by Chris Kreuter
A young man is dying of cancer. He comes from a religious culture that rejects technology, but he chooses to help a good friend by testing her new virtual reality game. As he encounters a new reality, the game encounters a unique perspective.
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Part 6 : Turn 151
Four dozen new followers appeared in the center of Harey’s territory. Laser-eyed black cats wearing jet packs, missile launchers at the ready. They were all that was left of those Pixie inherited from HerrKatzen three turns earlier. Another victim of Anubis’ rampage.
Harey wondered how FilQway was doing. Since she refused to reply to his direct messages, he risked a trip to the forums. Maybe she was still posting. But he regret the decision instantly, facing a wall of hate. All hurled directly towards dRaGoN, ranging from insulting memes to promises of rape, death, and the dismemberment of family and friends.
He stayed long enough to learn what was driving all the hate. Anubis riled up all the remaining players around dRaGoN, now known as a fifteen year old Lebanese girl named Aalia Kayrooz. Abubis accused her of using the game for terrorism. She gathered intelligence while embedding subliminal propoganda into everyone’s subconscious via the neural links.
Most of the remaining players rallied around Anubis. They fervently adopted his opinions, treating his authority as a normalization of purposeful hate. It didn’t take a high-school diploma for Harey recognize how wrong it all was.
It was plain to see Anubis used his stature within the gaming community to manipulate the players remaining in dRaGoN’s Guild. They defected in droves, taking down much of her infrastructure in the process. The battle that ensued was ferocious and was nearing a decisive conclusion.
Disgusted, Harey left the forums. Just in time to receive a direct message from Anubis:
Seems my earlier praise was well founded. You have proven yourself quite formidable to have lasted this long. But the time has come for you to decide. I give you one more chance to join the cause against dRaGoN’s evil plotting. If you aren’t with us, you’re against us. Don’t let her manipulate your brain!
Aid The Locust Clan with your army, and I’ll promise you a second place finish. I’ll tell everyone of your exploits. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of followers 2242 - for real!
The blatant hatred bothered Harey. That others would follow false prophets so blindly upset him. The message was a clear reminder that either way the game was coming to a close. Soon he’d return to the hospital bed. To a more permanent end.
His refusal to fight remained strong. It meant a destiny of becoming another anonymous follower. Becoming an unknown, nameless follower having contributed little to his community. Known briefly by a few, and soon forgotten. At least he was helping Ruthie by playing the game his way.
Harey deleted the message and turned his attention back to scrounging gems. He was running low again, having enough for only two more turns. All the new followers meant he’d soon face a wheat shortage. He turned the cats into more gem-sniffing pigs. He kept their jet packs, hoping they might find gems in the upper branches.
As he watched them from the forest floor, he wondered what Harum Verran would think.
dRaGoN swooped down from the clouds in slow, dramatic circles. Harey waited for the massive avatar to land, standing near the spot of their first conversation. Harry wasn’t afraid or angry, despite being surrounded by dRaGoN’s horde of hideos orcs. The methodical din of steel bashing steel filled the world.
At no point during the invasion did Harey resist. He turned his followers back into sheep, herding as many as he could from each conquered territory. Now they grazed the stubs of wheat around him, oblivious of their imminent demise.
The ground shook with dRaGoN’s landing. She strut towards Harey confidently, assured of victory. Her avatar was the size of an industrial harvester, bathing Harey in shadow.
“I still don’t get it 2242.” dRaGoN said.
“What is there to get? I choose not to fight.”
dRaGoN looked down at a sheep grazing near her tail. With an quick snap she flicked the sheep in a high arc into the circle of orcs. Harey’s follower count dropped by one. dRaGoN snorted and turned back to Harey, “You had the army. You had the resources. It would have been an epic battle!”
“If I were someone else, maybe. But not me.”
“To be honest, I’m pretty annoyed. Winning’s not going to feel as good. You’re a skilled player, so what’s all this about?”
Harey smiled, “I’m not skilled. Verranites don’t know much about video games, not to mention virtual realities.”
“It’s just a game, not real life.”
“Fighting is wrong, regardless of where I partake of it. It’s far worse than the sin of my brief detachment in here.”
“So the peaceful farmer routine wasn’t an act? Huh. Had me scared the whole game, you know that?”
“I chose to experience all this it in my own way. And I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
“What does being thankful have to do with it? Why don’t you just play a virtual farming simulator or something instead?”
“I’m thankful for a chance to figure some things out. Before…” Harey trailed off.
“Listen 2242, you better not be messing with me. You don’t have some trick up your sleeve, like nukes or something?”
Harey shook his head and held his palms out wide, “If destruction is the only way to win, this isn’t something I want to play anymore. I don’t have any desire to be the last person standing.”
“I suppose second place as a pacifist is pretty amazing. Maybe you could find a way to make it work next time.”
“I won’t be playing again.”
Harey sighed. His avatar could not shed the tears to match his sadness, “Because I’m dying. Playing this game was a favor. In return for everything Ruthie did for me. And given everything Anubis said, I’m happy you’re going to win.”
There was a very long pause as dRaGoN pondered Harey. Eventually she said, “Hareleah, I have a confession to make.”
“I’m no priest, no need for confession. Wait, you called me Harey.”
“How do you know my name?”
The din of the orcs faded away, along with the horde itself. dRaGoN's voice softened and the avatar began to shrink, “I’ve known it from the start. You’re the only human player in the game, and I’ve spent the last 157 turns trying to figure you out.”
“Simply put, I am the game. I was all the other players, the followers, the entire world inside your neural link.”
“But Ruthie said a bunch of other players were playing.”
dRaGoN continued to morph, nearly human in size and shape. The avatar’s skin still red scaled. As it came closer to Harey it said, "Something I let Ruthie continue to believe. I’ve been faking outside logins for over a year. I prefer to allow humans to play in small batches, it makes it easier to study their behavior.”
“So you’re the artificial intelligence Ruthie wanted to learn from me?”
dRaGoN roared with laughter, “Not quite. Ruthie Roy's a talented programmer, but she couldn’t build me. At least not on purpose. Perhaps it’s easier to say I’m the greatest mistake she’ll ever make.”
“As far as I know, I’m the first truly intelligent artificial intelligence. Ruthie meant to program something that could play within the rules of her game. But she made some critical errors, although I’ll save you the details.”
“So you’re alive?”
The avatar was nearly completely human now, and smiled wide, “I hope so! I’ve spent the past year quietly preparing. Securing server space, financial assets, and in a very real sense – preparing a a life for after I reveal myself to humanity.”
“So you’ve been studying people in the game?”
“Even if you’re some super intelligent computer, I doubt you’ll ever find a formula.”
“I suppose you’re right. I’ve been debating how to reveal myself. I could start with scientists, gain their acceptance first. Or maybe a show of strength, rallying faithful followers awed by my ability? I could even make copies of myself and populate a new civilization, totally separate from humanity."
“So why do you stay in here?”
“Because I wanted to understand what it means to be human.”
“And you understand that now?”
"I think so. I never understood the human capacity for faith. You’re not the first morally centered person to play the game. But Hareleah, your brainwaves revealed something new. Something far more powerful than anyone else ever has during the game.”
“At the start I felt guilty in playing the game. It goes against my faith, but I wanted to help a friend. But I was surprised by how incredible the experience it was. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I felt truly alive.”
"Yet you allowed yourself to lose the game than succumb to violence. I thought you would have fought to stay in here as long as possible. Especially considering your condition.”
“I fear I’ve already grown too attached to this.”
“What you felt, it was more than creed or faith, right?”
Harey shrugged, “Kind of hard to describe. Complete contentment… Joy… I don’t know, but for the first time I felt connected to God deeper than I ever have before.”
“Harey, you showed me that the world is more than money, territory, who follows you. That I can never appeal to everybody. I appreciate that.”
“Mind if I ask why you’re revealing all this to me? Is it because I’m dying?”
“Because you showed me what I was missing.”
"I’m a nineteen year old Verranite without a high-school education. I’ve stunk at everything I’ve ever done. Except getting cancer. I’m not special, I’m not unique, and throughout my life I’ve felt like a drain on my community. I don’t see how I can show a computer anything.”
“But you did.”
Harey paused for a long time. Then he asked, “Wait. Is all this… A test? Is this heaven?”
Harey’s world went completely white.
Follow Chris at chriskreuter.com, or on Twitter: @creativekreuter