Remove This Cup From Me
Remove This Cup From Me was a lot of fun to write, since I got to merge my love of writing with a passion for games. Games are fertile ground for storytelling, providing an interactive stage upon which players (and characters) can interact with a theme, world, and set of rules. The results are unique to the individual, and filtered through their own experiences, biases, and results in the game.
I’ve included this story alongside The Shortcut since they explore similar themes: The intersections of technology and spirituality; the potential for advancements in sciences associated with brain wave manipulation; and our relationships with new technologies.
I must thank Lauren Bilanko and Luis Chato, owners of the best gaming store in New York City: Twenty Sided Store. They originally published this story on their website (twentysidedstore.com), and continue to support local writers, artists, and an amazing community of gamers.
This story is dedicated to my great-uncle, John Krehl. In part he inspired this story after losing his battle with cancer. I miss him, and his stories. I’ll always remember that Saturday we spent cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway from Beverly Hills to Santa Barbara.
turn for the worse
“Psst . . . Harey . . . you awake?”
Hareleah Angwin Verran nodded, too weak, too disoriented to look over. But he recognized the voice.
Ruthie Roy closed the door softly behind her. She kept her head low as she strafed over to Harey’s bedside. “Whew. Dodging nurses for the win!”
“Ugh . . . not so loud. My head’s spinning.”
Ruthie slung her Zelda backpack over the back of a chair. She leaned in, caressing Harey’s shoulder. “Sorry bud. Having a rough morning?”
The firmness of Ruthie’s hand steadied Harey’s senses. He tilted his head to the side and smiled. “Rough night.”
A vine of jet-black hair fell over one of Ruthie’s gold-specked hazel eyes. Her computer-bleached cheeks arched back around a sympathetic smile. “Did you get any sleep?”
The relief of Ruthie’s touch began to wear off. Harey caught his thoughts wandering towards impurity. He returned his eyes to the ceiling, teeth clenched in pain. “Not really.”
“Are you in pain?”
He willed the tears not to fall. But the weakened dam gave way. He nodded as they began to wet his cheeks. Ruthie wiped them away deftly and kissed his forehead.
“I’m sorry Harey. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. It just sucks. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks.”
Harey sniffled. “Sorry, Ruthie. I just . . . “
“You don’t have to apologize to me. I’m here for you Harey. Just like the day you wandered into the library like a lost puppy. You remember that day?”
“Yeah. Must have been weird seeing a Verranite walk up to a tech help desk. I was so lost.”
She stroked his shoulder again. “You’re just lucky it was my shift. Anyone else might take advantage of a naive Verranite boy. Probably convince you to go on that Verranite Vultures show or something.”
Harey looked back at her and smiled, regretting for the hundredth time not kissing her when he had a chance. He started his Wandering only four months earlier, but he’d learned about the Friend Zone early on, the hard way.
“Your parents visit lately?”
Harey shrugged. “Not in a week.”
“Well that sucks.”
“It’s okay. Last time they visited I was having a hard week. I was upset, said some hurtful things. I can tell it’s hard for them to see me like this.”
“You mean hooked up to all this equipment?”
“No, medical stuff’s okay. Just seeing me . . . Dying like this. Besides, it’s hard for them to get here. Real expensive to get a car service all the way to Halifax and back.”
“That’s BS Harey. I’ve already offered to put them up in my apartment for as long as they need.”
Harey chuckled, then winced from the pain. “They’re Verranites, remember? All the computers and electronic stuff you’ve got in there would freak them out. Plus, Dad has to prepare for the harvest.”
Ruthie shrugged. “You kept your room pretty tame. I’m sure they’d be fine staying there.”
“I know Ruthie. Wouldn’t be fair to our other roommates though. My parents aren’t what you’d call flexible people.”
Ruthie sighed. “I don’t understand it, but to each their own. What about you? Docs give you any update?”
“They’re worried it’s spread to my lymph nodes. It might explain why I’ve felt so drained lately.” Harey said, holding back the rest of the prognosis.
“Oh my God, that’s terrible.”
“Whatever happens, it’s His will.” Harey said with a shrug.
“Doesn’t make it any less shitty. Why does it have to happen to someone as awesome as you?”
“If the Lord wills me to keep this cup, I’ll drink it to the end.”
“It’s from the Gospel of Luke. ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done.’ Something my father preached before he left last week.”
“I’ve gotta be honest Harey, that sounds pretty depressing.”
“I know it’s hard to understand Verranites, Ruthie. We take the Bible as literally the word of God. I’m actually glad Dad reminded me of the verse. I needed a reminder to stay strong, suffer whatever the Lord has planned for me.”
Ruthie spun around towards her backpack. “Suffer my ass.” She came back around holding a small disc the size of a Loonie. She placed it Harey’s palm triumphantly. “Here!”
Harey held the object up to his face. The computer chip’s tiny boxes and metal prongs made it look like a miniature city. “What is it?”
Ruthie’s grin stretched from ear to ear. “My master’s thesis.”
“Your what?” Harey asked, dumbfounded.
“My thesis. For my master’s degree?”
“We stop going to school at fifteen, remember?”
“Right, duh. When you’re in college for an absurdly long time, you have to do some crazy project and write a huge fancy paper. For awesome game designers like me, we make a huge fancy game.”
“This isn’t one of those virtual reality things you begged me to try a few months ago?”
Ruthie shook her head. “No, that was just a stupid group project I was testing. That there in your hand? I’ve been working on that masterpiece for three years.”
“Three years on this tiny thing?”
“Not the computer chip itself. That’s just a VR neural transmitter. A damn expensive one, but it’s off the shelf. What’s special is all my amaze-balls code inside of it.”
“You lost me.”
Ruthie smiled and focused her attention on the computer chip. “I know, I know. Listen Harey, it’s super-simple. I’ve already had a bunch of undergrads test the game. They say it’s cool, but too predictable. Apparently, the computer players I programmed are too easy to manipulate. They lose all the time.”
“Whatever you said, it doesn’t sound good.”
“It’s not. This thing’s due in two weeks, and I desperately need my algorithm to learn some new tricks before then. Now I know Verranites are totally against using technology. But Harey, you’re exactly who I need to play this. I’m desperate. Would you consider playing it?”
Harey handed the chip back to her. “I can’t Ruthie. It’s hard enough being surrounded by all these beeping and whirring things. But they’re keeping me alive. Enjoying false imagery is a very different thing.”
Ruthie pushed his hand back. “Come on Harey, you play board games with us all the time. This is practically the same thing, only on a computer chip.”
“All Verranites grow up playing board games. Maybe not the complicated ones your group plays, but they’re a great way to get to know people. To learn about life out in the world.”
“And that’s the reason I’m coming to you Harey. I need your help. I thought the whole point of the Wandering was to try things. Tons of people use these VR chips. They’re totally safe.”
“Why Ruthie? Why me?”
“Why you? Who better to teach my AI something than the guy who has won practically every game of Settlers of Catan since wandering into Halifax. The guy nobody ever suspects is a Cylon. You play games so . . . differently than the rest of us.”
“You want me to play your game to show it how to play like me?”
Ruthie shook her head. “No, I just want you to play it like you normally play a new game. Co-operate, play fair, whatever it is you do. You have a unique perspective Harey. And that’s exactly what I need to fix this before it’s due.”
“I wouldn’t consider myself an improvement to your game.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been bad at pretty much everything I’ve done growing up. I was an average student, a lousy farmer, and a terrible carpenter. I’ve never been good at anything. You know what the other kids called me? Ham Hands Harey.”
Ruthie giggled and pressed a finger to the point of Harey’s noise. In a snorting voice she said, “Aww, but you’re such a cute little piggy Harey. And I think you’re awesome.” Then she planted a big kiss on his forehead.
Harey couldn’t help but laugh, despite the pain it caused. He’d always enjoyed her quirky sense of humor. Any remaining resistance melted away with the kiss. “Are other people playing?”
The question surprised Ruthie, who thought for a moment before replying. “Oh yeah! It’s pretty popular among the thousand or so developers with these super-fancy transmitter chips.”
“Super fancy what?”
Ruthie looked to the wall clock. “Sorry, didn’t mean to technobabble again. Listen Harey, the next game’s starting in a few minutes, you better hurry up and get into the game.”
“What if my parents show up. If my community found out . . . “
“They won’t, because I’ll be here the whole time. If anyone shows up, or if any of these whooziwhatsits start going crazy, I can pull off the chip and you’ll come right back here.”
“I don’t know.”
“Harey, there’s another reason I’m asking you to try it. When you’re in the game, you can’t feel your body. The game creates a direct neural link, making you feel like you’re completely in the game world.”
“I won’t feel my body?”
“No, It’s kinda freaky at first, even for me. But don’t you think it’ll be nice to not feel pain or the urge to puke for a while? I promise to be here the whole time. And it won’t take long, I promise.”
Harey thought about not feeling his body. About escaping the pain, the hospital bed, the chemo. The church would never forgive such blatant escapism to technology. It was so clearly against the teachings of Harum Verran.
Harey handed the chip back to Ruthie. “No, I can’t. It’s too prideful. I’ve already failed a lot in my life. But I won’t fail my faith so close to the end.”
“Come on Harey! After everything I’ve done for you, I’ve never asked anything in return. All I’m asking is for you to help me with the most important thing I’ve ever done. This game is the key to the rest of my life.”
Ruthie paused, realizing the finality in Harey’s statement. Her ignorance of it for selfish ends. She grimaced. “I’m sorry, Harey. I didn’t mean . . .”
“It’s okay. I know how passionate you are about your projects. It’s just one of the reasons I admire you. But you know I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, right?”
“Of course, of course! Listen Harey, I’m sorry I got so caught up in getting you to try the game. I just guessed you’d appreciate a chance to escape all this. On top of that, I figured the Wandering is all about experiencing what the world has to offer before you must decide to commit to a Verranite life. And honestly Harey, I don’t think it’s fair that you’ve spent over two months of it in frigging Nova Scotia Provincial Hospital!”
Ruthie was practically in tears. Harey was sold. She’d given him permission, an absolution. Trying the game was an experience. Call it a folly of youth, a mistake, whatever. But one done in the service of a friend.
Hareleah Angwin Verran took a wheezy breath and placed the chip on his forehead.
Harey waited for something to happen. He turned to Ruthie, “I don’t feel anyth . . “
The world disappeared in a flash of black. His mind emptied as darkness enveloped him. Yet consciousness remained. For the first time in months, Harey felt no pain. He reveled in the sensation.
Soon it dawned on him that he felt nothing at all. No bed, no IV drip, no direction. He looked down, or where he thought down was supposed to be. He couldn’t see himself. He freaked out, crying out into the void for help. But no sound escaped his lips.
The emptiness persisted. Harey wondered if it were some kind of divine intervention. A punishment from God, a kind of purgatory. Before he finished the thought, large words appeared in the center of his view. They gleamed bold and bright:
WELCOME TO THE GAME
The words faded, then followed by the word ‘LOADING’ that flashed for a few seconds. This was followed by a command:
CHOOSE AN AVATAR
“What’s an avatar?” Harey asked. Hearing his voice eased his nerves a tiny bit.
A gentle voice replied. “Your avatar is how you will appear in the game world.”
“Um, can you just make it look like me?”
“Unable to determine your physical features via this VR transmitter. Please select from the preset library of historical figures and fictional characters.”
Harey thought for a moment. “What about Harum Verran, the founder of our group?”
“No avatar with that name in the database.”
Of course not, Harey thought. How could a computer game know of the man exiled from Cornwall in 1572 for teachings in conflict with the Church of England. “Can you make me a plain avatar with Verranite clothing?”
“Verranite clothing imagery found in internet database. Generating an avatar now.”
In front of Harey’s field of vision, an adult appeared. It had an ash gray complexion. Harey couldn’t tell if it was male or female. It wore a traditional Verranite wardrobe: Plain white button-down shirt, black vest, and black slacks. The pants were held up with a hemp rope belt, whose free end contained three knots. Each knot represented the pillars of his faith. The avatar wore black shoes free of any brand markings, and a triangular straw hat whose points represented the holy trinity.
Before Harey could say anything, a large box appeared in his field of vision. It gave him two choices:
READY TO PLAY <?> CHANGE AVATAR
“Ready to play,” Harey said. The world went completely black again.
The perfect black lightened to gray. The first thing Harey sensed was the clean, crisp smell of air. Then a warm gentle breeze upon his skin. He stretched out his hands and felt the tops of swaying grass. The world gained contrast slowly.
When it did, Harey stood within an endless field of wheat. The field appeared odd to Harey. It took him a while to realize that every strand looked exactly the same. Every golden-brown stalk swayed in rhythm with all the others.
Above, light purple clouds littered a light gray sky. Harey felt both awe and utter delight. Awe for the realism of the game, and the utter delight of standing outside for the first time in two weeks.
He plucked a strand of wheat, intending to test his sense of taste. But it vanished before reaching his mouth. This triggered a black bar to appear along the top of his field of vision. Regardless of where he looked, the bar remained fixed at the top. It reminded him of the bars around movies on old department store televisions.
In the upper left corner, a gold wheat symbol appeared. Next to it was the number one. More symbols appeared to the right of the gold circle, each followed by a number. A gray square: 0, a blue diamond: 10, a green hexagon: 1, and finally a red smiley face: 0. In the upper right corner was the text ‘PLAYER 2242 – TURN 1.’
“Hello? Anyone here?” Harey asked.
There was no reply. He tried again, yelling as loud as he could. Still no reply. He turned his attention back to the stalk he plucked. It was already growing back, right before his eyes. Harey swung his hand around a bunch of stalks. Grabbing as big a handful as possible, he tore them free. They snapped with almost no effort and vanished just like before. The number next to the gold wheat symbol jumped to 34. He repeated this a few more times, ending up with 104 wheat. The outline of the wheat icon started glowing.
“What does the glow mean?” Harey asked. Getting no reply, he grabbed two more handfuls. 149, still glowing. Harey reached up and tried touching the symbol. A large black square filled his vision. Just like the top bar, it stayed in his field of view. It asked how many times he wanted to trade 100 wheat for 1 gray square.
Harey pressed the glowing arrow to the right. He now had 49 wheat and 1 gray square. At the bottom, the window asked:
OK <?> CANCEL
Since wheat seemed easy to get and grew back fast, he pressed OK. There were no instructions or any explanation of what was going on. But Harey didn’t care. Patience came easily as he surrendered himself to the joys of being outside again. He ran up a nearby hill with ease. Didn’t even break a sweat. The whole time he cried tears of joy, despite knowing everything was fake.
Harey took a seat at the top of the hill. He thought of his childhood in the Verranite vegetable farms of northern Nova Scotia. He recalled his innocence. Then he felt guilt that this blasphemous experience was so much fun.
A thought came to Harey. Was running inside the game hurting him in real life? He had no idea, but for now he felt no pain. Besides, even if it killed him, a painless death running in an expanse of wheat seemed like a preferable way to go.
“Come on 2242, trade the wheat. You don’t need all of it. And it’ll really help me out,” dRaGoN pleaded.
Harey looked down at the whining avatar, wondering how many gems dRaGoN wasted on the massive wings on its tiny red frame. Its posture seemed aggressive, but it was funnier than it was scary. Harey cupped his hands palm up at his waist, like he’d seen his father do when selling vegetables from the farm. “I’d like to, but I promised that wheat to Player 7413 last turn.”
“W-T-F! That’s such a stupid, sub-optimal move, dude. Even with your wheat, 7413 isn’t going to last more than a turn or two.”
“How do you know that?”
“Come on, it’s so obvious,” dRaGoN snorted.
“It doesn’t matter. I’d like to help you. Really, I would. But a deal is a deal, and I won’t break it.”
“But can 7413 promise you protection? I’ve already got like, a dozen followers. And I’m arming them to the teeth!” dRaGoN’s lips curled into a smile, revealing four rows of teeth that gleamed like the dozens of gems they must have cost.
“I don’t need protecting. But how about this, in a few turns I’ll have more wheat to spare. I can hold on to it and we can make a trade then?”
“Come on 2242. I need a partner, someone who will give me wheat every turn. In return, you get to join the dRaGoN Guild. We’ll protect you from the other players and share our extra ore and gems.”
Harey left a polite pause, already knowing his answer. “No thanks.”
dRaGoN looked Harey up and down with disgust. Then it leapt in the air and yelled. “I’m so done with stupid n00bs!”
Harey shrugged and turned his attention back to his fields. On the neighboring hill, his single sheep grazed. It generated three wheat per second and looked to have grown a bit since the previous turn. He’d inherited it three turns earlier, along with Player 581’s single territory. Player 581 was eliminated because they couldn’t pay the nine-gem ante at the end of the ninth turn.
Harey kept learning the rules as he played. When a player was eliminated, they chose what other players got everything they owned. In 581’s case, Harey got everything, along with a message thanking him for being the one neighbor who didn’t attack him. 581 turned into a follower, represented by the red smiley face symbol. Followers performed automated actions, chosen by their owners.
Harey figured out how to customize the follower in a menu, similar to the one for making his avatar. Since Harey couldn’t refuse the follower, he decided on one of the gem-free generic forms: A sheep. Sheep only grazed wheat, but Harey liked the idea of being a shepherd.
Harding sheep felt less prideful than turning the follower into a miner or sculptor. Those could get ore and turn it into buildings and monuments he didn’t need. And he certainly wasn’t going to arm them with swords or arrows.
Harey looked to the bar atop the persistent purple clouds, taking stock of his position:
WHEAT – 10,912
ORE – 1,312
GEMS – 39
FOLLOWERS – 1
TERRITORY – 2
Harey walked to his second territory. It consisted of a ring of mountains surrounding a small patch of forest. He mined some ore. It took longer to get, but it took only fifty of them to get a gem. Mining bored him quickly, so he walked into the forest. It was pleasant, full of birdsong and earthy scents. Even better were finding the gems that randomly appeared inside.
Harey had enough gems to pay ante for two turns, maybe three. He wondered how long the other players could hold out. And how many other players there were.
The turn began with a message. The first from the game since it began. It was a scoreboard, along with a note that similar updates would occur every twenty turns:
1. PLAYER XXX – 132,019
2. dRaGoN – 130,451
3. JimmyWu – 124,004
4. ThugLife69 – 107,745
5. Andromeda – 98,416
6. Anubis – 95,127
7. PLAYER 2242 – 91,134
8. Terrorstroika – 85,564
9. MissMatrix – 74,132
10. HerrKatzen – 74,084
The scores made little sense to Harey. Nothing identified how the scores were counted. Even if it did, Harey knew his math wasn’t good enough to figure it out anyway. But seventh place was a complete surprise. He watched over a small flock of sheep, a few plots of land, and maintained a few friendships through trading wheat. None of that felt like winning. Not that anyone seemed to know the victory conditions.
Harey enjoyed himself. He quickly forgot the slow painful death of the real world. Time stretched out, each turn feeling like a relaxed half hour or more. Harey figured that if anything were wrong, a nurse would yank the chip of his head and kick Ruthie out of the hospital. Until then, he’d enjoy every second.
Another message arrived. It was from the sixth-place player, Anubis:
Greetings Player 2242! Great job so far. I don’t recognize your name from any of the past games, but there’s always room for new talent!
I’m sure you recognize me from the leader boards of all the top games. It’s really me! The very same Anubis—The Gaming God!
I’m inviting you to join our group of l33ts: The Locust Clan. We’re attempting to set the record score by pwning everyone in our way. And if you help, I’ll be sure to tell my millions of social media followers how awesome you are!
Following me will not only make you popular, but maybe you’ll pick up a few secrets from The Gaming God!
Can’t wait for you the join the Locusts!
“Umm . . . No?” Harey said, deleting the message. There was only one true God, and Harey was certain He wouldn’t waste His infinite wisdom ‘pwning’ people, whatever that meant.
Anubis’ message reminded Harey why he avoided the game forums. When he discovered them on turn twenty-four, he found filth that reflected seemingly every terrible aspect of human civilization. The fleeting scraps of useful information or community building weren’t worth suffering wave after wave of hate speech and pubescent bravado.
There was a long pause as Pixie mulled over Harey’s reply. She asked. “What do you mean you don’t care?”
Harey smiled towards the voluptuous purple faerie fluttering alongside him, keeping his eyes averted from Pixie’s indecent dress. “Why do I need to care?”
The Pixie whirled around to face him. “Why? Because 2242, it’s the whole point of the game! dRaGoN’s score just shot up by a million. But second place only went up like a hundred thousand.”
“Good for them. But it doesn’t impact what I’m doing. I’m having fun, so why make a big deal about it?”
“I don’t it. The point of the game isn’t to be a nice guy.”
“I’m sure I’m not the only nice guy playing. I mean, you’ve been nice to me, right?”
“If it wasn’t for your generous wheat trades, I might not be. But if you’re so care free about what other players are doing, why make trades at all?”
Harey checked his status bar. “Says here I control half a million wheat. It’s coming from nearly thirty followers grazing twenty-two territories. That’s way more resources than I need.”
“Which is the attitude that makes you so easy to trade with. If I’m being honest, we’re taking advantage of you.”
“Perhaps. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m enjoying the game.”
“I suppose that attitude’s the reason so many eliminated followers chose to follow you. But that won’t last forever. So why don’t you press your advantage?”
“I don’t choose who follows me. And I don’t ask them to. Why do you care so much about my advantage anyway? You’re near the top of the leaderboard, and you’re getting what you need from me.”
Pixie hummed for a moment. “Because your attitude . . . It bothers me. You’re so nice. So unassuming. There’s a rumor going around that you’re some kind of psychologist, figuring us all out before you take advantage of our weaknesses.”
“What’s a psychologist?”
“I’m serious. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Dude, wow. Really . . . It’s a doctor that figures out mental problems. And I think you’re just hanging back acting dumb, building your master plan.”
Harey huffed. “Nope, certainly not a doctor. I’m just a simple man. The game still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But I hope I can continue to enjoy it for a long time.”
“Oh, it’s going to end. It has to, although nobody seems to know how. But when it does, everyone else wants to be on top. Right now, that’s dRaGoN.”
There was a long silence as they continued walking. Then Harey said, “It’s peaceful here. I still can’t believe technology can do all this. It’s so powerful. Powerful enough that it’s helped me reconnect with the land, and the Lord.”
“Didn’t realize you were such a bible thumper.”
“I suppose I am. But why does that matter?”
“Like I said, it’s all part of your act. Righteousness will only take you so far 2242. You ought to spend more time in the forums.”
“No thanks. It’s impossible to follow what everyone’s talking about. I’d have better luck learning a thousand new languages.”
“But that’s where we’re all discussing the point of the game.”
“You really don’t care about winning, do you?”
Harey took a deep breath. “Maybe winning isn’t the point.”
“Huh? Harey, the game’s only messaged for one thing: The latest score. So, it’s probably the whole point,” Pixie said.
Harey stopped walking as the stalks of wheat stopped at the edge of a dense dark forest. They’d arrived at the northern border he shared with Pixie. The border shimmered a vibrant, transparent purple. “Pixie, I know I’m not as smart as the other players. And everyone thinks I’m weird for how I’m treating this . . .”
“Game.” Pixie interrupted.
Harey shook his head and swept his hand across his expanse of wheat. “Experience. One I’m content to enjoy for as long as it lasts. Nothing more.”
“Suit yourself. Who am I to argue with the guy trading me a ton of wheat for a few extra gems?”
Harey accepted the trade proposal from Pixie. 100,000 wheat turned into 105 gems. “Thanks for the company.”
Pixie’s expression narrowed. “2242, it really seems like you mean it. I want to hope you’re sincere. But the game’s going to keep escalating. Pretty soon you’ll be forced to drop this whole Zen farmer act.”
Harey smiled, turned, and headed back to his wheat.
Fifteen more gems. Without them, Harey’s experience would come to an end. The illusion would fade away to the pain, the nausea, and the slow march towards death. Over the past eighty turns, the game helped Harey tune into his faith to a depth he never knew possible.
As he searched for gems, he thought about the three pillars. The most vital elements of Verranite culture, instilled since his youth:
Submission — To the authority of the church, the Holy Bible, and the Verranite community. And above all, to God’s will.
Detachment — A separation from society. Embracing a history and tradition as devoted followers of the Lord’s true word. A rejection of the technology that separates people from family and the faith community.
Simplicity — Living a humble life of thrift and modesty. Avoiding actions, property, or clothing that distinguishes oneself from the community.
Along with his sounder of gem-sniffing pigs, Harey foraged for gems within the larger of his two forest territories. He found two more inside a tangle, raising this meager total to seventy-six. Still not enough for the end of turn ante.
He thought about where the game might be headed. Wheat growth was limited. With eliminated players becoming followers, they required more wheat to feed on each turn. This increasing drain required expansion to maintain the balance. Over the past twenty turns, Harey’s reserves dwindled.
Ore wasn’t a problem for Harey. But the discovery that it never grew back ratcheted up tension amongst all the other players. With many mountains already depleted, those that remained became prime targets. Ore was crucial to keeping followers equipped with tools or weapons and speeding up their actions. Some players were already resorting to tearing down statues and buildings to get the ore they needed. Preferably ones belonging to other players.
Rich players could afford spending gems to equip their armies with expensive technology advances. This allowed players like Anubis to raid large swaths of territory, adding them to their dominions. The Locust Clan already controlled the entire western half of the map.
To the southeast, dRaGoN’s Guild grew. They ruled the scoreboard by a vast margin and spared no expense to flaunt it. At the center of dRaGoN’s territory was a massive castle. Nearly every player could see its ramparts from their territory. Inside the castle, dRaGoN’s six knights plotted vicious surprise raids. Their strategy hinged on ore, to ensure they always had the advantage of speed. These raids were carefully planned, to ensure they always maintained strong defensive positions.
Harey felt lost. Out of place and out of time. Much like he did at the start of his Wandering, as he stepped off the bus in the center of Halifax. The enormous scale of everything, the rapid pace, all the threats to body and faith. Now he found himself on the brink of losing the one thing that brought him closer to God than he’d ever been: Of all things, a video game.
Harey checked the game map. Only a few trading partners remained. Most fell victim to the Locust Clan or dRaGoN’s Guild. Antes kept increasing, and everyone sought gems, so nobody was likely to trade him any. Besides, they were critical for defensive technology. Unlike Harey, their pacifism was borne of circumstance. They would have all preferred being on the offensive.
Harey long since resolved to maintain his pacifism no matter what. If another player chose to conquer his territory by force, he’d accept his fate without reservation. It baffled him why they hadn’t. Perhaps it was his fourth-place score. Or they still feared that his Verranite persona was a façade that hid a deadly trap.
Excited snorting from a nearby thicket got Harey’s attention. He ran over and pried away the vines. Inside was an enclave, filled with over fifty gems that were spawning since the start of the game. Harey breathed a sigh of relief, knowing drastic decisions could wait one more turn.
1. dRaGoN – 4,914,102
2. Anubis – 3,745,462
3. FilQway – 3,121,856
4. Nippon Ninja – 2,876,009
5. Pixie – 2,358,004
6. JimmyWu – 2,300,562
7. HerrKatzen – 2,284,512
8. Arrowdy – 1,947,431
9. Leikur Stjórnandi – 1,374,132
10. PLAYER 2242 – 1,000,003
Harey looked to the forest below, thick with trees and swarming with armored cats. HerrKatzen’s followers patrolled the territory around his Great Tower, safeguarding honored guests like Harey. It made Harey a bit dizzy, so he turned back up the ladder and climbed to the next platform.
Pixie surprised him a moment later. “Invest in wings 2242! You’d be there by now, slowpoke!”
“I don’t mind climbing,” Harey replied with a smile.
“Well better hurry, you know Mr. Kitty-pants doesn’t like waiting around,” Pixie said, fluttering away toward the large dome at the top of the tower.
Harey spent ten ore to boost his speed. He rocketed up the next ladder and up a large stone pillar shaped like a sisal scratching post. At the top Harey came to the entrance of the dome. It looked like a hundred-foot-tall domed litter box with no windows. A dozen more armored cats guarded its entrance. Their piercing red laser eyes and razor-tipped tails made Harey more fearful than secure.
The fat, hulking, purring avatar of HerrKatzen dominated the interior of the dome. Its gold crown reflected the light of a dozen gem-encrusted chandeliers.
“You’re late,” HerrKatzen hissed.
“Sorry. It took me longer than expected,” Harey replied.
In the shadow of HerrKatzen’s tail, FilQway’s dwarven avatar leaned against her battle axe. Her cartoonish weapon was three times taller than her avatar. Through the stalk of wheat in her mouth she said. “Give him a break, Whiskers, we ain’t been waiting long.”
Pixie rolled a hand forward. “Well come on, I’ve got gems to collect.”
“Are you going to get enough to keep our little gang going?” FilQway asked.
“HerrKatzen might have to take down the chandelier or two, but I might get enough. But that’s why I called this meeting,” Pixie said.
FilQway said, “Might get enough? Shit, you better not be wasting my time Pixie.”
“I’m not. In fact, I’m fairly certain I’ve figured out how we can all win the game.” There was a pause for a reaction. Getting none, Pixie continued, “Now I still have to double-check my math . . .”
HerrKatzen interrupted. “Impossible. The game can only have a single winner.”
“It does?” Harey asked.
FilQway shrugged. “I don’t know, but it’s not like the game’s told us for sure.”
“Well I think there’s a way to ensure we could play the game forever,” Pixie said.
FilQway’s laugh resounded through the dome. “Come on! This game’s awesome, but I’m a pro gamer. I’m doing this for all for my stream subs. No way I’m spending my whole life in here, you know?”
“I agree. I won’t settle for a tie,” HerrKatzen said.
“Hear me out. If we show the game our ability to play forever, I think the game will declare a draw. It makes sense that the game would reach some kind of conclusion, right?” Pixie said.
“The forums would go nuts if we pulled it off,” FilQway said.
“Sounds like a terrible plan,” HerrKatzen said. “But let’s say it’s not. How would we play forever with the ante always increasing?”
“You all know my algorithm correctly predicts when gems appear. But we still don’t control enough forests to keep up with all four of our antes each turn,” Pixie said.
“And like I said the last time we met, it’s time to go on the offensive,” HerrKatzen said.
Hared put his hands up. “And I will always refuse to be a part of any violence.”
“Come on dude, stop being such a wuss,” FilQway said.
Pixie came to Harey’s defense. “Ease up Fil, he’s entitled to play how he wants.”
FilQway crossed her forearms. “You’re lucky we need all that wheat you’ve been farming, Mr. Nice Guy.”
“No, you’re lucky my army’s backing all of you up. All three of you would be followers if it wasn’t for them,” HerrKatzen said.
“Yes, all hail your army of laser eyed Kano-Kats,” FilQway muttered.
Pixie flew into the center of the dome and shouted. “Stop it! This partnership has worked for all us. 2242 is our farmer. FilQway owns most of the last mountains remaining in the game, HerrKatzen provides our muscle, and my gem algorithm ensures we always have enough for ante. Or at least it did until now.”
“What happened to it?” Harey asked.
“I admit it had a small flaw. It underestimated how many players started the game. I always assumed less than a hundred. But now that we have more data, the game must have started with about five hundred.”
“Four hundred eighty-two, to be exact. I finished scouting the whole map a few turns ago,” HerrKatzen said.
“Regardless, the algorithm for the rate of gem appearance is still correct, and it’s still increasing. But it’s a slower increase than I thought. It’s only enough to support at most four players. If we were to co-operate, we’d be able to theoretically play forever,” Pixie said.
“But there’s no guarantee the rate will stay the same,” HerrKatzen said.
“And what if Kitty gets bored and goes all SimCity on us, destroying all of us with every disaster possible?” FilQway said.
Harey raised a hand. “I don’t understand all the math, but if this is possible, shouldn’t we try it?”
FilQway’s eyes narrowed. “Only if this isn’t some trick, and Pixie’s building some kind of trap to eliminate us.”
HerrKatzen pointed a paw towards FilQway. “Pixie didn’t have to share her secret Fil. We’d probably all have lost by now if she didn’t.”
Pixie nodded towards HerrKatzen. “Exactly. Besides, screwing you guys means hurting myself, since you wouldn’t give me any followers or territory when you died.”
“Damn right we wouldn’t,” HerrKatzen said with a sly grin.
“Now I should mention that my plan has a pretty big catch. If my math is right, the plan will only work if four or less of us control the entire map.”
FilQway jumped off her axe. “So this only works if we take out all the other top players?”
Pixie grinned. “What, afraid of a challenge?”
“Hold on you two. All this is still dependent on hoping the game declares a tie. I still doubt the game’s programmed for that,” HerrKatzen said.
“Even if it’s not, at least it’ll be the four of us duking it out. One of us would be guaranteed to win,” Pixie said.
“The three of you can duke it out,” Harey said. “I’m not attacking anyone.”
“Come on 2242,” Pixie replied. “You’re going to have to for this plan to work anyway. And think about it, dRaGoN and Anubis have been terrorizing the game since the start. You’ll be doing it for a good cause.”
HerrKatzen hissed. “And they’re winning because they’re willing to do what it takes.”
“Fighting isn’t the only . . .”
Pixie interrupted Harey. “No, the only way to play forever is if we destroy dRaGoN and Anubis and their gang of randos. That’s it, plain and simple!”
“That’s suicide Pixie. Even with Puss’N Lasers here, there’s no way we can beat either of those armies without having the other wipe us out,” FilQway said.
“No way I’m spreading my forces that thin,” HerrKatzen said.
Pixie blistered and flew towards the doorway. “Really? I’ve had enough of this. I’m better off seeing if one of those players are smart enough to appreciate my plan!”
HerrKatzen waited for Pixie to storm out of the dome. With a lazy flick of his paw he said, “Screw that noise. It was fun while it lasted. I trust you’ll see yourselves out.”
FilQway sighed, heel-kicking her axe up to her shoulder. “Well I guess that’s that. Good luck guys.”
Climbing down from the tower, Harey looked over the info bar:
WHEAT – 1,741,058
ORE – 679
GEMS – 1,154
FOLLOWERS – 92
TERRITORY – 36
He’d run out of gems in seven or eight turns. Trading in wheat and devoting all his followers to gem hunting might buy a few more. Assuming his territory wasn’t conquered by then. But Harey felt unsettled about something else, but he struggled to figure out why.
It wasn’t until he returned to his territory when it dawned on him: He was on his own again. Isolated from a community. Unprepared for what was coming.
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. Anubis accused her of using the game for terrorism. She gathered intelligence while embedding subliminal propaganda 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 ending. 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 hideous 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 a 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 shrugged. “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.”
“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 that reflected his pain and fear. “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. It came closer as it kept talking. “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.”
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 life for after I reveal myself to humanity.”
“Does that mean 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 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?”
“No. It’s 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.