Like most nights, I lie awake as I stare into the dark. I can’t breathe properly, something is squeezing the inside of my chest. I’ve wasted the last few hours turning over in bed because I can’t switch off my brain. I need to get at least a couple hours of sleep, because I’ll spend the first half of tomorrow programming the latest gadget for a client’s website. I can see myself hunched over my desk, programming away to meet the deadline, the entire time wishing I were sleeping instead. Even the crazier dreams make sense to my subconscious, while waking up makes less and less sense every day.
My thoughts continue churning. If only I could reach out, grab hold of something solid. A rope ladder that leads upwards. A staircase that leads downwards. Anything that doesn’t disappear under my feet whenever I put my weight on it. Or maybe something to lean on, that would support my tired heart.
The whole night passes in a feverish blur. When the alarm blares, I can’t tell if I have slept at all. I can hear cars passing by on the road below. I sit up in what I call my bed, which is just a mattress and a blanket, and I rub my eyes for a while as I gather the strength to stand up.
I prepare a warm cup of coffee and I sit in front of my desk. I’ve received new emails from a few clients who want updates, but I haven’t managed to reply to other clients who wrote to me days ago. They wait to hear from someone who’s barely here anymore.
After some long hours of typing, I’ve had enough for today. I make myself a grilled cheese sandwhich for lunch. I face that I will need to go out and buy stuff to fill my almost empty fridge; it may be around a week and a half since I bought groceries. I take a shower, mostly to clear my head. After I dress myself with jeans and a shirt, I grab my old-fashioned leather jacket, my oversized black woollen beanie, and my favorite heavy boots. Once I walk down the stairs, I realize I’ve left my apartment without the obligatory mask. I turn back and grab one from the coat rack.
It’s dark outside, as if the sun was already setting, because the clouds hover low, threatening rain. The air is damp and chilly. On my way to the supermarket, I pass in front of the occupied outside tables of bars, mostly frequented by strange people whose languages I don’t understand. Everybody speaks so loud. I want to shove my index fingers into my ear canals.
I hadn’t worn a mask for a while. I’m breathing lukewarm air mostly made of carbon dioxide, and every time I exhale, air escapes through the gaps between the mask and my nose, blowing particles into my eyes. I feel sick to my stomach, and every step is an effort.
As soon as I enter the supermarket, a staff member checks my temperature, then lets me pass. I feel a sudden wave of exhaustion. It’s so hard to ignore the constant noise of the shoppers, and the brightness of the fluorescent lamps, and the smell of the food stalls, and the background music, and the sound of the cash registers. My head is bothering me, my skin itches.
All the customers are wearing masks, and most are dressed in warm clothes. They stand at a safe distance from each other while they check out the goods. I try to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze, afraid of being infected with whatever virus they are carrying, or with their humanity.
I spot someone familiar out of the corner of my eye. For a split second I recognize Sue, who wears a coat and a scarf, and holds a shopping basket while she reads the back of a cereal box. But she’s just a middle-aged woman with long, dark blonde hair and above average breasts. She looks like a mother.
Sue. What a stupid name for an elf. Other players complained about the lists of names from which the generators make their choices when creating new NPCs. There must be mods out there to expand or improve those lists, but I haven’t bothered to search for them. Besides, the game just updated, so those modded lists may not work with the current build.
I’m already infatuated with that elf; she’s as perfectly hot as only a virtual person can be, she admires me because I’m powerful, and she belongs to a world where I’d rather live instead. I can hardly wait to return home and lose myself in the virtual realm, where I may forget, even if just for a few minutes, that my real body lies on a lounge chair located in a world that’s crumbling at an exponential pace.
My head hurts. A dull ache, like a hangover. I’m waiting in queue to finally leave with my groceries. I smell stale sweat. The noise level is unbearable, especially when the store assistants try to communicate in loud voices. I’m nervous, tense, as if I were standing close to wild animals and waiting for them to attack me.
As I hold my three shopping bags filled with groceries that may last a couple of weeks, I hurry out of the building. I’m feeling increasingly ill. While I head straight towards my apartment building, my vision is blurred, my mind feels foggy. A feeling of unreality lingers in me, as it has for long. I feel as if I could punch a wall only for my fist to pass through the molecules of the paint and the bricks; it would make sense if this entire world was a scenario built to fuck with me, given how every aspect of it assaults either my senses or my mind.
I just notice that a rancid reggaeton song is increasing in volume and approaching me from behind when the source brushes me by: it was a couple of teenagers on a bicycle, who are zigzagging through pedestrians as if racing at an obstacle course. At least I’m not the only pedestrian who stops and glares at the couple of shitheads, who know that riding a bike on the pavement is illegal, but that even if police officers were to spot them, they wouldn’t bother telling them off.
When I finally reach my apartment, my right hand trembles as I unlock the front door. I shut it behind me. I take my mask off and throw it on the console table. I wish I never had to leave the safety and sanity of my apartment. How does anyone tolerate spending time around human beings?
Once I’ve undressed myself down to my underwear, I set my purchases on the kitchen table. I unpack the groceries and put them away either in the few cupboards or the fridge. I’m itching to lie on the lounge chair to lose myself in virtual reality, but I’m also hungry. I pull out a couple of tins of tuna and eat straight from the container. I wash it down with water.
A few minutes later, I’ve done all I needed to give up being human for a couple of hours. I lie back comfortably on my lounge chair, I put the VR helmet on my head and I adjust it. When I exhale, the accumulated anxiety that had been squeezing the insides of my chest leaves through my nostrils. My mind is now calm, clear, almost lucid. My heart is pumping fresh blood into every part of my body.
* * *
I’ve returned to the clearing surrounded by a temperate forest, and I’m floating weightless. The hands of my avatar are as transparent as a jellyfish, but my whole body remains invisible for the three people I left sleeping on the grass. I fly down to observe the young woman lying in front of me. Sue is curled into a ball with her hands covering her face. Every last one of her dark gold hairs is perfectly placed.
As pleasant as the scene feels, I won’t wait around for hours until my three villagers wake up, so I accelerate time. The villagers stir frantically in slumber. Kurtz, the dwarf, snores loudly, while Joseph tosses fitfully, turning every now and then as if enduring a bad dream.
The sun hasn’t risen yet, though the day is starting to turn blue. A cool breeze rustles through the trees, carrying the smell of dew and pine needles. The birds are chirping happily in their nests. Now that the villagers are mostly silent, I hear that water trickles somewhere nearby. Everything is vibrantly alive. I’m overwhelmed by an urge to explore and learn more.
This clearing and the surrounding forest will be home soon enough, both for the villagers and for me. Life will begin anew. We’ll grow food together, we’ll hunt animals for meat and fur, we’ll make baskets and wickerware. We’ll live together in harmony. And in time we will forget how miserable we really are.
Sue’s hair is spread out around her face, and her breathing sounds like a gentle sigh. Her eyes appear closed, but they are merely covered by her eyelashes. Her lips are slightly parted, revealing the tip of her tongue, and a strand of saliva is dripping onto her chin. Her arms and legs rest motionlessly next to her torso, giving the impression of an angel statue come to life. I wonder how her skin would feel like beneath my fingertips.
When the three villagers finally wake up, though, they’re hungry, tired and irritable. Kurtz stretches his back carefully while grimacing, as if it hurts.
“So, where does your god go every morning? To worship himself?”
He laughs at his own joke. I’m not sure whether he has a sense of humour or simply likes to provoke me.
Joseph scratches his stubble. The sun shines bright upon the dew-covered grass.
“I doubt that a god needs to sleep.”
“He’s also your god for now, Kurtz,” Sue says. “But I sure hope he appears… I don’t want to spend a whole day here without any direction.”
Kurtz shakes his head. He looks down at his boots, which are caked in mud and dirt.
“I guess the only thing a dwarf can do is obey god, and then ask for forgiveness when he makes a mistake.”
“Try to avoid making mistakes to begin with,” I say with my booming voice.
The three are startled and turn sharply towards the source, although I’m invisible for them. The dwarf frowns, but Sue seems relieved.
“Did you three sleep well in this idyllic clearing?” I ask.
“I did, yes,” Joseph replies.
“I had such pleasant dreams,” Kurtz starts resentfully, “knowing I have been kidnapped into slavery.”
“What slave master are you talking about?” I ask.
“You! Damn invisible wizard!”
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no slavery involved.”
“Don’t play dumb, magical fart! You stole us away from our people! From our stores! You think this place is heaven?!”
“It is a beautiful forest,” I say.
Joseph is quiet, gazing intently into space, and the lack of support bothers the dwarf.
“What is it with you, human?” Kurtz asks to Joseph, and taps his arm with the back of the hand. “Don’t you care that this god has snatched you away from home?”
“I haven’t had anything resembling a home for years,” Joseph answers calmly. “This is a nice break for me. I feel quite free here.”
Kurtz snorts, and shakes his head.
“Free? Free to what? Go and commit suicide? Join the army of orcs? Wander around the forest and get eaten by wild animals? I guess some people are made for servitude!”
“If not a godling, a baron or a count. At least a god, even a local one, has genuine powers.”
“There’s nothing noble about serving another person. Serving is just submission.”
Sue lets out a noise of disbelief.
“I guess you are single, Kurtz.”
The dwarf’s face turns red.
“W-why would you say that?!”
“I can tell you don’t like to share. Serving others means helping other people achieve happiness, isn’t it?”
“Sue is right, Kurtz,” I say. “We’re all equals here. We’ll help each other out and work together for the common good of our community. That is a sort of mutual service. Right, Sue?”
“Equal?” Kurtz mutters. “To a minor god?”
“Bottom line, Kurtz, if you are unhappy, you should just quit. Don’t want to live in this beautiful forest? Then leave.”
The dwarf grunts, and rubs the side of his nose.
“Yeah, right! Just walk off into the woods alone? Without money? With nothing except the clothes on my back?”
“So it’s in your best interest to cooperate.”
The dwarf’s anger disappears, replaced with sadness.
“I don’t have any choice. I can tell that you are a prick, godling. The kind of minor god I wouldn’t approach willingly. But now I’ll only get to leave when you allow me to.”
“Good enough for me. Any other objections?”
Joseph stares at the forest as if he’s devising a plan of action.
“We can’t afford to waste any more energy. We have work to get started on.”
“You can’t see me smiling, Joseph,” I say, “but you are a breath of fresh air. How about you, little elf lady?”
Sue looks down shyly. Her golden hair falls onto her eyes and she tucks it behind an ear. She smiles sweetly and shrugs.
“Sure thing. It feels good to be useful.”
Once again I regret that the developers of this game have refused to add the ability for the players to interact physically with the villagers, because I want this elf so fucking bad. All I can do is fantasize about her naked body, and once I log off I can masturbate furiously.
Kurtz stops rubbing his eyes, then speaks in a dejected tone.
“Have you three forgotten that we lack any food, that the deer carcass has spoiled? How are we going to work on an empty stomach?”
“That’s true…” Sue says. “Godling, you couldn’t conjure a barrel full of grain by any chance, right?”
I suck air through my teeth. To be fair, any decent player would prepare a list of provisions carefully before embarking on a new playthrough, and those provisions would have fed my villagers for at least a couple of weeks. But I was so depressed that I couldn’t be bothered. Poor bastards.
“I made sure to pick a forest with plentiful berries. And whenever we locate the nearby stream, we’ll have clean water that you won’t need to boil.”
“It’s not exactly the same as finding a big bag of rice,” Kurtz grumbles. “But I guess there are worse ways to fill up our bellies.”
“Alright,” Joseph says as he bends down to pick up the bow and arrow. “What direction should be follow to find the stream?”
“I don’t remember,” I admit, embarrassed.
“You don’t remember?” Joseph repeats, unsure if he’s heard me right.
“I’m a minor god, not the God, if there’s any in this universe. I forget things. Just explore the forest for a while. You’ll come across water, I’m sure.”
Sue points at the knife lying on the ground. The blade is stained with dried blood.
“Who’s handling that?”
The dwarf grunts and picks it up gingerly.
“I guess it belongs to Kurtz now,” Kurtz says.
“Just don’t kill any of your new friends with it,” I say.
He rolls his eyes, and looks at the human and the elf as if to reassure them.