The tips of my fingers stung as they hammered at the keyboard in front of me. Music played loudly in my ears. On occasion, my neighboring coworkers would complain that I let my earbuds screech a little too loud. I took the initiative before beginning my daily grind and snagged the seat in the secluded corner. Songs could blare until my ears bleed if I so choose, whatever it took to drown out the sound of my own thoughts. Working that mindless repetition often left me with far too much time inside my own head. Could there possibly be anything more truly terrifying in this world?
My eyes strained to read the hastily scrawled information. Handwriting was a thing of the past for a reason. While most people from the back then had terrible penmanship, one out of every hundred or so entries would be an unreadable scribbling that was harder to decipher than ancient cave drawings. How any sort of society managed to work without electronic book keeping is beyond me. Then again, that very thing is the only reason someone like me even has a job, no matter how much it might be leading my mind down a dark path.
The soul crushing boredom of this type of work was nothing like what I had hopes of doing when I was young. History has known no shortage of people of incredible intelligence using their minds to be creative inspirations to the world. That was the life that I was meant to live, if only it were so easy. Whether I could have pulled the images and worlds from my mind or not, I simply was never the type for success. The stress of even my simple life was too much for my feeble psyche, so how am I supposed to put myself out there enough to be anything more than the miserable failure stuck bouncing between meaningless jobs forever, or at least for now.
Not long after my lunch break, I received a message that my order from earlier would be ready that night. The rest of the work day went by with a breeze. Over a thousand signatures later and I was on my way home. There was still time to kill until I could take my great escape that I had spent so long saving up for. The last six months in this basic level job have been well worth the reward that was on its way. For that reason, I decided to celebrate with a trip to my favorite restaurant, an all-you-can-eat sushi place not too far from home.
Once there, I found myself ordering almost every item on the menu. All things considered, I treated it as the last time I would be able to enjoy real, quality food for some time, or possibly ever. I had never had trouble putting away enough rolls to justify the price of the special. Additionally, the waitress kept the drinks flowing. She was a sweet girl, about the same age as me. Maybe if I had a little more restraint on the menu, that might mean something. By the end of my meal, I was more than a little inebriated. It was of little bother to me to leave my car behind as I called a ride to take me home. I offered my faithful steed a fond farewell as I sat silently in the back of a foreign vehicle.
Home was quiet as always. A cold and lonely little space was the only thing that I could call my own. If I hadn’t taken my latest job, then I wouldn’t even have that. What a disappointing cycle, made only to make the world’s citizens consume themselves into an endless cycle of torture. It may be a good thing that my descended outlook never tried to passionately to pursue creative outlets. No one needs my dark personality whispering bitter somethings into their ears. As I flopped onto my couch, I relaxed into the thought that none of this would matter in a few short hours.
Anticipation tapped at my mind, echoing in the empty cavity where a useless ball of fat rattled around inside my skull. Soon the thumping spread through each of my bones, continuing on through my skin, and into my equally empty room. It resonated along the hard wood floors and reverberated through the soft, yet coarse, cushions of my couch. After a few moments of pounding, an audible disturbance found itself adding to the nails stabbing into my temple.
A familiar voice spoke, “Hey, buddy. Open up.”
“Quiet down, I’m coming,” I replied.
My body stumbled from the couch, the weight of my limbs yanking me down into the floor. Sweat laid my shirt against my body like cellophane, exaggerating every lump and roll along my rounded belly. All things considered, I didn’t care much how I looked, and I didn’t mind my friend seeing me a mess. The alcohol was also clearly having an effect. When I finally composed myself, I opened the door to reveal a man carrying a rolling suitcase behind himself.
“I don’t like having to wait,” the man exclaimed as he barged into the room. Once he was safely inside with the door closed behind him he added, “Especially where people might see me.”
“Sorry,” I cowered. “I swear it won’t happen again.”
“Still making jokes?”
“Should I not be?”
“It’s not exactly uncommon. You’re kind tends to be good for a laugh.”
“We both know what I’m here for. And we both know who and what you are.”
“I haven’t actually introduced myself.”
“And you don’t have to. It’s better if we didn’t exchange formalities. Helps with the alibies. Not that you’ll be able to use one.”
“If what you’re selling is real then I won’t need one.”
“Okay, if you don’t mind, let’s get this started. I need to call the cops in the next thirty minutes.” The man hustled me further into the room. “Where’s your computer?”
“It’s in the corner over there. Do you want me to lie down right here?” I gestured to the couch.
“You can sit for now if you want. But I need you to start reading some stuff first.”
“Like legal documents or wavers?”
“No, none of that. There’s nothing legal about what’s about to go down.” The man dropped a guide book on the table in front of me. “I need you to read this. Those are the instructions. The tutorial section has been removed as a part of the ongoing negotiations. It’s supposed to deter new players. As both of us can see though, it clearly doesn’t work. Plenty of people are looking to sign into Knights of Lectum. Most are like you. But every once in a while, there’s someone who wants to play hero. I don’t deal with that kinda stuff.”
“You only assist with—“
“I don’t remember anyone saying that I was a saint, but I’m not into sending the naïve over the edge.” The man pauses for a moment. “You should be reading.”
Over the next few minutes, my guest used my computer to install a little piece of tech that I had already been fascinated with before the controversy started. The interface was touted as being painless even with its bionic component. A small node connects itself to the temple, where it then follows the blood stream and makes a direct connection with the brain. If the advertisements were to be believed, it’s the most sophisticated neural link available. Better than the simulation pods that were only affordable as rentals in arcades. Now we can finally play from home.
I read over the tutorial information, most of it seemed to be scraped together from second hand accounts. It’s not like anyone who’s been a part of the game has been able to make anything for new players. Moreover, most people didn’t expect there to be many new players. An awkward phrase kept creeping its way through the disjointed paragraphs and bullet points: Are you sure? The reasoning for this was obvious enough, but if someone is offering this service, then why bother trying to talk out their own clientele?
“Will I get a copy of this once I get in there?” I asked. “Because I have a good memory, but I don’t think I’ll exactly be able to retain much right now.”
“How you mean?” my guest replied.
“I may have been drinking tonight.”
“I can see that. It would still be a good idea to skim that thing as best you can. There aren’t any copies, but if you go to an IB, he’ll be able to help you out.”
“An info broker. They sell technical and strategic information to players for in-game currency.”
“Like an NPC?”
“No, they’re players too.”
“Cool, I’ll find me one of those when I get in there then.”
“Whatever works for you.”
“Is it going to be a problem that I’m drunk?”
“It might be better. The implant might hurt a bit.”
“I thought the link was supposed to be painless.”
“They were. Now that they’re a bit rarer, the anesthetic fluids have become rather hard to come by, and my supplier has his own uses for the stuff.”
“I didn’t know I was signing up for pain.”
“You knew exactly what you were signing up for.”
“So, we’re almost ready. Are you sure about this?”
“I’ve never really been sure about much.”
“I’m not looking to get philosophical, but I do need to know that you want this before we go if I’m supposed to sleep soundly tonight.”
“And there’s no one that’s going to come looking for you or try pressing the issue of how you got stuck in there?”
“Got a cat? You seem like a cat guy.”
“No. Do people with pets really do this?”
“Some of them even manage to talk themselves down for the little fur-balls.”
“Nothing like that for me. So don’t worry. You’ll be getting paid.”
“I’ve already been paid. Whether you back out or not.”
“Clearly not a saint.”
I continued to read through the guidebook. The different classes seemed interesting. I’ve played plenty of these types of games before, but I’ve never been one for the social versions. Maybe I could find a build that lets me play solo for a while. From what I had seen online, the difficulty was set to make solo play particularly implausible. I could theoretically do well enough on my own for a while, but if I wanted to join in any of the higher level activities, I would need to make some friends. It might have been easier in there than out in real life, but I still had my doubts.
“Any idea on what build might be the best?” I asked.
“Not sure. I try not to watch the streams,” the man responded dully. “Don’t want to recognize an old customer.”
“How many times have you done this?”
“Let’s keep the questions to a minimum. I don’t know if you remember, but you’ll be going to jail at the end of all this.”
“Unless the plug gets pulled prematurely.”
“Yeah…that’s always a possibility, huh?”
My guest looked away from me as he continued to fidget with the wires and components. He hadn’t made much effort to catch my attention before, but now it was more like he was avoiding my gaze all together. I wondered what a man like him must have been like under friendlier circumstances. It was obvious that he was in it for the money, but he seemed to treat the whole experience with this elevated level of gravitas in the back of it all. Every time we spoke before he had agreed to hook me into KoL, he was always strait to business. Meeting him for the first time now, he seems impatient, like he’s the one who wants this more than I do.
“Do you know how many people are in there?” I asked.
“What did I say about questions,” the man snapped. “Are you telling me that you’ve waited until right now to get any kind of real information on the situation in there?”
“I only meant…”
“You and I both know the number.”
“And every one of those 30 million likely knows someone who’s waiting for them to get out.”
“Yes. Chances are someone will even come out of the woodwork for you.”
“Why don’t you go in then?”
The question hung there for a long while. It was uncomfortable. My guest stopped moving and instead he drove his eyes harshly into mine. They remained there until finally I broke contact, afraid to take the pain of staring into his rage any longer. Even so, I knew that my suspicions were right. This man had someone trapped in KoL. If that was the case though, then why was he helping people get in there? Why would he want more people trapped like whoever it is that he loves enough to still hold such passion a year after the incident?
“Someone has to send people in,” the man finally replies.
“So this is you…what?” I question. “Doing your part?”
“There’s only one way to get those people out, but they still haven’t managed it. A year in and all those players still haven’t gotten to the end.”
“And now you’re sending me.”
“Yes. I’m doing something about this whole mess. I’m sending reinforcements. It’s not much, and it’s far from ‘right,’ but it’s all I can do.”
“I’m sorry to say that you’re wasting your time with me, if that’s your goal.”
“You’re money keeps the cause going. This is good for me regardless.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
The silence quickly came back. This time, neither one of us wanted to acknowledge each other within it. We both went about our tasks, without so much as the urge to glance towards each other. Eventually a sound did tear through the silence. A pinging resonated from my computer. On the monitor, there was a message reading: Installation Complete. This one was likely for the game itself. After a year’s worth of anticipation, I was finally ready.
“Okay, lie down on the couch,” the man ordered.
I set my head on the armrest, letting my body stretch across the soft cushions. My eyes closed, and my brow furrowed in anticipation for the pain that was soon to come. While I couldn’t see the device connect, I certainly felt it. The feeling wasn’t excruciating, but not something I would be happy to live with, like a headache making its way into transitioning to a full blown migraine. Maybe it was the alcohol that kept it from going any further, or it could have been the other way around for all I know.
“Everything looks fine, try opening your eyes,” the man spoke again.
Still getting used to the stinging in the side of my head, I struggled to lift my eyelids. Once vision had finally come back to me, it wasn’t my home that I saw. Instead, I found myself floating in a blank emptiness. Thick, black darkness surrounded me, with a smoky fog covering the general area. In a flash, a mirror appeared before me. The overly stylized motif was familiar. Not that I had seen this particular mirror before, but it was exactly the type of artwork that was reminiscent of fantasy games.
“You should be in the Character Customization screen,” the man said. “This is still part of the local system so hopefully you can still hear me. Say something if you understand.”
“Yeah, I think I get it,” I replied. “I’m not networked yet, so we can still talk. Do you hear me?”
“Not exactly, you’re words are being displayed on the computer as text. So I apologize if it takes me a while to respond to something.”
“Well, I can hear you.”
“Yeah, cause I’m talking an arm’s length from your ear. Anyway. Look in the mirror. That’s your avatar. The face that everyone will see once you’re fully in Knights of Lectum.”
I looked into the mirror, but I only saw myself. The mirror behaved as one would expect. Whenever I moved, my reflection moved with me. There was nothing special about it, but if this was a customizer, then there should be some way to actually adjust how I look. Instead, I looked forward at my dark, curly hair that leads into a familiar patchwork of scraggly coils on my face. As my eyes looked up and down, I noticed the bulging figure that I had been so used to.
“I see me,” I replied.
“Good,” the man said quickly. “That’s your basic preset. If you want to change anything, then look into the mirror and focus on the body part that you want changed. It’s a bit complicated, so I can get you started with some of the more general things.”
“Like I can make your jaw stronger, or change your skin color. Big things.”
“Can you make me thinner?”
“How much thinner?”
“I want to be… buff… like a superhero.”
Suddenly my body shifted. The bulbous orbs of fat became pure muscle. However, now my muscles were too big, I looked even more like I was made of balloons than before.
“Too much,” I spoke. “Think less body builder, more pro athlete.”
My body deflated, leaving me at a comfortable mass of toned, but not excessive, muscle. This was exactly what I had always wanted to see in the mirror in the morning. I spent a little longer than I thought admiring my new, shapely figure. However, I was stopped when I pulled my hand to my chin and was reminded of the scraggly mess of hair that occupied my face.
“Can you fill this out?” I requested. “And make it less curly.”
Suddenly, my beard was massive and full, stretching out like a grand wizard. I stroked my hands through the thick brush. However, all this hair wasn’t my actual intent. Over the next minute or so, I began trimming the hair by focusing on where I wanted it and didn’t want it. The follicles split under my finger as if it were razor sharp. Shaping my beard to my preferred selection, I ended with a thick goatee that connected to a properly bushing mustache and extended mildly past my chin. Accompanying the beard was a thick chinstrap that I had disconnected from the main formation, creating two short mutton chops.
“Can we make the hair on top less curly too? And slick it back, but like keep the front high,” I requested shyly.
“You want a pompadour?”
“No… I mean… yeah. Yeah, give me a pomp.”
Before I could finish stammering my response, my hair was already changing. A truly glorious swoop of hair folded backwards over my head. It was a little high, but I was able to quickly remedy that situation. Now the visage I was looking at was truly something to be amazed with. For the first time in…I don’t think there ever was I time that I ever loved how I looked so much, but I did. Then another thought crossed my mind. There was something else that I had always wanted, but could never have been a reality when I was young enough to really enjoy it.
I began to fiddle with the color settings on my eyes and hair. My eyes settled on a deep purple, had they not been in my own skull, I might have gotten lost in them. Soon my hair followed. I enhanced the natural darkness into an almost nonexistent black. Through the roots and in streaks across the edges, I added little bits of red and purple, both in the same deep, vibrancy that my eyes now held. The look may have been going a step or two too far, but considering what I had seen from the streams, I should fit in pretty well.
“Clocks ticking dude,” the man said, pulling me out of my trance. “Let me know when you’re ready.”
I hesitated for a second. “I’m ready.”
“Okay, the next step is to hook you into the network. Once you’re integrated, there is no turning back. The failsafe will activate and your brain will be rigged to pop.”
“This is your last chance. We won’t be able to communicate again. You’ll be completely on your own in there. If you want to back out now, I get it.”
“No. I want this.”
“Remember that you said that.”
“Thank you. I know you have your own reasons for plugging people in, but still. I don’t know what else I would have done without you.”
“Don’t worry about it. You paid me remember? But if you do want to thank me somehow…” The man takes a moment to compose himself. “When you get in there, if you find a girl who calls herself Darr, D-A-R-R, make sure she’s okay. And tell her that her brother is still working on getting her out.”
“I’ll make sure to pass on the message.”
Those last two words floated in space around me. They stayed imprinted in my ears, like an image that burns itself to the retinas after blinking. Eventually though, other sounds began to fill the space, pushing between me and the last thing my true ears would ever hear. Lights began to slip through the Black and the fog escaped away. In a flash I was no longer on my couch nor was I floating in an abyss. Instead, I was standing on stones, dressed in fantastical clothes.
However, most importantly, for the first time, I am finally here.