As my three villagers walk slowly into the forest, the morning sun shines through the leaves overhead. The sounds of insects and birds fill the forest with noise. Kurtz grumbles every now and then as if being surrounded by beauty bothers him, while the other two villagers are warming up to the prospect of building a home here.
Sue stops next to a clump of ferns beside the path, and points at a patch of mushrooms growing near the roots of a tree.
Kurtz stops walking and peers suspiciously at the little white caps poking out of the mossy dirt.
“Are they edible?” Sue asks.
Joseph steps forward and looks closer. He reaches down, twists and pulls the bottom of the stem of one of the mushrooms, then tears it off. He holds the mushroom up for Sue and Kurtz to see. They both take a sniff, but shrug.
“It smells sort of funny…” Sue says with suspicion.
“I’ve never eaten anything that came from a mushroom before,” Joseph says.
“You don’t eat things that come out of the mushroom, human,” Kurtz says, “just the mushroom itself!”
Kurtz turns around and starts to walk away.
“Wait,” I call after him. “Where are you going?”
“To find that stream,” he answers curtly.
“I mean, why don’t we pick some mushrooms for breakfast?” Sue asks.
“We’re not eating that shit,” Kurtz says without turning back.
“Will you wait for a second?” Joseph asks.
Kurtz stops, takes a deep breath and walks back reluctantly.
“Do you know how many mushrooms are poisonous? I haven’t seen that variety before. You have no clue what you’d be putting in your mouth.”
“I know, but…”
“But nothing. I can’t be the only person who knows that plenty of mushrooms are dangerous. It’s a simple fact.”
I clear my throat to get their attention.
“My godly powers can help with this predicament.”
“How so?” Joseph asks.
When I interact with any object of the game world, I can bring up a panel that shows its properties. It floats next to the patch of mushrooms as if I were wearing AR glasses. This is one of the species of fungi that the developers of the game brought over from the real world. It’s called Amanita bisporigera.
“One of my powers consists on the ability to identify anything we come across, and I can tell you that eating even a small amount of this deadly mushroom could kill you.”
Sue steps back.
“This fungus is called the ‘destroying angel’, and it’s extraordinarily poisonous. Its toxin causes cellular necrosis.”
“Cellular necrosis? I don’t know what either of those words mean.”
“It means don’t eat that shit,” I say.
Kurtz shakes his head, narrows his shoulders, and resumes walking. The other two villagers follow him this time.
Joseph looks over his shoulder to address me, assuming I’m following them, and he’s right.
“We can rely on you regarding whether any of the potential food we come across will kill us, right?”
“Of course I will. I have no reason to lie about something like this, and my knowledge is perfect.”
“Plenty of berries are poisonous as well, aren’t they?” Sue asks warily.
“Many things in this world will try to kill you even passively, for sure. But let’s just keep going and see if something out here might be edible. Don’t worry. We’ll all be fine. It’s my job to look after you three, and I promise to do it as best I can.”
We come across a small bush with berries that the developers have invented. I don’t retain the nonsensical latin name for this species. They are greenish purple spheres covered with bumps. Their texture reminds me of rotten meat, and its scent comes across as strawberry jam mixed with pus.
Kurtz shakes his head.
“I don’t care if these ones are edible. I don’t want to witness any of you eating them either.”
“They are poisonous,” I say.
“Let’s just continue…” Sue says, deflated.
Shortly after, we encounter a small plant whose stems produce small flowers.
“Those flowers are poisonous too,” I warn my villagers. “Don’t touch them. Also, see that leafless branch above us, with all those white dots covering it? This kind of tree is poisonous too. Don’t climb it.”
The three villagers stare at the branches, which are about four meters off the ground.
“Are you serious?” Kurtz asks as if I’m making a cruel joke.
“Why did you choose this poisoned forest of all places for us to found a village? Was this a punishment?”
I rub the eyes of my avatar, which feels the same as if I were inhabiting my real, decaying body. My criteria for picking this coordinate of the generated world was reduced to it containing a temperate forest and being far enough from hostile settlements. I went ahead with the first coordinate I came across that matched those criteria. A more careful player would have gone over the lists of flora and fauna that this world had produced to make sure that the forest didn’t contain, for example, radioactive trees or carnivorous plants.
“Well, a forest that contains plenty of poisonous vegetation is unattractive for the kinds of pseudo-sentient animal or monstrous species that may have wanted to raid your future village otherwise.”
“But it’s also unattractive for people who need to forage here to survive!”
Joseph approaches the source of my voice. His expression is level-headed, or aloof.
“Are there edible berries in this forest, godling?”
“That’s what we ventured into the forest to figure out,” I say as confidently as I can.
“I guess we now know why you aren’t a major god,” Kurtz mutters.
My heart sinks, and I have a hard time looking directly at my villagers although they can’t see me. I’ve abandoned previous playthroughs of other games because the sentient AIs ended up hating me, so the temptation to rage-quit remains, but now I’m mainly worried because I have learned very little from my experiences. I want to blame it on depression. I want to blame a lot of things that have gone wrong in my life on my old demonic pal.
I take a deep breath.
“Listen, I chose this forest to found a new village because it’s in the middle of nowhere. Very few sentient species ever come here, and there’s hardly anyone else living nearby. That diminishes the chances that if someone does stumble upon us here, they will attack us. Currently, we are very vulnerable, so we need to speed up our efforts of locating sources of edible food other than hunting.”
“Alright, let’s try to solve this issue as soon as possible,” Joseph says decisively.
Nobody breaks the silence for a few minutes as we proceed deeper into the forest. The bushes become thicker and taller, and as the undergrowth gets denser, it’s harder to spot the plants. Both Kurtz and Sue are sweating, and already tired.
A group of butterflies flutter past my invisible head. They are orange, black and yellow striped.
“Look how they dance in the air,” Sue says dreamily.
She reaches for one of them, and it lands on the back of her hand. The insect’s wings are a brilliant iridescent orange. Its body has four short legs and a large abdomen that houses a pair of tiny eyes. A row of small teeth runs along the inside edge of each wing, and the tip of the sting is curved and sharp.
“Ouch!” Sue complains.
She retracts her hand sharply, which causes the butterfly to fly away. As the elf steps back, a bead of blood appears on the patch of skin where the butterfly had landed.
“Are you alright?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she answers with a forced smile.
“Those butterflies were venomous.”
As Sue gets paler, Kurtz grimaces in disgust without sparing the insects a glance.
“How bad of a venom are we talking…?” the elf says in a thin voice.
“It won’t kill you,” I answer. “Just don’t scratch it, no matter how good it may feel. Anyway, let’s keep moving.”
I was getting increasingly dejected until I spot a cluster of black berries growing among a bed of grass. There seem to be thousands of tiny fruits protruding from stems made of fuzzy hairs. Most of the berries are ripe, soft round seeds encased in traslucent jelly.
“Finally!” I blurt out. “Those are edible, and very nutritious as well.”
Sue smiles like a kid who got her hands on an ice cream cone. She plucks a handful of the berries and places one on her tongue. She chews on it for a few seconds.
“It’s good! Just a little bitter, but tasty.”
Joseph takes a berry from her hand and pops it into his mouth. He chews it thoughtfully.
“This will work.”
Kurtz sighs. He grabs a handful of berries and munches on them as if he’s trying to get a dose of vitamins or minerals from them. He seems pleased by their taste.
“So we’ll get to eat at least berries, possibly some mushrooms, apart from whatever animal we kill.”
“We should thank God for providing such abundance,” Joseph says as he crouches to pluck fresh berries.
“Abundance? We have strayed far from the clearing, and we have only found one species of edible berries. Nevermind, how are we going to carry them back?”
I bring up the interface with the list of all the stuff I can spend the accumulated points on. I conjure a large basket made of straw, which appears on the grass between my villagers. It will take them a while to get used to stuff popping up into existence, but the three of them take big handfuls of the berries and drop them into the basket.
“That should be more than enough,” Joseph says. ” We shouldn’t be excessively enthusiastic in plucking berries unless we are sure we will eat most of them.”
“One day we’ll make jam out of them,” Sue says perkily.
As Joseph carries the basket full of berries, we walk further in the same direction. There isn’t much sunlight filtering down down into the forest. We move cautiously, walking around obstacles without touching them.
I had noticed that Kurtz hung his head low and seemed deep in thought. He suddenly starts talking over his shoulder to me.
“Godling, why can’t you just make a bunch of useful stuff appear whenever you want? What’s the limit here?”
“It depends on the amount of actions my villagers perform and which are conducive to their survival and the prosperity of their future village. The harder you work, the more power I have to grant you boons.”
“So you are unable to conjure stuff otherwise?”
“I’m serious, yes.”
“Who the hell made that rule? Some god above you? Or is this a property of reality?”
I have nothing to gain from revealing to any sentient AI that they exist in a computer simulation. My job is to keep them going, which will contribute to distract me from my own problems. I’m not like those other players who enjoy inflicting existential crises on their subjects; I’ve had to struggle through such crises for my entire life, and I want to spare others from those nightmares.
“There are mysteries on every layer of this universe, my friend,” I say grimly.
I would have expected Kurtz to retort something to annoy me, but he furrows his brow and scratches his long beard. The silence between us four grows awkward.
“How old are you, by the way?” Sue asks to the dwarf.
The elf’s arms sway gracefully as she walks briskly. She seems much happier than before.
“If you should know, I guess I’ll tell you,” Kurtz says reluctantly. “I’m twenty.”
“Is that dwarf code for something?” Joseph asks as he snaps his head towards Kurtz. “As in you have actually lived for a few hundred years?”
“No, I’ve literally just lived for twenty years!” Kurtz says with a bit of annoyance, and then he takes a deep breath. “Given how ruinous the last war was for my people, I’m lucky that I have survived so far.”
“But the length of your beard…” Sue says while she gestures as if she herself had grown one on her delicate face.
“I guess you have met very few dwarves! For you taller peoples, having a beard is a sign of maturity and wisdom, but even dwarf women start growing their beards before their first period!”
“Weird, isn’t it?” Sue replies.
“Disturbing, more like it.”
Kurtz shoots me a look of outrage over his shoulder.
“I was working in my store when you chose to involve me in your existence!”
As I was about to reply, Sue interrupts me.
“So I’m older than you, Kurtz, by a few years! I’m your big sister.”
Kurtz looks down.
“I had a real sister before the orc war,” he mutters in a thin voice. “I don’t want a new one.”
He walks on in silence. I notice that his shoulders are shaking slightly.
A few minutes later we spot something troubling among the trees ahead of us: a giant spider web. Several webs. The sticky strands stretch across the path in front of us, covering a large area. A dead, desiccated rabbit is suspended from the tangle, as well as a few other cocoons.
“What the hell?” Kurtz says.
“God, I hate spiders,” Sue says as if she wished she could shout it.
“They are terrifying, evil beings,” Kurtz agrees quietly.
Joseph steps casually towards the web.
“They are intelligent creatures that build intricate traps to capture their victims. This particular one has worked well, since there is plenty of prey in it.”
He picks up the rabbit carcass hanging off the thick strand, and I cringe.
“Hey, don’t touch that nasty crap.”
Sue attempts to grab the dwarf’s arm, but only manages to touch his shoulder awkwardly as she points with a trembling finger at a hole in a nearby tree. The hole is covered in silky hair, and at first I only make out a big, bulging eye staring at us. The creature inside is motionless, its mandible closed tight around a large moth. The arachnid’s carapace is greyish brown, rough-looking like sandpaper, but glistens faintly in the dimness. Two pairs of legs emerge from behind the spider, one pair reaching up to support its body and the second pair folded neatly along its abdomen. Its round thorax sits on top of the third leg pair, supported by a cluster of bristles. From the base of the abdomen protrudes a fat tail ending in two tiny pincers. As if sensing we have noticed it, the arachnid swings itself off the wall of silk, leaving the empty husk of the moth behind. Its movements are surprisingly graceful despite its size.
Before I know it, the three villagers are running away. I call after them, but they ignore me.
I’m alone with the cat-sized spider, which is crawling slowly over the webby grass. Although I should be invisible to the arachnid, there’s something eerie about how it’s staring in my direction. To my surprise, this one creature isn’t venomous.
I turn around and float in pursuit of my fleeing villagers.
Unfortunately, I’m on the verge of dropping this story, and maybe writing altogether for a while. These past couple of weeks I’ve felt unmotivated, lethargic, out of it, and unable to focus on even the stuff that I usually enjoy. I rarely want to do anything or go anywhere. I’m likely depressed again. In addition, I’ve had to handle huge messes at work, and the usual idiocy of many of the users I have to deal with, as well as being pursued to solve problems that aren’t my responsibility, has gotten to me. Then I look at the current state of the world, and how the leaders of what remains of Western civilization manage to take even more insane and suicidal decisions at every turn (somehow in the back of my mind I retain the hope that at any new disaster they will surely have learned their lesson, but they never do). My city has gotten so unsafe in the last few years that I rarely want to go out unless I have a reason or it’s sunny enough to go in the woods. In general, everything is either shit or feels like shit for me at the moment.