped as quickly as it began. A tragic event, yes, but a mythical “death game” NO. This is the conclusion of virtually all scientists involved, or otherwise quoted. “
Edmond chuckled and continued on to the final page of the article.
“Months after the initial mass of players beginning to awaken from their conditions, many players were, mysteriously, still unconscious. However, after a few more months of patience, they TOO, awakened and reported the strange “happenings” within the “game” to the press and psychologists alike. These claims are ignored, and played off as farce. Many conspiracy theories exist in the wake of these events, but are likely to die down in the overwhelming apposition of fact.
Strangely, all “players” continue to speak one name: Kirito. They claim that this mysterious player conquered the game, by actually slaying the game’s creator…in virtual combat…quite strange indeed. Although it’s obvious that these events couldn’t occur, it is quite bizarre that all of these people are seemingly connected through the name of a “savior” named Kirito. If there is a Kirito, he is unseen as of yet, and is presumed to be yet another figment of the tortured minds.”
Edmond closed the browser. He’d read this story multiple times, it kept his interest peaked in the game. It wasn’t just another run of the mill VRMMORG (Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), it was a VRMMORG with one hell of an interesting stigma attached to it. He looked out his window, it was a clear night, well morning, as the threshold of midnight had been broken seconds before.
The “PLAY” button was finally lit up, it was almost surreal. Edmond took a second to take a breath and fully take in the magnitude of what he was about to embark on. This could possibly be the greatest VRMMORG he’d ever played, it was fun to be excited again, as he was when he was a teenager. Now, 22, work and bills consumed most of his time, so it was a breath of fresh air to get to be able to enjoy such a luxury. At least until Monday morning.
“Well, goodbye reality, at least for a few hours.”
Edmond grinned and took his nerve gear into his hands. Character selection would be instant for him, as he preordered his copy of the game, which enabled him to do all character customizations prior to release. The game was very advanced, it scanned the human body, and created an avatar for you. At that point, adding cosmetic changes and trinkets was all up to the player.
Edmond placed the nerve gear onto his head and laid down onto his bed. He looked over to his monitor and stared that the play button. He smiled and finally uttered the words he’d been wanting to say for almost six months:
Immediately Edmond fell back onto his bed, his body becoming lifeless, flashes of brightly colored beams flew into view. Mountains and mountains of codes began calculating in front of him, and finally, a white flash blinded him. As the white subsided, Edmond saw green; leaves. The leaves revealed trees, and his vision finally returned to show that he was in a forest just outside a large wall made of cobblestone. It appeared to be nighttime on the server, and the only light came from dim flickering of torches lined along the cobblestone wall. Edmond’s field of view extended only a few yards.
Edmond’s heart was racing, or at least his Character’s was. He was finally in! He raised his hands. In one, a short dagger that glowed with a blue aura, the other hand revealed an empty gauntlet. He looked down to reveal a pair of black boots, with red trim on the laces, which matched his leather breastplate, and leather plate legs. He felt the top of his head, bald, just as he’d selected. He reached onto his back, and broke out into another smile. A crossbow string moved in between his fingers. Yes, his “Assassin” class that he’d created was flawless, right down to the “scar” he placed electronically selected for the top of his left eye.
He then swiped his empty hand, and instantly a character menu greeted him. He selected his “stats” screen. A multitude of level “1” skills stared him in the face, a fresh start, indeed. He closed this menu and selected his world map. Upon opening it, his eyes widened and he looked directly ahead of him. The map, and his own eyes revealed his ultimate goal: Aincrad: The 100 levels of pure gaming masterpiece.
Edmond couldn’t contain himself, he immediately reached for his crossbow, unable to wait to start gaining experience and conquering levels.
Edmond froze, and slowly turned around to see where this sharp, shrill voice was coming from, it was a female character with a normal bow…one trained directly at Edmond’s forehead. She was wearing leather chaps, and a very short, yet functional blue skirt over the hips, keeping the game somewhat wholesome. Her torso and upper body were covered with a bikini style top, that matched her skirt…she wasn’t particularly well endowed, but that really didn’t matter given the circumstances. Her shoulders were covered by rather large guards, also blue, and her hair was tied into a pony tail…and was also the same hue of blue as the rest of her ensemble.
“Don’t move! I mean it!”
Five Minutes in…and Edmond was already facing death number one. This, in most games wouldn’t matter, but the new SAO implemented a new leveling system, along with new penalties for deaths in game. If a player is killed, by a monster, or other player, their experience gain will be cut by 50% for twelve in game hours. An absolute nightmare for new, competitive, players.
“W-wait! Don’t shoot…”
Edmond though of reaching for his crossbow again, but he decided against it. He’d most likely be impaled long before he could chamber his first bolt. This incident would have to be handled verbally.
“I’m brand new here, I literally JUST logged in. Give me a break!”
The mysterious archer kept her bow fixed at Edmond’s chest. She neither blinked, nor faltered in keeping a perfect aim.
“Right! And you mean to tell me you had nothing to do with the group of creeps that just tried to rip me to pieces? I don’t buy it! The rest of you were at least smart enough to keep out of direct fire, but you, you must be the noob of the group!”
Noob…a title reserved for new gamers and those complaining that they don’t have good enough gear. The ones that spammed forums and “World” chat’s begging for free items. A title that set any gamer’s rage into maximum.
Edmond was talking a big game, but he was clearly out matched in this current situation. He quickly thought of a solution. Running was out of the question, even though he had perks in speed and agility because of his class specialty. But another, more suitable option quickly came to mind.
Instantly Edmond’s avatar disappeared. The Girl’s face went from serious, to seriously confused. She darted her head around, scanning the area with her bow at the ready.
“Where’d you go?”
Her voice was cracking in fear. She was no longer in control of the situation.
Little did the archer know that at that very second, her prey was sneaking right beside her, behind her back, until finally…
“You move, and you may as well have your bags packed, because I’m sending you back to the Town of Beginnings.”
Edmond had moved his way around, behind the girl, managing to grab her arm. This caused her to drop the bow and send her arrow flying off into a strange direction, deep into the trees. From that point it was all too easy for Edmond to pull the victim forward into his grip, and place his glowing dagger to her throat.
The game’s mechanics were extremely advanced. The warmth of her body flowed into Edmond’s arms. It felt nice, reminding him of just how lonely his own life was…He quickly regained focus.
The girl remained frozen.
“Come on now, I’m getting impatient. It’s only fair that you explain yourself to me, after all, you did just threaten to attach a tree limb to my body.”
He pressed the knife closer to the girl’s neck, until the warmth of the blue aura was licking at her neck. Her resolve was instantly broken.
“Okay! Okay! Please stop!”
Edmond released his grip, causing the girl to fall forward and immediately head for a nearby tree. She didn’t bother going for her bow, and quickly began to scale branches.
“I’m a day one player! Like you! I just started! The game was just released here in the U.K.”
Edmond hadn’t noticed it, but she did have a slight accent. His intrigue quickly turned to confusion.
“Day one? You called me a noob! What gives?”
Edmond pulled up his crossbow and aimed it into tree.
The girl climbed higher, until she was out of range of Edmond’s weapon.
“I’m sorry! I was trying to talk big! I thought you were one of them!”
“You’ll have to be a little more specific than just “them.” The particular server has upwards of sixteen thousand accounts!”
There wasn’t a following response this time. Edmond looked for an angle to work with. He didn’t have to look far to see one. The bow.
“If you want this back, you’ll have to come and talk to me”
He picked up the bow and raised it towards the upper branches of the tree.
“If not, it looks like I just obtained a new weapon!”
This taunting prompted the girl to look out from her tree sanctuary. She gave a dismayed look before retreating back, and out of sight.
“I don’t know who they are…you are…or anyone is!”
The girl continued to yell inaudible things.
Edmond put his forehead in his palm and sighed. He swiped his hand to open his menu. He examined the bow. It wasn’t anything special, it was just a level one weapon. So Edmond knew that the archer had been over exaggerating her ability to attack him. He closed the menu and looked into the tree.
“Look, I’m putting your bow down, and…”
Edmond sheathed his knife, extinguishing it’s blue aura, and held up his hands.
“I’m unarmed now, okay?”
The girl peeked out once more. She looked at Edmond, and then at her bow on the ground.
“Fine! But nothing funny!”
The girl climbed down, branch by branch, continuously looking over her shoulder to make sure Edmond wasn’t reaching for anything to strike her with. When she reached the bottom she slowly picked up her bow and looked it over.
“Good, you didn’t scratch it…The tutorial area only give’s out one of these, and mine came with the preorder!”
Edmond almost laughed.
“Well, please forgive me, one would have to kill almost…three boars to get something better.”
“Go to hell!”
She gave Edmond the dirtiest of looks.
“By the way, you do know that if you had attacked me, you’d have gone red, and you’d be considered a rouge player. Every role-playing bounty hunter for miles on this server would be after you.”
“I know…and I’m sorry.”
She seemed genuine with this admission.
“But like I said, I thought you were one of them, so I got scared.”
“Right, about them. Who is this “them” you keep talking about?”
The girl looked over to Edmond, again. She looked him up and down, as if to make sure he wasn’t planning a surprise attack. Finally, she began speaking.
“When I logged in, I was in the beginner area. I did a few tutorials there and decided to venture outside the town, where I am now. I felt great! I decided it was time to fight monsters a little stronger than the ones in the tutorials. I came out here, from the town behind you.”
She pointed behind Edmond, as he turned around to take another look at the towering walls of the first floor of Aincrad, He looked back at her and nodded for her to continue.
“Well, after being out here for no less that ten minutes. A group of high leveled assassins attacked me! They were disgusting, yelling obscene things, and threatening me at the same time. I ran, and ran, until I ran into you…that’s when I drew my bow on you.”
“Obviously…they all had the red glow of rouges.”
Edmond drew his crossbow. He wasn’t afraid of player killers. He’d played multitudes of games with them. It added a certain level of uncertainty that any true gamer craved.
“I’m assuming these are Japanese players? Given their level and experience. They must’ve been playing since the beginning…They’ve had the game for almost a year now.”
Edmond scanned the area back and forth with his bow.
“No clue…A better question is, what are YOU doing outside the safe zone? You’re level one! You don’t even stand a chance against the lowest level monsters out here.”
Edmond shrugged. It was a good question. What was he doing outside the safe zone?
“Maybe it’s a glitch, something to do with my early pre-order? Or it could be a North American version bug…either way, I’m obviously not supposed to be here. But even still, what about you? You’re the same level as me. Shouldn’t you be within the walls, too?”
Suddenly a deep, penetrating voice shot through the trees and into Edmond’s and his new acquaintance’s ear. Continuing until it struck fear directly into their hearts.
“Hey, Boss! I’ve got an arrow over here!”
Edmond aimed his crossbow into the direction of the voice.
“Come and get some.”
He said under his breath, but loud enough for the archer to hear him.
“No! You can’t beat them! They’re way too high leveled for you! Your attacks wouldn’t even touch them!”
Edmond could tell that this plea was genuine. He nodded and quickly tried to think of another solution. They could try and make a break for the safety of the town, but they might run into a blocked path and have to turn back, directly towards the assassins. Not to mention how quickly high leveled assassins could move. The archer might have had a chance, given that her classes’ agility was high, naturally. They were in a bind. The voices grew louder, and the face on the archer, more and more desperate. She looked like she was about to make a break, when Edmond got an idea.
“Quick! Send me a party request!”
Desperation was all her voice revealed.
“I think I can hide an entire party with my stealth. Hurry!”
The archer quickly swiped her hand and ferociously began scrolling through menus. She reached a screen full of avatar names and pressed the text that read “Edmond.”
“Okay, there! What kind of name is Edmond in a video game, anyway?”
Edmond ignored this, and quickly leapt on top of her. She was obviously dumbfounded. Her face lit up as red as the crimson lining on Edmond’s gear, but he paid no attention and quickly activated his stealth ability.
Just as the two bodies disappeared from view, a group of half a dozen assassins walked into the clearing. They looked around in a hawk like fashion, as if they could smell fresh meat among them.
“She has to be here, the way this arrow was stuck in the tree back there, she has to be. It was high up, too, so it’d been shot seconds before impact.”
Damn. The arrow. Thanks to Edmond’s “sneaky” moves, the bow was erratically misplaced, and shot in the opposite direction. It was now only a matter of time before they found them.
One of the goons looked over for approval from the obvious leader of the group.
“What do you want us to do? Do you think she fled?”
The one referred to as the boss began to walk around and look at the surroundings. He looked intimidating, as well as anything but pleased. His tall avatar had long black hair, and he wore heavy leather armor. On his face were cosmetic tattoos of red flames, stretching down into his ensemble. He looked up at the tree that was recently climbed, and then over beside his foot, where Edmond had unleashed his sneak attack. There was a small clump of dirt moved from the tensing up of the girl’s body.
“They? As in multiple?”
He pointed at the clump of dirt.
“Someone’s foot moved this, and recently, the dirt still looks moist. Also, that tree has freshly broken limbs…Glog, Ratchnot, expose this area. They’re hiding around here, and we’re going to get them.”
Edmond knew it was now hopeless. Exposure was a skill learned by assassins at higher levels. It exposed any avatar hidden by skills, or other means. He looked down at the girl beneath him. Something in him clicked, he had to try and save this girl. After all, it was a game, right? He’d respawn, at half experience gain, but maybe that was more of a challenge that he wanted.
“I’m going to jump at them. I can cripple one of them with my dagger, I’ve got some abilities that can stop a character from moving for a few seconds. That’ll stop him long enough for you to get a head start, as for the rest, you’ll need to run around them. Run as fast as you can.”
Edmond whispered this as low as he could.
The girl looked up at him in pity. She shook her head no, but she knew there was no discussing the matter. She’d have to accept it. The least she could do would be to escape, for both of them, so that Edmond’s sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain.
The two assassins were now accessing their menus and preparing to launch their exposure.
Edmond looked down and waited for his partner to nod.
“Three, two. One-“
“Gunners at the rear flank! Down!”
Suddenly explosions began to erupt in the clearing, turning the clear night atmosphere into a pitch darkness. Black smoke plumed all around the assassins, as they scrambled for their ranged weapons.
“Glog, body count! How many are there?”
The voice came from the leader of the group. He sounded calm, but was obviously concerned. He looked around wildly to try and catch a glimpse of who was blinding him and his men.
Glog scanned the area. He saw none of the attackers. But his skill did reveal two low level characters huddled on top of each other. Both with faces of absolute terror.
“No Gunners, but two noobs! Probably bait!”
The leader looked directly into Edmond’s eyes.
“Leave them, they have nothing we need!”
With that, the leader vanished. The rest of the assassins followed suit. All With the exception of Glog, who stood over the two low levels amid the flying projectiles and puffs of smoke being ejected in all directions. He pointed his blade toward them.
“Next time, girl. We’re going to have a little fun. As for your boyfriend here, he’s done, too.”
Then he was gone. His words penetrated the archer’s nerves, and she shuddered beneath Edmond, unknowingly clenching tighter onto his chest plate.
“Halt, hold all fire!”
A new voice shot its way through the black smoke.
Sudden Silence crept into the woods, as echoes of explosions died out.
“Assassin, Archer, are you two okay?”
The voice now revealed a body. It was a figure dressed entirely in black, revealing no skin. His face was covered by a gas mask. Obviously to give him an edge in the smoke. Seconds after the first body appeared, almost a dozen more bodies, all dressed similarly, wearing gas masks were revealed among the trees and bushes.
Edmond got to his feet and helped his new “friend” up as well.
“Are you okay?”
He looked over at the girl, who nodded in approval.
“I’m Edmond, and this is…”
He looked over to the archer who seemed shocked to receive acknowledgment.
“Oh, my name is-“
“No talk here. It isn’t safe. That was just a small portion of the assassins. They’ll be back soon to scavenge the area. I’ll take you to a nearby inn. I’ll explain everything.”
The figure walked toward them and held his hand to his chest, before extending it outward. “I’m Thatch, of the Smoking Gunners Guild, it’s nice to meet you.”
Edmond, who had no idea what the mysterious “Thatch” had just signaled, raised his hand slightly and gave a whimsy wave before giving an equally weak response.