James stepped into the capsule that was to be his new home for the next few months with false bravado. After a polite greeting, the military doctor who oversaw his care got right to work. She moved in diligent silence as she connected man to machine with various electrodes, cords, and tubes. The only sounds in the clean surgical room were of James’s breath, and the occasional tink of a hard rubber cord hitting the metal capsule as the Doctor worked.
Theoretically, the capsule he was inside would allow him to play a fully immersive, virtual reality game. The game itself was in beta. James was supposed to test the technology. He recalled how the military recruiters said everything safe, but that fact wasn't giving him any comfort now that he was being hooked up to an assortment of intimidating medical systems.
“We're all set to go! All that is left is to put you to sleep and have you wake up in the game. Once you’re asleep, I will put this feeding tube into your mouth and hook up a catheter. Rest assured, you will be completely nourished, clean, and safe,” said the doctor. Her skin was tan and leathery, suggesting that she didn’t always practice medicine indoors. Her cheeks rose as she spoke, her mouth struggling to form a smile in between each word.
James nodded and gave her a wink - more to convince himself that he wasn't scared than to convince her. Laying his head back, James swallowed his growing panic.
What else did they tell me? He asked himself.
He wasn't rich by any means. In fact, James and his brother had been struggling to survive since their parents’ deaths. It happened when James was a young teenager, and his little brother a pre-teen. They were both adults now and finally getting on their feet, but their lives hadn't been easy. James figured that was why he jumped so quickly at this opportunity. So quickly, in fact, that even though the doctors had prepared him for this moment, he couldn’t remember a word they had said, besides the fact that they would let his brother enter the game soon after him. James had been adamant on that part. It was one thing to be blinded by money, but no amount of it would make him forget about his brother. They had been through so much together, and he would be damned if they didn't do this together as well.
“Ready? Three, Two…” the doctor counted down, and James was out before she could finish.
James woke up in a field of tall grass and said the first thing that came to his mind, “What the whaaaat…”
A brief examination of himself and he realized he was still in the same body: 23 years old, 175 pounds, and standing at 6 foot even. After a few moments of waving his hands in the air and poking at himself, he realized that there was no pixelation, no laggy graphics when he moved his head too fast, and most importantly, that all his senses seemed to be working correctly. He was the same person, just somewhere completely different than he was moments ago, and that someplace different happened to be someplace beautiful.
The calmer he kept his body, the more he noticed around him. James froze and opened up his senses to the world. He spotted a bright blue streak in the air just as the smell of freshly grown peace of mind politely assaulted his nose. The blue streak disappeared into the tall grass and emerged seconds later with something in its beak. James watched as it spotted him and hovered in midair. The bird was blurry, as if James’s eyes were refusing to recognize it. He could only make out the blue color, and decided that was probably a defense mechanism for the bird. When the bird flew away, it disappeared into the air, long before it left sight range.
“What to do… what to do…” James said as he prodded his face with his hands. “Well I guess there is no need for a character selection screen… What about a tutorial?”
Shrugging his shoulders, he set off in a random direction. The Big Savanna, as he soon decided to call it, seemed to stretch on forever in all directions - all flat ground and grass that came up to his shoulders. It caressed his exposed skin as he walked, causing his legs and forearms to tingle. As he parted it with his hands and prepared to take another step, a commotion off in the distance reached his ears, giving him pause. He jumped up to try to get a snippet of the action, but all he managed to see was the grass shaking and swaying unnaturally.
Either there is something big is over there, or this game has some weird weather patterns, he thought.
Deciding to investigate, James walked toward the noise as quietly as he could. A text box appeared in front of his vision, accompanied by an audible ding, as he went.
You have learned the Sneak ability.
After he read it, the text box traveled to the upper right corner of his vision. He tried to follow it with his head. However, the text box was an overlay. The closer it got to James’ peripherals, the faster he moved his head to follow it - until his body twisted into a knot and he lay in a heap.
“Smooth,” James told himself before noticing that in the upper right of his peripheral vision there was now the word, ‘Skills.’ It was like someone tattooed the word in white ink right where the outermost reaches of his vision darkened and went black. He unfocused and refocused his eyes, learning with relief that the words wouldn’t bother him as he went about his life.
“Well, that is convenient. Now, how do I access my skills?” asked James. No sooner had he spoken the words than a translucent skills tab appeared right in front of him. Inside the nature encrusted border, it showed him that he did have a Skill called Sneak, but it didn’t provide any other information besides that it was Level One.
As James got a feel for his interface, an intense growl snapped his attention back to the moment.
“I guess this place does have normal weather patterns,” he quipped. James slowly extended to his full height and saw two animals fighting. One looked almost like a lion, but not quite. Fur, the same pale gold of savanna grass, stretched thinly over its muscular body. Its beast-like face had a remarkably human-like expression plastered on it: panic. Lion-guy struggled to fight off a reptilian creature that had at least a foot of height advantage and 50 pounds of extra weight. As James tried to soak up the surreal situation before him, he realized that his heart was beating a frenzied tune. As if to remind James that he was just in a game, name tags appeared above the creatures.
Lion-guy and Lizard-dude, they read.
“Are those their names or did I name them? Damn, I really should try to be more creative,” James thought out loud, causing Lizard-dude to turn and look at him.
“Crap,” he said, smacking his hand over his mouth as if he could shove his words back inside. Lizard-dude’s long body ripped with muscle as it dug its claws into the ground. The fangs in its small mouth glinted in the sunlight as it turned toward James and hissed. James shuddered as it measured him, looming over him like a mammoth, even from afar. Then the reptilian pounced, and everything went dark.
James awoke from his slumber confused and alarmed.
“This is just a game,” he reminded himself. The words caught in his throat as his body came alive with pain. He squirmed against the soft pile of furs below him and grasped at his chest. Looking down, he could see a mixture of blood and green paste now covered his hands. His eyes searched for gauze, a tourniquet, or even duct tape, but the floor of the tent was empty, apart from a scattering of fur piles. James laid his head back and tried to focus on anything other than his agony.
Are these beds? He thought, prodding the pile of furs. I must be in their living quarters. James’s brief mental respite ended when his wound screamed out for attention once again. He clutched at his chest, "Agh, they were not lying when they said this game would feel real."
James attempted to stand, reminding his pain that it had the rest of his body to roam. He must have let out a scream. Lion-guy came walking through the entrance of the tent a moment later. James finally stood, this time ignoring his injuries as he prepared to defend himself. Lion-guy was about the same size as James, except that golden-brown fur covered his body, making him seem slightly more substantial. His facial features were half beast and half man. They twisted into an unrecognizable expression as he walked on his two back legs over to James. His next expression was much easier to read. It was a smile, but not one worn by a happy person. Torunn crouched, leapt into the air, and tackled James, knocking him over a pile of furs with a grunt.
“Why are you doing this?” James yelled as he struggled to fend off the beast and cover his wounds at the same time. He swung at the creature, but it dodged his blow and gave him another smile.
“ENOUGH!” a voice boomed. James and Lion-guy both cowered in fear as the light shining through the tent flap went out. A mammoth of a creature stepped inside, dwarfing James and Lion-guy both. It was the same breed as Lion-guy, but was about four times his size, resulting in an impressive yet terrifying presence.
Is that a Minotaur? James thought, taking a better look at Lion-guy. His feet where a hybrid of hoof and human. Definitely not a lion’s paw.
A name tag appeared above its head of the giant creature as it finished making its way inside.
Super Mega Lion
Suddenly, Lion-guy let out a growl and charged Super Mega Lion. His signature move of tackling his prey proved ineffective against the more massive creature, and he soon found himself picked up and thrown over a shoulder. Super Mega Lion stroked Lion-guy’s back fur, and he purred like a kitten.
James did his best to express how he was feeling at the moment. “What the what is going on here?”
Super Mega Lion stopped petting Lion-guy and looked at James. Her face twisted into an expression that was easy to recognize. She was surprised.
“You can speak, little cub?" Super Mega Lion asked, in a principally feminine tone. Her actual speech was rough and deep, but if you listened carefully, you would hear that a thin layer of gentleness coated its edges.
“Of course, I can speak. Who are you? Are you going to kill me or what? Why are you petting him?” James let the confusion and pain he had experienced in the past few hours allow him to unravel into a tornado of questions and emotions. Then it dawned on him. She called him a cub… The feminine voice…
“You are Lion-guy’s mother,” James said.
“My name is Freydis; you may call me Frey. And this is my cub, Torunn,” Frey answered as she continued to stroke her cubs back. “We are Martyrs. You are a guest of mine, and you have my thanks for saving Torunn from an attack by an Oana. They are a plague to our lands and he would have died if you hadn’t shown up," Frey explained.
“Wait. So, Oana are the lizard-creatures that were attacking your cub, whose name is Torunn. And your race is called the Martyrs.” James confirmed with hesitant eyes. Frey nodded her large head like a giant boulder that couldn’t decide to jump off an even larger boulder or not.
“Well, I didn’t do much. Torunn seemed to be handling his own in the fight,” James replied.
“We are not a weak race, but Torunn is not yet fully grown, which brings me to my next concern. You're not either,” she said flatly. “How are you able to talk at such a young age?”
“What? I am an adult of my race. Of course, I know how to talk,” James said, astounded at both the insult and the fact it was coming from a construct of the game. The Martyr didn’t seem like any Non-Player Character James had ever encountered before - her mannerisms and the way she held a conversation was more than realistic.
“I am familiar with humans, and you are the same size as the human cubs that I have seen,” she said. James could tell she didn't have an ounce of malice in her tone. She was either genuinely ignorant, or he was. Deciding that arguing with the giant creature wasn't in his best interest, James changed the subject.
“Can you tell me where I can clean up and how I can heal this wound?”
“Yes, but first you must understand some things about my clan. You are my guest, but no one else knows you are here. I suspect my mate will not be happy that I brought a human into our village, even if you are only a cub,” Frey explained. James sighed at the ‘cub' comment but let her continue. “I will talk with my mate at sunset, and you must remain here until I do.”
Frey reached a long arm out the opening of the tent. When she pulled it back inside a green poultice covered her fingertips. “Put this on your wound, and then do not touch it. You will heal in less than an hour.”
James did as the female Martyr suggested. She then stood up, placed Torunn back on the ground, and began the arduous task of exiting the tent. The Martyr cub stared at James for a while before giving another mischievous grin.
“Uh-oh,” James whispered. Before he could get tackled again, James shot out his hands in a stopping motion and yelled, “No! Bad!”
He let out a sigh of relief when he managed to stop the Martyr cub, but couldn’t help but feel a little guilty at the way Torunn’s ears seemed to wilt. Torunn continued to pout as James watched him walk to a pile of furs where he promptly fell asleep.
Effectively alone in the tent, James decided he might as well explore. The tent was as big as a house, random piles of fur lay scattered throughout the matted dirt floor, and in the center was an unlit fire pit. To the back end of the tent lay a pile of dead animals. James had initially mistaken them for a fur pile and almost sat on them until he noticed a snout sticking out. He moved closer to make sense of it all. There were two large boar-like creatures and more than a few tall birds that resembled man-sized flamingos. All of them were varying shades of brown. James surmised their similar color schemes were for camouflaging themselves in the Big Savanna.
“A bunch of good that did ya,” he whispered.
James had been hunting a few times when he was a teenager, and even though these creatures were alien to him, he couldn’t help but feel sorry. The feeling only lasted a second, though. He had to keep reminding himself that this was just a game. He understood the need to hunt for sustenance, but the realism of pile of animals before rubbed against his heartstrings. He had played other games where he needed to kill animals, even other people, but they never elicited an emotional response like this. In fact, he had murdered entire villages of humanoids in other games just for the sake of 'grinding' or leveling up and never felt a thing.
Giving the pile of dead animals another look over, James noticed a small sword that lay on the ground next to them.
“Well, this is a game after all; I should see if I can gain a skill or something.”
A few hours later, the sun began its descent on the other side of the Big Savanna. James had managed to skin the animals he had found, chop them up, and he even started a fire the old-fashioned way. He pulled up a pile of furs to sit on and found a stick to roast a piece of meat. James let out a sigh of relief. His wound healed, and he had the opportunity to relax by a fire with some food.
This game isn’t too bad, he thought.
Deciding to play with his interface again and see if he had learned any skills from his efforts, James relaxed his vision. He soon saw the skills tab appear in his upper left and a new exclamation point to his bottom right. It was flashing. He focused his mind on it, and a text box appeared with some prompts.
Oana Scout activates Pounce, 20 damage received.
Your body has gone into shock from receiving too much damage.
Oana Scout activates Maim, 30 damage received.
You have passed out from receiving too much damage.
You have learned the Skinning ability. Prompts moved to the notifications section on your request.
You have learned the Cooking ability.
You have learned Fire mastery.
Congratulations, you have cooked charred Plainsboar meat!
Cooking increased to Level 2.
“Awesome.” He said, not clear on why he had passed out from receiving damage, but happy that the interface adapted itself to his needs and hadn’t covered his vision. As he perused his growing skills tab and failed to find more information about his abilities, Frey entered the tent. Her eyes bounced from the fire to James and back again before she walked to the area where the recently hunted animals used to lay.
“Hmmm, you continue to surprise me, Man-cub,” Frey said with a deep intrigue as she joined James by the fire.
“I figured I would help out while I was here. Oh, and I got hungry. Sorry.”
“The food is of no concern. Those beasts are plentiful in the Great Savanna. Annoying even… And if tonight goes as planned, you will be able to repay us. The fire, however, that is fascinating.”
James smirked at the Martyr's name for the Big Savanna. He wasn’t that far off in his guess. Instead of the Big Savanna, the residents called it the Great Savanna. James decided that he would too.
“What do you mean?” he inquired.
“Fire. Only our elder can create it,” she explained. James thought that was an odd fact, but he meant to inquire about the plan for tonight, not the fire and why only an elder could rub two sticks together.
“I meant what is the plan for tonight?” he asked. Frey quickly glanced up at him as if his question interrupted her from a long lost thought.
“Well,” she began, “I will announce to the clan, and my mate, that I am adopting you as my cub. They may not like it, but I do not see a more honorable way to repay you for saving my little Torunn,” she answered.
It was still awkward for James to hear someone call Torunn - who was the size of a grown man - a cub. Regardless, James wasn’t even sure he wanted to be someone’s cub. It seemed inappropriate, and he had no idea what would be required. Then James realized that he had no idea what the game in general required. He had no idea what the game was about at all! He surmised it might be the smarter decision in the short-term to have Frey available to look out for him. At the very least, just long enough for him to get his bearings.
“Okay, what do I need to do?” James asked.
“Nothing. Despite your apparent abilities, the clan will still consider you a cub. Explaining to the rest of the village that you can somehow talk is a battle for another day,” Frey answered, “Soon, a horn will sound, signaling the start of the day's feast-” Suddenly, a sound so deep it made James glance around for the nearest restroom rumbled through the air and interrupted Frey. “Ah, there it is; stay here until I call for you,” she said as she carefully exited the tent.
James crawled to the edge of it and slipped just enough of his head under to see outside. Walking about everywhere were Martyrs. Some of them seemed even larger than Frey. They had gathered around a fire pit sizeable enough for James to do cartwheels in. Other tents circled it like large tan Rhino’s keeping warm for the night. Radiating through the clear night sky, the moon cast a dull glow on everything, reflecting off of various belt buckles A wooden hut stood above them all, dark red maple contrasting slightly from a sea of browns. It had carvings and symbols painted on the outside walls and a large opening that faced the fire. Covering the entrance was the same hide that made up the tents. The flap on the wooden hut moved, and James’s breath caught in his throat as he saw what exited.